Pattaya, Thailand 10 October 2019
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” the Bard wrote. True enough, but he could have added “but verily, can also be a pain in the posterior.” It’s a maelstrom of de-cluttering, packing and checking. When in one place for almost eight and a half months it’s inevitable that an excess of possessions builds up and needs to be got rid of. With that done, packing became easier. The bike had already been checked over and was ready for the road. Despite getting up early it was 11am before I snicked the bike into gear and hit the road north.
I was heading for Lao once more, to visit the places I’d missed out on before. But first I wanted to call in on a Thai man who I’d met in Pattaya. We had a common interest in bikes and he invited me to visit. Max lived out in the wilds, surrounded by National parks. It took two days to cover the almost 600kms to his place. For the overnight stop I found a cheap hotel, a noodle soup bar and a beer. My needs are simple when on the road.
Max has a business supplying filtered drinking water to the locality. Imagine a water treatment plant, only in miniature. The water comes out of the ground via a 50 metre deep borehole, passes through four different filtering mediums and is then put into reusable 20 litre plastic containers, ready for delivery. It keeps him and his family employed, to the extent that he has been able to travel widely. His horizons are much broader than the average Thai, which is probably why we hit it off.
After a chill out day we headed north the next morning. ‘We’ had turned into me, Max and his family plus a cousin, wife and four more kids. We were going to a special festival up on the Mekong River, by the Thai/Lao border. The anticipated heavy traffic necessitated a 4.30am start. I can’t remember the last time I got up that early. It had better be good! Once at the nephew’s friend’s house, up in the Chumphon area, we settled down to kill some time until we departed for the festival.
What’s it all about? The Naga Fireball Festival always coincides with the the full moon immediately following the end of Buddhist lent. Fireballs rise out of the river and float up into the air before burning out. There are various theories as to what causes them. Some say it’s methane gas, which rises up from the swampy land near the river. The gas spontaneously ignites when it comes into contact with the oxygen rich air. There are a couple of other theories involving different gases. But there are some cynics who suggest it’s a hoax on the part of Lao soldiers, who fire either tracer bullets or flares into the air. Out of consideration for my Thai hosts, who believe they come from the mouth of the mythical Naga serpent, I’ll keep my opinion to myself. But it is strange how the fireballs always manage to occur on the full moon and somehow only ever seem to rise up from the Lao side of the wide Mekong River. Here’s a couple of links to follow for more info.
Here and here.
We left for the riverside at 5pm, crammed into a couple of pick ups, Thai style, and fought the traffic to find a parking space near a temple. We settled down in the temple grounds to eat our picnic, very close to a massive, illuminated, plastic lotus flower, and watch for the fireballs. Yes, the Thais are happy to do tacky. There had already been twenty or so, and we saw another dozen or thereabouts. They were singularly unimpressive, to be honest. Fairly dull orange fireballs, appearing to rise up from the water spontaneously. Each one was greeted by whoops and cheers from the crowd. That was until the clouds appeared and the rain started to fall. At that point everyone seemed to lose interest in Naga magic and headed back to their cars, us included. This scenario is repeated along a 250km stretch of the river. That’s a hell of a lot of flares folks.
Back at home base the decision was made to BBQ some fish. Some of the men plunged into the pool attached to the property and came out with one large and two small fish. Freshly cooked over the embers, they were delicious, especially with the accompanying beer.
After yet more freshly caught fish for breakfast, along with something that turned out to be mushroom skins. They get very large mushrooms, peel off the skin and cook it. The pattern of the veins is still there, which made me thing it was some kind of animal. Afterwards I headed off to the Thai – Lao Friendship Bridge, at nearby Nong Khai, which is the border crossing close to Vientiane. My hosts decided to come too, probably to show their kids the bridge. En route, we stopped at a riverside Naga temple so they could pray for some good luck. It’s nicely positioned by the Mekong and surrounded with stalls selling all sorts of this and that. Thais, temples and trade always seem to go together. At the entrance to the border crossing I said goodbye to Max and family. It had been a very enjoyable three days, during which I’d learned a lot about rural life, as well as enjoying some great hospitality. Families are very close in these parts and it was good to observe that too.
Getting through the Thai border formalities was easy. I had all the right forms, correctly stamped. Lao was also easy except that customs seemed not to have the right stamp for my carnet and had to send someone into town to get one. After about forty five minutes of hanging around I was free to go. I bought a SIM card, then headed into Vientiane, going to the same hotel as I’d used last time I was there. There must be something about this place because two guys I’d met last time I was there were, once again, sitting outside the hotel enjoying a beer. Robert, from Norway and Akar, from Finland, welcomed me back as I sat down in the same chair as last time and enjoyed my beer in the warm, late afternoon sun.
And then something happened which could have gone badly wrong. Another guy came along, Martin, accompanied by a dog. He stopped to join us but as he was talking to Robert the dog lunged under the table towards him. Martin kicked the dog and in the process the table got knocked, spilling the beer. I was furious and I jumped up and bawled Martin out, firstly for kicking his dog and secondly for spilling the beers. I called him several unpleasant names and demanded he replace the beer. He was very apologetic and did that willingly. By the time he came back I’d calmed down and had a conversation with him. He’s another Norwegian who lives in Vientiane. One of his main activities is Thai Boxing, and he does it professionally. It was then I realised I’d just yelled right in the face of a guy who could have laid me out on the ground with a couple of punches. Fortunately his guilt prevented that, I’m very pleased to say. Later on we went to one of the local bars to play pool and enjoy the evening. You invariably have to pay to use the pool table in bars. But they have a novel way of doing it here. Rather than put coins in a slot, the loser has to pay. An incentive to win then. But we’re only talking about 30 pence, so it’s no big deal.
Next stop up the line was Vang Vieng, only 150kms away. I was happy to travel slowly in Lao. The roads aren’t good and I definitely didn’t want another arguement with a truck.
I found a guest house and stayed for a couple of days, just chilling out really. I walked around the town and out to the market, looking to get my phone fixed. For some reason the screen was coming off. I called at a couple of places and one guy explained to me that the screen was being pushed out because the battery had expanded due to overcharging. A simple explanation then, but no solution as I couldn’t find a new battery. But at least I knew what it was.
I walked down to the river and followed a path, via a bridge, out to an island. There was a bar there, where I got a cup of tea and sat in a little shelter overlooking the river. I was highly amused by the notice saying that people must buy something from the bar in order to use the shelters. One item is good for one hour. Expect to be fined if you fail in this obligation. That night I went to a place to eat and ordered a beer and some food. After a while I was told that no food was available because the chef couldn’t be bothered to come in and cook it! Talk about casual. There were plenty of other places though.
Time to get on to the main event. When I had my accident, way back in January, I was heading out to visit the Plain of Jars. My main reason for coming back to Lao was the actually achieve this end. The nearest town was Phonsovan, an enjoyable ride of 230kms. The road out of Vang Vieng also goes to Luang Prabang, so was busy with trucks. The surface was broken up in places and real caution was required, especially when overtaking. I did not want a repeat!!! Once I turned off to Phonsovan the surface became much better and I could enjoy the ride more. I was now up at around 1450 metres, among some really nice countryside. I began to sharpen up my riding technique, having lost a lot of the edge during my long lay off. A bit of rain to deal with; a plate of fried noodles to eat; a nice ride all in all. As I left Van Vieng I stopped for fuel. I met two French guys, one on an Africa Twin, who live in Lao, and the other on a Honda 250CRF. He was visiting his friend and had never ridden a bike before. He was taken out for a 100km training ride by his friend and then they set off on their tour. Brave or foolish, I don’t know which. It depends on whether you survive.
Once in Phonsovan my main task, as always, was to find somewhere to stay. I was in the main tourist area so I parked the bike and walked up a side street, following a sign to a guest house. Inside the compound, I went into a building and asked the woman there if she had any rooms. She gave me a puzzled look, said something about ‘boom boom’, and started pulling me towards a room. A couple of other women came out and wanted to get involved too. It was then I realised I’d walked into the local brothel. Well, what’s guy to do? I extricated myself and went to find the guest house, which was full anyway. Back in the main street I soon found a nice place, safe from clutching hands.
Plan A for the next day was to ride out to one of the jar sites, but before doing that I went into a museum run by the Mines Advisory Group. Details here.
MAG was set up by two English brothers in 1989, around the time Lao opened its doors to the world again. As with similar organisations, MAG gets its funding from various sources around the world and is active in sixty eight different countries. Their method is to train local people for mine detection and clearance, and also to train them in educating families on how to stay safe. I’ve written before about the awful legacy of nine years of USA bombing during the Vietnam war, and how Lao is the most bombed country, per capita, in the world. This, despite being a neutral country in that conflict. But the presence of communists in the north, and the Ho Chi Mhin Trail in the south, gave the Military/Industrial complex of the United States all the excuse they needed to rain death down from above.
So what about these jars then? The first thing to say is they’re very old, from the Asian Iron Age, which was between about 500BC and 300AD. They lay scattered around the Xiangkhoang Plateau which sits among the Annamese Cordillera hills. They were carved from lumps of stone, of various types. Their height varies from around a metre, to as tall as three metres. The width of the jar varies too, as does the size of the access hole. The thickness of the outer stone is between 100 and 200 millimetres. They were mostly hidden by forest until more recent times, when land clearance for farming revealed them. It’s necessary to say that, as with Stonehenge and other sites, nobody really knows their purpose. But a French archaeologist studied them and came to the conclusion they were used for funeral purposes. People in this area where known to practice ancestor worship. She reckons that the dead are placed inside the jars while their bodies decompose. As time goes by, and there’s less of them left, they’re moved to smaller jars, explaining the difference in sizes. On the site I went to there’s a cave, at the back of which is a man made flue. Scattered around it were found charred human bones, dated to the period in question. On the ground among the jars flat stones lie scattered, reckoned to be grave markers. It seems then, that the dead were placed in the jars to rot, giving the spirit time to leave its body. Then their bones were cremated, and finally were buried beneath the stones. Slightly nauseating in some respects, especially the idea of having to move a part decomposed body from one jar to another. But who are we to judge others, when all is said and done?
As with all areas, this site was affected by the Vietnam war. It has trenches, bomb craters and tank sinks – hollows in the ground which hid a tank. Some of these were on top of a small rise, giving a clear view across the countryside. The war meant that all of the sites in the area were unsafe until the UXO had been cleared away. There are hundreds of sites and ninety nine of them have been made safe so far. MAG was heavily involved in this. What isn’t known is how many more jar collections my be hidden in the surrounding forest. There is an info centre there too. Part of it is dedicated to the UXO situation and the rest tells the story of the area. This is a fascinating place, particularly the air of mystery about the jars and the people who made them.
Where to next? Go north young man. A study of the map showed a nice route through the hills, that would would take me away from my easterly direction and loop around back towards Thailand. It was, indeed, a nice ride. Most of the road was good, which surprised me in such a remote area. The area is sparsely populated, with mostly subsistence farming, and the people living in poor looking villages, with uninspiring wooden houses. Other villages looked much more prosperous. It’s difficult to understand the difference. Probably more productive land, allowing for some profit to be made. But often there was no, or very limited electricity. Some of the women were in ethnic dress, a not uncommon thing in the north.
On the way I bumped into about twenty Thai bikers, out on a tour. I stopped to talk to them and thoroughly embarrassed myself by dropping the bike as I got off it. Plenty of willing hands to pick it up, fortunately. They were on a variety of bikes, mostly big BMWs, but interspersed with a few adventure style bikes. One of them, the oldest in the group, was riding a Triumph Bonneville. These are now made in Thailand. I saw them again further up the road, at a café, and was treated to noodle soup by one of them.
I left them and carried on. My ultimate destination was a village called Nong Khiaw, down on the river. It’s a touristy place and is a centre for all sorts of river activities. On one side of the river bridge was lots of accommodation, restaurants and tour operators. On the other side lay the village proper. I rode up, then down the main street, finally stopping outside a place called Delilah’s. It seemed an ideal location for breakfast. It was run by a Kiwi, who goes by the name of Harp. He had accommodation too, so I settled on a dormitory bed for a reasonable price. He also organises tours – who didn’t in this touristy town? – so I discussed options with him. I decided to go on a three hour trek, which would take me past one hundred waterfalls. With a couple of other things added on, it was a full day. Harp said he wouldn’t know the price until he knew ho many were going on it.
I’d seen a sign inside the hostel which mentioned the Hive Bar, and the Happy Shakes they sold. I took a walk up through the village, then back along the main road, where I found the bar. Some places in Vang Vieng sell milk shakes laced with magic mushrooms, one of the attractions of that hippy town. But Happy Shakes here were laced with cannabis instead. This would be a new experience for me. The sign had suggested sharing with a friend. I was my only friend so we enjoyed it together. I settled down into the ‘happy chair’ and drank. It took a while to start working but soon I was feeling very relaxed, more so as time went by. Before it got dark I stirred my self enough to make my way back to Delilah’s and talked to Harp about the tour. I needed to confirm with him before 8pm. I went up to lie on my bed and discovered what the term “spaced out” actually means. I’d lie there for what I though was about forty minutes, with various thoughts drifting through my mind, only to look at my watch and discover that about ten minutes had passed by. I was conscious of the need to confirm the tour with Harp, so after several more ‘spaces’ I went down to do so. Back on my bed I promptly went to sleep until my alarm woke me at 7am.
Would I do it again? Maybe, but preferably in the company of others as I’m sure it would make the experience more interesting. The advice to share with a friend was good. And drinking or eating this stuff is definitely better than smoking it, with all the attendant risks of lung damage. I’ve occasionally smoked cannabis before, both with and without tobacco. That gives you an instant hit. Eating or drinking it brings on the effect far more slowly. A much nicer way to do it, and great for people who wouldn’t contemplate smoking.
Back to more prosaic matters. Waterfalls and trekking past them. After another good breakfast, our group of eight walked down to the nearby moorings and climbed aboard our long tail boat. The group consisted of two couples, a couple of guys and Milna, an Italian women with blonde dreadlocks. The trip up river took about forty five minutes and we landed at a traditional village, only reachable via the river. Therefore no electricity except what could be produced by some small solar panels. After a brief stop to get organised, we set off up the path. It began with a walk across the rice paddies, then we started up the trail, past the waterfalls. None of these were particularly spectacular, but they were all pretty. The climb was sometimes easy, sometimes hard. I slipped a couple of times, ending up on my fat backside. We stopped at one of the bigger falls in order to play water babies. I didn’t bother with swimming but was happy to lark about by the waterfall for photos.
The others were all in their twenties and they were quickly asking about my bike and my journey. They seemed fascinated by the stories I was telling them and Milna declared that I was her new hero. Well, what’s not to like about being the hero of a pretty Italian woman? Ego powered leg muscles definitely made the next part of the climb easier, that’s for sure.
We stopped for lunch, along with a couple of other groups doing the same climb. More opportunities for the water babies while we ate our picnic. Everything was wrapped in banana leaves and the packages were held together with toothpicks. What to do with the rubbish, once we’d finished? Why, throw it over your shoulder of course. All of it was quickly biodegradable, deliberately so in this important conservation area.
Eventually we came back to the village we started from. We looked around it, interested to see how people lived. Small houses, with maybe one solar powered light. There was a community hall in the centre. The people were welcoming, and were happy to sell us bags of crisps etc.
Back onto the boat then, towards our home port. Part way back we stopped at a riverside bar and played petanqué. Harp met us there and explained the game. It was great fun. It was boys v girls and at first we were beating the pants off the girls. But something went wrong with the plan and they caught us up, then beat us on the last game. Oh what shame! Onto the boat and back to the village. Milna had moved into Delilah’s so we ended the day by sharing dinner and more conversation.
Next day was a chill out and catch up day for me. Good internet gave me the opportunity to organise some things. Milna joined me for breakfast but then she went off on another river trip, to another village that was only accessible by boat. She’d be back in the morning but I expected to be gone by then, so we said our goodbyes.
Next day I set off, later than intended, and basically heading for Thailand. There was really only one choice of route. Most of it was very nice. A slightly less twisty road, so a more pleasant ride. I stopped in a town for lunch and enjoyed a nice curry and a fruit smoothie. But nothing green in this one. I chatted to a French couple, with their French speaking guide, who were in the area, touring round for a month. They had the Plain of Jars on their itinerary so I told them a little bit about what I’d seen.
From here on in the road deteriorated. It was busy with trucks, mostly because there was a huge amount of infrastructure work going on. I assumed it was a motorway being driven through the hills, but later I learned it was a railway connecting Vientiane with China. More tourists to spoil the area. China extracts a heavy price for these projects from its poorer neighbours. You might think it will bring money in to boost the local economy, but it rarely does. At every tourist destination will be Chinese owned hotels, often staffed by Chinese people – except maybe the non customer facing staff – and all excursions will be on Chinese owned coaches. It’s a very mixed blessing indeed.
The road became quite bad as the day neared its end. Very rough, stony road. I stopped for a drink and a rest from the dust, and to let the traffic get away from me. Eventually I arrived at my overnight stop, glad to be able to rest. At this point I’m pleased to say that my elbow has stood up surprisingly well to the work I was forcing it to do. Despite all the effort involved in riding the bike on twisty back roads, and the pounding it took from the rough roads, it hadn’t given me any noticeable pain. In fact I get more pain from typing this than from riding the bike. It’s very encouraging because my real fear after the accident was being unable to ride and therefore not being able to continue my journey.
In the morning it was an easy ride to the border. Getting out of Lao was smooth and simple. Passport and carnet stamped,with a little bit of guidance from me regarding the carnet, and away I went. On the Thai side it was equally straightforward. You might be tempted to think of some Asian countries being corrupt and inefficient. Not so in SE Asia, except for Cambodia. Thai immigration insisted I fill in the space on their form regarding where I’d be staying. I needed to find the name of a hotel. I now had no internet connectivity so he used his phone and we picked a name. He looked up his records and knew everything about me, from when I first entered the country in April 2018, up to present date. Like many countries, Thailand will issue a visa on arrival but will only do it twice in a calendar year for land crossings. He mainly wanted to check I’d only been there once during this year. I passed that test easily, got stamped up and was back in Thailand again. Next destination, Chiang Rai.