Wednesday, February 17, 2010

From Hero to Zero – The road to Pakxan

Phonsavan. Dusty wintry Phonsavan. Brown. A northern Laos halfway town nestled between Thailand and Vietnam, kick started in the past few years by tourists in search of an exotic new destination. The mysterious Plain of Jars with its hundreds of giant sized receptacles sits close by, like an enormous granite tea set scattered by an errant prehistoric child. Nine years of B52 sorties have left the surrounding countryside littered with unexploded ordnance, and nearby villages are decorated with the shell casings, displayed like some sort of badge of honour. “We saw off the yanks”. Two BMW 650s rumble out of town headed for Pakxan, two hundred and something kilometres away. At least the riders like to think the bikes rumble. Collectively they sound like a throaty 1200, singly more like a throaty sewing machine.

They’re pretty optimistic about the day; Laos has been an incredible country to ride through so far. In previous weeks they’d met several groups of riders who had either done or were doing the “loop”, and assumed the Phonsavan-Pakxan road was the last part of it. They blow past the Plain of Jars and the site of yesterdays bullfights, the GPS indicating an arrival time of 1pm. The GPS is always optimistic.

The road forks thirty kilometres from Phonsavan, the bitumen giving way to bumpy gravel, passing several small villages and fallow rice paddies. The two aren’t concerned; it makes a change from the mountain roads of the past couple of weeks, the leading rider only registering mild surprise that the map says nothing about this section of dirt.

Things degenerate fairly quickly as the bumpy, tortuous, construction site of a road begins to reveal its true nature, excavators and dump trucks moving around chunks of mountainside seemingly at random. There isn’t much traffic, but it seems to congregate in bizarre convoys comprising a mongrel mix of vehicles - old buses, logging trucks, 4x4s, 6x6s, and the ubiquitous scooters, scooting through it all. They congregate because of breakdowns and road blockages, and the first convoy the riders encounter is waiting for a caterpillar to haul out a large truck from the bottom of a steep hill of soft clay. The two are waved through and skirt round the caterpillar, still in mid pull.

Sadly, if either of them had asked anyone about this particular road, anyone at all, they would have discovered a simple truth. That currently, it is the biggest engineering project in Laos. Work began five years ago and is planned to continue for another seven.

The going becomes painfully slow, requiring total concentration. Every now and then they’re forced to stop and assess a particularly bad section, Lucas eventually riding both bikes over it in turn, not because he’s the more skilled or experienced of the two, but because he’s taller, stronger and has more confidence with the heavy bikes than his partner Ann. In fact the sum total of their dirt biking experience consists of Ann tooling around Epping Forest as a teenager. That, and the past year they’ve spent in South East Asia.

Things are slow but straightforward, so its a surprise a few hours later when, on an innocuous section of recently excavated hillside, Ann drops the bike. She’s unhurt, but the bike falls at a bad angle, back down the hill. The two immediately struggle to lift 260 kilos of awkward German motorcycle, something which requires the adrenaline of now, not the muscle of later. They fail the first time and are about to have another try when three young guys approach them from the opposite direction.

“Whoa! Are you ok?”

A Belgian on a scooter and two French guys two-up on a dirt bike have just hit this road after riding east on another diabolical road, through one of Laos’s restricted zones. They had aimed to get a look at a former CIA airbase rumoured to be in the area, but were turned away. Apparently two Americans were shot near there during the past week, so the guys are buzzing with the scent of something controversial.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a bit shaken.” Ann replies.

The big Frenchman puts his back into it, and after the bike is upright the five swap stories of roads and life beyond an air-conditioned tour bus. But the clock to Pakxan is ticking, so the two part from the three with waves and shouts of thanks, and trudge back to the silver bike to inspect the damage. As usual the pannier has withstood the worst of it – a little stoved in, leaning at a slightly cockeyed angle, but otherwise intact. The two push on.

After dropping a thousand metres the road finally flattens out, bumping its way through hot little dustbowl Hmong villages. The heavy machinery is left behind, replaced by the sorts of rural obstacles the couple have become accustomed to avoiding – piglets, chickens, cattle, little children. Unfortunately, considering how many times the road is beginning to criss-cross the river, bridges have yet to exist in this part of the world. Ann and Lucas are tiring now and each crossing is worse than the last, but they ride on, determined to see Pakxan this afternoon. At this rate it’ll be late afternoon, but that’s ok.

“You have got to be fucking joking!” Lucas explodes, balking at one final steeply banked and slippery crossing.

They sit on the bikes for awhile and stare in disbelief, Lucas eventually sucking down the fear and riding both of them across. Soon afterwards the gravel magically smooths out and they stop in a shady spot for a drink. Feet soaked, they’re soon spotted by a local who wants to practise some English and is curious about what two falang with big bikes are doing in his village. Forgetting their number one cardinal rule – never ever listen to what locals say about the roads - they ask him what the conditions are like from here to Pakxan.

“Oh, no problem.” he says, swishing his hand towards Pakxan as if the rest of the way is some sort of magic carpet. “Just be careful of the steep bit, maybe five kilometres away. The rest, no problem.” Whoosh with the hand. Big grin.

Its almost 4 o’clock.

The outskirts of a biggish town appear either side of the ribbon of dust. A part of Lucas’s brain registers the fact that they should stop here for the night, but he pushes on. The rest of his brain is in problem solving mode and refuses to be diverted.

River crossing ahead. Workers building a bridge. Road ends. Road diverts right. Scooter coming from the right. Turn right. Road branches. Nasty river crossing left looks deep. Looks like a truck crossing. Small wooden bridge right. Looks like a scooter crossing. Go right. Go right.

Beyond the biggish town the road again deteriorates into a construction site. There’s a sign ahead just before two busy excavators which reads “Road widening 9am-5pm”. Or possibly does, as its written in Lao. Ann and Lucas dismount wearily, blocked by the 8 foot sheer drop created only minutes before by the Chinese JCB operator.

“This is crazy. We’re never going to make it at this rate.” says Lucas.
Ann nods mutely, staring at the drop ahead, waiting to get the operator’s attention.

Eventually they’re through, another obstacle down, each one now feeling like a major milestone. So when confronted only ten minutes later by a stretch of watery mud, the couple feel cheated.

“How much more of this is there?” says Ann.
“It just keeps getting worse.” observes Lucas despairingly, knowing he’ll have to cross this twice. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Well you just have to. C’mon, let’s get these bags off.” says Ann, trying to keep them motivated. “Maybe we should just put the bikes on the back of one of those.” says Lucas, pointing to an approaching Ural. “Its what they’re designed for.”

The driver of the ancient Russian ex-military transport slows and drops down a cog, each of its 6 wheels churning through mud as if solid earth.

In the time it takes the pair to procrastinate and then decide to unload the bags and ferry them across by hand to lighten the load, two more trucks and a Ural thrash their way through the mud. What do they do here in the wet season for god’s sake? is the unspoken thought in both their minds.

Another one down.

Three heavily laden logging trucks emerge from the forest ahead, labouring up an impossibly narrow dirt track. Impossible for any other vehicle to squeeze past.

Surely its not that road? The one that forks to the right? Up that steep rocky slope into the hills? Please no.

The GPS plainly says go right, but Lucas’s brain is in denial and he’s overshot the turnoff. Half a dozen truckers stand at the junction by their trucks, looking amused as the lanky falang jumps off his bike and stomps towards them.

“Sabaidee.” he greets them with practically the only Lao he knows.
“Sabaidee.” they reply in unison. A little wary.
“Ah. Pakxan?” he says, pointing up the hill.
“Pakxan.” they all nod, grinning, pointing up the hill, some even doing it with the swishy motion of the hand. Whoosh. Ride that magic carpet.
“Thanks.” Lucas says wearily in English, not bothering with anymore Lao, trudging slowly back to the bike and a waiting Ann.
“Its up the hill.” he says, not looking her in the eyes, not waiting for a reaction.
“Ok.” a little fear in her reply.

The road is steep and rocky going up and steep and muddy on the way back down, but they’ve got the leapfrogging thing working well, Ann walking ahead to check the bad bits, Lucas riding both bikes through, one by one. So when they’re finally down the other side and a little spot by the river flashes past on the right, Lucas automatically keeps going. Only to pull over five minutes later when the survival part of his brain finally kicks in.

Where are you gonna sleep tonight, stupid?

“That looked like a good spot to pitch the tent.” He calls back to Ann, who nods.
“Ok, let’s go back.”

This is the first time since buying the tent a year ago that its been used, but the sun in this little valley is already way gone, so the two of them are all business, unpacking and assembling it.

“Fuck! The shock cord in this pole is stuffed.”
“Let’s cut it... no wait, just pull it out.”
“Shit! That’s no good, it’ll just fall to bits. We’re going to have to thread it back through and cut it.”

Its gone dark now.

“We should have a wash in the river now. It’ll make us feel better.” says Lucas to a doubtful Ann.

So the two of them take turns to strip off and wade out into the river.

“Wow! Cool. Check out the steam coming off your body. I’ve never seen anything like that!” exclaims Ann to a shivering Lucas, lighting him up with the torch like tiger bait.
“Get that thing off me! You’ll have half the village down here in a minute.” he fires back.
“Oh you’re no fun.” she laughs, highlighting his bits one more time for the tiger.

Later they share a dinner of two bananas and some peanuts, but at least there’s plenty of water. Its just a matter of pumping it in the morning. Unbelievably, every couple of hours during the night big trucks rumble past, grinding their way up the slippery hill and giving the tent’s occupants a fitful night’s sleep.

The campsite: N18 53 25.7 E103 42 26.9

Next morning, and yesterday’s feelings of optimism are back; possibly mislaid, possibly nourished by the strong coffee they share by the riverside. The tent and all the detritus from the night before seems to pack itself, both of them slotting back into a familiar groove. But optimism is blind, and where these two are headed it probably isn’t the best space to be occupying. Why are they packing up the tent and still heading towards Pakxan? That would be the healthy space.

Inevitably, its a question they face soon after setting off, when confronted by a river crossing nastier by far than the crossings of yesterday. A descent into thick mud, levelling off into dirt, then into shallow water, deep water, rocky riverbed, then up a steep slippery bank on the other side. A large flat bed truck sits motionless in the mud, stuck up to its axles.

It can’t get any worse than this. Surely this is the last of the bad stuff.

What follows is the worst rutted mud road the pair has seen. The sides of the ruts are almost a metre high in some places, the ruts themselves studded with rocks large enough to destroy an unprotected sump. Sometimes the mud on either side is like clay, at others thick and goopy like molasses, making walking alongside almost impossible. There’s no choice but for Lucas to take the bikes through each section one at a time, Ann running along behind in case anything happens.

This exhausts him. Get on a bike. Haul it through mud for half an hour. Try not to jam it into the mud wall. Try not to wedge himself between the bike and the wall. Try not to ground out the bike on a rock. Rock the bike back and forwards when it gets bogged. Walk alongside the bike when the mud isn’t too sloppy to suck his boots off.

“Why does this stupid thing keep cutting out!” Lucas, exasperated at having to restart the bike every five minutes, exclaims.

Park the bike. Trudge back to the other bike. Repeat.

The GPS is switched off during most of this. Arrival: 11:38am. The unit’s optimism is too much to bear.

Trucks of all sorts use this route to transport passengers cheaply between towns. Some are just delivery trucks, vehicles you might see dropping off a load of topsoil on your front lawn. Completely unsuitable for the road to Pakxan. Urals, and Land Cruisers with lift kits are suitable for this road.

Watching one such truck, whose passengers have gotten off and walked ahead, alternately struggle and get bogged, Ann remarks “I don’t know how he’s going to get through the next bit.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve seen out here.” says Lucas, breathing hard. “Apart from our bikes that is.”

There’s a flat dry section up ahead and the couple stop to catch their breath and have a drink. An old yellow bus pulls up alongside and the doors open, disgorging passengers. They seem to know the drill and wander ahead, picking their way through the mud. The two drivers proceed to fit chains to the back wheels.

Meanwhile Ann and Lucas are almost ready to attack the next bit, but as they stand there a fully blinged-up falang on a trail bike approaches and stops, engine running. Realising this may be their only opportunity, they immediately pump the Frenchman for information.

“What’s it like further on?” Ann asks.
“Terrible. Very very difficult. Very difficult. Much worse.” he looks at their bikes in disbelief. “You will find it extremely tough with those. There is sloppy mud up to here.” he points to an area just below seat height. “There are two trucks stuck back there and I was lucky to be able to squeeze past. Very lucky.” He looks at their bikes again “I live in Laos, but I have a BMW back at home. I would never bring it here.”

Eventually there is no more to say, and the Frenchman heads off towards Phonsavan. Meanwhile Lucas, who has been unable to take his eyes off the mud on the trail bike, sits back down and puts his head in
his hands.

“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life. We have to go back.”

One of them had to say it, and since he’s been the one doing all the difficult stuff, its really his decision. There’s at least sixty kilometres of god-awful road ahead. Unknown but almost certainly worse, it could take them days. Going back however, isn’t like giving up and being transported back to Phonsavan on a magic carpet. There’s 150 kilometres of pain to do all over again, the thought of it almost making him weep. But it was the sight of the Frenchman’s bike that did it. The mud up to the seat. He couldn’t tear his eyes off it the whole time they were talking.

The turning point: N18 52 26.2 E103 41 52.4

There’s no argument from Ann, so they start the demoralising slog back, only to discover just around a bend the same stupid transport truck they passed nearly two hours before. Bogged again. More bogged than its ever been, blocking the bus, two trucks and now two motorbikes.

“For chrissake! These guys are idiots. I knew they’d never make it.” Ann explodes in frustration.

Lucas stomps up to the truck, as if he can single-handedly move it by will power alone. There are seven men taking turns to push and Lucas puts his shoulder to it with the rest of them. If they don’t move, nobody moves.

It takes half an hour, but eventually the truck is free and people all start scrambling to get in their vehicles. The couple decide to take their time and let everyone go ahead. They’re too tired to rush. One of the other truck drivers shares his lunch with them in gratitude. Some sticky rice, a bit of pork and half a boiled egg between them, but they haven’t eaten since yesterday and are incredibly grateful.

Haul the bike through mud for half an hour. Repeat...

“Ahh! Get it off!” Lucas yells in pain as his right leg becomes caught in the sticky mud and dragged backwards, twisted underneath a pannier as the full weight of the bike presses down on him.
“Get it off!”
“Nnnngrrrrr...aaaa...quick..get out!” Ann grunts through gritted teeth, managing to raise the bike enough for him to jump free.

Lucas collapses to the ground in relief, but the sickening reality of their situation immediately becomes apparent when he realises the pain isn’t going away. He’s done something serious to the leg. Torn something maybe. He can’t put any weight on it now, can’t stand up. The pain is too intense.

“You’ve got to get up.” Ann urges him desperately. “Hold on to my arm.”

Upright now they try to raise the bike out of the mud but its futile, she isn’t strong enough and he’s almost useless on one leg. A local on a scooter approaches from behind, and seeing the couple’s predicament rushes over to help. Its a welcome change from earlier in the day when two guys offered to help push for 50,000 kip.

The two lose track of time over the next couple of hours. The trucks have chewed the ruts even deeper and left the rocks even more exposed. Lucas mashes Ann’s sump guard into a big one and bogs the bike. They wait for help again, completely useless between the two of them.

When they finally do make it back to the first river crossing of the day, the muddy end has been chewed and churned by countless trucks into deep mud soup. Lucas tries the driest line but bogs the bike yet again, so the two of them are left to try to dig the rear wheel out. Eventually they hear the sound of an engine approaching from the far bank. A man in a Land Cruiser, obviously impatient to make it home in time for tea, completely ignores Ann’s calls for help and proceeds to attack the bank, nearly running over the bike in the process.

“Move over you moron!” they yell.

He fails to clear the bank. And again. And after six or seven tries, when it finally occurs to him that the only way out is through where the bike is stuck, he gingerly steps out of the car and tiptoes over to the bike. Lucas, past caring who or what he splatters with mud, gives the bike everything, nearly overdoing it when finally hitting solid dirt. Job done, Mr 4x4 stomps off to his truck, mud-splattered and foul-tempered, leaving the tourists to worry about their other bike.

In contrast, several guys in a following truck are only too happy to help out with the other bike, even carrying the luggage up the hill when it becomes apparent the two falang are having a really bad day.

And so finally, the sight of last night’s campsite is a huge relief, and carefully parking the bike so as not to overbalance, a bizarre thought suddenly occurs to Lucas.

What if someone had already taken the site?

He almost laughs out loud at the absurdity of it.

The familiarity of the place is almost comforting, even though they know the sloping ground and the midnight trucks will deprive them of sleep. Bruised, wet, completely exhausted and in pain they assemble the tent like experts, a single goal in mind. Coffee. For nearly a year they’ve carried various bags of local coffee through Asia, a strong cup now an afternoon ritual.

While unpacking the stove, Lucas discovers half a pot of strawberry jam, a forgotten souvenir from Thailand, and debates whether to tell Ann now or surprise her with it later.

“Guess what I found?” he asks.
“What?” she answers, not in the mood for games.
“This.” he produces the jam with a flourish.
Her eyes light up. “Do you want it for dinner, or breakfast tomorrow?” he asks.
“Breakfast.” both of them say in unison.

The sun is nearly gone again, but they wait their turn behind the locals to bathe in the river. A fisherman sets his traps for the morning.

“Maybe we should buy one off him.” says Ann, half-heartedly.

Neither of them is really hungry, both dreading tomorrow, knowing it will be much harder with one person injured. Today however was a nightmare, a full day on and off the bikes. In terms of distance the two travelled a mere 8.6 kilometres. 4.3 to the Frenchman. 4.3 back.

Dawn arrives, misty and cold. Both are dreading the day. Ann is worried about the ride, the steepness of it, about Lucas and his leg. Lucas, who can barely walk this morning, is worried about how he’s going to ride both bikes through the difficult bits. Worried about Ann and how she’ll go without his help on some of them. The decision is made to ride only as far as the biggish town and stay for the night.

The heavy mist takes its time clearing to another hot day, so the road is greasy early on, in a much worse state than two days ago. Of course the couple are in a much worse state than two days ago as well, so every little dip in the road seems like a canyon.

It takes them until lunchtime to make the biggish town, bogging the bikes twice at road works, one of them taking an unwanted bath at one of their favourite sections, the Ural mud bath. Instead of taking it steady and slowly like the first time, Lucas, unnerved and off-balance with one useless leg, becomes stuck halfway, the same foot wedged under the same pannier. When attempting to stand, he forgets about the leg and proceeds to collapse full length into the soup. A truck driver who has been watching and waiting to cross, rushes over and grabs him under the armpits and tries to lift him. But this is the final indignity for Lucas, and he stubbornly shrugs him off. Anger, frustration, pride, pain, whatever. The whole thing has gotten the better of him.

But they have to give credit soon afterwards to the little biggish town guesthouse owner. If two bedraggled foreign bikers, they and their bikes covered from head to toe in mud and dirt, turned up at your doorstep, what would you do? This lady doesn’t flinch.

“Can I do some washing?” Ann asks hopefully.

Lucas, shattered, limps over to a shady bench in the front yard, the sole of his left boot flapping where it was sucked off the day before in the mud. A man crosses the dusty street to come and stand next to him.

“Where are you going?” he asks.
“Phonsavan.” Lucas replies, and attempts to explain the last few days.
“You are heroes!” he bursts out.
Lucas laughs bitterly “No. Just idiots I think.”
“Heroes. I would never attempt that road on a motorbike.”
“What about one of those?” asks Lucas, pointing to a scooter. “They’re a lot easier to handle.”
“Not even one of those. Its too difficult.”
“How long have they been working on this road?”
“Five years already. They say it will take twelve to finish. The biggest project in Laos.”
“I can believe that.” he sighs.

Later that night, walking slowly up the dusty main street, the couple spot two falang and two locals sharing a beer by the side of the road. The falangs’ Minsk is strapped to the back of a nearby Hilux, the four of them obviously taking a break before the run to Phonsavan. No words are exchanged.

The biggish town: N18 59 11.3 E103 36 24.9

Forcing down a breakfast of coffee and hundred year old Chinese packet cakes, the couple make an early start for Phonsavan the next morning. Only ninety-five kilometres of dirt and thirty of bitumen to go.

They negotiate some of the obstacles they’d spent the night worrying about, mainly river crossings. Progress is good, but everything seems so much more difficult than the first time and Lucas, who’s done each of these crossings four times now, is starting to wonder when his luck is going to run out. The surface of the road itself has turned to bulldust. Ironic really, as the two of them had feared it might rain, turning the whole thing to mud. Ann is really struggling with the dust, her tires not coping well, the rear squirming around alarmingly.

Its an awful feeling knowing your partner has crashed. Lucas slows past a bend and waits for Ann to catch up. And waits. But its taken too long now and he knows. With a sinking feeling in his guts he knows she’s down. Knowing this might be the end of it, he turns around and rides back.

The bike is on its side in the middle of the road, Ann nowhere in sight. He gets closer. No. There she is. Trapped under the bike. Parking his own bike he hobbles over to her, a man, dripping wet and dressed only in his undies and a hunting knife, is trying to free her. He’s bleeding from his ankle. The whole bizarre scene is too much to take in, so Lucas blots it out and concentrates on getting her and the bike off the road and out of the path of the approaching logging truck.

She’s ok. The half naked man is ok, ambling back down to the river to finish his bath and rinse off the blood, self-inflicted as he was rushing to help.

The bike is not ok. One of the pannier frames is badly bent. One of the cam bolts that secure the pannier to the frame has sheared off. The shift lever is bent. Fixable on the side of the road? Probably enough to get moving again, but that’s not the point. Or its not the point in Lucas’s eyes.

Unbelievably to him, Ann still wants to continue. Maybe she’s in shock. But he’s furious, fearing that if she’s dropped the bike on this benign piece of road, how is she going to make it through another sixty kilometres of much much worse? So the two of them start shouting at each other, enveloped by clouds of bulldust as the logging trucks continue to grind past.

“That’s it. Its over now. Finished.” says Lucas angrily, making the chopping sign across his throat.
“What do you mean over? Ann fires back.
“I mean we’re not going any further.”
“So what do we do, just sit here?”
“No, we find someone to put these things on a truck.”
“What, you want me to walk back to the nearest village and find someone? she challenges.
“Well, what about this guy?” he says, pointing to the little Hyundai one-tonner which has magically appeared, depositing a load of passengers by the side of the road.
“It doesn’t even look big enough.”

Several guys stand by the truck, watching the two argue, sensing an opportunity to make some easy cash.

“Will you take us to Phonsavan?” asks Ann, picking one of them at random. He looks confused. She points to the bikes and then the truck.
“Phonsavan.” she repeats. He understands what she wants but is still confused as to why the feisty falang would want to put two serious looking bikes on the back of his Hyundai. Surely they could ride there themselves?
“Broken.” says Lucas, pointing to the pannier sitting next to the bike and miming snapping a twig.

The men confer, and one of them says something which the couple don’t understand. Ann, ever the accountant, rushes back to the bike and grabs her pocket calculator.

“How much?” she gives the calculator to one of the men. “Phonsavan. How much?”

The men confer again, one of them tapping out a figure on the calculator. He hands it back to Ann. It reads 200. The couple exchange looks.

“200? Does he mean 200,000?” they’ve been dealing solely in kip these past few weeks.

Ann taps out three more zeroes and hands the calculator back. “You mean 200,000?” she asks.

The men look confused. One of them clears the calculator and retypes 200 before handing it back. “Dollar.” he says.

“Two hundred US dollars! Bloody hell.” they look at each other.

This is a fortune in Laos. Equivalent to a month’s worth of accommodation, and more money than they’re actually carrying. The haggling begins.

The men bargain hard, knowing they’ve got the two falang over a barrel. “Look at those bikes. They must be millionaires.” Or that’s what the couple imagine they’re saying. A figure of $125 is reached.

The bikes barely fit in the back of the truck and the three of them lash them down with a combination of the couple’s tie-down straps and a wooden pole found lying around next to the truck. Finally they set off.

The next sixty kilometres has no real towns, not really much of anything except construction workers’ sheds. Again, the couple are amazed at how much a road like this can change day to day. It just seems so much worse, and for much of the trip it seems the little Hyundai is the only vehicle on it.

There are plenty broken down by the side of it though. A man sits with an oily Ural diff in his hands, the transfer case and various Russian-sized bits spread out on the ground.

The ground is so rough the driver stops repeatedly so they can redo the straps on the bikes. There’s no way to compress the forks, so they’re bouncing around all over the place. He’s pretty careful though, usually picking the smoothest line, averaging maybe ten kilometres per hour. A painfully slow ride, but the couple are grateful for the care he’s taking, at every stop offering him some of the food and water they brought for the trip.

Eventually some of the landmarks from three days ago start to become recognisable. A village here, a rice paddy there.

“We’re nearly there. The dirt’s about to run out.” says Lucas to a weary Ann.

The driver turns left, and still in cross country mode accelerates the Hyundai to a stately cruising speed of forty. The thirty kilometres of countryside to Phonsavan pass as if in a movie. The couple aren’t used to being chauffeur-driven, and as the sun arcs its way to the horizon, for the first time in four days they begin to relax.

“Check out all the little brickworks.” says Ann.
“Yeah, I always knew what that smell was when we lived at Bellbird Park.” Lucas replies.


Firstly the obvious. No, this isn’t a work of fiction. Everything happened exactly the way it was written.

Secondly, people actually seem to commute to work on the worst sections of the Pakxan road. What choice do they have? We saw one guy on a scooter deftly navigate his way through the mud ruts, dressed in business clothes. Wearing a white shirt, for god’s sake.

People do all the bits we really struggled on with scooters, a mode of transport with which we have a genuine love hate relationship. At times they’re our inspiration, at others the fact that $300 worth of Chinese crap can easily outperform and outmanoeuvre $15000 worth of German precision is totally galling.

And... where are all the photos? You mean you wanted a documentary? Maybe something shot on a helmet cam in hi-def? Are you serious? Ok, here’s one.

Taken on the day we left Phonsavan, waiting at a hairpin for some logging trucks to grind their way up the hill.

Lastly, why oh why didn’t we take the blue pill? Sorry, that is to say why didn’t we truck the bikes the rest of the way to Pakxan when the going got tough? Good question. Stubbornness maybe. Unwillingness to part with the cash, probably. A lack of clear thinking and communication due to tiredness, definitely.

Heroes we are not.

1 comment:

  1. UM!!! YEAH!!!! RIGHT !!!
    Whens the next yarn???
    You did set out at the start of the year for adventure and boy oh boy have you got it .
    Take care.
    love N