I wond’r if he has rabies? Surviving aggressive dogs and monsoons in Savannakhet, Laos

Despite promises of VIP buses with air-con, our transport for the eight hour journey to Savannakhet was barely fit for the road. The tyres were looking very light on tread, and there were holes throughout (in the body work, seats, internal fascia etc). To make matters worse, on top of the aisles being used for storage, huge sacks stuffed full of who know’s what were crammed under every seat, leaving us little to no room for our legs. Not the most comfortable way to travel, but it did give us an insight into how Laotians normally get from A to B – no more moaning from me about the London Underground at rush hour!

Bus to savannakhet
Savannakhet bus aisle
Old savannakhet bus interior
After happily arriving in one piece in Savannakhet, we negotiated well for a ride in Laos version of a tuk tuk. Unlike Cambodia’s Remorques consisting of a trailer attached to a motorbike, these were more aggressive looking and colourful machines, made from one single vehicle. We were once again staying in bungalows, although were more substantial than in Kampong Cham, and the floor, walls and ceiling were all fully sealed – no risk of visits from spiders / scorpions!

Savannakhet Laos tuk tuk
Joella in Savannakhet bungalow
Savannakhet is laid out in a grid style and has always been an important trade town for Laos, being close to the Thai border and en route to the Vietnam border too. Given how quiet and desolate the streets were, it was difficult not to draw comparisons with some of the scenes in The Walking Dead we’ve been watching on the iPad!

While searching for suitably tasty replenishments that evening, we neared the banks of the Mekong and were pleasantly surprised by the old town area. It consisted of lovely french style housing (from colonial times) centred around a quaint and rustic square full of bars and restaurants, where we enjoyed some surprisingly good live music alongside refreshing BeerLaos.

Savannakhet old town
Savannakhet old town bar
Jonny drinking in Savannakhet old town
For dinner we put our trust in Lonely Planet’s recommendation, and headed to Lin’s cafe. It turned out to be a charming little establishment, complete with an indoor water feature, blackboards illustrating the coffee and a menu bursting full of local and Western delights. The decor wasn’t too far away from the hipster cafes back home in London! Although the Green Thai Curry was lacking in oomph, it filled us up adequately.

Day 1 – Booking bus tickets (and being hustled by scary dogs)

After some bananas for breakfast, gifted to us by the lady at Mali Guesthouse in Don Khong, our first mission of the day was to book a bus out of town over the border to Hue in Vietnam. Despite our best attempts to locate a bus booking office in the nearby old town, we were left to admit defeat and walk two miles to the bus station. At least this gave us more of a chance to explore Savannakhet, out with the old town – who knew it once hosted the Olympic Games (apparently?). This also resulted in getting tickets at the lowest price, without paying a middle man. I had a rather nasty surprise when choosing refreshments for our walk back – Genmai flavoured green tea (the bottle on the right), tastes like watery wheatabix, so not the most refreshing, and Joella made me finish it – domestic abuse!

Savannakhet Olympic sign
Green tea bottles Savannakhet
That evening we found ourselves back in the old town square for dinner, this time in what felt like someone’s living room; the family where watching TV on one side of the room, while we sat on the other slurping our flavoursome Chinese noodles. After a brief conversation with one of the regulars, half in French and the other half in English, helpfully translated by his shy daughter, we were on our way.

Up until now we hadn’t paid too much attention to the numerous dogs (of all shapes and sizes) that roam the streets, night and day. They didn’t seem to be strays, just left by their owners to do as they will. However, on our walk back to the bungalow we got the scare of our lives as one of the larger brutes crept up and growled aggressively within inches of us. For a second, my decision to opt out of receiving the rabies jab flashed before my eyes (even though this only gives you an extra few hours to receive medical attention). Fortunately however, he let us walk slowly away without any injury. We became quite cautious of the street dogs from that point on.

Day 2 – Visiting the dinosaur museum (and hiding from the rain)

On the second day we were glad to be alive, considering the torrential winds and rain our little wooden hut was battered with! As the heavy rain showed no signs of stopping, we decided to spend the morning chilling over some tasty Laos coffees made by the owner of the Homestay. Two hours later, not wanting to let the weather get the better of us, we headed out in search of the dinosaur museum (armed with umbrellas).
Jonny and Joella under umbrella in Savannakhet
The museum consisted of just two large rooms, full of glass cabinets containing numerous rare bones and ancient fossils (and cuddly toy kangaroos…!?). As the place was dead, we were lucky enough to be taken on a private tour. Just as well considering it was set up by a French guy, so unfortunately most of the written information was only available in French and Laos. Although there was one colourful poster in English, perfectly suited to our intelligence level too…

Dinosaur museum Savannakhet
Dinosaur museum poster Savannakhet
For dinner we couldn’t resist some of the Western restaurants, so we treated ourselves to quesadillas, hamburgers and fries. Apart from being double charged (the card transaction didn’t seem to go through so we paid in cash too), it was all rather scrumptious!

Originally we hadn’t even planned to visit Savannakhet, and were instead going to go via Laos’ second biggest city: Pakse. But based on our experience, and general consensus that Pakse is little more than a big city, we were very happy with our decision! Overall our stay in Laos has been short, but oh so sweet. Their dish of Lahp is possibly one of my favourite meals of all time, and BeerLaos one of the best lagers. Thank you and good night, next stop – Hue, Vietnam…

I wond’r what this “crabby thing” is? Meeting more of Cambodia’s rare and deadly animals in Kratie, Cambodia

Our journey to Kratie was a little more, errr, let’s say thrilling, than previous journeys thus far: The maniac minibus driver felt that using his horn was an adequate safety measure, when frequently overtaking on blind corners. Although there’s probably insufficient evidence this is successful all of the time, we did arrive in one piece, so I’m willing to accept the driver’s daredevil methods on this occasion.

But that wasn’t all of our risky travelling done for the day; we still had to make it across the raging Mekong, to our guesthouse on the island of Koh Trong, which sits parallel to Kratie. Rather than doing so on a modern day boat, equipped with safety equipment etc, our crossing was made using what looked like a 12th century wooden raft with a lorry engine attached to the back and two tattered life jackets hanging on the side. At least a friendly monk was there to keep our minds off things, talking us through the Microsoft Excel training course he was currently undertaking.

Koh Trong island boat with motorbike
On board Koh Trong island ferry
Once safely on the island, not wanting to give up on dangerous modes of transport, we jumped on the backs of two waiting motorbikes, and were driven at serious speed along a narrow concrete path through the trees. Just before a torrential downpour had begun, we finally made it to Arun Mekong Guesthouse. The place wasn’t very clean or well maintained for the price we were paying, but at least the food was good – my fish red Thai curry was possibly the best I’ve ever had!

The next morning, after another night of giant spider wrestling, saw us come face to face with more of Cambodia’s deadly inhabitants. While I was packing my bag in the bedroom, Joella frustratingly called out from the bathroom: “Oh great, now what’s this crabby insect thing”. Initially, thinking it was probably a beetle or similar, I calmly walked in to see what the fuss was about – oh a scorpion. Probably worth making a fuss over then! Fortunately it was stuck in the sink, making it easier for the manager / receptionist / waiter / cook guy to make the kill. (Apologies for the grainy photo bellow, I’m unable to upload and therefore crop full resolution pics to my iPad while on the road…)

Scorpion in Kratie Cambodia
With the latest danger averted, we could now head on our way to seek out rare Irrawaddy river dolphins. After another Mekong crossing, an hour’s worth of tuk tuking, and 30 minutes on a private river boat, we were closing in on where the dolphins were apparently hanging out. Neither Joella nor I were 100% confident that we’d get to see them given it was Monsoon season, so you can imagine our faces when we were greeted by a pod of 6 or more swimming within 10 metres of our boat! Although none attempted to perform any backflips (too much watching of Flipper me thinks), we throughly enjoyed the show, as well as the constant whooshing noises they made each time they surfaced for air.

Searching for Irawaddy dolphins on the Mekong
Irawaddy dolphins on the Mekong near Kratie Cambodia
On the way back our tuk tuk driver took us past his home to grab a quick bite to eat. Snails were on the menu, which he ate speedily with a toothpick while his children and mother in law (she looked about 120 odd) watched disapprovingly – apparently we weren’t the only ones who aren’t a fan of l’escargot!

On our final full day in Cambodia, we successfully circumnavigated Koh Trong island’s muddy paths (impressive given Joella’s choice to wear slippery flip flops). Given that it was Joella’s birthday, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner and cocktails at the fancy resort next door. Obviously pizza was on the menu, as well as some exceptionally tasty triple-fried, chunky chips. 

Joella on muddy footpaths on Koh Trong island Kratie Cambodia
Although Kratie’s tatty accommodation left a lot to be desired (apart from the food and entertaining local cats), we did truly appreciate the opportunity to see the dolphins, especially considering how endangered they are believed to be.

Koh Trong island cats
Cambodia, you’ve been good to us – next stop Laos! 

I wond’r how we’ll use the bathroom without dying? Acclimatising to rural life in Kampong Cham, Cambodia

After a 6 hour coach ride with spitting and spluttering locals (Cambodians young and old love spitting, in plastic carrier bags when the ground outside isn’t an option), we arrived in Kampong Cham – a large town situated a hundred miles or so North East of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. This part of our trip saw us depart the comforts of Cambodia’s main tourist hotspots (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap), to instead venture out into lesser visited areas.

On arrival in Kampong Cham, we jumped on a tuk tuk with a Canadian lady (Celine) already onboard, who was also headed to the same rural bungalows in Chiro village that we were. Unfortunately this led to our first experience of being taken for a ride (in the metaphorical sense); the driver stopped half way to demand an extortionate fee of $18, double what was already agreed by Selene. His excuse was there were now three of us, but this simply doesn’t fly. In the end I got him down to $15, and we’d pay $6 only on arrival, otherwise he was threatening to leave us where we were. We later learnt the correct fee should have been just $4, RAGE!

Arriving in Chiro village – Dancing children (and giant eight legged freaks)

Thoughts of crooked tuk tuk drivers very quickly disappeared as we were immediately rushed through to a nearby riverside cafe by Marin, an enthusiastic French lady who was responsible for managing all the bungalows. We had arrived just in time to enjoy the local school children perform a number of traditional Cambodian songs and dances for a group of tourists visiting from a Mekong river cruise. Despite the limited narration, we were able to get the gist of the stories and thoroughly enjoyed the colourful and sometime hilarious entertainment we were lucky to have caught.

Dancing children in Kampong Cham Cambodia with fish baskets
Dancing children in Kampong Cham Cambodia with scary masks
Once the festivities had come to a close, we headed over to explore our awesome bungalow. It was of traditional construction, consisting mostly of bamboo with a thatched roof, atop of three metre high stilts. There were gaps everywhere and you could even see the ground below, but not to worry, a mosquito net ensured we weren’t completely eaten alive by mosquitos! After a walk along the Goliath sized Mekong river, to the sound track of a million crickets, frogs, cows and chickens, we were beginning to feel at home in our new rural surroundings.

Traditional Cambodian bungalow in OBT Chiro Kampong Cham
Mekong river banks Kampong Cham Cambodia
That evening we enjoyed an unexpected drinking session with the other bungalow guests and volunteers of the OBT project (Organisation for Basic Training), offering after school education, as well as other environmental and economic initiatives such as melting down recycled plastic to make roof tiles. Part way through our beers I reluctantly slipped away to find Joella, who had disappeared some time earlier to go to the toilet in our bungalow nearby. 

I was initially worried that she was feeling unwell and had gone to bed, but instead was greeted with a far more sinister scene… While standing in the doorway to the bathroom, shaking with fear, she stammered just one word: “Spiders”. At first I thought this was ridiculous – I was losing out on valuable drinking time, but when I shone my torch to where she was pointing, my heart stopped and the hairs literally stood up on the back of my neck. The two offending beasts (not an exaggeration) were massive, hairy things, that definitely looked poisonous, in my humble opinion. What were we going to do? There’s no way I was going near these.

Spider in Kampong Cham Cambodia
After speaking with the Brummie volunteer who’d been there for a while, we learnt that apparently big spiders aren’t usually that dangerous, and instead to watch out for the smaller ones. His final advice was to use the bum gun (a shower for your derrière) to usher them out of our bathroom, which I proceeded to do. This method was seemingly more successful than my earlier attempts to throw books at them.

Day 1 – Relaxing (and ATM sightseeing)

Following a restless nights sleep (bathroom visits involved both of us, one armed with the torch and the other with the bum gun) we treated ourselves to some delicious banana pancakes and sweet Cambodian coffees for brekky. After touring all of Kampong Cham’s ATMs (the first six we came to didn’t accept MasterCard) we spent the afternoon lounging around in hammocks, reading (The Quiet American – Thanks Greg, Ruth and Phoebe!), watching the local dogs play fight, while keeping dry from the heavy rain showers that passed by.

Joella kicking back in a hammock in Kampong Cham Cambodia

Day 2 – Trunddling around on two wheels (at a snails pace)

On our last day we were equally tired, this time not caused by eight legged freaks, but instead by never ending chanting beginning at 4 o’clock in the morning – yawn. It turned out that it’s local tradition to play a cassette through a loud speaker system, inviting people from the surrounding area (internationally judging by the volume) to come and pay their respects when someone dies.

Not letting a bad nights sleep slow us down, we decided to rent some bicycles to explore the surrounding countryside a little more. Inevitably this did prove a rather slow paced affair, not out of tiredness, but because Jonny’s bike was stuck in a low gear. Changing up wasn’t an option due to a bolt having been replaced with an oversized one, blocking the chain from moving. Although we didn’t see any spectacular sights, it was nice to have escaped the larger towns and to feel like minor celebrities; the local children waved enthusiastically at the site that greeted them: peculiarly slow white people trundling past on rickety old bicycles.

Jonny and Joella cycling in Kampong Cham Cambodia
Cambodian hut on stilts with corn in the cob

Despite three traumatic nights of spider herding, we really enjoyed our stay and wish we could have hung around longer to get involved with the really worthwhile efforts of OBT. Perhaps another time!?

Next stop – Kratie, where we hope to catch a glimpse of the incredibly rare Irrawaddy dolphins…