Justice for the 2 Million

(Please be aware that this post contains graphic content)

Four years ago I lived in Phnom Penh for two months with my good friend Rosie. She had worked in Cambodia for a time and had returned home with a plan to raise awareness of women caught in the web of the Cambodian sex industry, a problem of epidemic proportions in the Southeast Asian country, by selling ethically made t-shirts.
We returned together a year later to the capital city and, working with a non-governmental organization called Daughters (They train women who have left the sex industry in skills that will empower them and provide them with opportunities for employment. For more information visit http://www.daughtersofcambodia.org), we founded Freed Fashion Ltd.
We trained four young women, who had all been victims of sex trafficking, in t-shirt production and basic admin. We left Cambodia with over 200 t-shirts and a naïve but admirable vision. Unfortunately it was not a success for us and we had to shelve our dream, so returning to the city was at first hard but it became a healing balm, a mixture of new and old memories, all beautiful and affirming, with two people I love very much.
Last time I was there I hadn’t really visited any of the well known tourist spots so we rented ourselves a crosser bike and Gareth took me on a hair-raising trip around the city.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communist party, came into power. A ruthless and brutal government, for the three years they ruled they are said to have killed 2 million of their own people. A non-descript high school in Phnom Penh, now called Tuol Sleng, was one such place where the horrors of the Khmer Rouge played out.

One of the buildings of Tuol Sleng prison
A prison for members of the party, Tuol Sleng was a place where men, women and children were beaten and tortured before being taken to the mass graves called The Killing Fields. It is now a museum of genocide and the buildings have all been preserved as they were left in 1979. In some rooms there are still bloodstains on the floor.

Writing this, although about a month ago now, I still find myself getting chocked up when I think about what I saw. There are four main buildings, Building A, B, C and D, each housing different displays and items such as cells where prisoners were kept and bed frames where the bodies of the last victims where found by the Vietnamese invading army. There is a gallery showing an overwhelming number of photographs of all of the victims when they arrived at the prison. There are also displays of the victims clothing (I was very disturbed by this particular display) and devices used for torture.

If you are interested in learning more about this prison, you should read ‘The Lost Executioner’ by Nic Dunlop about Comrade Duch, who was the director of Tuol Sleng. It is an extremely informative read, although not for the faint hearted.
We left Tuol Sleng heavy and tired, I had cried out a lot of my energy but we’d planned to next visit Choeng Ek, a former orchid and Chinese graveyard 17km out of town, now commonly known as The Killing Fields.
Upon arrival we were handed headphones that played a recorded guide. The male Cambodian voice was calm yet morose, telling stories and describing where significant buildings used to be.
Pieces of cloth and bone are continuously coming to the surface, the horror does not need to be imagined, you can see it. One moment in the tour, when the final sounds the victims heard was played back, sent shivers through my whole body; the grainy communist hymn overpowered by the thumping groans of the generator. At the time of the killings this was done so that it would mask the screams.

Victims’ clothing moving to the surface
Nothing was held back in the tour, even the most macabre of facts were detailed. A tree on the outskirts of the graves looked similar to a palm tree however along the edges of the long leaves were short spiky teeth like those on a saw, these were used to cut the throats of victims. Another tree was found coated with blood and fragments of bone. It was later determined that babies and young children were thrown against it before being tossed into the grave.
A memorial to the victims of the killing has been erected and now houses the remains that have been exhumed from the graves as a final resting place.

Memorial to the victims of The Killing Fields
When the tour was over we needed to clear our heads so we drove around the Phnom Penh countryside digesting what our senses had just experienced.
The city has a lot more to offer than just Tuol Sleng or The Killing Fields, there are so many beautiful places to spend time and relax. When I was last in Phnom Penh, Rosie and I used to go to a bar called Equinox, in an area frequented by expats, and sit for hours drinking mojitos. I was only able to find this area the last night Gareth and I were in Phnom Penh, (it’s between Lucky Supermarket and the Independence Monument, if you fancy going) and it was the most relaxing and finest gastronomic experience we’d had in the city (if you want a curry go to the Nepalese restaurant in this area, there’s only one, and oh my god the food is like molten heaven).
We, Gareth and I, had spent most evenings eating and drinking along the riverside. Potentially a romantic affair, but if you sit in one of these establishments you are likely to be accosted by an insurmountable number of children and asked if you would like some bracelets or a book. We made friends with a little girl called Winny and instead of buying from her we would talk to her, play clapping games and bought her orange juice. She was a small skinny girl with a huge personality. She claimed that she was 8 but her English was almost fluent and she would translate for us when other children gathered around hoping to make some money out of us.
Cambodia, especially Phnom Penh, has this thing where you are walking down a street and a tuk tuk driver will ask you if you want to utilise his services, you say no, thank you, then his mate, another tuk tuk driver, will ask the same question, then his other mate will, again, say those three dreaded words ‘tuk tuk lady?’ It can be as many as four times that you will hear this quite innocuous query one after the other and trust me, by the end of the day if you hadn’t have screamed, at least in your head, ‘NO, I DON’T WANT A FUCKING TUK TUK!’ then you’re a better person than Gareth and I will ever be.
It is very easy for us westerners to get exasperated with the things that we see and encounter as tourists. We take it for granted that back home we have accountable governments who actually provide services to the public, albeit questionable at times, i.e. healthcare, infrastructure, compulsory education up to 16 years. They also encourage liberties such as freedom of speech. I read an article in the Phnom Penh Post about a director of a Cambodian cultural organization fund who had been sentenced to two years imprisonment for suggesting that a lighting project at Angkor Wat was damaging the temple. The lawsuit was brought against him by the government as a charge for disinformation.
Cambodia is still scarred by the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge but the people are trying hard to grow from their experience. They cannot hide from the cruel past of their forefathers but they can learn from it.
In The Lost Executioner, it ends with the arrest of Comrade Duch, and Nic Dunlop raises the question of whether the Cambodian people will find justice. Comrade Duch was charged with personally overseeing the systematic torture of more than 15,000 prisoners (There are only seven known survivors of Tuol Sleng prison). On 26 July 2010 Duch was found guilty of crimes against humanity, torture and murder and was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. On 3 February 2012 his appeal was rejected and his sentence was increased to life imprisonment.
His was the first trial of heads of the Khmer Rouge and it has taken decades to get to this point. There is said to be evidence of corruption within the proceedings and government officials protecting former Khmer Rouge officials. This has led to a population who do not yet trust their government and feel that they will never find justice as those now awaiting trial are in their late 70’s and 80’s. It is now a race against time and these people are close to losing all hope.
If you yourself go to Cambodia’s capital, remember this: tuk tuk drivers will piss you off, sex tourism is unashamedly extensive, children will be working on the streets all hours trying to sell you, let’s be honest, shite. But be patient, be kind and above all smile because they will beam back with the most infectious smile you have ever seen.

Angkor What?

Siem Reap is world renowned for Angkor Wat, the world’s largest Hindu complex. If you have seen Tomb Raider then you will have had a sneak peak at this ancient structure. Built in the 12th Century as a dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu, it has now been transformed into a Buddhist temple, housing a multitude of Buddha statues and bas-reliefs, or wall carvings, detailing Hindu battles and local histories.
Our travel guide boldly stated that to do the complex justice we must spend at least 4 to 5 days exploring the vast number of temples. At $20 a day each this wasn’t happening. We decided that one day on a pushbike would suffice.
Riding along the cracked tarmac, beeping Tuk Tuks sheltering stretched out tourists were dashing past us so eager and impatient. The cool breeze was keeping us motivated. After a 6km ride we finally arrived outside Angkor Wat and parked up. The only point you will notice the temple is when you are directly in front and even then the feeling of awe is quite minimal because you are basically looking at a moat and a long wall, both there to protect the temple housed within. But we had only just arrived and there was something we needed to do first.
Aww, doesn’t he look dead sweet
Gareth’s mate, Jay, was celebrating his 30thbirthday a couple of weeks later so Gareth, and Jay’s wife Sonia, had hatched a plan for us to send him a birthday message. Gareth had the genius idea to do it outside Angkor Wat and recruit the help of a few local kids to give us a hand. This was what we came up with:
Outside Angkor Wat – For Jay
The structural significance of the temple is that it represents Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu tradition. The central towers symbolize the five peaks of the mountain and the walls and moat that encircle the temple are the surrounding mountain ranges and ocean.
The bas-relief that encircle the temple
Angkor Wat temple from the inside
Inside the protective outer-wall was a little cooler than when we were exposed to the nigh-midday sun, this made the circumnavigation slightly bearable, but only just. The bas-reliefs covered the walls from floor to ceiling and demonstrated the abilities of the highly skilled craftsmen of the day. The maze-like interior was even cooler and brought the temple to life as locals congregated in corners to worship imposing orange-clad Buddhas.
Worshipping the Buddha inside Angkor Wat
We followed a route that went into an area called Angkor Thom (literally: Great City), the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. It is approximately 1.7km from Angkor Wat so we hopped onto our bikes and leisurely made our way there. Here were the more dilapidated ruins and temples, some breathtakingly elegant, others were tall and majestic, and some were a bit of a let down. Last summer we visited Pompeii and it might have ruined successive visits to historical landmarks that don’t date back 2000 years.
Yep, that’s me under that tree
After half a dozen temples we both agreed that we didn’t need to see anymore. Regrettably, we had taken the wrong, or the long, route so ended up cycling 35 excruciating kilometres back to our guesthouse.
Looks old like
The nightlife in Siem Reap is probably one of the best I’ve experienced so far in Southeast Asia. A good number of bars are open till 3am, a handful are open even later, which is unheard of generally in a population that are in bed by 10pm and up at 5/6am most mornings.
We made friends with a lovely Dane called Kristina, so we all went out for a Cambodian BBQ, which turned out to be quite an event. We had a unique selection of meats; chicken, beef, squid, crocodile, kangaroo, snake and ostrich, which we would cook on what looked like an upside down colander that had a block of pork fat atop it to clean away the burnt residue. Around the upside down colander was a moat of watery stock; in this you would boil some vegetables and it became a tasty soup. There was also the obligatory rice and noodles to fill up on. Quite a laborious affair at times but all in all, great fun. I didn’t appreciate BBQ as being Asian but it really is just as popular here as a noodle soup or a meat and rice dish such as Sweet and Sour.
We followed up our BBQ with a bit of a bar crawl of potent cocktails that are as cheap as £2 in some places and as lethal as turps everywhere. After getting a tad tipsy we needed a night on the tiles to use up our drunken energy, we ended up making shapes till 4:30 in the morning. It was just as good, if not better, than a night out in Liverpool – who can boogie in their £2 Havaianas without getting snotty looks?
Just thinking about the next day gives me migraine. Gareth’s two days of pain eventually became suspected Malaria. We had been taking Doxycycline tablets the whole time we were in Laos and had to continue taking them for four weeks after leaving the Malaria zone but the alcohol could have reduced its effect. The look he got from the bemused nurse was priceless as she handed over the sheet stating the blood test found no traces of Malaria. As it turned out we were just hungover hypochondriacs.
I’ll admit it, we overindulged in Siem Reap, spent too much money on food (a lot of pizza was consumed) but, as cities go, Siem Reap has everything you need, great food, great culture, great history. We could have spent two weeks soaking in the energy of the city but we had to move on because our wallets couldn’t cope much longer. It was onwards to the capital city of Phnom Penh. 

Ciao for now Laos

We were done in. We just wanted to get back to the Travel Lodge, hopefully with our arses still intact, get showered, put on clean clothes, have a shave and maybe I could brush my hair, although brushing of hair is not a priority when you’re backpacking.

We decided on the way back that we were going to move on to the town of Pakse the following day which would be a good stop over point for us heading to Si Phan Don – The Four Thousand Islands, which are a group of islands in the Mekong River at the southernmost point of Laos.
If you have travelled before you may have noticed that certain guidebooks have a handful of buzzwords and statements throughout describing the different towns and cities, not with the intention of exaggerating how good these places are but basically because, I’d imagine, there is only so much you can say about multiple towns that happen to be almost identical in every way. We noted the words and phrases used throughout such as chic, colonial, riverside charm. Pakse, it seems, is all of those things, and I am sure it is if you were to spend longer than 16 hours there.
We had a little wander, ate a delicious curry for dinner and booked our travel to Don Det, an island in Si Phan Don. Our guidebook revealed the next morning that Don Det, although the liveliest of the islands, was yet to have electricity and, unfortunately, there was no ATM on the island. After a sigh, a moment of panic and a brief row, Gareth ran to the nearest cash point to refill our coffers and we hopped on to our packed coach where we imitated sardines for two hours and thirty minutes. It turned out that there was indeed electricity and a number of travel agents and guesthouses providing cashback services.
After disembarking from our minibus we then needed to get a ferry to the island. Now get the picture of the ferry crossing the Mersey out of your head, this was a long-tail boat with a capacity of about 15 people and their baggage, travelling at the breakneck speed of 10kmh.
Five of us got off the boat at Don Det, Gareth and I had our two backpacks each and didn’t struggle too much climbing the 20ft up the sandy embankment, however two of the others had a constant battle dragging their heavy suitcases up the sharp muddy incline. What I’ll never understand is why the bloody boat didn’t stop at the landing dock with its perfectly sensible slipway and stairs. 
Our time on Don Det consisted of mainly lying in our hammocks by day and eating a mixture of the worst food imaginable and the most delightful foreign cuisine by night; after four weeks of Lao food, enough was enough and we opted for a curry or Australian BBQ most evenings.
Over the course of our stay on Don Det we made friends with the proprietor of the Australian BBQ establishment, I think it was called Streetview Restaurant. (I know not being completely certain of the name is very unprofessional but it won’t take a genius to find this place – it’s the one full of satisfied diners) Anyway, this bloke, lets call him Bruce, had some great tales to tell us about his life living on Don Det, and generally living in Laos as an expat Aussie married to a Lao.
Here’s a factoid: It is actually illegal for a non-Lao to have sexual relations with a Lao unless of course they are married. Funnily enough though it costs around 3000 USD to pay for a marriage certificate. There are stories of couples having engagement parties and the police have stormed the celebration arresting the man as it is assumed that the couple are likely to have already had sex! Just absolutely shocking, although I suppose it is a severe way of stopping a sex tourist culture that is so prevalent in Southeast Asia.
Bruce knew our charming landlady, Madam Pinh, and her son. They both would take it in turns asking us every morning what we were going to be doing that day and consequently pitch to us about using their bikes/tractor tubes/shop/restaurant/cashback service and if we didn’t use these we would later be reminded about their bikes/tractor tubes/shop/restaurant/cashback service. It was tiresome and extremely boring in the end and something we just learned to live with for the five days we were there. Bruce explained that Madam Pinh is renowned for this kind of pushy behaviour and regaled us with a tale of her son who had recently arranged tickets to Cambodia for a guest but kindly decided to keep the money for himself as opposed to brokering with the official travel agents. When the son came to see us for his morning stalking the day before we left we told him that we had booked our tickets to Cambodia already ‘But I tell you that I sell ticket, I tell you yesterday, I tell you every day!’
Leaving Laos was easy but knowing I was returning to Cambodia, after four years, was quite emotional for me. Now is not the time to go into my history but returning to this place brought back a lot of memories. It was something that I had to do.
At a border, as in life generally, you will come across three types of people; aggressive, passive and assertive. An aggressive person will cause a fuss, moan, whinge and gripe at every point of the process. He will complain that he has to pay a dollar at the quarantine alongside filling in a relatively pointless form. He will protest when he is paying for his visa because the official is requesting $25 for entering the country. And finally, at the hut where he gets his visa stamped, he will spend five minutes telling everyone in earshot that they too should be shouting down these hardworking individuals who are doing their jobs because nothing will change otherwise. Gareth and I, we’re passive and couldn’t give a monkey’s. The assertive group will pay $30 to a company that will do all of the paperwork and legwork on their behalf. These aggressive people make me just want to punch them in the nose.
Moving on, we left the border and made our way to the town of Kratie, which we considered a halfway point between the border and Siem Reap. As I mentioned above I had been to Cambodia four years ago and Gareth had been there three years before so we believed that we were both fairly savvy; we knew a shyster when we saw one. Or so we thought….
We stepped off the bus, tired and a bit miserable so it was quite nice to be greeted by a plump smiling Cambodian gentleman who told us that he had a nice hotel and we should come and see it, and it was only a two-minute walk after all. Strolling along, him crawling beside us on his scooter, the conversation went along these lines: ‘How much is your room’ ‘$7 sir’ ‘Air con?’ ‘Yes sir, and you will have a balcony overlooking the Mekong’. You may be able to see where this is going… The room turned out to be $15 with air con or $7 for a fan (We had not had air con since Vientiane so we wanted to spoil ourselves a little) and overlooking a brick wall. But we were in luck, because it was after 4pm therefore we could have the room for $13 instead. What a treat!
After all the excitement of the day I needed a little lie down so Gareth went out to book our transport for Siem Reap the next day. I will pass over to him now to tell you all about his little adventure in Cambodian tourism.
“I spoke to the fine gentleman who had lead us to our extortionate guesthouse in order to enquire about prices. He explained that if we wanted to get there within 7 hours it was $27 each, $24 for a 10 hour journey and $20 for a 14 hour journey. Knowing that it was always a good idea to shop around I told him that I would speak to Jen first and let him know. ‘But you only have one hour until the ticket office closes, you will need to book it very quickly sir’. I knew then that he was trying his luck so I politely said my goodbyes and breathed a sigh of relief as I walked off the premises. I was off to the bank to get my first wad of dollars and so I was in a world of my own until I heard a voice I recognised, and it certainly wasn’t Jen. The fine gentleman had pulled out on his scooter into my path ‘The ticket office is open for another couple of hours so you still have time sir.’ I explained that I hadn’t been able to withdraw cash yet (which I hadn’t) ‘I can lend you money if you need it sir’. I was the quintessential Englishman and made my excuses then continued on. He literally followed me for the next five minutes.
“I tried to lose him so I turned down a few streets but alas he found me again and continued to pester me to buy his tickets as soon as possible. I fobbed him off one more time and a couple of minutes later I came across a guesthouse where they were selling tickets to Siem Reap for $11 each. I spoke to the manager who was a kind looking young man called Mao and booked the tickets with him before the fine gentleman could track me down.”
That evening we had a few drinks at Mao’s place and spent hours talking to him about the finer things in life and football. After Gareth told me about what happened earlier I jokingly said that I keep thinking every man in a white top on a scooter is going to be the shyster. Quite unexpectedly, who would appear while we were sipping our 7ups? Yes, he followed us to Mao’s and after we informed him of our bargain bus tickets he spent 10 minutes trying to persuade us that he would never lie to his customers blah blah blah. Sorry, but what a knob.
We were glad to have had these two completely opposite chance encounters and we knew that this was just the beginning of time in a country that is renowned for its share of beautiful and terrifying history. That was all to come though and tonight we just wanted to eat cheeseburgers.
On our way back to our hotel the shyster once again managed to find us, this time with a glamorous Cambodian lady on the back of his bike. As he rode off we just laughed and joked that he was probably a pimp on the side. We turned into the guesthouse where a woman in a knee length silver dress and stilettos stood outside. Stepping into our room, we suddenly noticed a poster for condoms on the wall that we hadn’t seen earlier. So it turned out that our guesthouse was moonlighting as a brothel. How lovely…

The Thakhek Loop – A Three Day Bike Ride

The bus looked perfectly normal, it even had the appearance on the outside of the typical VIP buses travellers take, which include air con and even, the joy of joys, an actual sit-down toilet. The driver beeped his horn signalling that it was time for the bus to leave the station and we climbed aboard and found our spot at the back where Gareth could stretch out his 6ft 3inch frame. Within minutes we realised we had made a grave mistake choosing this local bus. Not only did the bus not have a working fan, let alone air conditioning, it also had no windows that could be opened. Add to that the increase of passengers every few miles (some had to sit on plastic stools in the gangway, and others even had to sit underneath where the baggage was kept) and it was sheer hell. Even the Laos on the bus seemed to be appalled by the conditions. Oh, and also add to that two little girls, bless them, sitting opposite us on their parents’ laps, vomiting the fruit they had just eaten for breakfast for the first two hours of our journey. After what felt like five hours in a stinky sauna, and only one toilet break, we arrived in the town of Thakhek.
Awful, awful journey
Thakhek is in south-central Laos on the Mekong River, very close to the border with Thailand, and well known by travellers for the 450km motorbike route called The Thakhek Loop. We came across this route, which was mentioned in our Lonely Planet guide, only a day before we departed from Vientiane. Gareth is quite the motorbike enthusiast so we decided to see what all the fuss was about and stretch our legs after six days of indulgence in the capital.
We checked ourselves into the Travel Lodge, a quiet backpacker’s base set back just outside of the main part of town. The food was just plain awful; Gareth chose French toast for breakfast, which was deep-fried and dripping in oil. The noodle soup was water and cheap packet noodles and a baguette was more air than bread. Although the cuisine was lacking the rooms themselves were just right for the $10 we were paying per night; a working fan, a large four-poster bed and a bathroom you could swing two cats in.
The next morning we walked towards a hut at the entrance of the Travel Lodge containing a Mr Ku who gave us a hand-drawn map, a 110cc scooter and some really great advice. He explained the route to us and where best to stay the night. We were to travel anti-clockwise around the loop covering 100km the first day, stopping at caves and swimming spots along the way. Our aim for day one was to arrive at a mountaintop village called Thalang and stay for the night. Day two would involve travelling 160km to a town called Konglor and day three was a visit to a 7.5km long cave, created by a river running through the belly of the limestone mountain, suitably called Konglor Cave, followed by a 186km return journey to Thakhek. It was 9:30am and we were ready to hit the road.
The Loop
Day One
As we pulled away it was considered a good opportunity to test the bike’s mechanics and it turned out that the front brakes were practically nonexistent. Nevermind, Gareth thought, we can always compensate it with the back brake and the engine brake, with it being a geared bike. In hindsight it was probably a bad decision, but nevertheless, here we are to tell the tale.
Check out my scoot-ay!!
View along Route 12
We drove along Route 12 and stopped at a handful of caves and one swim spot as directed by Mr Ku. We visited Tha Fa Lang where we stripped off and skinny-dipped to our hearts content. Actually, what really happened was Gareth jumped in and swam freely, wearing swimming trunks may I add, and then I followed suit, saw a dead fish and virtually leapt out of the water. When we were drying off a German couple, whose names we never found out, arrived on their bikes and exclaimed that they too were doing ‘The Loop’. After a brief chat we sped off on our scooter to our next point.
Tha Fa Lang
We didn’t visit all of the caves on Mr Ku’s map, partly due to our ‘you’ve seen one cave you’ve seen them all’ mentality but mainly because we missed the turnings and to do a U-turn would be too disheartening. We carried on to Tham Phainh which was a small cave inhabited by a number of carved Buddhas. This cave is a place of worship and it is really frowned upon to swim in the water there. As we were walking out we noticed a couple had just arrived and were walking down towards the water, I explained that there was nothing to see there and suggested  they go where we had just come from. An old Lao lady was stood by the sign saying ‘No Swimming’ and looked furious. She began to mimic washing and was clearly telling us we weren’t allowed in the water and subsequently frog marched us out of the cave.
Inside Tham Phainh

An alter for worship inside the cave
Next was the slightly larger cave of Tham Aem. We had to pay a small entrance fee to visit this cave, which we weren’t made aware of beforehand. It was a pleasant enough cave and a cool treat to be out of the baking midday sun. Outside of the cave there was litter everywhere and it really spoilt the experience. As it had been Lao New Year we assumed that this was the aftermath. Still, its something we really take for granted in Britain; our care for the local environment is taught to us from a young age.
Outside the entrance to Tham Aem 
For the next three hours we continued on to our days resting place of Thalang. We stayed at the lovely Sabaidee Guesthouse ran by a very sweet man called Mr Phaythoun Boungnalath. Our accommodation was basic; a bed, a toilet and a fan, all for around $8, but the service provided was exceptional. Unfortunately the power cut just as we were ordering dinner and we were worried that the chicken kebab and pork ribs we’d ordered wouldn’t be all that great. We were so wrong. They had cooked us a wonderful meal in their pitch-black kitchen. To top it off they set up a bonfire for us to sit around (the German couple were also staying). The four of us spent the next few hours getting to know one another as we watched the bonfire embers slowly go out.
Sunset view from Sabaidee Guesthouse
Day Two
By 8am the following morning we had set off and began a 62km journey over the worst road I have ever experienced, called Route 8B. Mr Ku, Mr Phaythoun, and most of the people who had left comments in the Travel Lodge’s Log Book, had all described this stretch of road as ‘fun’ due to its bumps and spectacular views. For the first hour or two it really was, and it tested Gareth’s skills on more than one occasion, but for the last hour the suspension was knackered and every bump sent searing pain into my bum. Gareth was also mentally exhausted having to dodge potholes every 2ft. Although it was only 62km it took us about 4 hours to reach the start of the tarmac of Route 8A.
This is nothing compared to some sections of Route 8B
Once on 8A it was time to open the throttle and make our way to a cool spring that was at the halfway point to Konglor. Luckily enough we had stopped for lunch in a town that had the only restaurant for miles and asked where this cool spring (or bo nam yen in Lao) was. We were told to go down the road then turn right and keep going for 3km. I don’t know how we found the turn off, but we did. There were times along this 3km dirt track that we really thought we should head back, it wasn’t going to be here and we were wasting our time. But sure enough the cool spring was there and it was stunning. As had occurred at the caves we’d visited the day before, we knew we had arrived based on the orange-clad monks sat around the entrance. We spent a good hour swimming around fully clothed and jumping off rocks into the clear cool blue water. Our bottoms were well pleased.
Cool Spring – Just stunning
After a few photo opportunities we decided that we really needed to move on and make our way to Konglor. You might think that sitting down for a few hours while a bike does all the hard work is straightforward, but with being fully exposed to the sun and the dust sticking to your face, not to mention the insects flying into your eyes when you forget to put on your sunglasses, it can become quite unpleasant. In the end I decided to cover myself by wearing Gareth’s jacket because the stinging became too painful.
We arrived in Konglor just after 4pm and after a short tour of the town trying to find a place to stay we went for Chantha Guesthouse. At $10 a night, surrounded by fields of the most unusual, but pretty crops, it was spot on. They also had four fluffy dogs and anywhere with a pet, or four, is our kind of place. We slept like logs and didn’t get bitten by mosquitoes once.
Chantha Guesthouse, Konglor
View from the balcony at Chantha Guesthouse
Day Three
As we were checking out, Gareth asked the owner what was planted in the fields. It turned out to be tobacco! I was amazed. Show me a picture of a ganja leaf and I will tell you what it is but I didn’t have the first clue that these tall, elegant crops topped with small pink flowers would have been tobacco.
We drove the short distance to the entrance of Konglor Cave, paid a fee to drive in, parked up and walked towards what we believed to be the ticket office. It was all a little confusing but we realised that even though we had paid to come in that we still needed to pay for a boat to take us through the 7.5km long cave. It was also extra for headlamps and rubber flip-flops. We already had the flip-flops but we decided to opt out of the headlamps.
Although rather an unattractive shot – the entrance to Konglor Cave
After being given our lifejackets we didn’t really know what to do next, but we were soon ushered along and shown which way to go towards the cave. It got really dark really quickly inside the mouth of Konglor and I began to realise that this wasn’t like any other cave I’d visited, I also really wanted a headlamp by this point. We were shown to our boat and were soon tugging along with one guide at the back steering and another at the front spotting.
Bringing in our boat
Konglor Cave is unequivocally breathtaking. There are times when the top of the cave reaches cathedral proportions with mammoth stalagmites and stalactites creating an eerie otherworld feel. Our camera was rubbish inside the cave and we weren’t able to capture one particular spot where we were able to walk along a carefully constructed path that wound around these ancient limestone pillars.
Occasionally, when the water depth was too low, we would have to get out of the boat and push it along to deeper waters – in the pitch black darkness. In the end the pilot would speed up and hope that the momentum would keep us going. At times, there were also rocky sections that meant the boat had to be manually dragged through fairly heavy rapids. Total respect has to go to the men who do this for a living.
After a 30-minute break on the other side; a chance for us to buy a coke and for the guides to experience natural daylight, we got back onto the boat, and although a little terrified, the adrenaline was keeping us pumped. We learnt to brace ourselves when the boat would speed up, as we now knew what to expect; a sudden jolt, a few jerks and we would be on our way.
Going back inside – scared much?!
The whole journey from start to finish, including the break, lasted about two and a half hours but it felt like no time at all, and once we saw daylight forcing its way in we knew our Konglor Cave encounter was now over.
We were soon back on our scooter and found ourselves travelling the final leg of our journey with a feeling of awe and fulfilment. We had spent the last three days experiencing a part of the world that is still yet to be spoilt by fat cat developers and eager tourists. What a wonderful opportunity we have been given to tell you this story, but really, we wanted to keep it to ourselves because the Thakhek Loop is truly a masterpiece of nature.