[To view the full post, click here]
Approaching the border
No miraculous change of surroundings came upon me during my last 56km in Cambodia. The road trailed ever onwards, flat and straight heading due north against the wind. At a rare roadside stall I found Pierre and Marion, a French couple from Paris who had temporarily traded in the backpacking lifestyle for the 800km cycle between Phnom Penh and Vientiane. They were easy going and very likable, and so we teamed up to cross the remote border into Laos. Heeding warnings of travelers who had crossed our paths we were ready to do battle against the stamp wielding officials, apparently all to ready to refuse entry unless they pocketed a few dollars on the sly. Leaving Cambodia was fine – I was asked to pay a dollar, but smiled dumbly and pointed at my visa saying what a wonderful time I’d had in the country. A busload of groggy looking white tourists had pulled up behind me, and licking his lips the guard waved me on in favour of bigger prey. I heard him extorting $3 from the first unlucky passenger to step into the arena.
My brief French companions
Now in no-man’s land, the problems arose. Pierre gave his passport to the Laos official, who immediately asked for $2. Ready for him, Pierre pointed at the visa and smiled, saying that no thanks, but he had everything in order already. The man didn’t smile back. ‘$2, or no stamp,’ was his line, and he repeated it with vehemence to every effort the three of us could muster. We waited thirty minutes, watching as he closed the window, retreated out the back and took up residence on a shady hammock. More minutes ticked by. Pierre spoke to another man in uniform, who repeated that we either paid $1 each or we couldn’t go through. Ah ha! It was working, down to $1 from $2 and I was sure that within another 30 minutes they’d give up and let us through. At 11.45, now nearly an hour after our initial attempt Marion called out to us. Her guidebook said that between 12 and 2pm all tourists were subject to a further $2 ‘overtime’ fee. It advised that this could not be disputed. We put it to a vote. Wait two hours, or pay the dollar each. It seemed an easy decision really, but I always feel so frustrated at unadulterated shakedowns like this. However I also didn’t want to wait any longer in the midday heat, and we all knew it was still a fair ride to the town. Enjoying the rare pleasure of company on the road I gave in, and we all handed over the money. Criminal A was still asleep in his hammock, so Criminal B pocketed the money instead. I felt a little satisfaction that our primary adversary wouldn’t benefit.
The 'Niagara Falls' of SE Asia, I was told
Cycling out my irritation, we made up for it with a trip to the Khone Phapang waterfalls – the largest falls in SE Asia. Scrambling around on the rocks was the perfect tonic. The problem for all of us was that we still only had US Dollars, and were now in a country which was trying very hard to promote it’s own currency, the Laos Kip. There was no border town at which to exchange a few notes, and so we rode onwards getting increasingly desperate. I bid farewell to Marion and Pierre, who were heading to Si Phan Don, or 4000 Islands as they are commonly known – a large grouping of islands in the Mekong which attract travelers by their peace, quiet and tranquility. Not a bad deal for sure, but after having spent far too long in Phnom Penh wrestling sickness, I was still not in the mood for lying around in a hammock. The dilemma was that I knew I could change money on the islands, but at $8 for a round trip, it really wasn’t worth going there just to spend one night. I made a decision to keep riding, and hope for a town on Highway 13. It was to prove a bad choice.
A rare hut on the road...but abandonned
That night I found nowhere for my money needs, and no guesthouses. I camped among the trees less and 500m from the highway, and ate into my dwindling supply of emergency bananas and peanuts. A poor dinner by any standard. The next morning I found ants happily infesting my one remaining bag of banana chips which I’d saved especially for breakfast. Twenty minutes of picking ants off each chip individually grew tiresome and was unrewarding, so I abandoned the rest. The saving grace was that I still had two litres of water, but I needed to find a money changer, and fast.
Pakse proved a haven
The highway was deserted – each small gathering that may have constituted a village had no one willing to take my $20 notes – I was in turn frowned upon and laughed at. I rode unceasingly onwards. After 80km I had still not eaten anything of substance for 36 hours. I’d been able to fill water from a well but was beginning to run low again. My saviour came in the form of Dutch touring cyclists, just at the moment I began to fear the situation was more crisis than inconvenience. They were coming from the north, and I asked them breathlessly about banks they may have passed. None since Pakse – another 65km. That wasn’t the news I was hoping for. They must have sensed it, and without hesitation I was handed 37,000 Kip from their handlebar bags. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ they dismissed, ‘it’s only a few euro.’ Technically they were right, but to me it was a fortune. They wouldn’t accept anything in return, and merrily rode onward. I stowed my funds deep in my wallet and sparingly doled them out during the remainder of the ride – an orange here, some banana there, careful not to spend my loot with abandon. I made it to Pakse and made straight for the first currency exchange booth I found. All was well again, and I ate like someone who had not seen food in weeks. I was lucky though, and felt foolish for taking such a chance. I was sure that it’d work out, and I still think I’d have made it to Pakse, but it would have been a real struggle. It’s not worth taking these chances, and things could’ve turned out quite differently – water was my main concern and had it not been for the well I would have certainly been in trouble. I reflected on it all over a BeerLao. Perhaps I was growing arrogant. I concluded that it helps to be brought down to earth once in a while. Analysis complete, I decided to take the next day off and make up for a day of lost eating.