Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Day 32 - 31 March 2015 - Pakse to Siem Reap

The room was extremely comfortable and the service pleasant. Yet I was not able to sleep properly. I was quite tense. The disappointment at the Vietnam border kept playing on my mind. I kept on mulling options in case I was refused entry into Cambodia with the car. I knew that the Laos border would not present any problems. Many reports on the Net talked about all around corruption at the border posts. Would I be able to handle that? There weren’t any reports about driving a personal car, from other than the neighbouring countries, into Cambodia. Therefore, the documents required to be presented to Immigration and Customs to get the car in were not known. Despite the Cambodian Embassy in New Delhi confirming that the Carnet alone would suffice, I was apprehensive. The Vietnam Embassy in New Delhi had given similar advice with disappointing results. These thoughts as well as the fact that the schedule would go completely off sync with financial implications, due to pre-booked hotels, kept building up the tension. After midnight sleep completely deserted me. I had nothing much to do too and an idle mind is a devil’s workshop, I experienced. The tensions only built up more. Finally, I had a bath at 3am, to ‘kill’ the situation. And then, I slept for a couple of hours!

I had scheduled to stay this day at Stung Treng, on the Cambodian side of the border. The drive was less than 230 km. I deliberately chose the location for two reasons; I did not know how much time it would take at the borders and the roads in Cambodia was another unknown element. Considering that the borders would be freer if I reached there close to 10 am, once the morning rush had been dealt with, I checked out of the hotel after 6.30 am. The road condition was quite good and the traffic on the road was sparse. I reached the Lao PDR border much earlier than anticipated at a quarter to 9 am; it took me only 2 hours of relaxed driving from Pakse. When I was getting the Immigration formalities done on the Laos side I observed the Cambodian border post with trepidation. What hurdles lay across that? After stamping my passport the immigration official asked if I would give him $2! I said I would complete the Customs formality of stamping the Carnet and get back to him. After the Customs officer had stamped the Carnet he too asked for $2, which seemed to be standard fare. When I gave him Lao Kip, he gave me change after keep the equivalent of $2; so much for honesty. I walked back to Immigration and satisfied his request too.
I passed through the Lao PDR border post wondering if I would have to return as I had to do in Tay Trang, Vietnam. The quarantine officials on the Cambodian side asked me to park the car at a designated spot and go to the Customs first to check if they would permit my car through. Palpitation increased and my legs felt leaden. I took the Carnet, supporting documents and passport to the Customs booth about 300 metres away. Those 300 meters felt like 3 km; my mouth went dry and I walked very slowly. A young boy manned the Customs counter and he looked at the Carnet and didn’t know what to do with it. That was additional reinforcement of the Vietnam border experience. He got up after a while and approached a senior person who was talking on his mobile animatedly. He looked to be in a jovial mood; all such details are accounted for by the brain in such tense situations. He took the Carnet and, still talking on the phone, affixed rubber stamps on the Carnet and put his signature on it. I was surprised that he had not asked for either the registration certificate or the International Driving Permit. He only asked to see my passport and took down what looked like the visa details. Later I realised that he had taken down my US Visa details! All this happened in less than 5 minutes.

I was so relieved when I walked to the Immigration counter, where I got the visa stamped. The immigration official asked for $2 and he accepted $1 when I said that that was all I had. When I was at the immigration counter I saw a chap from the quarantine department spraying the wheels of the car. As soon as I was finished with the immigration I was summoned to the quarantine booth where I was given a certificate for their work and was asked $3. I gave them 20,000 LK I had on me ($2.5), the last of the Lao Kip. With that all formalities for entry into Cambodia had been completed – both borders detained me for a total of only 30 minutes. That was swift work. As I was about to leave the booth an elderly gentleman asked where I came from. His eyes lit up when I mentioned India. He said he had worked with the Archaeological Survey of India in New Delhi for many months when the Indian Government was involved in the restoration of a few temples in Angkor Wat. He is currently the Chief Guide of the complex.
I had less than 60 km to get to Stung Treng, where I was to halt. I started calculating if I could drive through to Siem Reap, another 300 km, instead of staying in the one horse town. I briefly abandoned the idea when I encountered rank bad roads more than half way to Stung Treng. I located a hotel on the highway and checked if I could stay there. They were fully booked except for the VIP room that was available for $40. It was only 10.30 am and I decided to take the chance and left for Siem Reap. The road condition turned out to be quite good and I hit the outskirts of Siem Reap by 1.30 pm. And then, Google Maps took me on a wild goose chase in search of roads that did not exist. After a while I got a bit desperate because the roads got very rough, there was no one in sight and fuel was running low. After about 30 minutes or so I saw a house in the middle of nowhere. I drove to it and got directions to get back on the main road.

As I was in the city I was waved down by what looked like the Police and the Military. The young man in military uniform asked to see my papers. When I showed him the Carnet he was immediately convinced that I was in the country with the car legally. He did not want to see anything further but he had a few queries. He wanted to know what work I was engaged in back home, the purpose of my visit to Cambodia and why I was travelling alone. He was convinced about my responses to the first two and he himself supplied an answer to the third, “Lady, yah?” I told him that I have come looking for a companion in Cambodia! To this he said, “Don’t waste your time here, friend. They are not good”!
I got to the Royal Crown Hotel without any hassle and requested the reception for a room. I had booking at the hotel from the 1 April. I had reached a day early. They complied soon and I was shown to my comfortable room by the Bin Barang who was in charge of guest relations at the time. He suggested a relaxing massage at the hotel, which I booked. The young lady suggested that I take the massage in the room without any additional charges, which I agreed to. Barang suggested what I could do in the next two days and places where I could sample local cuisine in the vicinity of the hotel.

It was hot and the ideal weather that would dry clothes quickly. I had quite a bit of laundry to do and got through it while having a couple of cups of coffee. I was hungry since I had not had anything other than biscuits, dates and plenty of water on the drive from Pakse to Siem Reap, where I had reached at 3 pm. By the time I was done with the laundry the masseuse arrived with the towels and oil. Over the next one hour she worked to untangle the knots and tensions. The Khmer massage is different from the Thai one; the former is softer and does not use as much pressure as the latter.
By the time the massage was over I could not contain the hunger. After a shower I walked across to the Khmer Charming Restaurant and ordered the special food of the day which consisted of mango salad, noodles and pork, sticky rice and mango and orange juice. But Angkor Beer had to start things off, naturally. As I was leaving the hotel for the restaurant I requested the reception to change USD into local currency for me. When I mentioned that it was to pay for the food they told me that USD was widely accepted almost everywhere, especially in hotels and restaurants where the tariff and rate cards are in USD! I found it so in the Khmer Charming Restaurant, where the change was returned in a mix of USD and local currency.

As I was walking back to the hotel I found a Total gas station where cars were being serviced. I had done close to 9500 km and thought it would be a good idea to service the car as I had an extra day. I walked in and booked a slot for 7 am. Since I had all the oils and replacement spares I was told that all I needed to pay was $5 to the mechanic for the servicing! The servicing would be completed in an hour, he confirmed. That was a lovely end to a wonderful day, which had begun with plenty of tensions.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Day 31 - 30 March 2015 - Paksan to Pakse

 Having woken up early and got ready I waited for daylight before setting off for Pakse. By 6 am I thought there was enough of it to check out of the hotel. The girl at the reception gave me back my passport once I had made the payment and she had personally checked the room. She had to return change of $2, for which she had neither USD nor adequate change in LK. Finally, I accepted what she had; she gave me a bottle of water when she saw me filling bottles from the dispenser near the reception.  I got on to Route 13, just across the hotel, at a quarter past 6 am. The road condition I encountered surprised me. The surfacing was good in most parts and the traffic was sparse. In the first two hours I covered nearly 170 kms. I then realised why Phoukong, in Luang Prabang, had a hurt look on his face when I asked him if the road to Pakse is motorable. He simply said, “Yes, yes”. But the eyes and face told a different story – that of incredulous betrayal. Instead of the 11 hours I had estimated for the 530 km drive I did it in less than 7 hours.

I have been using Google Maps to get me from one place to the other using the WiFi network in the places that I stayed. In like manner the Maps got me from the Paksan Hotel to Pakse. However, the road to the Phetphaylin Hotel did not exist once I reached a certain portion of 13 South Road. A bridge was being constructed and there was no way in which I could get across. When I stood at the edge of the bridge under construction a worker came up to me and asked if he could help. I was surprised because no one actually offers assistance unless it is sought. He gave me directions for a diversion to cross the bridge, which I took without any hassle and reached the landmark mentioned by Google Maps. However, the hotel was nowhere in sight. Despite a few enquiries I could not get any clear suggestions. In desperation I walked into a house, which by the looks of it belonged to someone affluent. I was lucky; a guy who was at the wheel of a swanky BMW connected to the Net and gave me clear directions. In a short while thereafter I reached the hotel. I was stunned, for the colour combination of the hotel and that of the branded car was so similar that I considered it a good omen. A young guy with a peculiar hairstyle manned the reception. He confirmed my booking as I showed him the Booking.com mail and showed me to a room. The room was small, but comfortable and clean.
After a while in the room, a coffee and cup o’ noodles later, and trying with little success to connect the Net through WiFi I went to the reception and started work on social media. The net connection was faster in the reception. I had been there for a while when the guy at the reception asked me to shift to another room. It was a large suite room with a big area to work and a larger bathroom. I do not know what prompted him to give me the larger room, but I was extremely happy with the change. I worked for a while and fell asleep, perhaps because I had woken up at 4 am.

By the time I woke up I realised it was time to go for a drive in the city. Pakse literally translates to “mouth of the River Se”, in Laotian language. The city has a population of 88,000 and is considered the third most populous city in the country after Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Many railway stations in India could claim to be more populated than this city! The city is situated at the confluence of the Rivers Xe Don and Mekong. The claim to fame of the city is that it served as the capital of the Champasak Kingdom till it was integrated with the rest of Laos in 1946.The city is in close proximity of Thailand; the construction of a bridge over the Mekong facilitated road traffic with Thailand. The bridge, built with Japanese aid, has been another step in integrating Laos with its neighbours.
The guy at the reception was at a loss to tell me where I should go to in the short time I had, even though he wanted to, owing to problems of language. Anyway I decided to go to 13 South Road that looked to be the most important part of the city. I got there without much difficulty, parked at a convenient location and took a short walk through the city. Naturally, only eateries were open at the time. The Historical National Museum and the Stadium were closed. I located the A Sia Sin Dar restaurant to have a couple of beers and food. The owner of the hotel came forward with an English menu. I ordered a pork omelette and shrimp fried rice. Even though I had intended the omelette to be a short eat with the beer it came along with the fried rice. The omelette was oily but filling by itself. I felt that I should not have ordered the main dish. The fried rice was presented in such a manner as to suggest that the portion was full of shrimps. It had exactly three of them. The art of deception was the most prominent part of the presentation. Beerlao compensated for all that.

Back in the hotel, I went over the route map to the Cambodian border and to the town I was scheduled to halt the night in Cambodia, a place called Stung Treng. The bad experience at the Vietnamese border has made me wary of border crossings. I hope that the story at the Cambodian border is very different from what I experienced at Tay Trang, Vietnam. In case of any problems I have to think on my feet to remedy the situation.

Day 30 - 29 March 2015 - Luang Prabang to Paksan

Last night when I was about to go to sleep I heard a loud roar, which was followed by a power blackout. I wondered if a heavy storm was hitting the city, when the lights came back on. After a while there was another huge roar and the power supply went out again. That was the only ‘negative’ I could log this far in the stay in Luang Prabang. I made a mental note of it to mention in the blog before falling into a deep sleep. When I woke up this morning the power supply was on and I was in time for breakfast at 6.30 am. I loved the hotel, especially the service of Peter and Duong, the ‘ever smiling twins’ as I have dubbed them.

When I was driving through Khem Kong, the street beside the Mekong River, I saw a large gathering of locals and tourists near the market. Then, I saw the reason for the power disruption. A huge tree had fallen pulling down the power lines with it. Some shops were damaged too. People were working to remedy the situation. The drive from Luang Prabang to Paksan was about 450 kms, which bypassed Vientiane. I knew the road conditions till Vientiane. The 75 kms stretch on Route 4 is a beauty, through mountains and valleys. The road is so good that one would be inclined to over speed. But the winding roads with sharp curves and steep slopes have to be taken carefully. Skidding is a possibility. The misty mountains presented a magical sight and so did the long grass swaying gently in the breeze. After bypassing Vientiane the roads were not that great. But considerable amount of road work is underway in the southern and northern regions of Laos. A short while after taking the road to Paksan it moved through the protected Phou Khao Khouay National Bio Diversity region. Even though the road was not bituminised it was consolidated, but dusty. At the entrance to the region there was a road barrier, which the guard raised without asking me anything. The guard at the end of the road was a bit more curious. He came out to see the stickers on the car and felt that it was some sort of VIP car. He went back to the hut and raised the barrier. The Route 13 thereafter, right upto Paksan, was quite good with even trucks speeding on the two way road at over 100 kmph. Close to Paksan, about 40 kms ahead of it the border of Thailand comes within spitting distance. The Mekong River provides a natural boundary for the two nations.
Lao PDR has 17 provinces and Paksan is a town in the Bolikhamsai Province in South Western Laos. In this town the Nam Xan River joins the Mekong. The town and the immediate region have seen many invasions by the Chinese and the Siamese since early 19th century till the middle of the 20th century. It is really a transit town between Vientiane and Pakse. I was booked to stay in Paksan Hotel, which is ideally located on the highway. The booking was done through Booking.com. I was a bit apprehensive as I drove into the hotel compound, which has an elaborate facade for the 37 rooms that it has, because of the poor reviews it had on the site. The reception was exactly as was mentioned in the review – absolutely cold and unhelpful. Besides, the receptionist refused to honour the booking done through the site and charged me $3 extra and ‘impounded’ my passport. The hotel, however, was neat and so was the large room. The bathroom was tiny though, but clean and useable. Since I was only staying the night I checked in, despite the online booking not being honoured.

The car had taken a tough ride since the drive to the Vietnam border. During the course of this drive she had completed one lakh kms too. The 2010 Ford Endeavour was cruising along. I had to give her a wash; it was overdue. Mercifully, the receptionist said I could use the fountain water line. Over the next one hour I laboured over the wash. It was so caked with dust that I had to scrape some off before I could even see the mud flaps. After all the hard work was over I noticed a car wash just next door to the hotel!
After a shower I thought of exploring the place a bit and walked across the small bridge that spanned the Nam Xan River. The Paksan market was not very busy at the time when I reached it. Basically I was looking for some place to relax with beer and food. I could only see way side eateries making oily omelettes and dishing out Bao. I walked back to the hotel and stopped at a small restaurant next to the hotel. I ordered a beer and asked for something to eat. The woman by the grill asked me to choose what I wanted. I could not make out which part of what animal was on the grill! I pointed to one that looked edible and she shook her head. In a while a large portion of grilled pork, some noodles and plenty of raw vegetables appeared in a large plate. I could not see much of meat in the pork dish. However, the sweet chilly sauce added flavour to the fat of the pork and noodles and the beer did the rest to make the meal enjoyable.

The drive tomorrow is about 530 kms to Pakse from Paksan, which I estimated could be done in about 11 hours, based on reviews I had read about the road. Many friends on Facebook and other social media think that I have misspelt Pakistan while mentioning Paksan in my despatches. To them I must quote Rudyard Kipling, “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Day 29 - 28 March 2015 - In Luang Prabang

 Last evening, as I was moving to the Sok Dee Residence, Peter introduced me to Phoukong, who oversaw matters at the hotel. This morning I reached out to him for suggestions to do a bit of sightseeing. He suggested the Ban Pak Ou caves, Whisky Village and a Buddhist temple. I was definitely interested in the first two and the third, time permitting. I was under the impression that the caves could be reached only by boat because I had seen many tourists being approached by boatmen in front of the Mekong Sunset View Hotel for a boat ride to the caves. Phoukong corrected my impression. I asked him if he could suggest someone who could take me to the caves and the village. He said he himself could show me around if he could find a replacement to relieve him. When I returned from breakfast he confirmed that he could accompany me and that we could leave around noon. That suited me fine as I wanted some time to complete the blog and update the expense statement, which could not be left in arrears.

In a couple of hours, as I completed my work, Phoukong announced that we could leave for the caves, which are nearly 30 kms north of Luang Prabang. The last 8 kms are a dirt track, which could be most challenging during rains as there are some tricky summit climbs. The Whisky Village and Manifa Elephant Camp are two other attractions on the dirt track. The car had to be parked at the entrance to the Ban Pak Ou village which had sign boards mentioning it as a healthy village and a crime free one, evidently put up by the Village Women Union. At a small booth the parking fee and the fee for the boat ride are collected, which came to 31,000 LK, the equivalent of about Rs. 240. We walked through the village that had many shops vending locally woven shawls and sheets, besides wood carvings, musical instruments and food. There are many restaurants in the village that advertised Mekong River fish, as fishermen directly sold their catch to them. We reached a boat landing centre where flat plastic bouys served as temporary jetty. A motorised sampan was waiting for us.
The boat ride across the Mekong River was a lovely experience. The place from where we took the sampan was at the confluence of the Nam Ou and Mekong rivers. While the smaller Nam Ou River was green, the much larger Mekong River was brown and muddy. On my drive from Sop Hun to Luang Prabang I had noticed many dam projects on the Nam Ou River, of course with Chinese inputs of men, money and material. Besides the road projects the Chinese are involved in most of the major infrastructure works like mining and power generation. The most important exports from Laos are wood and electricity, mostly to its neighbours. Large mountain tracts have been ‘shaved’ and trees felled in large numbers to facilitate road projects and setting up of power transmission lines. 

The Tham Ting and Tham Theung Caves, the lower and the upper caves, overlook the confluence of the two rivers. The exact vintage of the caves is not known, but the caves are famous for the numerous Buddha statues of various sizes from the very large to the tiny 10 centimetre ones, most of them wooden and some badly damaged. Most of the sculptures have been left there by worshippers. The lower cave has a small spring which serves as holy water during the annual New Year festival on 16 April, which is celebrated on the Ban Pak Ou beach. I am told that the event is so prestigious that the President of the country participates in the celebration. Tourists, most of whom arrive from Luang Prabang by boat, normally visit the lower cave, worship and then leave. I wondered why, till I began the 230 step ascend to the upper cave! It was steep and winding. By the time I reached the top my thighs felt leaden and refused to move an inch. I sat down to assuage the aching part. The entrance to the upper cave has two massive wooden doors, which are not used now due to extensive damage. The cave extends inside for more than 50 meters and a small stall at the entrance has torches for hire. The cave is pitch dark and requires some form of light to explore. I saved money by using my mobile phone.
The descend to the jetty was more torturous than the climb! These are sure signs of approaching the ‘Vanaprashtha’ stage in one’s life. Anyway, travelling six months a year is perhaps a modern version of it. On return to the other bank we made it to a restaurant for lunch; most of them had downed shutters for lunch as it was almost 2.30 pm. Phoukong ordered papaya salad lao style, fried fish with ginger and fried noodle with pork. I had a green mango juice to slake my thirst. All the three dishes took time to appear. But when it did, it was worth the wait. The best was the fried fish with ginger. The papaya salad besides being spicy had a fishy smell due to the sauce. The fried noodle with pork was a humongous portion. However, the hunger in two bellies saw to it that nothing was wasted.

The leisurely walk back to the car gave a glimpse of the village life. Time did not seem to matter since there was a lazy ambience in the village that accompanies uncomplicated rural life. People were smiling all the time, greeting you in the local lingo. You are free to take pictures and savour their life without being intrusive. The village is totally dependent on tourists and tourism. As we were leaving the village a group of westerners landed in a bus to do the round of the village and visit the caves. A couple could be seen thoroughly enjoying an elephant ride from the Manifa Elephant Camp. The next halt was at Ban Xang Hai, commonly known as the Whisky Village. The famed lao whisky is distilled here from sticky rice. It is 50 per cent alcohol. Free samples are passed around in one of the corner shops at the village. I did not try one as I was driving, even though I saw no evidence of checking for drunken driving in any of the countries from the time I left India. The shops prominently displayed bottles of whisky with venomous snakes and scorpions in them. A lady in one of the shops explained how the live snake is stuffed into the bottle and it gradually dies when the alcohol hits it! Besides sharing the recipe (!) partly she also giggled when she told me that a few shots of the snake whisky could make me strong!! This village, like Ban Pak Ou, was totally tailored for tourists. It had wood crafts, antiques, woven fabric and shawls besides vines and whiskies.
I was intent on cleaning the car once I got back from the villages. Phoukong said that I could use the hose and water line in front of his hotel to do the washing. When I got there I realised that the hose was badly leaking, which would mean a lot of wastage of water. I postponed the car wash and did a lot of repacking and reorganising of the luggage in the car. My father used to tell me that I had inherited this trait from my mother. Whatever, for me, everything has a place and everything should be in its place. Call it an obsession or a trait, I love to pack and repack. After that was done, Peter and Duong, the smiling twins at the hotel, plied me with a fruit platter and a couple of tall glasses of orange juice. For sheer service these two guys top the charts. Every customer checking in or out were handed special treatment. Many of them leaving the hotel would hand over some gift to them as a token of their appreciation for the service. For me it will definitely be the Mekong Sunset View Hotel anytime I come back to Luang Prabang.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Day 28 - 27 March 2015 - Tay Trang to Luang Prabang

 The bus was supposed to reach the Dien Bien Phu bus stand before 6 am. It did not because of the 90 minute stop just outside of Hanoi city to tranship parcels. In the end, as events panned out, the delayed arrival into Dien Bien Phu bus stand at a quarter to 7 am was not so critical. I felt I should have stayed a day at the historic city of Dien Bien Phu, which saw the defeat of the French forces against Viet Minh in 1954. The battles saw the evolution of a rugged guerrilla outfit into an organised revolutionary army. Repeated routs of the French army led to the 1954 Geneva agreement where North Vietnam was conceded to Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh.

Buses ply regularly between Dien Bien Phu, which is about 40 kms to the Vietnamese border at Tay Trang, and Laos. I went to the ticket counter to enquire about the bus to Tay Trang and was told to board a bus that would leave at 7.30 am. Apparently, that was the first bus to the border. Reaching the bus stand earlier would not have helped me get to the border earlier. I met a couple on the bus who said that they had been waiting in the bus for nearly four hours! The bus with two handy men left the stand earlier than scheduled and I felt elated that I would reach the border that much earlier. It was an eight hour road journey from Tay Trang to Luang Prabang, as I had experienced on the 21st. I wanted to get to Luang Prabang before it became dark and cover the 120 km bad stretch on the route before evening.  My elation was short lived. The driver stopped wherever he could for the handy men to load parcels. The minivan was soon full of all sorts of parcels from furniture to food. One of the handy men, who had earlier refused to keep my backpack on the seat next to me, had to do just that to accommodate more furniture. There were just 7 passengers and I was the only one bound for the border; the rest were on their way to Luang Prabang. It looked as if it had rained quite heavily the previous night for the mountains were clouded in mist. Green rice fields, irrigation canals, people at their jobs quite early in the morning and the clean villages all whizzed past on the 45 minute ride to Tay Trang.
After alighting from the bus I went in search of the Immigration Officer, Pham Van Thang, who had been so helpful at the border when I met with refusal from Customs to let my car through on 21st. He had offered to safe keep the car at his residence. When I told him that I had been unsuccessful in getting the necessary permission to drive in Vietnam he offered his sincere apologies and said, “But rules are rules, you know”. After immigration clearance I went to Thang’s residence and put the backpack in the car and rearranged some stuff in the car before Thang arrived there on his bike. He affixed the sticker on the car in confirmation of the car having ‘technically’ entered Vietnam territory at Tay Trang. Later he exchanged the VND I had with me for Laotian currency, bid me farewell and promised to remain in touch on Facebook.

I did not anticipate any delay at the Laos border of Sop Hun for I had done that easily the last time around. The visa I took in Hanoi helped speed up the immigration clearance. However, I had to pay 46,000 LK as border charge, passport charge and charge to take the car into Laos!  And none of the charges were supported by receipts. Then I walked across to the Customs booth and met an official who was thoroughly confused about acceptance of the Carnet. He showed me a green document and wanted me to obtain that. Mercifully, in a short while, I was able to convince him that the Carnet was accepted on the 21st and that he should do so likewise now. Some of his colleagues supported what I said and that saved the day for me. Soon I was driving away from the Sop Hun border onwards to Luang Prabang.
I drove into a fuel station before the long drive ahead. Diesel at the station was almost a dollar a litre. Of the countries during this drive Laos had the costliest diesel (at Rs. 60 a litre) and Myanmar the cheapest (at Rs. 52 a litre). Diesel in Vietnam is Rs. 54 a litre.

The light rain brought on another challenge – the mountain roads were prone to skidding. I had to be extra careful because I almost went off the road twice. The second was scary; the car stopped at the brink of the road, beyond which was a gorge. The palpitation refused to go away for a long time. I was not looking forward to the middle segment of the drive from Sop Hun to Luang Prabang, where the road was in bad condition owing to a lot of works going on. Apart from soil and gravel consolidation works, side and cross drains were being laid, using large number of labour and machines. The ride, besides being bumpy and uncomfortable, was extremely dusty and challenging the last time round. When I reached it I found that the rain had settled the road and dust was not an issue. However, at many places deep excavation had been done and heavy freight trucks had ploughed into it causing traffic hold up and delay. I got held up for more than 90 minutes in three such situations. I was only worried that I would have to drive at night. However, at each of the hold ups I observed that people were patient and disciplined, which solved the problems faster than it otherwise would have been. Not a single vehicle honked or cut the traffic lanes to cause greater discomfort and delay, as I am used to in Kerala. There was no one cursing or blaming any one. It looked a bit strange to me!  The only area for improvement I saw was better traffic control at the work locations. However, I was amazed at the amount of work that had been done in the past six days, more so when work was done only between 8 am and 5 pm with a 90 minute break for lunch. Productivity is high and people go about their work without a fuss. In a communist country there are no trade unions or flags to proclaim people power!
Daylight stayed with me till I was 10 kms short of Luang Prabang. By 7 pm I was looking for Peter at the Mekong Sunset View Hotel, where I had stayed last time when I was in the city. The smiling Peter profusely apologised for not having a room for me, but he promised to get me one soon. The helpful person soon took me to the Sok Dee Residence, not very far from his. He said he would have a room for me the next day. I showered after my stuff was lodged in the comfortable room. I had gone straight from the bus to the car at Tay Trang in the morning. I had not even brushed my teeth the whole day. A Listerine gargle is all that I managed. Breakfast and lunch were on the move – almonds, biscuits, figs and plenty of water. In the nine hours between Sop Hun and Luang Prabang I had stopped only once, to fuel.

It was time for beer and dinner; a small provision shop near the Sok Dee Residence had Beerlao. I had a couple leisurely, in bed while going through mails and catching up on the social media, and walked over to the eateries on the Mekong River bank for a small local bite. I had not realised that it was past 10 pm, when most of them had finished taking their last orders. I found one after a fairly long walk that served me pork laap with cucumber and lettuce. Laap, basically a minced meat salad, is considered the national dish of Laos. This part of the town had gone to sleep early as I was the only customer in the restaurant and I too left soon after the meal to the hotel, resisting enticements from massage parlours that were still open and doing brisk business.

Day 27 - 26 March 2015 - In Hanoi

 This afternoon Elvis and I were to check out of the hotel at different timings. The arrangements had to be cross checked and finalised after breakfast. I confirmed that a taxi would pick me up after 6 pm and drop me at the bus stand from where I would take an overnight bus to Dien Bien Phu. The hotel reception arranged a taxi for Elvis at noon to get to the airport from where he would fly to Ho Chi Minh City by a quarter to three. We were to have driven from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by my car. But, thanks to the procedures in Vietnam, that did not happen. Despite the efforts of many at various levels, the car could not be brought in to drive in Vietnam. Nevertheless, we had had a wonderful time in Hanoi.

We still had a good part of the morning to make yet another attempt to go inside the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Elvis and I had been to the mausoleum twice before without any success. Both times we were told that it is closed. Yesterday when we were there I met a Sri Lankan settled in the USA who told me that it would be open for three hours this morning. We reached the precincts of the mausoleum determined to be inside this time. Light rain had been falling since early morning and we wondered how we would be able to weather that without an umbrella especially since the number of visitors was so many, particularly school children. We braced ourselves for a long morning in queues. That was not to be – the queue, in double file, moved in such a disciplined manner, supervised and guided by security and military personnel that at no point was there a break in the winding queues or any breach of discipline. School children, people in wheelchair and groups by appointment are given priority in the queue. Fortunately, the rain also cleared up.
Discipline is paramount and it was enforced at each point. No cameras are permitted beyond a certain point. Photography with mobiles is also restricted as one gets closer to the mausoleum. An American backpacker, who was with us, got a loud warning when he tried to take a picture close to the entrance of the mausoleum. Hands can neither be in pockets nor folded across the chest, they have to be by your sides. The head must not be covered. Talking or laughing are not encouraged; solemnity and respect are the watchwords. As one goes through the entrance of the mausoleum the effect of the centralised air conditioning hits. The large wooden and glass casket containing the embalmed body of “Uncle Ho”, as he is affectionately addressed by the Vietnamese, is in a large recess guarded by four men in military uniform. Visitors file past in silence without stopping. The face and hands of the great leader are highlighted using special lighting so that one does not have to strain to see the features of the embalmed body. The rest of the body is covered in grand vestments. In a little while we were out of the mausoleum after getting enough time in the queue to see what we wanted to.

The disciplined manner in which the entire process is controlled permits large number of visitors to cover the monument without wasting any time. The mausoleum is open only for three hours every day, with the exception of Monday when it is closed. Therefore, there is enormous rush during the opening hours. Effective control is the only solution to facilitate so many who come from within the country as well as abroad. With us in the queue was a young man who worked with the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Ho Chi Minh City. He was visiting the mausoleum for the first time as was his family. He spoke extremely good English and we struck up a good conversation. Since he said that he dealt with issues concerning foreigners I told him about the problem I faced in driving my car through Vietnam, hoping he would suggest a solution. Instead he looked me full in the face and said, “You may be happy to know that you are not the only one with such problem”. That ended any further discussion about the serious matter and I just enjoyed light hearted banter with him thereafter.  
The taxi we took to get back to the hotel seemed to have a dodgy meter. Despite it being a small cab the fare it ran up was more than what we had paid for a big cab on the forward journey. Joachim Fernando of the Indian Embassy had warned us about such shams. There was little we could do under the circumstances. Back in the hotel room we completed the rest of the packing and Elvis left at the stroke of noon. His presence and company helped a great deal to get over the disappointment of having to leave the car behind at Tay Trang, the Vietnam border.

I waited a great deal at the hotel reception following the India-Australia world cup match, which unfortunately was not going India’s way. My booking was on the 7pm bus to Dien Bien Phu. A mid sized bus picked me up from near the hotel. There were just 5 passengers on the pick up bus when I alighted at the My Dinh bus stand. A representative of the bus company, Hai Van, met me at the bus stand and took me to the designated bus. I had to put the backpack in the luggage section, about which I was very apprehensive. All my money and documents were in the backpack. I had to risk it. I carried the passport on my self and left the rest in the backpack. The commerce that happens around a bus in the stand was very interesting to watch. An elderly lady sat on a small stool with many such for customers and vended tea and tobacco. The ‘mobile stall’, apart from the drinks, had the traditional bamboo smoke and hot water that customers could ‘demand’. The elderly lady who had the ‘business’ in front of the bus I was to travel by tried her best to induce me into buying a tea or a can of Red Bull. Another vendor did brisk business with breads, eggs and stuffed rice cakes.
The sleeper bus had accommodation for forty. Not even half the berths were taken. Given this, it is understandable that the company markets space for parcels quite vigorously. The bus stopped at many locations on its way out of Hanoi, primarily to pick up parcels – the dinner stop was extended for the sake of transhipping parcels from another bus. The bus was expected to reach Dien Bien Phu by 6 am. Given the en route stoppages to pick  up parcels, it looked unlikely that the schedule would be met. Finally, it was goodbye to Hanoi. It was certainly heartbreaks not being able to drive through Vietnam. Who knows, HE may have a very different reason.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Day 26 - 25 March 2015 - In Hanoi

 Even though we had thought of beating the breakfast rush in the hotel restaurant by being there before the scheduled opening time of 6.30 am Elvis and I missed the deadline; he because of sound sleep and I because of documentation work. However, when we went down for breakfast, to our surprise, the hall was empty and we had the entire run of the place. We had a leisurely breakfast and then got down to business. I asked the receptionist to book me by an overnight bus from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu, which she did quickly. Then it was booking a flight for Elvis to Ho Chi Minh City, which he wanted done from Vietnam Airlines office. That was done too and we walked to the Indian Embassy to thank Joachim Fernando and Mahadevan for all the assistance they had provided. They felt sad too that the car could not be brought in and driven through Vietnam.

The website of the Lao PDR dealing with information on ‘on arrival’ visa clearly mentions that Indians are eligible for the same on arrival at Sop Hun the border post near Tay Trang, the Vietnamese post. Since I was not likely to make any headway in progressing the drive through Vietnam I redrew the itinerary to go back via Sop Hun to Laos. At the Indian Embassy Joachim Fernando suggested that I drop in at the Lao PDR embassy in Hanoi and confirm the issue of ‘on arrival’ visa at Sop Hun. When Elvis and I reached the embassy at 11 am it had closed for lunch even though the etching on the plaque outside the visa section indicated the lunch break between 11.30 am and 1.30 pm. We came back to the hotel and I got the bus booking changed to the next day so that visa for Laos could be obtained in Hanoi, if possible.
I got back to the Laos visa section, which opened at 1.30 pm, with the passport. The officer at the desk confirmed that ‘on arrival’ visa is not available at Sop Hun; this despite the website claiming that it is. Such discrepancies unnecessarily put travelling public at risk of non-compliance. However, the officer confirmed that I could apply for the visa at this office. It normally takes three days for issue of visa at $40 for Indians. However, they have an express service of one day at a $5 extra. I filled out the simple application form just before 2 pm and I was asked to come back with a photograph by 3 pm to collect the passport with the visa stamped. Since I did not have the photograph with me I roamed around a while in search of a studio and finally decided to head back to the hotel where I had copies of passport photos. Elvis and I reached the visa office at just past three pm. I handed over the $45 and a photograph and obtained the passport with the Lao PDR visa stamped in it. Express service without a fuss. I wondered why other embassies do not do the same and get rid of unnecessary hassles.

Ministry of Transportation, Vietnam has stipulated that driving tours should be organised by authorised travel agencies only. A couple of them we got in touch with, through contacts, mentioned that it would take between 5 and 10 days to get the permission and documents. Since I could not afford that much time I decided to get back to Laos via Sop Hun after collecting the car parked in the Vietnam border. Thereafter, I had two options, or so I thought, as mentioned in the last post. There was no clarity about ‘on arrival’ visa on the Thai border yet. Before leaving on the journey, basis the itinerary, I had obtained a three entry visa for Thailand. The first entry was done when I travelled from Myanmar to Laos. If I travel from Laos to Cambodia (via Thailand) and from there to Thailand by the normally travelled route I will exhaust all the three entries permitted on my visa. Hence, when I come from Malaysia to Thailand on the return leg I will need ‘on arrival’ visa at Hat Yai in Thailand, which would be my fourth entry into the country. All research is now trained to find if that is possible. In the meanwhile, Mathew Thomas, a Facebook friend, suggested that I explore the option of travelling to Cambodia through Laos, which will help ‘preserve’ the Thailand visa. I am grateful to friends like these for valuable suggestions and helping me to refocus.
I have drawn out the route to Seam Reap from Luang Prabang, all through from Laos to Cambodia, which is about 1500 kms. The route looks tough and demanding, through mountainous terrain and small villages, where accommodation may be hard to come by. I intend to discuss the route with travel agents in Luang Prabang and then take a final call. I will 'rejoin' the original itinerary either in Seam Reap or Pattaya, depending on the route chosen. However, there is light, finally, at the end of the rather long tunnel.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Day 25 - 24 March 2015 - In Hanoi (day trip to Halong Bay)

 It was raining by the time I woke up early in the morning. The light rain got bigger. Elvis and I had scheduled a visit to the Halong Bay this day since the application for permission to bring the car into Vietnam was with the Ministry of Transportation and would take at least a day to process it. Rain and foul weather, we thought, will play spoilsport with the plans. We had to reach the pickup point for the tour at 8 am, so we reached the restaurant for breakfast at 6.45 am to find the place swarming with tourists, who were evidently checking out. The buffet items had already vanished in the 15 minutes that the restaurant was open! We ate what we could and waited for a taxi to take us to the pickup point. We have not had to wait for more than 5 minutes the days preceding this before a taxi coasted by. However, this day was different. It was raining and a local festival was in progress. In the end, after much waiting, the hotel which had booked our tour sent two young guys on mobikes to pick us up from the hotel and drop us in front of the Opera House, where the tour bus was waiting. We had been late by about 45 minutes. We apologised profusely to the other 9 tourists whose time we had wasted.

Nick, the ‘English’ name by which the tour guide introduced himself, was a lively young chap – 24 years, he said – who gave us a brief roundup of the history of Vietnam and that of Halong Bay. He told us how the country had been under Chinese dominion for nearly 1000 years, how they got their independence, the fights they had with their neighbours, the North South war, the horrendous war with the US and the one with China in 1978. He said that all this may give the feeling that the Vietnamese are a country of war mongers, but actually all the wars have been only to defend their positions. 80 per cent of the people depend on agriculture in some form – the vast rice fields and vegetable cultivation on the way to Halong Bay reinforced this. People even subsist on $50 a month by selling their farm produce on the streets and roads frequented by tourists.  Buddhism and atheism are the major belief systems among the people. Nick said that honking was acceptable as the mobikers did not where they were going or where they are coming from – of course, an exaggeration to illustrate the chaos on the roads.
During the slow drive through what looked like villages and small towns Nick explained the legends attached to Halong Bay. Ha Long, in local language, means ‘descending dragon’. When Vietnam was developing as a country she had to fight against invaders. The gods sent a family of dragons to protect local people. The dragons spat out jewels and jade that turned into islands and islets that dot the bay, which linked together to form a great wall to defend the country. Magically numerous rock mountains would appear and disappear causing untold loss and misery to the sea faring invaders. Once the war was over, the family of dragons decided to live on in the bay. The place where the mother dragon descended came to be known as Ha long

By about a half past noon we reached the bay area. What struck me is the vast developments happening there, evidently with a view to facilitate tourism. The 1553 square km Halong Bay has been twice recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site under different criteria. The bay is a collection of nearly 2000 karsts and islets, most of which are limestone. The evolution of the karsts is estimated to have taken more than 20 million years weathered by the climate and waters surrounding it and is home to diverse endemic flora and fauna. Pre-historic man is supposed to have inhabited the area many thousand years ago. Centuries ago the beauty of the bay was described as “rock wonder in the sky”.
At the Halong harbour we transferred into a 50-seater wooden boat, where lunch was served as the boat cast off on the magical boat ride in the bay. The rock formations with dense green trees are imposing and I took regular breaks from the lunch table to take photographs. What I had seen in movies and travel serials were right in front of my eyes. Most of the islands are hollow with enormous caves. There is also an abundance of lakes inside the limestone islands. We docked at one of the islands to experience it. The tour guide gave us the option of either kayaking or riding a bamboo boat; the former, he said, would make us wet. After much thought, Elvis and I took a bamboo boat. The 45 minutes we spent going around the limestone island and through many lakes was a fascinating experience. Near the island are four fishing villages were a community of nearly 1500 people live. Many of them live in the boats they use to fish. The catch is sold to the numerous boats that service tourists in the bay. A superbly synergistic existence.

The ‘Cave of Heaven’ was the next to be visited. The large cave has three cavernous chambers that contain hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites. Special lighting enhances their looks and makes them look appealing and eerie at the same time. The tour guide kept calling our attention to various figures and stories that could be identified on these limestone formations. Small water drippings were seen making fresh stalactites and stalagmites in the cave. Borra caves and another near Gooty in Andhra Pradesh have amazing stalactite and stalagmite caves, but they are not even half as tourist friendly as it is here.
After the visit to the cave we took the boat ride back to the harbour and transfer to the bus to take us back to Hanoi. The entire time that we were in the bay the weather had held, even though it was misty, which added to the mystery of the place, as Nick said. On the way back to Hanoi, a four hour 165 km ride, the skies let up. It rained heavily. And it became cold. By 8 pm we reached where we were to be dropped off, near the St. Joseph’s cathedral. Elvis took me a local food joint that served Hue food, which is considered by the Vietnamese as the best in the country. The Hue culinary traditions demand that the food be served aesthetically blending food elements, colours and decorations. We wolfed down a beef noodle and fried rice with prawns. It was raining as we took a taxi back to our hotel.

The letter from Mrs. V’s company had been handed over to the Indian Embassy in the morning. However, the Ministry of Transportation demanded a guarantee letter from a government authorised travel agent. I spoke to the representative of Mrs. V and was told that the local travel agents said that the procedure is long winded and could take up to 10 days, for even a rejection. That was certainly a dampener. I could not afford that much time waiting for the permission. It seemed as if a car journey through Vietnam has to be organised well in advance through an authorised travel agent, much like Myanmar and China. Moreover, right hand drive vehicles need special clearance to ply in the country. I understand that smuggling of cars into the country is what the authorities are trying to prevent. In the process even genuine tourists get affected. I sat up till late in the night figuring out options. There are two I have zeroed in on. One is to travel back to Lao PDR and then on to Thailand and connect up with the original itinerary at Siem Reap in Cambodia. The second is to connect up with the original itinerary in Pattaya, skipping Cambodia. The final choice will depend on whether I can get visa on arrival at the Thailand border on the return leg of the expedition. Many imponderables remain, but that is what makes such journeys exciting.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Day 24 - 23 March 2015 - In Hanoi

 I do not know if it had anything to do with Hanoi or the presence of Elvis – I slept like a baby and as if I had no care in the world. The problems I was having in getting my car into Hanoi to drive through the country was every bit alive. But that did not affect my sleep. The mind is a strange creature. It may have even anticipated the email from Sandeep Bhat from Kasargod, who is currently based out of Dubai. This is what I got from him when I woke up in the morning.

“Hello Mr. Suresh, Greetings!...I have been following your South East Asian Drive blog right from the day you left Cochin. I have a special interest in SEA coz I had my education in Singapore and I worked and travelled extensively in the ASEAN countries. From your latest blog I understand you have issues taking your car into Vietnam. Hence, I would like to share one of my local friend’s number with you…She belongs to some influential political family in Hanoi and has some good contacts at the government level. May be she can be of any help…I pray things would be sorted and you start rolling on your machine...”
What a start to the day. I could not believe my eyes. The Guardian Angel had once again surfaced. Hope filled my mind and the heart with gratitude. The goodness of a person located so far away was lifting the despair that faced me. Elvis and I went down for breakfast to the hotel restaurant in a happy frame of mind. Most items on the buffet were empty and the restaurant looked ransacked! We had to ask the girl manning the restaurant to get additional portions of the buffet. While we were at it the Manager of the hotel, Tim came up to us and apologised that he was not in the hotel the previous day. He had heard about my travails from Shrey Bansal, my tour agent in Delhi. Tim said that he would check with a travel agent friend and get back to us if he could help. Another Guardian Angel, who came up with spontaneous assistance!

The first stop of the day, in fact, maybe the only one, was to be the Indian Embassy in Hanoi. I had an appointment to meet the Ambassador the next day. But considering the crisis facing me I decided to try and meet Her Excellency this day and seek her assistance. At the embassy I was asked to meet Joachim Fernando, Second Secretary, who hailed from Tuticorin. He patiently listened to what I had to say and along with Mahadevan, a senior MEA official, went about making a schedule to attack the problem. The clearance of the Deputy Chief of Mission was taken to send a request from the Indian Embassy to the Ministry of Transportation, Vietnam to end the imbroglio. The secretary of DCM was tasked with getting a note ready, which she did without any hesitation once the required information and supporting documents were provided. She said that she would even send a Vietnamese translation along with the letter so that the matter would be dealt with faster! The matter was constantly followed up by Fernando and Mahadevan.
When all this was being organised, Fernando asked if we would like to meet with the Ambassador. I told him about the appointment for the next day and requested if it could be advanced. He got on the phone with Her Excellency and we were asked to get to her office as soon as possible for she had to leave for an engagement in 20 minutes. What a wonderful meeting it was. Mrs. Preeti Sarin, a 1982 batch IFS officer, helped us understand Vietnam better than if we were to read up a few books in the short time that we were with her. She also suggested small diversions from the route that we had envisaged in Vietnam to get a feel of the Hindu influence in the region during the Champa era, an Indic civilisation that existed along the coast of Vietnam between 500 and 1500 AD. Mrs. Sarin also told us about Bollywood stars who are wonderful cultural ambassadors in this part of the world and how the serial ‘Ballika Badhu’, dubbed in Vietnamese, has taken the country by storm. Later, we took leave of the embassy officials, who said they would get back to me with any information they would have.

On the way to the Indian Embassy in the morning I had tried to get through to Mrs. V, the contact provided by Sandeep. The calls went unanswered, but she got back to me in the evening and I explained the problem I was in. She promised whatever help she could. I also got a call from Joachim Fernando who said that the Ministry of Transport could grant the permission if a local travel agent or a Company could stand guarantee that I would take my car out of Vietnam. I asked Mrs. V if she could provide the guarantee. I sent her a draft of the guarantee, which she said she will try and get organised tomorrow.
Lunch was at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant “Quan An Ngon”, not far from the Indian Embassy. Elvis and I ordered fried noodle with sautéed beef and vegetables and stir fried macaroni with minced beef for the main course. While waiting for that a couple of mugs of draught beer prepared us for the repast. The restaurant was full to overflowing. The dishes are prepared in full view of the customers and the waiters, young boys and girls in traditional attire, were ever willing to help with explanation of the dishes. We also ordered a Vietnamese pancake that has to be rolled on rice sheets along with basil leaves and lettuce and dipped in a special sauce. When the next table was being cleaned I saw what looked like a glass of falooda being cleared away. I was immediately attracted to the sweet dish counter, where I got one prepared for myself. With jelly, water chestnuts, syrups, tapioca pearls and coconut milk it was divine, to say the least.

Once we left the embassy we walked down to the Central Jail and took somephotographs there when loads of tourists were going in and coming out of the historic facility in central Hanoi. Thereafter, a short walk brought us to the Hoan Kiem Lake, where people were indulging in evening recreational activity like Tai Chi. We walked into the Gecko Café opposite the Lake and had a glass of cold coffee with the primary intention of connecting WiFi to send details to Mrs. V.
Dinner was at a local eatery that consisted of steamed rice and a pork preparation. One thing must be admitted – the quality of pork, which is the staple here, is of a very high order.

Day 23 - 22 March 2015 - In Hanoi

 Sleep is not easy when the bus turns and winds its way on the road, but at the same time, I must admit, I was not uncomfortable. Just before 5 am the bus stopped in what looked like a terminus from the prone position I was in. However, none of the passengers got off the bus. I too remained where I was, waiting for someone to announce where we were. After about 45 minutes I saw a couple of passengers pick up their shoes in plastic bags and get off the bus. The stay at the place was getting prolonged and the day was breaking slowly. I got up and went out of the bus to be told that we had reached Hanoi bus terminus; the wait was for passengers to wake up! As soon as I alighted from the bus with my baggage a guy came to me shaking his car key, obviously a taxi driver. I chose another who offered to take me to a place where I could link to WiFi to get the address of the hotel where I was booked. The Gallant Hotel was more than 20 kms from the bus terminus and wound its way through streets that were congested and narrow. Finally, after making numerous enquiries I reached the hotel located in a nondescript road. I paid off the taxi driver, who smiled a great deal and handed me over to the next set of smiling faces – the hotel staff. I was told by one of them that the fare I was offering was a great deal less than what the meter read. 250,000 Dongs it came to and I was paying 25,000 Dongs. With a great many zeroes in the currency in Lao PDR and Vietnam I have been often at sixes and sevens dealing in the currencies. The zeroes may make one feel that a lot of money is passing hands; in fact the 300,000 Dong fare I paid for the bus ride of nearly 500 kms was less than Rs. 1000.

The hotel belies the surrounding; it was neat, clean and fairly big. Since I had arrived early I was told that I would have to pay 50% extra if I were to move into the room just then. I decided to wait in the lobby, despite the room rent being only $84 for three nights for a twin sharing room; the deal too good to believe. I got undisturbed time to work on my blogs and the rest of the documentation, particularly filling out the expense account. With WiFi available I was able to link up with Elvis D’Cruz, who had arrived Hanoi on 20th and was staying in another hotel. I told him to come over to the hotel by 10 am because the receptionist told me that the room could be ready by 11 am. I was feeling hungry too after a while. I walked to a small store on the narrow street and bought some cakes and biscuits to keep the growls in check. And there was plenty of water to drink at the reception.
When Elvis arrived I broke the news of the car being held up at the border. The totally unflappable guy he is, I was comfortable discussing the various alternatives that faced us, from the worst to the best. He is a guy with simple solutions to complex problems. His positive attitude and ‘can do’ thinking has endeared him to me over the past ten years that I have known him since being colleagues in DP World, Cochin. After an hour we had sorted out what we would do in the next two days – this being a Sunday we reserved to do some local sightseeing and on Monday visit the India Embassy to seek help with the border problem; a day visit to Halong Bay was scheduled for Tuesday. We were scheduled to stay in Hanoi for three days.

After freshening up in the room we took a taxi to the Opera House, which is now a major restaurant. The opera house has been the venue of many political battles, particularly at the time of the fight for Hanoi. In front of the building a stage was being readied for a show to commemorate the Earth Hour. We understood from the youngsters that the music show would be at 8.30 pm and quietly marked to be there during that time – it never happened finally. We walked around and reached the History Museum, which would open only by 1.30 pm. Just outside the gate we met three Indians from Himachal Pradesh, who were on a short holiday there. What caught our attention was one of them wanting to ride a motor bike that belonged to one of the three girls who were taking them on a city tour. Elvis and I thought it a good way to cover a lot more of the city and took down the numbers of the girls.
Lunch at the Van Nam hotel was an elaborate affair. First things first, it was local beer to start. The Saigon beer was excellent and then we tried the Hanoi beer that was not so great. We felt we should have stuck to Saigon. It was braised pork in claypot and braised pork belly with eggs and steamed rice for the main course. We barely managed to finish the meal. The pork and the preparations were outstanding; we took our time over it. Thereafter, intent on visiting the History Museum we unfolded the small map and sought directions numerous times and still lost our way. But, that was providential too. We finally landed up near the St. Joseph’s Cathedral, which serves the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hanoi. We had to wait a while before being permitted to enter the church since the mass for children was going on.

By the time we came out of the church Minh and Tao were waiting with their mobikes to take us on a city tour. And for the next two hours they took us on an enjoyable ride in the city; we covered areas that t we would normally not have covered. The first landmark we visited was the Temple of Literature, which is a temple of Confucius, the great teacher of the 4 century BC. The temple was built in 1070 and houses the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university. The admission charge is 30,000 Dongs. The temple, over the years, has seen many kings, nobility, bureaucrats and scholars pass through its portals. The temple is featured at the back of the 100,000 Dong currency note; such is the importance attached to this ancient seat of learning. The Vietnam Military History Museum, situated opposite the Lenin Park which features a very large statue of Lenin, was about to be closed when we visited it. We found that most tourist sites closed by 4.30 pm. However, we were permitted to get inside the gate and take a few pictures of the exhibits outside and the Flag Tower, which was built in 1812.
Then past the One Pillar Pagoda, which is considered one of the most historic Buddhist temples in Vietnam, we parked near the Truc Bach Lake. The huge freshwater West Lake has a road going around it for 17 kms. The Truc Bach Lake was created when a road was built through the West Lake. The two lakes seemed to be popular recreation destinations for locals and tourists alike with many gardens, villas, restaurants and paddle boats. We did cause some mirth among the passing public with the photography sessions there with the two mobike girls.

Without a doubt the most prominent feature of Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the embalmed body of the Vietminh leader, Ho Chi Minh, is kept in a glass case. The mausoleum, inspired by the Lenin mausoleum in the Kremlin, despite its imposing presence, has been dubbed the sixth ugliest building in the world by a TV channel. We were late to enter this historic site too and decided we would be back another day for it.
Then we drove over the Long Bien bridge, a 113 year old cantilever bridge across the Red River connecting two districts of the city of Hanoi. The bridge was bombarded heavily by the US troops during the Vietnam War due to its critical position – the bridge connected Hanoi to its main port Haiphong. The defence of the bridge is still part of the self image of the Vietnamese and is part of folklore and poetry of the time. Trains, two wheelers and pedestrians use this bridge while all other traffic uses the newly built Chuong Duong Bridge. It was sad to see poor people live under the Long Bien Bridge in squalor and extremely unhygienic conditions.

Minh and Tao, the two mobike girls, who had taken us all over the City, dropped us back to the hotel. After a bit of unwinding and debating if we should have dinner at all, for the lunch had been too heavy and was lying about a bit uneasily in the stomach, we took a walk down the rather bare street where the hotel is situated. The smells emanating from the eateries in the street only made us more nauseous. We walked further away from the street and came to the Almond Café, which, happily, had an English menu. We ordered soups we thought would be light; portions were humongous, but we got through them nevertheless.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Day 22 - 21 March 2015 - Luang Prabang to Tay Trang

 Last evening, Peter, one of the ‘smiling twins’ at the hotel reception offered to give me breakfast at 6 am, if I wanted to leave early. However, he shocked me into saying that it would take about 12 hours to the border, which closes at 5 pm! My original intent was to stay at Sop Hun, the Loa side of the border, but was told that accommodation would be hard to come by there. So I decided to push through to Tay Trang, the Vietnamese border and shack up in one of the towns close by. Google Maps showed the distance to the border as 360 kms and put the expected time for travel as less than 6 hours! I was confused by the two vastly different estimated times to cover the distance. In the end, I segmented the 360 kms from Luang Prabang to Tay Trang into three of 120 kms each; the first was just about okay, the next 120 kms was awful and the last was superb.

The route was almost entirely though mountainous terrain and the awful part of the stretch was where road works were in progress. I got held up in two places for nearly 30 minutes each, where drains were being laid across the road. The entire stretch was dusty and bumpy. Fortunately, there was a religious convoy and I manoeuvred my car into the convoy. That helped because the convoy was piloted by a senior member of the construction company and he got us past many road blockages. It was so dusty that I had to keep a safe distance from the car in front and even had to stop many times for the dust to clear. The terrain being winding and steep added to the challenge. One of the convoy vehicles carried an image of the seated Buddha. I wondered how the Buddha remained seated with that beatific smile through that horrendous journey!
I feared that I would miss the border working time if the journey went on like that. However, I hit the final stretch of 120 kms by 1 pm and it turned out to be a beauty. I reached the Loa border just before 3 pm and got the formalities done in less than 30 minutes. It took me less than 9 hours to reach the Vietnamese border post – midpoint between the estimates of Peter and Google Maps. I did not stop anywhere in between, except for biological breaks and for taking a few photographs. The heavy breakfast had kept me away from foraging the bags in the car till noon.

As soon as I drove to the Tay Trang border post and parked a smart young immigration officer walked out to meet me. He examined the visa and said that that was in order but he was not so sure if the car could be permitted through with the documents I had. He asked me to confirm that with Customs. The ordeal began then. It took me a long time to explain to the Customs officials the importance of the Carnet and how the countries from Myanmar to Lao PDR had permitted the temporary importation and exportation of the car on the basis of that document. The Immigration officer was very helpful. But the Customs guys stuck to their guns after debating and checking on the Internet for about 90 minutes. They wanted me to go to Hanoi and bring the correct documents to take the car through the post. When I asked them what documents are required they asked me to find that out from the Ministry of Transportation and the Department of Customs. It is just that they had not handled vehicles registered in other than Vietnam and the neighbouring counties of Lao PDR and Cambodia.
The Immigration Officer offered to keep the car in safe custody in his residence for the time I was to be in Hanoi, of course for a fee. He helped me exchange the extra Loa Kips I had and $100 to Vietnamese Dongs – that seemed to be one of his facilitations. My visa for Vietnam was valid from 22 Mar, which he waived to permit entry a day earlier on the condition that I exited the country a day earlier than permitted. He also arranged to get me transported to the Dien Bien bus stand, from where I could get a bus to Hanoi.

I repacked my bags and got my backpack ready for the trip to Hanoi. Phan, the Immigration Officer, told me to make sure that my valuables and documents were carried with me. I packed in a hurry and parked the car in Phan’s residence. The car that ferried me to the bus stand about 40 kms away was packed to capacity and the 4 Vietnamese kept up such a din right through the 1 hour drive that I thought I would go deaf. I couldn’t figure out if they were fighting or just debating a point. I wish I had some cotton to shut out the din. When I was dropped at the bus stand at 6.30 pm I paid the contracted 200,000 VND to the driver. Almost immediately as I exited the car a strong arm caught hold of me and asked if I was going to Hanoi. When I said yes he made me sit on his bike and took me to a bus that had already left the stand! He said that the bus would get me to Hanoi before 6 am for 300,000 VND. The sleeper bus was not fully occupied and was reasonably comfortable. As I got into the bus I was asked to take off the shoes and socks, which were tied up in a plastic cover and handed back to me. I insisted on keeping my backpack with me, which they found bothersome. I did not want to take any risks.
The bus stopped by about 9.30 pm for dinner. As the bus parked at the restaurant – dinner is part of the fare – a box full of chappals was placed beside it. Passengers exiting the bus could take a pair and use it while in the restaurant. A buffet was placed on each table consisting of fried fish, chicken, pork, water cress, cabbage, soup and rice. One kind person fetched me a spoon so that I could have a bowl of rice, chicken and pork. The food was quite tasty and I was hungry because I had not had anything substantial after breakfast early in the morning. I slept in fits and starts and waited to reach Hanoi to meet up with Elvis D’Cruz who had flown into Hanoi to travel with me in Vietnam. With the car still at Tay Trang, I have to reschedule the trip based on what will happen on Monday.

Day 21 - 20 March 2015 - In Luang Prabang

 As I checked into the Saynamkhan Hotel last evening I was shown the balcony of the room from where I was told I could watch monks go in procession at 6 am collection alms from those who volunteered on the road side. The Buddhist tradition is called Tak Bat in the Laotian language. There are certain ‘rules’ attached to the practice of Tak Bat. Silence has to be observed and the offering must be made only if it is meaningful to the giver. Sticky rice, which is offered, should be fresh and not bought from street vendors. Those not making the offering are expected to dress appropriately, stand at a respectful distance from the monks, not touch them or in any way disturb them. I watched the morning ritual from the balcony of my room as groups of monks in single file went through the street, opened the bowl they carried for givers to drop a ball of sticky rice into it. It was a very solemn ritual and many tourists had lined up to experience the tradition.

Last evening I was engaged in updating expense account and the like at the reception when Vanh Xay, who was manning the hotel reception at the time, asked if I wanted a cup of coffee. I did and I said so. He got me a steaming cup of excellent Lao coffee. After I had completed my work I chatted with him for a while about the sights to be gone around in the town. He downloaded a map for me and gave me the required guidance to spend the evening. When I got back to the hotel, after a pork orlam dinner he had suggested, he was still there. Cloey, who I met as I was driving into the town, had suggested a trip to the Kuang Si waterfall, which she described as ‘magical’. Vahn agreed to accompany me to the waterfall at 8 am. I returned to the Hotel after a hearty breakfast at the Mekong Sunset View Hotel and Vanh was ready for me.
Vanh is a graduate student engaged in learning the French language, which he hopes will fetch him a good job in the town, maybe in the hotel industry. He now works part time at the reception of the Saynamkhan Hotel where he gets paid about 800,000 LK (about Rs. 6200) a month with accommodation. He spends nearly 20,000 LK a day on food, skipping many meals to keep within his means. To him the 2.5 million LK (about Rs. 19,000) annual tuition fee is a heavy burden and hence, is not able to support his mother and sister who stay in the village, tending to the small farm. Vanh lost his father two years ago when he was in the final year of school. He suggested that I should stay in the town for a couple of days more and visit his village in the outskirts of the town to experience the Laotian way of life. I told him that it would not be possible of this trip, but maybe on the next.

The 30 km trip did not seem to take long because of the conversation. I did not mind the 5000 LK parking fee and the 20,000 LK entrance fee for the The Kuang Xi Park and waterfall as the facilities were excellently maintained with walkways and wooden bridges. Tourists normally arrive here after 11.30 am and hence, we were almost all to ourselves in the park, since it was not yet 9 am. A market vending food and other essentials stand in front of the large gate opening into the park. I walked past the gate and up a winding road through thick vegetation to reach the waterfall through the longer route. Vanh said we would return by the shorter route and the Bear Park. The three tiered waterfall was, in every way, magical, as Cloey had described it, as I set my eyes on it. After a few minutes soaking in the experience of the falls, the turquoise blue pools and the cascades below them I asked Vanh to lead me up the trail to the shallow pools on top from where the waterfalls begin. I took the climb to the right of the falls, which was steep and challenging. I stopped numerous times and used the support of strong vines to prevent a fall – unfortunately, there wasn’t a Jane around to do a Tarzan! Many times I was on my fours, using hands and feet to climb! Huffing and puffing I reached the top where the water flowed noiselessly from shallow pools to the edge of the waterfall. I took my shoes off, walked around the pools and the edges of the waterfall; the waters were cool, but not cold. I could see right down the three tiers of the falls and the lovely pools through which the water flowed downstream. I could make out that the place is a regular haunt of tourists as there were evidence of vending food and drink. Yet the place was absolutely clean with garbage collected in bags awaiting collection. I returned to the bottom of the falls through an easier path that was more trodden. From there I walked past numerous pools and all of them were open for swimming except one that is considered sacred. By this time tourists had started arriving and many were already in the pools. Vanh told me that at this time of the year it is mostly Vietnamese and American tourists who arrive into the town.
The Bear Rescue Centre near the entrance to the park was set up in 2003 and is nurtured by the Laotian government. Bear poaching is considered illegal and most of the inmates in the park are rescued ones. The environment provided is every bit what they will have in the wild. Even the diet is regulated in like manner. As we exited the entrance the smell of food wafted from everywhere. When Vanh asked if I was hungry I did not reply in the negative. One of the restaurants had grills on display, particularly large river fish. Vanh ordered two helpings of sticky rice and a large grilled fish. The fish was grilled on coals after cleaning it and stuffing it with lemon grass. The food was in every way bland, but a chilly chutney was placed along with the sticky rice. People have sticky rice all by itself or just with the chilly chutney, as I found Vanh doing most of the time. Sticky rice is a bit strange on the palate at first. I enjoyed the meal and the chef placed a skewer of grilled chicken before us, and said it was for free. After enjoying the meal we drove back to Luang Prabang through Hmong villages and the Elephant Park, where visitors in mid-sized vehicles were being conducted around. Big buses are prohibited in the town owing to its status as a World Heritage City.

Vanh suggested that I have a peep in at the historically significant Wat Xieng Thong and is an important monument showcasing traditional art and the spirit of religion. The Wat was built at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers in the 16th century by the Lao King Settathirath. Till the constitutional monarchy was in place and Luakng Prabang remained the capital of the country the Wat continued to have royal patronage and the Kings were crowned at the Wat. The Wat is worth a visit for people on a pilgrimage and in search of Buddhist traditions.
Luang Prabang remains the most French of the Lao cities. Many buildings still bear French names and there are many French restaurants in the town. Two schools in the town still teach French. Late in the evening I met Christian and Sylvia, two French citizens, when they were trying to make sense of the stickers on the car. They, I learnt, are frequent visitors to India; the former has visited India 10 times and the latter 13 times! They are planning to go to Manali and Leh next summer. They spend 6 months in France and the other six months travelling, almost always to Laos and Cambodia. They were mighty impressed by the car and said they had seen it the previous night in front of the Saynamkhan Hotel. Vynh said many cars had been parked in front of their hotel but none has received so much of attention as this one did last evening.

In the evening I walked around the Sisavengvong Street – the main street of Luang Prabang, which is closed to traffic by 4.30 pm every evening and the night market springs up. I enjoyed the mango with banana and pineapple shake and sometime later an oreo shake, which is considered a must try while in Laos. I took some of the lesser known streets and on one came across the snake wine vendors. Venomous snakes, including cobras, were pickled and displayed in huge jars; the advertising boards welcomed people to sample the wine to build up their ‘strength’. I chose a rejuvenating foot massage instead and a pork lap and steamed rice for dinner, which was excellent.