Motobike Trip Day 1

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June 13th 2007
Published: June 13th 2007
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Wednesday June 13, 2007
Laos Motorbike Trip - Day 1 (Vientiane to Vang Vieng) 180KM Covered

Here it goes. When we ran into Daragh and Jo on June 6th as we crossed the boarder into Laos we immediately began talking about buying a vehicle or at least renting motorbikes for a trip into Northern Laos. It soon became evident that buying a vehicle was going to be too time consuming and the rental cars we looked into just didn’t fit our budget. After checking out a few different rental options we settled on KT Rentals. We had wanted to rent from another place, but the reception the guy gave us at that place just wasn’t satisfactory. We set up the deal on Tuesday afternoon and planned to pick them up the next morning. We were at the rental shop to pick up our bikes by 9:30AM on Wednesday. We gave them a quick test drive and I took photos of the bikes from every angle possible. Kelly and I commented on the Native American sticker on the side of one of the bikes and Daragh informed us that we had just chosen our bike. *A decision that will seem like a bigger deal as the story continues.* After paying our $19/day for a 7 day rental, we drove them back to our hotel, leaving Kelly’s Passport as collateral and signing a form that stated we would pay $3500 if we came back without the bike. It really just seemed too easy. I guess the Passport really makes sure you return the bike. Next came the loading of the bikes. Our big bag, full of non-essential items, was put into the back room of the Riverside Hotel and we strapped our “smaller” travel bag onto the back of the bike with provided bungee cords. A quick stop at the ATM to secure the necessary funds for the planned 7 day trip and we were ready to roll. Around 12:00pm we were blazing out of Vientiane along dusty, crowded streets. It wasn’t exactly the easiest exit from a major city. Luckily the big shocks on the bikes soaked up the bumps and the visors on our helmets were invaluable in keeping the omnipotent dust out of our eyes. The 250cc Honda Baja dirt bikes were the biggest bikes on the road. We were able to really blast by cars, trucks, buses, etc. when we needed to. It felt pretty damn good. It was hard to contain the excitement of being on our own. We had rented mopeds in other towns in Vietnam and Cambodia, but we hadn’t actually been on our own since we sold our van in Australia.
There is something powerful about traveling along unknown roads, in unknown areas, under your own command. As Daragh later pointed out, I think we all had some worries in the back of our minds about the stories we had read in the guide book about recent Hmong insurgencies and certain incidences of unrest that had taken place in this very region over the last thirty years. In 2004 there was a Hmong attack on a local bus on route 13 - 10 dead. Twelve more died in another attack at the junction of route 13 and route 7 at Muang Phu Khuon later that year. The provinces we were headed into were some of the hottest areas in Laos for these insurgencies - still considered ‘troubled’, with the rugged mountains and hills offering good hiding for the anti-LPRP (Lao People’s Revolutionary Party). The Americans armed many Hmong villages during the secret war campaign to help fight against communist forces from Vietnam and within Laos. When the Americans left in the mid-70’s the Hmong guerrillas were left to fend for themselves.
Trying not to think too much about the negatives, we carried on north of the city, into the beautiful countryside along route 13. Daragh had purchased a map before we left. Route 13 to Vang Vieng was the plan for the day. It took some time to get used to riding a big bike again, but after about ½ an hour we were tearing our way past rice paddies and water buffaloes. It took about an hour and a half for our butts to be so sore we had to stop for a rest. We pulled into a shop bordering the road, in the middle of rice paddies. The shop keepers were unable to understand our desire for an ice cold Coca-Cola. And we were unable to understand their replies to our request. This is how things were going to be. Once off the tourist track in these countries, everything becomes more difficult. No English…difficult communication. To be perfectly honest, this is exactly what we wanted. We gladly turned around and went to another place we had passed about a km back. A bottle of Pepsi and some rest for our bums and we were right back on it. The highway had been relatively straight up to this point. I had the back tire slip out on one turn and that was enough to get me to pull back on the throttle. I knew this was the first day. No need to rush anything. We continuously talked about the need to be careful. Laos was not the place to end up in a hospital. And using the airlift that is included in the travel insurance just wasn’t that appealing of an idea.
Back on the road we fell in behind a truck with a group of Monks in the back. There was also a huge pig tied to the back gate. The saffron robes look so striking with the lush green background of the forested mountains. We rode behind them for awhile much to their enjoyment. We waved and smiled though our helmets and tried to sneak a picture when we could. We were certainly turning many heads along the way. People would wave and scream, or just look at us with a look of total amazement on their faces. Then the road began to climb into the mountains, snaking past groups of ethnic minority villagers out in the corn fields. They would pick the corn and then sit next to the side of the road waiting for a truck to come and pick them up with day’s harvest. Little kids would be left by the side of the road as the parents were in the fields picking corn. This trip made me realize how much we coddle our youth in America. Anyway…more on that topic later. Blazing past hills of corn, the views kept getting better and the road became increasingly curvy. Daragh and I later agreed that, at times, it really felt like a video game. I didn’t dare relay this info to Kelly, who was holding on for dear life in the back of the bike. I was scared at times, but at least I had some sort of control. The only other scary incident we encountered on this section of the trip was the fact that from time to time you would come around a corner there would be a bus trying to pass another bus on a blind curve. Western driving standards just don’t apply in Laos. You can’t ever assume there won’t be a bus in your lane as you round the next corner. I figured it was a good lesson to learn early in the trip. One benefit we learned that can make travel by bike most enjoyable was when we pulled up to a traffic jam. We were able to cruise up the middle of the road between lanes and literally by-pass the whole thing. Daragh and Jo lost the guidebook off the back of their bike as we cruised past huge lumber trucks stopped in the traffic jam. We picked it up for them and zipped past the halted traffic. The second stop of the day was near a large river where we were able to relax and enjoy some time off the bikes. The locals were all over in the water….swimming, fishing, washing clothes. An all-purpose place really. The sun was getting low by this time and wet-season rain clouds were beginning to form between us and our destination. As we pulled into the Vang Vieng valley we could see the rain pouring down in the north. We were happy to have missed the rain.
Upon arrival in Vang Vieng we were greeted by the “Friends” theme song blaring from the local restaurants. I had read about this in the guide book. Vang Vieng is set in a beautiful valley with the same limestone “karst” formations we had seen in northern Vietnam. Daragh made a comment about how the limestone formations must attract tourists. I think he must be right, because there were plenty of them here. It was fun to pull in on bikes and make a grandiose entrance, rather than the typical tuk-tuk from the bus station. The main attraction in Vang Vieng is the river that passes below the limestone karsts. Tubing is the best way to see the river. Sort of like the Apple River beer tubing cruise in Minnesota, you float down the river in tubes and drink yourself silly. We ran into one group of freaked-out looking 20-somethings coming back from a tubing trip. As far as I could understand one of the girls had gotten lost in the dark on the river and in her drunken state had become convinced she was going to die. They all seemed pretty shaken up. Not the best memory to have of Laos I’m sure. Another girl in the hallway of our hotel looked like she had a major spinal cord problem. She was barely able to walk. It turned out it was just severe sunburn. Daragh wrote that it looked like she “had her legs dipped in acid and tied round a horse for seven weeks.” There is really no better way to explain the pain she seemed to be in.
I digress….we pulled our usual plan for finding a hotel - pull up to a restaurant, order some beers, send someone to scout the locations and then settle on the best one. We found a great place just down the road. As we pulled the bikes into the hotel Daragh had a little problem with the kickstand and dropped his bike. The first casualty - a broken clutch handle. Fortunately, he was able to have it fixed in a matter of moments for a whooping $1.50. Day one - Mechanic #1. We learned from this just how nice and outgoing the Laos people can be. One of the workers of the hotel took Daragh to a mechanics shop and negotiated the whole deal. We’d only met him moments before, but he witnessed the dropping of the bike and saw how disappointed Daragh was with himself for breaking something on the first day. He took it upon himself to help right the situation. Something we would run into throughout the journey.
After a hot shower and some rest, we roamed the streets of Vang Vieng. All the restaurants had huge flat screen TVs and played Hollywood movies and American sitcoms. I would say it was disappointing to see tourists “wasting” their trips in front of the television, but sometimes there is nothing better. After being on the road for months with only Karaoke videos as visual stimulation….sometimes it’s just nice to check out and zone out for a while. The one thing I don’t like about the set up of these restaurants is that it makes it virtually impossible to actually communicate and have a human kind of situation. All the seats are aimed towards the almighty television, and the volume is cranked to overtake the clatter coming from the restaurant next door. We settled into a place blasting the “Pirates of the Caribbean”. We talked loudly and enjoyed our meal. My face had a permanent smile on it from the fun the bikes had provided on day one.

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