Out of Step on the Vagabond Trail
Posted on December 4, 2015
Everything changed in Laos. Gone were the perfect tarmac roads, regularly spaced villages, and petrol stations. We ascended 1500 meters as we approached the border from Vietnam and were greeted by a lofty, impenetrable wall of jungle. We slowly climbed steep escarpments and coasted down ravines. Houses stood 8 feet in the air on posts in small clearings, barely free of the dense vegetation surrounding them. Intermittently we moved through sections of trees with an incredibly loud, steady, high-pitched whine. Surely it was a symphony of some insects, but I’d never heard anything quite like it before. Suddenly this felt like an adventure again.
After all the difficulty getting through the Vietnam border, we hoped that Laos would be easier. We parked the bike near the immigration office where all the local bikes were parked, walked in wearing our backpacks, got our passports stamped, got back on the bike and rode away. Just like we did it every day. We didn’t mention anything about a bike and neither did they, so I figured no one cared very much, and just like that, we were off into jungle.
The beaches and little cafés of Da Nang were fantastic, but it was a great feeling to be cruising along in a wild place once again. Both beams on the bike headlight had died and we were very happy to arrive at a small town just in time to escape the deep dark of the jungle that was quickly engulfing us.
After another day of riding, we arrived at the ancient Khmer Hindu temple called Wat Phu, with structures dating from the 11th to the 13 centuries A.D. We wandered the ruins and sweated our way up the ancient stone staircases in the sweltering heat to the impressive shrine at the top, dedicated to the Hindu diety Shiva. The site later became a center of Theravada Buddhist worship as it remains today, with Buddhist shrines newly refreshed and folks quietly meditating here and there.
We continued west, winding our way along the Mekong River. The most direct route west unfortunately ran straight into the river, but it turned out not to be much of a problem with the help of a local boatman and his resourceful craft. We wheeled the bike out onto a set of planks that he had nailed to the rails of two canoes, joining them together to make his barge that was powered by an outboard motor with a tiny little propeller. We slowly putted to the opposite bank, nursed the bike up the bank through the sand and continued on our way along the river towards the Cambodian border.
There’s something soul crushing about backtracking. When we’re moving forward, no matter how slow the pace or difficult the conditions, it lightens the heart to know that progress is being made. After hours at the Cambodian border, it was pretty clear that they had no intention of letting us ride our undocumented bike in, no matter how diminutive she appeared. We turned around in defeat and did a full day’s ride the wrong direction. Our best option left was a massive detour around Cambodia through Thailand and try to enter Cambodia from the other side.
At least people drive much better in Thailand than in China. They actually look to see what’s coming before launching into a stream of traffic. It’s very relaxing. Jamie reckons I’ve been traumatized by China as I’m constantly honking the horn as we approach any intersection. In China, everyone did it and I got the impression that if you weren’t manically tapping your horn, you would be held responsible for anyone who decided to T-bone you from a side street. It will take awhile to get a handle on my PCSD, but I’m working on it.
We got to the Thai border and did the same routine as Laos – parked the bike with the others and strolled into the immigration office with our packs. No worries. Out the door and wheeling the bike towards the gate while the customs guys was busy talking with someone else. We were halfway there. Ten more seconds more and we would be out the gate and free to roam across Thailand. A shout came from the customs booth. I ignored it. Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with us. A second shout came. I turned around pointing to my chest, eyebrows raised with most innocuous look I could muster. He waves us over. Damn, so close!
We went into the office and explained that the bike is from China, and that bikes this size aren’t registered there, and it’s really little more than a bicycle, and we’ve ridden so far on it already through mountains and rainstorms, and if they could just allow us to continue the journey they would truly have our eternal gratitude. I was talking about accomplishing some world record for riding a tiny bike and all kinds of other bullshit. We were starting to sound pretty intrepid and heroic by my telling of it. We were provided some initial hope with an attempt to issue us a temporary import permit, but all that I had was the service manual for the bike, which was all in Chinese. They studied the booklet carefully, but it turns out, a Chinese service manual is not sufficient documentation to bring a vehicle across international borders. Go figure.
We were ushered into the big boss office, who turned out to be a wonderfully kind big boss. More dudes with all kinds of official looking pins and stripes on their uniforms piled in. There was a lot of conversation happening, but I didn’t quite understand what it could have been about because they just keep telling us the same thing in no uncertain terms – we must return to Laos with the bike. I kept replying the same thing – that if we can’t take the bike we’re just going to walk away from to border to catch a bus and one of you lucky dudes gets to ride it home. After two hours of back and forth I was running out of avenues to press and we became resigned to just leaving the bike. But something was wrong here…they were still talking to us. Why were they still talking to us? As it turned out, they really wanted to just let us go, but were worried if they might be called to account when the police stopped us for not having a license plate, which they were quite positive would happen. I wasn’t worried about it. I promised that if they helped us, we wouldn’t rat them out for all the tea in Thailand. Finally the biggest big boss just made a waving motion with his hand and the guy who spoke English said, “We never saw you”. We were off again.
Given all the effort getting into Thailand, we decided to just hop on the bus to Cambodia to visit the ancient city of Angkor. It was an awesome day riding in a tuk-tuk around Angkor exploring the ruins. We’d never seen anything like it. The styling of the architecture is unique in all the world. Stone pillars rise to the sky from mountainous temples served by grandiose causeways. High walls along with wide moats protect the city. It is an epic feeling place to explore and you can still find corners that are still nearly completely sheathed by the surrounding jungle.
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer people for 600 years starting around 800 A.D. and was the political center and home to a slew of god-kings during that period. It is an exceptionally grandiose example of Hindu dedication to their gods. The main temple, Angkor Wat, is arguably the largest religious building of any kind in the world. Subsequent Khmer kings upped the scale of the display with bigger and bigger temples and on occasion mixed in Buddhist figures and symbols to the temples according to their own beliefs. What we see now is just the spiritual skeleton of the Angkor that was. Most of the city was built of wood and has long since succumbed to the armies of neighboring peoples, and was ultimately reclaimed by the jungle. European ‘re-discovery’ of Angkor in the 1860’s by Portuguese and French explorers was a much celebrated event and the site has grown in popularity ever since.
From Angkor, we returned to Thailand and rode to Bangkok for a few days off the bike while we waited for our Indonesian visa to be processed. Indonesia was the next destination where there was a good chance to find some really good surf and I was getting pretty amped to get there. We weren’t looking forward to clawing our way into another big city, and Bangkok didn’t disappoint as we hit some solid gridlock as we approached the center of town. Jamie visited the Grand Palace and I didn’t do much besides drink coffee, enjoy air conditioning, and be glad I was walking around the city rather than trying to ride through it.
Getting out of the city was a dosage of pure madness. With a top speed of about 53 km an hour we were way out of our league on the little bike. Even the little 110cc and 125cc bikes smoked us as we cowered on the side of the road, trying to stay out of the way of everyone. The bike is a bit worse for all the wear after 10,000 km. Her seat broke off completely and I used some quick-set epoxy to re-attach it to the bracket. The right turn signal broke off again and went skittering down the road behind us, and the chain has some stiff links in it causing it to have a varying tension during rotation. But, she’s remarkably still moving forward.
Finally free of the city, we were off to find the prettiest beach we could to swing in a hammock. By the time we hit the Andaman coast of Thailand, we were deep into the well-worn SE Asia vagabond trail. The islands offshore of here were a wandering bohemian’s dream in decades past, with abundant gorgeous beaches and cheap living. Nowadays, most places seemed pretty overrun with Russian package vacationers, Scandinavian expats, European backpackers, and busloads of Chinese sightseers.
Luxury hotels and resorts lined the beaches and a souvenir shop, a tour agency, or a band of tuk-tuk drivers occupies every corner. A lot of the adventure seems long sucked out by the lucrative commercial appeal of this place. While I’m sure that there are still uncrowded places to find, we just didn’t make much of an effort to find them. We were roundly uninspired. There’s great food and the coastline really is spectacular, but in the end it just wasn’t our scene. It’s a great thing about being on the road – when somewhere doesn’t suit, it’s a simple thing to just ride on to the next place.