Conquering the legendary Loop

I’m sitting on the “lid” of one of the 150 limestone “jars” at the Plain of Jars (Site 3), awaiting the sunset at this scenic, hilltop location on the outskirts of Phonsavan. The past two weeks have been scenic overload! A coffee plantation tour in Paksong by the humorous Dutchman, Mr. Kofi (I bought a 300g bag of his Arabica beans) was followed by a recommended waterfall and swimming hole, 7km west of Paksong.

After touring the 1200m Bolovan Plateau (Laos’ coffee region), I sped through Savannakhet on the banks of the Mekong to my next destination: the “Loop”. It’s a road circuit that takes you through some of Laos’ most spectacular limestone karst formations, caves, and countryside. I took Rt 12 east from Tha Khek to the border town of Na Pho to access Xe Bang Fai Cave, by far the most remote and impressive of the five caves I’ve explored in SE Asia. To reach the cave from Rt 12, 50kms of dirt road, a river crossing by boat, and a stream crossing must be negotiated (and that’s just in the dry season!). The journey was half the fun. And then there was the cave — one of the largest river cave systems in the world. I had it all to myself, along with a German I befriended during the coffee tour, and our boatman, who paddled us 2km into the cave and back (rapids prevented further progress).

Kong Lor Cave, much more convenient and touristy, had a tough follow-up act so I tempered my expectations. It felt like an amusement park ride. I shared a boat with a French couple and we were motored 7.5km through the cave and back, sandwiched around a tasty lunch of sticky rice and a spicy, mystery meat concoction at a local village by the cave river entrance. Sitting on the floor, without shoes, and eating with locals felt genuine and touching.

After two nights at a guesthouse near the access road to Kong Lor on Rt 8, I headed for Phonsavan. Deciding to bypass Paksan and get off busy Rt 13, I opted for a dirt-road detour. Star was ready, having received a chain adjustment, a new exhaust O-ring (now she has a deep purr!), an oil change, and a full tank of gas. I thought I was ready, having had no problems relying on Google Maps, aside from one incident in Vietnam when the road ended and I had to backtrack 10kms. The initial stretch was favorable. I drove through little villages that were amazed and happy to see a foreigner this far off the beaten path. Once I hit the midpoint 20kms in, the road forked into two paths, both in bad shape. I went with the more traveled of the two. I was wrong. The “correct” way was little more than a logging trail! I had to carefully maneuver sandy patches to avoid wiping out, and I settled for the first guesthouse I saw after a full day of  riding. I only covered 130km. I made it to Phonsavan the following evening after waiting out a morning downpour — the first rain since Hue, six weeks ago.

4,000 Islands bliss in Laos

Yesterday capped off four days of pure bliss and relaxation on Don Khon Island. It’s one of many jungle-clad and rice paddy-covered islands in Si Phon Don (4,000 Islands), scattered throughout the mighty Mekong River on the Lao-Cambodian border. I started the day with two cups of Kafi Kon (weasel coffee), which was given to me by a generous hotel/café hostess in southern Vietnam.

On a side note, my Lao host (I mistook as Vietnamese because he commented on my bike and said he was from Vietnam!) let me crash for free on a roll-up mattress with mosquito netting in his open-air, riverfront restaurant (Noknoy Restaurant) because his three inn rooms were full. All I had to do was pay for one meal a day. No problem! His family’s cooking was terrific. And the view of the river and the old, French bridge added immensely to the laidback vibe.

After coffee and an omelet baguette, I explored the car-free island via dirt roads/paths and found a series of rapids and waterfalls as this is the fall-line of the Mekong. I later came to the end of the road after a lunch of curry-fried rice and a lazy nap overlooking an Indiana Jones-esque, wood plank/cable bridge. I could go no further on my bike as the wooden bridge, built using old French rails, had collapsed some time ago. So I decided to cross the dry gully and proceed on foot. The trail followed the river and I passed a grazing water buffalo and dense vegetation before I came to a patch of coconut palms. I wanted coconut water so I spent nearly an hour throwing rocks and scaling trees, trying to get the stubborn nuts down. It was much easier in Columbia!

After finally accomplishing my goal and drinking with satisfaction, I headed back to a river beach, where I had unsuccessfully tried to find travelers to split the cost of a boat trip with me the previous two days. Third time’s a charm. I enjoyed an hour-long ride (actually it was longer as the motor gave out on the way back) with two others, watching a small family of extremely-rare Irrawaddy dolphins from a distance. A stunning sunset came next and I washed everything down with two, big bottles of BeerLao. I thought it couldn’t get any better. I was wrong. Upon my return, my gracious host invited me to eat dinner with his family after I had finished a big bowl of Tom Yum soup! Together we ate a Lao dish that involved wrapping fish (I think it was fish) and noodles in lettuce and leaves, which were then dipped in a spicy sauce… Incredible, unique taste! I couldn’t have asked for a better start to Laos.

The mother lode of temples — Angkor

Angkor: the most spectacular concentration of temples on Earth, and the reason why I handed over $35 for a visa at the border crossing.  Fast forward six days from the moment I stepped off my bike in Siem Reap — the tourist gateway to the ancient complex — and I’m “templed” out. After five days in Siem Reap (3 full days exploring temples) and a half-day at Preah Vihear (the only other UNESCO temple site in Cambodia), I’m exhausted from stone grandeur. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Did it meet my high expectations? My expectations were blown away.

With my 3-day ticket ($40), I saw a sunset at Pre Rup, a sunrise at Angkor Wat’s NW moat, spent a morning wandering around the Royal Palace grounds in Angkor Thom, and finished my first, full day by climbing the jungle ruins of Beng Mealea ($5 ticket, 65km northeast of Siem Reap) before catching the tail-end of a sunset at the Bangkor. For the second day, a sunrise at Srah Srang, a peaceful, early morning at Ta Prohm (the “Tomb Raider” temple) before the tourist hordes descended, an unremarkable noon trip to Banteay Samre, a marvelous viewing of Banteay Srei (32km from Siemp Reap) and it’s exquisite, pinkish stone carvings, and capped by a solitary sunset atop Ta Kea (SIDENOTE: the Chinese government is partially funding it’s current restoration work).

I took a break from sightseeing on the third day by seeing a sunrise at Phnom Bakheng, relaxing poolside at a new backpacker spot called Funky Monkey (I slept the five nights in an open-air, 16-bed dorm at Urban Jungle for $3 a night), and watching the sun set at Phnom Kram (I had to pay the ticket checker $2 because I didn’t want to use up my ticket). The 3-day pass allows you to go on any three days in any one week, but you can usually beat the checkers at sunrise and sunet. I also was building up for the largest religious building in the world — Angkor Wat — so I wanted to save the best for last.

I arrived at Angkor Wat at 5am, well before the sun, but dozens of people were already waiting and hundreds would soon arrive. Most people wait outside by one of the moats to watch the sun come up behind the central tower, but I snuck inside and climbed to the top of one of the four corner towers. EPIC. Once the sun was high in the sky and my visual senses were overloaded, I went on a brief jungle trek under the ziplines of the Flight of the Gibbons experience. I got lost and had to backtrack before arriving at isolated Ta Nei, a smaller, less-trafficked version of Ta Prohm. I ended up taking a nap in my newly-acquired hammock because it was so peaceful. After a cheap lunch of Khmer noodles, I decided to return to Ta Keo for a sunset to avoid the tourist hot spots (which has been my MO on this trip). Accolades go to Beng Mealea (natural, ruined state where you can climb the temple walls) and Ta Nei (idyllic, natural, ruined state) for best, overall atmosphere. (ADVICE: Bear in mind that the dozens of temples cover a huge area so timing and travel planning are key for a pleasant experience. Foreigners are barred from using motorbikes in Siem Reap and Angkor, although aside from being stopped and warned by tourist police on two occasions, the law is loosely enforced.)