Day 128: Laos landslides threaten to disrupt more plays than Redskins' defense
And I thought the visibility and roads were dangerous in the coffee plantations along the Myanmar-Thai border. Those are nothing compared to the landslides and pot holes covering Highway 13 in Laos. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
IN RETROSPECT, before rolling the die, it would have made far more sense to make the executive decision to go to the Plain of Jars instead of the 340 kilometers to Luang Prabang from Vientiane. Pink left yesterday morning, so I'm back on my own. Shortly after Pink was ushered into the car of a friend's friend by the driver yesterday, I wandered into an Amazon Cafe and spent the day working. I had a lot of work to do.
That was yesterday. Today, the plan is to get an early start to Luang Prabang . But by the time darkness had wrapped up the dirty little capital last night, I was too tired to sleep.
Laying in my room, for which Pink had insisted on paying for another night so I didn't have to move to cheaper accommodation, I watched the flat screen television. First it was CNN news, which I'm finding strangely addictive, than Men in Black 3, which, for obvious reasons, I never got around to seeing when it was released in 2012. After Skyping my mother, I turn the mute off and return to watching American football. The New York Jets, who have gone 0-67 in Away Games when down by 14 points at halftime, headed off the field down more than 14 points to the Redskins.
In the second half, the big-beared veteran for the Jets, Ryan Fitzpatrick, kept slamming the football into tight spots where the one-one Redskins defense was holding up. The passes didn't connect with receivers or were dropped or were tipped and then picked off.
I've always had a soft spot for New York sports team. Starting with the Yankees and then extending to both the Jets and Giants – I never could manage to be enthusiastic about the Mets. It was a painful game to watch as Fitzpatrick slowly plods down the field with the offense, only to get intercepted in the red zone – if only one of those had been converted, making it a seven point game, then we'd have a real match-up. As it was, too tired to sleep, I lay in bed and watch the extraordinary athletes and playboy millionaires play with their ball. It's past 3am by the time I shut the television off.
Late night football, put a stop to me converting the following day into an early-morning play.
It's a bit after 10am by the time I make it downstairs and have them unlock the bike for me. I roll it backward, then lay down and start removing a thick layer of grit and grime from the chain. It's a new chain, but the dirt on the roads, the mud and the rain make life hard on a chain. I don't have chain cleaner, so with a finger nail, water and a white t-shirt I slowly go link by link, doing my best to scrape away the grit.
The chain has stretched a bit.
I start applying lubrication, gently wiping away the excess and what grim comes with it and then spraying on a second layer. A tuk-tuk driver from across the street wanders over and leans on the bike to see what I'm up to.
After going over the basics of how big the engine is and how much it costs in US dollars, he spots the pack of unopened zipties.
“Can I have a couple,” he asks.
He opens the big bag of heavy-duty zipties – perfect for holding things together if a bolt goes missing in the wilderness – and removes two red zipties.
With Rocinante loaded up, I take off for Luang Prabang . As has become standard, we spend the first hour or so stuck in traffic going mostly the wrong direction in an attempt to get out of the city. It's one thing to fail at getting out of the sprawling chaos of Bangkok, it's an entirely different thing to be so unprepared and incompetent that you can't find your way out of dusty little Vientiane – it pains me that this is the capital of Laos.
However, after getting a map out and getting proper directions, we are back on the road to Vang Vieng, which is also the road to Luang Prabang .
It's a flat gray day that seems to be perpetually stuck at about 4pm. If hell were to have a sky, it would be this sky all day and all night. The dull flat light, which at first people would think was fine, but then as they days and nights blended together and it's subtle oppression weighed on their souls, they would start to understand the devilish design.
The uninspiring landscape between Vientiane and Vang Vieng slips by my visor. Right before reaching the first foothills in the region, I pull over for lunch.
I've skipped breakfast, which I often do now, and I'm hungry. It's the same place Pink and I stopped on the way to and from Vang Vieng. A little modern spec: a gas station, restaurant, cafe, mini-mart, local souvenirs shop and wash room facilities.
A young Laos woman with fuchsia lips smiles at me when I walk in, as if she remembers me from a few days ago. I smile back before ordering fried rice and fetching a Coke from the fridge.
I'd given up soft drinks – those without alcohol – when I did the 6week 6pack Challenge with the Phuket Gazette for my thirtieth birthday last year. However, while recovering from the mushroom shake and pizza, I had a few Sprites and figured one more soda wouldn't be the end of the world.
The startlingly majestic jagged edges of the limestone mountains on the far side of Vang Vieng are a welcome sight: sharp, clear cut lines of jungle thick limestone ridges one above the next until they are cutting into a large cumulus clouds above. A small piece of cloud seems to have been sliced free from the rest, falling below the cloud line and into the thick foliage clinging to the mountainside.
I've been driving for hours already. Hours. It's hard not to feel a bit daft for being exactly where I was three days ago. But the Die's Will will be done.
Pausing only to fill up Rocinante's gas tank, I leave the party town and head into the charming, picturesque mountainscape up river.
Schools let out. Young, beautiful girls – the children in Laos are beautiful – sit up right as packs of them bicycle out of town. There are dozens and dozens of them, spread out in clumps, occasionally wings of four or five of them cover most of the narrow road.
Though it's a main road connecting the spiritual heart of Laos, Luang Prabang , to it's capital, the pavement is only wide enough for two cars to pass, and even then it's a bit dodgy depending on where the potholes are located.
The students drift out of the way as I pass them in the left lane, which is a fictitious concept in Laos. With nearly no painted lines in the roads, most users tend to find their way to the middle or whichever bit of the road isn't broken up with potholes.
A herd of water buffalo appear in the middle of the road. There are a dozen or so of the dark gray, broad shouldered beasts looking up at me as they make their way down the road. Their big black noses are wet, their horns flat and wide; there is an incredible amount of of power wrapped up in these animals. Give them only two legs and they would be worthy minotaurs.
I'm forced to come to a near stop as I weave among the beasts, only to then find myself face to face with a herd of soft, brown-haired cows. The rotund animals, a calf often not far from its mother's utter, are a bit quicker to find their way off the road, but even they seem to embody the Laos no-rush mentality.
Kids are everywhere. There is something about the quantity of children in Laos that leaves a strong impression. Their are gaggles of girls. Older sister, maybe eight years old, walking with two younger sisters, all in little dresses, if not in their school uniforms. Unattended, they play, some work. They have a presence; they aren't hidden away. They're neighborhood kids in their neighborhood – something America's culture seems to have lost.
Skirting around the outside of Vang Vieng, the karst topography up river looms above a little village, the fast moving clear water of a small river, the rice paddies and, of course, me. It's breathtakingly beautiful. All of it. There are the rich colors of the sky as the sun is lowered, glowing more than shining. There are the dynamic shapes of the limestone cliffs, monolithic mop heads thrust into the sky, the jungle foliage thick as it dangles down the cliff sides like the thick, wet yarn wrapped to the top of the mop.
Not too far up the road, but well into the mountains, a number of large leaves and a few branches have been laid out in the middle of the road. I slow down, taking the bend in the road cautiously. A truck has broken down. I slowly roll past the big blue vehicle, before returning cruising speed.
Locals, basking in the warmth of the setting sun, are out bathing along the roadside of a large village colored red from the dust covering nearly everything. The women, wrapped in wet sarongs, stand around a public spigot, pouring water over their hair, slicking their black manes down their backs. A little girl, butt-naked, stands still as her mother pours a a pale of water over here. Not much further up the road, a handful of men stand by another spigot. Wearing dark-colored briefs, they also wash their hair with the cold water. Washing time continues as we pass from one village to another; it continues well into the night.
Night is nearly upon us as we continue to climb into the mountains, a layer of storm clouds does its best to break free of the mountains' grasp; a little drizzle starts.
Pulling over at a set of empty roadside stalls, I duck under the thatch roof to put on rain gear. Even if the rain lets up soon, it's bound to come again at some point tonight; it's nearly dark and there are hours of driving ahead of us.
This is getting dangerous.
Wafts of cloud brush across the road like unformed ghosts in the rain and twilight darkness. The cliff side of the road is a blank slate of dark gray clouds. Rain drops splatter my visor, a single breath out fogs the inside of the piece of plastic, nearly blinding me. Even when the fog clears from the visor, the road visibility has dropped to less than 30 meters. If the roads weren't so unpredictably bad, it wouldn't be nearly as dangerous. However, the smattering of potholes are a constant concern. The larger ones would wreck the bike, the smaller ones can do their own kind of damage – there is always the possibility that one of them knocks the plug out of Rocinante's tire or rips the tires completely.
We're not making good time at all. Though I thought I'd be close to Luang Prabang by now, we're hours away. That's hours of driving into the night.
Red mud piled on both sides of the road is all that's left of the debris from the first of many landslides between me and a bed tonight.
A girl I was chatting to on Tinder warned me about the landslides, saying the roads were bad. However, a cleared landslide is no problem at I all I think as I continue on in the dark.
Though it is only darkness and there is no sound from it, a river flows along side the road. There's something about the curves of the road and the distance of the far wall of the narrow valley that allow for the river itself to be pained with the minds eye.
Even when I reach a village, there are no street lights. Locals walk around with head lamps on, standing in a group near the well-lit entrance of someone's home.
Traffic ahead is stopped. There hasn't been much traffic at all. Basically only one black car, in which the driver refuses to use anything but his brights, blinding me each time he comes up behind me to pass. Outside of that, it's mostly lorries and a scattering of scooters with no tail lights or brake lights and only the faintest head lights.
Sliding to the other side of the road I look at what the hold up is. The road is missing.
An earth-mover's bright lights create deep shadows in the mountain of mud that's slipped across the road. A rough, steep mud road cuts through a section of the chaos, connecting us to another section of asphalt. Passing the lorry, feet dragging on either side of the motorcycle to prop up its weight if the wheel catches in one of the deep ravines cut into the mud by a large truck, I safely make my through the landslide.
Further up, after polishing of a plate of yellow noodles, a Red Bull and a bottled coconut beverage, I find myself behind a scooter going at a good enough clip, between 40 and 50km/h. I could go for a pass, but watching what lines he takes and how he reacts to the road gives me additional information about what's ahead, which, given the general uncertainty of the road quality, is a good thing.
For the most part, outside of the landslides, the roads have been better than on the outskirts of Vientiane. There have even been a few times that I've spotted paint on the road.
Around yet another sharp bend, we quickly approach a lorry with its hazard lights flashing. There is a string of four of the big trucks. All of them have turned their engines off. The headlights of the front one remain on, spotlighting a fresh landslide.
It's not a major landslide. The tracks of a few vehicles that have dared to cross cut through the mud. The driver of the black car sits on the edge of the landslide. He's exited his vehicle with what appears to be a can of beer in one hand, which he holds behind him as he chats to the scooter driver ahead of me.
The scooter driver attempts to make the crossing. I follow behind. The wet, foamy mud comes up high on my boots as I scoot through the landslide. The bike tires squirm a little, but hold true. Out on the other side, the mud on the tires makes a racket as it picks up and flings pebbles and rocks. The bike tire threatens to squirm some more, but comes clean enough to find the road. We're back off.
The scooter man waves me around him as we approach his house. I hesitantly pass, disappointed to lose my riding buddy.
Thirty more minutes into the ride. I pull over to check a map – just to be sure.
I don't notice him at first, but on the far side of the road, laying on the edge of the pavement is a man. My head light only barely catches his figure as he raises his hand to look at his wrist. I wander if he's irritated that I've stopped so close to him. I also wander if he's okay. Pulling back out on the road, I try to catch more of him in my light: there's no blood.
Not much further up, a sign says it's only 38km to Luang Prabang , though, at this pace, that's still almost an hour away. A constellation of lights somewhere in the valley below makes my heart sing – that must be it. Their aren't a lot of lights, perhaps what you'd expect from a small country town in America, but that's a whole lot more lights than I've seen so far tonight.
Rocinante and I pass a few towns and guesthouses before arriving in Luang Prabang . Too tired to mess around with rolling for where to stay, I pull off the top choice, Kinnaly Guesthouse, from the list I made during lunch.
A nice Vietnamese lady explains that the guesthouse is full, but points me to a place just down the street, Villa Champa. She walks me there, leading with her little belly. From the way she walks she seems to be in an early stage of pregnancy, not showing too much yet.
The room at Villa Champa is 16 dollars a night, but they can't make change for a 100 dollar bill and I don't have enough Kip to cover the converstion. It's more than I want to spend, but looking down at my boots, caked in mud, I can't really be asked to go hotel shopping at 10pm at night – it was a very long drive today, nearly 11 hours.
The deals settled when the young woman, Chauh, says that I can park the bike in inside Kinnaly. I ramp the bike up over the curb and then am barely able to clear the two steps into the lobby of the guesthouse she's managing.
“Can you please come get it in the morning? Maybe 5:30-6am?” she asks.
“Of course, I want be up in time to watch the monks collect alms in the morning, so I'll get it out before hand.”