Sabaidee! Thanks for joining us on our ride from Vientiane to Pakse.
After bidding farewell to the unfortunately misnamed “Elephant Observation Tower” at Ban Na, we carried on southward, stopping in Paksan (for the ATM), Pak Kading (for lunch), and Thongnamsy (for gas). As we pulled up to the pump, a jolly-looking fellow handed me a cold Beerlao while I was still on the bike. Skeptically assuming he was a particularly aggressive street vendor, I asked him how much – but he gestured that it was on him. He handed Riccardo a can. Before long, we were joining him and his buddies in a seemingly endless round of the ubiquitous national lager.
In a testament to the teaching skills of the Lao guides we spent the night with at Ban Na, we were miraculously able to carry on a conversation (albeit, a very basic one) even though our new friends spoke no English whatever (not even “hello” or “please, god, no more beer”). Our host, Noi, was blessed with an uncanny ability to detect when anyone’s drink was almost done, and no sooner had they taken their last sip did a fresh can appear before them. Someone pumped Thai pop songs through a giant speaker at a ridiculous level of volume, and a dance party broke out. People came and went, but we stuck around until Noi began swaying and slurring and doing his best to convince us to join him for karaoke a couple of towns away. Alas – the clock was ticking and we had to make it to Tha Khaek before pitch darkness fell. Riccardo presented the merrymakers with one more round of Beerlaos from the neighbouring shop, and we said our goodbyes. It was a delightful afternoon, but it’s always best to quit while you’re ahead.
We reached our destination with moments to spare before the sun set over Thailand across the Mekong. Another successful day of riding was celebrated over a sumptuous dinner of duck laab (a Lao specialty), ginger pork, and green papaya salad. A post-dinner stroll led us to conclude that Tha Khaek is a sleepy little river town, not without its charms, but not warranting too long a stay. The next morning, we set out on the bike again – this time, we decided to head inland.
It was such a glorious day! The sun was beating down, and the hills loomed large in the distance. Our plan was to make it to the next stop, Savannakhet, by sundown – but by an alternate route than the reliable but constant highway. The awesome map we’d traded a book for in Vientiane came in handy, helping us to navigate areas that are signposted exclusively in the Lao language (no English characters, that is). We rode for most of the afternoon through charming villages and endless rice paddies. The roads consisted mostly of dirt, sometimes narrowing into little more than a footpath – extremely bumpy and riddled with craters invisible in the sun. Our trusty Honda Baja overcame each obstacle with ease.
That is, until we came up on a rickety bamboo bridge with a steep sandy hill on the other side. I hopped off and waited (soon joined by a pair of curious little girls who had been swimming nearby) while Riccardo carefully maneuvered the bike to the other side of the river. The crossing went smoothly (despite parts of the bridge drooping precariously into the water), but it was tricky getting the bike up the hill on the other side because of the soft sand. Ric made a couple of attempts that ended with the bike – and him – horizontal, much to the amusement of the little girls. The engine flooded, so we waited a few seemingly eternal minutes between attempts to start it up again. I became convinced we’d be spending the night in this tiny hamlet. Finally, with the help of the girls’ father and a few others who wordlessly turned up and helped, the bike was successfully raised to the top of the hill. Poor Riccardo was panting, sweating profusely, and thoroughly exhausted – the temperature was a balmy 35 degrees in the shade. We rested for a few minutes, and then carried on.
Having run out of water, we decided to stop at the next place we saw to refill. After driving for about 30 minutes, the only place resembling a shop seemed to be a shack with a guy passed out in a hammock in front, no doubt following a few Beerlao in the sun. We woke him up. Within minutes, we were surrounded by no fewer than about 30 inquisitive villagers; a few smiling, most staring at us with expressions of bemusement or abject terror. It occurred to us that they may well have thought we were malevolent spirits. (We’d read in an official Lao tourism guide that when tourist pass through particularly remote villages without stopping, villagers may become convinced they have crossed paths with an evil spirit, and a goat must obviously be sacrificed. Or something.) We paid for our Coke and Red Bull (he didn’t have water!) and backed away from the shop, smiling broadly and waving nervously. We resisted the urge to make scary faces at them. Stop judging, you’d have thought the same thing.
HERE’S RICCARDO’S TAKE ON WHAT HAPPENED NEXT… (He’ll interject in blue every so often)
About an hour later the sun began to slowly set and a thin fog lightly brushstroked the landscape ahead of us as we pursued our goal of reaching Savanakhet. The headlights began to pierce the fog and dust as night fell quickly upon us. We turned a corner and a herd of water buffalo, each the size of small car, ran up into the road directly in front of us. An attempt at an emergency stop proved futile as the dirt road provided no traction. The rear tire slid and we met the ground hard. A few thoughts crossed my mind in the half-second it took to hit the ground- “this is going to hurt” and the safety of my darling passenger.
Me again. My reaction, as I tumbled into the dirt, was, “Oh, crap – this is it.” If the crash didn’t kill us, the water buffalo we’d just slighted almost certainly would. Then, my eyes fell on a terrifying sight I will probably never forget: Ric pinned under the bike, and blood spattered in the dirt (faint-hearted readers, please accept my apologies)!
But I found I was able to jump up right away! I ran to him.
I struggled to get up but the bike was on top of me. I pushed a few times but could not muster the necessary strength. I could see a scooter, coming in the other direction. It was a man- immediately upon us helping me upright the impossibly heavy bike. “Are you alright!?” I asked repeatedly, although I could hear Carolyn respond yes and I could see her standing there virtually unscathed. Thank God.
To my utmost relief, he too was able to get up at once (can you imagine how I felt?), with the help of a man who just happened to be travelling in the opposite direction at exactly the same time (amazing, considering we had gone miles without seeing a soul). The good Samaritan stuck around to make sure we were okay, and by yet another miracle, the bike started up right away. The damage turned out to be minimal: Riccardo cut his hand pretty badly and has a few other bruises and scrapes, and I have only a (rather unsightly) scratch on my knee! The bike sustained some minor damage which we’ll get fixed in Pakse tomorrow.
Adrenaline kicked in right away – we needed to get cleaned up and bandage Ric’s hand to avoid infection. Our destination was still 100km away, but consultation with various locals informed us that the roads ahead were in bad condition and we’d need to keep our speed down to about 30km/hour for most of the ride. At that rate, we’d get to Savannakhet in over three hours! I couldn’t imagine getting back on the bike, and for that long no less – but there was no alternative. Night was quickly falling and there was nowhere to stop in between. Our first-aid kit, dorky head lamp and duct tape came in handy – we quickly sorted ourselves out, and got back in the saddle.
That ride was pretty unpleasant, I must say. The soreness and various aches and pains from the accident were compounded by the wind and surprising dip in temperature, our rear ends were paining us tremendously, and the surroundings were positively dismal. Lao folk go to sleep early, especially in the country – so for most of the drive, the only people we came across were small groups of men huddled around bottles of Lao whiskey in dimly lit garages, or vegetable thieves with flashlights sneaking around farms. It was tempting to go faster, but we couldn’t risk another encounter with an errant buffalo. On a positive note, the starry sky above was probably the most breathtaking we’d ever seen.
At last, we started to notice signs of city life – a most welcome sight, as you can probably imagine – and then, a sign welcoming us to Savannakhet, in English text. We made our way immediately to the hospital.
What an experience! We parked the bike right outside, walked up to the triage window, pointed at Ric’s hand, and were immediately ushered into a small room where a few other patients were being seen. A very sweet nurse in an crisp white bonnet wasted no time in removing the makeshift bandage we’d applied, dousing the wound with antiseptic and iodine, administering a local anaesthetic, and deftly stitching him up. She then supplied us with generous quantities of antibiotics and painkillers to take with us. The whole process took about 20 minutes! Amazement turned to shock when we got the bill, though – a whopping 52,000 kip. That’s about $6.50 CDN.
If you have managed to read this far, it may be because the story has been compelling, but it’s more likely that you are a friend or relative who’s just wondering what we’ve been up to. If that’s the case, you may be especially interested in the next turn of events.
Having managed to find an acceptable hotel, we spent the next hour or so scrubbing the layers of red dirt out of our pores. Every bag and item of clothing we had was caked with it. The beloved black leggings I was wearing were totaled and had to be tossed. We moved slowly and tentatively, careful not to disturb our various minor scrapes and bruises, laughing at the sorry state we’d gotten ourselves into. We got to reflecting on how happy we each were to see the other get up just after the accident, and how much fun we have together even when we’ve just narrowly escaped being obliterated by a stupid water buffalo.
And it was at this moment of relief, fatigue, and joy that I chose to get down on bended knee and ask Carolyn to be my wife. The hotel room wasn’t perfect, there was no ring to speak of (Yet!), the town left much to be desired- we had not even cold drinks with which to celebrate. The moment, however, was dream-like perfection. And this girl- who 3 and a half years ago took my breath away- has now made me happier and my life more meaningful than I could have imagined.
…and just like that, I have been downgraded from “wife” (as he’s been referring to me here in Asia, for the sake of cultural sensitivity) to “fiancée”. For you slower readers, that’s right – we are engaged!!! (The extra exclamation points are wholly warranted here, I feel.) Although it still seems kind of surreal, we’re so excited about this natural next step in our journey (oy, that sounds lame) and can’t wait to celebrate properly back home!
P.S. It occurred to us both later that the date these events took place was February 15…. which means that at home, it was St. Valentine’s Day. That was completely unintentional, trust us.
P.S.S. The next day, by sheer coincidence, we kept randomly spotting wedding-related symbols – which is particularly strange, in a place where wedding traditions are quite different from those in the west. I took this as a good omen.