Monday, 4 August 2008

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!

No comments: