Friday, 8 April 2016

321 ADVENTURE THRU THAILAND, LAOS AND CAMBODIA (4-16 January 2016), Day 8 - When things go BANG !!!

Bad bad roads!
KC goofing around at the end of a harrowing day
The road to Stung Treng....dust ahead!
Cambodian CIQ
Another view of the Cambodian CIQ
Laos CIQ, grand but under utilised
Very worried backpackers in the background!
Orange cooler boxes instead of refrigerators
Cook in her pyjamas at "brown" town
Lunch break
Big guys need big bikes
Farm house? More like an army post!
Did cupcake made it to Phnom Penh? This is a few kilometers more to the Laos border
Sunning tapioca
Mechanic's work
KC's masterpiece
KC at work
Inserting BMX tyres
Bike wash in Stung Treng

Resistance is futile! The laid back charms of Don Det does rub into the people. If you stay there long enough, you get assimilated into their system and their nonchalant attitudes.

Take Lutz of Mama Leuah ..... you just cannot rush him!
Food? ....... Please wait!
Coffee?? ...... Please wait!!
Bill??? .......  Please wait!!!

Then there's Matthew of Little Eden! Many times, we found him glued to his chair behind the counter browsing the internet with bloodshot eyes. He doesn't bother to greet us but will just wave us into the kitchen when we requested for more water.

It's seems Matthew has developed a perfect formula for "The Fantasy Island" lifestyle! Marry a pretty local woman, invest a little money in the hotel business and pass the running of the place to the wife. The only setback is life can be a monochrome of yellow ..... sunrise, beer and sunset!

Having said that, a simple request of 11 sets of bacon omelette for the next day's breakfast was treated the same way as life in Don Det .....You just can't rush!!!

When we came down for breakfast, our pre-orders were quickly forgotten. Menus were given out again. Orders taken again. The same amount of wait time ..... And, when we start to hear them whisks the egg in the kitchen, we knew our breakfast are coming out ..... one omelette by one omelette!!!

Snakes !!!! In the green and wild outback, our group had a few encounters with these slithery creatures. KC recounted to us he rolled over one on the way to Don Det. VT spotted a snake by the water edge at Little Eden during breakfast. Barbara will soon roll over one on our way to the Laos border.

After breakfast, we packed up to leave. Our French friends from Pakse came to bid us farewell. 

Even though we were still too early for the boat taxis, we decided to wait by the river bank in case a long queue has started. Indeed, we were right but our ever resourceful Alvin, walked up to the locals and presented them with the old receipt. This secured us an immediate boat ride, at the same rate and even convinced those watching that we have pre-booked a boat!!!

Our worries of getting our feet wet when boarding were unfounded. The bow of this boat, rode up to the sand bank. The ladies were first to board with the panniers. Then, the men helped to load the bikes. It was so nice to have dry feet! A totally different experience from the one we had when we first arrived! 

Back on the mainland, we threw away the bottled water we carried for washing our feet. Then, we hooked up our panniers and started our ride. As it was only a straight road of about 20 km to the border, Alvin did not plan any stops for us.

Along the way, we passed a couple sitting by the roadside with their backs to the road. They were facing a small dirty brook sharing a breakfast together. We exchanged a friendly wave, not realizing we will see them a few more times, later today!

The Laos CIQ was quite vacant. Other than a grand building that serves as Customs, Immigration and Quarantine, there was no sight of a town, let alone a village. On the right of the CIQ was a Duty Free shop and on the left is a shady stall. Traffic was almost non existent! 

As we were in no hurry to cross the border, we took a short rest at the stall. From here, the rip off begins. The drinks were at cut throat prices! A Coke which normally costs 5,000 kips in Pakse and Don Det, now costs 8,000 kips at this vacant border!

Alas, after seven wonderful days, it was time to leave Laos. We all made a beeline to the Duty Free's toilet to make our final deposits. Most of us left our "momentos" without making any purchases. Barbara though, was the exception. She came out with her third earrings for the trip!

Crossing Laos immigration, Alvin was approached by an "agent" offering to help us with immigration processes. Not a fool, Alvin led us directly to the counter and YET, were still slapped with a charge of USD2 per person, no receipts issued!

After getting our passports stamped, we rode to the barrier gate that marks the end of Laos jurisdiction, bent over it and walked into no man's land. Did we feel like a free man not governed by any laws of any countries?? Well, it was just subjective.  

We rode the short distance to the Cambodian side and came upon the Cambodian Health Department. They were camping under a wooden shed. Here, we were directed to fill out some forms and asked to pay USD1 per person for a temperature scan directed on the neck! Then, we were given a leaflet with details of hospitals around the country. Again, no receipts were issued!

Not convinced, Alvin was not going to fall for this scam totally. He introduced himself as our tour guide and requested for an exemption.

Meanwhile, our German picnickers had come under our folds. They followed us from the Laos immigration to the health checks. As Alvin negotiated a fee of USD10 for our group, they were assumed to be part of us and got away without payment!!!

Our next hurdle was visa application. As ASEAN members, Alvin, Celia, KC, Papa, VT and Claudine got away scot free! However, our Australian contingent were slapped with a USD30 for visa and an additional USD5 for "service charges". Again, our German picnickers were protected by the fold and paid the reasonable fees and tips. 

A separate group of backpackers on a van suffered a worst fate! The crooks at the Laos immigration, acting as "agents", managed to get hold of their passports. Thankfully, they were just out to make a quick buck and returned their passports for an additional USD5 for agency fees.

After a very loooooooong wait for visas, we continued our ride to Stung Treng. This time, our main obstacle is bad roads!

The roads were the worst of the worst. Pot holes created by large heavy vehicles were at least 1 foot in depth! There were craters everywhere!!! At certain points, we just had to choose the shallowest of holes to roll over!!!!

There were of course, short respites from the bumpy roads but they were short, and comparatively better only....flat tarmac almost stripped bare of asphalt! These segments comes in every 50-100 meters.

We suffered the indignities of being bounced on our hineys for a good 10 km before coming upon a T-junction. Here, we turned right and came upon a small brown village. Everything from the roads, to the roofs, to the trees were covered with dust! Even the villagers were brown! But then of course, that's attributed to their genetic codings!

The village's epicenter was just the 2 rows of shops that flanked the National Highway 7! One could almost imagine a horse drawn cart trotting down this outback cowboy town!

Here, we managed to find a simple meal to eat though not exactly cheap. While we used to rely on Papa's limited command of Thai to order for us, the language becomes lesser known as we moved further away from the Thai border. Now, Celia became our lifeline. Her years of work with Cambodia has paid off! Celia ordered fried eggs, bitter gourd stuffed with minced meat and fatty pork in soy sauce for us.

We ate them all up without a complain. Even Ian who had never tasted bitter gourd in his life ate it too. VT was a harder person to convince. He took a spoonful of the soup and refused to have anymore!

Meanwhile, our German picnickers had decided to have lunch at our same shop. Alvin quickly took them under his wings and with Celia's help, ordered a vegetarian meal for them. 
We were grateful for our meal. In the Cambodian outback, we just never know when our next meal will come. So, we load up whenever we could.

After loading up, we left the shop, the dust and the toddler that had just woken up from her hammock...

We passed the grocer cum butcher just a few doors away... 

The vegetables were spread out on a table. The pig and its body parts of head, hooves, ribs, belly meat....were grotesquely spread out on a table too! There was a small ceiling fan hanging from ropes to shoo off the flies.

When we reached the fringe of the village, 6 children ran out from the side streets to greet us. They waved and called out, "Sabaidee"! That boosted our morale and we returned their happy greetings.

We were riding past what looked like a farm when it started to rain. Alvin gave orders to turn into it as there was a shelter by the gatepost. But when we entered the grounds, the kind Cambodians beckoned us into the "farmhouse" instead! It turned out that it was an army post of sorts!

They were ready to take us all in, riders and bicycles but KC didn't mind the rain and explored a bit of the place. Claudine and VT were too shy to go in the crowded farmhouse. Instead they took refuge under a small tree!

The rain came and left just as quickly. As we were getting ready to ride again, we spotted Papa Mike and Ian cruising past! They were the last in our group, sweeping by laboriously.

Regrouped, we rode again.

It looks like the rain clouds were playing a game of cat and mouse with us! Before long, it started to pelt again! This time, we scurried into a shop surprising a mother and her two children sitting by a table.They allowed us to seek shelter even though we did not make any purchase.

Soon enough, we saw Celia, Barbara and Colin riding past us. They were already wet and did not considered stopping. When the rain finally reduced to a drizzle, we gave chase! The trio probably had a lead time of 5 minutes, but it took us a long time to catch up.

Throughout the distances we covered, we passed by vast vacant land, uncultivated and barren. Settlements are sporadic and few. The people here seems poorer as seen by the numerous shops that cannot afford refrigeration. Alvin told us to look out for orange cooler boxes instead!

So, when we finally came upon a single lonely shop in the middle of nowhere with such boxes, we made a stop. This shop had nice concrete tables and chairs for us to sit. Frankie answered the call of nature behind and was chased out by dogs! You are only allowed to pee like one if you are one of them!!!

We found out the strange Cambodian ways of accepting USD as payment and giving out change in Riels! It seems all cash registers here are filled with these 2 currencies and accepted everywhere! 
After a good rest, we laboured on again. Now, we finally understood the hardships of coolies at construction sites .... hot scorching sun, dusty environment, stuffy helmets, old t-shirts wound around the face to keep the dust our case, bandanas!

Scorching hot.....we first smelt the acrid smoke! It followed us for almost 1 km before we finally saw the destruction of nature. A small fire was raging through acres of shrubs. It was left to burn by itself without any firefighters in sight!

As we rode past the fires, we held on to our breaths for as long as we could. Every now and then, a small gust of wind will airborne the ashes. They fell on us almost like snowflakes!

VT and Claudine picked up speed in this area. KC followed closely. Everyone just wanted to get out from the stifling smell.

Before long, the leading trio spotted another orange cooler box. Time for a stop!!! In the shop was a nice set of wooden chairs and table, carved out of solid wood. But the trio settled for the less plush concrete seats.

A middle aged lady manned the shop that doubles as a convenience store and tailor. She has an old sewing machine from the 70's but the pedals has since been converted to run on electricity.

An old lady in sarongs sat on a hammock in the shop observing the trio all the time. It must be the versatility and ease of installation, for we see hammock everywhere in Laos and now in Cambodia! In fact, we will see more of them in Siem Reap on Day 10. The local sweepers, tuk-tuk drivers and all, will prop them up by shady trees to take afternoon siestas!

As the trio finished their canned drinks and cooled down, they began to get more and more worried....

Time check, 20 minutes past....

"Perhaps a puncture??" KC announced.

Time check, 30 minutes past....

"Definitely a bad puncture!!! KC declared.

Time check, 35 minutes past....

Claudine decided to investigate. She told VT to come look for her if she does not returned in 10 minutes.

She rode back up the knoll for a better sight of anyone.

She rolled down slowly, a bit reluctant to go too far in case she has to ride all the way back up again....still no sight of anyone.

She turned the corner.....and what a relief!!! She saw Celia's and Alvin's Da Brim bobbing up the hill. She cheered them on. But when she engaged eye contact with Alvin, he had a serious look on his face. Colin had a burst tyre!!!

Since it was just another hundred meters more to the pitstop, everyone were just too relieved for the break. They rode up, and down the knoll with few exchanges. But when they did stop....the heroics unfolded!

We heard....

"Colin's rear tyre erupted with a Bang! It was described to be as loud as a shotgun!! Celia rocketed on her pocket rocket to the nearest motorcycle shop. Thankfully, she found one not far away. She managed to explain the situation to the mechanic and together, they rode to Colin. Celia rode pillion on the mechanic's motorcycle leaving her bicycle behind.

The mechanic only had tyres for motorcycles. So they improvised by patching the burst tube over the hole in the tyre and securing it with cable ties and raphia strings."

Back at the shop, our shopkeeper cum tailor informed us about a bike shop just down the road.
It was a bike shop alright, but not a bicycle shop. No, they did not have tyres suitable for bicycles....

Meanwhile, KC our ever resourceful scavenger found a BMX tyre thrown onto the grass. His brain went into overdrive! Stopping at the first hut we found in the area, we took refuge under the shades provided by the zinc roof. KC started on his masterpiece while the rest watched the maestro at work. 

First KC removed all the patchwork done by the mechanic. Then he sawed through a section of the BMX tyre and used it to line the the insides of the existing tyre. He then put everything back together. Even though the tyre looked like a black momba that had just swallowed a mouse, it was reassuring that the rear brakes are now functional again.
When KC was finally satisfied he could do no more, Colin was asked to test out the bike before our final pack up to leave. Colin's gigantic frame immediately put a strain on the tyres but it held without bursting. Everyone was ecstatic.

It was time to leave. Even Alvin, Papa and Celia who had enjoyed a back rest at the adjacent wooden pavilion were eager to go. We packed up to leave but not before Barbara had one final audience in a passing Caucasian couple also on bikes. 

This will be our last 20km to Stung Treng. Colin kept a good pace drafting behind Barbara. It was amazing he could be cruising at such an acceptable speed as his rear tyres were close to flat. After a few kilometers, Claudine pulled over to swap bikes with him but Colin just zoomed past. He was determined to finish the ride on his own merits!

We took a short break 10 km later at another wooden stall. This time, everyone persuaded Colin to swap bikes with Claudine and he finally agreed. The seat posts were also swapped as Colin was more used to his plushier seat.

We left soon after Barbara "watered" the papaya tree behind the shop. No, they did not have toilets. Yes, she was desperate!

This time, we rode up and down a few hills. We knew Stung Treng is near when we we started seeing children on their home run. At a fork road, we stopped to check on our bearings. Ian, the avid map reader was convinced left was the right way. A young school boy affirmed this.

Before long, we came upon the Sekong river. We turned left and rode up the bridge. Sunset was approaching and we couldn't resist a group photo.

Leaving the bridge, we turned right. Just a few kilometers ahead, Alvin pulled over at a car wash. Only 2000 Riels for a wash, Alvin ordered all of us to get our bikes cleaned. Stung Treng will be the end of our riding adventure and packing a clean bike on our bus rides in the later days will be a real relief.

The car wash was operated by a husband and wife team. They had a little boy not more than 3 years old with them. Washing 11 bikes was a real task and the poor boy was left on his own. However, the good intentions of the group to play with the child terrified him instead. He bawled all the time we were there.

We made it to Gold River Hotel, Stung Treng by night fall. The hotel overlooked the Sekong River which later converged with the Mighty Mekong. Although we could not see anything on arrival, we could hear the traffic down below! The interior design of the hotel felt like it was coming from the 80's, nothing spectacular but clean.

We went out for dinner on foot. The street by the river was poorly lit. But when we turned the corner, we were surprised the market was so near to us. Though it was closed, the side shops were still dishing out food to the locals.

However, we did not eat there. We did not trust the hygiene of the market food and besides, in the dimly lit stalls, who's to know what is being served! Instead, we dined at a proper sit down restaurant introduced by the hotel's receptionist.

The food at the restaurant were served by waitresses dressed like school girls in uniform and the servings were small, which befits the small people of Cambodia. But small Frank wanted more. He was not quite there yet!!! He wanted his meat and thought he rightfully deserved them after such a challenging ride. Thanks to Frank's insistence, we all had an extra round of fried pork ribs which made everyone went to bed happy that night!!!

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