On the bike with Wes and Stu

Yes yes it’s been ages since I posted. Beyond my well documented laziness, Laos somehow fails to inspire writing. I’ve been surrounded by beautiful nature, charming old colonial towns, bamboo villages clinging to hillsides, and hundreds of half-naked children shouting “sabaidee!” (hello!) as I go by, yet none of that seems create anything to write about. The joke about Laos People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is that the PDR really stands for “please don’t rush.” While that attitude does translate into a wonderfully relaxing, mañana-time country, it also means that nothing much ever seems to happen.

Until I met up with Wes and Stu.

If you recall, I met Wes on a bus in Vietnam, bouncing from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu on the border. We kept in touch to see if our paths would again cross, and as it turns out we both wanted to hire motorbikes and tour the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos. So I headed south from Luang Nam Tha, stopping for a few days each in Luang Prabang and Ventiene, crossing over to Nong Khai, Thailand, to renew my Lao visa, then back into Laos at the town of Tha Khaek. Finally, I caught a bus that took me 15 hours south to Pakse, where I was due to meet Wes. Wes was bringing along Stu, an Australian and avid biker he met in Vang Vieng. After traveling (mostly in Africa) for the past 8 years, Stu’s making his way home for his mom’s 80th birthday.

Due to the vagaries and delays of Lao internet, I missed Wes & Stu in Pakse – they left about an hour before I got Wes’s email. But they agreed to wait for me in the riverside village of Tadlo, about 85 km north of Pakse. Tadlo should be a backpacker’s paradise: cheap bungalows by a waterfall, friendly and tiny town, relaxed all around. Yet oddly, the place was empty.

How empty? The day I arrived the three of us went to find lunch. Our guest house restaurant was closed – the whole staff was asleep or watching TV. We wandered down the one road in town, and were rebuffed at two other restaurants. Finally one old woman agreed to take our order: three Beer Lao, one grilled pork, one chicken with basil and one beef with basil. About 2 minutes later we watched mama’s son run off with three warm beers – off to the shop to trade them for three cold ones. As we giggled over that, mama came back out to check our order: chicken with basil, right? (“Looks like I’m getting chicken, too,” said Wes.) Off she went, returning 10 minutes later with two frozen chicken breasts in her hand. (No, not in a bag. In her bare hand.) We sipped our beer and laughed. Minutes later, a disgruntled teenage girl arrived by motorbike, bringing with her a wrapped package of frozen pork. Finally, the girl was sent off again, this time returning with a bouquet of basil. Clearly the restaurant with the fewest resources – no ice box, no ice, nothing at all in storage – was the one that most needed our money, and was therefore most willing to piece together a meal for us.

This just-in-time system is reflected in many aspects of Laos. The small shops attached to most every house in town are thick with hanging vines of one-serving packets shampoo, laundry detergent, and other sundries. I can’t explain this aversion to stocking up – is it a lack of money? Storage space? It’s not like shampoo goes bad. Maybe it’s just that subsistence living is deeply ingrained in the Laotian psyche.

The next morning we set off late, sporting Laolao (rice whiskey) hangovers, for Sekong, a provincial capital about 140 km further east. We were meant to take a smallish road to the town of Thateng, and then carry on on the main road to Sekong. Imagine our surprise, then, when a couple of hours after leaving the Thateng market we arrived in a large town that was not Sekong. Confused, we pulled into a dirt track and asked a young man on the side of the road. “Sekong?” asked Wes, pointing down the road. He shook his head. “Sekong!” he said, pointing back the way we had just come. Impossible. “Where are we?” I asked. He shrugged – no English. This time I pointed at the ground. “Sekong?” He shook his head again and pointed down the road. “Sekong.” Impossible.

Now, in Laos you learn quickly that every place has at least two names, often many more. And like the Westwoods in Mass, New Jersey and California, towns with the same name can coexist in other provinces. So we tried to figure the directions of other towns in the area. We had already established the way to Sekong. “Attepeu?” I asked, pointing down the dirt track. He nodded. I pointed to the ground. “Where?” “Paksong!” he replied gleefully. Again, impossible. Paksong is another town, at the top of the plateau, where we would arrive in about 5 days. “Paksong?” I asked, pointing at the ground. He nodded. “We’re in fucking Paksong!” I said to Wes and Stu. “How the hell did that happen?”

As it turns out, we had taken a wrong turn (or, more specifically, not taken a turn at all) in Thateng and had ridden 40 km in the wrong direction. By then it was mid-afternoon and none of us relished the idea of rushing through another 80 km before dark – not on potholed, unfamiliar roads. Instead we checked in to the Green View guest house, had lunch, purchased a bottle of Laolao and settled in for the evening. Directly next door to our guest house was the main karaoke bar in town, so as we sat on the balcony watching the lightening in the darkening sky, we were serenaded by the atonal screeching and yowling that is karaoke heard from a distance. At least there’s an 11:30 curfew.

In the morning we stopped at a coffee bar/free Wifi place – the only one we found on the Bolaven Plateau – run by an odd, talkative Dutch guy and his sprawling Lao family. We studied the map and Lonely Planet and decided to skip Sekong and head straight for Attepeu, an interesting-sounding town at the confluence of the Mekong and Se Don rivers. Unlike what we had ridden so far, the road to Attepeu was unpaved clay, which can turn into mud pretty quickly in the rainy season. I probably wouldn’t have tried it alone, given my riding inexperience, but it was a no-brainer with Wes and Stu along.

But first we had to see the Ancient Rock. Yes yes, it’s true that all rocks are, in fact, rather ancient. But there was a giant faded billboard in town promoting the AR, which is clearly a must-see, as well as a couple of waterfalls. We’d visit the rock, pay our respects, and hit the road to Attepeu.

The road to the rock started as a wide, flat dirt track, passed through a couple of villages, and quickly deteriorated. A few km from the Ancient Rock we came to the top of a steep hill unevenly covered in rough, loosely packed stones. Stu started down. Wes stopped at the top and said what I thought was, “We should just walk down.” “Yeah, there’s no way I’m riding down that hill,” I replied. But Wes had really said, “We should walk ’em down” – meaning the bikes. Now, given that this was the beginning of my third day ever on a non-automatic motorbike, and my first day ever on non-paved track, you could correctly surmise that my ride down was a bit troublesome. Added to that, we weren’t on dirt bikes – We were riding 100 cc street bikes with mostly treadless back tires. I had to keep the foot brake slammed down to keep from rolling too fast, but occasionally I’d come to a pile of rock that required me to hit the gas…and then slam on the breaks to stop from flying down the hill. To make things worse, I was in second rather than first gear, yet was too scared to try changing gears on such a slant. It took about 10 minutes to go about 10 meters, but I made it. And I didn’t break my leg. Bonus.

After the stones – what Wes termed “the hill of death” – came the mud. Big, thick, slippery puddles of wet clay that we avoided by veering halfway into the brush, over tree roots and across rotting planks of wood. At last we rolled through a narrow mud track and stopped in front of a large Buddha tucked under a rock overhang. A sign in Lao pointed down a narrow, steep trail through the jungle to…something, 800 meters away. Another sign pointed up some rickety wooden stairs leading to the top of what turned out to be the Ancient Rock. My flip-flops weren’t really appropriate for the jungle trail, so Wes and I climbed the rock while Stu went to see what was in the jungle.

Wes and I wandered along a trail that crossed wide, smooth rocks bearded with moss. We came upon two sculptors sitting under a blue tarp, eating a sticky rice lunch next to half-finished Buddha statues. It started to rain, so we joined them under the tarp and worried about our bags, sitting on our bikes in the rain. We offered them cigarettes and they showed us how we could make an offering to Buddha, by sliding a 1000-kip note into a hole in the back of the hollow statue.

The more social of the two pointed down a path and mimed “waterfall,” so when the rain let up we followed the steep, muddy trail to the top of the waterfall. The fall itself wasn’t visible – we’d have to follow an even narrower, steeper trail to get to the bottom – so after sitting out another shower in a rotting wooden shelter, we clambered back up the hill. A cloud had rolled in, shrouding the hill in mist. One more shower ensured that we were nicely soggy by the time we climbed back down the stairs to meet Stu.

Our bags, miraculously, had been moved to a dry area under the rock overhang. There was no one else around. “Buddha moved our bags!” we decided, glad we had made an offering. We dried off as best we could, climbed on our bikes and picked our way back to the main road. Considering the tough riding conditions and my extreme lack of experience, I was feeling quite proud of my motorbiking performance. I made it up the hill of death with no problem. At the top I remarked, “Coming back up is so much easier!”…and promptly dropped my bike in the mud. Hubris, paid.

By then it was too late to ride to Attapeu, so we decided to check back in to our hotel and go to karaoke instead. You should know, first of all, that in most of SE Asia, “karaoke bar” really means “bar with party girls and convenient rooms upstairs.” This place was no exception.

It was Saturday night, so the place was fairly full. We were seated near the stage. The singers were accompanied by a man with a drum machine and keyboard. Occasionally the “couples,” who were seated at a long table behind us, would get up to dance. To karaoke. This so-called dancing consisted of awkward white-man shuffling counter-clockwise around a post in the middle of the dance floor. We just drank our Laolao.

A drunk soldier left his consort and introduced himself to us. He wedged himself between me and Wes, his beery breath suffocating, his rapid, nonsensical English dizzying. He offered to sing a song for me – “You know ‘Take Me to Your Heart?’,” he belched into my face. As his annoyed, miniskirted date glared on, he took the stage and began to sing. He only knew the refrain, so in between he would babble to the music: “I don’t speak English well. I don’t know all the words. But I want to sing this for my friends from America…” Finally he was kicked off stage by the main singer, much to everyone’s delight.

At a nearby table, a group of young men were (I imagine) waiting their turn with the girls (who were occupied with a vanful of Thai sex tourists, believe it or not). The bravest of them came over, offered me a glassful of beer, and asked me to dance. What could I say? As we joined the other couples for our round-the-pole shuffle, two other men asked Wes and Stu to dance. This was, by far, my favorite awkward moment of an evening full of them. Two middle-aged, white, straight men shuffling around a pole with two young Lao…gay men? Wes and Stu think they were gay, but honestly I’m not convinced. I think they were just trying to be polite.

The night ended fairly early and without incident. We did meet some of the Thai sex tourists outside the bar, as they handed out “tips” to the girls and piled back into their van.

ed note: Read Wes’s hilarious version of the night’s events here!

———————
Next up: The Road to Buffalo Shit

NOTE: I’ll post the second half of our journey once I’ve written it. We three have been sitting in Champasak, south of Pakse, for 6 days, watching the Mekong slide by. Today Stu and I are going to Thailand – probably all the way to Bangkok, if we can make our connections. So my next post’ll be from my last stop…

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