Poor Circulation - 28,000 miles, 28 Countries, £20 per Day - and continuing
In 2008, I finally realised that working in London as a Despatch Rider had lost much of its charm and all of its financial viability ... So I resigned. I sold all of my worldly goods and invested the proceeds in a previously enjoyed Triumph Tiger Motorcycle. With a travelling budget of around £20 per day, I set out from the Ace Cafe in London with the aim of riding around the world.
In November 2008, having completed my first circumnavigation of the globe, 28,000 miles across 28 countries, I returned unharmed to the Ace Cafe in London. That should have been the end of the journey, but it actually marked a new beginning. The world that I’d found beyond the BBC and News Corp wasn’t the world that I’d expected to find. I’d arrived back in London with far more questions than answers. I clearly wasn't ready for the adventure to end, so unburdened by wealth or shackled by property, I engaged first gear and kept on riding
Back on the roads around Vang Vieng, sandy tracks that cross dry river beds and shallow flowing streams, the majority of the people in and between the small hamlets are young. School kids ride from school to the river on their bicycles while younger kids hang out of their clothes and around their grandparents on the bamboo porches of lopsided homes. Apart from those people working in hotels and restaurants, the people here are either old or young, there's nobody in the middle. The parents of the kids, I suspect, are away making money in the city while the older folks take care of the family. I’d earlier joked about feeling like the poorest kid in town, but that had been back in Vientiane. Here things are different, very different, worryingly different. The shirt on my back makes me feel rich and I suspect that tonight I’ll be eating far better than many of the people that I’ve seen around here today. I don’t feel guilty for being here, I just feel ‘aware’ of my surroundings. Laos is clearly experiencing a period of rapid economic change and in Vientiane that new wealth is visible, often rudely so, but it’s an economic surge that appears to be bypassing these rural communities to the north.
Outside of the small towns, agriculture is the main activity and it reminds me very much of Thailand back in the 1980’s. It’s a manual economy that runs with the seasons and still employs more buffalo power than diesel. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed, but that’s very easy for me to say. I’m not the one who’s bent double in a field beneath the burning sun thinning-out the rice crops.
The density of buildings reduces and the road imperfections increase, but the Suzuki Smash just seems to fart along like a vegetarian grandmother. Random detours down sandy tracks and across bridgeless streams add interest to a maximum speed of 80Kph and away from the tarmac, the Suzuki starts making me smile and reminding me that I’m free. All is good in the world.
Vang Vieng is an interesting town with a local populous of older grandparents and younger kids, and a tourist population of twenty-something Europeans who appear to be strangers to grooming. I feel like the oldest Farang in town riding the slowest scooter in Laos, and it's probably true. Vang Vieng reminds me of Goa thirty years ago, but without the beach and the blow. It’s a good place to kick-back with cheap rooms, stunning views and a relaxed approach to everything. Beyond the town, rough tracks lead to swimming areas, deep caves and tall mountains. With a total disregard for Health & Safety, Kids jump from high bridges into not so deep rivers below and European travellers swing from high rock faces on unreasonably skinny ropes. But, nobody dies and everybody seems to smile.
At the side of every track, I find constant reminders that life in Laos hasn’t always been quite so carefree. Shell casings litter the area, hopefully dormant or defused, but there are no guarantees. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped 280,000,000 bombs onto Laos, that’s 47 bombs for every man, woman and child in the country, and according to the Mine Action Group, at least 20% of them failed to explode and many remain deadly to this day.
The new seat that I'd had built for just $10 in Bangkok was an absolute delight and the hours and miles passed with far less pain than I'd expected. Then, just as everything was going unreasonably well, the Tiger began to wobble. The bamboo POORATECH luggage began shaking violently, the narrow handlebars started oscillating and the Tiger dipped down onto its haunches. A puncture in the rear tyre. Bollocks!
As I pulled to a halt, I saw the 'Sign' that I needed. A large tractor tyre painted white with red stripes. The elderly owner of the tyre-shop wasn't big on talking, but after handing him 100 THB, he rode away and returned fifteen minutes later with a new inner-tube and a small bottle of Lau Kow (Rice Whisky). The valve in the original tube had torn out and the replacement product was perfect. Thai's are very proud people and the elderly engineer refused my assistance. I should have stopped him, but I'm far too bloody polite. He only had one tyre lever, which for a tyre fitter, is unusual. He hummed, he harrrred, he struggled, and he sweated while turning a simple task into a complicated exercise in incompetence. But, eventually the new inner-tube was in place, the old tyre refitted and perfectly inflated. The only remaining fly in the engineering ointment was the absence of the security bolt to the rear brake's torque arm. Together, we searched high and low but the missing bolt was nowhere to be found. The elderly man pointed to his dogs ... 'Soonak mai dee' .. His dogs must have eaten it.
Five kilometers deeper into the journey, the wobbles returned. Another rear puncture. Once again, the God's were smiling and another painted tractor tyre was just a few meters behind me. Here, the tyre-fitter was younger, he had several beautiful sets of tyre levers and within seconds of removing the rear wheel, he was grinning like a Cheshire Cat and taking photographs with his smart-phone.
Mobile again, the boredom of the slow road was broken by random weirdness. For reasons unknown, the Thai's choose themes for everything. In this case, a roadside cafe is based upon the town of Bedrock. Why? I've absolutely no idea, but it does make me smile.
In relation to its speed, the lights on the Tiger are best described as adequate, but my modifications had caused unforeseen problems. I'd fitted s screen, a screen that reflected the light and gave me a heads-up display of everything that I didn't need to know. I shouldn't really blame the screen for destroying all night vision, I should blame the idiot who fitted the front basket right in front of the headlight. That idiot I'm afraid ..... was Me.