Day 139: Bombie scare at failed Laos river crossing
When the water's too deep to cross and the path is too narrow to turnaround, what do you do? Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
THE roads gone. Okay, the roads been gone for kilometers. However, the tiny dirt hiking path that Rocinante and I have been bouncing down has now taken a dip into the river. On the far side of the quickly moving water the sandy, dirt path resumes.
With a number of people already interested in buying the CB500X in Chiang Mai, this is a bad time to learn how to do proper water crossing. Unable to easily turn around on the narrow path or even put the kickstand down, as it keeps sinking into the soft sand along the bank, I bury the bash plate of the motorcycle in a steep, soft ridge on the side of the path – a relatively unconventional way of parking the bike.
Though the water is running quickly, its a light green-brown color, dark with depth. One of the major drawbacks to the CB500X, which I've developed a deep love for, is how low her chassis sits. It's one of the compromises that had to be made when Honda rolled out the CB500R, CB500F and CB500X, with the goal of being able to use as many of the same parts as possible to make the bikes affordable.
If I could see the bottom of the river and the river bed itself seemed solid, I might chance the crossing.
Standing their pondering the dilemma, as I'm not a huge fan of turning the bike around and taking the trail back out the way I came – it wasn't particularly easy riding.
Out of nowhere. Well, okay, not out of nowhere, but it feels like anyone showing up on a remote path like this is coming out of nowhere, appears a small Laos man of slight build with skin as dark as a sun-burnt orange.
He points to where the path resumes on the far side of the river.
“Can not,” I say in Laos or Thai or whatever language it is that I keep trying to communicate to people in.
A barrage of words comes tumbling out of his mouth, of which I only catch the word “go”. It seems that he thinks I should try the crossing.
After pulling off my big black riding boots and peeling away my socks, I slip out of my riding pants. It's only after having spend days on the road and seeing villagers bathing along the roadside in their underwear that I don't think twice about stripping down to my small dark blue boxer shorts in front of the local.
The water is a lovely, cool temperature as it flows against my legs. The sandy bottom is firm under my weight, but under Rocinante's 215 kilogram bulk it might be significantly less so.
The river is at the exact level that makes it tempting to make a bad decision. I wade farther into the water. About two meters from the far shore there is a significant drop, the water is now running high along my thigh.
Given the depth and the sandy bottom, which I can picture Rocinante's digging herself deeper into, the crossing is impossible. It's not likely, but certain that the exhaust would go underwater and I would flood the engine. And though flooding the engine isn't the end of the world if you're a solid mechanic and you know what you're doing, I'm not. And I don't.
If I was about to buy this bike, I would be devastated to watch someone try to make this river crossing.
Back on shore, I confirm to the man that it's not possible for this motorcycle to make that crossing. He rolls up his pant legs and start to cross over himself, leaning on his walking stick, as I pull on my socks and boots.
“There,” I say, pointing to what appeared to be a metal disc I spotted as I stepped out of the water. My first reaction had been to retrieve it, pick it up and see what it was. However, given the fact that I'm in a country with an estimated more than 800,000 unexploded ordinances (UXO), which continue to kill and maim people every year, that seemed like a bad idea.
The man pulls on a nearby stick, not seeing the disk I'm pointing.
Then, he sees it.
I start to edge backward as he pocks the foreign object with his walking stick. I'm still well within a kill zone of any UXO blast, and though I had mused earlier that perhaps a young American such as myself being injured by a bombie would make great headlines and perhaps even help drive more funding to the efforts of clearing bombs from Laos, I'm in no mood to be martyr. At the moment, I just want to get my bike and myself back to town in one piece. After a bit more poking and lifting, the man frees the piece of metal from its sandy underwater position.
It's a plate. A small tin plate, not a bomb.
“Oh, plate,” I say, smiling at him, while at the same time wondering why in earth I didn't just start running when he was poking it. One of the kids in the instructional video on UXO safety that's shown at the visitor center in Luang Prabang was digging along a river bank for worms when a bombie exploded in his face.
The old man has been here long enough to see his entire world bombed, as well as witness loved ones and friends killed by bombies decades after the US planes stopped bombing the region; he must know what they look like, I tell myself.
Back to strapping on my boots, I here a yelp from the man. Turning, I give a little laugh and a big smile as I see that he's found the deep section of the river on the far side.
I wave him off and return to the bike.
It's a precarious situation. Rocking back and forth, back and forth I attempt to turn the bike around. Now, if I had been a five year old on a rocking horse I'd be as happy as could be, but as a 31-year-old on a motorcycle that's supposed to be going places, this isn't what I'm looking for – she's not budging.
“Fuck,” I say, falling into my standard crazy person mumbling, which seems to have picked up since I started to travel by myself in Laos. Only about a week ago on a hike, I saw a tree so large and beautiful I stopped in my tracks and exclaimed, “My, isn't that a wonderful tree.” When surrounded by such consistent beauty, how do you take something to the next level without verbalizing it, even if no one is around to agree?
This, however, was a different sort of mumbling.
In an attempt to pop the bike all the way up onto the ridge it's parked on and into the dense grass and nearby banana trees, I give her some gas. The back wheel spins in the soft sand, digging in.
I stop. Laos isn't the best place for digging.
The man is gone.
Several hundred meters up the path there is a small home on stilts. I could maybe ask for help there as a last resort, but, at this point, it's just me and my lame horse.
“I'll have to put it on its side and drag it around,” I say to the banana trees.
Gently, I lay Rocinante down on her side and begin dragging the back tire around. The entire bike inches toward the river, barely turning. The sidebox scrapes through the sand, eventually digging into part of the sandy rut that held me captive in the first place. With a stick, I'm able to clear a path for the box to continue sliding. The front of the bike is now tangled in the tall grass and the banana trees.
It's not easy, but we make it. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
What the fuck am I going to do? Looking around, I see only forest, river and this tiny path that's not big enough to turn the bike around on.
Bending down, I grab my baby by the chassis and heave. It's not turned around yet, but maybe if I can get it back on it's wheels I can rock it around from here. I can't get the right leverage to get the bulky bike back on her wheels.
Sweat starts to soak through my white t-shirt. I make another attempt at getting the bike back on her wheels. The front tire slides forward, toward the water. It's only a few inches from the water at this point. That's not what I need.
Why can't I get it up? Okay, sometimes guys just can't get it up for one reason or another, but I've not been out drinking. I know I can get it up, but Rocinante isn't interested in what I think I can do.
I drag the back wheel around more, clearing a tangle of weeds from around the front of the bike.
This post is definitely going online after I sell the bike, I think, not that I'm doing any real damage to her.
With each attempt to lift the bike, the front tire slides closer to the water, rotating the bike the wrong direction. Then, something clicks and I've got her standing.
I straddle the bike. A bit more rocking and wiggling and the bike is facing the right direction, though the rear tires and my boots are in deep water, resting on soft sand.
Lifting the bike as best as I can with my legs, I give her gas. The rear wheels spins and we gain inches and are finally out of the water and facing the right direction.
It's a bumpy tough ride back to town. Big rocks and erosion on the small path give way to flat narrow dirt track flanked by elephant grass. The view on either side is completely blocked by the aptly named thick grass, in which one could lose an Asian elephant in moments. A man is sleeping in a small sala by a rice paddy planted along side the river. Farther up, there is a damn funded by the United States and built by Laos. A deep pool of water sits at the top, while a constant flow of water slips across the top of the damn like it's an infinity pool, tumbling down into a cascade of rounded boulders below.
A swim seems like a good idea, but the die disagrees.
The elderly couple I passed on the path earlier, who stepped aside giving me a questioning look, have disappeared into the surrounding jungle.
Back in town, I attempt to take the long way to the drum making village and the Laos PDR historical site, but lose faith after about 30 minutes of kicking up red dust on the wide dirt road that follows the river north. Every few kilometers, there would be several dozen wooden houses and large wooden signs naming the village. Many were labeled “cultural villages” and almost all were considered “village of model health”, at least according to the wooden signs.
Though the die wouldn't let me go for a swim, it did demand that I take some drone footage. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Josh Woodward
It's nearly 3pm by the time I return from the hot spring, which was a drab little place that cost 10,000 kip to enter. The man-made pools for visitors to bath in were filled with dust, further up, steam rose from the waters. And though the landscaping of short red-purple bushes was a strikingly beautiful contrast to the dark green slime basking in the heat of the mineral-rich water, the sulfuric smell of rotten eggs and the thousands of tiny bugs that were constantly running along my arms and legs and face were too much.
Near the pools, steel pipes gushed with the balmy water. I wash my face and return to my guesthouse That Hium. I'm exhausted. Originally, I had planned to head more north to explore Vieng Xai, which I'd heard amazing things about. However, yesterday, over a bowl of rice noodles hidden in a pile of fresh herbs I had given the the decision up to the dice knowing that, pushing further away from Luang Prabang was going to put pressure on me to speed up the journey in a couple of days in order to return in time to meet a friend flying up from Phuket at the airport for the Festival of Lights. So I ended up in That Hium. The only other white person I've met so far was an talkative, middle-aged German man who had spent five years working on tiger conservation projects in India and was poking about Laos to see what the condition were for tigers, as well as other wildlife. He was not impressed, to say the least.
Though there is still day light to be played in, I curl up and fall asleep, waking at various moments to watch the light fading in room 20, my room, as the sun sets.
It's dark by the time I get out of bed and shower. I'm to meet a the conservationist at 7pm for dinner.
All's well that ends well. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli