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Published: June 17th 2007
Sunday June 17, 2007
Laos Motorbike Trip - Day 5 (Phonsavan and neighboring areas) 190Km Covered
After an early breakfast we were excited to get out and explore. We followed Dave the bomb dude’s map and found a dirt track into the red mud and rice paddies. We stopped and took pictures of these rice fields. Some of the most beautiful we had seen in SE Asia. As we approached the site of the bomb craters I was amazed at how big they were - especially knowing they were over 30 years old. We drove right up into the field - Dave had told us the whole area was completely safe now - and parked our bikes right next to the craters for some great pictures. The reddish-brown mud of the craters contrasted beautifully with the bright green grass of the field. They were amazing. Cows grazed in the field totally oblivious to us or the craters. Once we knew what they looked like, we noticed many more on the surrounding hillsides. The sight left me with an uneasy feeling. Bombs. What a horrible thing to have had to live through. As we drove to the Tham Pieu
cave we passed many huts along the side of the road with huge bomb casings under the house as the main supports. We had some trouble finding the cave and were forced to ask for directions many times. There were men in army fatigues with AK-47s everywhere along the roads. It was a little unnerving to come around a corner and be face to face with a lone armed man walking on along a dirt road. We found out later that they are just locals going out hunting. When we finally made it to the cave there was a museum where Lao propaganda indicated nearly four hundred people had been killed here when the cave was hit by three bombs. It was mainly a civilian cave. Yet even the guidebook pointed out that inside the museum there were pictures of military meetings in the cave. Much like the museums in Vietnam, the message coming from the museum was very one-sided. As the story goes, the bombs went right into the mouth of the cave and killed nearly everyone inside - many of them women and children. We went deep into the cave for a look, unaccompanied, and then read about
it in the museum, where we took photos with the M16’s also on display. It was sad to see these pictures and think again about the horrors of living in a war zone.
After leaving the cave things began to turn for the worse. Our last stop was a village with multiple houses built on top of bomb casings. These were the ones you would see in postcards. Dave had instructed us to ask for the village head and ask if we could photograph the houses. Unfortunately, our plans would change with one loud pop.
As Kelly and I were following Daragh and Jo along the main highway back towards Phonsavan our back tire swung out from under us wildly. I really didn’t know what had happened. It felt like we were floating and the back tire was nearly beside the front tire. We were going sideways at about 40 or 50 Km/hour. I instinctively let off the gas and tried my best to steady the bike as the back tire swung out in the other direction. We were fishtailing as if we were in snow or on ice. Everything went into slow-motion at this point. It felt like
ages before I was able to ask Kelly what was happening. I finally asked if we had blown a tire? Yep, she said. She had heard it pop. It was a shocking incident that really can’t be explained with words. I finally steadied the bike and pulled it to the side of the road. I had images of what our legs would have looked like if we had laid it down. The road was rough, rocky concrete. We took our helmets off and tried to relax and shake off the adrenaline that was coursing madly through our veins. Daragh and Jo came back a few minutes later and wondered what we were doing laying on the shoulder of the road next to our bike.
To say the least, we were lucky to have escaped with no injuries. But realistically, we were now faced with an issue of greater importance - what in the hell were we going to do about the tire? We were at least 30Km out of Phonsavan. We actually laughed for a while at how lucky we were and what a mess we were in now. The guy we rented the bikes from had given us a
spare tube for the back tire. It was decided that Daragh would head up the road to a village and see if he could find a mechanic. As Kelly, Jo and I waited on the roadside the nicest little boy approached us. He had been cutting the grass with a machete in the field across the street. We tried to communicate with him. He smiled a lot and I pointed to the tire and made a popping noise. He smiled and bowed and passed on down the road with some of his friends. About 10 minutes later he returned with a jug of water and some glasses. Again, we were blown away by the kindness of the Laos people. He went back to work across the street, occasionally saying something in Lao that I didn’t understand and then we would laugh together. When Daragh returned he had Mechanic #3 on the back of his bike….wrenches in hand. He quickly went to work and removed the back tire and jumped back on the bike with Daragh to return to his shop. In a matter of moments they were back. Tire fixed. Daragh’s experience had been much harder than ours. Here is
how he explains it: I drove back into the village in search of a mechanic. This is where the Lao Phrasebook really came to the rescue. Apart from gaining the attention of the entire town, who stood around inspecting my bike from a distance of no more than three nanometers while conversing about the unfolding events, I somehow managed to illustrate to the guy in the garage that my friends bike had a puncture four km’s out of town, and that I needed him to come with me with the necessary tools, where he would then remove the back wheel, take it to his shop, repair the puncture, and return the healthy wheel to the breakdown point, after which we’d all be happy and on our merry way! Easy Peasy! Apart from the phrasebook, I used my years of improvisation and mime training when I was a kid to help - and in the end, I think the drawings on the ground drove the message home. It was headline news in the village. They all loved it. Not only did the guy replace the tube with a fresh one that I was carrying, but he also fixed the punctured one.
Total cost: one dollar. In an hour we were on our way - but not for long!
Yep….you read that correctly. Not for long. About 10 Km down the road the tire began to go flat. We had been taking it easy and riding in front of Daragh and Jo so they could keep an eye on the tire. Totally ridiculous. When I felt it getting soft I must admit I was most disappointed. Luckily we were passing through another small village as the tire went totally flat. We pulled the bike up to what looked like a shop and a crowd gathered. Enter Mechanic #4. We had broken up an afternoon drinking club it seemed. A few of the men were red faced and drunk, but they were ready to help and very happy to see us. They insisted that we each have a shot of rice wine before they began. We gladly accepted their offer and individually slammed a vodka-like shot of homemade rice wine. Weeeehew! Here we go again. All of a sudden the whole scene was like a circus. There were kids laughing, old women saying god knows what to make everyone laugh that hard, and
the drunken mechanics jumping around like monkeys. Needless to say, they moved fast. They had tools out and the back tire off before I had even gotten rid of the after taste from the rice wine. It was amazing watching them work. No fancy tools in this shop. The first screwdriver broke in half trying to remove the tire from the rim as the man stood on the rim - scraping the sprockets against the gravel driveway. I cringed with each tug as 3 or 4 men moved in to remove the tire. When the tire was finally removed, the guy found the culprit. A small, disfigured nail. I couldn’t believe the last guy hadn’t found it. Damn. Bad luck. An old tube was cut up and lit on fire and applied to the hole. No worries. He slapped the tire back together and tightened it up and we were back in action. For a very small fee we were back in business. We cheered the crowd and took some pictures of everyone in front of the fixed bike.
Tired and amazed at all we had accomplished in a day we decided to try to make it to the final
destination before the sun dipped below the horizon - the huts on bombs. We made our way down some muddy paths, unsure this was even the right place. Dave’s maps ended up being perfect. We pulled in and found the village head. He was more than happy to take us around. There was a fence about 15 or 20 feet long made of huge bombs sticking out of the ground and another hut actually had the bombs as the 4 main supports of the house. It was truly amazing to see how these people had put to good use the weapons of destruction. Little did they know that this innovative recycling would soon be inviting camera welding tourists into their village. The sun was practically down by the time we had made the rounds of the village and we were so tired. Pictures didn’t really matter any more to me. We saw them. It was worth the stop. We met half the village and we were off - back to Phonsavan in the dark. At dinner that night we again revisited the plan and debated how wise it would be to continue on the road we only knew as “undetermined”.
In 5 days we had visited 4 mechanics. Was it smart to continue into the unknown? We decided it was. We would find a way. Tomorrow we would go south. A beautiful banana pancake from a street vendor ended a truly crazy day.
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