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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.

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THE ROUTE

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  • Southward along the Mekong River

    Posted on December 13th, 2010 Nicolas No comments
    Meat for sale at the Phongsaly market.

    Meat for sale at the Phongsaly market.

    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.

    Vegetables in the market, exactly what I need to get a more balanced diet.

    Vegetables in the market, exactly what I need to get a more balanced diet.

    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.

    Dry goods at the market, including noodles.

    Dry goods at the market, including noodles.

    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.

    There’s space for everyone in the Great Tea Expedition.

    There’s space for everyone in the Great Tea Expedition.

    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.

    On the way to the tea plantation.

    On the way to the tea plantation.

    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.

    Catching rats – and frying them…

    Catching rats – and frying them…

    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.

    Arriving at the tea plantation. The old guy will guide us.

    Arriving at the tea plantation. The old man will guide us.

    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.

    Picking tea leaves on the old tree.

    Picking tea leaves on the old tree.

    Fresh leaves.

    Fresh 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…

    Nobody is too young to work.

    Nobody is too young to work.

    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.

    Backtracking on the dirt road and going back to Oudom Xai.

    Backtracking on the dirt road and going back to 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.

    Good bye and good luck to Philip.

    Good bye and good luck to Philip.

    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.

    Following the Mekong River once again to Luang Prabang.

    Following the Mekong River once again to Luang Prabang.

    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.

    Pedestrian bridge in Luang Prabang across the Nam Khan River.

    Pedestrian bridge in Luang Prabang across the Nam Khan River.

    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.

    Shop in one Luang Prabang streets.

    Shop in one Luang Prabang streets.

    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.

    Street corner. Luang Prabang has a European feel.

    Street corner. Luang Prabang has a European feel.

    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.

    Sunset on the Mekong River in Luang Prabang.

    Sunset on the Mekong River in Luang Prabang.

    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…

    Old Wat, Luang Prabang.

    Old Wat, Luang Prabang.

  • The last dirt road

    Posted on December 6th, 2010 Nicolas No 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.