Crossing into Laos

228km Kratie to Don Det

dsc_3485dsc_3475.jpgYou’d think we’d be well trained by now after nearly two years on the road. We’ve been across our fair share of deserts and up high mountain peaks but the wilds of northern Cambodia still managed to give us a run for our money. Hot. Desolate. Almost no shade. One account we read online of this section even described it as a route without scenery. The assessment wasn’t far wrong.We started out in cool air at 7:30am from Kratie, with a packed lunch in our bags from the market. Soon the sun was rising and we were working against a headwind to cover the 150km to the next town. Slipping under a tree for a rest wasn’t easily done. Our first priority was to steer clear of landmines left over from the civil war and that meant sticking to marked paths but a bigger problem was finding a tree at all! Land had been intensively cleared for farming. When we eventually got to Stung Treng we’d see the heavy wood furniture made from these former forests – a profitable business for those with access to the land.

The day continued with little to distract us from the road. Normally we are surrounded by village life. Children yelling hello. Chickens being transported in their dozens, hanging off the handlebars and sides of a single motorbike. Men drinking iced coffee while staring transfixed at the latest boxing match in a local cafe. Women out working in the rice fields.

Here on Highway 7 it couldn’t have been more different. It was a highway in name but one without cars. Three or four an hour at most. Houses were suddenly spaced far apart. More than five together constituted a town. The heat radiated off the pavement with a vengeance and only the odd farm shack broke up the monotonous

Still fighting against the wind and the sun, we pedalled nearly 9 hours and through every last drop of light before we reached the outskirts of Stung Treng. When we finally saw the town appear in front of us with its busy market, neon lights and TV satellite dishes we were ecstatic. Our reward was the best hotel room we’ve had yet in Cambodia and a delightfully spicy meal. We hoped the welcome change in food was a sign of what was waiting for us in Lao.

Our legs protested the next morning but our minds wouldn’t rest, knowing another 60km remained to the border under the same conditions as yesterday. Down at the market we found another takeaway lunch, loaded up on snacks and water and set out again. Soon the heat was rising even more fiercely than before and with the same absence of shade or cool drinks. We arrived at the border red faced and dripping sweat. Perhaps that’s why the Cambodian officers stamped our passports and quickly waved us on, instead of asking for money as we’d been primed to expect.

The Lao officials weren’t so professional, demanding $1 U.S. each. A small sum but one that must bring in a tidy profit for them each day. We tried to protest but the guard made it quite clear he was prepared to go back to his hammock if we didn’t pay so we got our wallets out with a grumble. We played ‘find the general’s house’ for the rest of the day, figuring that our money had contributed to a mansion somewhere in the vicinity.

Andrew on the dodgy boat that took us to Don DetWe were now in a new country with kids shouting ‘sabaydee’ instead of ‘sua sdey’ but the sun and terrain continued in the same theme and we soon found ourselves looking for an afternoon nap spot. We’d given up on finding a tree when a sign for a golf course and resort appeared, the size of something you’d see outside a shopping mall at home. It looked very out of place in the Lao landscape, as did the rich golfers driving across the course with a trail of local kids running behind them. But the sign provided us with a great bit of shade to nap in. We returned to the road again when the sun was lower in the sky and quickly found the ferry for one of the 4,000 islands in the Mekong.

Ferry is too grand a word. We paid $5 to have us and our bikes transported across the river to Don Det in a nervewracking ride that had us wondering if we’d made it at all. The boat was a narrow, rickety affair, rocking back in forth in the current and we were almost certain that either we or our bikes would be the casualties. Somehow we made it and stepped with considerable relief onto dry land. A bungalow with two hammocks to call our own was soon ours for the night. In southern Laos, so far from so much yet in the middle of a backpacker heaven. For a day of rest it’ll do just fine.