The customs officer looked out of the window and wiped his brow. It was hot. Outside the lush jungle clicked and buzzed with tropical insects. On the desk in front of him was Magda’s paperwork. He looked back at me with a pained expression:
“What colour is your car?” he asked.
I looked out at where Magda sat patiently in the sun. I could see his problem. Kazakhstan road spray, a layer of Mongolian dust, topped off with Chinese mountain mud on top meant that Magda had turned a permanent matt-brown. The only thing clean were the headlights, which gleamed cheekily, like a school boy caught making mud pies in the playground.
“Used to be silver” I told him. He grunted and returned to the paperwork.
The arrival in Laos had reminded me of Mongolia. After the big government bureaucracy of China the arrival in Laos had almost been comical. First stop had been the pesticide spray, where two men lazing in chairs by the roadside had sprayed one side of Magda from their chairs, but couldn’t be bothered spraying the other before waving me on. Next was passport control, where I was entitled to a visa on arrival. I’d forgotten that I required a passport photo however, and had spent 2 minutes digging through my folders in the hope of finding a spare. The passport officer had got bored before I did though and waved me on, processing the visa without it.
As usual the final step was customs, where approval to bring Magda into the country is handled. After studiously trying to avoid me for 5 minutes the officer was now working his way through the temporary import approval.
“How long you stay in Laos?” he asked
“14 days” I lied. I was only staying seven but I knew the drill now.
“Ok I give you 15 days before you must take car out”
I gave him my best look of sincere appreciation, and he handed me the paperwork, along with Magda’s registration papers.
Another border! I jumped into the car and headed off into country number 19 for the trip: Laos. For the first time since starting the trip I was on my own. Not knowing how the border was going to go I only had a 50km run to where I would be staying that night, Leung Nam Tha. We (that’s Magda and me) cruised gently through the tropical countryside. Laos is one of the poorest countries in Asia, and coming from China the contrast is striking. Rice paddies being harvested by hand, huts built on stilts to keep cool, dogs roaming everywhere.
As usual when travelling solo, I immediately met two other solo travellers on my first night, one French one Spanish, and we headed off for dinner at the night market ($2.10, plus 40c for a beer). I have to admit I always feel a little self conscious chatting with backpackers. Some people think of overlanders as some kind of extreme adventurists. But to be honest, we do it a lot easier than backpackers, who everyday deal with foreign bus schedules, navigating strange cities to find hotels, walking in the heat and/or rain, while we have the luxury of GPS, our own wheels, and the ability and freedom to go where ever we want, when we want. But we all love to travel, and in no time you are swapping travel stories and tips, regardless of how you got from A to B.
The next day I had a driving day, around 250 kilometres through the northern Laos mountains to Luang Prabang, in the centre of the country. After a relaxed breakfast I headed out, tunes turned up, settled in to enjoy a bucketload of beautiful scenery. I always start the day driving slowly, as Magda warms up, and slowly build the pace. The roads were windy, but good. There was little traffic, primarily local mini buses, some bigger buses, and of course scooters.
As I followed a larger bus around a corner the road straightened and I pulled out to overtake, Magda accelerating strongly. Still a right-hand drive country my visibility was limited until I was right out into the lane, now pulling alongside the bus. So it wasn’t until too late that I saw the ridge in the road, wide and deep. There was no escaping it, I was alongside the bus, so couldn’t move right, and it was too wide to go left. The front right wheel slammed into it with a bang.
Immediately there was a metallic grinding noise and I pulled over to investigate. The bus rumbled away into the distance, and I was aware that the jungle was very quiet. No people, no traffic, just the ticking of Magda as she cooled. I jacked up the front of the car and took the wheel off for a look. It didn’t take long to find the problem. For the mechanically minded out there: The forks on the strut had been bent backwards, with the leading fork rubbing against the drive shaft to the wheel. For the non-mechanically minded: The suspension was a bit buggered eh.
I sat and pondered this for a little while trying to come up with options, but couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that this was really bad news. I was about 70 kms from the nearest medium sized town, and 250kms from the nearest major town. Even then, these towns would have cowboy mechanics only, and VW didn’t exist in Laos. It was time to call my mechanic back in Sydney.
“Benn! Where are ya?”
“I’m sitting by the roadside in Laos” I said. A long slow chuckle came up the line…
“Go on” he said.
I explained it to him, with the goal of working out whether I could drive the vehicle. He gave me a few ideas, but said no, it would risk more damage. I’d need to find a truck. I gently drove Magda 1km to a nearby village. There was a scooter mechanic so I aimed there. I showed him the bent strut, and then drew a truck with car on, to explain what I needed. While admittedly not the most fantastic picture, the guy looked at it, then at me, and wandered off to get his wife who spoke English.
Over the next ten minutes more and more of the village wandered in to see what was going on. There was much discussion about my need for a truck, and eventually a price was given to me in hesitant English: “two and a half thousand million”. Even with Laos’ inflated currency I knew that wasn’t right. When I got them to write it down it came to 2.5 million, or about $250. Steep for Laos, but I didn’t have any choice. Either way it didn’t matter because just at that moment it started to rain and the wife informed me that we must wait now until rain goes, and did I want to have lunch with them?
I ate with the family in their house, which was a wooden shack. They asked if I liked sticky rice, and I assumed they meant Japanese style and said yes. The whole family then watched curiously as I tried to retrieve some rice from the bowl with chopsticks. Finally they stepping in with a giggle and taught me how they eat in Laos, which is primarily with hands. The rice is very firm, and you take a small amount, roll, and then eat with some of the dips. The food was great and not for the first time I was honoured by their hospitality towards a complete stranger.
The rain had passed and we all wandered back out to Magda. It was never said to me directly but it seemed that locating a truck had failed, because suddenly the scooter mechanic and his friend started to look at the bent strut. I was asked whether I could drive it to the first town – but I said no. More discussion of the strut. It became clear that the only option was going to be to get Magda there under her own steam. So I joined in. Over the next five hours we slowly dismantled the suspension, trying some of the ideas my mechanic had given me. They didn’t work though. So we went with brute force, and worked on bending the forks on the strut back again.
Eventually we got enough clearance that Magda could drive again without damage! After paying them, giving out a few koalas and cigarette packs as thanks, I jumped into Magda and headed off. As usual when something goes wrong on this trip, it was now Friday 4pm…
I drove the limping Magda very gently – I was worried about the suspension bending back onto the drive shaft. But it held, and gradually we increased speed as confidence grew. I made it to the first town, 70kms away, but I decided to press on to Luang Prabang, the large town, with a better chance of finding a mechanic who could help with a longer term fix. Mountain ranges, some dirt roads, and then the last two hours in darkness made it a long drive, but we made it!
After a restless night, I went and found more mechanics first thing and showed them the problem. I explained via more (very excellent) pictures and pointing that what I wanted was the strut taken right out, bent back properly and then remounted. The mechanic I found got me immediately, and he got stuck in. One hour later, with far more use of hammers and crowbars than VW would approve of, it was done. It was definitely not straight and it was likely there was more damage than just the strut, but it had enough clearance to drive confidently. I was pretty sure I could make it to Bangkok (about 1,500km away).
As I drove back to the hotel I was feeling much relieved, and finally started to relax. So Magda put on her check engine light. Little b*tch. This one was different tho. No alarms, no insistence on workshop. Just a really annoying amber check engine icon. In went the laptop again to see what was going on in the computer: two intermittent warnings on the Manifold Intake Runner. Some quick research online and I agreed with Magda. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t a show stopper requiring a workshop. She was just going to have to suck it up for the time being (that’s a really geeky pun for those who know what an intake manifold is – sorry).
So with Magda patched up for the time being, I could enjoy Laos for a few days. Luang Prabang, a bit of a travellers Mecca, sits right in the centre of Laos on the banks of the Mekong river. Famed for its temples (grrreat, more temples…) it has gone touristy, with many massage parlours, river bank cafes, plush hotels. It had been a while since I’d come into contact with tourists on the tourist trail. I watched as a husband and wife took a canoe paddled by locals across the river to a restaurant, wife clinging to the sides of the small canoe, having a little ‘adventure on the edge’ in Laos, before being whisked off to their next experience. And I thought of how I’d spent the previous day sitting under the car with the scooter mechanics, communicating by gestures and laughter as we’d swapped ideas on how to get Magda mobile. And it reminded me that even when the going was tough and stressful, the best experiences often come out of the situation. It reminded me how lucky we had been to be able to make this trip.
Meanwhile it was time for my ‘experience’. The next day I headed 450 kms to the north western edge of Laos, where I would be exploring the Laos jungle on a unique trip, zip-lining through the forest canopy, and sleeping 60m above the ground in tree houses in the Bokeo National Park, northern Laos. (http://gibbonexperience.org/). In a group of 8, with two local guides we travelled from Houayxai 2 hours into the jungle, before hiking for several hours. Eventually we joined the zipline network – a network of lines that traverse valleys, some 700 metres long, which you use to travel to your accommodation. The tree houses themselves can only be reached by zip line (I suppose you could climb the trunk, if you were a monkey) and had a shower, beds, and lighting.
It. Was. Awesome. The treehouses themselves were impressive – looking out over the forest canopy. The ziplines were great fun, fast and very high. You simply hooked on your traveller, and off you went. Spanning rivers, gullies, you could travel very quickly. Our guides, Jun and Nyeh were hilarious, quiet and polite, but always ready for a laugh. Jun continually would retrieve local plants and get me to taste. Some were amazing, some were complete rubbish – but he was impressed that I would try all of them.
Our group were a mixture of French, Swiss, Dutch and myself, who all got along great, as you inevitably do on these kinds of trips. In fact there must have been so much atmosphere that two of the Swiss, Simon and Catherine got engaged on the first night, on the top deck of the first tree house! I’d like to think it was me practicing my french on the french guy all evening that got them in the mood.
All too soon however it was time to head back to Houayxai. We were in for one more treat from Laos however, with the night we returned being the Lantern festival on the banks of the Mekong. The streets were filled with people, travellers and locals alike. Food stalls bustled, music pumped, and down by the banks of the river hundreds floated beautiful floating candle-lit offerings onto the river. At the same time others lit large floating lanterns that lifted with their own heat. The photos don’t do it justice, but the sky was lit with lanterns floating high up into the night. It was a fantastic way to end.
The next morning Magda and I headed for the Mekong barges, and after being stamped out of Laos boarded a barge with a bunch of trucks to cross the river and enter Thailand. I’d entered Laos a week earlier, expecting the pace of the trip to relax, but events had meant it had been the opposite. Constant checking of Magda’s damaged strut revealed that it was holding perfectly, and looked solid for the run through Thailand. The engine warning light had turned off by itself, and I was happy to play ‘out of sight out of mind’ with Magda. The shipping company had contacted me, and asked me to bring Magda into Bangkok earlier than expected to meet the sailing schedule for Perth, meaning I had four days to cover about 1,000kms to Bangkok. After the miles we had done, that was childs play.