But this group is quite experienced, and we do 15-20-minute bursts of extremely fine riding. Basically it’s from village to village – you have to slow down anyway to go through a sleepy village, and once the first rider has entered the village, all the kids come round screaming, laughing and shouting, the village elders come to see what’s going on, and then the rest of the village follows.
We’ve never experienced anything like this – you are a totally alien creature to these people. Decked out in full offroad gear, sitting on bikes as tall as they’ve ever seen before, we are just out of this world for them. But a few smiles, gestures and friendly words get conversations going. They all hunt and proudly present their muzzle loaders, which are usually 6 or 7 foot tall, looking funny when they belong to hunters measuring barely 5 feet tall. The whole village gathers around our group, inviting us to stay or at least to have a few rice whiskeys with them. Walter tells us that sometimes a group had to take them up on their offers for bed and breakfast, when a bike needed repairs after a river crossing or when the weather was extremely bad.
They admire our offroad gear, nod their heads checking out the elbow and knee protectors, but absolutely love the plasticchest protectors. One guy points at his ancient muzzle loader, then knocks at my chest protector and says something in Lao. “He wants to know if it’s bullet proof, too”, Walter translates. I’m tempted to say “Yes”, but then the little hunter might just try it out….
Most villagers have never seen a “farang”, a westerner, before. One of our guys has a bit of a beard, and the women come and take a look at this strange man with hair on his face. Like most Asians, Lao hilltribe men don’t have facial hair. Accompanied by giggles and laughter from the other women, one little old lady even touches it to tell them how it feels!
Every few kilometres we have to cross a small river. Sometimes the water is clear and you can look out for boulders lurking beneath the surface, but sometimes you just have to take your chances. After every couple of river crossings we stop to wait for our backup car to catch up, and have a chat with the locals.
One by one we have to cross a river over a hanging bridge, which starts swaying by the time you’re in the middle. Sitting on a motorbike on a swaying bridge is definitely a weird feeling, and everybody has to stop in the middle to wait until the bridge goes quiet before he can continue. Walter doesn’t supply a “snack sack” like they have on commercial airlines for people turning green, but then there’s the whole river to bless with the remains of your breakfast….
Sometimes the bridges are just a few tree trunks, and most of us get stuck at least once when the front or rear wheel simply disappears in a gap all the way to the axle. Even with our lightweight bikes it usually takes two or three of us to get them out. There’s not much space to stand on, and the tree trunks are muddy and very slippery.
There are plenty of mud holes, and we stop at a very deep one to help a group of men who are trying to drive an ancient truck full of timber through it. These mud holes can be real traps – usually a trickle of water is constantly filling them up, and they have a lot of soft deep mud beneath the surface. Walter crosses one on the wrong side and gets so stuck that the bike stands up by itself! While we wait for our 4WD backup car which can help pull the truck, we’re having fun with the mud hole, driving through it again and again. Three days later we will be much too tired for such antics, but now we are still bursting with energy.
Late afternoon we arrive in Viang Pukha, our destination for today. It is a tiny village with a stream running through it, and like the villagers we take our bath in the river. The “guest house” has a small electricity generator, but they only turn it on at seven in the evening for one or two hours. After the river bath we head straight for the fridge, only to find it empty. Right, no electricity. This is where we find out that Lao beer is drinkable even when it’s warm! The women prepare our dinner – chicken, eggs and rice. Food is a bit of a problem in rural Laos, it’s mostly chicken and eggs or eggs and chicken.
Cassius, our Thai mechanic, has serviced all eight bikes, and it is getting dark. We’ve been watching village life down at the river – the women carrying water in buckets up to the road, the men driving herds of buffaloes home, and kids playing in the water. After dinner most of our guys have an early night, it has been a hard day. Walter, Cassius and I chat with the locals. Laotian is quite similar to Thai, Walter tells me. It is a monosyllabic, tonal language, which means that each word has only one syllable, but up to five meanings, depending on the tone. I try to get some words right, but earn nothing but laughs from the others. Wrong tone, different meaning, and I have no idea of what I just said!
Next morning we head towards Luang Namtha, the provincial capital. 140 km more of the same – except it has started to drizzle. We don’t mind, it’s cooling down a bit. I am feeling sore just about everywhere, my body is not used to this kind of exercise. That’s the nice thing about adventure holidays: When you come back, you’re fit!
A group of Akha hilltribe people has a problem with their transportation: Too much weight, road too steep, vehicle dug itself a hole. We help them getting it out and moving again. Walter speaks a bit of Akha, and we learn that they are a group of students on their way home. They all wear the traditional Akha dress – you won’t find a pair of jeans here!
Luang Namtha is bigger than I expected, but is also without electricity until 7.30 pm. We check into the best hotel in town, must be a 1.5-star. We don’t care, we’re happy, slightly wet and tired. After a shower and rest we’re ready for dinner. As it
is getting dark, somebody fires up the town generator, and a bit of electricity finds its way to our hotel. Dinner is great, which means: No chicken, no eggs, but steamed fish, fried vegetables and fresh fruit. The second round of beers is definitely cooler than the first, electricity made it to the refrigerator!