Around The Traps In S.E. Asia: Part 18
It has been quite a while since my last submission (8 months) and I figured it was time for a catch-up with the readership. Since July 2019 I’ve made a number of exciting trips around the region and in light of the current world situation, I thought a few tales of my escapades in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand might provide a bit of entertainment in what is quickly evolving into a rather sombre global outlook.
Before I go on, I’ll come clean and admit I’ve flown the coop, and relocated for a while to Darwin, Australia. In early March I had an inkling of what was to come. Call it clairvoyance, or just an appreciation of the worst case scenario, the idea that travel between countries may be blocked for a while took a firm hold in my outlook for the future. Reluctantly, I locked up my condo in Phuket and boarded a flight to Darwin, via Singapore. This was not an easy thing to do as I seriously enjoy living in Phuket and owning a nice apartment, was also a hard thing to walk away from. But with future employment options looking grim, and dwindling cash reserves, it was time to bite the bullet.
Darwin isn’t a bad spot to sit out the unfolding coronavirus situation. As of the time of penning this submission there are only 25 confirmed cases in town. The weather is hot all year round which is a proven defence against the spread of the virus. With a population of only 130,000 in a widespread city, social distancing is also quite easy to achieve. Compared to life in South-East Asia, the place looks half empty with plenty of elbow space, even in shopping malls. It was a bit of a culture shock being back for the first few days, and the withdrawal symptoms which many contributors mention were certainly felt. Even though at times it feels like living in a madhouse, life in Thailand, and especially Phuket, is pretty darned good. The reality is I do miss the place, and not just the obvious attractions for the single guy. I’ll miss the ambiance, the food, the massages, the affordability, the street food, the beaches, and the easy way of life. There’s no telling how long this world-wide health situation will run for but, in the words of a famous American WW 2 General, I shall return.
In the last few months of 2019, and early 2020, I had some great adventures in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. Here’s a summary of those trips, and links to full reports on my travel blog.
Sapa was a place I’d always intended to visit but the timing just never seemed to be right. In early September the timing was right and after a few days in Saigon with a local female friend, I was on a Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi. Having been to the northern capital a number of times I had no desire to revisit the chaotic madness around Hoan Kiem Lake. So I took a sleeper bus directly from terminal 2 to Sapa. Travel time is approx. 5 hours with toilet breaks. The primary attraction of Sapa is undoubtedly Mount Fangxipan which, at approx. 3200 meters, is the highest peak in South-East Asia. Local tour companies run overnight treks (approx. 32 km) from nearby Sapa to the peak. For those who are less energetic, there’s a cable car to take you all the way to the top and back.
In early to mid-September another popular attraction around Sapa is the yellow rice terraces, just prior to harvest time. There is an area called the MUONG HOA VALLEY, running south from Sapa for a few kilometres, which is filled with amazing layers of rice terraces on the steep hillsides. Tours (treks) through the Muong Hoa Valley are easy enough to arrange with local trekking operators. For the DYI types you can rent a motorbike, take the road south from Sapa, park your bike at a local shop and drop down into the valley. Most people will invariably hire a local guide for the trek through the valley as there are a number of trails which snake through the rice fields and if you happen to miss the right one back up to the road (as I did) you can end up walking a lot of extra unnecessary kilometres.
For those who are interested, go to my blog for the full SAPA TRIP REPORT: https://www.megaworldasia.com/en/vietnam/sapa/
The end of the rainy season (October) is a great time to be in Phuket. The beaches are still relatively uncrowded and the surf which rolls in along the western shores is quite often big enough for a bit of longboard riding, or body surfing. It also happens to be a time when unsuspecting tourists (mainland Chinese) with poor swimming, or water skills, are severely at risk of being swept out to sea through naivety. To combat the errant or poor swimmer, the local authorities have set up life guard stations, at regular intervals, along Phuket’s popular beaches. When the surf’s up the areas which are red flagged are closely watched by the life guards. Anyone that even looks like they might be going for a swim outside the designated safe areas, is usually given about ten minutes of non-stop blasting on the police whistles. Karon Beach is probably the heaviest patrolled beach in Phuket, simply because it’s considered the most hazardous when the surf’s up.
The northern end is normally less crowded, due to a creek which blocks access, and therefore is a bit of a no-man’s land when it comes to the whistle happy life guards. The northern end of Karon is also my favourite beach spot, for a late afternoon swim and some beach side, restaurant food. It’s also a great location some people watching, and checking out the bikini-clad talent.
The very last restaurant on the dirt road is run by a friendly Southern local, named Tony. His Thai food is tasty, and well-priced. During the months of October and November I spent many an afternoon there, enjoying the ambiance of one of the best beach locations on the island, oblivious to the impending medical storm which was about to hit the world. They were amazing days in the sun and surf, as I worked on my fitness for another adventure trip to Laos, in early December.
MORE ADVENTURES IN LAOS:
My primary objective for the December 2019 trip to Laos was a five-day kayaking trip down the Xebangfai River, in Central Laos. But before getting there I was doing a few days of off road motor biking in the Attapeu region, of Southern Laos. After an overnight stop in Singapore, to buy some powerful torches, I caught a Lao Airlines flight to Pakse. For those who haven’t been there before, Pakse is the only Lao city south of Vientiane with an Airport. To get there overland you need to take a bus from Ubon Ratchathani, and do a border crossing from Thailand.
Pakse is the start point for the highly regarded motorbike tour across the BOLAVEN PLATEAU https://www.megaworldasia.com/en/laos/the-bolaven-plateau-loop-trip/, an elevated region to the east which covered in coffee plantations. During December it also happens to be one of the coldest places in the region. Overnight temperatures in Paksong, the highest point on the Plateau (1350 meters), regularly drop to zero Celsius. I had one night in Pakse then hired a motorbike and rode up to Paksong. Being at the top of the plateau, the landscape is flat and the dry northerly winds whistle across there uninterrupted. Even in mid-afternoon, with the sun out, the place was bloody freezing. Thankfully I packed a decent jacket and woollen hat for the trip.
After one night freezing my butt off, I was quickly on my way down the other side of the Plateau and heading towards Attapeu Township. Attapeu is the most southern province of Laos, and is well off the beaten track. If you wanted to find a place to completely avoid any possibility of being infected with Covid 19, that would be the place to head to.
The primary attraction of Attapeu is a spectacular waterfall, some 60 km east of the township. Saephra Falls is in a remote wilderness area, and getting there is a seriously hard slog. It’s 60 km of rough dirt road, before pulling up at a brilliant natural feature. Another reason for going there was wanting to check out the flood damage, caused by the dam collapse in 2018. On the way to SAEPHRA FALLS https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hhg-Y4jw8v0, you’ll pass right through the area which was devastated by the flash flood. The village of Ban Hin Lat was severely hit and is now a ghost town. A good number of people were killed and all that remains is the shells of the houses which were swamped. To see the full trip report on Attapeu Province, follow this LINK: https://www.megaworldasia.com/en/laos/the-attapeu-wilderness-loop/
THE XEBANGFAI KAYAK ADVENTURE:
After five days of riding around the remote southern side of the Bolaven Plateau, I had one night back in Pakse then caught a Lao Airlines flight to Savanakhet. Although going through there a number of times, I’ve never overnighted in Savanakhet. Many travellers have told me Savanakhet has an area of French Colonial buildings worth checking out, but my haste for getting up to Thakhek has always seen me flag any idea of an overnight stop. The flight from Pakse to Savanakhet is barely thirty minutes, and costs US 70 Dollars. It may seem a tad expensive for such a short flight on a propeller driven plane but if you’ve done any long bus rides in Laos, the flight option is well recommended. I’ve done the bus ride from Pakse to Thakhek on one occasion, and vowed never again after the advertised eight hour travel time turned into a twelve hours patience test. From Savanakhet, it’s a mere three hours in a minivan to Thakhek.
I’ve mentioned Thakhek in previous submissions and consider it to be a great provincial town, in Central Laos, to chill out in and enjoy a Beer Lao or three. The town sits right on the Mekong, directly opposite Nakhon Phanom. To get there from Thailand, make your way to Nakhon Phanom bus station and catch the Thakhek bound bus for 70 THB. It’s also the start point for the highly regarded THAKHEK MOTORBIKE LOOP TRIP https://www.megaworldasia.com/en/laos/the-thakhek-loop-trip/
For my kayaking adventure I was teaming up four other expats, who all lived and worked in Laos, and our departure point was Thakhek. We were doing the trip with GREEN DISCOVERY LAOS, a local company which specialises in adventure travel and activities. The five day tour cost just US 470 Dollars and included tour guides, kayaks, safety equipment, camping gear, food, and water. The start point for the trip down the river was some 180 km from Thakhek and involved a five hour drive over rugged dirt roads to a location very near the Vietnam border. According to one of the speleologists on the trip the area was part of the Ho Chi Minh trail and was heavily bombed during the war. After setting up camp at our start point, for the first night, we took a walk up to a nearby village and saw plenty of evidence of war paraphernalia. For a full trip report click on this link: https://www.megaworldasia.com/en/caving-south-east-asia/laos-kayak-adventure/
To see all the action on video, go to this YouTube Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EdKHtuoKxo&t=688s (kayak trip)
The kayak adventure was a trip to be remembered and the final day culminated in paddling out through the massive Xebangfai Cave – currently listed as the world’s largest river cave. The river runs through a pristine wilderness area in Central Laos, skirting the HIN NAM NO National Park. The first day on the river was undoubtedly the toughest with plenty of grade 3 (and the occasional grade 4) rapids. It was hard going and not without incident. I got turned out 3 times and on one occasion cracked my head on a submerged rock. Thankfully helmets and life jackets are standard rig on these type of trips, when any sort of medical help could be days away. Much to my disappointment my Canon 5D MK4 camera got drowned on one of the flip overs and from mid-day on day 2, I was only able to shoot video.
The following photos are by Martin Lenk
`BACK IN PHUKET:
By mid-December I was back in Phuket, earlier than I’d planned. Following the kayak trip down the Xebangfai River I’d had a couple of days to rest up in Thakhek, and ridden 130 km north on a rented motorbike to check out a new zip-line circuit. The circuit, known as THE ROCK VIEWPOINT, had been developed by Green Discovery Laos and was having its grand opening. Lots of people were expected there (approx. 300) and free rides around the zip-line circuit were being offered. Unfortunately for me pre-arranged groups from Thailand and Laos were getting preference, and feeling slightly pissed off after being told I’d have to wait at least 4 – 5 hours to get a go, I decided to ride back to Thakhek. And that’s where my problems started as I probably wasn’t in the best mind-set for the ride back. A few km out from Thakhek I had what was probably the worst motorbike accident in my 26 years in South-East Asia.
My fault, of course. I was following a pick-up too closely and ran into a large rock in the middle of the lane. Unable to avoid it, I careered off into the ditch on the right and crashed into a hedgerow of bushes. The foliage bought me to a halt but in doing so the bike did a flip, with me on it, and I came down for a hard landing on my left shoulder and ribs. It could have been worse, possible fatal, but luckily I was able to pick myself almost immediately, albeit shocked and dazed. The following four weeks was a painful recovery as the ribs, although not broken, were badly bruised. Moving about proved to be a real patience test and rolling over in bed was quite painful for a while. I quietly sat out Xmas and New Year in Phuket, allowing myself the luxury of more frequent massages to help with the healing process. The high season had well and truly kicked in, the beaches were packed, the weather was superb, and everyone was enjoying their time in paradise, blissfully unaware of the ensuing medical pandemic just around the corner.
More adventures TBC in Around the Traps in S. E. Asia – Part 19.
The author of this article can be contacted at : [email protected]