Day 115: Laos says no to motorbike crossing (PART 1)
What starts with rain turns to rainbows... but not always. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
SERIOUSLY, what's the fucking point of the Asian Economic Community (AEC)? The long-anticipated AEC came into effect this year supposedly to strengthen the ASEAN economic block by allowing greater, easier flow of goods and services between the borders of member nations. And here I am at an official international Thai-Laos border crossing and suffering the consequences Laos knickers getting all twisted up by China.
I wasn't completely unprepared for the possibility of the Laos border being shut in my face, though the forums I checked online seemed to think I shouldn't have any issues. From the beginning, the question put to the die was crafted with the kind of loop hole that makes a corrupt politician wiggle his toes with delight.
“Where should my first border crossing attempt be?” the question read. This of course meant I wasn't going to be forced to ditch Rocinante, my motorcycle, at an international border, again.
There was also the snake: plowing northward toward the border, I was coming down a mountain road as a thin, 1.5-meter-long snake squirmed into the road. Hitting the brakes hard, I veered to the right to doge the Red-necked Keeback. As I was hitting the brakes, she heard me, or felt me coming. With a swift 180-degree turn, the snake bolted for the safety of the long grass she had emerged from.
A snake crossing my path was not a good sign. Though it didn't technically cross my path, it was a close call.
But let's start from the beginning of the day, as that's where the first waves of trepidation shook my confidence in what was supposed to be an easy border crossing.
My room at S.P. Guesthouse in Nan is in complete disarray as I attempt to pack. Having lost my bed under a pile of stuff early in the week, the odds and ends that had covered it eventually found their way onto the floor. Now it's time to figure out what bags and boxes everything goes back into.
The die shoots down the idea of going by The House to visit the lovely family who runs it. However, I make the executive decision to have one last helping of the best Khao Soi I've tasted in the north at a local place abreast Sweet Bread.
Four men decked out in full riding gear with high-end helmets on the table are lounging in Sweet Bread. Like a wary pack of dogs, the middle-aged men watch me park.
Conscious of being in flip-flops and not wearing a helmet – as I am just popping out for a quick bite before hitting the road – I give them a nod before slipping over to the Khao Soi place. Though all geared out, and more often than not looking the part, I still feel like I'm not part of the motorcycle world. I feel like a poser.
I settle into the back corner table of the small five-table restaurant and scarf down my favorite curry soup one last time. With the warm curry taste still humming in my mouth, I step out to find one of the men standing over my bike.
The heavy set English chap strikes up a conversation and is shortly joined by a taller man.
“Is that your Ducati?” I ask the taller of the men, who is wearing small, square glasses. I nod toward the gorgeous red kitted out Ducati Multistrada. It was the dream bike for this adventure, though sitting at a price point of 1.1mn baht (about USD32,000) it was a pipe dream. “It's a nice bike.”
“It's for sale,” he says with a smile. Apparently, the bike isn't such a dream.
Chatting bikes with them for a few minutes it turns out they are on one of their tri-annual Thailand motorbike tours and the Ducati is acting up non-stop. Earlier today it just stopped working. No electricity; nothing.
“I tinkered with it for two and half hours, but nothing worked. I started to push it to the Post Office to send it home and it just came to life, all on its own,” the man says in his heavy British accent. His fat, smiling friend apparently had the same bike. Luckily for him, he managed to sell his after the fourth fuel sensor gave out on him. The tall man is on his seventh fuel sensor.
“Three years and it's all stuff still covered by the warranty,” the tall man explains. “Where you headed?”
“Heading up to Huai Kon to cross into Laos.”
“Is that border open to bikes?” one of the men asks.
“Last time I checked it was,” I reply with a familiar premonition of dread tingling throughout my body.
“Yeah, you just never know until you get there. Welcome to Asia,” the fat guy says with a smile.
They fill me in on what they know, which is just rumors at this point. There is some spat between Laos and China involving illegal motorcycles being brought into Laos, which has caused Laos to clam up, closing borders to motorcycle crossings.
Just as I hoped my Singaporean pal Kenny Pan was wrong when he told me it was impossible to bring Rocinante into Myanmar, I hope these guys are wrong. I'll find out when I reach the border I guess.
“I think you should tighten the chain,” the manager of S.P. Guesthouse says as I secure the last bag to the bike. He wiggles the dirty chain with his finger. “There is a Honda shop nearby.”
“Good idea. Where is it?” I ask.
I pull up to the Honda motorbike shop and wave one of them employees over, shaking the chain to show him what the issue is.
Despite the long drive, some things are worth stopping to watch. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Two mechanics look at the bike in the street.
“Mai mee,” the man says, which is one of the two phrases I hate most in Thai; this one means “don't have”. I'm not asking him to replace the chain, just tighten it, but I can't easily explain that to him.
It's probably fine. I'll pick up some chain cleaner soon and give it another scrub. I had started cleaning it yesterday, but had run out of cleaner. So I ended up haphazardly hit it with some lubricant. The rain and dirty roads have without a doubt been hard on the chain.
Giving the bike some gas, I blow out of Nan on Highway 101, heading north, toward the border. I should have left days ago, but the hours slowly, uselessly slipped away in Nan and there was no pressure to get to Vang Vieng until September 23, when I am supposed to meet up with a Thai friend of mine.
Sections of Highway 101 are completely torn up for roadworks. Without warning, the asphalt vanish, dumping me onto hard packed dirt and gravel. Rattling along, my head spins with the possibility of being bounced at the border. Additionally, it's worrying about the rack for the panniers. Before I left Chiang Mai, the rack developed hairline cracks on the support bars on either side of the bike. The constant bouncing of the road conditions has since caused one side to brake completely. Though the pannier seem okay, the rocky road conditions of the 101 are putting even more pressure on the rack.
Mind spinning in a descending whirlpool of negative thoughts, I slow on the gravel, then gave the bike lots of gas when the asphalt returns. Close to the border, the rice paddies gave way to mountains. The sharp mountain curves are lovely, but I don't notice it. I'm focused on the border: thinking about what to do if I'm bounced, and, in semi-delusional state, thinking about what it will feel like to successfully roll out of Thailand and into Laos.
There's so much I want to do in Laos.
A Red-necked Keeback slithers onto the road, but thinks better of crossing as the bike tears toward it.
That seems like a bad sign.
Though I got a late start, stopping for a coffee before even leaving town – always delaying the inevitable border bouncing – it's looking like I'll make the three hour drive from Nan before the border closes.
Maybe I'll watch the sunset in Laos tonight, I think with a smile.
Two large, well-designed buildings flank the road as I arrive at the Huai Kon border crossing. Neither of them is marked in English. Thinking that they are part of the customs process, I stop and ask.
I'm waved forward toward the border.
Huai Kon isn't a border town, it is simply a dusty border. Their is a collection of small businesses along the roadside: a couple restaurants, a mechanic, a few places selling insurances, a local-style convenience store and that's about it.
With a great deal of wiggling and re-adjusting, I'm able to park my big black bike in such a way that it doesn't tumble down the steep slope on the Thai side of the border. The square cement buildings on the east side of the road houses customs officers, while immigration is on the west side.
Hesitantly, I walk up to the window at the customs and hand over my greenbook (Thai motorcycle registration). The young, pretty woman behind the counter explains that I can't bring the bike into Laos. At least that's what I assume she's explaining based on her body language. I don't understand a word coming out of her mouth, except “Laos”.
That's not going to cut it. I want to understand.
I play my confused, lost, stubborn farang card.
She waves me toward another young woman at a customs office on the other side of the road, apparently hoping her colleague speaks more English than she does.
I smile and wander over to her.
“Need photocopy of passport,” the young woman says, after I present all my paperwork to her.
Okay, this is good. She's not shutting down the possibility of getting into Laos. I like this. I like this a lot.
I'm pointed up the road to where four open-faced businesses are lined up strip-mall style. Up the stairs, I ask for them to make a photocopy.
The woman hesitates and waves over a young man at the counter next to hers.
They're looking something up. Why are they looking something up? Just making the fucking photocopy please.
The young man, holds up his phone. The Thai he's put into Google Translate has been turned into English. It says I can't bring my bike into Laos.
This is not good. However, the lady at customs is going to let me try. I should at least try.
There is some back and forth, as they help me, suggesting that I use Google to look for where I can cross the border with a motorcycle. After buying some phone credit so I can access the internet, I thank them and take my photocopies back to the woman at customs.
As someone who is supposed to be focused on helping people, in accordance with my weekly dice roll, I sure seem to be a drain on other people's time and resources.
“Can I take my bike into Laos?” I ask the woman who seems willing to let me out of Thailand. She looks small behind a wide desk covered in papers.
There is nothing stopping me from leaving Thailand. However, she's not sure they'll let me into Laos.
“Can I go to Laos and ask them? Then, if they say I can, I'll come back and do the paperwork in Thailand,” I ask.
Her supervisor, a Thai an wearing a crisp uniform and black-lensed aviator glasses, comes over from where he was chatting with a few fellow officers.
He confirms that Laos officials won't let me in at this border. Speaking in Thai to a man who is transporting electronic sensors into Laos from Thailand, the officer suggests that I try a different border crossing. The plump Thai man translates what he can for me and helps me find a another possible border crossing.
“Try in Uttaradit,” he says, locating a border crossing in the Thai province on Google Maps.
I thank him and the Thai officials for their help.
“Where r u?” asks my Thai friend. Nervous that my luck would run out, she's been after me for status updates pretty regularly. I tell her that I've been bounced at the border. She asks if she can help by talking to them. She wants to know where I'm headed next to try. She needs too much information. Between her and other friends wanting updates it's about to make me spazz. Of course, it's all very useful help, but there is too much to process right now. I need time to clear my head. I need to get an idea sorted before I start answering other people's questions. I've got too many of my own questions.
I take a deep breath and just let her know that I'll update her when I can.
Attempting to clamoring back onto the bike, it nearly falls down on top of me. My phone falls to the ground with a clack as I heave against he weight of the bike. I look to my left to find a Thai man helping me right the bike.
Frustrated with the situation, but knowing that there is still a glimmer of hope somewhere on the horizon, I blast music from the “90s and today” as I speed back to Nan.
I won't be stopping in Nan, but the fastest way to Uttaradit is back down Highway 101, back over the terrible sections of road, back through the town I didn't anticipate seeing again so soon and then onto new roadways.
Driving drunk is dangerous, as is driving frustrated or angry. I can feel the danger as a I speed along the mountain ridges. It feels good. The roads are absolutely beautiful, the turns sharp as the road snakes through the foothills.
Though I've got a great deal of driving to do, the die decides to get the drone out and do a little flying. Flying always makes me feel better.
Unless there is an issue.
There is an issue. There is an issue with the memory card. I take the one out of my Yi action camera, but it doesn't work either.
I pack it all up, except for the Yi action camera, which is subsequently lost, and hit the road, trying not to let the lack of therapeutic flying to impact my feelings.
The September 23 deadline for meeting my Thai friend, Pink, is adding some excitement to the situation. I like it. This is feeling a bit like an adventure.
I give the bike more gas.
A reckless feeling starts to settle over me, like dew on an Indiana pasture. It feels fresh, exciting, full of potential. Fuck it. I'll load up on Red Bulls and Snickers and drive all night if I have to.
The rice paddies burst with color as the sun begins to set and the golden hour arrives. The road ahead of me is wet, but there isn't any rain.
A rainbow arcs from the mountain tops disappearing three-quarters of the way through its trajectory, falling into the clear sky rather than the vibrant green rice paddies.
I stop to watch the rainbow. A rainbow's form in the sky is so utterly perfect, even when incomplete. We, of course, are first drawn to the spectrum of colors shooting through the sky, but I would argue that its true beauty is its shape, not its color. A black or white rainbow arching through the sky would be just as mesmerizing.
It's completely dark by the time I arrive back in Nan. The reasonable thing to do would be to simply book a cheap room, leave my bike packed and get an early start.
But I'm not feeling reasonable. Not the slightest bit reasonable.
Sitting on the curb outside of a 7-Eleven, I devour a cheap tuna fish sandwich, two bottles of Red Bull and a Snickers bar.
My phone is about to die. However, I'm able to get to a message from Pink.
“I talked to custom dept. they informed that Nong Khao border has no problem for big bike over 250cc. To go to Lao. Some border has a specific zoning may change the rule by Lao custom,” she writes.
Brilliant news. Well, kind of brilliant. It's 607km from Nan to Nong Khai – that's roughly eight to nine hours of constant driving.
Of course, there is still a chance that even at Nong Khai, which is the major border crossing that leads directly into Laos' capital, I'm forced to pull up short.
I can do eight more hours on the bike, I tell myself, unperturbed, perhaps even invigorated, by the fact that the night has settled in around me.
The 101 evolves into a two-lane split highway, its curves gentle, like those of a large river, rather than the sharp turns of a mountain stream. Justin Bieber's Love Yourself, The Weekend's I Can't Feel My Face and more tunes given to me by my man DJ Tommy the Tank in Phuket are pounding in my ears, just above the sound of the wind ripping around my helmet.
I zip through sparse traffic. The road oscillates between well-lit sections and total darkness. A concrete barrier is always on my right. In the darkness, I attempt to take a peek up at the sky. The stars shine bright. I begin to fantasize about pulling over at some point and spending a few hours in the country darkness, watching the stars. Even though they shimmered in the darkness of Bagan and Inle Lake, I've been neglecting my celestial friends.
Making good time, I pull into a gas station, fill up and buy more junk food and Red Bull, as well as some water.
A kitted up biker on a sick black and red Honda CB650F motorcycle rolls up next to my bike. Wearing full armor and a helmet that matches his beautiful machine, he greets me. We chat a bit in broken Thai and English.
“Where you go?” he asks.
“Nong Khai,” I say.
A couple eavesdropping on the conversation from a nearby bench look up in shock and approval. Nong Khai is still a long way off and it's well past 11pm.
The man nods in approval. I don't catch the name of where he's headed, but it sounds like we're driving the same way for awhile. He stands their stretching as I climb back onto my bike.
Helmet on, music playing, I see him say something.
I take off my helmet and turn off the music.
“Oh, Google Maps,” say, explaining that I'm not sure what towns I'm headed through.
Cruising along, I see familiar headlight in my side-view mirrors. The CB650F has caught up with me. For about 15 minutes I'm not alone. However, Google signals me to make my turnoff from the main road.
My man gives me a couple loud blasts on his horn as we part ways
Rainbow and butterflies and broken motorcycles? Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli