MEKONG MEANDERINGS: FAR SOUTHERN LAOS AND CAMBODIA, AND BACK TO BANGKOK


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October 1st 2008
Published: October 1st 2008
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TAD FAN WATERFALL AND METAD FAN WATERFALL AND METAD FAN WATERFALL AND ME

BOLAVEN PLATEAU, LAOS
welcome again to my blog, i am back in Bangkok again, with my friend Ekk, after a solo foray to Laos and Cambodia. more on what's happened in Bangkok later... meanwhile let me regail you of the tale of the past 2 weeks of my travels, to pastures mainly new...

after my last blog from Pakxe, which is the main town in southern Laos. i spent a couple more days there, enjoying the hassle free and laid back ambiance, that is so typical of Laos. i wanted to visit the Bolaven Plateau, an elevated area east of the town, notable for its cooler climate, many waterfalls and lots of tea and coffee plantations. there were no day tours going as not enough tourists about, and i still dont trust myself with a hired moped, so had to rely on the vagaries of Laos public transport! suffice to say it was an interesting slice of Laos rural life! lots of waiting around putrid markets and bus stations for things to get moving. managed to see Paksong (desolate place!), as well as Tad Fan, an impressive waterfall falling down from the plateau into a very deep jungly gorge (being the rainy season,
CYCLING ON DON KHONG (THE BIG ISLAND)CYCLING ON DON KHONG (THE BIG ISLAND)CYCLING ON DON KHONG (THE BIG ISLAND)

MEKONG RIVER, SOUTHERN LAOS. THIS WAS AS FAR AS I GOT!
there was a lot of falling water, and also a lot of mosquitos! at the waterfall there was the ubiquitous row of stalls selling tourist tat, but here they also sold lots of freshly picked tea and roasted coffee at exceedingly cheap prices...

after Pakxe, i took a "tourist minibus" (i'd already had enough of the local's transport options"!), and the price was very similar anyway, to Don Khong, or big island, about 2 hours south. it is an island in the middle of the Mekong river, about 8 kms wide and 12kms long, with a small town on it, where i stayed, at Pon's Guesthouse. the bonus of staying there was that the restaurant was staffed by three of the best looking Lao men you ever did see! it also had a great view over the river, or at least one strand of it, as in those parts, the Mekong starts to divide up into many strands. they are all very wide and carry huge, fast flowing and impressive volumes of water down from Tibet all the way to the Mekong Delta in south Vietnam. i took a bicycle to explore, but the distances were too great in the heat, for me to get very far, and i had an excuse to quit when it started to rain heavily in the afternoon, which lasted for the next 24 hours.

so the next day, i took a local small boat further south on the river to the smaller island of Don Det. arrived in the same rain, so it was a very large slodgefest, as all the tracks on Don Det are dirt, turning to thick mud at the hint of rain. i managed to "do a Margo Leadbetter", whilst carrying all my stuff from the boat to my bungalow. though i wasn't wearing an all-in-one yellow pvc cat suit, a la Margo, i wished i was, as everything got caked... the bungalow was more of a shack, with no electricity and no water, but at 15000 kip (ie about 75pence!), one couldnt complain with the price! it was perched right over the shore of the Mekong, which was very fast flowing and in full flood mode. had vision of floating off down river towards the rapids during the night, but it didn't happen. here the Mekong divides up even more, creating about 4000 midstream islands, of which Don Det is just one. it has become popular with backpackers, and has loads of cheap basic huts like mine to rent. the food though was dire, i tried several different places to eat, but all were equally bad, be warned!

just south of Don Det is Don Khon, connected by a bridge. it is another similarly inhabited island, but not as developed as Don Det. just off the shore you can view some impressive waterfalls, as the whole Mekong river crashes down about 100 metres. the walk there and back from my bungalow in Don Det village took a lot longer than i thought (about 4 hours return), and the afternoon tropical sun was out too, and i got too much of it.....

from there i took another tourist minibus to Stung Treng, a small town in north eastern cambodia. the border between Laos and Cambodia is very remote, the only buildings for miles around at the 2 huts for the respective immigration posts. it is a far cry from the Thai/Laos border, with it's duty free superstores and huge bussling markets. the cambodia visa on arrival costs 20USD, i.e. quite cheap, but it will actually cost you 23USD to cross the border! (1 dollar note to the Lao guy who stamps you out, one dollar note for the guy who processes the cambodia visa and one more dollar note to the Cambodian guy who stamps you into Cambodia). it is pointless refusing to pay, as they all have your passport in their hands when they ask you for the money!

in Stung Treng, took a short walk along the river, through some villages. it was only about a 2 hour walk but i must have had to say "hello" about 150 times, to children who would say hello to me every few yards. one girl actually ran out and touched my hand before scrurrying off giggling to her friends, as if it made her day to actually touch the hand of a westerner! strung reng itself is a bit of a dive, very smelly piles of gargage everywhere, but it was a nice place to break the journey, despite the stench!

from there i took a public bus this time, south to the town of Kratie, another town on the Mekong. slightly larger than Stung Treng, but still very poor and decrepid. bus drivers in Cambodia seems to favour gratuitous use of their horns, which is very annoying. seeming though that most other road users, both humans and animal, seem not to have much in the way of road sense, it probably a good idea to blast them out of the way with a horn every 5 seconds. another area in which education is needed in Cambodia would seem to be in litter disposal. most people just seem to drop their empty drinks cans, bottles, wrappers and bags at their feet upon consumption of he contents, even though a bin might be 5 yards away. this results in litter everywhere you look. i even witnessed a mother changing her babies disposable nappy in the street, and then walking away leaving the used one on the curb!!

the morning i left Kratie, i was woken up at 4am by buddhist monk chanting. nothing wrong with that, but why the hell do it at 4am, into a microphone, attached to a very loud-speaker, next to a tourist hotel?! i headed further south by public bus again, to the even larger town of Kompong Cham, again on the Mekong river. not as charming or as friendly
WHAT YOU GET FOR LESS THAN 1GBP ON DON DETWHAT YOU GET FOR LESS THAN 1GBP ON DON DETWHAT YOU GET FOR LESS THAN 1GBP ON DON DET

NO WATER OR ELECTRICITY THOUGH!
as the places further north though. it is notable for having the the one and only bridge across the Mekong in Cambodia (a bridge that is only 2 years old). only stayed a night there, before finally leaving my friend the Meking River behind, after over a week sleeping on its shores. i headed west by bus for 5 hours to the tourist frenzy that is Siem Reap... it was like stepping into a different country, touts, western style restaurants, hotels, guesthouses and tuk tuks everywhere. one thing about cambodia in general is that people are genuinely friendly towards westerners, in many other asian countries, in my experience, friendliness is often just a prelude to a sales pitch or a come-on (or more usually a mixture of both!!!) however in siem reap, that notion is turned on its head to an increasing degree, for better or worse....

I stayed at the same place as my January visit, "8 Rooms Guesthouse", a gay owned and staffed place, very smiley! Spent a few days there before heading back to Thailand. The road west to the border is great as far the airport, then immediately after the airport turn it disintegrates into the worst main road in Cambodia, just dirt and gravel, with occasional stretches of deep mud and huge potholes, and non existant bridges. there is work going on to bring the road up to an acceptable modern standard, but progress seems to be exeedingly slow. as i mentioned in a previous blog, the road is a victim of corruption between influential Bangkok/Siem Reap airways and the Cambodian government, in order to force those who can afford it, to fly the short distance between Siem reap and Bangkok. once in the town of Sisophon, the road has been upgraded, with tarmac! however it detiorates rapidly again on the approach to the border town of Poipet.

Once across the border, i called Ekk to let him know my estimated time of arrival in Bangkok, and got on the train. The train is 3rd class only, but at only 48baht (about 80p), it is a bargain for the 6 hour journey. rather cramped and hot, and i was the only westerner on the train, but it arrived in Bangkok on time.

Once in bangkok, Ekk and i had to resubmit his UK settlement visa application, as the first attempt was refused outright, without even interviewing him! one of the reasons they gave was that they were not convinced that we would remain living together as a couple once we had entered into a civil partnership. implying that ekk was just using me to get into the uk. I dont think so!!. They also wanted more photos as evidence of the past 5 years and a lot more other bumpf, which we have now given to the British Embassy in Bangkok. So fingers crossed! We were not allowed to enter the embassy compound, we had to leave the stuff at the security gate, and use a freephone there to speak to the visa section inside!! They told us it will take up to 3 months to decide, if it's a yes. If they decide no, it will go to an appeal in London in the new year, which can take another 3 months, or other such bollocks! what do they want, blood?!

So now my plans are up in the air, Ekk has gone back to Hua Hin to his job, while im staying in Bangkok until the weekend, to mull over a few options, whilst also trying not to bump into Dam!!



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ON THE STREETS OF KOMPONG CHAM, CAMBODIA..
PUB STREET, SIEM REAPPUB STREET, SIEM REAP
PUB STREET, SIEM REAP

THE CENTRE OF THE ANGKOR WAT TOURIST GHETTO
ON THE "ROAD" FROM SIEM REAP TO THE THAI BORDERON THE "ROAD" FROM SIEM REAP TO THE THAI BORDER
ON THE "ROAD" FROM SIEM REAP TO THE THAI BORDER

GLAD I WAS SITTING AT THE FRONT OF THE BUS...


1st October 2008

the waiting game
hi Steve, I'm really sorry to hear you and Ekk are going to have to wait so long to hear the outcome of the visa. It's frustrating but you've done everything you can to make your case so let's hope and trust the powers that be make the right decision. I have fingers crossed for you both.

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