Steve has planned some great routes and sights in Laos. We stopped in Luang Prabang on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers to enjoy the colonial French buildings which are now full of wine bars, costly cafés, hostels, hotels, restaurants and night bazaars. It’s a bit of a backpacker magnet with a few too many tie-died, beard-braided fruitarians, although not in the Aussie Sports Bar where Big-Dog and Outback holed up for the day and night while I phoned a recruitment consultant in London (the internet is quite remarkable, allowing me to sit on the side of the Mekong river and chat about music education with a consultant in London, and not have to pay a gazillion pounds in charges). So there’s something for everyone in Luang Prabang which is a bit at odds with my predetermined perception of a communist country with only one political party (the Laos Peoples’ Revolutionary Party). The LPRP is the only political party legally allowed to exist in Laos which makes their electoral process somewhat biased! The economy confuses me as we ride around the country. Whether in the tourist centres like Luang Prabang, or out in the remote towns and villages, Laos is not cheap; the petrol, food, drink, amenities and so on are all at least 50% more expensive than Thailand and 3-4 times more expensive than rural India. The common perception of Laos being a poor communist country is somewhat at odds with the consumerism that is evident everywhere. I was expecting the traffic to be predominantly ox-carts and ancient Chinese tractors but bouncing over the dodgy roads are the latest in bling-laden Euro-Jap 4x4s. I can’t quite comprehend the sight of a xenon-lit BMW with chromed alloys wafting through communist-dictatorship poverty. Orwell’s Animal Farm springs to mind … some Laotians are more equal than others!
In Phonsovan there are some remarkable memories and monuments to the American bombing campaign in the 1960s and ‘70s. I had no idea that Laos was even involved in America’s war against communist Vietnam but I suppose it stands to reason that Laos got caught up in the conflict. The Americans were based in Thailand; Laos lies between Thailand and Vietnam and also borders China in the North. So the Vietcong were running supplies along the Ho Chi Minh trail through the dense mountain tracks of Laos from China and North Thailand down towards Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) in Southern Vietnam. The Geneva Accord of 1962 (signed by the US) agreed that Laos was to remain neutral in the Vietnam war. The CIA didn’t agree with this and built dozens of Lima (landing) sites for their aircraft which were supposedly running humanitarian aid missions across Laos, but they were actually indiscriminately bombing the shit out of the entire country. Between 1964 and 1973 Laos earned the dubious reputation of becoming the most heavily bombed country in the world (a record it still holds). The CIA and US Airforce covertly bombed Laos every eight minutes for nine years. They dropped over two million tonnes of bombs on Laos, that’s more than was dropped in the whole of Europe during the 2nd World War, and apparently about 30% of the ordnance didn’t explode on impact so there are about 600,000 tonnes of unexploded ordnance lying around the Laotian countryside which kill and maim hundreds of people every year. The visitors’ centres at the Mines Advisory Group and UXO clearance charities having some unbelievable displays and facts about the fifty years of fallout from America’s secret bombing. In Vieng Xai, up near the North Vietnam border there are a complex of caves cut into the mountains by the Pathet Lao (communist leaders of Laos in the the 60’s and 70’s). The Pathet Lao lived in these caves for nine years during the American bombing, they built barracks and kitchens, politburo meeting rooms (replete with a statue of Lenin) and dormitories, and even a theatre, all cut into the caves. The surrounding mountains have huge holes and craters where the Americans just destroyed everything with B52 bombers as they tried to break through the mountains to blow up the caves. They weren’t successful.
Vieng Xai turned out to be a bit of a jinx for me and the bike. The day that we visited the caves the bike was behaving strangely; it didn’t start properly. Normally it fires into life on the first push of the button but in Vieng Xai it coughed and spluttered before firing. Strange. That night we had torrential rain, thunder and lightning for several hours which woke me at about 3am. It was impressive and intimidating to see the lightning casting huge momentary flashes across the mountainsides as the thunder bounced between the rocks. An interesting insight into what nine years of B52s would have been like here for the locals. The next morning in the pouring rain the bike decided it had had enough, the starter motor whirred and chugged but the engine refused to catch. Big-Dog Steve and Outback Ady came out and together we tried to jump it from Ady’s V-strom, we tried to bump it by pushing it down the hill, we checked the fuel pump, the fuel lines, the fuses, tried the poor-fuel setting on the ECU but nope, the big KTM was adamant; it’s not going to start. There’s rarely a good time to break down but to break down in the far North Eastern corner of Laos in a tiny town with nothing but a couple of market stalls, a hotel and a cheap restaurant is about as bad as you can get. Almost no-one speaks English (and my Laotian amounts to little more than “please, thank-you and beer”), no-one has even heard of KTM, (they don’t exist in Laos), and Steve & Ady can’t hang around for long, they have to get to the Chinese border where they have to make the border crossing into China with the fixer at the agreed time, or they won’t get in. We went to talk to Lalit, the Indian guy who owns the only restaurant in town and who speaks remarkably good Indli-lish. Lalit has been in Laos for a dozen years, he first came over when he was working for the catering arm of an Indian mining company and he liked it here, so he stayed. I’m not sure if he’s Laotian or Indian or even legal, but he’s a can-do type of guy who seems to know everyone in Vieng Xai. Lalit talked to a guy who talked to a guy who knew someone with a small canvas-topped military truck that was available to hire, for a fee. I figured that the best place to cross back into Thailand was at the main border crossing just South of Vientiane (the capital of Laos) on the basis that if I get stuck there at least I’m near the capital where I’ve got the most chance of finding people who can help. Then we needed a driver, so more guys spoke to more guys until someone agreed to drive 1300km return trip from Vieng Xai to Vientiane. I’m not sure how much the truck owner gave the driver but that’s a big distance on these crappy roads and I just had to suck up the $500 fee for the truck and driver for the next 24 hours. I phoned Brett and Lawrence who were still chilling in the 42°C sweatiness of Chiang Mai and they promised to put a plan together for when I got into Thailand at the Vientiane border. So all I have to do is get the bike on this flatbed truck (easier said than done with a 300kg lump of steel and no ramps) and get the truck to take me 650km to the Vientiane border crossing. All was going well, we left Vieng Xai at about midday, the Sat Nav said it would take 12 hours to do 650km so I asked Lalit to ask the driver to do an overnight stop on the way, there’s no point turning up at a border crossing in the middle of the night. Something about this was lost in translation, my crazy driver decided to not take the Sat Nav recommended route but take to the mountain tracks. Rupert’s teacher voice reared up as the brainless berk behind the wheel bounced the truck over Indian-style roads with huge holes. I was primarily concerned that the bike was going to fall over / fall off the truck but also quite mindful of last time I saw trucks negotiating this sort of terrain in Nagaland, North-East India, which resulted in snapped axles and collapsing suspensions. The last thing I needed was for this truck to break, so I spent 4 hours forcing the driver to go slower and avoid the holes. It turns out that the driver had seized a business opportunity and, not content with his portion of my $500 he had done another deal to pick up a load of other cargo from a town that was no-where-near en route, which was why he had refused to follow my Sat Nav route 200km ago (a route that would have stuck to the main roads, not the dirt tracks). Now pissed-off-teacher-Rupert voice kicked off in quite a major way when, just after midnight, still 300km from Vientiane, we stopped in a market square in a deserted town where some dodgy guy was waiting with a load of crates and boxes. I went nine-shades of nuts, making it quite clear that my $500 was quite enough to guarantee me sole use of this truck, and I certainly wasn’t going to have a load of other cargo bouncing around against my bike and there was no way in anyone’s world that the dodgy guy from the market square of a one-horse deserted town in Laos was going to share the only passenger seat with me in this truck, especially as he didn’t show any signs of splitting the costs. So no, no way at all. Get that shit off the back of the truck, get that man out of my seat, get us moving to Vientiane and get a good look at this Sat Nav to ensure that you follow the most direct route from now on. It’s amazing how the driver seemed to understand pissed-off-English quite well, but he certainly wasn’t a happy bunny at having lost his extra cash on the side. Then, to my amazement, he just drove non-stop through the night to Vientiane without stopping for food or sleep, I think he might have been on drugs, we arrived at the border crossing at 4am, 16 hours non-stop drive from Vieng Xai having done 750km on mainly dirt roads with a pointless detour.
The situation became a little more farcical as my driver pulled up to the locked gates to the border crossing at 4am and mimed getting my bike off the truck. What the fuck am I supposed to do with a bust bike at 4am outside the gates to the border crossing (the main office of which was a good km or two further inside the compound). He shouted at me in Laotian, I replied in English and mime and told him that he was going to wait until the gates opened, then he was going to unload the bike at the actual border crossing office, not the perimeter gates and we were going to find some people to help us because with the best will in the world there is no way the two of us are going to lift a 300kg bike off a truck without a ramp!
I snoozed fitfully in the cab while the driver paced around outside for 3 hours. By 7am when the gates opened he’d been driving / pacing / smoking since at least midday yesterday – he’s definitely on drugs! We drove into the border compound, reversed up to a particularly high kerb, engaged the assistance of some bemused café workers and bounced the bike off the back of the truck. Exiting Laos was fairly straightforward, a few passport stamps and vehicle document checks and I was heading for Thailand. The problem here is that overland border crossings are designed for vehicles. There’s always a bit of no-man’s-land between leaving one country and entering the next, all you have to do is drive from one immigration office to the next. In this case the no-man’s-land between Laos and Thailand is a particularly wide stretch of the Mekong River with a nice big bridge which climbs over the river in an impressive arc, and my bike won’t start, and it’s about 2km to the Thai immigration office. My saviour arrived in the form of an American in an unusual predicament: In order to get a visa for Laos (he was trying to cross in the other direction) you need to pay a visa-on-arrival fee at the Laos immigration office. The fee is only payable in US$, they won’t accept Thai Bahts or even Laos Kips; weird or what? So here was a hapless Septic trying to cross into Laos with no US$, and a fed-up Brit trying to push a 300kg KTM the other way. This was a match made in heaven; Joe the happy hockey-playing student was more than happy to help push the bike over the bridge in return for the $35 visa fee which I paid for him. I arrived in Thailand having pushed the bike another 500m through their customs and immigration borders and into a dead-end border town, but at least it had a café, a minimart and some data connection, and apparently a Thai dude with a pick-up will be along soon to ferry me the remaining 700km to Chiang Mai, where the relative normality of the Plearn hostel, OCD Lawrence and Aussie Brett await my return with more than a hint of amusement, but at least Aussie Brett is adamant that he can breathe life back into my dead steed …