There are 2 or 3 posts from Laos waiting for a writeup, but here’s a story I don’t want to wait to write about.
Having left the lazy paradise-like Don Khon island
I hitchhiked from Ban Nakasang to the Cambodian border and then 200 km into the country. The reasons being: I wanted to do something more adventurous, enjoy solitude of hitching in a middle of nowhere and avoid buses, since there doesn’t seem to be any scam-free cross-border service.
Even though a couple experienced backpackers warned me against it, mentioning extremely low traffic and scam-friendly atmosphere around the border, I had a great day. Mostly due to the incredibly generous people, and not just on the Cambodian side. I didn’t even have to wave at the first driver – he just pulled over when he saw me walking.
That’s nothing, though, compared to the friendliness of Cambodian people. Well, except for the border officials, of course, who managed to extort the standard $5 bribe. When I demanded a receipt and they produced one (no doubt fake, but I had no way of proving that) my line of defense fell. Touche, you corrupt scumbags. At least the Lao officials gave up and stamped me out without paying. Incidentally, they did so soon after I started whistling and singing out of boredom. Needless to say, my vocal skills are, ekhem, somewhat lacking.
Back to the nicer part of population, though. I walked a few kilometers from the border with hardly any vehicles passing me by. Despite scorching sun, I enjoyed it with a nice European-like forest on both sides of the road (a nice change after dense jungles of Lao) and no people in sight. Around noon I finally stumbled upon a small patch of shade on my side of the road and used this opportunity to take a break. Within few minutes a young lady approached me with her kids and grandmother. They said they were worried about my safety and invited me to rest and have a meal or drink at their house just 50 meters away. The young lady even offered to stand by the road and call me if there is anything coming or drive me to the nearest town (60 km away!). Since Vietnam I keep my guards up and distrust local people, especially after what I had read about Cambodia, but I think their concerns and offers might have been genuine. It seemed too elaborate and sophisticated for a scam. And I don’t think any tourists ever show up in that area. Even after I declined and assured them I was fine, the young lady kept me company until I started walking again to regain my solitude.
But before that, two policemen stopped and said they had to drive me back to the crossing, so that I could take a regular (i.e., rip-off) bus, quoting concerns for my safety as the reason. After a short conversation, though, they let me stay, without being pushy or insistent. They just warned that they could not warrantee safety. Maybe I really met that mythological creature: an honest policeman in Cambodia. The lady seemed genuinely surprised by my worries when I saw them approaching.
Anyway, soon after I got up, I caught a short ride on a scooter and then a long one, all the way to my destination, in the box of a pick-up truck. The cabin and the box where completely packed, but the universal rule in SE Asia is: The vehicle is never full.
The bone-breaking (tailbone-breaking, to be specific) bumps were not the hardest part. Neither was lack of legroom, forcing me to sit in a position that in Yoga might be called A crane who thinks he is a snail. The worst part were the nice, wide and flat unpaved roads, allowing for high speed and resulting in everything in the box getting covered by a thick layer of dust, including yours truly. I was really glad to have my facemask with me. And my swimming goggles.
Anyway, the family driving that truck was incredibly friendly. An explanation of all the care and generosity I had encountered might be what the son of the family told me: Cambodians find the idea of solo travel terrifying. Perhaps that’s one of the many scars from the Khmer Rouge times.
As I said, I’m really happy with how smoothly it went (well, except for the bribe). I only feel a bit uneasy about stingyness of hitchhiking. Money is not my main reason for doing it, although I have been unable to fit into my planned budget so far and enjoy those substantial savings. Still, I’m probably wealthier than almost anyone living in this country and feel a bit guilty about asking those poor people to help me for free, even though it doesn’t cost them anything and they have an easy way to refuse (just ignore). I had had the same issue, though to a lesser extent, in other countries I visited. I never hear it mentioned by other hitchhikers, so maybe it’s just my idiosyncrasy. Then again, due to my trade and education, I believe that once I settle down and find a job, I’ll be making significantly more than most backpackers will, so that might partially explain it. I guess I’m overthinking this entire issue :-)
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Chom Ong is the second longest cave in Laos. It’s also name of a village lying nearby. There are no buses going there since the road is too bad for almost any vehicle. Probably for this reason there are hardly any tourists visiting. So on my second day in Laos, inspired by this guy, I rented a scooter in Oudomxay and went for an overnight trip.
Upon arrival, I discovered there was a bamboo gate in the cave entrance with a lock. Should have learned lock picking when I had the time to kill and thought it would be a cool skill. After searching around, I found another entrance but couldn’t go far since there was an underground river flowing. Just some pic of the entrance from the inside:
For the main entrance I had to get a key so I went to the village. I knew communication would be hard, but eventually met a guy who knew whom to ask for the key, offered to be my guide and could even speak a few words in English. Unfortunately, I didn’t like him at all. It was obviously clear that I was just a cash cow to him and he would do anything to milk me. When I tried to find a homestay or food, he would follow me and insist that I get it from him. I didn’t think I could be picky considering the language barrier, so I went for it. We agreed that I would stay and eat at his home and we would go to the cave the next morning. He then stopped following me and I could finally enjoy the village.
In the morning I could see with my own eyes what others have been saying: that cave is huge! It makes you feel like you are exploring Tolkien’s Moria. And with no signs of tourists, no walkways, no barriers (just some lamps near the entrance, they weren’t turned on, though) it was truly a breathtaking experience. As expected, my “guide” was completely unprepared and turned out to be just a random villager. He also tried his best to shorten our hike. It didn’t spoil it for me, though.
After a short absurd argument (he demanded to be paid more than what we had agreed on) it was time to head back. And drive on that terrible but scenic road again.
All in all, a great introduction to Laos.
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After Phong Nha I went to the Cat Ba archipelago to see the famous Ha Long Bay (or rather the neighboring Lan Ha Bay, to be precise). The bay itself was quite spectacular, but the trip turned out very expensive.
I came up with a seemingly cool idea: rent a kayak for two days and paddle in the labyrinth of the bay until I find a beach to camp. And the first part really was pretty neat.
Unfortunately, finding a camp spot was really hard. The vegetation was to weak to support me in my hammock and the rocks had edges too sharp for me to feel comfortable hanging from them. As I was getting more and more desperate in my search I paddled to the outskirts of the bay. And that’s when I realized I didn’t know how to get in or out of my kayak and remain dry when there are waves. So my phone got a soak. Good thing I had my main backpack wrapped in a tarp. Here’s an expensive lesson: when kayaking, assume that everything is going to fall into the water.
After some few more hours of unsuccessful search for a spot to camp, I returned to civilisation and started looking for electronic repair shops. I visited countless, to no avail (I wonder whether there are still any components left in my phone that avoided getting stolen in those places).
But getting a replacement wasn’t my only problem. I also had to contact my family and a close friend. Mostly to save them worries, but also to avoid an expensive search and rescue operation, which my friend was supposed to initiate if I don’t contact her till one day after my expected return.
I didn’t exactly remember her email address, but knew its pattern, so I generated a few possible addresses (including some typos) and sent a message saying I was OK and to confirm to my normal email.
However, with my phone broken, I was about to find myself locked out of my email account, since I use a password manager. As a backup, I had brought with me a Linux Live USB containing my password wallet and software to decrypt it. Unfortunately, I hadn’t expected the computers in Vietnam would be too ancient to boot from USB. Lesson learned: in addition to Live USB, bring also a Live CD. I had a phone number to my family noted down, but not to my friend (another lesson: if there is someone you need or might need to contact, always have a paper backup of their phone number).
Anyway, I created a temporary Gmail account, again generated addresses to my friend and also my family as best as I could recall. I got a confirmation from my family, yay! But my friend remained silent. After a hectic unsuccessful search for an Internet Cafe, I called my embassy emergency number and told the officer to expect a call from my friend, ignore it and inform her I was OK and would contact her soon.
The next day I got a new phone, logged into my account and saw a confirmation from my friend, dating a couple days back. Turns out I had managed to recall her address on my first try, but not on the second one, because it contained a peculiar typo.
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I have typed this post before, but lost it due to a bug in the WordPress app. So this time just some pictures from the Phong Nha Kebang National Park.
Phong Nha cave:
Tien Son cave:
And a Buddhist monk who seemed to like me:
And the Paradise cave (my crappy camera doesn’t do it justice):
And a ride through the park afterwards:
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I finally found the spot and courage to camp on my own in the jungle. The latter was not easy after I had met a cobra on my first hike. I went to the Bach Ma National Park.
I was disappointed by the main path which turned out to be a paved road.
The only advantage: I could enjoy unobscured view for the entire hike.
And when the paved road ended 19 kilometers later and 1400 meters higher, I found a hidden treasure along the trail leading to the peak: war tunnels, unaltered and to this day not marketed. It was really cool/creepy to explore them as they were left by the soldiers, while dozens of freaked out bats were flying right next to my face in panic.
Definitely a highlight of the trip. And not far there was a cool pagoda almost at the peak.
Next came the five lakes trail, along which I started to look for a camp spot since I wanted plenty of time to experiment with the setup.
The spot on that shelf would have been perfect if it wasn’t for the widow-maker leaning from the left bank. The search would have been much faster if I wasn’t avoiding blocking the trail. This was probably unnecessary since some parts of it were covered in thick spider webs and I hadn’t seen any other tourists earlier that day.
Eventually I found a spot to hang my hammock.
The view from my spot looking upstream…
and looking downstream:
I’m happy to say that my new experimental method for keeping distance between mosquito net and the hammock worked great: not a single mosquito bite.
I hadn’t brought with me any insulation for the hammock, so I got uncomfortably cold as expected, but still managed to get a few hours of sleep. Actually, I’m quite surprised how easy it was too fall asleep despite this new environment and all the jungle noises.
On my way back I continued along the five lakes trail and took a little detour to visit the 300 m high Rhododendron Waterfall.
And BTW here’s a picture of my ride from Hue to Dong Hoi, titled How to squeeze 22 people into (what would in other countries be) a 10-person minibus:
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