I am the original 'Uneasy Rider' .. not especially blessed with much natural motorcycling talent, nor am I a particularly courageous motorcycle rider.
Nevertheless I went 'Right Way Round' New Zealand (at least twice) followed by a wonderful ride around Australia.

Then it was up to southeast Asia, around Indo-China, across southern Central Asia to the Middle East, Asia Minor .. and finally into Europe.

Right Way Round - all the way home .. from New Zealand to England, 2-up on a Honda Transalp.

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PROGRESS SO FAR - Distance covered across Western Europe: 6,411 km [3,984 miles] - as at Thursday, October-22nd, 2015

Monday, 8 April 2013

Mekong Meander

Sunday, 31st March - through to - Thursday morning, 4th April

We spent four nights in Luang Prabang altogether, which was one more night/day than originally planned; the main reason for which I will explain below. Still, I can think of far worse places in the world to be holed-up in than Luang Prabang; a wonderful patchwork of traditional Lao wooden houses with hints of European architecture; reminders of when Laos was a French colony. Golden-roofed wats, wrap-around teak balconies and 19th century shuttered windows .. and of course, Buddha is everywhere. All of this is set against a backdrop of green rugged mountains, skirted by the banks of the Mekong River.

Quite a small city really (pop circa 50,000) but with an absolutely charming personality and atmosphere that would give many Mediterranean destinations a serious run for their money .. and you cannot help but be amazed by the tidiness and cleanliness of the place compared to the rest of Laos. Et le cuisine in Luang Prabang?  Well - il est exquis - and simply the best we’ve had anywhere around SE Asia to date. Simply sensationnel food and drink. I mean, we are talking proper baguettes and croissants here – all thanks, without doubt, to our French former colonial-empowered cousins from across the Channel.

Some detail .. and needless to say, let's start with the beer:

Beer Lao - a 5.0% lager beer - seems to be the most widespread and popular choice here. A bit like Budweiser (read: fizzy 'pop' type beer), but entirely drinkable nevertheless.

When available, we prefer Namkhong, another 5.0% lager beer, which is brewed by the Tiger Beer Company. The same yeast is used in the brewing process of both Tiger and Namkhong beers.

Price per 640 ml bottle for both beers is anything between 10,000 kip (GB£0.85) to 20,000 kip (GB£1.70), but typically around 12,000 kip (GB£1.00) in many establishments.

Turning now to the glorious food that can be found .. IF you look hard enough:

Yummy fresh cream of tomato soup, with a smoked chicken salad and shavings of mature red cheese. The first cheese we've seen, let alone tasted, for more than a month now. It's funny how you can crave something which is so readily available in the West .. as a lump of cheese, when none can be found in the foreign land where you happen to be.

Now I know just how R L Stevenson's Treasure Island character Ben Gunn felt:

"I'm poor Ben Gunn, I am; and I haven't spoke with a Christian these three years ... You mightn't happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now?"

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

Fresh mushroom soup with melt-in-the-mouth croutons

Fillet of Mekong Perch poached in Basil, with an incredibly rich potato purée and sautéed vegetables. Absolutely delicious. All washed down with a nice bottle of chilled Sauvignon Blanc.

Now let's go with the 'local' grub ..

.. which sometimes can be difficult to track down, e.g. Here's Ellen, at dusk, walking across a not-so-stable swaying bamboo footbridge towards a renowned local restaurant in Luang Prabang.

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Local street food 'up close' ..

"Take your pick"

We chose the ingredients for a traditional Laotian 'hot pot' .. c/w thinly sliced Buffalo meat and pork - garnished with a raw egg [huh?], plus a mix of fresh veges, enoki mushrooms and glass noodles.

Our clay cooking pot seated on top of burning embers is placed alongside our table. In go the meat slices, raw egg and glass noodles.

Soon followed by the veges etc.

Give it all a stir. First bit of cooking 'er indoors has done for six weeks now by the way!

10 minutes later and its all ready to serve. Mix-in some spicy paste and you have a freshly-cooked really tasty feast to tuck into. No tomato ketchup required.

And all for about GB£4.50 [US$7] including a couple of large 640 ml bottles of Beer Lao - not the 330 ml bottles or cans - plus a tall glass of iced mango fruit shake. Great value.

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And this is the reason why we stayed an extra day in Luang Prabang. You see, Vietnam has a Consular Office in LP and we wanted to at least make an attempt to ride across the border from Laos into Vietnam. The trouble is the Vietnamese Government does not permit foreign-registered large displacement (over 125 cc) motorcycles to cross the border into their country.

I have read just lately, however, that a handful of overland bikers have managed to persuade the border authorities to let them cross from Laos into VN at the eastern end of Route 12 – the other end of the road from Thakhek. This is the only border crossing where I think I might have at least a fighting chance (okay, wrong choice of words!) of getting into the country.
Link: http://goo.gl/maps/88QFx.

We'll soon find out.

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Thursday, 4th

Sunset over Nam Song River at the township of Vang Vieng, where we stopped for one night on the way down to Laos' capital city, Vientiane. The most notable feature of the area around Vang Vieng is the karst hill landscape surrounding the town, which you can see in the background.

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Friday, 5th & Saturday, 6th

Last day of the UK's financial year. My tax-advantaged savings plans were all topped-up on-line yesterday (4th). Don't you just love the internet? .. on-line banking in particular.

A totally straightforward 152 km [94½ mi] - 3 hours, including a refreshment break - almost due south ride down Route 13, the country's main arterial road, brought us to the Laos capital city of Vientiane.

I made the decision to stopover here for two nights. Ellen agreed this would be a good idea, but with temperatures soaring again up into the 40°C+, she insisted on staying in a place with a swimming pool. The Vientiane Garden Hotel had our joint vote on all counts. GB£30 buys you a lot of hotel accommodation in this country, although normally we tend to focus on establishments offering rooms at around half that tariff rate.

Some of the sights around Vientiane:

The Presidential Palace - front door elevation

Here's looking at the rear door trademan's entrance, '.. And wipe thy bloody feet first', said the Yorkshireman .. to the butcher, the baker, the incense stick maker.
 
Pha That Luang. The national symbol and most important religious monument of the country.

Haw Pha Kaew - first built around 1560; but seized, ravaged and more or less destroyed by Siam (now Thailand) during the Siamese-Laotian war. The present structure is a 1942 reconstruction.

Nice historical artefacts surround the main building.


That Dam - a stupa once coated in a layer of gold. The gold is said to have been carted off by the Siamese during their pillaging of 1828, leaving the legacy that is the black stupa of today.

Patuxai Monument (Victory Gate), a local rendition of Paris' Arc de Triomphe. The concrete it's built from was donated by the US, although it was supposed to go towards a new airport instead! - hence the nickname "the Vertical Runway". A story that tickled me.

Then we went slightly out of town to the Buddha Park located 24 km [15 mi] east of the city.

The reclining Buddha is especially impressive. To get a handle on its size, look at the stooping fellow in the orange T-shirt at its base.

A bizarre all-outdoor collection of concrete Buddhist sculptures.




My word it was HOT, when we were there. Too damn hot. A sh!tty pot-holed road to get there towards the end too. Worth the visit? .. I guess so.

Saturday, 6th - mid-evening

Vientiane Night Market. Join us as we just wander around the stalls:



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As you would expect, neighbouring Cambodia has an embassy in Vientiene, so we took the opportunity to pop-in and sort out our visas, which should save us hassle at the border in about two weeks' time. I'll elaborate a little more about this cunning tactic of getting visas in advance of crossing the border in a while.

From Ellen's journal: click on this link → Extended stay in Luang Prabang

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We travelled the 300+ km [ > 185 mi] to Kong Lor Village to see the underground cave network just beyond, which is actually a portion of the Hin Phou river that has worked its way, over millions of years of geological time, through 7.5km of solid rock. Ellen ended-up going on her own for the 90-minute experience. You see, I had had an awful night's sleep, which together the authentic Lao curry the previous evening - that was delicious btw - but gave me an upset tummy; I thought it best if I stayed behind at our guesthouse .. close to a toilet!

Why did I have a bad night, notwithstanding the affects of the curry? Well, listen to what kept me awake from 3:00am that night. Quickly followed by a non-stop dawn chorus of about a dozen or so crowing cockerels all doing their best to out  "COCK-A-DOODLE DOO" each other. Gawd!



Click on the above forward play arrow to ::LISTEN:: to around 30 seconds' worth of the night-time sounds that preceded those pesky cocks.

Here are a couple of the pictures that Ellen snapped during her excursion into the caves .. after half drowning my spare camera in the process! ['twas all good when it dried-out though]:


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Monday, 8th

We travelled further south to Thakhek on the east bank of the Mekong River, a township that faces the city of Nakhon Phanom (across the river) in north-eastern Thailand.

Tomorrow, Tuesday-9th, we'll ride east across Rout 12, with fingers crossed, to at least make an attempt to cross the border into Vietnam. Only a handful of big displacement (over > 125 cc) foreign-registered motorcycles have ever successfully managed to get into and ride around this enigmatic little nation, with such a fascinating history.

Here's hoping that a brace of stray Brits can add a New Zealand Honda XL650V Transalp to the list.

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