Monday, 4 August 2008

Friday 13th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Seven







After a half decent nights sleep I awoke to the sound of rain on sheet metal. Outside the rain was pouring down, a constant 'going nowhere' sort of rain with plenty more on the way. At this stage I calculated how far I had to go and how much money that would cost me in petrol. After spending liberally on the first half of my journey thinking 2.1million kip was more than I could spend before I left Laos, it dawned on me that on this trip alone the fuel would cost me 3/4 of my budget. I woke up thirsty and hungry but could only afford one mouthful of water with which to swallow my anti malarial pill. After that it was a 9am start heading towards Thathom where I had intended to spend the night. I estimated it was 30kms away. Last night I had contemplated riding this section in the dark. Given what I now saw infront of me I am glad I retired for the night in Tha Viang, spiders or no spiders. A steady downpour of rain accompanied me out of town and I encountered without a doubt the worst road conditions I've ever seen. The tracks were not sealed, that goes without saying in deepest darket NE Laos. Last night I thought I'd hit upon some pretty ugly riding conditions that would test any rider but today was a whole other story. Never have I seen anything like this. Such were the road conditions that even the high-clearance 4x4's and Russian military perosonel carriers ceased to travel here. I think even dad's Landy would have struggled. There was the odd intrepid local making his way maybe three or four kilometers to his or her next village on a step-through scooter but no one was seriously trying to travel any distance. At times I was confronted with river crossings that looked nigh on impossible, I'd jump off the bike, assess the height by wading accross, find the shallowest way through then hoped for the best as the semi-submerged Baja ploughed its way accross the river, sometimes to the lone inner-cheer (and no small amount of relief) of myself, admiring the way the Baja would deal with being almost fully immersed in water and not cut out, and sometimes to the whoop of local villagers who deemed such a stunt as one only a stupid falang would risk. The bottom line is I had no choice. I had come too far to go back. I had passed the point of no return, I did not have enough money to turn around and go back the 'easy' way. By now I was hungry, thirsty and feeling fatigued and it was only around midday. The track, which is essentially churned up red clay, had itself turned into a fast flowing stream. Any uphill gradients became major challenges, which on a dirt bike you would think are easily dealt with, but believe me they were not. There was absolutely zero traction delivered from the rear tyre. I stalled on many ascents only to skid downwards trying to preserve the bike - the only thing that would get me out of here. From a stalled position it was just about impossible to clamber back on and restart, there was nothing for the bike tyres to bite on. My energy levels were dropping and my sense of humour failing I had to keep reminding myself that there was nothing for it but to press on. I'd been here before on a mountain bike, probably hungrier, probably thirstier, definately more tired and certainly much colder. So be a big boy and crack on. The problem is that a 250cc bike is a heavy old beast, and the standover height on the Baja doesn't lend itself to constant stop-starting. Whilst I admit I am a relative novice at motorbike dirt riding, I would consider these conditions challenging even for an expert. I would have liked to have had a rider with me who was more experienced to show me a few short-cuts but as it was I was alone, with no food, no spare cash, no water (well, I did have half a bottle but it fell off the back of the bike last night), no energy, no phone (and ofcourse like anywhere remote, no reception). Out of one's comfort zone I would say.

I still hadn't reached Thathom an estimated 30k up the road and I was physically exhausted. The weather gods upped the ante and switched from pouring to a full on downpour. I rode through literally hundreds of sections of track that looked impassable. On a mountain bike you'd get off and simply trudge through upto your waist or shoulders, here you have to pick a line and try and power through, but occasionally you'd stall in the middle of a clay bog and then have to jump off the bike and somewhow use the engine, downward pressure on the back wheel and lots of energy to thrash the bike out of the gloop. As you can imagine this took a toll on my energy levels and with it my spirit began to become troubled. Quite often there was a sheer drop on one side so powering through was also quite hazardous as you could blast yourself straight over a precipice and into the sodden jungle many meters below and ofcourse there was no one around to help. Would I ever get to Pakxan? I reckon I'd done 30kms in three hours. Some people can walk faster than that, but with the river crossings and bog snorkelling I think this was fair going. Little did I know that worse was yet to come.

After three hours and just 32km up the road I finally reached what I hoped was Thathom. Rather worryingly the village sign didn't say Thathom but rather Nam Phaung which sounded rather similar to Nam Pheung which was 60km off my intended target and deep into 'Non Farang' territory (in the Xaysomboune region which is a strict 'no foreigners allowed' region). In other words I'll run out of petrol, then get imprisoned and not be able to pay a fine for trespassing, which some fellow GT riders can testify to. My heart sank. Could today get any worse? It didn't matter where I was, there was no turning around so legally or illegally I had to press on. Sure enough, half a mile further up the road a sign read 'Welcome to Thathom Area', thank goodness for that! It had taken me more than three hours to travel 32kms, I have at least four times that distance to go, it's gone midday, the weather was getting progressively worse as the hours ticked by. I had to press on. I refueled at Thathom, spending 74,000kip of my last 100,000. I desperately wanted water above anything else but not knowing if there was an ATM in Pakxan had to conserve every single kip. By now I had forgotten about being hungry, it passed me by and other things, like not killing myself and getting to civilisation took precidence. I remember thinking 'Well, I've been in some scrapes in my time but this one is certainly up there'. Let's think about this:
  • foreign country
  • can't speak a word other than 'Hello' and 'Thankyou'
  • no money
  • no tools except for The Rear's over-sized spanner
  • spare oil has fallen off the bike so chain is permanently giving the death rattle at every revolution
  • spare water has departed in a similar fashion
  • haven't eaten for 36 hours
  • no one speaks English
  • no phone
  • no one knows where I am
  • the military police are known to impound foreigners for fun in this area
  • I'm all on my own
Above all these things, in reflection, I think it was the being on my own that made things really difficult. Where there are two of you, one can go for help, when you are on your own out here you are genuinely on your own.

Finally - A Real Crash
So far on the bike, in Chiang Mai provice, N. Thailand and here in Laos I had managed to avoid falling off at any great speed. Today was to be an exception. As the rains swept down, turning the red clay into a river bed I had my first major accident. Perhaps it was attributable to fatigue, perhaps inexperience, perhaps conditions, perhaps the bike, no matter I stacked it and that was that. As I sped past a village of perhaps four bamboo huts I clattered up a steep red-clay track (which was now a torrent of water) and onto the summit. I could see that there was an equally steep descent into a right hand turn. I stamped on the gear shifter with my left foot and released the clutch expecting a sideways squirm as the rear tyre bit into the slimey clay and granite surface. Nothing. Infact I seemed to speed up. This was not good, I couldn't brake or I'd be a gonner for sure. The dashboard had a green light on it meaning the Baja had chosed this inopportune moment to shift into neutral on a downshift which it isn't supposed to do. It had performed this same stunt a few times before on the sealed road sections which had resulted in me not being able to use the engine to slow down and therefore I'd overshoot a tight bend ending up on the wrong side of the road. Disasterous if there was a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, lucky for me each time there wasn't. This time though was different. As I stomped on the gear shifter a second time I knew the game was up. If I shifted down a gear I'd crash, if I didn't I'd crash. As it turns out the Baja responed in the positive to a second stomp and sure enough dropped into first gear, but the speed differential (between the speed I was currently doing and the speed the first gear would permit) was too great. The rear tyre dug in and no amount of handlebar wrestling could prevent the rear wheel from squirming sideways and eventually passing the front wheel. Twas damage limitation time as myself and the bike skidded down the slope and into the bend at the bottom. The foot rests cut deep into the red clay and I overtook the bike, wondering how much damage I'd done to my bike and to myself. During such brief flashes of excitement time seems to stand still. There appears to be an age in which to watch the incident from many angles. To consider the consequences and outcomes, to fear for the worst, to hope the for best and to expect to be given somewhere inbetween. As grey sky turned into metal bike turned into red clay turned into human flesh turned into granite rock I had time to think about all these things. I had gone from having no time to save myself to aeons of time to contemplate my fate, all the while my bike, rucksac and my body were interfacing seamlessly with the granite. I came to a stop a few seconds later and looked for signs of damage. My already injured right shin was stinging and my right knee had taken a hit. My right elbow felt sore, my right palm was a bit slashed up and the bike didn't look too happy. As it turns out the bike was fine save for ripping off the brake lever protector and my body had sustained nothing more than a few grazes and maybe some subcutaneous bruising that wouldn't show itself for days so didn't count. I picked myself up and noted the red ribboned scars in the hillside that myself and the bike had left. The Baja had stalled of course. Would she start up? Had I ruptured the fuel tank, a hose, snapped a lever? If so it was game over as I had no money left. I picked up the bike and she roared into life at the first time of asking. Get in! Feeling somewhat chastened by the crash I rode on for a couple of minutes before reaching an unmapped fork where I took shelter in an abandoned hut and considered what had just happened. I was a mere 35km into a 150km+ (at a guess) journey and it had already taken me 4 hours. Would these miserable conditions ever end?

Bog Biking and Bamboo Rafting
The road from Thathom I hoped would be better than the road to it. Hardly. It took another 3 hours to crawl my way to Hatdiat village about 20kms east of Thathom. The conditions did not improve and after several more river crossings I reached a point where no amount of optimistic riding would see through this particular crossing. Now bearing in mind I haven't met a soul for several hours (why would I? No one wants to travel here in the rainy season) I figure I need to make a double river crossing but at this stage didn't know if I was on the right track. Each time I'd ask a farmer if Pakxan was this way (pointing furiously) they'd smile, nod, point back and say 'Pakxan'. At Hatdiat village the Nam Xan ('nam' meaning river) crosses the dirt track and makes progress on any land-based vehicle impossible. The river splits in two at the crossing providing a shallow island in the middle, well it does at this time of year at any rate. I could see three local boys playing together on the banks of the river at the far side. I parked my bike up and took a photo of the ridiculous nature of biking through this part of the world at this time of year. The little boys waved and cried 'Sabaideeee'. I motioned them to row the first bamboo raft to the island, then the second bambo raft to my side of the river bank. They clearly thought this a game and bagan copying me, motioning the falang to come and join them for a splash in the river. I drove my bike onto a hill where they could see it, hopefully they would twig that I needed a river crossing. No such luck. After five minutes of entertainment they want back to splashing around in the river out of sight. I unpacked my bag and in a last ditch attempt at communication I found my Lonely Planet and shouted out the Lao for 'Help me please'. The little boys seemed to semi-understand and shouted something back. I yelled out 'I don't understand', they jumped up and down with glee and motioned me over once again. There was nothing for it but to take most of my clothes off and swim across the river to get help. I swam across the first part of the river and onto the island, at which point the little boys began to take note of the falang they had been giggling at earlier. I was conscious that given my current rate of progress (or lack of) time was not on my side whereas these kids showed no signs of helping the stranded farang, it was all a big game. On reaching the otherside of the bank I made my way up to a hut and rose a slumbering teenage boy. He didn't seem to understand a word of my Lao-Glish and so I recruited the three little lads to help me row across the two rivers and safely carry my bike Pakxan-ward, if indeed Pakxan was in this direction. I managed to confirm with the teenager that Pakxan was across the river (or was he just saying that so he could help me with the river crossing then charge me?), then me and the little boys began untying the first bamboo raft. Twenty minutes later my bike was miraculously safe and sound on the other side of the river and my wallet was another 10,000kip lighter.

Progress At Last
In the first few kilometers after Hatdiat I encountered yet more impassable terrain, the bike juts ploughing itself deep into the mud and eventually I'd either stall it or hop of and force it out of the hole all guns blazing. It was energy sapping work. I felt colder now and my legs began shaking meaning that I needed some sugar. Mercifully just a few kms past Hatdiat the track became a little more consistent allowing me make reasonable progress at perhaps 30kph to Thasi, then 40kph to Muanghuang The Bolikhamxai province proved much kinder to me than torturous Xieng Khouang province. At Mouanghouang there was a large depot in place that looked new. It contained road building machines and thousands of tonnes of road building material. About time too I thought! From here on in I found myself driving along much wider sections of track that had had a foundation layer of red shale-like stones laid down. It still made for cautious riding but I could now crack along at 60kph and above. There was a lot of road building going on here inccluding the constrution of much stronger bridges, I'd venture to say that in future this will be a good shortcut from Phonsavan to Vientiane for vehicles larger than motorbikes. Rather amusingly one of the locals had driven his fully laiden van off the edge of the new surface, quite how I don't know as he was on the wrong wide of the road. There was a small army of little people trying to push him out. Depsite being whacked-out my sudden and rapid progress had given me renewed optimism so I jumped off my bike and introduced them to some basic physics that meant we got the van out on the first shove. They'd been struggling along for ages by the looks of it. Sometimes the Laotians can prove incredibly resourceful and canny, here was an example where you can't help but think 'are these people really that smart?! Who knows, but I cracked on into Pakxan in no time and took in the majestsic sight of the Nam Xam in full flow.

Pakxan to Vientiane
After a couple of shots of me and the bike looking like we'd been to World War III and back I failed to locate a cash machine in Pakxan so it was time to spend my last few kip on more fuel before heading 140kms to Vientiane, the capital of Laos and the end of this little trip. Ofcourse, mother nature had one more neat trick up her sleeve for me and proceeded to bless me by dumping an almighty downpour on me for the whole of the final leg. I had no thoughts of taking in the sights enroute, there are a couple of hot springs and waterfalls but right now they weren't at the top of my list of things to do. The rain came down so hard that again it was hard to see the road. I just kept my right hand locked on the throttle and let the stinging commence for a good hour and a half. The road between Pakxan and Vientiane is a belter in Laotian terms and so it was 100kph's+ all the way. I remember singing, nay screaming 'Easy Rider' by Jimi Hendrix as loudly I could all the way home. It all felt a bit surreal. The weather should have made me feel awful, infact on any other day it would, but the light at the end of the tunnel was shining so brightly I hardly noticed the rain, infact it felt good. I rode into the outskirts of Vientiane hoping I had enough fuel left to get me to an ATM. I found one at the Loatian version of the Arc De Triumph (Patu Xay) and then rode around town on my own lap of triumph enjoying the views now the rain had relented. Quite amazingly (given the state of my appearance (spattered from head to toe with red clay and ribbons of blood flowing gently from my knees and hands) and the fact I was clearly the owner of the clay encrusted motorbike parked up next to me) a tuk tuk driver asked me if I wanted a lift somewhere. I just smiled back the biggest smile and said nothing.

Back in One Piece, ish
After fortuitously locating the bike rental firm I dropped off the Baja. The bloke who took it off me seemed pretty impressed with my trip as he is the fella who'se itinery I 'borrowed'. He asked me where I stayed and what the conditions were like and so on. He nodded knowingly when I described the Thathom section. Fortunately I think the state of myself and the bike and the respect I'd just earned from the dude meant that he only gave the bike a cursory glance when checking it for damage. He noted the left hand front indicator which I had tied back on some sort of woody vine, I told him it was already like that, which it was, more or less. He completely missed the fact that the brake lever protector had been ripped off and only temporarily bodged back into place, perhaps this was because large parts of the bike were concealed by several inches of red clay. Whatever, I made myself scarce rather quickly and checked into a nearby guesthouse. A hot shower was followed by a trip to a chinese eatery where I ate three main courses and drank a whole shipment of free green tea before going for a stroll along the banks of the Mekong and meeting the two Canadians (Brian and Dion) who had helped me orchestrate the Mutiny on the Mekong at Pak Beng a couple of weeks before We shared tales of travel in Laos before I collapsed in bed.

Thursday 12th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Six





Phonsavan to Tha Vieng by Bike
A welcomed lie in after yesterdays epic. Today the plan is to ride south to either Pakxan, or, if the weather closes in, just half way - to Thathom where there is no hot water or electricity, should be fun. Enroute I will visit Mouang Khoune, an ancient city with Buddhist relics that the Americans kindly bombed the life out of in the 'secret war' against Laos and the naughty Commies.

Apologies To All Dog Lovers
By the time I'd got my act together and finished on the internet (free Wifi at the Maly) it was early afternoon. I'd read that to get to Pakxan in a day required an early start, so no chance of that then. After a quick refuel stop I stopped at a roadside eatery that had some sort of barbeque on the go. Mmm, smells good. I walk on in and the group all look a little surprised to see Mr Farang. I ask for a menu in sign languange and ask if I might eat. The lady motioned me to sit down but I can tell something isn't right. I suspect I just busted into a private house and that these people are all friends. A gentleman in a green uniform then points at the meat and delares 'dog'. I suspect he's calling my bluff so I say that it smells good and I like dog very much. After having a piece from off the barbie (no idea whether it was dog or not) I jump back on my bike and chuckle at my misunderstanding, wondering what on earth they thought of me gatecrashing their family meal and then eating their pet dog! Ah well.

Buddha Bombs
I cruised 30kms SE to Mouang Khoune on a good sealed road. This town was once the royal capital, the centre of the Phuan Kingdom. It was bombed heavily in the war but a few French colonial buildings remain in the town centre where I had a fine bowl of noodle soup, no dog this time. I visited two ancient Stupas which are basically brick towers of religious significance. One of the stupas That Foun is about 20m high and was built in 1576 to cover the ashes of Lord Buddha that were brought from India during the time when Buddhism was proliferating in Laos. The Stupa looks down on the town and is in a state of disrepair thanks to the bombing. There is another stupa (That Chomphet) a little further up the hill but I managed to crash my bike just reaching this one so I'll give the other one a miss. Suffice to say it's made of bricks and there isn't much of it left anymore. I also visited Wat Si Phum, a temple with some interesting murals depicting episodes from the life of Buddha and some scenes of behaviour to avoid by the looks of things, fighting, drinking and illicit relationships. Finally I saw the peculiar sight of a seated outdoor Buddha. Usually Buddha statues are the centrepiece of a Wat and are fully enlclosed by the four walls of a temple and its roof. The Americans didn't think much of this old fashioned idea and obliterated the wat so that all that remains are the temple pillars and the stone statue of a sitting Buddha. It is quite a remarkable sight and I have to say must have taken some expertise with the old bomb dropping to remove the walls but leave the Buddha in tact.

The Worst 'Road' In The World
Upon leaving Mouang Khoune which co-incidentally has more than it's fair share of dwarves and people from The Ministry of Funny Walks, via a bridge paid for by the Australians (the most charitable act I've ever heard from the Aussies with the possible exception of giving us the Ashes for 18 months in 2005!) the sealed road turns into a dirt track. The first 20kms of the dirt track is a good quality surface with some excellent bermed corners you can sweep through, it was like being at Glentress. After that the track turns into a bit of a shocker, offering some major potholes and better still long sections of red gooey clay that makes the bike slide all over. I didn't mind at all but it does make for slow progress and isn't recommended for small bikes like mopeds. At one point the heavens opened and it rained so hard I couldn't see the track. My policy is to just carry on regardless in such situations. Sure enough the rains abaited 20 minutes later and the streams flowing across the track dried up. After about 20kms of the red goo/rutted stuff the track gets better and a false sense of security set in. I began to turn the throttle pretty hard when all of a sudden at 75 clicks (kmph) I spotted a huge hole in the track. There was no time to avoid it, I just had to grit my teeth and hit the thing full on. The bike slammed into the hole and the front shocks compressed and bottomed out. I fully expected to be sent flying in the air, it was a case of how much damage would I do to bike, bag, and me. The rear wheel followed the front into the hole and slammed downwards. As the forks rebounded I thought I would be launched into the air. As it turned out the bike just about rode the crater and although we generated a bit of air I managed to hold on and correct the landing. Ouch, I felt sorry for the bike. The steering felt a bit looser after that but hopefully there's no major damage done! By now the light was drawing in already and I had a feeling I was a way off my target of Thathom. I stopped at a village to ask if I was indeed on the right track. After the entire village had had a look at my map they decided I was indeed heading in the right direction but not before the adults had lined up all the children in the village in front of my motorbike and I'd taken a picture. They urged the kids to jump in on the photo. Some of the kids were shy but mums and dads combined to ensure they were all on the picture whether they wanted to be or not. That's how friendly these people are.

Burn Baby Burn
Enroute I saw many examples of subsistance farming and also saw examples of how they burn off sections of hillside as part of their agricultural process. I *think* this type of farming is being discouraged by the government as it is denuding the landscape. There were also a few commercial logging outfits dotted along the track, no elephants here though, just huge machinery for chopping and transporting the trees. One other thing I saw that was quite unnerving at first where huge Chinese or Russian transport vehicles that must have been used in the war but that now ply the route between Phonsavan and Pakxan. They are eerie looking beasts, with big clunky metalwork that looks like it was built to last (clearly not made in Thialand or Laos!). These behemoths were invariably piloted by a wisened little Laotian (always male) and his co-pilot. They took up the whole track and a bit more making it difficult to pass them. They also chewed up the track, explaining the 20k's of red goo I'd ridden through earlier. Whilst stuck behind one such rig I had a look to see what was in the back. Weapons? Motorbikes? Fuel drums? Military personel? Nah, just fruit and veg. These things must be the Laotian version of a pickup truck! You'd look pretty hardcore turning up to market in one of these babies though!

In The Arms Of Sleep
As darkness fell I still hadn't landed in a village of any size and there was another thunderstorm heading directly towards me. After riding through a river in which a whole village were taking a bath (they whooped in delight as I splashed my way through it) I stumbled upon a small town. Could this be Thathom? I doubted it. I rode through the whole town looking for some sort of sign in English to help me find out where I was. Just before I reached the end of town I saw a yellow sign which read 'Tha Vieng Guesthouse'. I was still some way short of Thathom (I'm guessing 25kms) and it was too dark to continue. Looks like I'll be staying here the night. I roused the guesthouse owner who spoke no English and he showed me my dwellings:
  • Mosquito net, check.
  • Broken fan, check.
  • Toilet, erm, squat bowl.
  • Hot shower, negative, just a stone bath and a pool of stagnant water.
  • Biggest spiders I've ever seen, check!
There was one in the loo that I kid you not was as big as my hand. The hairs on my neck stood on end. There was nothing for it but to close the toilet door and never ever go back in there. I'd rather go outside in the torrential rain and will definitely skip the 'bath'. So here I am, in my mozzy net hoping the child-taking spiders stay where they are, listening to my very own cricket chirping merrily away in the corner of my room and watching gekkos scurry around the walls. I smell, I'm dirty, I'm hungry, I daren't even look under the bed. Goodnight folks, sleep well!

Wednesday 11th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Five







Good Morning Vieng Xai
A very early start this morning, my alarm clock read 5:30am. By 6 I'd packed up all my worldly goods into one small ruksac, watched the mist rise inbetween the limestsone karst that had provided refuge to the Pathet Lao for nine years and took a couple more pictures of this beautiful little town.

Vieng Xai to Phonsavan
The journey took from 6am to 1pm, so seven hours, including a couple of pit stops, numerous camera stops and a million and one near misses of chickens, goats, pigs, water buffalo, cows, landslides, and I even nearly hit a road repair worker who was taking a nap in the middle of the road. You've got to see it to believe it you really do! Rather miraculously I managed to avoid all the thunderstorms that were firing off everywhere but on me. Each time I looked to be heading directly into one the road kindly twisted around and took me towards the only glint of blue sky on the horizon. When on the bike I try and go slowly enough to take in the landscapes. At the same time the weather is so unpredictable that I do try and make good progress in dry conditions as the roads become treacherous when wet. Most of the journey consisted of sealed roads which follow the contours of the hillsides through mountainous terrain with thick jungle on either side, punctuated by the odd village consisting of about 20 or 30 bamboo huts lining the road. On the outskirt of each village are paddy fields that the villagers spend most of the day tending. By 5pm they clock off for the day and walk home in groups of two to 10 people, carrying various implements or perhaps a bag of rice slung over their shoulders, or baskets full of wood. The children muck in too and I often see them walking with little baskets on their backs. Quite often they have babies clinging to them too, so you might get a five year old carrying his or her baby brother or sister along the road. They all carefully run out of the way when they hear the angry buzz of the Baja. Then they turn and smile and wave. After walking home the villagers then share the village tap to have a wash (if they have a tap, many villages don't have access to clean water). It's more like a standpipe, they stand under it and clean themselves off trying to be discreet about having a shower in public. Some villages are close to rivers, I would often see the locals bathing together in the river on their way home from working in the fields.

I failed to find the Nam Neua waterfall after several attempts and one slight crash on some slippery single track, no damage done, except a bloodied knee, the sort that looks worse than it is. Did manage to locate breakfast at 'The Dan' in Sam Neua, and then maybe 70k's south of Sam Neua I blasted up a 6km dirt track and had a look at the menhirs or 'standing stones' that are high up on a ridge. No one seems to know what their purpose is or who dragged them up to the top of the ridge but chances are they are either grave markers or of some religious significance. Took a minute to have a quick photo shoot with a couple of wandering children dressed in nothing but rags.

Back onto Route 6 as it meanders all the way south to Muang Kham. The views from above Muang Kham are noteworthy. The valley below opens up into a large flat lowland plain surrounded by mountains on all sides. Muang Kham nestles quietly in the plain and has a sign in English that points left to Vietnam, right to Phonsavan. One refuel later and it was thunderstorm-dodging time again. Hammered it for 51kms southwest into Phonsavan, I don't think Foggy in his prime could have done that section any quicker!

First Impressions
A little achey and generally feeling a bit drained from sleep deprivation I all but collapsed into a plastic chair in Phonsavan high street. Phonsavan isn't the prettiest place on earth. Yet again I was made to feel like a fair ground attraction as the locals began ogling me and the bike, we were both showing signs of damage. After ordering a Laos coffee and beef and vegetable noodle stir fry in my best Laotian accent, a smartly dressed man approached me and began a little chit chat. His English was very good and I immediately suspected he was a tour operator looking to make a few kip out of the only farang in town. First impressions can be wrong, and as it turns out the fella is actually a government education advisor. He teaches English at the local secondary school too and invited me to his school teach some of the students English. I shook off the tired achy feeling and agreed to meet him at the school at 6pm. He turned out to be a mine of information, getting me cheap rates at the Maly Hotel (which is excellent by the way), and advising me on the local sites of interest and the timings and distances for my onward journey.

After checking into the Maly under the guise of a travel writer (well, I'm writing a blog!) - as recommended by the government education advisor and securing cheap rates, I hot footed it over the the Plain of Jars 'site one'. The guide books claim you have to have an organised tour and a registered vehicle to visit the three sites. This is none sense. You can rock up as and when you like to any of the three sites and pay the 10,000kip or so charge for each site. The government advisor assured me this was the case and so it proved to be. This chap was saving me a fortune! The curious collection of vessels are basically large (the biggest is 2.5m in diameter) empty stone jars that are about 2000 years old, no one knows what they were for, the best guess is funeral urns. The jars were randomly strewn about on hillock which had been cleared by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) a British led mine clearance initiative. The jars were not very remarkable in my humble opinion, a curiosity at best. The surrounding area was pock marked with bomb craters as this area took some of the heaviest bombardment during the secret war.

Relics of War

The Maly Hotel had an impressive collection of lethal devices kindly left behind by the USA - rockets, mortar shells and so on, they made use of the empty shells used as troughs to provide flower displays along the hotel frontage. A fitting symbol of turning swords into plow-shares I thought. Inside the hotel were countless rounds of ammunition attached to automatic guns of various calibre. The most poignant sight for me though was not the weapons display but a collection of pictures by Laotian children who had lived through the nightmarish nine year bombing campaign. It's a disgrace to human kind that we can do this to each other.

Phonsavan Secondary School
Cruised 5kms or so back to the Maly and took a much needed shower. 6pm was rapidly approaching, it was time to head to Phonsavan Secondary School, which was just across the road from the Maly. I met Mr Boualin of the Xieng Khouang Education Service and two minutes later I was meeting and greeting 25 Laotian school children whose ages ranged from 13 to 17. The female teacher introduced me then simply left me to it. After exchanging names and ages and finding out where we were all from we began talking about how they got to school. Most walked, some had motorbikes. No buses, no cars and no one got the tuk tuk, which made them roar with laughter when I suggested it! They asked me which sports I liked, what job I did and how many people were in my family. I took them through all the names in my family, they repeated after me the correct pronunciation. I also asked them to say their ages in English. They were very good, if a little shy at first. It would have also helped if I knew more than two words in Lao. Forty minutes later I bid them goodbye, they did the same and I managed to grab a quick photo as a momento. Then I was whisked off to another class, this time it was the beginners, so we had to go slowly and start right at the beginning. A couple of children read out questions from their notebooks. 'How are you?', 'What is your name?', 'What is your favourite Laos food?' and so on. The time flashed by and Mr Boualin helped translate some words that the children did not understand. It was a joy to see these little ones trying to learn English. The children were dismissed, but not before quite a crowd of other students had gathered at the glassless windows and door to hear the falang speak his funny sounding language.

Their Country Needs You!
Mr Boualin and I chatted as he turned out the lights and locked up. He pointed out the modest staff room and the crumbling walls that needed rebuilding because they hadn't been built well enough in the first place, the science rooms that weren't actually laboratories and so on. He explained that the children were from different backgrounds and that some would stay on until 16 or 18 and some would quit and stay at home and work in the family business. 'Usually the girls' he said ruefully. 'They stay at home and help their parents'. I could see the look of disappointment etched in his face. We were both acutely aware that these children would be destined to eek out the same meagre existence as their parents if they failed to get a decent education. I began telling Mr Boualin what he no doubt already knew; the children of Laos are it's future. If they don't all receive a good education then they will too will spend their entire lives on the breadline, hauling and carrying, slashing and burning, wading through paddy fields all day for a pittance. Laos will remain the poorest country in South East Asia and economically will slip further and further behind the rest of the world. He nodded in agreement and thanked me earnestly for coming to the school. He has a hard job convincing the children that learning English is useful, relevant and will likely better their lives. When they actually hear a farang speak English it helps bring this message home to them. He urged me to try and think of ways in which I personally could help with this matter. He said that their are educational audio recordings of English being spoken but they are expensive and many schools do not have electricity or devices to play them. Mr Boualin also says that their is a dire lack of text books too. I can vouch for that, Boonthan in Sam Neau was using a tattered old thing printed in 1955. So my first step is to recommend to any English speaking person who visits Laos to find a high school and volunteer an hour or so of your time to speak to the children in English. It couldn't be any easier, it's rewarding from a personal point of view and most of all it gives these fantastic people a brighter future. Despite all the difficulties he faces Mr Boualin keeps his spirits high and can still muster that special Laotian smile as we thank each other for the time we have spent together. He's a pretty special bloke.

Phet Long - Diamond Geezer
On the 50 yard stroll back to my hotel from the school I decide to hop into a waterside bamboo hut that was bedecked with yellow Beer Lao flags. There is some sort of music being pumped out (this part of the world always seem to play music far too loudly using the worlds worst audio equipment resulting in a cacophony of noise that barely resembles the music it is supposed to be playing). I sit and sip my beer ruminating over the conversation I've just had with Mr Boualin, the last couple of days have certainly helped me gain a better perspective of my own problems. By now I'm getting used to being the only farang in town, this bar is no exception, across the table a group of eight Laotian friends of all ages seem to be having a good time. One third of my way through my beer one member of the group shouts over 'Why you alone?'. 'I'm travelling own' I reply, 'Ahhhhhh' he says, 'then you must please come sit with us if that is ok?', 'of course, yes, yes please'. The group open ranks and give me a chair next to my new friend who is an engineer called Mr Phet Long which means 'second diamond'. He explains that no one else is called Phet Long because let's face it - who wants to be the second diamond? He is a little upset with his mother for choosing this name. Phet Long introduces me to his friends, about five males and two females. He then hands me a drink and encourages me to knock it back. 'This how we drink in Laos' he says with a massive smile. It works rather like cards: one person is 'the dealer' and they must pour out beer into a glass for each person at the table. Depending on the dealers mood it can be a large, medium or small measure of beer. There is only one glass so everyone must share the same glass and drinkers take it in turns to have their wee dram. Now then, also dependent on the dealers mood is the speed at which you must drink. If the dealer instructs you to 'deum mut' then you have to down it in a oner, as it means 'drink it up'. Once everyone has had their turn then it's someone elses' turn to deal. All well and good Phet old boy, but we're going through Beer Lao like their is no tomorrow, we knocked back a whole crate in no time. Phet then explains my favourite part about drinking Lao style: the host pays for all the beer! So, this place is a public bar, but because I am now part of the hosts guest list all my beer is free, excellent! Obviously I insist that I must pay for at least *some* of the beer but Phet Long says 'no'. Whoever throws the party pays, they are obliged to look after you all night. Marvellous. Phet Long and I talk about all kinds of things, he wants to pratice his English and is grateful for me being there. We get on to the subject of football and before I know it we are gliding down the high street two-up on Phet Long's moped (no such thing as drink driving in Laos) and parking up at what appears to be the place to be in Phonsavan - it's some sort of nightclub. It has green lazer lights projected onto the industrial looking walls and a musty sort of smell with a mixture of Thai and Western dance tunes that I can't place, again being played so loudly they can hear it over in Vietnam. The club is not overly busy. We shout at each other over the music and to my great delight I find a TV showing the Portugal V Czech Republic game. Great day. Around midnight I am whisked home literally on a beer scooter and tuck myself up in the huge bed at the Maly. Must've been a good night as I woke up fully clothed and not actually in bed, more on it, with the TV still on, lights blaring and half a bottle of Beer Lao unfinished next to me.

Tuesday 10th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Four





Wakey Wakey
A slow start this morning for obvious reasons. My sleep was punctuated by three chirpy boys running around the place playing games and generally 'being boys' and also somewhat unusually the UXO team intermittently detonating mines and bombs one of which was a belter! I thought the hotel had been hit! A mushroom cloud of fall-out rose from behind a limestone karst.

None of us made it up for the 9am tour, instead we opted for the 1pm tour and spent a good few hours with our Laotian tour guide who revealed the caves to us one at a time.
Vieng Xai Cave Tour
For 30,000kip you can take a tour of the caves in which the Pathet Laos government ran the country and fought off the Laos Royalist Government troops backed by the US and indeed the might of the US airforce. The cave tour is highly recommended. Our guide was a boy when the bombing campaign began in the 1960's, he remembers helicopter gunships, T-28 bombers and strike aeroplanes flying overhead. Once he and two friends were playing on a riverbank and two fighter planes came over and attempted to gun him down. 'Close close' he says with a beaming smile. The caves are testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of the Laotian people.

Per capita Laos is the most bombed nation in the world. Did you know that for nine years solid the Americans dropped a plane load of bombs every eight minutes night and day onto Laos - more than all the bombs dropped in WWII? The sad thing is that half of them haven't gone off yet and so the place is littered with unexploded ordinance (UXOs).

I also saw a crater 80m in diameter, the size of a football pitch, the result of a 6 tonne bomb.

Nine years solid my friends, and the Laotians still won! The amazing thing is that Laotians welcome Americans with open arms despite the atrocities. They really are the most humble and forgiving people. I can't help but admire them.

I could ramble all day about the cave tour, but in brief let's just say it's well worth the trip out to this remote part of Laos. If you want to have your eyes opened as to the way the world really works (behind the propaganda, PR and the government sound-bytes) then head here. Go on, it might make you see the world differently, and it only costs 50p.

Monday 9th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Three






Today I was supposed to touch down at Heathrow airport. Instead I'm looking out over the Nam Xam river in deepest darkest north eastern Laos where the farang are still a major curiosity. Perfect. The weather looks unpredictable which helps me decide that I will not ride to Phonsovan today. The journey (94km back on myself then 150k SW) is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the whole of Laos and I'd like to enjoy it rather than rue every single second of the journey due to heavy rain. Instead I will hop 30k's to Vieng Xay to explore some caves and attempt to resolve my slack motorbike chain issue. The problem is that everyone thinks they are a mechanic and Laotians, like Thais are not reknown for their tradesmanship. As it happens I found a small workshop and the lad there had a quick tinker and oiled the chain for free. I purchased a spanner so that in future I could do it myself. Maybe The Rear had a good thing going when all he used to take out with him on a mountain bike ride was one oversized spanner that didn't actually fit any nut on his bike. Ever the trend setter!

Vieng Xai
An early afternoon ride to Vieng Xay was a most pleasant one, a refreshing change after yesterdays's wash out. The journey is a mere 27km, a short climb out of Sam Neua then a long descent into the valley below. The town of Vieng Xay is surrounded by big chunks of limestone that I think are called karsts. On the outskirts of the town are numerous paddy fields being tended dilgently by teams of farm labourers who wade upto their knees in the mud pushing tiling machines, planting rice and hacking away at various ripened crops with knives and scythes.

I cruised around town, once again being stared at at every turn. Vieng Xay is a pretty little town with a rural feel. It is surrounded by huge chunks of limestone and also boasts a couple of lakes and a quaint market where people sell their wares to each other. Next to the market is a statue, the 'Victory Statue'. It depicts three Laotian figures, one woman and two men, with their arms held aloft thrusting a sickle, a gun and a hammer skywards celebrating their freedom. Rather poigniantly one of the figures' left leg is resting on a rocket shell marked 'USA'. The statue is a testament to those that endured the 20 years secret war in which the USA blasted the living daylights out of Laos in a failed attempt to crush communism in that part of the world. The spirit of the Laotians shone through those darkest days. Rarely have I seen a statue capture so much feeling. I had a lump in my throat when I saw it.

By now it was early evening and I had the option of heading back to Xam Neua, but I hadn't had chance to see the famous caves that are hidden in the huge limestone rocks. After much deliberation I decided I would stay the night in Vieng Xay and take the 9am cave tour the following morning.

As such I rocked up at the former government hotel known as the Thavisay Hotel and met the youngest hotel proprieter in the world. The young chap aged about ten years old was hotel-sitting for his parents. He duly took my money (40,000 kip) and showed me my room. It was adequate, hot shower, own loo, mosquito netting. The fan didn't work but it's coolish at night in Houa Phan province. The Thavisay Hotel once had delusions of grandeur I would say. It's a large concrete structure (unusual in these parts) that when built in the 1970's would no doubt have been a prestigious building and indeed would be the accommodation of choice for visiting governmental dignitaries from other Communist countries such as China , Vietnam, Cuba, Russia and so on. Three decades later and the old girl could do with a lick of paint and then some, it's looking dilapidated.

Happy with my decision I wandered across the bamboo bridge to the semi-adjoined bamboo restaurant which had the most beautiful views across the lake. I wondered how much this view would cost in Europe. I dined on a superb pork laap (minced pork infused with delicious herbs) and sticky rice and tucked into a Beer Laos. Here I met Tim, a Dutch lad who loved football more than life itself, and particularly PSV Eidhoven. Also present was an Aussie girl called Tracey who like many of her compatriats seemed to be going aat the beers with some enthusiasm. Finally there was an older Australian lady present who was helping to run the caves as a tourist attraction, supplying training and direction for the Laotian guides. We chatted the night away and at curfew time (Laos has an 11:30pm curfew after which time you should be in bed) our host, a smiley happy fella, put the Euro 2008 football on for us. The game was rubbish (France v Czech Republic) but the copious amounts of Beer Lao followed by liberal dashings of bamboo infused Lao Lao whiskey from a platic bottle meant we tottered into bed around 1am.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Current Whereabouts

Just updated the blog, I've still a few days to fill in will do that tom. hopefully.

Monday 23rd June
- just qualified as an open water diver. Hopefully do my advanced stuff in the next few days. Weather generally hot and fine, sea temp 29 degrees. Reminds me of Blackpool


Shand.

Sunday 8th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Two






Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Two
Woke up in my 40,000 kip a night room feeling reasonably well rested. The plan today was to ride to Xam Neua (also spelt (and pronounced) Sam Neua - rather confusing spelling doesn't seem very important to Laotians, and place names are often spelt differently by different people. Xam Neua is the capital of the Houa Phan Province in the far north east of Laos. After breakfasting on sticky rice, stir fried vegies, more free 'soup' (water with something like MSG added and the odd ringlet of spring onion) and some water I bid farewell to Ennau and at the fork in the road turned left following the signpost to Sam Neua some 150km north east of Vieng Thong. Oh yes, and it turns out that the place where I am staying is Vieng Thong, my intended target, so the 'Vieng Thong' village I refueled at many kms back down the road was indeed a fake!

Biking from Vieng Thong to Sam Neua
On the outskirts of Vieng Thong is a commercial petrol station which generally afford the best rates of fuel, currently 11,500kip per litre (70p-ish). Entreprenurial (or opportunistic, but you don't think of that when you're down to your last couple of drops in the middle of nowhere) villagers also sell fuel out of drums or pre-measured in plastic bottles. I filled up The Baja, whose chain was still lose and slapping about on the chainstay and climbed up a semi-sealed road. Dark clouds heavy with rain were pushing in through Vieng Thong which was now engulfed in the familiar grey vertical strands of rain. I was heading east, roughly the direction of the clouds and so attempted to outrun the wet front. It seemed to work. The cloud was slow moving, meaning that even on a road that hugged the contours of the mountain so closely, producing a thousand tight bends, I could just about stay out of the rain. This meant that photograph stops were few and far between, each time I stopped it was a case of whipping the camera out, grabbing a couple of snaps of a valley basking in sunshiiiiine on my right, and a valley about to be drenched on my left, and then jumping back on the bike as the gentle pitter-patter of rain became heavier and heavier. Upon reaching the top of the climb, maybe 15kms into the ride, you ride along a ridge on a semi-sealed road. The seal is broken up at times either by subsidence or tree roots. There were several recent landslides that had partially blocked the road - boulders the size of TV sets sat strewn across the single lane road meaning that you had to be somewhat cautious in your approach to blind bends and summits. Once off the ridge, a long flowing descent through yet more bamboo hut villages lined with waving children, pigs, goats, cows, chickens (who seem to have less road sense than any other creature on earth) etc. drops you down to a T-juntion that thankfully has markers indicating 94k left to Sam Neua and 150k right to Phonsavan. Infact, on this leg of the journey, navigation is at it's most straight forward, you can't really go wrong if you have your eyes open. It was to be a left turn onto Route 6 - a wider and more predictable road that unfortunately took me north east and straight into the thunderstorms that I had so cunningly avoided for the last couple of hours. Should I stop now and find a shelter until the rain had passed, or would I be waiting all day? With the weather around here at this time of year I could be holed up under a thatched roof goofily smiling at intruiged locals for weeks so I decided to push on into the storm clouds. It would be a good test for my waterproof luggage system that I'd devised in Luang Prabang. Route 6 drops you steeply down towards Houa Muang and a whole host of other villages, which all begin with the word 'Ban' which I can only assume means village or somesuch. The majority of villages only have their names in Lao, so the signs are absolutely useless to most farang. After five minutes on this road the heavens opened and in no time I could hardly see a thing as the rain stung into the rest my face and legs which were exposed - I don't have any leathers and no one in Thailand or Laos seems to have heard of knee pads or elbow pads. I tried to purchase some in Luang Prabang but the nearest I got was a sports shop selling ankle supports! The lad in the shop sheepishly explained that there wasn't much call for motorcross gear from the locals. Message understood. Route 6 has handily placed kilometer markers indicating the distance to Xam Neua. When the heavens opened I had 85km to go, it was going to be a long afternoon! My mountainbike jacket held up well, but my ungloved hands became cold and white-finger set in every now and then making it hard to judge how hard I was pulling on the brake/throttle/clutch as I'd lost feeling in my fingers. This can make cornering and slowing down for bends a bit tricky as swtching down a gear and releasing the clutch quickly can cause the rear wheel to skid and slide sideways on the wet surface, a movement which needs correcting pretty quickly. A quick blast of heat from the exhaust pipe sorts that problem out though. I passed through some fantastic low-level scenery as I neared Sam Neua, through my misted sunnies I had spied rice terraces, pagodas, charcoal and copper-coloured karst formations, misty mountain peaks emerging from dense jungle and finally the town of Sam Neua nestled in a valley a couple of hundred meters below. The 'Welcome to Sam Neua' sign was indeed a welcome sight. Ahh, civilization! Food! Hot Shower!


Sam Neua
Arrived in Sam Neua, the capital of Houa Phanh province. Laos is the poorest country in SE Asia by some distance and Houa Phanh is the poorest area of Laos. At this stage I was somewhat wet and bedraggled it was now 4pm meaning I'd covered 150k's in 4.5 hours - slow going indeed but any quicker and I'd have been scraping myself up off the road which had turned into a stream. The weather still looked rather iffy and my sightseeing excursion for the day was another 30k's east at Vieng Xai (the 'X' in this case is prounounced 'sch', note: also spelt Viang Xay) and so I hunted around for a suitable guesthouse. There are at least 5 guesthouses and 3 hotels in Sam Neua, and only a couple of farang a day pass through, I haven't seen a single westerner yet. I opted for a hotel perched on the eastern edge of the Nam Xam bridge overlooking the river (the word for water/river is Nam in Lao). The hotel (Hotel Sam Neua) is a beauty, I garnered a room on the third (top) floor overlooking the river and indeed the whole town. It has only been opened six months (since Jan 2008) and is plush even by western standards - the stairwell is a work of art in itself with carvings of Buddhist dragons/serpents (naga) lining the stairs in ornate fashion. My room was clean and airy and for 120,000 kip ($12) I could hardly grumble, even at twice the price of the nearby guesthouses. Oh, and the hot shower was out of this world.

I ate at the Lonely Planet recommended Dan Nao Muang Xam restaurant, just across the bridge from my hotel and was quickly pounced upon by a lad called Boonthan who spoke very good English. He was infact something of a chatterbox and proceeded to explain that he was an English teacher and also a local guide. No doubt he could explain the caves at Vieng Xai better than anyone else. My ears pricked up a little when he said he was scheduled to do some tutoring this evening. I listened some more and after ascertaining that he was a genuine sort, I asked if I might be able to help him. His eyes lit up an explained that he'd really like me to come and demonstrate to his students how the farang speak English around at his house this evening. This, I thought, would be a learning experience for all of us.

Hand Loom Weavers
Darkness fell on the sleepy town of Sam Neua where I don't think a great deal has happened since the Americans flattened it during the Vietnam war. Subsequently it has been rebuilt so I guess, the river aside, I'm looking at a Laotian New Town, crickey, I'm back in The Nage! At 7pm I returned to 'The Dan' restaurant and lapped up a tasty dish of noodles in soup with beef and vegies and no small amount of chillies. Boonthan arrived and, seeing my lather, kindly dished out tissues. A minute's motorbike ride away we arrived at Boonthan's (very) humble abode. He lives with his two sisters who from what I can gather take it in turns on the loom all day to create long rectangular pieces of cloth that are woven with patterns. The process looked painstaking and indeed was using technolgies that were pre-Industrial Revolution. As a boy at school I remember visiting cotton mill museums (which ofcourse were the life blood of Lancashire for many decades, erm, the mills, not the museums) and seeing demonstrations of how the hand loom weavers would sit at their looms and create garments out of cotton. Arriving at Boonthan's I really got the feeling that I had stepped back into an era that I thought had vanished hundreds of years ago. The girls would set the pattern, with all sorts of colourful threads being woven onto a black background and then pass the wooden shuttle from one side of the weaving frame/loom to the other. Boonthan said it would take two to three days to produce one 'garment', which can be worn in multiple different ways - over the shoulder for example when visiting a temple, as a scarf, a skirt etc. and these would sell for 50,000kip. By my maths that's one pound per day. I declined to buy one for my 'girlfriend in Engrand' (which somehow I had acquired, the same way I acquired a wife and two children last night) simply because I am living out of a 20litre rucksac for seven days and cannot physically carry it with me, which is a shame.

Engrish Ressons
Boonthan's English is quite good, he has a Thai-English dictionary and a tatty English phrase book dated 1955. Boonthan was proficient enough at the language to be concerned with grammar, phonetics, tone and sense-stress which are all very different to the Lao way of speaking. I could see that he'd been giving lessons already today as he had a list of words on the blackboard that all sounded alike, even though their meanings were competely unrelated, eg. wine, time, shine, line (I began to wonder if he was a secret Oasis fan!). He asked me to pronounce the words slowly and then at normal speed and he would copy me and then the two students would copy him. He struggled a little with 'th', 'ch', 'w', 'l' and 'gg' sounds but we got there. He was very pleased to have a farang help show him and his students the correct pronunciation, well the pseudo-Lancastrian one at any rate! The students were 'By Eck'-ing like little good 'uns by the time I'd finished with them. Sengdao hailed from Sam Neua and Lee was born here too but his family is from the Hmong tribe, immigrants from China I believe. They were both 17, although due to their height and complexion looked about 13. They were both very attentive and somewhat shy, they'd only been learning Engrish for a month or so. I tried to be as encouraging as possible to help them speak up and practise. During the two hour session they gradually became more confident and by the end of the evening we were able to role play asking each other our names, ages, where we were from, if we could speak Lao or English and so on. As the boys carefully took notes in Lao and English it gave me a little time to ponder on the impact the learning of English would have on their lives. Would it be all positive (they'd be able to converse with farang and therefore have better access to money), or would it turn them into the sort of Laotian I'd met in Luang Prabang who abandon their own values and ways of life (even if they are hundreds of years 'behind' the west) and transform themselves into pests who rather than work with the Farang are always trying to rip them off? Was my intended good deed going to work out for good or for bad? My conclusion was that all good things can be used or abused, just about every scientific and tehnological advancement has proved this (see Nobel's dynamite, Oppenheimer's nuclear bomb, genetic modification of crops, animals and humans, Tim Berners-Lee internet and so on). I'll leave it up to Sengdao and Lee to choose their path. For me it felt good to help these kids have a brighter future than subsistance farming.

Beer Lao Style
As is happens, Lee's family run a little shop and they sell beer, so to pay for the lesson he'd brought a couple of bottles of something like Beer Lao but not quite. Boonthan explained that when Laotians drink, they open one bottle and share the same glass. Warning, warning, warning! The spectre of catching Hep B or some jungle fever that these lads were immune to sent alarm bells firing off all over my head. I would quite happily not participate but it seemed I had no choice. They poured a mouthful each and in turn we drank, I taught them 'cheers' and they taught me 'gnok' (pronounced 'nyuk'). We shared two bottles between four of us. The little fellas were visibly tired - Laotians rise with the sun around 5 or 6am usually, so we shook hands, I grabbed a photo in front of the white board 'from Thailand, 83,000kip, cheap cheap' beamed Boonthan. Cruised back to my hotel and began to count my lucky stars I was born in England. Had another wrestless nights sleep despite being in very comfortable surroundings, I wonder if that is attributable to Doxy? I don't even get to the stage where I get bad dreams.

Saturday 7th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day One






Northern Eastern Motorbike Tour of Laos
Today was to be the first day of my motorbike tour of northern Laos. I had 'borrowed' the itinery from the firm (Green Discovery - a very well run outfit) who I'd hired my Honda Baja 250cc dirt bike from. Check out the official trip description here for a succint overview of my trip. I had planned to make the journey in five or six days but as things turned out it was more like eight days in total. I should at this point thank GT-rider's author David Unkovich and many forum contributors who gave me invaluable information that helped me navigate my way around this beautiful corner of South East Asia. It was a real adventure and one that I'll never forget, I hope you enjoy the highs and lows as much as I did.

Traveling Light
Any thoughts of an early start were put to bed by last nights' late finish, so at 9am I began the rigmorall (is this a real word? It is in Lancashire) of packing up. I wrapped my guitar in my coat, cunningly using a sleeve as a fret-board protector and then shoved any other non-essentials in my big rucksac. Both guitar and rucksac were to be put on a bus and transported to Vientiane where I would pick them up 6 days later. I had been at pains to explain that my guitar must be treated like a princess, and no that doesn't mean played three times a day!

Had my final breakfast at The Ancient, this time it was French style pancakes and bacon and fried eggs with a coffee. Also purchased a coconut cake which was to prove invaluable later in the day. Checked out of my lodgings ($12 per day, fan, no aircon (and extra $6 and it's not really that hot at night - 75 degrees max), hot shower, own loo. Went to the ATM which was closed so found another one (there are about 4 in LPG and they all have strange opening times and most only actaully give you the money after several attempts). Withdrew 2.1 million kip which sounds a lot but is actually only 125 pounds. This money had to last me my entire journey including accommodation, all food, water, beer, sightseeing admission charges and ofcourse petrol costs for six or seven days until I reached Vientiane my journeys end and the only other place with cash machines on my route.

Bought a pair of boots for 15 pounds as I left my last pair propping up a matress in Chiang Rai, they really stank anyway. Bought a dry bag and then headed off into the great unknown. Cruised up highway 13, all my belongings for the next seven are now packed into a 20 litre rucksac, that's what I call downsizing. The sun was shining and the forecasted rain was nowhere to be seen thankfully. After 30k's or so I hung a right towards Pak Xeng and blatted along a half-sealed rode for 65k's snaffling a quick photo of a working elephant as it plodded along the dirty track whilst being ridden by two Laotian loggers. At Pak Xeng, just after the river crossing you take a left fork up a steeply inclined dirt road as it eventually brings you out onto a ridge which is lined by countless small villages consisting of around ten small bamboo huts on stilts. The views from on top of the ridge are fantastic.

Navigating in SE Asia
Laotians on the whole seem to be better than Thais at directions, Thais just nod and tell you what you want to hear whereas Laotians draw maps with sticks on the ground, some of which are very confusing! The main problem when navigating in this part of the world is that quite often the maps (although very very good David U!) don't show some forks in the road and at these little junctions there may or may not be a signpost which almost invariably will have instructions in Thai or Laos which are completely unintelligible to westerners. Taking a wrong turn can result in a detour of several hours until it becomes semi-apparent that something isn't quite right. It's darned hard work navigating out here even thought there are so few roads. It doesn't help not knowing the language either.

Driving on the Roads
Not quite as well policed as the UK and not a single speed camera in sight, driving in SE Asia so far hasn't been too precarious, you just have to be on the constant lookout for unexpected road hazards such as kamikaze chickens, slow moving ducks, sleeping pigs, docile cattle, nonchalant water buffalo, mangy looking dogs, small children, rockfalls, craters, bogs, scooters, 4x4s and the odd public bus. Most vehicles insist on taking up both sides of the road so it's a risky game cutting corners unless you are absolutely sure there's nothing coming the other way.

The Village People
Enroute I passed countless villages, and without fail as soon as a child spotted me on my bike they'd smile, wave vigorously and shout 'Sabaidee'. They are so cute, my hand ached from all the waving, I felt a bit like the Queen but it made the kids' faces light up with glee so it just had to be done no matter how late in the day or how tired the Royal Hand. Eventually descended off the ridge and took a left hand fork (not on the map) maybe 5km before Sam Soun. Actually I took the right fork thinking 'stay high' as it climbs up the ridge but 3km up this narrower track I stopped and asked villagers if I was on the right track to Sam Soun. After much head shaking and many confusing stick diagrams later I headed back to the fork and took the left downhill and in ten minutes or so I was very happy to stumble upon Sam Soun which is little more than a T-junction, but it did mean I was on the right track thank goodness. At this point I devoured my carrot cake purchased earlier this morning to beautiful views over the lush green carpeted mountains all around me. Good job I had that carrot cake as I hadn't seen anywhere to grab food for many hours.

Vieng Thong Or Not Vieng Thong?
After a quick re-fuel at a makeshift petrol station (a wooden shack with a few plastic bottles containing the red stuff) I attempted to resolve the problem I'm having with my bike - the chain keeps going slack and clanking on the chain stay. Not a show stopper but rather annoying. Managed to get my bike partially fixed by a very helpful villager in a village that was signposted as 'Vieng Thong'. Hmm, twas too small to have a guesthouse though, in hindsight I think this was a cunning rouse by the locals to make the farang think they are in Vieng Thong, they certainly seemed to agree that we were in Vieng Thong when I asked them, although I was subsequently to find this was not the case at all. The light was fading by now and some dark, menacing looking clouds were drawing in. In the absence of any guesthouses there was nothing for it but to crack on until I found somewhere suitable to sleep for the night.

Randomly found the first guesthouse I'd seen since Luang Prabang, neon lights have never looked so good! I was beginning to think I might have to gate crash a village hut and sleep with the pigs. The guesthouse was basic but had mozzy nets, a bed, a hot shower in the outhouse and squat toilet too. After a long days riding, often not knowing if I was on track or had been heading up a two-or-three hour dead end I was ready for a shower and some food. The shower proved to be a mere trickle that made my mum and dad's old shower seem like the Niagra Falls in the rainy season. It took me a good 15 minutes to get wet all the while dodging hungry mozzies whose radars must have been going berserk as I stood there starkers.

Laos At Last
Tentatively wandered 50m or so down the road to Ennau & Ding's restaurant, which had a sign in Lao outside. Generally that means cheap food at local prices, not over-inflated tourist prices. The owner, Ennau beckoned me inside. Ennau's spoke a little English and was keen to sit with me and converse before, during and after my meal. The difference in attitude towards farang was marked. Ennau was genuinely warm, earnest and kind and attentive and more interested in making friends than making money, sadly the opposite was true in Luang Prabang which for all it's pretty charm was inside just a tourist trap. The UNESCO World Heritage fund has ordered that the whole town be protected, preserved and rebuilt. It's a shame that this order only applies to the buildings and architecture and doesn't extend as far as protecting the hearts, minds and attitudes of the residents. It pains me to say it but I get the impression that whatever Luang Prabang had, it has lost. Like whitewashed graves, it looks pretty on the outside but inside is full of dead mens bones, now where have I heard that before? Anyway, where I am right now (I'm not sure what the name of this town is) I feel I've finally found a piece of the real Laos!

Work, Education, Health
Ennau and I discussed many topics, albeit with a lot of hand waving. After rummaging around in his bedroom which is on the ground floor immediately next to the kitchen and adjacent to his in laws' bedroom, Ennau produced a tatty looking book with an English gentleman on the front sporting a monocle. It had some writing in Lao on the front. He explained that whilst living in Luang Prabang as a child he had bought the book, an English-Lao phrase book and had studied it since he was 16 years old, he as now 28. He was keen for his daughter-to-be to learn too and said he'd send her off to Luang Prabang and pay 100,000kip per month to have her educated. Ennau drove a truck once a week (no matter how hard I tried I couldn't get an answer to what was in the truck, chances are it would be agricultural products). He made the journey to the cities such as Luang Prabang, Phonsavan or across the border to Vietnam to deliver his goods. The rest of the time he worked in the kitchen with Ding who was 8 months pregnant. 'My wife very fat' he explains, 'she open in one month'. That's one way of putting it I thought as I quietly spat out yet another piece of chicken gristle. He wanted to know how many children I had and wouldn't relent until I said I had two, a boy aged six and a girl aged three and that my wife was back in England working selling flowers. (All references to children and a wife are purely fictional, ahem!). Ennau explained that if you want your children to go to school you have to pay. I explained that it was free in England up to the age of 18. He looked gobsmacked. I then noticed a huge amount of scarring on the top of his right wrist. He explained that he fell off his motorbike after drinking too much Lao Lao (rice whiskey) and made a mess of it. He says he went to a hospital in Thailand for two months and paid 20,000bhat (a fortune for Laotians) to have a skin graft. I knew already that health care in Laos isn't as good as it is in Thailand and so could understand why he went. 'Why not Laos hospital?' I enquire, Ennau shakes his head and makes a slicing motion above his wrist. 'In Laos they do this'. At this point the I really began to understand how backward Laos is in terms of health, education, sanitation and so on. Another fascinating topic came up. Ennau wanted to know how much it cost in England to have our children taught to learn Laos. A perfectly good question if you think about it. I'm not sure if he understood my Commonwealth-based answer but I hopefully managed to let him down gently!

Chicken Feet
Ding had made me stir fried chicken and sticky rice (Laotians eat sticky rice rather than steamed rice wherever possible), it was very filling - just what the doctor had ordered but the chicken pieces were a mixture of cartilage and feet. Luckily there was a cat handy to help me look more appreciative.

Lao Lao Land
Ennau cracked open the Lao Lao and insisted we went in turns. Lao Lao is a rice wine whiskey that is legendary around these parts and is drunk on a daily basis by most Laotians. He explained that a couple of shots would help me sleep. He poured it out of a big plastic drum (which didn't inspire confidence). The whiskey was completely translucent, ie. 'white', not brown like Scottish whiskies. I was already feeling whacked out and had heard tales about the inebriating effects of Lao Lao so I was not keen on having any, but Ennau insisted we went in turns. Three shots each later my upper digestive tract felt like it just had a hot poker inserted into it. Lao Lao has a similar burning effect on your throat as Doxy (my anti-malarial meds.), and so the two together gave quite a painful chest-on-fire sensation, but what can you do with hospitality like this? I just had to make a few audible whooping noises and grin through the stinging.

Rice Based Economy
The Laotian economy is agriculturally based, in fact only this morning I was reading the Vientiane News(paper) and both headline stories featured rice farmers, highlighting their current plight - fuel and fertilizer prices make growing rice uneconomical. The further north in Thailand (Chiang Rai province) the more rice workers I saw out in the paddy fields. This trend continued into Laos, and now it seemed that the vast majority of people here eek out a living by either foraging off the land or planting rice. As an aside, in this part of the world they use the measurement of a 'rai' rather than acres or hectares. A rai is a 40m x 40m plot of land. It's been puzzling me for sometime as land is sold by the rai. Now we all know what a rai is, good.

By 10:30pm I was dying on my feet and the Lao Lao was indeed sending me into a sleepy coma, so I settled the bill: 35,000 kip for 2 Beer Lao, 3 shots of Lao Lao, stir fried green vegies, chicken feet and sticky rice and soup. That's about two of your British pounds.

Thudded into bed, applied the garish pink mozzy nets and fell soundly asleep.

Friday 6th June

Breakfasted at where else but the Ancient Cafe at the far end of the main touristy drag opposite the tribal market. I made the mistake of buying a chicken and salad butty from one of the stall holders the other morning and ever since she seems to be able to spot me a mile off and greets me with a massive 'Sawadee' and even bigger smile.

Hired a motorbike for 7 days (Honda Baja), took it on a test drive, the chain was as loose as a Bangkok hooker so had that fixed. The hire firm are Green Discovery who specialize in elephant rides and treks and so forth, but they are also recommendedby gt-rider as a reliable source of motorbikes. The young lad spoke good English and was very helpful. After signing my life away and leaving my passport I took the fettler out on a 60k spin to Tat Kuang Si which is a beautiful collection of multi-tiered waterfalls tumbling over limestone formations into a series of cool turquoise-green pools. Sadly I rocked up at closing time (5pm) and didn't fancy the 20,000 kip price tag to get bitten alive at Mozzy Hour, not did I take kindly to the gypo trying charge me 2,000 kip for parking my bike. Grrrr! Apparently the waterfalls are very pretty and you need at least a coupe of hours to explore them and swim in the various pools. Not much point in me hanging around this sugar trap so I hammered it straight back to LPG, watched a game of eleven a side at the LPG footy ground then saw more of the town in 5 minutes on a bike than I had the previous 4 days on foot. Since Chaing Mai I had forgotten how muh freedom a bike an give you. Just five minutes on the bike and you are out of 'frarang' territory. Joy.

After a brief six-headed shower I joined the girls for a meal of steamed catfish and sticky rice before heading to Nau's sports bar for some tennis action (Roland Garros, Federer beat the theatrical but oh so French 'runner up' Monfils. We stayed up late back at the girls place knowing that this was our last night together. Between us we seemed to have clicked, despite us all being quite different. Heather and Sarah are quite different but seem to compliment each other well as travelers, they look out for each other which is what you need in a strange place where you do not fully understand the culture an don't speak a word of the language.

Thursday 5th June


Currently in Luang Prabang soaking up the Laotian hospitality, and the monsoon rains every afternoon. England have lost the toss and are batting against NZ, I've got the commentary streaming in to my laptop as Aggers describes the gladiatorial action. Ahh, we've lost a wicket already so Michael Vaughan (My Lord) strides out to the wicket, sadly there are no spangly pads anywhere to be seen. You can't expect to beat a mediocre side like NZ if you aren't wearing shiny pads a la IPL, come on the Kolcutta Knight Riders, gold pads are the way forward they really are. All the best wear Platinum Party Pads, how can you possibly not score?! Forget flashing the Rolex, it's all about the leg guards.

Curfew
Had one too many Beer Lao last night and so was a bit fragile this morning. They have an 11pm curfew throughout Laos but no one told me and so it was lock-in-oclock. A great idea until I couldn't get back into my guest house. Luckily they had one of those annoying door bells that plays a tune, so a few rounds of "When the saints go marching in" later a little fella comes and opens the door which I obliging fell through as I was resting my head on it.

Didn't do a lot today, it rained most of the day so I did some more research about motorbiking around Laos and travelling to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat). I used the internet all day for 5000kip, which is about 30p whilst munching on freshly made cake again for 30p for a massive piece of apple cake, and carrot cake, and chocolate cake, I'll stop there!

Bumped into Ian and Miranda who now live in Tasmania but he's originally from Lancashire (near Garstang) and she's from Auckland NZ. Although they have children not much younger than me we seemed to get on very well, having shared a bus from Chiang Rai to the Thailand/Laos border and then a two-day boat ride down the Mekong. They are an interesting couple, Ian loves his photography, I could see he had a good eye for a photo. Miranda was very friendly. They didn't always see eye to eye on the accomodation front though, with Miranda prefering the more expensive places whereas Ian was happy with less.

My evening meal was a vegetarian all you can fit on a 4inch diameter plate buffet from the night market, you guessed it, it cost 30p. Should have taken my Alan Partridge 12 incher and really taken the biscuit.

Had a quiet night watching the ladies tennis semi-final at Roland Garros. I've decided I'm supporting Ivanovich as she is the prettiest and wears the best outfits. She won today, I eased into my first dark Beer Lao which at 6.5% tastes surprisingly good and is very easy going on the palate, which is handy as my course of Doxycycline has the annoying side effect of making your upper digestive tract burn, so knocking back anything can feel like your having your oesophagus scraped out by sandpaper. Nice.