June 16th, 2011
New Delhi, India
“There’s always something waiting at the end of the road. If you aren’t willing to see what it is, you probably shouldn’t be out there in the first place.” – author unknown
Note: This is the conclusion to my March 9th, 2011 dirtbike ride story in Laos (see “The Day After That Day” for the first part of this crazy adventure.)
So basically, I was just trying to get from Point A (Attapeu) to Point C (Champasak) on crazy dirt road 18 in Southern Laos.
For those of you playing along at home, Champasak is an ancient city in southern Laos on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. Champasak is home to the wonderful Wat Phu Temple, which dates back to the 5th century and is considered to be Laos’ version of the Cambodian Angkor temples. When I left Tad Lo Village earlier that morning, my plan was to sleep in Champasak so that I could visit the Wat Phu temple early the next morning. An ambitious goal, for sure, but I actually thought it was possible.
What I did not realize that day while driving on dirt roads and across countless stream crossings, was that Champasak was not only the name of the famous temple city, it was also the name of the surrounding province. So every time I asked the local villagers along the way, “Champasak?” they would motion in the direction I was going. Occasionally I found someone who spoke a bit of English, and I would ask them how many kilometers? The answers varied significantly, with some people telling me 30 km and then then next villager telling me 70 km.
Conflicting advice. No way to know exactly where I was. It was getting dark. I was alone. I just had to keep going. Surely I’m getting really close to Champasak? Yes, I was getting close to Champasak, the PROVINCE. But I was still VERY far from Champasak, the ancient city.
Just so you have a better idea of what I was blindly attempting to tackle that crazy day, below is a map of Route 18, a ‘road’ that in theory connects Attapeu to Thang Beng in Laos. In theory. Yeah, right!
I got this off of Google Maps. I tried to find a better map online but couldn’t. If you look closely at this map, you will see Attapeu to the right where routes 11 and 18 intersect. That was my starting point at about 4PM.
Then if you look to the far left, you see a town called Thang Beng, at the intersection of the main Highway 13 and Route 18. That’s where I spent the night.
Then if you look between Attapeu and Thang Beng you will notice two things:
1) There are a lot of rivers and streams that cross Route 18.
2) Much of Route 18 does not even show up on the map. Maybe that’s because it was underwater. Maybe it’s because the satellite that snapped the photo could not penetrate the dense jungle canopy. Maybe it’s because all the cartographers assigned to map this route lost their motorbikes and map-making equipment while attempting incessantly insane water crossings all day long. Who knows. Here’s the map (click to see the big picture…)
So back to the action…
Shortly after I successfully crossed the murky yellow stream at 5:34 PM and then shot the video at 5:42 PM (in which I had to cross yet another stream), I came upon YET another stream.
“You’ve gotta be F’ing kidding me.” Maybe if it were 1:00 PM, and if I had a riding partner on another dirtbike, this would be fun. But now it was very dark, I was getting scared, and I was REALLY pushing my luck. Somehow I kept crossing each stream without getting stuck or dropping the bike into the water. I was REALLY lucky. Sure, I’m a good rider, but I was very lucky that day!
5:56 PM – Here is a video of the next stream. This stream was much wider than the murky yellow stream. And it was deeper. And there were big boulders in it. And it was getting dark. Sure, the birds were singing and the current was making a beautiful sound. And sure, this would be a great place for an afternoon picnic or a mid-day swim with some midgets.
What can I do but laugh and make the best of it? I was still shocked and amazed about how many times I was encountering water crossings that day. So I shoot a quick video, laugh at my predicament, and do my best to make it across safely.
This was the dry season, by the way. These roads would be virtually impossibly impassable during the wet season, so I would not have attempted this route otherwise. The streams would have been much deeper and faster, and way too dangerous. They were difficult enough in the dry season… I would hate to see them during the rainy months!
Another fucking stream, that’s who!
You have GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! Now it is almost completely dark. Nobody is around. No locals washing in the streams. No helpful men on motos. Just Lexicon and Mother Nature. I am now in shock and seriously worried about my well-being.
I can’t just stop here and sleep on a rock, because a tiger or a snake or a midget might eat me. I can’t really turn back, because then I’d have to cross back over ALL of the rivers and streams, and ride for hours in the dark jungle. I really have no idea how much further I have before I hit my destination. Surely it can’t be far now. Right? You know the answer (hint, what’s the opposite of right? WRONG!)
This is a photo of my next stream crossing. You can see my headlight reflecting in the water. And you can see how dark it is (so dark in fact that my photo is grainy, even with a long exposure setting.) But most importantly you can see how wide the stream is. I can’t tell exactly how deep it is, but I just gotta keep on keepin’ on.
Please don’t be deep, please don’t be deep!
Sure, it’s a beautiful night in the jungle. But NOT if you have to cross strange streams in the dark. By yourself.
Surely this is the last stream crossing for today, right? My adrenaline system and nerves are on “High Alert” status. I felt like I was on ‘Candid Camera’, and any minute Alan Funt would swing out of a tree on a vine like Tarzan and tell me that this was all just a big test of my patience, bravery, stupidity and stream-crossing skills. Unfortunately, this was very real, and there were no vine-visitors.
True or False… That was the last stream crossing for the day?
Answer: False. Very False.
6:34 PM – Seriously, you have got to be fucking kidding me! This isn’t funny anymore. Who choreographed this day?
This next stream was the second widest I encountered that day (only the one with the bamboo raft was wider.) You can see a few things from these two pictures:
- It is very dark.
- There is a tractor half-way across the stream, so it looks possible.
- There are people in the stream, washing and bathing. At least I can get some help if I need it.
- This village does not like Nicolas Cage. Smart village.
- There is a man and his friend on the moto ahead of me. I can watch the path the tractor and the moto take, and then try to follow them.
- The village on the other side of the stream has already turned its lights on, which means two things… 1) it’s dark out, and 2) they have electricity. Surely I’m getting closer to civilization (or so I tell myself.)
- I just used some bullet points within a bullet point. Fancy.
I follow behind the men on the moto. One man is driving the moto while the other man is guiding his front wheel through the boulders and rocks and fast current. I can see that they are struggling.
Before I started across the stream I took my camera off my ghetto-helmet-tripod and put it in my backpack. I was afraid that this monster stream was gonna take me under, and I figured my camera would be safer in my luggage than on my head.
I am not riding on Dirty Harry, I am walking along side it on the left. I have the motor running and it’s in first gear. I’m working the clutch with my left hand and the gas with my right. I figure I’ll have better balance and chances this way.
About 25% of the way across my front tire drops into a HUGE hole in the stream. I’m stuck. I almost drop my bike. One of the moto guys sees my trouble and comes back to help me back up my bike. He shows me the right way to go. I try again.
The current is fairly strong. The floor of the stream is littered with slippery large rocks and boulders. It is not a smooth path whatsoever. About half-way across my feet slip, my bike hits a big rock, and Dirty Harry almost drops into the water on the right side. How I was able to scramble and hold up my bike without losing it all is a deep mystery. Sure I have cat-like reflexes and unbelievable wit, charm, charisma, and modesty… but the fact that my bike kept running and my luggage stayed dry is nothing short of miraculous.
About 75% of the way across I encounter yet another deep pocket, and I almost drop my bike. Again! I’m stuck. Again! The water in the stream was up to my knees. There is a man bathing just ahead and to my right. He yells something to me and motions with his hands in a different direction. I motion for him to come help me. He does. He stops bathing, wades over and helps me get my bike un-stuck. Then he helps push me to the bank of the stream, safe and sound. I tell him “Kop Chai La Lai”, which means “thank you very much.”
I’m exhausted. I’ve had enough of this shit for one day. Too many serious moments to count. It’s now almost completely dark. I have no idea where I am. I confirm with the bathing man that I am on the right road to Champasak. He tells me to keep going. Surely I must be close now. Right?
Q. If this is a road, then why did they make a good chunk of it out of water?
A. I don’t know, but this shit ain’t funny anymore. Seriously, it’s dark out! I want my mommy!
7:15 PM. Finally, I arrive in a village with a decent road and lots of people and a shop and lots of lights. Surely these people have a guesthouse and a restaurant? Surely they can help me? Surely they can tell me where the ‘F’ I am?
I pull up to a general store. I’m absolutely exhausted and frazzled. Seriously… this isn’t funny anymore. I take off my helmet and riding jacket and ask the lady for a bottle of water. I plop my weary butt down on a big bag of rice. I ask her in English where I am. She doesn’t speak much English. She calls to someone in the back of the store.
And just when this story couldn’t get any weirder, it does. Out of nowhere, Jabba The Hut appears from the back of the store. A 300-pound guy. Maybe 25 years old. He’s huge. He’s sweating. Profusely. He’s only wearing a pair of skimpy boxer shorts, and they are WAAAAY too small for him. He’s gay… and he likes me. Surely I’m on Candid Camera. Please tell me this is a joke!
My mind quickly rewinded to the scene in Pulp Fiction where Bruce Willis and Marcellus Wallace are fighting on the street. They end up stumbling into a pawn shop where they are held hostage by the cashier, who then calls up Zed on the phone to come over and perform various cruel acts on Willis and Wallace. Something like that. (‘Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s Dead.’)
So Jabba the Hut comes over to me, wiping his forehead with his wet handkerchief, skin flapping in all directions, skimpy boxers barely containing their contents. He asks me in broken English what I want. His voice sounds like an effeminate Laos version of Michael Jackson. He thinks I’m cute. No dice, buddy, I’m straight. Just tell me where the ‘F’ I am, please.
I tell him I am trying to get to Champasak. I tell him I am exhausted. I tell him I have crossed many streams today. I tell him I can’t go any further. I ask him if there is a guest house or hotel in this village. He says there is no place to sleep in this village. I ask him if there is a restaurant. He laughs and says ‘no.’ I ask him if I can sleep on the floor here at the store. He laughs again and says ‘no.’
I assumed he would jump at the chance to have me sleep on his floor. I was wrong.
I pull out my glossy fold-out map of Laos. I ask him where we are. He can’t tell me exactly. I tell him where I want to go (Champasak) and ask him how far it is. He can’t tell me exactly. I can’t understand why he can’t understand.
Luckily, a local man comes into the store. He speaks decent English (better than Jabba The Hut, at least.) He shows me approximately where we are. He tells me maybe it’s another 30 km to the main road. He confirms that there is no guest house or restaurant here in this village.
30 km more? Where have I heard that before?
I figure I should be able to finish the last 30 km in about an hour. If the roads are good. If my headlights stay on. If I don’t run out of gas or get a flat tire. If there are no more stream crossings or surprises. And if in fact it’s only 30 km more. Lots of ‘ifs’ and variables. You’ve got to be kidding me!
OK, fair enough. I tell him that I can’t handle any more stream crossings. I’m exhausted, and I’m tired of pushing my luck and overloaded nervous system. I ask him if there are any more stream crossings between here and the main road. He tells me there are none. I ask him again, just to make sure he understands my question. I show him that my shoes and pants are still wet from the last stream crossing. I’m not messing around here… I can’t handle any more of this shit. It’s now about 7:45 PM. It’s totally dark. I’m in the jungle. I’ve had enough. He assures me that there no more stream crossings.
I finish my liter of water. I buy another liter bottle as a back-up. I’m pretty relaxed now. I’ve been in the general store for about 30 minutes, taking a badly needed break from my crazy day. I have a new sense of optimism and confidence. I pay Jabba The Hut and thank him for his help. And I deeply thank the local man who has given me hope and confidence again. I say goodbye, put my protective suit and helmet back on and hit the road again.
I am going to tell you right now that he was wrong. I am telling you right now that I had to cross another stream. He was definitely wrong. The big question is…
Q. How long after leaving Jabba The Hut’s General Store did I encounter my next stream crossing?
A. Four minutes. FOUR MINUTES! You’ve got to be FUCKING kidding me! Am I on a different planet? I want to speak to the manager!
No joke. Only four minutes after leaving that village… after only four minutes of driving through pitch black roads, dodging cows and dogs… after only four minutes since saying ‘goodbye’ to the nice man who absolutely assured me there were no more stream crossings, I came upon my next stream crossing.
Luckily, it was a small stream, and not very deep. It did not look bad. This wasn’t my first rodeo today… here we go.
I made it across easily, but as I was climbing up the muddy hill on the other side, I lost the bike. I hopped off to the left, and Dirty Harry landed hard on his left side in the thick mud. The engine stopped. Some gas trickled out of the tank and into the mud. You have got to be kidding me!
Actually, I was laughing at this point (because if I didn’t laugh I probably would have started crying.) I was OK. My bike started back up right away. What’s the worst that can happen now? Bring it on!
It turns out that THIS ONE was the last stream crossing of the night. Right after I dropped Dirty Harry and was laughing out loud about my crazy adventure, I reached the first paved road I had seen since Attapeu. I was able to complete the last 30 km or so pretty quickly and safely.
Somehow I knew at this point that I was going to be OK. I knew that the paved roads would keep going, and that I was in the home stretch. Sure enough, about an hour later, I arrived at a 3-way junction. Yahoooooo! I know where I am now. I’m in Thang Beng. Yahoooooo! The sense of relief that I felt at that moment was indescribable. Finally, I’m safe. I’m going to be OK.
Thang Beng has quite a few shops, restaurants and businesses. It’s a small city on the main north/south Laos highway (Highway 13.) I drive up to a restaurant with a decent number of local people eating and ask someone where the closest guest house or hotel is. They tell me there’s one about 500 meters up the road. Fair enough. “Kop Chai.”
8:45 PM – I pull into a very small guest house/motel with 4 rooms. I can’t find anybody to help me. I drive around back, and an old man is sleeping under a mosquito net in a small building, with the TV blaring in front of him. Actually, he’s not sleeping, he’s passed out drunk.
I wake him up and ask him if he has a room. He’s really drunk. He says he has a room. He struggles to find his keys and leads me to a small building. He opens the door, turns on the light, and shows me my room. To say it was disgusting would be putting it nicely.
There are a few geckos scrambling around on the wall. The bathroom is filthy. The nasty sink is dripping. But at least the A/C and TV and hot water are working. Beggars can’t be choosers after a day like today… “I’ll take it!” What do you want for six dollars a night?
I ask him for a cold beer. We walk back out to his little hut. The tall refrigerated case has colas and water and beer. Sweet! But he can’t find his keys. He looks under his pillow. He looks under his mattress. He moves some empty booze bottles around. He looks all over the cluttered floor and on the dirty ground around his hut. No keys. I give him my headlamp. He keeps fumbling around. He walks away and goes into another building, looking for his keys.
About five minutes later he reappears. No keys. But he has a hack-saw blade. He slowly cuts off the small padlock while I shine my headlamp on his project. He hands me a cold Beer Lao. Sweet! “Kop Chai mister. Kop Chai! – You’re my friend!”
I have a few swigs of beer, take a quick hot shower, put on some clean dry clothes and walk to the restaurant next door. It’s now about 9:30 PM. The outdoor restaurant is very nice. There are a few men eating at a table across the lawn, laughing and drinking Beer Lao. I sit down at a table. A woman appears with a menu and a smile. I am SOOOO happy to be sitting down and relaxing. I order some grilled shrimp, some rice, and some vegetables. And a cold Beer Lao.
I want to tell this woman, “Do you have a minute? Can I tell you about my day? Today has been one of the craziest days of my life. You won’t believe some of the shit I did today. Can I show you some pictures? Do you have a minute?” But she doesn’t speak English.
I would have loved to be sitting at that table with my crazy brothers or a few of my good buddies. How cool would it have been if I had driven all that way today with a few good, crazy friends? And then when we got to Thang Beng, we would all go out for dinner and a few cold ones to laugh and talk about our crazy day. How cool would that be?
But I was alone that day, which was just fine… because that’s just the way it was. I sat there and decompressed. I enjoyed my beer. I enjoyed the tasty food and the stars and the frogs croaking in the pond. I enjoyed being safe.The other men left. The lady turned off the restaurant lights. I paid my bill and walked home.
I crawled into my bed, turned on the A/C and the TV and said out loud… ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ Not ‘Thank you” to anybody or anything in particular. Just ‘Thank you. Thank you.’
‘Thank you’ for the amazing day. ‘Thank you’ for my nice bed. ‘Thank you’ for my tasty meal. ‘Thank you’ for my cold beer and my hot shower. ‘Thank you’ for making it through this crazy day. ‘Thank you’ for my strong body. ‘Thank you’ for this amazing adventure. ‘Thank you’ for this great life. Thank you. Thank you.
I quickly fell asleep. What a day… What a day.
(This true story is based on a true story.)
Peace & Love from way over here,
First Man to Moonwalk on the Sun (1975)
Original Member of The Spice Girls (I went by several names while touring with the Spice Girls. Mild Spice. Spicy Spice. Bland Spice. Turmeric. We parted ways when I went off to college.)