Click here to see the map of our route for the second half of Laos  

Ekke writes:

Sunday, March 10, was a day set aside for Audrey to try and get over a 14 hour jetlag.  Some time in the Mercure's pool and fitness centre seemed to help and having her bike fire up on the first push of the button felt good too.  On Monday we decided that since we hadn't done a lot of touristy things when last we were here in Vientiane we should do a little something now.  A nice walk of about one and a half kilometres to Joma Café for breakfast was great and then we walked over to the National Museum.  A good selection of displays ranged from prehistoric and tribal artefacts all the way to the modern era.  I found it interesting that the displays on the American bombing referred to U.S. Imperialism, just like in Vietnam.  Back at the hotel we relaxed by the pool for a little while before going over to COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) a non-profit organisation that provided rehabilitation for survivors of unexploded ordinance (UXO).  The impact on people's lives, especially in rural Laos, was simply staggering.  People couldn't work the fields without risk of having a leg blown off.  Even children were out finding scrap metal (in the form of UXO) to supplement the family income.  I found it especially curious that the people who dropped the bombs in the first place (the Americans) weren't the ones out there cleaning them up; instead it seemed to be mostly not-for-profit humanitarian organisations.  On Tuesday we went for a ride out of town to a Buddha park.  As Audrey hadn't ridden her motorcycle for a month it made for a nice dry run and it was really neat to see this park where hundreds of Buddha statues were on display from the tiny to the enormous.  While the statues appeared ancient they were in fact relatively new as the park was started in 1958.  The integration of Hinduism and Buddhism resulted in some interesting sculptures, the most interesting being a three storey high pumpkin that we could climb up.  Apparently it represented Hell, Earth and Heaven and the view from Heaven was a treat.  At the top, precariously perched on the rounded top, three stories above the ground, a young monk came over and practiced his English with us.  I found it difficult to have a conversation in that situation so went down while Audrey continued to chat.

Entrance to the National Museum (no pictures allowed inside)

Samples from the Plain of Jars

An interesting carving in front of the museum

Wow, how many years would the average Laotian have to work to pay for a Bentley?
OK, I looked that up.  As per the World Bank (see Wikipedia link here) the Gross National Income per capita for Canada is $45,550 annually.  So it would take the average Canadian a little more than four years to pay for a $200,000 Bentley.  GNI for Laos?  $1,130 per year.  It would take 177 years for the average Laotian to pay for the Bentley.  Wouldn't you feel awfully self conscious driving a car like that in such a poor country?  Off soap box...

A cluster bomb display at COPE

Interesting statues at the Buddha Park just outside of Vientiane

Audrey does her best Reclining Buddha imitation

View from the top of the "Pumpkin"

Wednesday it was time to start travelling again.  We planned for an early start with breakfast at 7:00 AM and then to ride a fairly short distance to Paksan.  We packed up and rode into the centre of Vientiane where we had dropped off our laundry the day before.  While picking up the laundry and packing the bikes a few tourists stopped by and we chatted about our trip.  The owner of the laundry was originally from Hanoi and was going back home for a visit soon so it was interesting getting her perspective of both Hanoi and Vientiane.  We ended up leaving Vientiane at about 9:00 AM and after a refueling stop and then a water break we arrived at Paksan at 11:30 AM.  That was indeed a short ride.  The VIP suite was only 180,000 kip ($24) so we decided to splurge and then went for a walk.  That evening I met Pascalina and Phillip just as they were leaving the hotel to get some sunset photos on the Mekong.  They had bicycled all the way from Switzerland over Iran, Mongolia and China.  Wow!  As they were off to take photos we decided to meet up for coffee in the morning.  

Leaving Vientiane

Back out in the Lao countryside

On Thursday Audrey and I walked across the street to a coffee shop at 8:00 AM and shortly thereafter Pascalina and Phillip joined us.  We must have talked for two and a half hours.  It was great sharing experiences from on the road, especially as their journey had covered similar ground.  One comment we found interesting was that they had obtained their Iranian visas in Trabzon, Turkey without the need for an authorisation number in just one day.  We filed that information away and hoped that we would still be able to visit Iran, even if it meant coming from Turkey rather than Pakistan.  It was already 33 degrees as we left Paksan at 11:00 AM and rode southeast.  We turned off the main north-south highway onto Highway 8, running east.  Up into the hills we climbed and it was fun playing on the twisty road before turning south and riding along the flat valley floor to the Auberge Sala Hinboun, an eco-lodge near the Kong Lor cave.  Arriving at 2:30 meant that we probably had enough time to visit the cave but we decided to spend a couple of nights at the lodge instead so that we could take our time on Friday.  A great walk along the road highlighted once again how friendly the Laotians were as everyone greeted us with a cheery, "Sabaydee!"  A frozen orange juice on the way home made for a great refreshing Popsicle.  Back at the lodge an e-mail from the shipper who would get our motorcycles to Istanbul said that the Songkran festival would be taking place in Thailand from April 13 to 16.  They suggested that we should avoid that time for shipping as a lot of places would shut down for the festivities.  They needed a couple of weeks to arrange the paperwork so we set our plans to enter Thailand on April 1 and then send them our Thai importation documents.

Meeting up with Pascalina and Phillip

Before they head to Vientiane and us to Kong Lor Cave

Riding into the hills away from the Mekong

Past Water Buffalo

To a stunning viewpoint

Arriving at the Auberge Sala Hinboun

View from our balcony

Going for a walk we came across these kids who had caught that evening's supper

While we had bananas flambee

Sleeping at an eco-lodge can definitely have a down side.  In this case it was a loud, unidentified bird that would make a call every twenty minutes or so.  All night long.  Right underneath our room on stilts.  Just as I drifted off the darn thing would cry out again.  I finally grabbed the ear plugs out of my motorcycle jacket at 2:30 AM and managed to get some sleep.  Later in the morning, after breakfast, we rode 12 kilometres south to the Kong Lor cave park.  Now, I'm not normally a fan of caves and from the stories I had read I wasn't really looking forward to this one either.  I mean, who wants to wander around in the dark, bashing their head into a rock only to have spiders the size of your palm walking around?  At the dock we boarded a boat and motored into the cave mouth set into the side of a cliff.  Our headlamps (mine could use new batteries) only provided the slightest illumination so it was good that the boat crew had massive flashlights.  The underground river was amazing as we wound our way underneath the mountain.  The ceiling was really high, at times simply disappearing into the darkness above with my weak headlamp unable to find the top.  We beached beside a set of rapids and walked amongst stalactites lit up by floodlights.  In the meantime the crew dragged our boat across the rapids and we boarded again on the other side.  There were a few more rapids to negotiate where we walked in the water upstream with the boat and then we were out the other side.  We had gone 7.5 kilometres through the mountain.  A few stalls set up near the beach allowed us to purchase some refreshments for ourselves and the crew.  The guide (as opposed to the motorman) had a Beerlao so hopefully it was still early enough in the day that he hadn't had too many to navigate our way back.  It seemed to go well enough and we actually shot a few of the rapids going downstream that we had walked up previously.  This was easily the best cave I had ever been in.  After a delicious can of coconut juice ("with coconut flesh") we rode back to the lodge and packed up before the noon checkout time.  After doubling back the way we had come the day before we rejoined Highway 13 southbound.  We stopped for lunch at a small village with a lot of open air restaurants lining the highway.  The displays were quite interesting and if we had a little more culinary adventure in us we could have tried the rats or frogs or even baby chicks roasted on skewers.  As it was, just a photo and then some sticky rice with fried eggs satisfied our lunchtime cravings.  After a hot but easy ride we arrived at Tha Khek and checked in to the Inthira Hotel.  It seemed to be a bit of a backpacker joint (being mentioned in Lonely Planet can do that) but it had a nice room and the food in the restaurant was tasty.  We went for a walk around town and when we came back I noticed that I had left my key in the lock of a saddlebag.  I looked over at a gentleman sitting at the hotel café and smiled.  He said he had seen it there and was keeping an eye on it for me.  We struck up a bit of a conversation and afterwards Audrey and I thought about the backpacker crowd in general.  For some reason it seemed that most backpackers ignored us.  Other travellers would always come over and chat to us, amazed that we had ridden our motorbikes here but for some reason backpackers (and I'm generalising here) seemed to be in their own world.

Going south from the eco-lodge towards the Kong Lor Cave

The cave mouth just past those fallen rocks in the cliff face

Ready to jump into a boat and go into a cave

The motorman's headlamp was very powerful

Walking around the rapids through the stalactites

While the crew pulled the boat through

Other shallow stretches we had to walk in the stream

Out the other side

Colourful fish live just outside the cave

Leaving Kong Lor Cave

Lunch time; choices, choices

On Saturday we tried to get up early and on the road before it got too hot.  Even leaving at 8:00 AM it was already 28 degrees but it was a comfortable temperature.  With the easy ride we found ourselves just outside Savannahket at 10:00 AM.  Audrey was still feeling OK so we decided to press on.  It was a good 200 kilometres to Pakse but there were no other major centres along our route so we would have to ride in a bit of the day's heat to make it the whole way.  By 11:00 it was getting on 34 degrees and we tried to stop for breaks as much as we could.  We arrived at 1:00 PM just as it was getting good and warm and found that the Residence Sisouk had rooms available.  It had been a hot ride and we were happy to relax in air conditioned comfort before going downstairs to the bakery restaurant for lunch.  By 5:00 PM it had cooled down enough for us to go for a walk around town and we ended up at an Indian restaurant for supper.  The chicken misala and lassi were delicious but would turn out to have an impact on us in ways we hadn't anticipated.

A Vietnamese travelling salesman came over to chat when he saw the Vietnamese flag on Ekke's bike

Another well-signed construction zone

Arrived at Residence Sisouk

These drums were also at the National Museum but we weren't allowed to touch them, here it's a coffee table

OK, now we know we're in the right place

On Saint Patrick's day we both woke up feeling a bit green and not terribly hungry for the skimpy breakfast provided by the Sisouk.  It was a very short ride of only 30 kilometres to Champasak, on the other side of the Mekong, where we planned to stay at another Inthira hotel.  We were riding on a beautiful, freshly paved road when a group of young men on scooters broke into an impromptu drag race ahead of me, I downshifted the Adventure a couple of gears and pinned the throttle.  Flying through their little group at 150 km/h, I scattered them in my wake.  That put a smile on my face.  At the hotel both Audrey and I were really not feeling well at all and even quite irritable.  Collapsing in the room we barely moved from bed except to vomit every now and again.  When we did a bit of research as to what our ailment could be we surmised that it might have been a combination of food poisoning (the Indian food?) and dehydration from the long, hot ride the day before.  The next to two days were a complete blur as we barely moved from our room at the Inthira.  

Short ride to Champasak on a perfectly paved new road

Let's spend a few days locked up in this lovely room

Beautiful temples all around

On Wednesday we rode two-up on the F650GS to Wat Phu (the main reason we had come to Champasak in the first place).  As we walked up a short distance Audrey started to feel a bit woozy (it was already approaching 30 degrees at 8:00 AM) and she decided to stop there.  I continued the climb up to the temple and marvelled at how different this was from the temples we had been seeing for the last couple of months in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.  Apparently Wat Phu is thought to have been a precursor to Angkor Wat.  The sun broke through the haze just as I reached the upper temple and put a lovely golden colour on a Buddha statue.  After I came back down we went back to the hotel for breakfast and then rode into Pakse to go to a medical clinic so that Audrey could get her INR tested.  This number allowed her to adjust her medication to prevent further blood clotting.  The reading was good so she could maintain the same dosage but the doctor didn't have any comment on her other, current health issues (vomiting, lethargy, wooziness).  After the ride back to Champasak in 38 degree heat it was a pleasure to stand under a cool outdoor shower in our hotel room.

The climb up to Wat Phu is framed by two buildings currently undergoing restoration

Audrey not feeling well, heads back down

Climbing the uneven steps up to Wat Phu

The sun breaks through the early morning haze to light up a Buddha statue

The Hindu influence on this temple is clear

Elephant rock

Looking back down from Wat Phu

Time for a cool, refreshing outdoor shower

We were both feeling pretty good on March 21 and happy to be on the road again at 8:00 AM.  Our first adventure was only two kilometres away at the crossing of the Mekong.  We could have backtracked to Pakse and used a bridge to cross the Mekong but what fun would that be?  Instead we rode our bikes down a sandy shore onto tiny wooden rafts lashed together and balanced on top of a couple of pontoons.  One of the pontoons had an outboard motor attached for propulsion.  Getting on the rafts was quite interesting as the rafts were docked next to each other.  It was necessary to ride across one raft in order to get on the one furthest out.  As the F650 was much lighter than the 1200 we loaded that first and it was quite easy.  But when I pushed the 1200 up the ramp and onto the raft the boat operators both gasped as the boat sank more than they were used to.  It still seemed to be floating so it was deemed safe enough to cross the Mekong.  Off we went, carefully watching the water levels in relation to the pontoons.  At the far side there were already two rafts tied up and Audrey's raft pulled up to the outer one to tie up.  My raft was then the fourth boat out from shore.  I rode the F650 across the first raft and down the gangplank to the shore without too much trouble.  But when I went to bring the Adventure ashore it was a bit more challenging.  My raft was about 30 centimetres lower than the next raft so I had to use the engine to climb up onto it and then it sank 30 centimetres so the process could be repeated for the next raft in.  At the final raft a scooter coming the other way decided that this was the perfect time for him to board.  This made it a bit more challenging getting the heavy bike balanced on the bobbing boat so I could get on it to ride down the ramp.  Audrey filmed the whole event at both ends but just as I was getting on the Adventure to ride down the ramp (i.e. the most exciting part) the camera battery died.  And I wasn't going back for a re-take.  (See the YouTube clip here)  Fortunately no bikes or operators ended up in the Mekong and I got the bike safely ashore.  From there it was an easy 100 kilometre ride south to another ferry for the ride across to Khong Don, an island in the middle of the Mekong River.  The operator of the raft, Mr. Phousy, asked the weight of the bikes and didn't seem too enthusiastic when I said the Adventure was on the order of 300 kilograms.  He suggested we go 10 kilometres downstream to an official vehicle ferry.  While that wasn't nearly as much fun the cost was exactly the same as the raft crossing earlier in the day at 50,000 kip ($7) per bike.  We arrived at the Pon Arena hotel on the island and were immediately impressed by the beauty of our room and the lovely small pool.  What a relief from the heat to soak in the cool waters of the pool overlooking the Mekong.  In fact from the pool we could see Mr. Phousy and his raft on the other side of the river.  Later in the afternoon we took a ride around the island and then picked up yoghurt and iced tea for a light supper.  As per Dave Coulson, whom we had met in Switzerland many years ago (See the Switzerland chapter from 2002 here), the best thing to keep your stomach attuned to local foods is to have local yoghurt.  This had worked for us throughout our travels but I was a bit skeptical when I had a closer look at the yoghurt I had picked up.  On the label were pictures of corn and beans.  Hmm, I wonder what Dave would have thought of this?  It tasted… interesting and I'm sure that it helped my stomach to recuperate from the recent bout of food poisoning.

On the way to the ferry we passed an old colonial mansion, slowly decaying in the heat

The F650GS is aboard

The stern of the boat looks perilously close to the water

Riding across the Mekong River

OK, now to get the Adventure to shore.  See a YouTube video of the ride by clicking on the picture!

Pon Arena hotel from across the Mekong River at Mr. Phousy's raft

Mr. Phousy thought the Adventure too heavy so we took the vehicle ferry across instead

Refreshing pool at the Pon Arena hotel, watching the kids play in the river below

Huge Buddha statue across the river

A bridge will soon take all the fun out of crossing the Mekong River to get to Khong Don

Interesting corn and bean yoghurt

We took the vehicle ferry back across the Mekong and rode south on Friday, March 22, to the Khong Phapheng Falls.  The 30,000 kip entry fee allowed us to enjoy the park for the entire day but we only stayed for half an hour, enjoying the largest falls in all of S.E. Asia.  From there it was only a few kilometres to the border of Cambodia.  A kilometre before the crossing a customs station allowed us to get our carnet de passages stamped out of Laos and then at the border station itself we found a wooden shack where our passports were also stamped out.  The ride across no-man's land was quite short and soon we were pulled up at a barrier across the road, getting ready to enter Cambodia.  After riding across Cambodia solo I was eager to share my enthusiasm for this warm (both temperature and people) country with Audrey.  Would the towels be as soft as I remembered?

The Khong Phapheng Falls are the largest (by volume) falls in all of S.E. Asia.

Yes, we had a great time in Laos

Map of our route through the second half of Laos  
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