Monday, August 30, 2010

The Loop

Curious backpacker word-of-mouth and a mysterious boxed text in our travel guide brought to the Tha Kaek lodge: a ram-shackle backwater accommodation replete with thriving ant colonies and dead millipede carcasses. The only respite from the soaring heat and humidity was a loosely-bolted fan turning above us too slowly to provide adequate air circulation, but just fast enough to be lethal. Nobody sleeps well at the Tha Kaek Lodge.

Indeed, nobody would every sleep here at all were it not the resting place of an enigmatic log book, referenced in all the major travel books. An infamous scrap collection, well-known in Laotian backpacker circles, penned by generations of gap year layabouts, containing up-to-date information and a wealth of unsettling details about Laos’ greatest motor-bike odyssey: The Loop.

The scrapbook alone is worth the trip to Tha Kaek- a multi-volume anthology filled with decades worth of colorful anecdotes describing potholes and what they have done to crummy third-world rental bikes over the ages. Some authors focus on the slippery monsoon conditions, while others recounted forboding tales of Laotian ambulance services.

But alas, all entries raved about the hidden beauty of The Loop. Even the grimmest missives were, paradoxically, filled with glowing eulogies of gorgeous scenery and charming locals. Despite scrape wounds, vehicle repairs, and skidding across uneven pavement, all contributors enthusiastically agreed: The Loop is not to be missed. It is the definitive Laotian experience.

Inspired by the log book, like generations of backpackers before us, Katlijn and I spent a nervous night at the Tha Kaek lodge awaiting our appointment the next day with Mr. Ku, the hotel’s motorbike mechanic.

The Loop: Day 1 Tha Kaek to Dong Lo

According to the scrapbook, Mr. Ku’s most reliable line of motorcycles is the dubiously titled Suzuki "Smash". Leave it up to the Japanese to come up with the brand name "Smash" to market low-end motor bikes. To our dismay, he no longer had any of these left so we had to take a no-name Chinese replacement to the more reputable Smash model.

Ku disappeared into his rusty garden shed and emerged with a dodgy scooter fashioned out of light plastic and an engine just big enough to mow a well-groomed lawn. In a sadly mis-guided effort to save money, Katlijn and I shared one bike together with a backpack, causing it to sag and groan under the strain. Perhaps a tad distastefully, we called our bike "The Chink".

Andrew and the Chink.

Mr. Ku warned us that as soon as we left the hotel premises, nobody could speak English. He gave us a crumpled piece of paper with a short glossary of random Lao terms and some mis-spelled translations, then pointed us in the right direction. We waved goodbye to Mr. Ku, Katlijn gunned the accelerator and The Chink responded with a giddy squeal as we set off to tackle The Loop.

Inconviently just outside of civilization, it occurred to us that we were short on Laotian cash. We desperately emptied the contents of our backpack on the road-side, gathering any remotely plausible scrap of currency we could find. It wasn’t enough. Hoping that we could manage by rationing ourselves to only three bowls of noodles a day, we stubbornly persisted.

Andrew devouring his first of many bowls of beef noodles.

An hour later, we turned East onto Route 8, dubbed by many "the most beautiful highway in the world". Shimmering green rice fields flooded between crevices of the jungle clad karst around us. It was a stunning landscape- carefree and on the road, it filled us with endless possibility. As our diminutive motorbike and its comically oversized payload assailed the winding road, rice workers by the road-side stood up and laughed heartily, yelling out "Sabaid !" as The Chink puttered by.

By nightfall we found ourselves at a humble rice village called Dong Lo. One of the local families was kind enough to let us spend the night with them in their rustic wooden stilt-house. They were exceedingly gracious hosts, building us our own private room out of bed sheets and a mosquito net. For dinner and breakfast they served us the usual Lao staples: sweet sticky rice, eggs, and tea. As we puzzled together over Mr. Ku’s dictionary of totally useless words, we enjoyed a peaceful evening exchanging family pictures and kind smiles over a steady trickle of Lao Lao.

Arriving in Dong Lo
Dong Lo locals working the flooded rice fields.

The Laotian stilt house we stayed at in Dong Lo.

Our gracious host and the meal she prepared for us protected for the night bugs under a net.

Andrew high on too much sticky rice and Lao Lao.

Our cozy bedroom.

The Loop: Day 2. Kong Lo Cave to Lao Sok.

Before continuing, we took a boat ride through the massive Kong Lo caves nearby. It took us nearly an hour to get through on a motor boat before emerging into a spectacular valley on the other side.

On our way back to Route 8 from Dong Lo, we had our first flat tire. Mercifully, this happened at low speed. As I struggled over the mechanics of changing motorcycle tires, we were accosted by a gang of grimy twelve year olds with tool bags. It is a little known fact that the Laotian jungle is teeming with gangs of school children carrying bags of tools. They are a shadowy little people. You’ll never see them, but they’ll find you; ever vigilant- patiently waiting to ambush the odd foreigner in need of a tire change. They are like the Viet-cong of good-samaritans.

Local school gang fixing the Chink.

A small flood washed away the road. A volunteer helped us across in his dugout canoe.

Having had our cheap motorbike repaired by the local toddlers, we decided it was safe enough to continue heading east along route 8. Unbelievably, it just gets prettier the further you drive on it. By the time Route 8 ended, we were motor-biking through a piece of heaven- perhaps it really was the most beautiful highway in the world after all…

Oddly enough, the most beautiful highway in the world ends at a wholly unremarkable town. Lao Sok boasts no similar far-fetched superlative, other than perhaps the world’s highest density of pot-holes. We decided to bounce our bike out of town towards the Vietnam border following curious sign posts promising natural hot springs.

A few miles further, we found a struggling outpost business kept alive by a couple of shady Vietnamese entrepeneurs and their false-advertising. The so-called natural hot spring was, in fact, a dirty bath tub serviced by a rusting tap that bellowed forth alarming metallic groans followed by a light brown dribble, while the "deluxe" bedroom was sparsely decorated with a flimsy cot and a hornet’s nest.

Have you ever tried to take a picture of a gorgeous sunset and had it not turn out right ? In reality, this monsoon sunset lighted the entire sky on fire with an eerie crimson glow that was one of the most unexpected highlights of our world trip. This sad photo, however, does not seem to capture the magic.

We slowly bounced back into Lao Sok and ate dinner at a place actually called "The Only One" restaurant, which (fortunately) also served pretty decent noodles. We were delighted to find out that our hotel would exchange American dollars at a reasonable rate. While at first we thought this would finally be the end to noodles three times a day, it turned out that Mr. Ku’s list of food translations only contained the single entry "noodles" and we didn’t know how to order anything else. I consoled myself with some Beer Lao and a luke-warm bath to cap the night.

The Loop: Day 3 Lak Sao – Yongalaat

We got up early the next morning, fueled up with an extra bowl of noodles, and left the cratered town of Lao Sok heading south along the dreaded route 8E. Nothing like its predecessor, 8E features prominently in the log book as the route’s most slippery highway. It isn’t really a highway at all, but rather a continuous undulation of pot holes making its way through the jungle. Though frequent road construction and rainy conditions often turned 8E into a virtual motor-cross, The Chink handled the terrain beautifully.

A spot of charades and a few mock chicken clucks earned us an omelet at a local road-side hole-in-the-wall. Over lunch and a cup of 3-in-1 coffee mix, we watched nervously as the monsoons rumbled over us. The subsequent downpour more or less washed away what little road was left of the 8E. Several hours later, our sore and muddy asses sputtered into Yongalaat: a charmless backwater way out in the Laotian sticks populated by a drunk noodle hawker and a hotelier to service our only affordable needs.

The monsoons rumbling over the jungle towards us. Monsoons are a natural weather phenomenon caused by an extreme temperature difference between the land and sea during the summer months. The hotter land creates a low pressure zone bringing in moist air from the ocean. Nearby mountains lift this most air resulting in exceptionally heavy percipitation. It is also the worst time of the year to ride a motor bike through the jungle.

Though humble and remote, the spectacularly crusty Yongalaat Inn has left its own unfortunate imprint on my travel memories. Katlijn and I spent a restless night fully clothed, with our shoes on, and our socks rolled up over our pant legs trying to ignore the faint but distinct shuffling of the various over-sized jungle bugs scurrying about the bedroom floor below us.

The Loop: Day 4

Happy to leave the Yongalaat Inn, we got an early start the next morning. We continued south along the 8E. After a particularly nasty spot of road construction, we were happy to find a paved road leading west all the way back to Tha Kaek.

With the sun shining on our backs and a decent size town with French food waiting ahead of us, a surge of euphoria washed over us. We stopped at a few "off-the-beaten-path" attractions along the way, which (in all honesty) probably should remain that way. The swimming hole our guide book briefly referred to was a swamp, while the "bat" and "Buddha" caves were a breeding ground for mosquitoes and leeches respectively. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful day and there is nothing more satisfying than wind in your face as you motor bike through a gorgeous and foreign countryside.

By late afternoon, we waved a fond farewell to The Chink, thanked Mr. Ku for his help, and soothed our pot-hole-weary-saddle-sore with a pleasant stroll along the Mekong among the old French colonial buildings. Having completed The Loop we were entitled to our very own boastful entry into the Log Book complete with impossible superlatives and just enough danger to keep the legend alive. It really is the definitive Laotian experience.

Needless to say, we didn’t spend another night at the Tha Kaek lounge. Not far away we upgraded to a nearby hotel that catered Laotian barbecue room service. A massive monsoon thunderstorm rendered the city without electricity. After four days of noodles, our celebratory candle-light "We survived the loop" barbecue dinner will likely be one of the best in our lifetimes.