Southeast Asia at speed

16th – 21st December 

The challenge 

The Vietnamese border officials had compounded our already dim view of them by announcing that we’ll be unable to leave our car at their border for more than three days.

Therefore, in order to stick as much as possible to our original plans and to meet up with Nina’s parents, Roger and Buntie, again in Hanoi on the 21st, we’ve left ourselves four and a half days to bus back to the Vietnamese border, drive our car back through Cambodia, up through northern Thailand and into Laos, where we will be able to leave it safely in Luang Prabang whilst we fly east to Hanoi.  

It’s rather like a Top Gear challenge, except with neither the budget nor the backup. 1,250 miles, four border crossings, four countries, four days. Ridiculous, but all part of the adventure… 

The 16th  

We leave Mui Ne at 1.30pm on Wednesday, 16th December, in a tourist bus bound for Saigon. We’re still in the company of Dougie (who is now heading back to Saigon for the final three days of his holiday) and while away the five hours’ journey catching up on gossip from the UK. 

The three of us grab an early supper in Saigon, and after a final farewell drink at the trendy ‘Q’ Bar under Saigon’s opera house we head for an early night, mindful that tomorrow, at best, will involve at least 12 hours of travelling.  

The 17th

The cross-border Saigon-Phnom Penh express bus leaves, chock full of bleary eyed tourists and locals, at 6.30am. It’s a ponderous two hours to the border, and we doze intermittently, occasionally glancing at the rather uninspiring, misty and over-developed suburbs of Saigon that sprawl deep into the surrounding countryside.  

We’re both pretty nervous, (a) that our car will be safe and untouched and (b) that we don’t encounter any more border issues. Before leaving Mui Ne, we’d noticed that the Cambodian border officials hadn’t put an ‘exit’ stamp in Charlie’s passport – which could cause some issues at the border – we sincerely hope not.  

Thankfully, all is well at the border. Our car is safe and intact and the Vietnamese are only too happy to see us leave.  

The Cambodians once again excel themselves, cheerily noticing their colleague’s error and offering to backdate an exit stamp for us before we apply for new visas ($20 each for 24 hours in the country – gutting!). 

We’re on the road by 10am, and make good headway towards Phnom Penh where we plan to stop for lunch.  

Worryingly, though – our car develops an ominous rattling noise about half way. It sounds like another dreaded suspension failure, although we can’t work our where we may have done it.  

The noise gets worse and worse as we get closer to Phnom Penh, and within the city suburbs, we pull over at a filling station to have a closer look.  

Indeed, our driver’s side rear dampener has sheared from it’s holding, and is rattling loose near the rear axle. Our relief at identifying the problem is offset by the knowledge we have absolutely zero spare days up our sleeves for emergency repairs before we are due to fly out of Luang Prabang on the 21st. 

Charlie sits down to smoke a cigarette, pondering. We speculatively ask a couple of local onlookers if there’s a garage nearby – to our amazement they reply “Just behind the petrol station!” 

We look round, and as if by magic, there is indeed a local garage, less than 20 metres away, tucked behind the filling station. Eureka! 

We drive the car in, and immediately get that comforting feeling we used to get in Central Asian garages. The mechanics and their boss wave us in and surround the car; within minutes we’ve explained the problem and we have four people frantically jacking the car up, taking off the rear wheel, unbolting the suspension and working out how to fix it.

Remarkably, within 20 minutes they have re-threaded the dampener, found some replacement washers and nuts from a huge barrel of old spare parts sat in a corner, and re-fitted the suspension. Relief doesn’t even come close… Hugely grateful, we ask them how much money they’d like. “Five dollars” comes the reply.  

We really should have learnt by now that local garages are always, always better than Toyota outfits – 20 minutes and $5 is our quickest and cheapest quick fix yet. 

Breakfast never happened, so we grab some excellent lunch in Phnom Penh before heading onto Siem Reap, our target for the end of today. It’s 6.45pm and dark by the time we arrive, but no matter: we know this road well now, our old guesthouse has room for us (and are delighted to see us again) and we know there is a warm welcome and cold beer awaiting us in our old ‘local’ restaurant. 

So far, so good… 

The 18th 

A slightly more relaxed start today, up at 7.30am for bacon baguettes and good coffee before we set off. How nice to be in Cambodia again, albeit fleetingly! 

It takes under two hours to cover the 145km or so to the Thai border at Poipet, once again the Cambodians are a model of efficiency and we’re through their side within ten minutes.  

There’s a slight delay at the Thai side, however, as the border officials won’t let us enter without 3rd party insurance, which we can usually purchase at the border. Here, however, there’s no kiosk – so frustratingly we have to wait for over an hour whilst a motorbike courier drives 6km into Thailand with our paperwork, purchases our (year long!) insurance on our behalf, and hurries back.  

By midday we’re on the road, aiming to get to the northern city of Khan Kaen, just 150km or so south of the Laotian border. This means we’ve got around 450km to cover, ideally before nightfall.  

Predictably and much to our relief, the Thai roads are as good as ever: over-engineered eight lane highways. Barring a brief lunch stop for some Pad Thai from a little roadside café, we make brisk progress. 

It’s a Friday afternoon, though, and the Thai police are out in force, evidently trying to supplement their weekend spending money through on-the-spot speeding and similar fines. We avoid the first few roadblocks but predictably get pulled over with just 100km or so to go.  

A rather brusque but amusingly short Thai policeman waddles over, baton in hand. “Ladar! Ladar! You speed!” he informs us.  

Actually, since it’s been so long since we got the wheels balanced, we’ve been keeping an eye on our speed as anything over 110km (conveniently, the speed limit here) produces quite loud vibrations. 

“What’s a ‘ladar’?” Charlie asks phlegmatically. We both know what he’s on about, but aren’t going to make his life easy, especially as we know we’re in the right on this one. “Ladar gun” he gestures smugly “two kilometres back, you doing 125km/h. Fine, fine!” 

“You show us the proof, we’ll consider it” replies Charlie. “No proof, no money”

Far easier than we imagined! Knowing the game is up and some other poor punter will have to stand his weekend boozing, he replies “OK, no problem!” and hastens us on our way. They’re not even any good at corruption…

We arrive in Khan Kaen at 5.30pm, in time to find the best of a bad bunch of cheap guesthouses (concrete floors, mildewed walls, rock solid mattresses, lumpy pillows, but actually quite clean) before nightfall. 

We’re exhausted, and manage to make it out to a local foreigner friendly restaurant (this isn’t exactly tourist central) for a well earned beer and Thai curry before collapsing into bed at 9.00pm. 

The 19th 

Another day, another border crossing… 

We’re at the Thai-Laos border by 10am, looking forward to an easier day today – we’re only going as far as Vientiane, the Laos capital, some 30km over the border.  

Sneakily we overtake a tourist VIP bus as we approach the border and ensure we’re first in line through Thai customs. For some reason, it’s always easier to get out of this country than into it… 

Across the Thailand-Laos Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River, we revert to the right hand side of the road and proceed through Laos customs. Still ahead of the tourist bus, we manage to procure our Laos visas within a brisk 20 minutes (though not before the official in charge of sticking them in our passport finishes his crucial game of Solitaire).  

Getting our Carnet stamped is a little harder (no-one knows who’s in charge of these) but again we’re through by midday, and roll into Vientiane, surely one of the world’s most relaxed capitals, in time for an early lunch and a much anticipated afternoon off.  

The 20th 

Refreshed by some good Laos food, a far superior hotel room to our previous Thai effort and a decent night’s sleep, we set off for the final leg of our mission at 8am.  

We reckon it should take around seven hours to Luang Prabang (it takes ten on a bus, apparently).

It’s only around 400km, but the road is relentlessly winding and hilly, taking us up to 1,500 metres and down to 700 metres countless times. It’s beautiful scenery; craggy hills covered in lush, green forests and dotted with pretty rural villages, but it’s slow and hard work on the car.  

In fact, it’s too hard work. An hour after lunch, we’re beset by our latest and most serious car problem. We’ve suspected for a while that we had a crack in our cylinder head, but the useless Thai mechanics wouldn’t acknowledge it and the Cambodians said the problem was just dirt in the engine.  

With 150km still to go, our thermometer needle moves for the first time in the entire trip, upwards, very quickly. We pull over for 10 minutes, but it’s baking hot in the afternoon sun and it’ll take hours to cool the engine properly.  

Within another 15 minutes, the needle’s on its way up again, giving us a feeling of dread in our stomachs. Suddenly, getting into Luang Prabang today isn’t actually a certainty, and that afternoon flight tomorrow is looming…  

We do make it, in the end, with our heating on full blast to draw heat from the engine, and our windows wide open. Limping into Luang Prabang, the day’s driving has ended up being a little over nine hours, but we’re mightily relieved. 

We’ve got a fantastic contact up here in Ivan, the owner of The Apsara - one of Luang Prabang’s chicest hotels. Having found a cheap guesthouse for the night, we head down and introduce ourselves over a beer.  

Ivan is a true saviour and offers us the services of his manager the next morning, to take us to his local and trusted garage, act as translator for us and ultimately ensure that we can get the car fixed whilst we’re back in Vietnam. 

Luang Prabang is lovely, relaxing, calm. Knowing the car will be OK, we breathe enourmous sighs of relief, sink into a second drink and enjoy a wonderful night’s sleep. 

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