The Last of Laos

 

Attapeu, Laos. Saturday 3rd November 2018.
Almost as soon as I crossed the border, like a bad dream revisited, I was reminded how bad the roads were in Laos. Add in the occasional land slip to be surprised by, and I soon dropped my pace and enjoyed the scenery. I stopped in Attapeu, at the same guest house I’d used before. It’s not wonderful, but it has decent restaurant attached and I was happy with taking the easy option. It gave me a chance to dig out my Laos map and make some plans.
Jack, the Kiwi guy I’d met when I was last in Vientiane, had marked my map with some war related sites to visit on, or near, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I was generally heading north and most of them were vaguely en route. The first of them was in the middle of a village called Paam, not very far up a minor, but well surfaced, road. It’s very common to ride into a village or town and find a public area, which has some kind of structure on it. A memorial; a statue; a stupa; maybe a temple. But I’ll bet a month’s wages that none of you have ever entered a village, found the village green, only to see it decorated by a Russian SAM missile; sitting on its launcher; aimed at who knows where; and hoping that old Indochina rivalries aren’t about to flare up again. I needn’t have worried. The peaceful nature of this decommissioned surface to air missile was reinforced by the small herd of cattle, chomping the grass around it, and all surrounded by a fence. Which itself was made from the old cases of cluster bombs. It’s hard to imagine a scene where the remnants of war and daily life sit so closely together. It was bizarre.

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A gift from Russia, via Vietnam.

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Cluster bomb cases recycled as fence posts.

Further up the same road Jack had told me about an abandoned tank, left at the side of the road. But before long the good surface disappeared and large stones replaced it. I carried on for a couple of kilometres but eventually realised my heavily laden bike was going to make it all too much like hard work. Discretion being the better part of valour, I turned round. Let’s face it, I’ve seen plenty of tanks before.

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‘Submerged’ bridge on the Ho Chi Min Trail.

I continued north, enjoying roads that were amazingly good for Laos. They seemed to have been recently surfaced, had some nice bends and went through nice countryside. Relatively traffic free too. I was looking for a couple of bridges, as suggested by Jack. Laos is the worlds most bombed country, measured per capita. The USA dropped 2 million tons of bombs on it, almost as many as the 2.1 million dropped over Europe and Asia during WW2. This was referred to as ‘the hidden war’. Laos was never officially at war with South Vietnam, or the USA. But unfortunately it was where the Ho Chi Minh Trail wound its way south, supplying the Viet Cong and the PAVN in the south. All of its infrastructure was a target for US bombers, especially bridges. To try to evade the bombs and fool the pilots the Vietnamese built the bridges underwater. Eh? What?? How can a bridge be underwater? ‘Underwater’ isn’t really the correct description; ‘submerged’ does the job better. The idea was to make these narrow concrete bridges invisible from snooping US planes by allowing the river water to cover them slightly, thereby reflecting the light. The river levels have dropped in the intervening forty five years, probably because of the hydro-electric dams further upstream. Which meant I was unable to get that how-can-this-bike-be-floating-on-the-water photo. But it was easy enough to see how it worked, and the HCM Trail has many of them.

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I was very disappointed at the low water level, denying me the ‘bike floating on water’ image I wanted so much.

The next bridge was one that Jack claimed to be the most bombed bridge in the world. How you could ever judge such a claim I really don’t know. But it crosses a major river and would certainly have received plenty of attention from US bombers. It was the opposite of hidden, spanning the river as it did, on its concrete supports.. The supports are all that’s left, with the a new bridge running alongside. I had a quick ride into the nearby village where I tried to take a photo of a stupa or memorial, outside a community centre. A local policeman told me off, so I left, puzzled as to why.
Enough of looking at this and that. I needed to get to the big city for some visa business so I headed north to Vientiane. Once on the main road I had trucks and torn up road surfaces to deal with. Laos seems to delight in removing sections of road surface, down to the stony base, then leaving them for months while traffic shudders and judders its way across them. Many of the towns and villages I passed through where very shabby places, with poor quality buildings, and shops at the roadside selling nothing very much. It all spoke of poverty, a real contrast to the vibrant street side life I’d become used to. Two days of hard riding got me there, back at the same hostel as last time. The ride was an ordeal rather than a pleasure and I was glad when it was over.

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Wigs for all occasions on this market stall in Vientiane.

Thailand allows travellers to cross their land border, using the visa waiver system, twice per calendar year. I’d already used up my two lives, so now I needed to get a proper tourist visa because I wanted to go back before Christmas. I’m allowed a sixty day tourist visa, valid for three months, albeit only single entry. That would be good enough. I would be flying out of Thailand in December, then flying back in January, meaning that returning would not be a problem. When you fly into Thailand there’s no restriction on how many times you can enter, and anyway, it would be a new calendar year. There’s no doubt that, aside from getting my bike across borders, visa issues are the biggest hassle for the long distance traveller. Obtaining the visa involved a morning visit to the Thai visa centre to make the application, then an afternoon visit the next day to collect it. It was now too late to do it that day so I turned to other issues.
My bike needed a service so I went to the large bike shop I used last time I was in Vientiane. They were very welcoming once more, but didn’t have the oil I needed. That was a shame because buying their oil is one way of making sure they get some money from me. I got the oil elsewhere, did the work that was needed and offered to pay them for the use of their facilities. Refused, just like last time. What great people.

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The international appeal of bingo.

An early start and a walk down to the visa centre saw me join a long queue of people. I spent the next hour and a half chatting to a British guy on a visa run from Thailand, and a young American tourist. A very enjoyable conversation, all about world, UK and USA politics. It took no time at all for the efficient Thais to check my form and give me a collection number for the next afternoon. Collecting it was as easy as applying for it so it wasn’t long before I was ready to continue north again.

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Lots of limestone karst hills down by the river. I decided to climb this one.

The north of Laos is much like the north west of Vietnam. Plenty of limestone karst hills, valleys, rivers and a variety of different ethnic peoples. It’s much less developed than the southern areas, with fewer people and poorer infrastructure. But there were a couple of other places to visit en route. The first of these was Vang Vieng, a haven (or hell) for backpackers and western tourists. It was a relatively short ride from Vientiane and I soon found a hostel. The town is full of places to eat and to stay. There’s lots of activities for the young at heart (and body), such as zip lining, rafting on the Nam Song river, climbing etc. Not for me, thanks. I’d heard that it was a good place to get magic mushrooms and had I had more time I might have been tempted to try a magic mushroom smoothie. I was on a journey but it wasn’t the right moment for a trip, whatever Trip Advisor might have said. With a bike to ride the next day it didn’t seem sensible. Instead, I went for a walk on the other side of the river, out across the rice paddies and climbed up one of the karst outcrops. The view from the top? More of the same, only bigger. But the exercise was welcome, and I enjoyed the chat I had with a Czech guy who I met at the top.

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Vang Vieng schoolgirls on a parasol parade.

Luang Prabang has a long history and was the royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos until 1975, when the Vietnam backed communist forces took power and moved the capital to Vientiane. This left the city with plenty of old buildings, such as the royal palace and various temples, mixed in with the colonial French architecture, common to Indo China. It’s also the gateway to the northern part of Laos as well as having plenty of natural beauty of its own. It sits on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, so there is plenty of water based attractions to see. It’s common for people to arrive in the city by boat from elsewhere, usually after a two or three day trip from Thailand. A nice way to arrive in a city but no use to a man on a motorcycle.

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The Mighty Mekong at sunset.

When I arrived at the Tanoy Guesthouse (a most excellent place, for reasons I’ll reveal later) I was greeted by Michael, an Irish Australian I’d been linked up to by David, at Plodd Stop, in Thailand. Michael had stayed there and we’d been trying to be in the same place at the same time for a while. This was good news as it’s nice to have a companion sometimes and Michael turned out to be someone I got along with very well. Originally from County Cork, he’d lived in Sydney for thirty years working as a carpenter. As with me, the travelling itch needed to be scratched so he set off from home on his BMW800GS, a popular travel bike for some, although it looked big and heavy to me.
The first job next morning was to do some repairs to my silencer, which was falling apart once more. Michael found a bike shop that could do it and this time I removed it completely and we rode down there. A few more rivets soon fixed it. The woman running the shop charged me £8 for this quick repair, which surprised me a bit. I know the guy who did the repair would have charged me less, judging by the apologetic expression on his face. I’m not complaining about the amount but it reminded me that in this part of the world it’s often the women who have the shrewder business head. Thinking about it, that’s true everywhere, isn’t it?
On the way out to get something to eat we passed through the nightly street market. It sold the usual tourist trinkets but they seemed to be of a much higher quality than I’d seen elsewhere, with lots of ethnic stuff, perhaps reflecting the area we were in. The market was very long and the aisles were very narrow. I was glad we were there early as I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be later on when busy. The riverside area had plenty of restaurants to choose from, usually with cheap local dishes and, as ever, bottles of Beer Laos. The unwritten rule is to always ask for a ‘Big Beer Laos’, 620mls of fizzy refreshment. After we’d eaten we headed to a sports bar where they sold draught beer. This was Michael’s opportunity to buy me the beers he’d promised me, for helping him with advice, and we talked travellers’ tales while we drank.

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We didn’t bother trying this scorpion enhanced whiskey.

Near where we stayed were several Wats (temples), as well as the royal palace and Mount Phou Si. This is a 150 metre high hill with Wat Chom Si on the top, with stunning views out over the rivers and the city. Luang Prabang is famous for the daily ceremony of giving alms to the monks. Every day around dawn about 200 monks leave their monasteries to walk the streets and receive their daily food from local people. Mostly they are given rice, curries, fruit and local snacks in a ceremony that has existed since the 14th century. The giver will receive a short blessing in return. The monks will often share their food with children from the poorer families. Buddhists see it as a very spiritual activity and take part gladly. The monks’ role is to study the teachings of The Buddha and to pass this knowledge on to ordinary people, thereby liberating them from suffering. Alms giving is common throughout SE Asia. Some of the monks are quite young and I learned that families often send their sons to monasteries, at about the age of 12, for a few years to study. I’m convinced this accounts for the generally calm demeanour of people from this part of the world. Usually I’m quite cynical about religious activities such as this, but given that I don’t see Buddhism as a religion anyway I’m quite relaxed about this situation – not that the good citizens of Luang Prabang would really care much what I thought anyway.

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A nice temple building.

We spent a day walking around the Wats and visiting the Royal Palace. The temples are always nice to see but the palace was quite ordinary, although there were some nice decorations in some of the rooms. We did make the trek up Mount Phou Si, climbing the 320 steps to the top. I was quite pleased that I only needed one stop for a breather. The view was stunning, looking out over the two rivers and down the valley. There was a nice reclining Buddha to admire and another Buddha, surrounded by a collection of admiring statues. The most enjoyable place was the Museum of Ethnology, featuring the culture of the hill tribes in particular, but also covering Laos ethnic make up. It included musical instruments, weaving, clothes etc. Laos, as I’ve said before, isn’t very heavily populated even now, so back in days of yore it’s easy to imagine how many areas, and their peoples, would have been quite isolated from each other, thereby allowing the many different ethnic styles to develop and, more importantly, survive.

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A little Buddha ensemble at the Wat on top of Mount Phou Si.

After this warm day of walking around, next morning we decided on a ride. About 30kms outside the town are some nice waterfalls so we decided to take a look. I was feeling a bit lazy and suggested to Michael we both go on his bike. Unlike mine, his had plenty of room for a passenger. It’s impossible to tell you how much I regret that decision. We turned up the road leading to the falls and as we came out of a bend Michael accelerated to go past a minibus. But the bike’s rear wheel lost grip on some oily water, slid to the left, recovered grip then slid to the right. And down we went! We were both only wearing shorts and a T shirt and although we got grazes, the low speed meant they weren’t too bad. The worse thing was that nearly 200kgs of lardy BMW landed on my left foot. Michael’s ribs and abdominal muscles were very painful. He picked up the bike with the help of a passer by and we rode very slowly back to base.

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A perfect pair of plonkers, on parade.

We rested up for a while but decided there was no option other than going to the hospital to get checked out. I’d hoped my foot was only bruised but the fact that several toes were pushed over to the left suggested something worse. An x-ray at the surprisingly well equipped hospital confirmed my fears. I had broken three metatarsals and dislocated my little toe. The doctor gave me a local anaesthetic and put the little toe back in place then put a plaster slab around my foot. Michael’s ribs were only bruised, fortunately. We made a right pair of old cripples, with our matching grazes and limping walk. On the way back to the guesthouse we had to stop at a pharmacy so I could buy a pair of old fashioned, wooden crutches. The worst part of all this was the damage it did to my forward plans. I’d wanted to explore the north of Laos before heading back to Thailand, where I’d leave my bike while I was back in the UK for Christmas. Those plans were blown out of the water and needed a rethink. To say I was fed up would be the understatement of 2018. It was even more galling to think that none of it would have happened if I could have been bothered to ride my own bike.

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Three broken metatarsals and a dislocated toe. (The white bars are reflected lights, not pins.)

Now having plenty of time to sit around and wonder what to do, I made good use of it by not doing very much. That’s not completely true, to be fair to myself. I did a bit of research on the availability of cheap, automatic cars back in my local area. Looked at flight times and chatted to Moritz, who had some contacts in the town and some ideas as to where I might be able to leave my bike while I was in the UK. Despite both of us having to hobble around, we managed to do some socialising too. I got chatting on Facebook to a guy named Mark who’d bought a small Honda in Malaysia and had also been in Vietnam for two months. Another was a French guy named Bernard and we all agreed to meet in a riverside bar called Utopia. The name could well be fitting as it sold draught beer. Bernard’s mode of transport was a little more outré than a mere motorbike. He had a big four wheel drive camper van, which looked rather like a Pinzhaur in style but was French built. He thinks it was a special build for the military and had already been converted into a camper when he bought it, although he’s done a lot of work on it since. If I hadn’t been a motorcyclist a vehicle of this type would have been my choice for long distance travelling. The beer oiled the conversation and some fish and chips soaked up the beer. A nice way to spend an afternoon.

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A very tidy Ural sidecar outfit, seen outside a shop.

Having booked my flights, and with a few days to kill, I spent the time researching new gear, catching up with some writing, and socialising. The wonderful people at the guesthouse told me and Michael that we could leave our bikes there while we were away. That was really good news. Because I knew my foot would heal in 6-8 weeks I had a pretty good idea of my return date. Michael didn’t. He had to go to Ireland for family celebrations then back to Australia for business. And his abdomen was very painful, with an unknown healing time. I sorted through everything on the bike and made a big pile of things I no longer needed to carry. They would go back home with me. Meanwhile Moritz arrived and joined us at the sports bar. He lived in Laos for a year and spoke the language very well. On my last night in Luang Prabang Michael, Mark, Moritz and I went down to a restaurant on the riverside for a very nice meal and my last Big Beer Laos for the time being. Next day I flew home.

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The four M’s. Michael, Mark, (standing) Moritz and Me.

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Local Laos Locusts. Crunchy, and mostly tasting of the oil they were fried in.

The flight to Bangkok was short and the tuk tuk driver helped me find a trolley for my rather heavy bag. There was no special treatment available for a man on crutches at the airport but it was a different situation at Bangkok. When I booked the flight I’d asked for a wheelchair and when I checked in an assistant was called to push me around. It was great! I jumped all the queues at security and passport control, and also when getting on the plane. They’d put me in a seat by one of the doors so I had plenty of leg room. I began to wonder if there was a way of engineering the same situation on future flights. Is it possible to buy collapsible crutches? I was met by my son at Heathrow and he carried my bag, meaning public transport was now manageable.
I arrived home on a Saturday and on Sunday I went to my local A&E department to get into the NHS system. I was seen very quickly by a nurse and was booked into the orthopaedic clinic for the Tuesday session. There the plaster slab was removed and replaced by a plastic boot. What joy to be able to take it off for showering and sleeping. The Doctor I saw was from Malaysia so we spent a few minutes talking about my foot and ten more talking about travelling. He was very encouraging and said it was just a matter of time for the healing to take place. He confirmed I’d be able to ride again by mid-January. Excellent news. The next task was to find an automatic car. By the end of the week I’d managed to get a 20 year old Toyota Corolla for only £200. It ran amazingly well over some long journeys and gave me back my much needed mobility. The fear of having no transport over Christmas was a big one but was now relieved.

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New silencer, with the rivets welded in the hope they won’t work loose this time!

Time back at home is always busy, spending it with family, relatives and special friends. It’s also a time for replacing equipment and spares for the bike, the most important item on that list being the silencer. When CCM sold these bikes they also offered a power upgrade, popular with a fair number of buyers. Because it also required a new silencer to complete the upgrade I was sure there’d be a few standard silencers sitting in some garages just waiting for me to buy. And so it proved. A very nice guy named John, who lived in Norfolk, had a spare and was even able to bring it down to me. And all for a very reasonable price. A new crash helmet (to replace the one stolen in Cambodia), and some other bits and pieces completed the list of things to take back with me. The silencer only just fitted in my bag and the bag only just fitted inside the luggage weight limit. My future plans involved entering India so I obtained a visa while I had the time. But I think I shot myself in the foot. I used my Irish passport because the fee was only half as much as using my UK one. But they only gave me 12 months when I was hoping for longer. Would I have got more time if I’d used the UK one? It’s impossible to know but I can’t help but think that I would have. Too late to worry about it now.

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New Tutoro chain oiler, nicely installed.

Once back in Luang Prabang I had a few jobs to do on the bike. Replacing the silencer was number one, fitting a new chain oiler was number two. There were some other as well but I decided they would wait until I got to Plodd Stop, in Thailand. I got the beast cleaned, repacked the panniers and got ready to go. I was heading east, out to the Plain of Jars. “What’s that then?”, I hear you ask? Thereare stone jars, of various heights and diameters, spread across a wide area. They’re from megalithic times and are thought to relate to funerals, although there are many different theories. Michael had already bee there and had given me advice on what to see and where to stay. I was looking forward to seeing such a strange place before heading north to explore the far regions of Laos. The Thai visa I’d obtained in Vientiane still had two weeks of validity left so I had plenty of time to wander about.

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Unusual to see such big bikes in Laos, but they’d ridden in from Thailand.

I set off around mid-morning, stopped for fuel then got going. After about 20kms I came up behind a truck and decided to overtake it. Disaster! As I started to go past the driver decided he needed my road space and pulled across. I presume he was either overtaking a motorcycle or avoiding one of the many rough patches of road. But I’ll never know what was on his mind. What was on mine was the looming Armco barrier that I was heading towards but couldn’t avoid. I hit it and the next thing I remember was sitting in the road, nursing my damaged elbow. My bike was on it’s stand close by and I was being spoken to by an English speaking Lao who was telling me there was an ambulance on the way. Of the truck or its driver there was no sign. I suspect he didn’t even know I was ever there. Kai, who helps run motorcycle tours, assured me my bike would be safely placed in the nearest police station and he gave me his contact details for future reference. The ambulance arrived and off I went, back to Luang Prabang hospital. Another visit to the x-ray room, after which the doctor looked at the mess my elbow was in and said “You’re going to Bangkok, do you have insurance?”. So here began my latest tale of woe.

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More Mekong.

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