Overland Out

Accommodation location

We set out to travel from England to Asia without flying. A slower, more sedate approach, in a time when time flies and life is gone in a flash, we wanted to slow time and see things properly. We also wanted to see how we would cope with life on the road. So after 190 days rocking and rolling the final transport count from Kenilworth to Kuala Lumpur is:-

Trains – 30
Buses – 25
Tube/metro – 20
Taxis – 14
Tuk Tuks/Songthaews – 8
Minivans – 8
Ferries/Speedboats/dinghies – 11

If anyone is considering doing it, do it.

Is there anything I would do differently? At my age, I’d bring nasal hair trimmers.

Have we learnt anything? Well, we already suspected but now we know that your average person is kind and helpful and stereotypes are not always true. Russian and Chinese train conductors, grannies, shopkeepers, dinnerladies, waiters, hoteliers, policemen, security guards and people on the street have all helped us when we have been lost or in need of something. We thank them all.

02.2.17 Don Det, Laos to Bangkok, Thailand

Its mixed feelings this morning, sad to be leaving the relaxing tranquility of Don Det but exited to be heading to the bustling Bangkok, one of our favourite cities in the world.

We catch a boat across the Mekong to the mainland, then walk 300 metres to the bus station where backpackers congregate before the 2 hour bus journey to Pakse. Once there, we are dropped at the Green Paradise travel agency where we wait with four Malaysian guys for a minivan to the border. One arrives with only four seats, so another is called and as it is empty, we tour around Pakse picking up people before finally heading to the border.

A guide meets us from the van and takes us to be stamped out of Laos. This process involves swapping your passport for a ticket, handing the ticket and 10000 kip in at a separate window where a second ticket is issued, then returning to the first window where you get your passport back.

With our guide leading, we walk down the road, through a tunnel and into the Thai immigration building. Entry forms are filled and stamps issued and we are in Thailand. Our guide then bundles us into a tuk tuk and within 5 minutes we are at the bus station where we swap our ticket for an overnight bus ticket. The whole process was pretty smooth for a boat, bus, minivan, tuk tuk journey and all the Green Paradise people were very helpful.

The bus is a double decker and we are sat downstairs behind the drivers cabin. We set off at 6pm and curtains are drawn and lights turned off straight away. I can’t sleep yet as it only 6pm, so I continue to boost my phone’s ego by allowing it to beat me at chess. Eventually I get tired and I start to drop off and the lights come on. Its 1am, obviously time for food! Despite the hour, I enjoy our complimentary noodle soup and red drink but I’m awake again and struggle to get back to sleep.

At 5am, the lights come back on and we are at Bangkok main bus station.

28.1 – 02.2.17 Don Det

Our bungalow has a double bed, mosquito net, ensuite and two hammocks on the balcony from which we can see the sunset over the Mekong and Cambodia on the far bank. All this for the princely sum of 50,000 Kip, or £5 a night. We decide to stay a while.

Don Det has the most backpacker infrastructure of the river islands with many restaurants, bars, travel agencies and shops. The daily temperature peaks around 31° so the days main activity is sweating. We spend all day in flip flops, feet slowly going brown, feeling the smooth wooden planks of restaurant’s floors underfoot. There is something I find comforting about being barefoot in hot countries.

We drink watermelon smoothies and the deliciously rich, sweet milky Lao coffee over ice. We eat rice and veg, Indian curry, asian coconut curries and on the night Wolverhampton Wanderers beat Liverpool at Anfield we had fish and chips. Beerlao is always being drunk, not necessarily by us but someone, somewhere will be enjoying a cold one.

The island is covered in feral creatures. Chickens, cats, dogs and kids. The kids play endlessly and are free to roam unsupervised. They play in the dirt, in the river, paddle boats, balance on floating logs, run around with catapults, always shouting, screaming and laughing.

Cockerels, chickens and their chicks are everywhere, strutting, clucking, scratching and chirping. You never have to wait long to hear Cock-a-doodle-doo. I see three cock fights in my first three days here. 

The inevitable mosquitoes are giant and silent. They hover ominously and you pray that the herbal spray you bought works.

Sundowns are spent in our bungalow restaurant with my teenage idol Jimi Hendrix accompanying the cold beerlao. The owner tells me to help myself to the fridge which saves him a job and makes me feel like a local. The privilege goes to my head and some nights I test our tight budget which is imposed as there are no cash points here.

Some nights at sundown the sky goes red. I think its a beautiful thing to watch.

Next up is a rendezvous in Bangkok with some good friends. A world away from here.

27.1.17 Don Khong to Don Det

Today we left Don Khong for the smaller but busier Don Det. The wind was up creating small waves on the river and spray over the boat. We had done this journey two days ago, so it was familiar but still mesmerizing.

Al waited with the rucksacks whilst I headed down the west side of the island to find a bungalow, just like the old days. 

We dumped the bags in the room and explored the backpacker friendly restaurants and shops, stopping for a rice soup and a delicious spicy coconut curry.

At 4.30pm ish, I sat in our guesthouse restaurant and rekindled my teenage obsession with Jimi Hendrix whilst drinking a cold beerlao and watching the sunset.

We then went for an Indian curry. Malai kofta, chicken tikka masala and aubergine curry with naan. It was very good. We passed a bar playing The Stone Roses so popped in for a beer on the way home and sat facing the street, watching the comings and goings of the folk out partying.

26.1.17 Le Tour de Don Khong

Today was the big day, the Inaugural Tour De Don Kong by Team Roberts.  If any of you remember the Inaugural Tour D’ Isle of Arran, where Guy convinced me via Google maps that there was only a teeny hill on the Scottish isle and I would be fine and it turned out both he and Google maps were very wrong, you will understand why cycling on holiday around islands has never been mentioned again……….until now.

However, he convinced me Don Khong was flat (as indeed it was) and not be too arduous…..

We woke to blue skies and blazing heat, similar temperatures to what Chris Froome and his mates deal with on Tour D’Espana every September.

We had a caffeine shot, lao coffee each, Guy added about half a can of sweetened milk to his, it was delicous and caramelly (just dont read the ingredients!).  We shared a egg and tomatoes with bagette for breakfast, not exactly what Froomey et al would have, but we are not pro’s.

The bikes were tested, ie they had brakes that vaguely worked, tyres that weren’t flat, baskets and bells (of variable effectiveness). Guy was disappointed there were no carbon frames available. 

Suncream applied and we were off, it was 10.30 am. Bouncing down the potholed sandy road wondering just how long can it take one amateur and one semi – professional  (recently retired) to do 30 kms in this weather and these conditions?

We were enthusiastically greeted by kids at the roadside shouting ‘Sabaidee’, unfortunately this tended to coincide with well worn roads, meaning huge pot holes and craters, so along with shouting and waving ‘Sabidee’ back we also had to navigate treacherous road conditions, it wasn’t made any easier when the kids also decided they wanted to high five us as well!

Stupidly we went off with no water, thinking we could buy some on the way. The only water bottles we saw were ones full of diesel, for ages we were gasping and not understanding why no one sold water, we eventually got some sugary iced teas from someones house to see us through until water finally appeared a few kilometres later,

Water buffalo were a consistent feature on this Tour, they wandered through the fields, over the roads and in the afternoon heat could be seen taking a dip in the Mekong. Other ‘road furniture’ we needed to avoid was dusty doe-eyed cows with their low sonorous bells donging around their necks, chickens and their obediant chicks, and waggling ducks. Apart from that and the occasional bike, scooter and truck we had the road to ourselves!

Some people had directed us to the northern tip of the island, citing a conference centre and also beach to view.  They weren’t wrong, there was indeed a (very out of place and closed) conference centre and stunning beach with loads of cows and thier ringing bells and water buffalo grunting happily in the waters edge. The sounds were as wonderful as the view.

Still, we were about 1/3 of the way round and it was 11.45. We were cycling through rice paddy fields, watching men and woman do the back breaking, hot work of planting and tending to the rice harvest.

The island is very rural, very few restaurants or even shops for the locals, it it seems they are either self sufficient, use the mobile shop or go to the main town for provisions.

 I was starving so was chuffed to see a sign ‘Noodle Soup’, alas the restaurant was no more, so we peddled onwards in the 31 degree sunshine wondering just when our fuel stop would be.

It was in the main town, which we reached at 2pm, so we had done 22 km in an unimpressive 3.5 hours. 

The restaurant did a good trade in noodle soups, which was just as well as the menu was slightly odd. This was the fuel Team Roberts was needing. Tasty liquid and loads of noodles ensured it was difficult to get back on the bike, especially as I was particularly saddle sore, the saddles were not Brookes! Ouch!

After a long refueling stop we entered the home straight at 4 pm, stopping for a shandy, or two to celebrate. 

The result was a dead heat. We were both dead from the heat. BOOM!

We ate at our place, after a few more celebratory Nam Khong’s which resulted in Guy taking sepia photos of the sunset! Hic…. 

25.1.17 Don Khong. Day trip to Don Khon

As we were up early we chose a table for breakfast overlooking the Mekong in full morning sunshine. We soon realised this was a mistake, as even at 8am the sun is fierce and we were glad we had already used factor 30 suncream. Al ordered Beans on Toast, a menu item we could not believe we were seeing and as we excitedly waited, we stared at the river.

Today we were going on a day trip to Don Khon, another popular tourist island. Personally I wasn’t that bothered about the destination but I was really looking forward to slowly puttering up and down the river and it was an opportunity to see if we liked Don Khon and if we should move there.

We wait with our fellow day trippers while Mr Phoumy, the organiser sold last minute tickets to a French and Spanish girl. He shouts ‘let’s go’ and we descend down the steep river bank and board our vessel. The French/Spanish girl’s scooter is carefully lifted into the boat but when they come to pay, there is some confusion whether they have bought a one way or return ticket so the scooter is lifted out again.

We set off and turn downstream. The sun is bright and there is no wind, so the river is smooth. We are transfixed by the palms lining the banks, such an exotic view. There are kids playing on the shore, women washing clothes, water buffalo resting in the shallows. We pass a Wat where the bright orange monk’s robes are drying outside, adding colour to the green bank side. 

I have to pinch myself. I’m in Laos, travelling on a boat down the Mekong. I could not of dreamed of this scenario when I was young.

We arrive at Don Det where everyone except us and an Australian family get out. Twenty minutes later we pull up to Don Khon. We chat to the Aussies as we view the old French railway. They head off to hire bikes but we decide to walk and under a fierce sun we make our way down a dust road to Somphiant waterfalls.

The falls aren’t the highest you will ever see but they are impressive and we watch kayakers descend down scary looking rapids. One guy goes under and we don’t see him for a while but thankfully he pops up and his friends pull him ashore.

We follow unexpected signs to ‘The Beach’ and pass through a small beautiful resort of open bungalows with hammocks and a small bar. The sand burns the feet but the beach is a relaxing place. We have worked up a thirst in the heat, so stop at the resort for a beer lao shandy and sit and watch the river. It’s a great spot.

After some time we walk back to the main restaurant area and stop for rice and veg. We reach the boat and once the Aussies have arrived, head back to Don Det to pickup the Spanish/French girls. They aren’t there so we wait and wait but eventually we need to leave to get back before dark. The two hour trip back is spent chatting to Aussie dad, Paul, discussing capitalism, Trump, immigration, left wing politics and generally putting the world to rights.

The conversation continues over our evening meal, late into the night as we eat and drink with them at the restaurant next door.

24.1.17 arriving into Pakse then on to Don Khong

I open my eyes and its daylight. I am amazed that I’ve slept through the bouncing. Al wasn’t so lucky. Her fitbit said that by 4.30am she had done 10,000 steps!

After some time I check maps.me and we are only 40km away. At 30km to go the bus engine stops, the Aircon goes off and we ‘glide’ to the side of the road. After a few minutes people get off for a smoke and we decide to stretch the legs. We chat to a Laos guy who explains we have run out of diesel. This pleases Al no end, as she predicted it would happen. Chorouses of “I told you so” rain down onto my stationary ears. During last nights gear repairs, the engine was left running the whole time, which apparently was four hours.

We wait in the shade. A van turns up with a load of plastic tubs of diesel which are emptied into the tank. The driver and his mate then have to pump the fuel back into the system and as the engine rumbles into life plumes of black smoke are coughed from the exhaust. We pile back on.

Progress then slows. We make multiple stops to drop passengers off. As we enter Pakse we gingerly pull into a petrol station only just clearing the roof. As the huge tank is filled we watch the drivers crew buy snacks and drinks from a fridge on the forecourt. The mechanic inevitably takes two cold beer lao cans and spends no time draining them. He then mimes to the driver how to change gear. We watch this scene for a long time.

At noon, four and a half hours late, we arrive at Pakse bus stop. Songthaew hawkers are waiting for our custom and after dropping the other passengers at the market we are transferred to a different songthaew who takes us out of town to the bus station. With the wheels still turning, a hawker jumps onto the vehicle and shouts “Don Det, Don Det” at us. We explain we’re off to Don Khong and he takes our bags onto a big songthaew then takes our money. We wait while other passengers are rounded up. 

We pondered an overnight in Pakse as we are tired but decided to push onto Four Thousand Islands and get the travelling out of the way. The area is named from the amount of islands where the Mekong widens to 15km. Its an area of rural relaxation for backpackers with some islands louder than others.

We bounce down a straight dusty road for two hours. The scenery is dry with wooden stilted houses and paddy fields breaking up the scrub. People get off at random stops and soon its our turn. The drivers mate points down a road and we set off on foot in toasty conditions. Householders shout “sabaidee” as we go by and a family of water buffalo stick to their side of the street more cautiously than we do as we pass.

At the end of the road is the Mekong and on the opposite bank is Don Khong, our days destination. There are some boats abandoned on the beach but no ‘ferry’ or people, except for a guy with a squealing piglet in a bag. We go to a restaurant and ask two Laos ladies if there is a way we could cross the river without getting wet and once the dramatic scene on the soap opera they are glued to finishes, they point vaguely outside of the restaurant.

We walk down to the beach, take off our bags and sit on them. For the first time on the trip I feel like I’m travelling. The situation is beyond our control. We stoically have to wait to see what happens. Perversely, I find this exciting. Of course, within 10 minutes a bloke appears and offers us a decent price which we accept. We climb into his boat which he casts out into the river and says “bye bye”. We laugh and he climbs in and we cross a bit of the Mekong.

We find a guesthouse and pay for two nights and have a stroll round the village. We are back in five minutes as its so small. On our way we see goats and chickens roaming around and a woman using a hand mill to grind something. We watch the sunset with a cold beer, then finally  eat at the guesthouse and we are so tired, lights are out by 8.30pm!