After our time surrounded by the ruthless pursuit of infrastructure and efficiency which is inescapable in modern China, northern Laos felt like it was frozen in time, destined to reside forever in the mid-20th century. To the sides of the road, the jungle bulged so densely as to appear impenetrable and often droned with unfamiliar noises from insects and animals which made us less than enthusiastic about testing its impenetrability. The broken tarmac and gravel road surface undulated left and right through the unfamiliar greenery, finding a tortuously twisty path of least resistance through the domed hills and steep-sided valleys which make up the landscape of northern Laos. People were few, generally staring blankly at our unfamiliar steeds as we roared past their wooden shacks which huddled by the road, while a few more prestigious folk cruised around on mopeds, occasionally with the ultimate rural statue symbol – an AK47 machine gun or French-era flintlock rifle – draped casually across the handlebars.
After 2 days slaloming along the pitted roads of the north, we arrived at one of Laos’ most significant towns – Luang Prabang, a pleasant place on the Mekong River which once served as the nations administrative capital, and now serves as its tourist capital. Luang Prabang also marked a few changes for V8Nam. Firstly Laura – half of the Africa trip’s Team Porsche – flew in to co-drive the Corvette for a few weeks and secondly, the Rolls Royce found a new owner; a hotelier in the up-and-coming tourist city who offered Brummy $8,000 for it; about the same amount of cash as he’d paid for it in the UK, and hence an offer he couldn’t refuse. And so we waved goodbye to the Rolls Royce, which had done so brilliantly during the 12,000-odd miles it had covered since leaving the UK.
And with V8Nam being reduced to one car, Brummy found himself following the Corvette by public transport as we continued south along an incredible stretch of tarmac, where a pretty smooth strip of tarmac swept left and right around limestone karst towers and plummeting river valleys, while rising and falling at the whim of the mountains which continued to dominate our Laos experience. For 4 hours we flung the Corvette along this little piece of road-trip heaven, before arriving at the next town of note – the idyllically located Mekong river town of ‘Vang Vieng’. The village’s name translates as ‘fishing village’ – though it seems the fish in this part of the Mekong had been replaced by gap-year tourists in varying states of inebriation, floating down the rover in tyre inner tubes before packing the bars into the night. With 120 hotels and hostels in town, it’s clear where the place is heading, but despite this, it’s still a pretty pleasant place to crack open a beer and watch the sun set over the Mekong.
From Vang Viang, we headed south, transiting Laos’ capital city of Vientiane to the friendship bridge, where we entered Thailand and made for Udon Thani, one of the major cities in northeast Thailand, and home to Laura’s dad, who did a great job of making us feel at home, showing us around and facilitating a few crucial jobs which the Corvette needed doing – including an oil change, a repair to the cooling fans, and most challengingly, new rear tyres (for some reason, 275 40ZR17 isn’t a very common size in pickup-dominated Thailand – and boy, did we need them, after the fun roads of Laos!)
And so following our pleasant pitstop, we hit the road yet again, this time bound for Siam Reap in Cambodia and a rendezvous with Brummy, who was making his way there by flying to Phnom Penh then taking the bus up to meet us. Despite breaking down at the border leaving Thailand with a few electrical gremlins (solved by ‘turning it off and turning it back on again’ – ie disconnecting the battery for 30 seconds to silence a sticking relay), we only lost the race to Siam Reap by about 20 minutes, With Brummy’s bus getting him into town about 20 minutes before us.
Siam Reap is a city groaning under the weight of tourists, and the restaurants, bars, hostels and souvenir shops which inevitably spring up whenever tourists flock somewhere in droves. It was inevitable that the city would experience a flood of tourism once Cambodia had cast off the horrors of its recent past, as just to the north lies one of the greatest sights this planet has to offer – the incomparable temples of Angkor. Between 800 and 1400AD, the Khmer Empire flourished, and its capital – Angkor – grew to become the greatest city on the planet at that time, a pre-industrial conurbation of about a million people. Most of this vast capital disappeared long ago, as virtually all the buildings within it were made from wood, thanks in part to the Kymer’s belief that only the gods had the right to reside in structures of stone; however what is left – the stone monuments to various Hindu and Buddhist gods – certainly does the Kymer Empire justice, and justifies Siam Reap’s position as one of the most popular destinations in SE Asia.
For the final leg of V8Nam, from Siam Reap across the border to Vietnam, we faced a quandary. Laura, having flown out for only a few weeks, was running out of time and was keen to spend a few days cruising the incomparable scenery of Ha Long bay in northern Vietnam; however this was at odds with the potential of losing days stuck at the Vietnamese border if we tried to enter with the Corvette (very few people have managed to take foreign-registered vehicles into Vietnam, and Google-searches are full of stories of people being stuck at the border for days on end, trying to get in or out with vehicles.) In light of this, to make sure Laura’s holiday finished on a high, rather than a 3 day border crossing, we elected to leave the Corvette in Cambodia for a while and take the bus to Saigon, then fly to Ha Long Bay the following day for a 3 day cruise, before Laura’s flight back to the UK left. And so it was, that on the 15th of June, 72 days after leaving the UK, we were sat watching the sun set over Saigon, having overlanded all the way there from the UK.
With Laura now having headed home, Brummy and I have embarked on a rather different adventure, spending a couple of weeks riding motorbikes down from Hanoi back to Saigon, but that’s a story for the next blog post. As for whether we’ll then try to take the Corvette across the Vietnamese border, and properly tick the arbitrary mission that is ‘V8Nam’, that’s still undecided, so watch this space!