Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) | Mekong | Luang Prabang – Day 51 – Just another day, on the road, Laos
Just another day on the Travel Trail which included a motorcycle spill, a flat tire, a discussion of Jainism and Judaism, heaven-tipped vistas of Mekong and mountain, hiking up and cooling down in a waterfall and escaping a rental scam; just another day.
An unexpected meeting last night with Olivier and Dominique of France, three weeks after I almost crossed over from Cambodia to Laos with them (until the Lao border guard suspected me of all manner of heinous crimes because of my dual citizenship and sent me back while sending them forward); the unexpected meeting last night resulted in a warm catch-up of our respective doings since the border barter, and in plans to rent motorcycles today to check out the Pak Ou caves and the Kuang Si Falls.
Bright smiles and dark circles under the eyes at 7am today, we met and turned our attention to the contracts the motorcycle rental man wanted us to sign. One of the clauses said that the tenant (meaning renter) would be responsible for transport costs and any damage due to accidents fair enough. Another clause said we would be responsible for similar costs resulting from any mechanical damage, meaning we were on the hook if the bikes called it a day before we did. Olivier pointed out the latter clause and asked that it be struck from the contract, reasonably pointing out that we should not be responsible for whatever bumps and grinds the bikes had gone through before we took possession. The rental man, in decent french, refused, citing the excellent condition of his bikes. Olivier insisted but the man wouldnt budge. The live dangerously gene, already active within us at that early hour we WERE about to ride motorcycles after all sent out its neurotransmitters into all our brains simultaneously and we signed the contracts and handed over our passports. (Geneticists have made the remarkable discovery that the stupidity gene produces the exact same neurotransmitters).
The arrival of the friend that Olivier and Dominique had promised to bring along, occurred while the negotiations and genetic mutations were in full swing. Once I had signed my contract, I was introduced to Linda, a fellow Canadian, whose mother tongue is french. I asked her if she wanted to pilot our wheels (O and D would be on the other bike) but Linda preferred that I do the driving. We saddled up and headed for the hills, quite literally.
Once we managed to steer ourselves onto the road to the Pak Ou Caves, we gloried in the rush of the wind and the grandeur of the green giants all around us. Hillocks in the road gave forth broad panoramas over the Mekong, wide and brown beneath the jungled peaks. Meanwhile, Linda and I, shouting back and forth in french over the roar of the motor, became acquainted. I learned that she is doing her PHD dissertation on Jainism in India. Because I had spent some time in the amazing Jain temples of Rajasthan and Gujarat several years ago, I was slightly familiar with her chosen topic, but had many questions. She learned that although I was born in Canada, I now live in Israel and that I am a religiously observant Jew. Because she lives in an area of Montreal where there are many religious Jews, she was somewhat familiar with some of our traditions, but she too had many questions. It was a fascinating day of comparative religious anthropology ranging over Canada, Israel, India and more.
The road to Pak Ou became a roller-coaster dirt track and the dirt became greasy mud at the base of many of the hills. Early on in the roller coaster ride, while trying to negotiate one such patch of chocolate Jello, we discovered just how little tread the bikes tires still possessed. We fish-tailed through the mire and, despite my heroic efforts (ahem), the bike slid out from beneath us. Somehow both Linda and I managed to avoid the mud wrestling contest which the bike had flipped into. Nothing like making a lasting first impression on an almost total stranger by sending her sprawling from a motorbike. Linda was great about it, just laughing it off. Meanwhile, Olivier and Dominique had completely missed the Eval Knieval stuff because at the same moment, just ahead of us, they had discovered a punctured front tire.
We all limped into a nearby village. It turns out this is the village that all the fixed tours to Pak Ou stop at so that tourists can visit a real hill village. So, while a couple of Lao men assessed and tusk-tusked the state of Olivier and Dominiques front wheel a seemingly universal reaction of mechanics to any mechanical failure we all headed off to peruse the dozens of shacks where lovely fabrics, scarves, carvings and other treasures were on display. As no other tours had yet arrived, we had the village to ourselves and it was quite enchanting. Not being a power-shopper, I wandered off toward the river, took some photos and watched some kids playing badminton. Having learned Lao numbers, I kept score for them announcing the updated score in Lao after each point; this sent them into squeals of delight.
When the tire was finally repaired, we were on our way again, both Olivier and I driving with considerably more caution. We made it to the river-crossing where long-tail boats will ferry people across to the base of the limestone mountain where the cave entrance meets the Mekong. On the advice of a traveler returning from the cave, who said there was little to see in the cave itself, we decided as a group to forego the hefty ferry charge and to drink in the spectacle of bare stone and forested mountain spilling into river, to the right and the left as far as the eye could see.
Our return trip to Luang Prabang was less eventful but no less beautiful. Lunch in town and we headed out the other way, toward the Kuang Si Falls.
The undulating road to Kuang Si was paved all the way. Electric green rice paddies carpeted the valleys beneath more soaring ridge lines. Above these, greater finger-like mountains of cloud, the usual afternoon build-up of storm-bearers, were being raised almost like a potter would raise a tall thin water jug from a lump of clay on the spinning wheel. We made it to the parking lot at Kuang Si (ok, really just a gravelly, grassy field with an attendant who charged for the privilege of leaving our bikes there) and then paid again in order to proceed to the falls themselves. There is something which rankles a bit when one has to pay to see a natural phenomenon which requires no upkeep by the person collecting the fee. Still, the falls themselves were roaring away over the course of a 35 metre (or so) drop, pumped up by the rainy season. At the base of the falls, two wooden bridges allowed a closer approach, but it was tough to see and impossible to hear anything at that vantage point as a result of the powerful wind and spray pulsing out. We spent a good hour climbing up and returning back down the slippery path to one side of the falls. At a couple of spots, the path was actually part of the falls themselves and we had to be quite particular about our footing.
Thoroughly drenched in sweat and spray, we started heading back to the parking area. We were overtaken by a sunshower cloudburst accompanied by two perfect double rainbows above the trees. When we got to our bikes, neither would start. Lindas and mine kept spluttering; Olivier and Dominiques was dead silent. With the help of a tuk-tuk driver, our bike finally snorted, cleared its throat and belched to life but the starter on the other bike would not even move. The tuk-tuk driver offered to ferry O & M and their dormant transportation back to town. The negotiations for how much that would cost got underway. O & M told us to get going before our motor conked out again and that they would meet us in town. Linda held open an umbrella, sheltering us somewhat, while I cautiously leaned us according to the dictates of the road.
About half way through our return trip, O & Ms tuk-tuk passed us, with them riding shot-gun, standing up on the back fender, the bike taking up the passenger area. As we followed them into town, Dominique shouted to us in french to stay behind them. They had not told the tuk-tuk driver where we had rented the motorcycles but he was driving as if he knew. Hmmm. Indeed, a little while later, the tuk-tuk lead us right back to the little shop on the main street of Luang Prabang. Olivier quietly mentioned to me that one of the other Lao men back at the parking lot near the falls had said to him that, although he wasnt sure, he thought someone must have tampered with the starter on their motorbike. That comment and the fact that the tuk-tuk driver needed no prompting to get the bike back to its shop, along with the suspicious contract, all screamed scam.
Olivier and the rental man got into it. Olivier kept a quiet and level voice the whole time. He calmly stated his case and all the evidence and that he would not pay for the tuk-tuk tow or the damage. The rental man was doing his own impersonation of a forming storm cloud, his frowning expression growing darker and darker, looking ready to burst. He kept saying the contract was signed, the contract was signed. Olivier then said the magic word: police. At that point, the cloud burst. The rental man exploded into a rage of shouting, a very un-Lao and un-Asian thing to do. Then, to my further surprise, the rental man marched over to the tuk-tuk driver, paid him the amount Olivier was refusing to pay for bringing the bike back to town, stormed into his shop and, still spewing Lao invective,threw our passports at us. It was all worthy of an academy award, and it all confirmed that we had indeed uncovered his scam. Rather than risk the involvement of the police, the rental man decided to save face and his ability to scam other renters later by pretending to pay the tuk-tuk driver the inflated towing charge and by getting rid of us by returning our passports. I have no doubt that the rental man and the tuk-tuk driver have since gone over their strategy and have realized their mistake in not having the driver ask where he should return the stricken motorcycle.
Just another day, on the road.