Tag Archives: motorbike

Phong Nha Cavernous Caves….Vietnam

Warning: There are lots of pictures of rocks. Lots. But they are pretty cool.

We crossed into Vietnam via Cha Lo, which is not a common tourist crossing we found out.  Our bus was full of 20-something Vietnamese guys presumably returning from working in Laos or Thailand, as their wallets were stuffed full of cash.  40 guys with stinky feet and me, and absolutely no English.  It took us 2 hours to get through the border, which was full of hand gestures, confusion and shuffling bags back and forth between inspections and the bus.  The whole time, we had a glimmer of hope that they could drop us off in Phong Nha (our destination) as it was in the direct path between Thakhek and Dong Hoi.  So we kept saying Phong Nha to the driver and the ticket guy and the other guy who was in charge of something.  Eventually they started calling us Phong Nha.

But we didn’t stop in Phong Nha, though we got within 20 km or so.  We got dropped off in Dong Hoi and found out the last bus to Phong Nha had already departed and we could take a taxi for an exorbitant amount, or wait til the next morning to catch the local bus at just over $1.  So we found a nice guesthouse along the ocean and ate some delicious beef soup.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next morning we woke up early and went out on the main street, hoping to find a bus marked with our destination.  After 20 nerve-racking minutes, we spotted one, got on and discovered other tourists headed the same way.

We spent that afternoon researching and talking to people coming back from the caves.  The national park here has the world’s largest cave and it was only discovered in the last few years.  Hence, tourism has just started to pick up and people are flocking to the area to see the caves.  The largest cave is $3000 to visit and has a waiting list, so that was out.  We opted for a few of the other, also spectacular ones instead.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next morning the power was out (something we would come to discover happens quite a lot).  There are tour companies in Phong Nha who offer day trips to see multiple attractions.  We asked around, thought $60+ was too much and decided to do two caves on our own.  The roads are good and the scenery is gorgeous, so we rented a motorbike for the hour drive to Paradise Cave.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The ride up the cave was beautiful, more karsts, little towns and lush, green foliage.  It rains quite a lot at this time of year.  We parked the motorbike and climbed about a kilometer up a mountain to reach the entrance to the cave.  This cave has been open to the public for awhile and they have sunk a lot of money into the infrastructure here.  Everything outside is paved and the whole walkway inside the cave is wooden and appears sturdy.  I was pretty impressed.  For being so remote, this cave was really well taken care of and tastefully lit up.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We spent about two hours at Paradise Cave, walking the 1 kilometer path and back.  The stalactites and stalagmites were massive and had such character.  You could see where some had fallen thousands of years ago and more had formed on top of them.  We arrived at lunchtime and all the tour groups were gone so we were able to enjoy a few minutes of complete silence in the cave (besides the dripping water).  The pictures don’t really do it justice.  It was hard to capture the scale of the cavern with the camera.

Next stop, the Dark Cave.  This is more of an adventure cave, not as big and has no lights.  This cave is more expensive, but includes all necessary gear – headlamp, hard hat, life vest and safety harness.  We were strapped into our harnesses and ziplined across the river to the mouth of the cave.  From there, we swam into the cave, waded through chilly water and mud.  We removed our lifejackets, flipped on our headlamps and trod through mud toward our destination, slipping all the way.  By the time we reached the end of the trail, we were all covered in mud and having a grand time.  I had a mudstache – courtesy of our guide.

The finale of the tour is sitting in a thick pool of mud in complete darkness.  The mud is so thick that you can float on it, but still swim.  It was much warmer deep in the cave and the mud felt great on my skin.  We headed back the way we came, rinsed off and kayaked back to the start, where they have two small ziplines dropping you into the water.  Despite the chill of the water, this turned out to be my favorite thing in Phong Nha.  It helps that they serve you hot soup, tea and rum by a fire at the end.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We dried off and headed back to town in time for sunset.  Driving at night is dangerous, as there are no streetlights and when we got back to the hostel, there still wasn’t any power.  So no hot showers for us, which was disappointing.  Apparently, they are working on the electric lines all the time, probably updating them to accommodate the huge influx of tourism in the area in the last few years.  It would be interesting to see the development that happens in this area in the next ten years.  The caves are really incredible and its no wonder why people are already flocking here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The following day we met in the lobby of our hostel to join a bunch of people to visit the cave that is closest to town.  Ten of us split the cost of a boat and we headed for Phong Nha and Tien Son caves.  The little dragon boat took us down the river about half an hour to the entrance of the caves, leaking all the way.  our wooden boat had seen better days.  At the entrance to Phong Nha cave, the boat driver switched off the motor and he and his helper removed the top of the boat, so we could look directly above our heads.  They pulled out their paddles and we spent the next hour or so moving silently through the cave.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The dragon boat returned us to the entrance of the cave and we disembarked for the walk up to the next cave, Tien Son.  We walked up some very steep steps, with ladies selling ice cream all the way up.  In my opinion, this cave was better than Phong Nha cave.   There is wooden loop way down into the cave, lots more steps.  More beautiful formations and tasteful lighting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We took the dragon boat back to town, where the power was out again.  Saw some interesting boat uses along the way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day we took the local bus back to Dong Hoi, where we were dropped at an intersection and told to wait for the next bus to Hue (no time table).  Luckily, one arrived about half an hour later, we flagged it down and headed south on the dustiest and bumpiest  bus/road we have encountered thus far.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Colonel Mustard and Mr. Tabasco are a long way from home.

Take a road just to see where it goes….Thakhek Loop, Laos

Thakhek is a small town on the Mekong River with a border crossing to Thailand.  There’s not much going on here, but it seems to be a base for people doing the ‘Thakhek Loop,’ like us, and for a large cave.  Our plan included the loop, a 400+ km (250+ miles) tour through incredible karsts with stops along the way with breathtaking scenery and caves.

We arrived by bus from Vientiane (about 5 hours) and wandered town to find a hostel.  Slim pickings here as there are only a few roads and many of the guesthouses don’t really look open.  We spent the next day walking the town.  The whole town.  Which wasn’t tough.  Only took a few hours.  There’s a small market and a riverfront.  We reserved our motorbikes that evening and packed our small bags with just enough stuff for our four day trip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Day 1:

We set out around 10 am, after running some errands around town and eating breakfast.  First stop, Xieng Liab cave.  Only about ten minutes outside of town, we pulled over at a sign pointing down a tiny dirt path.  A local tried to offer his guidance, but we declined and walked about 10 minutes into the woods.  A huge opening in the vertical karst greeted us and we spent the next ten minutes climbing over rocks to get a good view of the inside.

     OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Then we headed a bit down the road and found the Falang watering hole (means foreigner).  The water was beautiful and enticing, but a bit cold for our taste.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As the road turned more rural, we came across incredible flooded forests, as this area was purposely flooded for a hydropower project.  Sixteen villages were relocated.  The locals were given bigger and “better” houses and moved just out of the flooded area.  95% of the power is sold to Thailand.  All this we learned when we encountered the dam’s visitor center and a man working there who has the best English we’d found in awhile.  He was very pleased to meet some Americans, as his English teacher when he was a monk was American.

We ended our first day at a guesthouse that caters to most of the people doing the motorbike loop.  They had a bonfire all evening, a cute puppy and a delicious BBQ buffet for the ten or so guests.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Day 2:

This is the day we had heard was a bit difficult.  The road turns to dirt about 20 km from where we stayed (though they are working on paving it, so this number is ever increasing).  We stocked up on gas, which is kept in liter bottles and topped off by the  local women, occasionally with a child or two on hip or in tow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The road wasn’t as bad as we had thought, but we went pretty slow.  We had seen some rough cases of road rash back in town and a motorbike that came back rather wrecked with its passenger still in the hospital.  The scenery was breathtaking as we descended the hills.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Unexploded ordnances are still a problem in this area as well.

Having passed the worst part of the road, we made our way through a larger town and onto an area of the map where there was supposed to be a cool spring.  This cool spring eluded us (and most people we spoke to as well), but we found some amazing views off little dirt roads in the same general vicinity.

We tried almost every promising road off the main road to find these cool springs.  It was at the end of one of these little dirt roads that I vowed to change this blog name to “The cow came out of nowhere” when, well, the cow came out of nowhere.  A little road rash, some bruises and a lot of dust later, I was back on the bike, but done looking for cool springs.  The cow looked at me like she’d never seen such a pale person on a motorbike before, and maybe she hadn’t.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Day 3:

This was my favorite day of the loop.  We had stayed in a town at the end of a 40 km road to Konglor Cave.  We could probably have made it all the way to the cave on day 2, but after the cow incident, I was ready to be off the bike.  The 40 km to the cave is completely flat with karsts on either side.  People were farming the land on either side of the road and there was hardly any traffic.  We passed through quite a few little villages, where the children yelled and waved hello.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We stopped for brunch right outside the cave and Riki changed his camera lens to the fish eye. Hence, these two gems.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At Konglor cave, you hire a boat (max three people), are given a headlamp and then head for the entrance.  We had a driver and a guy in the front with a paddle and a cup.  His job was the avoid the rocks and scoop water out of the ever flooded boat.  We had to get out at one point and walk over the rocks because it was very shallow.  During the wet season, this must be a very different place and we heard some days you can’t even go in because the water is too high.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

7 kilometers later, you emerge at the end of a dirt road (presumably there is a village 4 km up the road).  We spent 20 minutes walking around the area, though it was mostly just women hawking their scarves.  Then we returned the way we had come.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We hopped back on our bikes and went the 40 kms back to the town we had stayed in the night before.  Some people do the loop in 3 days, but with all the flat tires we heard about and the fear of driving at night with no streetlights, four days was definitely the way to go.  There’s not much to do in Kuon Kham, but we found a viewpoint above the town with a great view of the mountains.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

8 kms west of the town is a great spot to rest between all the curves and hills.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These cows were on their way home, but made a pit stop at the pharmacy and market to check out the goods in the trash cans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Day 4:

This is the ‘boring’ day, or so we had heard.  It’s 140 kms of mostly highway, which is flat and there is more traffic.  Highway is a loose term though.  We were passed by only a few cars and the scenery was still really nice.  Lots of little towns and tons of children yelling and waving at you.  We arrived back in Thakhek in time for a late lunch and checked back into our hotel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We managed to be about 75% sure of the bus schedule to Vietnam, so we had one extra day to wait until we could catch the bus.  Lucky for me, as I became very sick and was in no shape to get on a 9 hour bus that day.

But I didn’t hit the cow.

Next stop: Central  Vietnam and more caves!

More Wats & Motorbikes….Sukhothai & Chiang Mai, Thailand

No sleep on our overnight flight from Kathmandu to Bangkok (through Kuala Lumpur again). We just can’t do it. Luckily, there are lots of movies and we were entertained on both flights. So when we got to Bangkok we checked into our usual place (weird that we have stayed here at least three different occasions already) and slept for the rest of the afternoon. Our two favorite street food places on Rambuttri were closed because it was Monday so we opted for one of the touristy places nearby. Which was a great find, not for the prices, but because I discovered baked bananas in coconut milk. Delicious, like dessert soup. Must find a recipe. The next day we sent out all of our laundry (except socks, which are never leaving our sight again) and tried to get the Nepal pictures saved and then blogged. We have spent a lot of time in Bangkok by now and are less impressed each time we come back. It has so much to offer, but it is SO big and can be quite frustrating and/or expensive getting from one place to another. We were glad to hop on a bus on Wednesday for a 7 hour trip to Sukhothai, another ancient capital.


We arrived after dark, took a tuk tuk to our hostel in New Sukhothai and then explored the night market area. While there were lots of street food vendors, there wasn’t much else to do. The tuk tuks here are different. Instead of a bike pulling some sort of cart, the cart is in the front, completely blocking the view of the driver. And then the passengers get all the wind and dust in their faces and totally ruin their hair.

The next morning we got up incredibly early (Riki’s idea, I was not pleased) to rent bikes in Old Sukhothai and explore the ruins. We arrived by tuk tuk at the entrance, where we were given our 30 baht (about $1) bikes, pink and blue of course. I got pink, not by choice. Incredibly uncomfortable bikes, except for the extra seat in the back of mine, but they had brakes, which is more than we can say about some other bikes we’ve rented.

Old Sukhothai is very spread out and it was pretty hot. The first Wat we visited was the most central one and the largest. I pretty quickly discovered some wildlife and Riki wandered off take pictures. A lot of the wats are pretty similar, but there are a few different styles here, with Sri Lanka and Khmer influences. I will spare you the nitty gritty, but there are loads of pictures (shocking).


 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Too early to be sightseeing
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
She came up to me, I swear.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
BIG Buddha

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Proof Riki was here.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Waiting patiently for Riki while he takes photos
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Buddha be gold-fingered
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Back seat was more comfy on my little pink bike

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day we went back to the bus station and caught a bus north to Chiang Mai. You don’t normally have to book the buses ahead of time, just show up at the station and they will put you on the next available bus. We have been pretty lucky and haven’t had to wait very long so far. Six hours later we arrived and took another tuk tuk to the Old City. We checked into a guesthouse named after me and meandered to the city walls to check out the food stalls. We have been able to eat very well and very cheaply in Thailand. The street food is really good and there are many options. I discovered a dessert stall and sampled a few bright colored squares. Still not sure what they were, but they were kind of a cross between hard jello and pudding. Unfortunately, not a good combo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Chiang Mai is a hub for trekking, outdoor adventure and cooking classes. Having no desire to go trekking Thai style as we feel a bit spoiled by Nepal’s real trekking, we spent two days wandering the city, checking out the various markets and wats. We also got our first massage, after being tempted by so many vendors in Bangkok, we gave in and got 30 minute foot massages for the equivalent of about $5 total.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is where the parents should probably skip ahead, or at least be thankful that we sometimes do things without telling you first for a reason. Having exhausted the sights of the Old City in Chiang Mai, we had the grand idea to rent a motorbike and go on an adventure around a commonly travelled loop just outside the city. This 100+ km loop goes by some incredible waterfalls, various flora and fauna sites, including an elephant camp, and through some incredible scenery. Having rented scooters in New Orleans one time, we were pros, and showed up at the bike shop ready for anything. Except semi-automatic motorbikes and hills. And Thai police officers (more later). But for the equivalent of $10 we were given helmets, a bike and a map and sent off on our way. Having only ever ridden a scooter, an automatic one, this was, well, a bit of a learning process. Oh and the traffic (not to mention they drive on the left). The beginning of the loop goes for about 30 minutes through the city and its suburbs. In one word, nerve-racking. Riki thought it best that I start out driving. You know, because I know gears better (?). So by the time we see the police check point, I’m pretty mentally drained from dodging buses and cars and other crazy motorbike drivers. When the cop motions us to stop, I’m thinking, “Well, this has been fun, all 30 minutes of it.” He asks for my international driver’s license and I hand over my Louisiana license. Of course, getting our driver’s license translated had been on our list of things to do before we left Louisiana, but it didn’t happen. At this point, Riki and I are both thinking that we are going to have to park the bike and get a taxi back to town because they won’t let us drive. Well, not the case. The cop writes me up a ticket, and motions me to cross the highway to the guy sitting under a tree with a wad of cash. 200 baht (about $6.50) later and we are off, with me free to drive for the rest of the day. I’d like to point out here that getting an international driver’s license in the U.S. costs at least $25. So I’m still ahead.

Onward we went. Eventually, we turned onto a smaller road and the traffic subsided. We stopped at Mae Sa Waterfalls and hiked up the 10 falls. This place has been neglected some, especially the higher you go, but the scenery is lush and the falls were decent.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
These big guys have an affinity for me. Note my awesome pink helmet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Riki decided to risk another $6.50 fine and took over the driving. We continued on the Samoeng Valley loop to the Queen Sirikrit Botanical Gardens. It is set up on a very steep hill and there were times when I didn’t think our little 125cc bike would make it. But we made it to the top, ate lunch and explored the greenhouses. They have a great display of cacti and water plants, as well as a very large rainforest house.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We continued on through windy roads which at times were very steep (uphill and down) and saw some beautiful views along the way. When Riki got tired of driving, I took over and continued producing terrible noises from the motorbike as I chugged up and down hills. Towards the end, it was so steep that the fuel gauge hit empty and I was pretty sure we were going to be stranded. It wasn’t empty just yet, but by the time we neared the end of the loop we were running on fumes with no gas station in sight. I started coasting whenever possible and we passed plenty of LPG (liquid petro) stations, but not a single regular station. Finally, at a stop light, I pulled up to a lady on a similar bike and pointed down at my bright red fuel gauge. She chuckled a little and motioned just up the street. Sure enough, there it was, but on the wrong side of the road. I can’t exactly explain why that u-turn was so stressful, but I think the combo of already being low on gas, having to drive 5 minutes down the road to the next intersection to turn around and then trying to figure out which side of the intersection to go on when everyone is going every which way, all combined to make an eventful end of our trip. We returned the bike and headed straight for John’s Bar, where we got two draft beers and tried to unwind.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next morning, we got a tuk tuk back to the bus station and caught the bus to Chiang Rai.