I did 'The Loop'!

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February 15th 2013
Published: February 15th 2013
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I'm now in country number 3! We left Vientiane after 2 fairly uninspiring days. We went to a Buddha park out of town on the second day which was my first real experience of a local bus. Most of the buses we take are VIP and as such, are air conditioned and comfortable to suit the Western travellers. To reach the Buddha park however, there was no VIP option, only the local bus! We worked out we needed bus no. 14 so hopped on and try to confirm that this bus was headed to the park, unfortunately no one on the bus spoke English so we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best! We ended up at a border crossing to Thailand. Not quite what we had in mind! The bus driver made us get off and onto another bus which actually made the first bus look like luxury! This one was practically falling apart, with a permanently open door and way too many people. There was definitely no air-con and the open door didn't provide much of a breeze! I was lucky enough to get a seat at the front on a fold out chair by the driver so regularly got smashed in the leg as he changed gear. When we finally got to the Buddha park we jumped off quickly, glad to cool down in the midday sun! We set off to explore this park full of statues but were suddenly shouted at by the bus driver, demanding we get back on the bus. Having only paid for a one-way bus ticket and having also just paid entrance to the park, we were a bit confused. It felt like Bottle-Beach in Koh Phangan all over again when we got a boat to the beach, it rained for half an hour and then the boat made us return! We were notbeing Bottle-Beached again so we pretended not to hear him and ran off into the park. As we viewed the many impressive statues we couldn't resist mimicking one or two or five or ten! Perhaps slightly disrespectful but we found ourselves hilarious! Then we got the bus back to the city before leaving the next morning. As a capital it seemed fairly dull, just like any other big city.

We took a bus with our Dutch friends down to Tha Khek. Even though we all got the same bus, mine and Beth's transfer to the bus station came an hour and a half early! Was pretty good though because the bus station is one of the main sights to see ... oh wait, no, it was just a bus station. So we sat for an hour and a half on the bus longer than we had to but we did at least get the best seats! The bus was about 6 hours and was a mix of locals and tourists. It wasn't great. They played Laos music videos at the loudest possible volume so you had to deafen yourself with your own ipod just to drown it out. Also, at one point our nostrils were scorched by the unmistakable stench of someone who has just pooed their pants. I breathed through my scarf for some time after that. It's funny, a 2 hour bus journey back home is long, 6 hours would be agonising! But here, 2 hours is a breeze and 6 is average. Tha Khek itself isn't particularly interesting so only attracts tourists for one reason: to do a four day motorbike trek called 'The Loop'. We spent one night there then rented motorbikes the next day and set off. I say motorbikes, I honestly don't really know the difference between mopeds and motorbikes but I think motorbike sounds cooler and more exciting! None of us had ever really ridden one before so we had a quick lesson first from Mr Ku. Mr Ku only had manual bikes and thought the perfect place to teach us was a sandy, bumpy, very short road. I was pretty scared and had a wobbly 2 minute run, after which Mr Ku turned to the other girls and announced I couldn't do it! Now I didn't really think I'd had a fair chance! So I turned to Merel who was the most confident on the bike and she gave me a quick lesson and I soon got the hang of it. It's easy once you know how and our first day of the loop was a very straight, tarmacked road so perfect for practicing on. (I point out tarmacked because that can be a rarity!) We did 80km the first day then decided to stop in a small village before it got dark. At one point my bike decided it had gone far enough and the engine turned off, leaving me to cruise to the side of the road. In our group of 5 we rode in the same order all of the time and I'd happily taken last position. Watching my bike slowly grind to a halt while everyone else sped away from me wasn't the nicest feeling in the world but fortunately Charlotte noticed and came back! My bike refused to start and we had to get help from a couple of locals who kickstarted it. The next day, it refused to turn on altogether and again the guesthouse owner kickstarted the bike for me. After 3 days of kickstarting that bike, I never quite got the hang of it and have several large green bruises from where I continually slammed my legs into the feet rests while trying! I think it's my pathetic amount of strength but I watched Lao children manage so I really have no excuse. On day 2 we drove to Kong Lo cave, presenting a slightly more challenging ride, more bends and our first taste of a dirt road. The cave itself is 7.5km long and you have to take a longboat through the darkness. There were torches and we got out at one point to observe stalagmites/stalagtites?! Who knows! Once through the other side, we sailed with the backdrop of the cave and mountains then stopped for half an hour so the boatmen could have a rest. Then we got back in the boat and back through the cave with a strong sense of deja vu! We left a little later than we should for the guesthouse and ended up travelling for a little bit in the dark, not the most pleasant experience when the lights on your bike have the same attitude as the engine on day one: I'll work for a little bit, then when I'm tired I'll just turn off altogether and there's nothing you can do about it! Day 3 was the hardest riding of all. We started early morning, working our way through misty mountains. Visibility was poor although it improved somewhat when I removed my sunglasses! Genius. But the roads were wet and we were going downhill round bends so we all stayed nice and slow! After that we headed for some very bumpy roads, if you could call them that. More like dirt tracks with many large stones to avoid. It was challenging and very hot but it was really fun! Then on the last day we visited 3 more caves and a lake where we could swim before returning to Tha Khek. I loved the whole experience and I'm really glad we did it! I've gained a new skill so could now rent a bike anywhere and go off and explore which is exciting!

I conveniently told my parents about the bike trip after we had done it! My dad thought it was brilliant! Haven't heard my mum's thoughts. We spent a couple of nights in Tha Khek after the loop, with not much to do except relax and recover and say goodbye to our Dutch friends who have gone on to Vietnam while we went south through Laos to Cambodia. We took a bus to Savannakhet which my travel guide described as the south's version of Luang Prabang! Well that was a massive lie. I felt quite disappointed with Savannakhet and after an hour wandering around in the boiling sun, we decided there really wasn't much to see and left the next day. We moved onto Pakse where you could explore the Bolaven Plateau. We signed up for a day trip which was pretty full on. We went to ethnic villages, waterfalls, more villages, more waterfalls, a tea plantation, a coffee plantation and finally a museum village where you can see all the different Laos ethnic minorities. It was interesting and the waterfalls were nice but there was nothing that special about any of it. We left Pakse the next morning and headed to Si Phan Dhon, or the 4000 Islands as they're more commonly known. We went straight to Don Det, the backpackers island and checked into a cheap bunglaow with a hammock. It's getting a lot hotter the further south we go so I did little more than lie on the beach and swim in the Mekong River for the first two days. We had a couple of nights with Spanish friends we'd met on the slow boat to Laos and in Luang Prabang. They took us to a bar one night showing 'Django Unchained' and providing BBQ-ed chicken and potato salad! I think this is the longest I've ever gone in life without eating a potato, (french fries or 'fried french' as they're sometimes described here, excluded!) it's unsettling for an Irish girl to go so long without potatoes and they were welcomed back into my life with open arms! It was nice to watch a film and chill out, although we were joined by a million flying ants. Then we all headed to the beach. Every night after the bars close, everyone heads to the beach for a bonfire. Reminded me of Brighton! The next day Beth and I planned to ride bicycles to Don Khon, another of the 4000 islands, connected to Don Det by a bridge. I woke up feeling pretty sick but decided to opt for 'mind over matter' and told myself I was fine. We rented bikes, cycled to Don Khon and an impressive waterfall. At least I think it was impressive, Beth went off to explore and I secretly went off to be sick! Lovely. We explored a little more of the island but I was pretty happy when she suggested heading back. I spent the rest of the day in bed, feeling more sick than I have the whole time I've been away I think! I had a pretty miserable day and night, felt about 80% better the next day but still did nothing more than laze about!

We left Laos this morning for Cambodia with a much less enjoyable border crossing than last time. It took 6 hours to travel about 2 hours. We had to wait around for a very long time, slowly boiling alive and then when we finally got on the bus to travel to Stung Treng in Cambodia, there were no seats left so we were handed tiny plastic stools and forced to squeeze into the aisle for an extremely uncomfortable 45mins! We're now in one of those towns that you only stop in to get somewhere else. We've already booked our bus out of here tomorrow, ready to explore Cambodia! Aside from the loop, Luang Prabang was my favourite place in Laos and that was right at the start. Hopefully Cambodia keeps something in store!

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16th February 2013

Watch out for Cecilia on her motorbike!
Hi Cecilia Glad you are well & enjoying your travel adventures.You should try & get your travel blog published when you get home.Must be travel magazines out there that people like you read when planning one of these trips.Can't wait for the next instalment ! Take care & God Bless Pat & Ann xx
18th February 2013

I'm not sure my blogs would be interesting to the wider public! Hope the weather has improved in Scotland. Are you going over to Ireland for Seamas' confirmation? xx

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