Cambodia Laos and Thailand, Placeholder and Links, 4 February to 27 February 2001

We had a wonderful trip touring Cambodia, Laos and then resting in Thailand in February 2001.

The photo albums on Flickr for this trip are divided into five albums, each with 60 to 100 photos (digitised from negatives). Each photo has a narrative, so this can be viewed as a photo journal of the trip. Each album has a click-through link below:

The itinerary and Steppes East itinerary/resources for this trip are uploaded and can be clicked through below:

Steppes Itinerary Cambodia Laos & Thailand February 2001

Steppes Contacts and Voucher Cambodia Laos & Thailand February 2001

Steppes Covering Letter 29 January 2001

I kept a written log on this trip, as I have done for almost all of my overseas travel. Anyone keen to try and read it all is welcome to attempt deciphering my scrawl:

My Journal Cambodia Laos & Thailand February 2001

Highlights include:

When Janie And I Jumped The Border Into Thailand At Chong Mek And Then Blagged Our Way Out Of Thailand Again, 19 and 26 February 2001

From Katou People in Nanong Village, Saravan Province, Laos…
…to Bar Pool people, Baan Taling Ngam, Koh Samui, Thailand…within 24 hours; renegades who hadn’t properly gone through Thai immigration, looking smug and well dodgy

I was reminded of this peculiar, dodgy-sounding incident from 16 years ago while we waited in line to go through immigration at Bangkok Airport the other week – click here for the main piece on the February 2017 Thailand trip.

I recalled that the previous time Janie and I entered Thailand, in 2001, we didn’t formally go through immigration at all.

In truth, we jumped the border between Laos and Thailand.

My travel log is more or less silent on this incident, probably because I didn’t dare write it up while we were still in Thailand. I was too busy getting back to work and dining out on the story when first we returned.

Indeed, My Journal Cambodia Laos & Thailand February 2001 – concludes at the end of the 18 February 2001 page, when we were at the delightful but basic Tad Lo Lodge in Saravan Province:

Light lunch followed by relaxing pm at our bungalow & early supper in preparation for tomorrow’s daftly early start.

Relaxing at our bungalow, reading Barney’s Version, as my photo forensics reveal…
…and here’s the gorgeous Tad Lo Falls sunset

The Flickr album with all our Southern Laos and Thailand pictures from 2001 can be examined by clicking here.

The only other reference to the incident in my log was in my notes for the Steppes East agent, Clare:

…warn about Noukeo…border crossing Laos/Thailand “joke”.

Reading those notes 16 years later, it reads a bit like a Trump tweet. The border crossing also has some Trumpian characteristics,as you’ll learn if you persevere with this story.

Noukeo was our guide in Southern Laos. The daftly early start was agreed as a pick up by Noukeo and the driver at 4:00 am. Our flight from Ubon in Eastern Thailand was scheduled for 8:25.  We had a roughly two hour drive to the Chong Mek border, which opens at 6:00 and a roughly 90 minute drive from the border to the airport. Tight but do-able; pretty much the only way to get from Saravan to Samui in a day.

Tad Lo Lodge was very beautiful but a pretty rudimentary place. Even to go down to dinner traversing walkways across the falls we needed to use torches as the paths and walkways were not lit. So when Noukeo and the driver didn’t turn up at 4:00 and indeed we were still waiting at 4:10, Janie and I started debating vociferously what to do. I knew the lads were sleeping at the resort on the other side and suggested that I walk around the perimeter road to find/rouse them, while Janie stayed with our stuff. Janie wasn’t keen on the idea, but by 4:15 we were both feeling desperate, so off I went. I flagged the lads down on the road a few minutes later. They had clearly been enjoying themselves the night before and had overslept. Noukeo might even have still been half cut; perhaps the driver too.

So we set off 20-25 minutes later than intended, but Noukeo was confident that we could make up the time. The driver drove like a fury, which I thought put the whole project and our lives at risk on those bumpy roads; it is a wonder he didn’t hit something or at least get a puncture.

Still, we did get to the Vangtao-Chong Mek border crossing in one piece, just after 6:00. The place seemed deserted on the Laos side. “I told you we’d be in good time”, said Noukeo, “they haven’t even opened yet”.

“We have a 90 minute drive on the other side and a flight at 8:25”, I said, “we need to get a move on. Where are the Laotian border control people?”

“They sleep around here”, said Noukeo, “I’ll see if I can find them”.

So he did.

We handed our passports to Noukeo, the yawning Laotian border control people did their thing and stamped us out of Laos.

Then on to the perimeter fence, where all was once again seemingly deserted apart from our Thai driver and guide on the other side of the fence.

Noukeo jabbered with our Thai couriers. The Thai couriers jabbered back to Noukeo. They then formed a sort of human chain across the fence, firstly carrying our baggage over. Then, after I had given Noukeo and our Laotian driver their tips and Noukeo had given me back our passports, they helped me and Janie over the fence – here’s a link to a picture of that fence in those days.

“Where are the Thai border control people?” I asked our Thai driver and guide. “Who knows, let’s go”, shrugged the guide, “we’ll need to drive quick to get you to your flight.”

We’d jumped the border.

I realised that this was not a consequence-free event; someone was going to question the absence of entry documentation at some point; possibly several points. I thought the problem might be just a few minutes away at Ubon, but because the flights within Thailand were purely domestic, the airport people only seemed vaguely interested in our passports both at Ubon and at Bangkok where we changed for Koh Samui.

Indeed, it wasn’t until we got to Baan Taling Ngam that anyone raised the question of the absence of entry visa stamps in our passport. There I simply told the receptionist that we had entered by road at Chong Mek, had handed our passports to our guide and taken custody of them again once the formalities had (as far as we were concerned) been completed. The receptionist told me that we should expect some more detailed questioning at Bangkok border control on departure.

I suggested to Janie that the above explanation should be the sum total of what we tell any officials. No mention of fences, the fun and games with the baggage chain and us traversing the border or indeed anything of that kind.

We then relaxed for several days and temporarily forgot all about our passports.

Forensics have spotted The Human Stain by Philip Roth; very apt.

We didn’t have a private pool at Baan Taling Ngam, but there were several small pools scattered around the property which hardly anyone fancied (apart from us), so to all intents and purposes we did have our own pool almost all the time.

But I digress.

At the end of the holiday, on 26 February 2001, we flew to Bangkok where, at that time, border control for exit after Samui took place. We didn’t have much time between our flight from Samui landing and our London-bound flight taking off.

The first official we encountered remonstrated with me that we had no entry stamps in our passport.

“We entered by road at Chong Mek. We handed our passports to our guide and he returned them to us after giving them to the officials for processing,” I said, slowly.

The first official called a second, slightly more senior official.

“No stamp. No stamp,” said the second official.

I spoke even more slowly and a little louder this time, because speaking slowly and especially speaking loudly helps people understand an unfamiliar second language much better:

“WE ENTERED BY ROAD AT CHONG MEK. WE HANDED OUR PASSPORTS TO OUR GUIDE AND HE RETURNED THEM TO US AFTER GIVING THEM TO THE OFFICIALS FOR PROCESSING,”

The second official shook his head in bewilderment and went off to find a more senior official.

Soon enough, Janie and I were shepherded into an office, in which sat a rather military looking official with strips on his lapels.

“Why have you not got entry stamp visas in your passports?” he asked.

“WE ENTERED BY ROAD AT CHONG MEK…” I started to say, slowly and loudly.

“Ach, Chong Mek. So many problems, Chong Mek,” said our senior official.

“OK”, he went on, “I have the authority to stamp you into Thailand as well as stamp you out of Thailand. So; welcome to Thailand, enjoy your stay…”

…he said, stamping us in, followed by, without a pause for breath…

“…thank you for visiting Thailand. Do visit us again soon. Goodbye,” while stamping us out and stewarding us towards our flight on the outbound side of border control.

There’s probably a lesson in this story for those who think that fences, walls and “control of our own borders” have much meaning in the real world, where hapless travellers and their even more hapless guides could seemingly do as they please, even at the official border posts, but that’s a debate for others, not us.

I should also say that we don’t recommend that you try emulating this activity when you are on holiday (or indeed for any other purpose). Jumping the border was not fun while we were actually doing it; even less fun and more dangerous now, I expect.

Still, Janie and I laughed about it a lot afterwards and dined out on the story for ages. It remains surprisingly fresh in my mind 16 years later, even though it has taken me that long to write it down.

Some Issues With Our Flights In Cambodia and Laos, 8 to 15 February 2001

We probably had more transport difficulties on this holiday, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand 2001 than any other, for some strange reason; perhaps the itinerary was a little ambitious for its era:

Steppes Itinerary Cambodia Laos & Thailand February 2001

Having to jump the border between Laos and Thailand on 19 February 2001 in order to catch a flight – click here for that story – was probably the pinnacle, but we’d already experienced some problems.

On 8 February I noted, in Phnom Penh:

 First stop, the National Museum, then back to hotel to sort out problem over airline ticket.

I can’t quite remember what this problem was, but I think it was an absence of airline tickets for our flight to Vientiane in our ticket pack on arrival at Phnom Penh. This one was resolved easily enough I seem to recall.

But somehow, when we later flew from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, someone made a mess of the Laotian domestic ticket vouchers (which were all in one book), accidentally removing the Luang Prabang to Vientiane vouchers as well as the Vientiane to Luang Prabang ones.

On 15 February, when our lovely guide Prasauth took us to the airport for our Vientiane flight, we were voucherless for that flight/ Although it was very clear to all concerned that the airline handling people must have made a mistake on the first leg, the official refused to let us on the flight without either the vouchers or the full fare being stumped up again; a few hundred dollars.

Could do with a shot of Lao-Lao now, eh Prasauth?

Prasauth, who was unusually white haired to start with, looked even more white haired and pale when this problem unfolded.

I tried to get the official to understand, through Prasauth, that if I did pay for the flight a second time (which naturally I would do rather than miss the flight) there would be one heck of a palaver when I got back to London to get the money reimbursed, especially as the problem was undoubtedly caused by an error by the airline handling people at Vientiane.

But it was more than the official’s job was worth to let us on the plane without a voucher. Indeed, he’d have to pay the money for two flights himself if he was two vouchers short.

Then I had a bright idea.

“What happens if we give you the vouchers for our next flight, Vientiane to Pakse?”

Turned out, that would be OK. The official simply had to have one voucher per passenger. It didn’t need to be the right voucher.

I then suggested to Prasauth that he call his colleagues in Vientiane, explain what had happened and get them on the case to rectify the problem in time for our flight to Pakse the next day.

Everyone agreed that this idea would work. Indeed, by the time we landed in Vientiane, less than two hours later, our guide there, Wang, already had reissued tickets in his hands ready for our trip to Pakse the next day.

As for Pakse airport, I am very proud to be the Dull Men’s Club reporter on airport carousels for that airport – click here. And I bet some Ogblog readers thought I was a nobody.

Valentines Day – Laotian Style, Luang Prabang, 14 February 2001

Villa Santi, Luang Prabang

Janie and I have very happy memories of the few days we spent in Luang Prabang, Laos; 12 to 15 February 2001. Everything about that stage of our journey felt right.

We stayed in the picturesque Villa Santi, depicted above and below.

The monks’ grub run takes place outside the Villa Santi at dawn

We did really interesting touring with a delightful guide, Prasauth. We are usually happy with our guides, but occasionally we are fortunate enough to get a really exceptional guide with whom we form an affinity. Prasauth was one such guide.

Trying some rare fruits with Prasauth

The itinerary for our touring is linked below:

Steppes Itinerary Cambodia Laos & Thailand February 2001

I wanted to get Janie some flowers for Valentines Day. Luang Prabang seemed to be awash with flowers, yet I didn’t see anyone selling them. I had a chat with Prasauth about it the day before Valentines. I tried to explain the tradition to him and said that I wanted to buy some flowers.

“That might be very difficult,” said Prasauth.

“But why?” I asked, “I see flowers everywhere. Surely I can buy some?”

“I’m not so sure”, said Prasauth, “we don’t really buy and sell flowers here. I’ll see if I can get some for tomorrow, but I don’t think it will be possible.”

Wind the clock forward to Valentines morning. Janie and I are taking an early breakfast on the beautiful balcony shown in the top picture of this piece. Then Prasauth appears, below, waving a lovely bunch of flowers and proclaiming, “Happy Valentines Day, Janie”.

It was a bit like a muddled up version of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. Everyone else who was taking breakfast on the balcony, plus the passers by on the street, observed the dramatic moment along with us.

Prasauth then bounded up the stairs and presented Janie with the flowers. Janie clearly worked out what had gone on, so with poise thanked us both profusely at the time. She and I had a good laugh about the event afterwards.

As soon as I got another quiet moment with Prasauth I tried to settle up with him for the flowers. He was having none of it and refused any payment.

“But Prasauth, it isn’t my Valentine to Janie if I don’t reimburse you for the flowers.”

“No, no”, said Prasauth, “they didn’t really cost me anything so I couldn’t take any money from you.”

I never found out where they came from. Perhaps his garden. Perhaps a favour he called in from a friend.

At least let me buy you a wee dram of Lao-Lao, Prasauth?

I think I might have persuaded him to take a nip of Lao-Lao (the local rice wine/whiskey) with me, when we got to Xang Hai village later that day…but I have a vague feeling that he refused even that.

Strange Things A Fortune Teller Told Me, Phnom Penh, 10 February 2001

Janie was reading A Fortune Teller Told Me while we were in Cambodia (one of the first books I ever bought on Amazon as it happens), so when we returned to Phnom Penh on 10 February and encountered a fortune teller, Janie insisted that we both have a go.

The fortune teller lady seemed quite confused about us as a couple who didn’t live together. We learnt that…

…Daisy has three blokes and is going to have two kids and that I have two birds!?

Two kids…two birds…

Once she got into her stride, though, the fortune teller was most insistent that I was about to come in to a lot of money. Like, straight away. That day, or the next day, she insisted.

All of a sudden I became more popular

This seemed odd to me at the time, as her services were lightening my wallet, not filling it as far as I could tell. And I was in no position to make money while I was on holiday.

But it turned out, when I returned to London, that in my absence a tricky commercial position of ours had unwound; a substantial sum of money had, as a result, been deposited in our corporate account, around the time of the fortune telling.

Spooky.

Off Piste In Cambodia, Phnom Kulen, Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei and Aftermath, 7th and 10th February 2001

Well piste – the road to Phnom Kulen from Siem Reap

We had arranged three days in Siem Reap/Angkor in our itinerary:

Steppes Itinerary Cambodia Laos & Thailand February 2001

…but as is often our wont, we had a mind to change the itinerary a bit once we got to Cambodia. After all, that’s what independent travel is all about.

We loved our time looking around the Siem Reap/Angkor sites, but two days of doing that was enough for us. Meanwhile, I had read one or two articles before we left home about sites reasonably near Siem Reap that were just starting to open up for tourism post war. We fancied exploring one or two of those.

It is normally quite easy to make such arrangements. I am very understanding that such changes are in effect requests for additional touring and I expect to pay the going rate for such additional tours.

On 5th and 6th February, I explained all that to our guide, Khouch, encouraging him to call his head office and make arrangements for us to visit some more remote sites on 7th February. Khouch was most reluctant. He seemed to think it reflected badly on him or on the itinerary that had been prepared for us in advance.

At one point, I even had to ask him to let me speak with his boss myself, directly, to explain how extremely satisfied we were and how much more extremely satisfied we would be if they would take quite a lot of money from me and arrange a more remote touring day for 7th.

In the end, of course, it was arranged. We would go to Phnom Kulen, Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei for the day.

Our photos for those first few days are in this album – click here, the first 58 being Siem Reap/Angkor 5th and 6th February, the rest being that amazing off piste touring day on 7th.

We set off later than intended, as Khouch had some difficulty getting the tickets/permits required for the trip. We also made very slow progress along the “road” (see photo above), with driver Guon (Janie called him “Goon”) managing 3 to 5 kph because he was so fearful of punctures.

Phnom Kulen Waterfall

Phnom Kulen was,  as I describe it in my log:

…a bit of a local circus with a reclining Buddha & a monk & some large stones. We go on to the waterfall where locals eat and swim…

To some extent we were in search of lingas, but needed to go on to Kbal Spean to see those. There we had to hire a local guide. The local guides are all retired/reformed Khmer Rouge geezers, who don’t speak English but that’s OK because at least Khouch can earn his corn translating for us.

Janie with our local guide at Kbal Spean

The translation is quite important. Not because we needed to be told what lingas look like, but we did need to be told to stick strictly to the path because no-one has yet got around to clearing landmines from the undergrowth either side of the path.

“If you want a pee, wait until we get back or if necessary pee on the path, but don’t wander into the bushes to have a pee anywhere around here”, translated Khouch, most usefully.

In short, off piste is only a good idea up to a point.

A safe space to see the lingas

The Khmer chaps had cleared some tracks through to see the splendid lingas, which Janie can be seen (above) observing with great interest.

Then on to Banteay Srei, a really beautiful old temple well worth exploring:

A wonderful ruined temple but all Janie cares about is feet

All the photos from that day are well worth a look – here’s the Flickr link again.

We let Khouch and Goun know that we were very happy, but somehow it seems that doubts remained at the agency about our unusual request.

For our last night in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh 10 February, we had arranged to eat at Ponlok restaurant, now defunct but described by Conde Nast Traveller as:

PONLOK RESTAURANT
319-323 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh (00 855 23 212 025). For upmarket Khmer cuisine, this is one of the best places around…

I got a call from the agency saying that the manager of the agency wanted to meet us there. He was an Englishman who seemed to have been taken from central casting of a Somerset Maugham TV series. He insisted on treating us to our feast and wanted to make absolutely sure that we were happy, because we had changed our itinerary in Siem Reap and our guide was concerned that we might not be satisfied customers.

I explained that we had no complaint at all, other than mild irritation at the difficulty we had persuading Khouch that our request for flexibility was built on satisfaction rather than dissatisfaction. The manager explained that more or less all of the guides were very nervous and quite incapable of making decisions. This was probably because they were all relatively young and had all had severely traumatic childhoods. Understandable.

Hello, Mr Frog

Ponlok Restaurant along riverfront – tried soup, frogs legs in ginger, marinated pork, chicken in Cambodian spice & morning glory. Stuffed.

The other thing Janie and I remember about this meal was the noisy, dripping air conditioning unit above us, which made us feel very nervous and decreasingly hungry, while the manager chap talked for England and Cambodia at far greater length than was necessary. We’d have been happier to have paid for our own dinner and to have dined in peace, but there you go.

Mystery Note About A Restaurant Encounter, Phnom Penh, 8 February 2001

After the yard of ale, we remember nothing!

There’s a really mysterious note on my 8 February 2001 page, regarding an encounter in a restaurant in Phnom Penh.

This is what I wrote:

…take a taxi to Le Royal for yards of beer and then Laguna Restaurant for duck soup, steamed fish, chinese broccoli and rice. Met “Nigel”, a Greek from Notting Hill who owns the place and whose sister is about to marry into the royal family – remember where you heard it first!

Intriguing, but sadly I have no recollection at all of the encounter with “Nigel”. Janie similarly can only recall the yard of beer at Le Royal, drawing a total blank for the second part of the evening.

So if anyone out there who knows/remembers Laguna, Nigel and/or his royalty-bound sister stumbles across this piece, please leave a comment with more details and put us out of our misery.

The only photographic evidence we have of the entire evening is the yard of ale photo (above) and some scenic photos of the view from Le Royal, see below:

View from Le Royal
Impressionistic View From Le Royal

From Siem Reap To Phnom Penh By Boat On The Tonlé Sap, 8 February 2001

The Day Did Not Start Well – Chaos On Departure From Seam Reap

My log entry for this trip leaves the reader in no doubt as to how I felt:

Rose unspeakably early to catch ferry boat to Phnom Penh. Ghastly boat – cramped and uncomfortable in every way. The journey takes five hours. Get off feeling giddy and odd. Met by guide Weng who takes us to hotel.

We went in one of these monstrosities
The pictures do not suggest that I was suffering quite as much as the words…

The full stack of pictures for this trip and our subsequent adventures in Cambodia can be found on Flickr by clicking here.

Just before we arrive at the Phnom Penh dock – even more chaotic than that at Seam Reap

Daisy’s main memory of this trip, apart from my deteriorating mood, is the chaos on arrival at Phnom Penh. We struggled to find our guide in the crowds. I insisted that we should find him to get help with our voluminous baggage, not least because the plank we had to walk to get off the boat was precarious to say the least – see the image at the top of the page, where said plank can be seen at the bottom of the photo.

Meanwhile, Daisy observed some of the locals stacking several bags on their heads to get them to dry land/relative safety and decided to emulate that method while I went off to find Weng. Or did Daisy “depend on the kindness of strangers” to help her with the baggage?

Neither of us can remember those details. Still, somehow, all of us and all of our baggage came out of the experience dry, united and in one piece.

We have a light lunch of soup full of stuff, then go off touring Phnom Penh…

…First stop, The National Museum, then back to the hotel to sort out problem over airline tickets. Then Monument Books for great cookbooks. Then Central Market (not so interesting). Then to Tuol Sleng Museum (harrowing).

No, not our hotel in Phnom Penh; harrowing scenes at the Tuol Sleng Holocaust Museum

…you wouldn’t catch us taking on such a crazy itinerary these days. Nor doing such a transfer by boat again…although there was a fairly recent incident in Nicaragua