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In search of the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Part 2—A trail of mechanical failures

Astried's clutch cable was on its last strand. Thankfully we found a repair shop and also a guy who said he could help. The cable was short so he tried to jury-rig it, but the clutch would not engage. I tinkered with it to get it going as well while Astried found a shop with a proper cable. We limped over. The boys looked at the crude installation, chuckled, and had the correct cable installed in minutes.

I was annoyed and decided to return to the first shop. "Face" is very important in Asia. If you "lose face," it is over—you are mocked and the situation is rarely resolved. Smile, remain calm, be gently insistent, and things eventually happen.

I stood patiently until the first repairman decided to acknowledge me and I explained his cable was too short, as I had said from the outset, and asked for a refund. I would pay for his labour, but not the incorrect part. His wife gave me "stink-eye" while smiling to save face and I smiled and calmly waited until she begrudgingly returned the money. And we were off.

Having seen no foreigners for a week or more, we felt overwhelmed by the few dozen Westerners we encountered in Tod Lo. We stayed long enough to hike a steep, muddy jungle track to Tad Soung, a 55-metre waterfall with an endless vista, before striking out for the Bolaven Plateau. Here we found that the ratty roads of yesteryear have been surfaced to service the hydroelectric company and big agriculture that is overtaking traditional farms.

Stopping at remote Tayicseua Waterfall, with its thundering falls shrouded in mist, was the perfect anti-tourist tonic and we ended the day in Paksong, the coffee capital of the Bolaven Plateau.

Topping up Astried's brake fluid, keeping in mind her bike's propensity for breaking down, I requested chain lube as well from the mechanic. But then, as he spun the wheel backwards the drive sprocket flew off! Fortunately, her incredible breakdown luck held, and a new circlip could be installed to keep us going.

Pakse is the gateway to the popular 4,000 Islands and a new tire awaited Astried at the dirt bike rental company's second office. Installed, we headed north to Savannakhet to drop off my Thai visa application and passport. Having a few days on hand, we took blind shots into farms east of town, surprising villagers who rarely see foreigners as we emerged from the fields. Smiles and greetings of Sabai Dii were everywhere.

Visa in hand, we headed east again watching civilization disappear yet adhering to our mantra—"follow the power lines"—which was great, until they stopped. They eventually returned and Kengboum village rose from the dust and there we stopped at a home with a family spanning four generations. They were shocked to see foreigners and the youngest, having never seen a white person, screamed in terror, running into the sarongs of laughing parents. We were treated to sun dried beef, sticky rice and peels of laughter.

Bouncing along the track, we eventually reach Villabouly again, and welcome a hot shower—maybe the best of the trip. At the coffee shop, I noticed a westerner at the ATM and asked if he knew the best track to Xai Bua Thong.

"Sorry," he said, "I came in a helicopter, don't know the roads."

"Do you work for the mine?" I asked.

"No, U.S. military. We have two teams in Laos looking for MIAs," he responded.

I was amazed to learn that after all this time, the U.S. military continues to search for fallen servicemen.

The best way forward was backward, and across the Xeno River. I asked directions often and we were repeatedly told it was not possible to cross the river. Stopping to ask a group of old men sitting under a tree, they smiled and pointed to a track through the tall grass. At the riverbank, 15 metres below, a raft was tied to a line across the river and a group of smiling kids beckoned. We descended, rolled onto the raft, and the kids, thrilled to have their first Western riders, were eager to demonstrate their English.

"Hellohowareyouwhatisyourname" comes out as a single word and I always respond in the same manner: "Hello," pause, "My name is Tim," pause, "How are you?" pause,"What is your name?"

Wrestling our bikes up the other side, we found a narrow path toward Xai Bua Thong. Before long, Astried had another flat, but a tuk-tuk magically appeared, loading her bike and driving us to the nearest village. The new tube was installed in minutes, but her bike would not go into gear. Removing the transmission cover exposed a loose spring, which was repositioned. If that had happened in the wilderness, we would have been doomed.

We passed tiny Xai Bua Thong before we knew it, ending up in Mahaxai. Two restaurants were out of food, but we found a third and a delicious laab (finely chopped meat) and cold Beer Lao to conclude another awesome day. It was bittersweet though, as we knew tomorrow would be the final day.

Back at Tha Khaek, we were greeted like heroes. Mr. Leu, at Wangwang Motorcycle Rental, had the VIP room overlooking the market waiting for us and was busily bragging about our 2,200-kilometre off-road experience on his bikes!

For part 1 of Tim's adventure go to www.piquenewsmagazine, Jan.16.

Tim Morch is a chronic traveller who dreams of being a writer when he grows up. Whether in the saddle of a bicycle or motorcycle, the cockpit of a sea kayak, riding a wave or trekking a backcountry trail, Tim has a love of adventure and a passion for discovery. You can learn more about him at