Day 118: Flat tire delays escape from Vientiane
I woke in the morning to a flat tire. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
WHEN I arrive at the River Side Palace, Pink's wearing jean shorts and a camouflage jacket with brightly colored embroidery of flowers and birds on it that looks like it was stolen from some Vietnam War veteran cum hippie.
We wave off her sister, who turned out to be her real sister and not some clever, queen, as I had suspected. I dump my backpack at the hotel with her extra bag, before strapping her striped beach bag with everything she needs for the next couple days on top of the top box.
“If we find a place to stash my bag, we can drive up to Vang Vieng together,” I told her last night. The original offer had been to meet in Vang Vieng and then do a three day trip out to the Plain of Jars to get some drone footage. However, Pink really didn't like the idea of having to take the public bus up to Vang Vieng – I could hardly blame her.
The plan of driving up to Vang Vieng to party for a few days only to turn around and drive back to Vientiane to drop off Pink and turn straight back around, taking the same road up through Vang Vieng, to wherever the dice decided is the next destination seems a bit daft. That said, it is Help People Week, and given that I've been so incredibly unhelpful and needy up to this point, it seems like this is a great chance to redeem myself. Plus, it means more travel time with Pink, which isn't such a bad thing either.
“Okay, so we need to get the back tire filled before we get out of town,” I tell Pink as she climbs on, aviator glasses glinting in the sun.
I hadn't noticed that the rear tire was flat this morning until the owner of Lucky Backpackers pointed it out. On the bike and ready to roll out, I didn't look too closely, assuming that the tire was just a little flat.
I assumed wrong.
As Pink and I roll down one of the side streets of Vientiane, a pack of bearded backpackers point to the back tire.
“I know, I know,” I say, scanning the shops for a place that can fill it up.
The motorbike rental shop, which has a few spare tires hanging out front, which marks it as a mechanic shop also, doesn't have a pressure gauge, which seems ridiculous.
“Fine, fine, I have one. I'll take care of it,” I grumpily mutter. The late morning heat is already testing my patience.
I have a pressure gauge and I an electric air pump that I can plug into the 12v socket on the motorcycle, but I didn't want to unpack everything, which I'd just reorganized based on having to leave a backpack's worth of stuff in Vientiane.
Glistening on the black back tire is a single silver spec, a piece of metal driven through the thick rubber, which now looks like the first star in the night sky.
We're never going to get out of here. Though the tire holds air, the puncture is something that has to be dealt with.
I just want to be on the road, out of the city.
“Can you ask him where we can get it fixed?” I ask Pink.
They talk in Thai for a couple minutes.
“Can you go back to the hotel to get a map?” she asks me. The hotel is only a couple blocks away. However, standing in several layers of thick black riding gear in the tropical heat, I refuse.
“Just use your phone,” I say, a bit exasperated.
Pink and the mechanic sort out where, in the entire capital of Laos, the one place that that can fix a puncture is located.
“You sure you know where it is?” I ask, as Pink starts to give me directions, one turn at a time.
“I could fix it myself. I have the tools, but I think it's better to have someone else take care of it quickly, rather than spending a couple hours watching me try to figure it out,” I mumble as we sit in the heat at a traffic light.
We drive through the flat, unimpressive city until eventually spotting the mechanic shop past the bus station that is able to plug the tire. It's a relatively big shop, with stacks of brightly wrapped new tires reaching up toward the ceiling.
In about 15 minutes, the mechanic has punched the piece of metal into the tire, widened the hole and then jammed that sticky, pale rubber of the plug deep inside. He carefully trims away the access and pumps the tire up.
Though I'm pretty sure I would have figured out how to do it, I can't help but feel that seeing it done in person for the first time is the way to go. Kind of like the old British way of training medical officers in the army – see one, do one.
“Lets get coffee. There is a famous place down here,” Pink says once the bike is ready to go.
We are never going to leave this city.
Joma Bakery Cafe feels like a Star Bucks knockoff as we enter the building. I plop down at a table, savoring the air-conditioning, while Pink orders us coffees and a cinnamon roll.
The cafe is full of white men in their early thirties working on Mac laptops. If I wasn't in my riding gear, all I'd have to do was grow out my beard for a few weeks and I'd fit right in. A quick evaluation of this demographic seems to point toward a bountiful NGO community. I'd seen the same sort of people typing away on laptops and talking about charts, reviews and budgets at another cafe this morning.
While Pink slips into the bathroom, I glance at a map to see how to get to Vang Vieng. It looks straightforward once we're out of the city. All we have to do is jump on Highway 13 and head north. Such simplicity is one of the blessings of having a country with limited road infrastructure.
Back on the bike, we had straight for Lucky Backpacker hostel, as I forgot my superhero mulit-scarf.
“It's not here. I'm not sure they even know what I'm talking about,” I tell Pink when I return to the bike. Maybe it's packed, I think.
Eyeballing the directions out of town, we set off – getting lost a couple times in the process. The traffic in Vientiane, which isn't so heavy, moves at such a sluggish pace that it feels like we're stuck in downtown Bangkok during rush-hour. (Such a consistent failure to set a destination in my map application, Maps.Me, to get me out of big cities points toward genuine idiocy.)
Eventually, we find ourselves on Highway 13, the main north-south corridor linking Luang Prabong, a Unesco World Heritage city, to the capital.
Highway, is without a doubt the wrong word to use when describing route 13. However, given that it's the main road of Laos, it seems applicable. The road, which is barely wider than two lanes, is in a monstrous condition as it runs out of Vientiane. The edges of the asphalt crumble into the light orange dirt that dusts the rows of wooden and cement store fronts, while the road itself is pocketed with more potholes than an oil-faced teenager has pimples on picture day. The neglected piece of infrastructure even lacks lane lines: there are no white lines an the outer edge of the road and certainly no dividing lines between the two lanes of traffic going opposite directions.
Though Thais drive on the left-hand side of the road and Loas supposedly drive on the right-hand side of the road, I'm quickly finding out that this isn't entirely the case.
As cars, trucks, lorries and motorbikes head in and out of the capital, they all seem to be drifting toward the center of the road as they work their way around missing chunks of asphalt and potholes or are pass vehicles that are truly crawling along. Such a strong draw to the middle is exactly the opposite of the current, polarized American political situation, I think as I fall in line, only holding to the right-hand side of the road when it's necessary to avoid being run over.
Out of town, the dirty shops give way to the occasional green rice paddy as a flat landscape stretches out in front of us. There are still plenty of restaurants and the occasional guesthouse along the roadside, each marked with a nearly identical marigold orange Beer Laos sign. The name of the establishment is printed in small letters somewhere near the picture of large bottle of beer that's leaning into the frame.
Having grown accustomed to the smooth, evenly paved roads of Thailand, Highway 13 is proving a challenge to drive on. It's only 158 kilometers to Vang Vieng, which is supposed to take about three hours. However, it's slow going. Not only are we dodging traffic and pot holes, it's necessary to read the roll of the road itself, avoiding jarring lumps and troughs. Additionally, there are the kids and animals to be aware of.
Passing through a moderate sized village, which consists of a few modest shops and wooden houses, a chicken darts out in front of the motorbike, then panics, flaps its wings, which bring it to a near standstill before it scuttles back to where it came from. Not far past the ambitious chicken, lines of school children, all in white dress shirts and class uniforms, walk hand in hand, clutching backpacks or umbrellas. A small boy holding a bird gun walks next to his worn-faced mother. In his other hand a beautiful green and blue plumed Kingfisher hangs dead from its feet.
The flat landscape comes to a sudden end as we arrive at what is most likely the foothills to the Annamite Range, which stretches out to the east and deep into Vietnam. At the base of the foothills, which seem imposing after so much flat land, we find a small coffee shop to play a few games of cards as we take a break from driving.
After the standard Beer Laos signs, which aren't conductive to tourism, the wooden Cafe Sinouk sign outside of the little cafe with astroturf and a couple low palm trees feels welcoming. I don't need anymore coffee at this point, but I order one anyway, while Pink, being more reasonable, gets an orange juice and a water. Though it's a nice little rest stop with fantastic, clean bathrooms, a gas station, locally produced souvenirs and even a small convenience store, there isn't much to hold us for more than 30-40 minutes.
As we get farther and farther away from Vientiane, counter to what I'd assume, the road seems to be getting better. As we wiggle through the foothills, a string of about eight or nine booths covered with thatch roofs and maned by an assortment of middle-aged women appear. This particular strings of stalls are paired tall, multi-layer steaming pots, each filled with sweat corn still in the husk.
Further along, we pass a similar setup, though these vendors are boasting squash, pumpkins and few other types of produce; each woman sitting in a chair next to nearly identical products.
Pink, who's been on a number of motorcycle trips, wraps her arms around me as we continue on, leaning against me, her breast pressing into my back. She's quickly becoming my favorite kind of passenger. My hand, wrapped in a big leather glove, stops hovering over the clutch and falls down to gently caress her bared ankle for a few moments before it returns to the handlebar. She leans back and starts to massage my shoulders, which officially makes her the best kind of passenger. A man or woman who gives you a shoulder massage while your on long-distance motorbike trip is the kind of person you want to keep taking with you.
As we approach the fingers of the sprawling Nam Ngum Reservoir, which reach out into Tha Heua, produce disappears from the front of the shop houses, replaced by lake fish, which are split open and sun dried or smoked. Thousands of the fish ranging in size from the length of a finger to the length of my forearm are piled up or hanging from bits of string along the dusty road front.
Before crossing a small bridge and arriving in Tha Heua there was a big sign. Welcome to Vang Vieng, it read.
Driving through town, it doesn't seem like Vang Vieng. There are a few guesthouses, but none of the trashy touristy hostels or shops that would mark the place as a party destinations for backpackers. On the far side of town, we pull over and check the map.
Oh, the sign meant welcome to Vang Vieng district, which is not the Vang Vieng that travelers actually think about.
The party town, Vang Vieng, isn't on the lake, it's on the Nam Song River, about thirty minutes further north. The sky develops a dusky blue hue as we continue along the final stretch of road.
“Wow, it's like Gorillas in the Mist,” Pink says, absorbing the beauty of the mountains ahead of us. Past an out of place factory, smoke stacks at work, limestone cliffs jut into the sky, piercing low lying clouds. Layer after layer of karst mountain ridges press into the horizon, growing bluer and taller as they go, each heavy with jungle.
Highway 13 skirts along the outside of the two-road party town of Vang Vieng. Once through, we do a u-turn to work our way back down to the riverside road, which is walled in by a strip of big, multi-level concrete guesthouses. The river road, is a rocky unpaved sort of thing with guesthouses, restaurants, bars and tour agencies flanking it. This is the Vang Vieng I was expecting.
Vang Vieng made its name as uninhibited party town, but now it's trying to rein in the party people. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Though I'd normally leave the accommodation option up to the dice, I stop at Domo Guesthouse so Pink can see if she like it or not. I don't know anything about the place, but it's the easiest place to park. And, seeing as Pink has offered to cover the cost of the hotel, it really is up to her where we stay.
“It's perfect!” she says bouncing back to the bike. Though most likely in her late 30s – I actually have never figured out how old Pink is – the woman's got the energetic buzz of a 12-year-old on a sugar rush on Halloween.
I grab two Beer Laos Gold from the mini-mart attached to Domo and follow Pink up to our room.
Our room is equipped with a hot shower, air conditioner and two double-beds – which I find amusing. Pink says it's the only room left with a river view. Our balcony does overlook the Nam Song River, behind the swath of water, which is painted pink from with colors of the setting sun, the mountains reach inspiring heights. It's hard to think of a better place in the world to pop open a beer and watch the last fleeting moments of a sunset.