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ABOUT THIS BLOG

In the summer of 2009, Nicolas Rapp decided to take a break from his Art Director job at The Associated Press to attempt a one-year overland travel around the world in a 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser. He was back in New York in February 2011 after traveling 15 months and 37,000 miles.

Visited countries

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THE ROUTE

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  • The last dirt road

    Posted on December 6th, 2010 Nicolas 34 comments
    The last dirt road of my trip brings me to amazing places.

    The last dirt road of my trip brings me to amazing places.

    Now that Kathryn s gone, it is time for me to go explore another Asian country I am looking forward to. Laos is still underdeveloped and the north part of the country should be the last great adventure of the trip.

    Temple in Chiang Rai.

    Temple in Chiang Rai.

    From Chiang Mai I drive to Chiang Rai where I spend the night. Before I left, I made sure to buy enough food for one week, as it will be more difficult to get edible goods in Laos. With only two millions tourists a year, people are a lot less used to westerners roaming around, and the infrastructure is not here yet. And this is great, because Thailand was decidedly too touristy and the experience with locals tainted as a result. On my way I stop in an abandoned gas station where I do some work on the car. I was finally able to find the right type of oil for the transmission, and I change the fluids on the front and rear differential as well as in the transfer case.

    The Mekong River. From the place I spend the night, I can hear music coming from Laos on the other side.

    The Mekong River. From the place I spend the night, I can hear music coming from Laos on the other side.

    From Chiang Rai, it is only two hours of driving to get to Chiang Khong where I hope to get a boat to cross the Mekong and get into Laos. I arrive there at lunch time in December 2nd and learn that it is the National Day on the other side; therefore the ferry boat is not working. I am still glad to learn that if I wish, I can charter my own boat for US$170 instead of the usual cost of US$33 for passage on a regular day. Of course I choose to wait, but enjoy the fact that such things are still possible in Asia at the opposite of the western world.

    The ferry to cross the Mekong in the early morning.

    The ferry to cross the Mekong in the early morning.

    The following morning I am at 8 a.m. at the boat landing. Paperwork is easy on the Thai side, and I meet a fellow overlander, Philip, a Swiss guy who is driving is bike from Singapore around Southeast Asia. We board the ferry and ten minutes later we are on the other side.

    Crossing the Mekong River.

    Crossing the Mekong River.

    It is time to go through immigration, and get the Laos visa. By now, I am using an old passport with no free page available in it. I know I may not be able to get by like that, but I try my luck. It takes few minutes to convince the officer to just place the sticker on top of a page already covered with stamps. I pay the US$30 for the visa, and I am on my way. Philip, as me, is trying to get to Phongsali, in the extreme north of Laos, close to the border with China. We decide to stick together in the next few days so we can share some expenses.

    Warm welcoming on the road of Laos.

    Warm welcoming on the road of Laos.

    We spend the first night in Luang Namtha after a stop on the way to get lunch. Laos is dirt cheap and you can eat anywhere for US$2 including beer. In the evening I cook, more to get a balanced diet than to save money. From now on, we will never be under 500 meters altitude and we are presently at similar latitude with Mexico City. That means nights are getting quite cold, and when the sun disappear, one need to wear a jacket, an experience I forgot about.

    People at work in rice fields.

    People at work in rice fields.

    As soon as I passed the border, I found the landscape a lot more interesting than in Thailand. I am driving among mountains and forests on small and sinuous roads. On the roadside, I can spot people working in the fields, a vision reminiscent of Cambodia.

    Planting rice on the road from Oudom Xai to Phongsali.

    Planting rice on the road from Oudom Xai to Phongsali.

    In Boun Tai as everywhere else, life depends of the water. Here we can see women bathing and washing clothes. On the artisanal dam, you can spot small power generators delivering electricity to the town.

    In Boun Tai as everywhere else, life depends of the water. Here we can see women bathing and washing clothes. On the artisanal dam, you can spot small power generators delivering electricity to the town.

    In the morning we leave Luang Namtha for the first day of intricate driving. In the next two days, we will have to put behind 125 miles (200 km) of dirt roads. For me, this final unpaved portion has a special signification. I didn’t drive such road in a while, but more important, it will probably be the last one of my trip. Soon enough, I feel I am in Africa again, the truck filling with dust as I advance in the mountain, gaining altitude toward unreachable Phongsali among the tea plantations, 1,500 meters high in the mountains. We stop to rest for the night in Boun Tai, a small town where people still live in a traditional way. As in Cambodia, people seem to subsist well, despite the poverty shown in statistics. In the morning, after 30 minutes driving I have another puncture, rapidly taking care of. My two front tires are not in top shape after riding them through 30,000 miles, mostly on dreadful tracks.

    The dirt road follows the river, and from there it is possible to spot fishermen.

    The dirt road follows the river, and from there it is possible to spot fishermen.

    The road reminds me of Africa, but the landscape and villages we cross are closer to the ones in the Andes. There are coffee plants and tea plantations everywhere. With only one bus going up to Phongsali daily, there’s almost no traffic on the way up.

    Typical village nested in the hills.

    Typical village nested in the hills.

    Bringing back some wood.

    Bringing back some wood.

    People are very nice and wave hands when I go through the villages. I can see that they are not too used to much travelers getting by. Kids are very excited and run after the car. People dry crops in the sun along the road and I see wheat, coffee and spices. All houses are made of wood; teak but more often bamboo.
    It looks like there are fewer schools in Laos than in Cambodia, but it is difficult to say as I am in a remote area.
    Laos was very isolated during its 30 years under communism regime, and it is now slowly changing.

    R_KIDS – Kids are everywhere.

    Kids are everywhere.

    This dirt road preserving Phongsali from too much activity is scheduled to be paved in the next two years, and then everything will be different.

    Watching the foreigner going by.

    Watching the foreigner going by.

    People are very beautiful in this country. Always smiling to you, and not automatically seeing you as a source of income.
    Soon enough we come to the end of the dirt road. Before arriving to our goal, there’s still a segment of 20 miles (35 km) of paved surface.

    The end of the dirt road. Philip is leading the way.

    The end of the dirt road. Philip is leading the way.

    It is easy now to continue. The constant change between rocks dirt, sand and mud is very energy consuming, and you need to be alert all the time. Now I can relax and enjoy the ride through the mountain.

    Taking a break on the road close to Phongsali.

    Taking a break on the road close to Phongsali.

    And finally I arrive in the 25,000 population town. On the way up we were as close as 15 miles with the Chinese border. The weather is cool up there, and I enjoy stopping in the dormant town for a while. In addition it is Sunday, and the town seems asleep. We decide to stay two nights up there before backtracking all the way down south.

    In the forest on the way up.

    In the forest on the way up.

  • Thanksgiving in northern Thailand

    Posted on December 1st, 2010 Nicolas 21 comments
    Night scene in Chiang Mai.

    Night scene in Chiang Mai.

    One recent evening while in Lampang, we decided we also deserved a Thanksgiving diner. The previous day we were denied entry in Myanmar (Burma), where we intended to spend few hours. It is impossible to go there with a vehicle, but officials of the country usually allow you to spend the day there, keeping your passport in the meantime.

    The Friendship bridge marking the border between Burma and Thailand.

    The Friendship bridge marking the border between Burma and Thailand.

    Unfortunately this particular crossing is closed since July as incidents with Karen fighters monopolize the attention of the government. It was still a nice drive through the mountains to get to Mae Sot, so we were happy to have done the trip. I spent the afternoon getting work done on the car, mainly changing the rear brake pads.

    Driving in the mountains.

    Driving in the mountains.

    So we had to backtrack and arrived in Lampang hungry. I thought people back home would be interested in seeing some pictures of typical Thai dishes in these pages, so I will share this Thanksgiving menu with you. We decided to order many little things, served as appetizer in this particular restaurant, but usually found everywhere in the street.

    In Lampang, a tight fit for my house on wheels.

    In Lampang, a tight fit for my house on wheels.

    On our way to the restaurant, we bought cooked quails eggs, and when comfortably installed, we began the meal with classic pork spring rolls.

    Spring rolls.

    Spring rolls.

    Then, the waitress placed in front of us a plate of bacon-wrapped chestnuts.

    Bacon-wrapped chestnuts.

    Bacon-wrapped chestnuts.

    By then, unaccustomed to so much food, we were already thinking that maybe we should not have ordered so many dishes. But we carried on, emptying a bottle of Singha beer as a huge pot of rice was brought to us.

    A plate of stirred-fried pork.

    A plate of stirred-fried pork.

    A specialty of the house was a particular plate of pork which I can’t remember the name. When I ordered, the waitress asked if we wanted it to be spicy, to wish I answered “Of course”. As the dish nearly killed us, I am not sure I would order it this way again.

    Egg-stuffed fish cakes.

    Egg-stuffed fish cakes.

    Another intriguing delicacy was the egg-stuffed fish cake. Very good, but by this time, it became difficult to continue stuffing our faces.

    Shrimp puffs and morning glory.

    Shrimp puffs and morning glory.

    Then we got the famous morning glory, a Chinese influenced dish where the vegetable is flash-fried with garlic and chilli. By then Kathryn was not speaking anymore. Another order we got was shrimp puffs (left on the picture, look like donuts) which we kept for breakfast the following day. The complete meal was under US$20.
    We dragged ourselves back to the tent where we slept like dead people. Regardless, in the morning we were ready to eat more and the shrimp puffs went down the hatch with strong coffee.

    Outside decoration of a temple in Chiang Mai.

    Outside decoration of a temple in Chiang Mai.

    Only sixty miles separated us from our next destination, Chiang Mai. The second biggest city in the country, it is also a huge touristic destination. Westerners come from everywhere, and you can’t help but sometimes think that there are more white people than Thai in the Old City. Because it can be challenging to camp in large populated areas and be in the center of the action at the same time, we decided to take a room in a backpacker hotel (US$13 a day, Smile House). There we relaxed and toured the city.

    We didn’t try to eat the many kind of worms and crickets sold in the market.

    We didn’t try to eat the many kind of worms and crickets sold in the market.

    We were lucky enough to be in the city on a Sunday, day of a weekly big night market. Two days later, Kathryn took a flight back to Bangkok as I was getting ready to go back on the road. Exciting Laos is next, and it should be a more difficult destination. The first challenge will be to find a boat to cross the Mekong River with my truck.

    Chiang Mai Temple.

    Chiang Mai Temple.