BYE BYE SOUTHEAST ASIA
No Receipt, No Money!
From the north of Thailand we crossed into Laos, the poorest country in Southeast Asia. The border crossing instantly threw us back to our ride through Africa. “A stamp in your passport? That will be 50 Baht Sir!” At the next counter another 200 Baht was asked, after which it ended nicely in crescendo with a ‘whopping’ 2000 Baht (about 60 USD) because we were supposedly not allowed to enter the country without a guide.
“No receipt? No money sir!”
“Then we won’t let you through.”
Breaking this deadlock is usually not all that hard. We continued to smile kindly and confidently while addressing other tourists:
“You really don’t have to pay those fees, you know. The money just disappears into their own pockets!”
Well, that’s exactly what those border officials fear the most as it obviously screws up their entire lucrative business model. Caroline and I usually schedule half a day to cross a border. In this case it took us only 15 minutes of discussion before we rolled into Laos. We didn’t pay more than the official temporary import fee of 100 Baht, receipt included. Nevertheless, the border guards waved us off, enthusiastically smiling: “Enjoy Laos!” Thumbs up, barrier open. Off we go!
Spicy Breakfast? No Thanks!
Unlike Thailand, in Laos you don’t have to look far for dirt roads that actually get you from A to B. Moreover, what is marked on the map as a bold red or yellow line is often nothing more than a few stretches of hopelessly destroyed tar road interspersed with bumpy gravel where the locals struggle to even reach speeds of 10 mph.
Now Laos also ranks as the most bombed-out country ever. This country is faced with the terrible consequences of the Vietnam War every single day. Of the two million tons of bombs dropped here during Operation Barrell Roll (1964 – 1973), a huge portion remained unexploded. Still today, millions of bombs are scattered across the country, ready to go off. After each rainy season, some resurface, with the obvious disastrous consequences for the local people. Small, unused dirt tracks are to be avoided here at all times!
We worked our way past small villages consisting of nothing more than a handful of ramshackle houses, a few cows or buffaloes and the occasional chicken. Little kids were either cheerfully waving at us or were petrified, not knowing what was happening as two roaring bikes flew by. English isn’t of much help here and the dingy little restaurants are limited to Lao food only. While we had no trouble enjoying the local cuisine at night, downing a bowl of super spicy noodle soup for breakfast on an empty stomach is a different story. It meant a constant battle against sweat attacks, belching and persistent hiccups which usually made the mamas in the kitchen burst out laughing. We just longed for an ordinary sandwich.
Under a burning sun, we followed the trail along the Mekong River and reached Luang Prabang, home to every right-minded backpacker on a limited budget. There was a bakery in town, with crusty French baguette… and cheese from Australia… and delicious coffee! Now that’s what we call a great start of the riding day. We hung out there for a few days to enjoy ourselves, explore the area and provide some TLC to the bikes. The air filters got a more than deserved wash and a drizzle of fresh filter oil, and against all odds we scored 4 liters of German-made 10W60 full-synthetic oil for barely double the regular price. What more could we wish for?
Some More Sand, Anyone?
Long Tieng is a remote town that has long been known as “The most secret place on earth”. This former U.S. Air Force base from the Vietnam War era is hidden in the hills and the road leading there does not really excel in smoothness and rideability, to say the least. Bull dust, a thick layer of ultra-fine sand on a hard surface, awaited us. I can definitely appreciate a good stretch of sandy track, but Caroline was stressing out before we even started the ride. I am afraid sand will never be her cup of tea.
The road was full of heavy traffic. We were blinded by enormous dust clouds and often had no other option but to stop, hoping for a better stretch so we could overtake the big trucks. With the burning season in full swing, the smoke from the burning rice fields cut our breath and irritated our eyes until they were blood red. Talk about extreme air pollution!
What followed however was a good dose of pure off-road fun: hundreds of miles of dirt road through landscapes with the occasional local scooter with mom, three kids and a 50-kg bag of rice. One wonders how they keep it up…
A few days of well-deserved rest on Don Det, one of the 4000 islands in the smoke-free south of the country, completed our amazing three-week ride through Laos. What a country!
The Beauty and the Horror of Cambodian History
Crossing the border with Cambodia, the 25th country since we first started riding again about a year ago, was pretty much hassle free, though it seemed as if the border also heralded an even more extreme climate. Temperatures of around 40°C and 95% humidity aren’t really appealing to spend a casual summer vacation. Moreover, Cambodia also doesn’t really seem to be that must-do tourist hotspot dotted with points of interest and unforgettable views, so we heard from other travelers. There is one single exception though… and it is massive!
It was already well into the afternoon when, after two long riding days, we finally reached Siem Reap. We were drenched in sweat and instantly dumped the Huskies in the hotel parking lot to rush inside and seek relief under the air conditioning of the hotel lobby. When I went back outside to quickly change that clogged fuel filter on Caroline’s bike - nothing more than a mere 10-minute job – the heat struck me big time and I got really nauseous. All I could do was lie down on my bed, unable to lift a finger for the rest of the day. If it weren’t for the fact that Siem Reap is home to one of the most impressive historical sites in the world, our advice would definitely be: forget about even considering coming here during the month of April. But Angkor Wat, well, there is absolutely no way around it when you are in the vicinity.
At a quarter to five in the morning, we hit the road to go enjoy the sunrise over the historic site of Angkor. We didn’t wear more than shorts and a T-shirt. Safety above all for sure, but it should remain fun too. Now the Cambodians of around the twelfth century didn’t really care about a little temple more or less. In an area measuring 12 by 12 miles, you will find the greatest concentration of jaw dropping temples and ruins imaginable. Our motorcycles were the ideal means of transportation to visit the more remote sites - away from the large concentration of tourists. To see the sites gradually being reclaimed by nature is so unbelievably impressive. Giant tree roots slowly grow their way through the ancient temples as if nature was laughing in our faces: “I may not be the fastest, but in the end I always win!” The Angkor Wat complex definitely deserves a place in our top three historical sites we visited worldwide. By about eleven o’clock in the morning, we stumbled back into the hotel lobby, hopelessly yearning to cool off. Visiting Angkor Wat in the afternoon? Now that would have been insane!
But Cambodian history also has a dark side. It wasn’t even that long ago when this country was notorious for the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge. Under dictator Pol Pot’s regime, between 1975 and 1979, 25% of the population was murdered for political reasons in the most gruesome way imaginable. Entire families including little children ended up in one of the many mass graves - killing fields - scattered throughout the country. In Battambang we see heaps of human skulls and bones, remnants of a terrible regime. The look of it is truly shocking. After the blistering heat of the past few days, we never would have thought to get shivers down our spine.
One Night in Bangkok
From Cambodia on we followed the tar road along Pattaya, hotspot for many German-old-grampas-with-young-Thai-chick, to the metropolis of Bangkok. We met up with Rick again, a Dutch Yamaha rider we first met in Armenia and then in Iran. Our Australian friends Stu and Janell were also in the area on their BMW 650 GS’s. So we decided to explore Bangkok’s infamous nightlife together, diving into the many alleys full of half-naked Thai prostitutes, with or without a little extra in the panties. And although Caroline and Janell were always around, the men definitely didn’t suffer from a lack of attention from the Thai ‘beauties’. The many proppers who wanted to lure us in for an ‘unforgettable ping pong show’ however, were a little too pushy for our liking.
We have finally left Thailand behind and are back in Malaysia, just about the most modern and wealthiest country in Southeast Asia. For the first time we saw long strings of big BMW’s, Harley’s and Kawasaki’s racing past. At the traffic lights, the vertically challenged Malaysian Riders are barely able to touch the ground, at least if they haven’t cut their toenails too short. With half the Touratech catalog mounted, ready to go round the world, they usually only choose major highways. Collecting stickers with the highway number seems like the national sport down here.
In the late 1990’s, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, were considered the tallest buildings worldwide, standing 1230 ft tall. Today, the newly finalized Merdeka 118 Tower (2227 ft) ranks second worldwide, just behind Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Riding our Huskies into the center of Kuala Lumpur feels pretty weird to be honest. Whereas we usually prefer the great wide open, we now ride against a backdrop of the tallest skyscrapers in the world.
But most of all we came to Kuala Lumpur to ship our bikes. Southeast Asia has been truly amazing, but both Caroline and I have the feeling it’s definitely time for new horizons. In the next few days we will pack the bikes and put them on a plane to Australia. There’s quite a bit involved if we don’t want to impact our travel budget too much. We need wood and tools to build a crate, and we need a covered space away from the scorching sun or severe tropical thunderstorms. I had an appointment with a shipping agent at 10 am this morning. He finally showed up at 3pm with a bagful of excuses. Will it ever change? Cross fingers the shipping process works out ok.