Death Ride for Buddha

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Death Ride for Buddha, in Laos

“Why are these bikes only $5 a day? Everyone else is charging $10.” They’re discounted, we’re told, because the headlights don’t work and you can only ride them during the day. We soon learn that there is a lot that doesn’t work on these bikes, with the brakes being at the top of the list.

The plan is to ride out to Vang Sang, a small town 65km north of Vientiane, to see some Buddha reliefs that are carved into the side of a cliff. While we’re in the area, we’ll also check out the town of Thalat, which the three-year-old guidebook claims has an “environmentally-incorrect” market, where wild animals are sold — deer, anteaters, squirrels, rats and such. Bush meat.

My friend Stu and I arrive to pick up the bikes at eight, looking them over skeptically. They’re both Honda Dream II scooters and don’t look to bad at first glance. One bike has a decal on the front with a cartoon drawing of a woman taking off her underwear. The other has a large Hello Kitty decal on the seat. I quickly call “dibs on the naked lady!”

It’s a good move, as the Hello Kitty bike is damned-near impossible to start. Both are kick-starts and neither wants to go into neutral, so we end up stamping on the gear shift several times before we can try to fire them up. My bike catches after just a kick or two, but Stu’s takes about a dozen tries each time, producing lazy farting sounds as he stamps again and again on the lever. I try not to gloat.

We give each other a look, as if to say “Are we sure about this?” These bikes are obviously death-traps, but we shrug and go for it anyways, because we’re both cheap and not terribly smart.

We give each other a look, as if to say “Are we sure about this?”

By 9:00 am, we’re ready to go and head north through town. The traffic is fairly heavy and I have to grin when I realize that just a few months ago, I would have been as nervous ‘as a whore in church’ (as my dad would say). After riding a couple thousand kilometers across Vietnam, the traffic here feels positively lethargic, almost quaint.

Testing the front brake, I hear a less-than-inspiring squeeeee and notice no change in speed — they could replace the brake lever with a squeeze toy and it’d have the same effect. The back brake is only slightly more effective and the engine sounds like a fifty-year-old, diesel-powered sewing machine. The speedometer doesn’t work at all and the gas gauge reads three-quarters full, but I know it’s wrong — the owner told us that we each have less than a liter of gas.

He’s wrong, too, as Stu runs out of gas just five minutes later and coasts to the side of the road. We’re lucky enough to stop in front of a small stall selling gas from recycled Beer Lao bottles. I love buying gas this way — something about the shear simplicity of it makes me giddy every time. Stu’s seat lock is broken and it takes us several minutes of key-jiggling and cursing to access the fuel tank. We finally get it open and each grab a liter to hold us over until we find a real gas station.

The dusty road to Vang Seng is paved, but has just enough deep pot holes to keep us alert as we meander through small towns and villages. It’s not terribly scenic, but then, I’ve become a bit spoiled while exploring the winding mountain roads of the north. Any road that doesn’t have a 500 foot drop off on the side seems a bit dull now.

After a few hours, we find the turn-off to the reliefs, a muddy dirt road with a sign that reads “Vang Veng Buddha Park”. We cautiously wind our way downhill for a couple of kilometers, finding a small, dirt parking spot by the bend of a river. The place is empty and dense with trees and ferns and to our right, a large outcropping of black basaltic rock stretches into the distance, shaggy with moss and vines. Birds and cicadas hum in the background as we climb off the bikes and look around.

Death Ride for Buddha in Laos

Four Buddhas greet us from an alcove cut into the rock — they’re about three feet high, with faded gold-leaf on their faces, eyes closed in meditation. They’ve been sitting here, waiting for us for five hundred years.

The carvings are believed to date from the 16th Century, though some local scholars claim they were created in the 11th. No one really knows. Vang Vang translates as Elephant Palace, a reference to an elephant graveyard that was discovered nearby many years ago. The site is completely undeveloped, with no signs, ropes, or fees, and we have it all to ourselves.

The main carvings are resting to our left, two large Buddhas carved into a tall, flat wall of black rock. At first, I’m disappointed with the size — the guidebook described them as “three meters high” and it takes me a few minutes to realize they really are at least eight or nine feet tall. Somehow, three meters sounded bigger.

Death Ride for Buddha in Laos

But they are quite impressive and the fact that they’re raw and unpreserved (and that we’re the only ones here) makes the experience especially poignant. Several trails lead off into the woods and we follow them all, hoping to find more carvings, but they’re all dead ends. I do manage, however, to successfully clear several large spider webs from the trail with my face.

Death Ride for Buddha in Laos

After spending an hour or so taking photos and wandering about, we head further north to Thalat, managing to get lost only once. Stu gets a flat as we enter town, but our luck holds out and we coast into a nearby repair shop. Twenty minutes and 10,000 kip ($1.25 US) later, we head for the market.

The market is like any other in Laos (or SE Asia, for that matter), a large rambling mix of vendors selling vegetables, clothing, and household items. We scour the place, but no one seems to be selling meat or animals. I try a piece of smoked sausage from the food stalls and it’s delicious — pork with garlic, ginger, chilis, and sweetgrass, plucked straight from the grill. We quickly manage to draw a large, gossiping crowd — they don’t see many farangs here, apparently.

We quickly manage to draw a large, gossiping crowd — they don’t see many farangs here, apparently.

Finding no other market in town, we cross a long bridge to the other side of the Nam Ngum River and stop for a beer at a riverside cafe. I ask a man there about the ‘meat market’, showing him a photo on my phone of a porcupine I’d seen in Nong Khaew. He blanches and shakes his head, “No! No market here.” It seems I’ve touched a nerve.

As we leave, I ask another man, showing him the photo. He laughs and shakes his head. “Market not here,” he says, suggesting we should try another small town on the other side of the province. The publicity from the guidebook has likely forced them to shut the market or move it out of sight. No bush meat tourism here.

The day is slipping away from us, but we forge on upriver, hoping to get a glimpse of the Nam Gnum Reservoir, created in the 70’s when the river was dammed. About twenty minutes upstream, we find the dam and a winding road that leads up to the lake, with its 200 square kilometers of fresh water and tiny islands. The views from the road are spectacular.

Death Ride for Buddha in Laos

We stop briefly at the lakeside to take a few photos and chat with a riverboat captain. When the lake was created, it flooded some extensive teak forests and now that teak is so valuable, timber companies are harvesting the trees underwater, using diving equipment and hydraulic chainsaws. It’s said to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, making those reality-TV Alaskan crab fisherman seem like a bunch of pansies (with apologies to any pansies reading this — I’m not talking about you, of course.)

By now, the sun is on it’s way down and we’re probably 90km from home. Holding my palm to the horizon, I guesstimate that we have three hours of light left. We have no headlights, odometer, speedometer, or brakes and it’s going to be tight. The bikes seem to top out around 35-40 kph, so we peg the throttles wide open as we rush back, navigating our way through the now-heavier traffic.

After a couple of hours of hard riding, my engine –which sounded rough and gravelly to begin with– is screaming. It’s an unearthly howl, as if all the damned souls in Hell just slammed their fingers in a door. I can only pray that it holds up. Stu’s taken the lead and I’m letting him find the potholes and trying not to run into him as he slows — his marginal brakes are marginally better than mine. The sun is an orange ball now and is dropping like a lead weight.

We hit the city’s edge as the sun falls below the horizon and weave our way to the center in the twilight. Cars and bikes are turning on their headlights as we swerve and dodge our way through the dying light. Then, the Mekong appears and we turn left, rolling up to the bike rental with a sigh of relief.

Ten minutes later, it’s dark.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Pirate63 September 6, 2010 at 10:29 am

Wow,awesome adventure

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wes September 6, 2010 at 10:47 am

Thanks! It was a blast. About to ride the Bolovan Plateau next — very excited!

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Michael September 8, 2010 at 5:18 am

are you in Pakse? a Bolaven Plateau ride will be spectacular, some great water falls–how far do you plan to ride?

“as nervous ‘as a whore in church’ ” Ha! my grandpa was fond of saying “nervous as a pregnant prostitute”

speaking of nervous, we are here waiting with bated breath for our Myanmar visas from the DC embassy, hope to see the FedEx man arrive with visa’d passports in a day or so–word on ThornTree is that the Embassy in Ottawa decided this morning that no more tourist visas will be issued until December, well after elections on Nov 7 and that this policy would certainly be met at other embassies worldwide. Phoned DC embassy this morning and was assured that they will continue to issue tourist visas and that we should be fine, whew…

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wes September 10, 2010 at 10:14 am

Not far, distance-wise. Spent a couple of nights in Tat Lo (waiting for a friend to catch up and join in), last night in Paksong (took a wrong turn). Tonite will be Attapeau, then Sekong tomorrow. We’ll cross over the plateau, back to Pakse after that.

Man, crossing my fingers for you re: the visas. I’ve met a few other travelers who have run into troubles due to the sudden change, too. Some have flights, but now-invalid visas.

ayngelina September 6, 2010 at 10:33 am

It would be so amazing to ride a bike but it also sounds ridiculously scary!

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wes September 6, 2010 at 10:45 am

Nah, Laos is a wonderful place to ride. The drivers are polite and not aggressive at all — a nice change from Vietnam. This was only scary because we were pushing sketchy bikes too hard ;)

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Jodi (Legal Nomads) September 6, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Lovely shots and I’m sure your next leg will be beautiful. I did over 840km in Northern Thailand, and while it was just gorgeous scenery-wise, I’ve got one main thing etched into my head: when I got pelted with cabbages and fell off the road. Heading up the mountain on the way to Pai, a truck piled high w/ cabbages was putting along right in front of my motorbike and then the chain at the back of its wagon broke. And then it rained cabbages on me. And then, being 5ft tall and all? I braked, realized my legs were too short to hold up the moto at a 45 degree angle, and then fell off a ravine and the bike fell atop me. Luckily NOT on the side w/ the exhaust. Also lucky: I was travelling w/ a friend and he helped pull the bike off of me. Adventures in motorcycling: not for the faint of heart! :)
.-= Jodi (Legal Nomads)´s last blog ..A Remarkable Morning in Yangon- Thiri Mingalar Market =-.

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Andi September 7, 2010 at 1:59 am

What an AWESOME roadtrip!!! Those Buddha carving are amazing.
.-= Andi´s last blog ..Brasil- Day 4 Part 1 =-.

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Nick Laborde September 7, 2010 at 3:14 am

Yeah, those good deals get you every time. Just makes the adventure that much more memorable right.
.-= Nick Laborde´s last blog ..Getting Lost In Savannah- GA =-.

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Earl September 7, 2010 at 7:59 am

Excellent storytelling…I was almost hoping you were stuck somewhere far away from Vientienne for the night just so I could read about further adventures with your Honda Dreams the following day!
.-= Earl´s last blog ..How To Turn Severe Weather Into A Travel Memory =-.

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Keith September 12, 2010 at 12:10 am

Consistently great story-telling, Wes. I feel a book in your future.
.-= Keith´s last blog ..The Peak =-.

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wes September 14, 2010 at 9:53 am

Thanks, Dan! A book would be wonderful — not getting my hopes up yet…

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wes February 16, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Argh! I meant Keith :)

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Theodora September 16, 2010 at 9:42 am

Great pictures. Makes me wish we’d spent more time in Laos…
.-= Theodora´s last blog ..Rafting the Maiting River =-.

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wes September 17, 2010 at 9:37 am

I’m really enjoying Laos, especially the south. Had planned on just staying a month, but I think it’ll be closer to two by the time I leave…

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Christy - Ordinary Traveler October 8, 2010 at 11:26 am

Another hilarious story! I agree with Keith. Great storytelling!
.-= Christy – Ordinary Traveler´s last blog ..Expensive Beer- Flying Foxes &amp Bright Green Campervans – Welcome to Australia! =-.

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wes October 9, 2010 at 8:28 am

Thanks, Christy :)

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