- About Nick
- People helping the expedition
- Expenses breakdown
- Truck and equipment (Sept. 16)
Posted on December 20th, 2010 Nicolas 53 comments
It’s a two-day drive from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. The weather is pretty bad, and it still takes me few days to get rid of my cold. I am driving across mountains, most of the time above 3,000 feet. There’s a heavy fog that forces me to drive slowly. Northern Laos is decidedly spectacular, and I am glad I didn’t miss that.
I stop for the night in Vang Vieng, an area famous for the limestone cliffs surrounding the city. The night I spend there marks the last night I am sick, and when I wake up in the morning, I am in great shape and ready to fight. Vang Vieng is a strange place. Westerners stop here for few days not only for the incredible landscapes, but also because drugs are easily available. Not my scene.
My cold is better, but not my back. For some reason, the country seems to have the worst mattresses I saw during my journey. Don’t take me wrong, I am OK with hard mattresses. But seriously, harder than concrete? What kind of technology do they use to produce it? This will remain a mystery.
I arrive in Vientiane the following day and as I am now feeling better, I locate a place to camp along the Mekong River. I am glad I went to bed early, principally because a military battalion wakes me up at six in the morning. They dont let me alone until the tent is packed. What can you do? Some days are like that. I fix myself some coffee and go check in a guest house for the following night (Phorntip guesthouse, US$8, recommended). I do know that officials are still not wild about foreigners roaming around like I do, and they prefer us to be registered in hotels…
Vientiane is the kind of capital I love. Small with 200,000 inhabitants, it is exactly as big as Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. For some reason, Laos is not a big sex tourism destination, and I hope it will remain this way, as Vientiane is quite innocent compared to other capitals in the region. This apart, I found the city a little bit less interesting than Phnom Penh, with its charming streets lined with French bistros…
At the guesthouse I meet again with the two crazy French girls I crossed path with in Phongsaly. They are on their way down to Bangkok where they are supposed to catch a flight to Myanmar. We spend the evening together and have a great pizza that reconciles me with the city. (Swedish Pizza & Baking House, best pizza I had since ??)
In the morning we meet again for breakfast. They attempt to buy train tickets for Bangkok, but are told that the train is full. They have to be back in Bangkok in two days time, otherwise they will miss their flight. Few hours later I am rearranging the load in the truck so I can drive these two crazy Frenchies.
We leave at noon and pass the Thailand border without problems as nobody on either side seem to be interested by who we are and what we carry. Unfortunately, few miles later, during a stop to get lunch I notice that there’s something wrong with the vehicle.
For some reasons, probably involving the crazy ride up to Phongsaly, three of the right front wheel bolts broke. The wheel is now just holding by three remaining bolts. Incredibly, the problem is solved quickly as we find a shop swiftly enough. I can’t believe the chap has all the parts I need here, but he does. After two hours pit-stop, we are back on the highway.
We stop to spend the night in Khon Kaen an unremarkable town in eastern Thailand. The road leading there didn’t have much appeal either, and I am glad I have some company to keep me awake.
We arrive on Thursday night in Bangkok, where the girls give me a quick tour of the Banglamphu area. They have to be at the airport very early in the morning and we don’t stay out late. I am pretty tired as well, as we drove 500 miles in the last two days in a pretty hot weather.
But there’s not much rest for me neither the following day, as my time is filled with engagements with shipping companies and other customs brokers. It turns out I should be able to stuff my container in the beginning of the week, and the truck should be in Los Angeles around the end of January. Perfect.
Regrettably there is soon enough another obstacle. The Chinese embassy doesn’t grant visas to French citizens without a return ticket. I decide to postpone the resolution of this matter until Monday. Anyway there’s not much I can do during the week-end.
In the meantime I visit the western part of the city and spend time in restaurants, in an effort to take advantage of the Thai way of cooking before I am gone for good. I find myself alone in the city after many weeks of gathering with a lot of people. Vikas, Kathryn, Philip, Valerie, Sandrine… After such a long time alone on the road as I was crossing Africa or the Middle East, it has been a lot of human contacts lately. It is probably a good training for me before being back in the U.S. where my social life will start again. At least I know that I am still a normal human being… Or almost normal…
When I have time, I begin to organize my bags since I will have to continue the trip without the truck. I will soon be in much colder places and will have to be ready. The temperature in Seoul, South Korea, is only in the 30’s so I have to dig clothes I didn’t use since Peru, which are located deep in the trunk.
The next step will be to switch from southeast to northeast Asia. Apart from the wintry climate, another challenge will be to return in more costly areas where I will not be able to get inexpensive hotel rooms as I do here. Also, without my camping gear, I will have to eat out constantly. Regardless, it’s exciting to be on the move again, soon to discover new horizons.
Posted on December 13th, 2010 Nicolas 20 comments
There’s not much to do in Phongsaly. The adventure you find more on the route to the town than in the town itself. Two restaurants, three guest houses and you saw everything. There’s a nice little market where I am able to buy vegetables which allow us to escape from the omnipresent fried rice.
At the image of the population of the town, most shops, restaurants and hostels are owned by Chinese which are brutal traders. You can’t win against them and they never accept to lower their ridiculous prices. It is not Thailand here, and you better make sure of the cost before you order something.
Four hundreds steps to go up to see a “stupa” on an elevation dominating the dwellings and you did most of what’s possible to do in town. Or almost everything. The big everyday event is the arrival of the only bus coming to good old Phongsaly. You can go watch people tired by the nine hours trip falling out the bus.
Among them, there’s always one of two tourists. Everybody eventually meets in the only restaurant open after 8 p.m. and exchange travelers tips. One recent day, we hear from one of them about a very old tea plantation up in the mountains. To be exact it is supposed to be the oldest in the world. Soon enough few people are interested to join Philip and me to explore this new destination.
The following day, we drive to the tea plantation. As in Camobodia, most tourists here are french, and on this day they pile-up on the passenger seat of my truck. The road shakes us up a bit, but less than an hour after we arrive on the site.
We spent a bit of time speaking with a strange hunter on the way. He is planting traps for rats among the trees. He showed us how the system is working. Only after few minutes back on the road I realize this guy is actually eating the rats he catches.
I completely forgot fried rats were eaten in many Asia countries like China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. I gave our hunter a bag of fried pork skin I bought by mistake thinking it was potato chips. It will make a change in his diet.
At the tea plantation, an old man shows us around and invites us to try some tea. Most of the tea trees are very old there, some as much as 400 years. In most plantations, the tree-tops are being cut so leaves can be picked by people on foot. In Phongsaly, the trees are left to grow, and villagers have to climb to collect the leaves.
After fierce negotiations we are able to buy few shopping bags of dried leaves for US$2. We spend some time in the village with the kids and we can see the inhabitants in their daily work tasks. but soon we need to leave. The tourism office of Phongsaly learned we are up there and they are complaining we didn’t use a guide to visit the village. We promise next time we will…
After two very cold nights in the city, we decide it is time to go back down the mountain. We stayed in a hotel in town because it is too cold to camp (Viphaphone hotel, US$10 for a double room, not recommended they will rip you off! Try Sensaly guesthouse instead). Temperatures come down around 40 F (5 deg. Celsius) and even in our room it is freezing. Anyway, now is time for a last struggle on the dirt road to go down the mountains. We stop for the night in Boun Tai and then in Oudom Xai.
In the morning, on a mountain road south of Oudom Xai, Philip and I split. He is going to the eastern part of the country and I will keep going south. Maybe we will catch up later.
Around noon I meet again the Mekong River and follow it toward the south. I arrive in Luang Prabang in the afternoon. By then I feel pretty weak and I am coming down with a cold. It is a nice last present from the cold mountains. Time for me to find a guesthouse and take some rest, a plan I execute promptly.
The city, located at the convergence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan River used to be the royal capital of Laos before the communist takeover in the 70’s. The city is famous for its many temples as well as for its French influenced architecture in more modern buildings. It is a pleasant and touristy place, the Laos equivalent of Chiang Mai in Thailand.
I decide to stay there for a bit, until my cold is gone (Oudomphong, US$7.5, recommended). It is nice to stroll along the streets and be able to get good French-influenced food like croissants or bread. The night market is the ideal place to get diner and few bars offer me a chance to try to boost my health with rum and lime juice.
There are not many tourist spots in Laos, so soon enough I meet again most of the people I saw in Phongsaly. Good reason for celebration but quiet celebration: bars in the town close before midnight. Still a progress compared to up in the mountain where everything was shut down by 9 p.m.
Few days later, it is time to go south. I will now go to Vientiane and continue my route back to Bangkok. I already began to get quotes from shipping companies to send my ride back to L.A. I will also need to get a Chinese visa as I still hope to be able to get from Hong-Kong to Beijing by train.
From China I should be able to get a boat to South Korea, and from there hop in another ship to Japan. More details in upcoming posts…