I wake from a bizarre series of dreams, open my eyes and sit up a little. I’m still a little confused and trying to work out where I am… why are we on the floor? Who is walking around outside?
Eventually the memories of yesterday come flooding back and I lay down again, listening for the footsteps that woke me in the first place…
We are in a tiny village, home to maybe 100 people, a long way from anywhere in central Laos. Yesterday turned out to be a great day, but it could have gone either way. The road we were riding was supposed to take us up into the mountains in a circular loop, which ended at a famous place called Konglor Cave, where we were going to take a boat on a river that runs right through the middle of a mountain and out the other side. Then we’d planned to get back on the same boat, return under the mountain and continue our travels.
This plan seemed sound, until we went past a turnoff that said “Konglor Cave, 56km’, about 200km before we were expecting to see the turnoff. A quick look at the map confirmed that this particular road was not on it, but based on where we were, it might just be that this road could take us to the other opening of the same cave.
My adventurous side then reasoned that it may be possible to put the bike into a boat and bring it through the cave (under the mountain) and then ride out from the other side…
We discussed this option at length…
‘Sal can you hear me?’
‘sort of what?’
‘did you see that sign, shall we go check it out?”
‘we’ve got enough fuel to get there and back if it doesn’t work out, and it’s only 2:30 so we should have enough daylight too’
‘sure babe, I can’t hear you. whatever you think’
So we left the nice smooth sealed road and took the little turn off. I switched mode on the GPS to show me the elevation profile, and could see that we had a steep descent, followed by 40km of road that crossed lots of rivers. Hmmm. Rivers usually mean water and sand.
Sally hates sand.
‘hey babe are you sure you’re happy to do this?’ (He knew I wouldn’t be…)
‘what??? Babe i can’t hear you’ (I could hear him, I just knew I didnt really have choice)
‘ok then so long as you’re sure’ (deep breath… )
The descending dirt road was actually in reasonable condition for the most part, although there was some sand and deep fine bulldust to negotiate, but it was nothing we haven’t done before so we arrived in the valley below unscathed.
The first water crossing was quite short and muddy, and took me a little by surprised, so I had to just hit it straight, pretty fast, and hope it wasn’t too deep. Which it wasn’t. The next few were longer, either sandy bottom or gravel so quite easy, but the entry and exits on the steep river banks were quite tricky with two of us on the bike.
The routine usually goes like this…
Water approaching, I stand on the pegs, downshift to first or second gear and size it up as we approach, meanwhile Sally starts shouting
‘babe should i get off for this one?… babe???’
‘nah it’s ok’
‘babe i’d prefer to… ah shiiiit’
And out the other side we climb, water spraying everywhere, hissing off the hot exhaust, me smiling and Sal cursing. (oh, if there was a video camera on my face at times like this!)
There were a couple that looked a bit too difficult to ride two up, so Sal walked through those, and on one of the exits we had a little fall on the far bank, the bike slid a little and i slowed then stopped to get my balance, but unfortunately the ground was really carved up by truck tyres and I didn’t have any footing, so at a complete stop we went over.
It was quite funny (from my point of view), even before we’d hit the ground we were both asking the other if they are ok, “yeah I’m fine are you ok?”
And on it went. Eventually we arrived at the cave at 3:40pm, and asked one of the group of canoe operators whether they could carry a motorbike?
I was foolishly expecting a yes or no answer, but instead the group of 6 men got into a heated argument, which went on for several minutes before one of them walked over to me and scratched the number 30,000 into the dirt. (AUD$60).
It took me a second to understand, but before arguing the price I wanted to see the canoe. He pointed towards the river bank, which we walked over to and found 5 or ten canoes, large enough to carry 4 people each, but sure as hell not big enough for Betsy.
The problem of the exorbitant ferry fee solved, we decided to go through and back on one of the small canoes (leaving Betsy behind) and then spend the night in the previous village (where apparently one of the canoe guys had a homestay). The idea of taking a canoe on a river though a mountain sounds really interesting. The reality is that it’s completely dark so you cant see a fucking thing.
Fast forward two hours and we were back where we’d started, putting our riding suits back on ready to go find the homestay.
Unfortunately the canoe guy who’d offered it had now disappeared, so with dark rapidly approaching we were on our own. We went to the nearest village and asked some people (via mime) if there was somewhere we could sleep. Luckily one of them spoke some English so before we could try any more Charlie Chaplain he told us there was nowhere in that village and to try the next one.
At this stage Sal was getting a little tetchy, we hadn’t eaten lunch yet, it was getting dark, and it was looking like we’d have to ride back up 56km to the main road over rivers and through sand. I tried to stay calm, saying things like
‘dont worry babe, we’ll find a room for sure, and we have our mattresses and some food on the bike too, we’ll be fine’
In reality I was trying to work out what would be worse, riding back in the dark or staying here and sleeping under a bamboo shelter.
We turned back up the road and headed for the next village 2km away, and asked some kids if we could sleep in their village. On of them said ‘yes homestay’ and pointed further down the road. This was good news!! We couldn’t understand where the phantom homestay might be, so one of them got on a motorbike and took us there himself. Great Success!!
The canoe guy we’d met earlier (Ken) then appeared and pointed to his house, saying homestay, 50,000 for guesthouse, 100,000 for homestay. Again the communication was slow, but he was offering to cook dinner and breakfast for us, for an extra 50,000kip ($10).
We took the offer, and ate a dinner of instant noodles with egg and something green, sitting on the floor of his wooden home, surrounded by his children, who were watching The Flinstones, before heading to our room in another wooden hut across the road, to play cards and drink the beer he’d fetched for us earlier.
Now back where this story began, I stuck my head out of the room to see what the noise was, and found a small herd of water buffalo walking around the hut, snorting and whipping their tails around, really beautiful animals, even at 2am!
The ride back up to the sealed road the next day was much easier than on the way down, I could remember most of the water crossings and the sandy parts were all uphill which is easier to negotiate. From there it was a very long and boring 350km ride into Vientiane, but the beer on the Mekong when we arrived was heaven! Then it was Christmas…!