The Mighty Mekong

During our ride from northern Thailand through Laos and across the north of Cambodia we have ridden alongside, criss-crossed and been ferried across the mighty Mekong and its many tributaries. 

 We have enjoyed breakfasts and afternoon drinks watching its quiet waters slide by, carrying boat loads of people, goods and animals. Many a morning we have woken to great views of the river at dawn from our little room.

The Mekong is mostly a shallow, wide river, but between southern Laos and Cambodia it splits into numerous channels around the area known as Sipandon or 4000 Islands.  

Between some of these islands it becomes a raging torrent, cascading down limestone gorges.  This area of waterfalls is not navigable by boats and has frustrated many including the French, who so wanted access up the river to China that they purpose built a short railway just to cart gun boats, river cargo boats and eventually commercial goods around the waterfalls. 

We spent a few days island hopping in this region. We nearly didn’t go as it is a known tourist hot spot, but we were so glad we did as it proved easy to evade the tourists and see a very different part of Laos. 

There is the natural beauty, the French historical remains, but mostly an ancient agriarian culture that hasn’t yet undergone major change. Todays teenagers can and do still fish and farm just as their great great grandparents did. Only small changes to traditional technology and simple machinery are apparent. 

The most obvious being mobile phones and satellite dishes which impact on people’s world view. And, unfortunately, plastic rubbish is everywhere, including in the river.

Riding the small tracks around the islands that still don’t have cars was a joy.  The tiny boats between islands (often operated by women) make island hopping easy, and at least three islands have guesthouses.

The people living on the banks of the Mekong drink, wash and rely on the waters to grow their staple foods.  Surprisingly, given the number of nets used, they also manage to catch a surprising array fish and aquatic life of all sizes – for now.   

Rare Illawaddy dolphins are hanging onto life in the river by their fin tips but are threatened with extinction. 

The last time we crossed the Mekong near Strung Treng in northern Cambodia it was at least 1 km wide, shallow and slow moving again. 

As we said our farewells to it we reflected on it’s importance as a waterway for millions of people. But it’s overuse, what ends up in it and the talk of new dams are all threatening to destroy this important resource.

It is a great river and has supported the growth of  human cultures for thousands of years. Hopefully we can change our ways and ensure it is there for the next few millennia.


Crossing from Thailand to Laos.


Surlys enjoy a rest in Laos.

Surlys enjoy a rest in Laos.

Some steep long climbs.

Some steep long climbs.

10:18 am Quite a hilly ride from Chiang Saen to Huay Xai across the Laos border. There were several really steep sections crossing a pass through the ranges, Andy actually had to get off and push. At the border as bike riders we had to go through the walking processing section rather than with cars, which meant our bikes had to be loaded onto the transfer bus for the two KM crossing into Laos. Apparently this is the rule from both sides, but seemed crazy after having ridden on the road from Bangkok. It was a nice easy 10km ride from the border to Huay Xai, apart from the fact that they drive on the right side!! Laos is definitely poorer, everything is smaller and less developed. People are very laid back, and no where near as efficient and business minded as the Thais. Huay Xai seemed a chaotic place, but it had one street that was quite a tourist Mecca. The street was lined with tourist friendly guesthouses, restaurants and booking agents. There is also a lot of young backpackers, many seem to be travelling in groups. We checked into a nice guesthouse and enjoyed a meal at a local restaurant that supports Laos women.

A road more or less travelled.

We left Phonlah’s and Carl’s place in Mara Sarakam, Isan, on Feb 4th and headed west for 450k to the ancient capital Sukhothai, then 650k in a big arc north and north-east, travelling south of but close to the border with Myanmar to Laos. We finally left Thailand for Laos on February 17.

It was only a day and a half after leaving Mara Sarakam that we crossed tahe mountain range from the Isan Plateau into Northern Thailand, which meant the start of hills and a generally greener and more fertile landscape. The further north we got, the less the smoke and dust haze, and the bigger the hills.
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What Wat

We talk about a housing led recovery in Australia, but in Thailand it would have to be Wat led. Wats or temples are being built or restored everywhere, creating not only construction jobs but tourism attractions for the growing Chinese and Korean tourism markets.
The Wats vary from the sublime to the extreme of what we would call kitsch. Some statues  of Buddha are expressive, graceful and reflective. Others look like they were trying to copy the features of the main sponsor!  Colours vary but gold always features, along with pinks, blues and reds. They can be hundreds of years old or brand new. Some small Towns have five or six – apparently there are 27,000 in Thailand.

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Isan Cuisine, Nth East Thailand

We were very lucky to be at Carl and Phonlah’s house for a traditional house warming and insight into the hospitality and cuisine of Isan people in Isan province in North Eastern Thailand. Isan culture is heavily influenced by early Laos and Khmer societies. Isan people are proud of and enjoy their spicy and unique Cuisine and love to share a meal. A big part of a traditional house warming is the preparation and enjoyment of a large array of the local foods. For a special occasions such as a house warming, a large number of dishes will be prepared to offer to the monks blessing the house in the morning and again for the after party provided for family and neighbours in the afternoon and evening. The day prior to the house warming we joined several of the ladies for a trip to the local market to stock up on fresh foods, including beef, pork, chicken, fish, little crabs, prawns and lots of vegetables and fruits. A large marquee was erected behind Carl and Pholan’s new house as an area to prepare the food. We enjoyed several great meals that included dishes of spicy finely minced beef and other meats, snails, a very spicy papaya salad with whole small crabs, and an interesting variety of vegetable dishes including small eggplants, green beans and a variety of leafy greens. Knives and forks are not used as sticky rice which is a staple eaten is rolled into a small ball and dipped into the above dishes. Eating is a sociable activity involving a large group of family and friends sitting around enjoying each other’s company as well as the spicy food.









An Issan house warming

We arrived at Carl and Phonlahs place the day before the new house they had built was to be blessed and celebrated. In Isan culture this involved inviting and feeding Buddhist monks in the morning and lots of friends and famy to eat and party in the afternoon and evening. Lots of family and neighbours were already on hand to help prepare the food and set up. They had erected a marquee for preparing food that was a hive of activity. A quick trip to the local market for supplies of fresh produce was followed by a storm of cooking. We enjoyed some great Isan food sitting on the lawn by the house pond the evening before the celebration. Early the next morning the main room was setup for the monks to provide the blessing and accept food. The monks sitting in a row chanted blessing with family and friends sitting opposite. Once the blessing was complete a large array of food was provided to each monk. The head monk inscribed special symbols above each doorway into the house and bungalow.

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Khao Yai National Park

After a month away visiting family and friends in Australia we arrived back in Bangkok eager to get on our bikes, which were still in their boxes from Japan and stored with friends.

A day or so later, well fed and looked after by the Naksook family (P’weed even was up at 4.30am preparing breakfast and a lunch pack for us!) we were on our way.

Google maps walking route took us along a wide, smooth and not too busy highway which got us out of the city quickly, then along a series of rural roads, past burnt, dry rice paddies and green orchards, through small village markets and quiet back streets. We happened to come across amazing sights we weren’t expecting like a giant reclining budda.

We stayed the night at a little motel in Prachinburi (which took us forever to find as google maps had the location wrong. Eventually after many vague directions a lady got on her scooter and led us there).

The next morning we started to pass lots of cyclists, in groups and alone, on road bikes and mountain bikes. There were even a couple of cycling cafes and resorts. All riders were very friendly, calling out and waving, unlike Japan where there was no cycling camaraderie.

After 20k of flat, fast riding we came to the entrance gate of the National Park to see about 150 – 200 cyclists, and all with helmets and lycra! We couldn’t work out if it was a Gran Fondo event or a regular dry season Sunday morning thing, but there were lots of support vehicles including from cycling clubs from around the region. Some very expensive and well set up road bikes too. (Later someone said that the road cycling phenomena had only been around for about 4 years).

So we had friendly company for the steep 30k climb to the visitor centre near the top of the range, and found the huge outdoor cafeteria packed with cyclists. But still plenty of good food available.

Khao Yai National Park is a huge park established in the 1960s to protect the rainforest ecosystems on the range between the central plains of Thailand and the Khorat Plateau of the north east. It is one of the few remaining pieces of country for many endangered and vulnerable species, but is also only a few hours drive from Bangkok so is severely pressured from tourism.

We rented a tent and sleeping equipment, having left ours in Bangkok, and booked in at a quiet campground. But apparently it can accommodate 1000 tents and was full the night before we arrived (Saturday)!

The loud rhythmic calls of the frogs all night entered ones subconscious much as the pounding of an African drum does. The hypnotic impact starts to break down before dawn when birds in their hundreds compete for their place in the soundscape.

We were fortunate, on one of our forest walks, to come across an elephant on the track. As pushing past him wasn’t a wise option we watched him for half an hour as he ate his way through a bamboo thicket, and then cleared off the path for us. A little further on we saw three otters gambolling on the river bank; then a crocodile and finally pair of hornbill birds, high up in the forest canopy.

At night we spotted a spider creating it’s web, and a beautiful frog.

All in all a great place to visit – and a downhill ride out when we left.