A bit of a mishap and a lovely story.
As motorcycle crashes go, it was pretty pathetic really, nothing on the grand scale Barry Sheene used to perform on various circuits back in the 70's. Stop panicking now, I am perfectly all right. I have a bruised left small finger and a bruised right knee, hardly honourable war wounds. More of that as it appears chronologically.
I mentioned last time about my probably irrational dislke of Vientiane, so I got out of it in pretty quick order, a couple of days really and headed South again for the riverside town of Takhek. This is a lovely place, very quiet and with a decidedly French feel about it. I am continually surprised at how much influence the French seem to exert here. Given the relatively recent political history, you would think the Lao would be inclined to excise all memories of French colonial rule, but not a bit of it. Most of the public buildings are still signed in Lao and French and I have found my schoolboy vocab useful on a couple of occasions, not least today in the dinosaur museum of which more later.
The journey was uneventful although yet again I am convinced that the siting of bus stations anywhere in Southeast Asia is organised by the tuk-tuk (taxi) mafia. I can see no other reason for putting them so far out of town other than to generate business for the drivers as local town buses are non-existent and you have to use them. They know this and really try to stick the arm into tourists. I am at a loss to know why the 14km. to and from the bus stations (Vientiane and Takhek repectively) cost well over twice the amount to travel the intervening 250km. or so. Enough, however, on the problems of tuk tuk men. I arrived at the guesthouse I had chosen and it proved to be very nice. Pretty basic but for £5 a night, what do you want? The only slight problem was the karaoke attached to the premises. They closed it down at just after eleven every night, that wasn't the issue, it was the uniformly appalling standard of the performances. Most of them couldn't carry a tune in a bucket!
I had a bit of a wander and a bite to eat (eventually, it took 40 minutes in a restaurant with four customers) and retired to bed. Next day, I had determined to see some of the local ocuntryside which reputedly was beautiful (it is) and so I hired yet another scooter. Generally the score is that you pay for the scooter and they keep your passport to make sure you don't make off with it. This becomes important later on. I went for a bit of a drive round the countryside which is quite stunning. Huge karst limestone formations rise on every side from a plain of rice fields, grazing animals, shacks and the usual smiling locals. Back to town for a bite to eat and then decided to leave the bike home as I fancied a few beers.
I always drive pretty slowly after dark as many of the locals have no lights on the scooters and they are unheard of on bicycles. Dogs, livestock and small children add to the hazard so take it easy is the rule. This was a Saturday and I was coming close to my guesthouse when completely out of nowhere from my right came a lurid green scooter with three young men on it, all dressed to the nines. Three on a bike is commonplace here, a family of four not uncomon and my personal record is having seen six schoolgirls on one scooter in Thailand. I later worked out they had been to a wedding in the building they emerged from and suspect the Beer Lao and the lao-lao may have had some bearing on the incident. I hit the horn and both brakes at the same time, although why I bothered with the front brake I don't know as it was about as much use as a lawnmower on a submarine. I decided to try and get round the back of him as you pass on the right here and, had he kept going, everything would have been fine. Whether he stalled it or just panicked I don't know but he stopped dead leaving me with nowhere to go and somehow managed to slightly turn his bike towards me. I had bled off most of whatever speed I was doing and even got the left foot to the ground but the braking power of a Thai-made sandal on tarmac is minimal and the inveitable happened. With what sounded to me like an expensive crunch we came to a halt.
In the UK my reaction would probably have been to take him in a friendly manner by the throat and sohut a lot, but that is not the way to go about things here. By the time I had the bike disentangled and the stand down, his two mates had very gallantly disappeared and left him. He appeared rather young and rather sheepish and not speaking enough Lao, I thought taking his registration might be an idea. No such luck, as the bike was brand spanking new and not registered yet. There was no way I was going to get his details and nsurance doesn't exist so I made sure he was OK and headed off. I had no wish to get entangled with the police here as I have heard some bad stories and the foreigner is always wrong as he can pay a bigger bribe. I heard the police earn about $20US a month so it is hardly a surprise. Back at the guesthouse I had a good look at myself and the damage. I was dmamaged as described above, and the bike had a large crack in the front fairing and the little mesh basket was fairly well knocked about.
I had arranged to keep the bike for two days so I decided to press on with it the next day as it was still perfectly rideable. I had a wonderful day and did the first 40km. of what they call the Loop, a 400km. circuit through some of the most beatuful scenery in Lao. I visited some absolutely amazing caves, caused complete consternation by appearing in the village market of a small town and toodled back home very happy but with a light foreboding about the next day. I will post some photos to show you.
The problem is this, and I have heard some absolute horror stories about unscrupulous bike renters. Effectively, they can hold you to ransom as they have your passport and can ask whatever the Hell amount of miney they like knowing the police won't act and you need your document back. Although it is years since I bought bike parts, I reckon in the UK it would probably have been a couple of hundred quid to replace the whole unit, including labour. I knew things were cheaper here, so I worked out that I would go as far as $100US if it really got that bad and then have to think bout bribing the police as it would work out cheaper. I had strategically stashed various dollars in various pockets to produce duing negotiations should the need arise.
I went to reception and the young girl who spoke a bit of English was there thankfully. I explained as best I could what had happened and offered to rectrify the damage. She asked me if I had broken it why I hadn't fixed it, not disapprovingly but more quizzically as if it was the easiest thing in the world. I explained I didn't speak Lao, didn't know where to get a repair shop on a Sunday etc. "Bo pin yang (no problem)", she said, "I call my brother" and she got on the mobile. You can imagine how I was feeling now, fearing some sort of stitch up whereby her "brother" would fix the thing for some exorbitant amount. After a few seconds she announced "90". Ninety what? Dollars, Did she mean 900,000 kip and had mispronounced it, it was a bit of a nervy moment. I was also paying for my room, so she started totting up the bill, and at one point looked a bit quizzical saying, "I don't know English". What she had written on the bill was "thing which broke" and beside it 90.000kip. If you haven't read previously and know what the exchange rate is, I was getting the whole thing repaired with a little small change out of £7 ($11US). Yes, you read that corectly, £7. What a result, and yet another example of the simple decency of the Lao. Perhaps you begin to understand why I love them so much.
I really do fancy returning to do the complete loop some time, apparently five days gives you ample time to do it well with all the side trips and it is a real plan of mine now. Treated myself to a meal in a slightly posh restaurant whilst watching Arsenal getting dumped by Stoke 3-1. Funny, at home I am not a huge football fan but I like to watch it out here, if only to see the rain in England! Next morning, again regretfully, back to the bus station, I could have easily stayed round here for longer but the visa is ticking and I need to be out of Lao by 07/02/2010. Still, I have Cambo and Vn to look forward to so how bad can that be? A short teo and a half hour journey to Savannakhet where I am writing this after a lovely meal of spicy beef and veg. I will try and find an internet place later and upload this.
The pictures above are just a selection of the things I have been up to (smacked up scooter not included).