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Road trip! - Southern Laos by motorbike

*Abusing the rental bike and my physical person*

sunny 21 °C

Having passed my ‘test day’ on the motorbike without incident, I decide the road trip is on. I pack up, check out, and carefully secure my pack onto the back of the bike with a long rope. Once I am satisfied with the rather elaborate system of loops and knots, I strap on my helmet and throw a leg over the bike. The bag immediately slides to one side, pulls the bike over, and it hits the ground. This is observed without comment by several Lao people seated nearby. I sigh, right the bike and try simply wearing the pack on my back with its weight resting on the seat behind me. This works fine. I nod at my taciturn audience, leave the guesthouse, merge onto the main street and get out of town. Here comes the cliché moment in the movie: Just me and the open road, wide sky above and mountains around… I totally get why people take motorcycle trips. This is exhilarating.

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I keep passing intriguing little turnoffs, and what’s the point of traveling by motorbike if not to explore the such things? I take a little trail leading off into jungle and the main road instantly feels miles away. The terrain is rough, I’m not sure the bike was made for this, but it must lead somewhere, surely just around that next bend… Half an hour later, after bumping the bike gingerly along what I have termed my ‘self-guided off-roading jungle trek,’ I have found nothing. Well, nothing other than intricately patterned butterflies and gorgeous forest views at every turn. I regain the main road without incident, thinking I rather like roads that get me using all four gears.

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My next stop is a village where women weave traditional cloth in an open air pavilion just off the main road. A nearby sign proclaims, ‘model healthy village.’ They immediately try to sell me their work, pushing a little hard for my taste, but are kind and friendly nonetheless. I feel guilty I did not come to buy, and wish I could explain my backpack is heavy enough. And as it is, all I can communicate is that I am from the United States and I am currently en route from Pakse. At which point I realize, to my near-shock, that I am having partial language success: My attempts are being understood!… But they are garnering responses I can’t begin to understand.

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I eventually thank them and drive on, musing that something about the weaving village felt a little Truman Show-esque: Here is a perfect box into which you can drop your well-intended tourist dollars in exchange for some authentic local handicrafts and leave feeling virtuous. My inner optimist scolds: Hey, this brings money into the community while supporting a traditional lifestyle, what’s your gripe? The cynic grumbles, I don’t know, it felt somehow inauthentic, and I suspect their pushy selling behavior comes not from their traditional culture but the growing number of white visitors… I go back and forth for a while reaching no grand conclusion, but the whole thing gets me questioning what I expect villages to be like, what is ‘authentic,’ how I expect people to react to me, and whether that is reasonable.

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Next I take a road leading through a village and then to a waterfall. At first I have the very beautiful and tranquil spot to myself, and I marvel over the view. A young French couple shows up, and I practice my French on them. Then a boy and a girl from the nearby village arrive, and they practice their English on me: “Bhen!” It takes me several repetitions to figure out they are asking for a pen. I am happy to oblige with a spare from my backpack. We play around for a while, the boy shows off with his slingshot, I teach them how to use my camera, and the whole encounter is quite lovely and charming. (If I may foreshadow, since I am admittedly publishing this late: At the time this pen thing seems simple and harmless, but it comes back to haunt me later.)

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With the sun beginning to sink, I head for the nearby Tad Lo waterfall, reputedly a popular backpacker spot, figuring I'll to find a guesthouse there. As I approach, I quickly see that it is quite the backpackerville. After a day of driving through remote countryside and rustic villages, the sight of squarely built guesthouses, English signs and people walking around with big backpacks (nevermind that I have one myself) somehow offends me. This is not Laos. No way I am staying here. Inordinately angered by this scene, I decide I will just see the waterfall then turn right around and leave.

The falls are reached via a wooden bridge built as follows: The bottom layer of boards lie perpendicular to the length of the bridge. On top of that are two tire tracks made of boards running lengthwise. Picture it like this and you get the basic idea -
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- but picture it with narrower tire tracks, half the tire track boards breaking/missing, and some of the base layer lacking as well so in places you can see clear down to the water below. Now then. Rather than parking the bike and walking across, or even driving slowly across using my feet for balance, in my aggravation I proceed with a ‘get this over with’ attitude. I can already tell the waterfall is totally un-spectacular, and why did I even come here…

My front wheel falls into a gap in the boards, twists, and sends the bike shooting off to the side side. I wrestle for control, lose, and go careening into the railing, my backpack throwing me forward and adding mass to the collision. After the impact, once I realize I am okay, I am furious (at myself of course). I look around fuming, noting several backpackers in a café overlooking the river. I can tell they saw the accident and perhaps have some mild interest or concern, but no one comes over to see if I am okay. Lord I can’t wait to get out of here.

I gather my scattered belongings and senses and take stock. I will have some colorful bruises but nothing is broken; good. My pack has a couple rips in the canvas; okay. The bike still starts, but the gear shift is somehow caught such that it will not drive; NOT okay. It appears one of the foot pedals is bent and blocking the gear shift. I take out my Leatherman. At this point, two young Laotion men pass by. I try to ask in very broken Lao if they know a repair shop nearby, or how to fix what’s wrong. We spend the next fifteen minutes fidgeting with the Leatherman and ultimately jumping up and down on that bent foot pedal. I am ready to give up when suddenly it works. I thank them profusely in every language I know how.

It is almost night. There are guesthouses everywhere. I should really stay here. But I cannot bring myself to spend one more minute at Tad Lo. Thus I am back on the road, driving in the dark, bugs hitting me in the face, in a really toxic mood. The next town, Salavan, is about an hour away. I have time to lecture myself: “Nice job, Sharon. Really, brilliant going there. What, you couldn’t spare five minutes to walk? And why are you in a bad mood now? You put yourself in one, that’s why. What are you going to do when you get to Salavan? I know you, you’ll schlep around with your big backpack in the dark trying to find the best deal on a guesthouse which will save you about three US dollars and make absolutely no difference in your life. You know what? Don’t even start. Just find the first decent place to sleep and take it. Think you can handle that?”

I reach Salavan, start passing guesthouses, and randomly pick one to ask the price. A man with a kind demeanor shows me a comfortable looking room and quotes the price at 50,000 kip, a little less than $7. I hesitate – I could probably find something for 30,000 or 40,0000 kip – but recall my lecture and decide to stay. I drop my stuff in the room and settle down in the open air lobby area with a needle and thread to sew the tear in my shirt.

Posted by sbw2109 00:30 Archived in Laos

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