The Oh-so-suicidal Pai Mai Lao

Trip Start Oct 18, 2006
Trip End ??? ??, 2008

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Ah Pakse. I arrived off of a highly uncomfortable 'VIP' bus, bleary eyed and stumbling towards the middle of this small jumping-off point city. The seat on the bus that I had was neighbored by a mother with her ten-year-old son. Now, I am not one to demand any sort of order, but this lady had purchased one seat for two people. Fine by me, but this wriggling kid kept on all night, jumping in between his mother and me, pushing me out of my seat at several points. I eventually opted to sleep in the tiny aisleway between the seats. Pai Mai Lao is not a good time for travellers - everything is shut, and the buses that do run are jammed with locals trying to go places. At any rate, I surveyed my new exploratory town, ate some Indian food, and looked for guesthouses.

I came to Sabaidy two guesthouse, run by Mr.Vong, a place I have heard so much about, and one which I must admit is worth staying away from. I rented an imitation Honda scooter - a Chinese make called 'zongshen'. My intent was to avoid the neverending, and by this point, overtired and overused waterfight, scooting up and around the Bolaven plateau between pakse and the vietnam border (the start of the Ho Chi Minh trail, incidentally). The day was scorching, and I must admit it was handy if nothing else to have teams of kids throwing buckets of water on me as I drove by. The problem with this is that there was not a lot of restraint on their part. If I was driving sixty kilometres per hour, it certainly didn't stop them from flinging full five gallon buckets of water right at my chest. Now, I'm not saying that Laos are unsafe about their personal security and health, but I am certainly implying it as much as I can. Tons of people die during the New Year, far more so than the few fatalities we have from drunk driving at home. No, this is not only drunk driving, but also a complete disregard for safety. It's none of my business, but I had to develop some tricky tactics to discourage the over-excited kids and teenagers from knocking me off my bike at full speed. Without a helmet, nonetheless. I mean, I had a helmet, and wore it, but it is little more than a two dollar baseball batter's helmet with a chinstrap. The thing flew off of my head at many points, and I am sure it would never hold still in an accident. It felt about the same as attaching a one gallon ice cream pail to my head. As uncomfortable, about as stupid looking, and about the same amount of protection. According to the Global Road Safety Partnership, The Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for about 16 percent of the motor vehicles worldwide, is the site of 44 percent of all traffic deaths. Of people surveyed in lao emergency rooms, 60% were motorcyclists between the age of fifteen to thirty. Three percent of them had been wearing helmets. But I digress.  

So, amidst people trying knock me off my bike (it's all in good fun), I drove for the day to several beautiful waterfalls in the area, crossing into two different states. The scenery was pretty amazing - lush greenery, the occasional slash and burn, and many plantations of coffee and banana. Small villages dot the highway, and it is yet harder to allay the amazement of locals at the farang driving through. I know that many foreigners do this kind of trip through the area, but it must not get old with the locals, as they wave and shout "hello" or "sabai-dii" whenever they can get it in. Almost everyone was at a big party with their neighbors while the children played on the side of the highway throwing water at passerby. The teens were out for a cruise on the bikes, and many were crowded into the backs of speeding, swerving flatbed trucks, throwing plastic bag bombs full of water and clothing dye at each other, at the kids on the road, and at passing motorcyclists. Don't forget the important part either - beerlao and lao-lao (whisky/shine) were thrown into the mix. Now, I don't like to naysay, or rain on anyone's parade, but damn it, there are no rules here! Some common sense seems to be occasionally lacking - these people were acting like drunk Albertan small-town teens on the backroads. But they are on the major highways, in front of every authority. Definitely a different attitude.

I can't possibly stress how nice this drive was. Sure, I had to coax my fake Honda, which ran more like a Briggs & Stratton on cheap wheels, into running at all times, but it was worth it. (I would recommend picking up a real Honda for the same rental price in Pakse) The red dirt roads wound about plantations and burned fields, the standalone plateaus dominated the horizon, the blue-grey storm ceilings gave a sense of mystery and awe, as though I was entering a forbidden ground. I half expected an enchanter to stop me and make me go back to whence I came. As it was, I had enough trouble just trying to keep my bike upright on slippery and uneven unfinished roads, slicked up by a light rain. By the second day, I was flying up the Plateau, ascending from one hundred metres to a couple thousand. It's not as though one can see the plains of Lao for miles around at that vantage point, though, you are far more aware that you've simply gone 'up' amidst the odd flatness of southern Lao. However, this is a pretty unused road, not somewhere one finds large towns. It is the place of plantations, a couple of hydro dams, and small farming villages. Mostly, this is an exercise in seeing an out-of-the-way Lao.

With much fervour, I thank God for bringing me back to Pakse unscathed, by this point without my milk-bag helmet on, as the chinstrap had snapped, rendering it unwearable. I gladly return the shaky zongshen, my two-day rocinante, and am glad to be back on a relatively safe two feet. And there, in front of my favorite Indian restaurant, I see a twelve-year-old girl on her motorbike (a not-uncommon age to be fully proficient on the bike), laughing at her friends behind here, paying no attention to the road, fall off. The bike slammed into the ground, she skidded on here denim shorts, and immediately after stopping, grabbed her bike and drove off again, likely more embarrassed than hurt. I was shocked, but it is telling - this happens everyday, a minor incident worth almost no consideration. Fatalism incarnate in the driving culture?

The Pai Mai Lao ends, and I am glad. It is a beautiful celebration with really great people, but it is both a very dangerous time for myself, but also a very painful reminder of how different some attitudes can be towards one's own life. It is shocking to see how similar world cultures can be, and within that, how sharply they divert.
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