For the last few days I have been repeating a Szabady mantra while doing "The Loop". Its a Buddhist blessing in Laotian and its the ubiquitous hello that is exchanged as a greeting with every Laotian I've seen while cruising down the road at 50km/h on my 100cc Chinese honda look-a-like motorbike. I have no problems with the pronunciation thanks to a certain Mr Chris Szabady, a caving buddy from days spent caving with Reading University caving club. I still struggle with the spelling, as they deviate from the familiar Szabady, to Sa Bai Dee.
And so its been on the back of a bike that I have truly got to know Laos. Its the country that has most surprised me so far and I have to say that the way to do it is on the back of a bike. It took a bit of courage. Sarah has done some basic biking before and I've done a little bit around Hampi when I was in India four months ago. It took five minutes to work out what the hell I was doing to try and change gear and I must admit, I spent the first few miles in the same gear. But but once we were out of Tha Kheak and on the open road I was flying. Life changes when your on a motorbike. People see humans, not a face behind a window of a bus. It was amazing.
Ready for the off, on our Chinese Honda's !
To compliment the Laotians, the scenery was simply awesome thanks to numerous towering limestone peaks forming the Khammoune plateau. Surreally, I felt I was driving on my PlayStation trying to get the fastest lap on an alpine circuit. So much so that at one point I wandered off the road, my neck craned at right angles, gawping at the cave and karst features towering above the road. Not my finest hour really but thankfully there was only gravel by the side of the road to provide a run out.
Video Game Scenery, The Khammoune Plateau
Which was great, until my bike sprung an oil leak. I had been told to expect bike problems during "The Loop" and that this was just part of the fun to be expected with a $500 chinese bike. But I really was not too sure about oil leaking from the gear box, which is the only part of the bike that gives away its chinese origin, with "YinGon" engraved on the casing camouflaged with some Honda stickers. So I stopped at the nearest mechanic, which is virtually every man and their dog in Laos, for a quick diagnosis involving a strip-down of my gear box to find the problem ... a dodgy bush. A new part, 50,000 kip (thats US $6) and 20 minutes later I was back on the road. Cheap chinese bike. Cheap to repair. And everyone knows how to. Amazing. Strangely, I now want to buy one ...
Apart from my Oil leak, we had a couple further breakdowns. Sarah's engine box also sprung an oil leak. No problem, 30,000 kip (US $3) and 20 minutes later problem solved. Two flat tyres, a whopping 5,000 kip each (US 60c). Oh and one new wing mirror for Sarah after an over confident manoeuvre crossing a ditch. Replaced for 30,000 Kip, a whole US $2. I wondered why my bike came with no working speedo, no working brake lights, no working odometer so I never really knew what speed I was going, nor how far I had gone. Probably less than US $10 to fix should I have paid attention. But its obvious now that speed is not important thing to the average Laotian. Oh and if you run out of fuel ... no worries everyone sells it by the bottle, just about every house you pass.
The reason I came to the Khammouene plateau with Sarah was the caves. There are lots of them and its a bit of an obsession of mine. The highlight had to be a visit to the impressive Kong Lor Cave. Tham Kong Lor is a 7km river cave that punches right through a mountain to a secluded valley the other side. We took a trip through the cave on a longboat, at some speed, covering the 7km in less than 45 minutes. How the boatmen found a navigable channel in the pitch dark only with dimly powered cheapo Chinese lights was incredible. My small Petzl headtorch gave off more light. But it was no problem for the boat team, with a spotter up front communicating instructions to the driver in the rear, who was looking after a rather powerful honda engine. And no, this time it was not a Chinese same same but different “Honda". It was an impressive experience.
Our driver powering off into Tham Kong Lor, now blinded by the flash of my camera !
Not only is it a spelæological wonder, it is also a trade route for the Laotians to access a remote valley to the other side. We saw the boatmen loading roofing material onto long boats to be driven through the cave and onto villages the other side. They motored along in their long boats at quite some speed, with goods delicately balanced on their boats... not too heavy to sink, but only just... it was every kilo the boat could float.
Tham Kong Lor is a well know cave to the Laotians. There were many other caves that we stopped at and visited on the way, thanks to local advice. There were some gaping entrances that we were only left gawping at. Curiosity got the better of me and I needed to go for an explore of some of the caves we visited. At Tham Pha Ing, I was left drooling at the ongoing river heading off into the mountain, but was a stumped at the deep channel. Very deep. I could not resist, so after a five minute spin down the road and I managed to borrow a blown up inner tube from a kind Laotian chap and his wife. He looked at me with some curiously about why I needed the tube. I mimed swimming. He laughed and shrugged his shoulders in an attempt to say ... But where ? I don't know the Laotian word for Nut Case, but I am sure thats what he uttered as he lent me his spare motorbike inner tube!
So I went for a swim in Tham Pha Ing. After a couple hundred metres of swimming, the deep lake ended and I wandered off down a passage and off into the side of the mountain. Unfortunately the cave ended in a boulder choke after a short while, but it was rather fun experience. The fish jumping out the water ahead of me as I swam, probably having never seen anything that resembles a predator before, were quite a sight!
The ongoing lure of Tham Pha Ing
Every cave we visited that was well known to the Laotians, had a shrine to Buddha, with various amounts of food offered as a gift to the the Buddha and the Nat Spirits. No one in Laos wants a pissed off Nat, the spirit that inhabits the cave. Best placate him with some regular offerings of food and drink.
Aside from the caves and video game scenery, the loop had some seriously rough terrain to cover with a bike. We forded a river, spent six hours on a potholed track, with holes enough to bury a Chinese Honda. We crossed many bridges well past their sell by dates. One had a hole big enough to sink my front wheel. Thankfully we both managed to keep the bike on the straight and narrow, so narrow we only had a 2 inch wide rail to aim for ! Driving over gravel (marbles?) and sand (walking on water?) was an experience.
Final thought. There is no need for the RAC in Laos. Everyone, including most mothers we met are mechanics to the Chinese Honda's. Would they know how to handle the real deal ... a Japanese Honda ? I am not sure. Maybe a 30 minute service rather than the usual 20 ...