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    Saturday, 8 August 2009

    Crossing the border between Cambodia and Laos

    Dirt Road [Enlarge & More]
    Both of us were sorry to leave Norden House in Ban Lung but really pleased to be on our way away from the constant rain. All our stuff was wet and starting to smell as nothing was drying in the damp environment. My shorts had been wet the entire time we had been there, after the perilous Moto ride in the rain to the hotel on the first night.

    In the guide book it says that crossing the border into Laos in the north at Voen Kham is for the adventurous. It did take 3 buses, a walk on foot over no mans land and two sets of ‘bribes’ but other than that it was really straightforward.

    We’d got our Laos visas back in Phnom Penh at $45 each (it costs more for the Brits for some reason) but we knew that at the border it was useful to have some $1 bills handy to ease the path across. Interestingly you can take the name of the officer who asks for the extra money at the border and complain but we thought we’d rather get across into Laos.

    I still thought of ourselves as adventurous having made it across the border and as we drove away into Laos I was a little surprised to see a golf course and luxury holiday resort. It turns out that the area in Laos is very close to the Thai border and it is one of the most visited areas by the Thais on holiday due to some major attractions.

    The Bridge [Enlarge & More]
    The final leg of our journey to our first destination in Laos was by boat, or that’s what we thought. We got the boat over to an island called Don Det as planned and were going to walk over the disused railway bridge built by the French to another island, Don Khon. Our packs are definitely not the lightest at about 20kg each and the prospect of carrying them more than a few hundred metres was not appealing and on the map it looked straightforward and not too far.

    We started to walk through the rice fields avoiding the odd buffalo and barking dog. It didn’t take long for me to build up a healthy sweat as it was definitely the most humid place we have stayed- I guess an island surrounded by water during the monsoon would be a good candidate.

    After a couple of pit stops we spotted water and what looked like a bridge as we approached. I jokingly said ‘wouldn’t it be funny if the bridge no longer existed’. As we got closer it became all too apparent that the bridge did not exist anymore, it just stopped a few meters into the water. Sweating, hot and tired both of us weren’t in the best of moods but we just about held it together and managed to find a boatman to take us over to the island we wanted to get to for an extortionate price.

    The Actual Bridge [Enlarge & More]
    As we set off in the boat heading in completely the opposite direction to what we expected, we made sure with the boatman that he had understood where we wanted to go. He definitely had, as a couple of minutes into the boat ride we turned a corner in the river around the island and in front of us was the bridge that linked the islands of Don Det and Don Khon. All we could do was smile at each other.

    We could have stayed on the first island but wanted to stay at a particular guesthouse and that’s where we were dropped off. As we wandered through the courtyard of the guesthouse no one seemed too bothered and there were none of the usual offers of ‘do you want to see a room?’. I asked whether a room was available and I was told they were full. We did eventually find a room at the Auberge Sala Don Khone - a lovely place even if the bathroom smelt of cabbage.

    Don Det Island [Enlarge & More]
    The Island itself forms part of Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) and is supposed to be the most laid back place in Laos. It was laid back but greed had definitely struck as the prices for food and boat hire were extortionate, but despite the cost we did have a lovely time there.

    After our successful cycle ride in Kratie we hired bikes again and toured both the islands. It was a little bit muddier this time and some of the routes were impassable. We were stopped by some fellow travellers who were covered head to foot in mud warning us not to go down a particular track. We had a great time even if we were a little muddier by the end. I did also get a bite on the foot - I think it was a spider but not sure. The foot’s swelling up nicely and at the moment it’s really painful to walk on. It’s not spreading so I’m keeping an eye on it and hopefully the swelling will start to ease soon.

    Khon Phapheng Falls [Enlarge & More]
    There are some huge rapids along the Mekong and we took a day trip to see the largest set in South East Asia according the blurb on a tourist sign. I’m not sure if they are but with the monsoon rain you could hear them from quite a distance away. As you got closer the thunderous sound was all-encompassing and I can see why it’s one of the most visited sites in Laos, especially by the Thais. It holds a sacred significance as well, with the idea being that all the bad spirits are trapped in the rapids.

    I think Laos will be something of an acquired taste, so far it’s like Cambodia but to coin the phrase you hear a lot here – ‘Same same but different’

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