Our mission was singular: buy a second-hand motorbike. If it was a motorbike with Vietnamese plates, then even better. That would mean we could theoretically travel all around Laos, cross the border, and sell it in one of the big Vietnamese cities when we were finished with it. If finding a motorbike hadn’t been our primary objective, we may not have even traveled to the city of Luang Prabang. But here we were, a beautiful little UNESCO heritage city (we found the UNESCO plaque framing an earthy patch of trees and plastic rubbish), filled with as many tourists as you’d care to count – do you have cold coconuts? Oh, they don’t have cold coconuts, honey.
We put up ads in the wanted column of various Laos buy and sell websites, and we spoke to a British man named Chris who worked at one of the motorbike touring places in town.
“Yeah, my roommate does that kind of thing. I’m seeing him tonight and I’ll ask if he knows anyone selling a bike. I’ll give you call tonight or tomorrow!”
We gave Chris our number and never heard from him again. When we went back to his shop the following day, a person who wasn’t him told us that, “He’s just left,” and that was that. We told the new person (who was Laotian) about our quest, and he racked his brains. Finally, he pointed down the highway and said, “Phu See market.” We (I) snickered at the innuendo, then headed in the direction he’d pointed.
We never found Phu See market, but we did find a petrol station and decided on a whim to ask inside if anybody knew anybody selling a motorbike.
“There’s a place out past the bridge by the airport,” said one of the workers. “They might sell, but I’m not sure.”
A man who had been reading a newspaper piped up. “I’m just getting my car washed, and then I’m driving out to the airport. I can give you a ride if you want.”
The man was Thai, and he asked where we were from. I said New Zealand.
“I studied in Christchurch for eight years!”
“Most people I speak to don’t know where New Zealand is. I just say it’s part of Australia.”
“Ha! They don’t know the most beautiful place in the world!”
What a flatterer. He now spent his time taking Thai people on overseas trips to New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Korea, and ‘lots of places’. He was in Laos because he owned a hotel here. We hopped into his freshly washed BMW and true to his word, he took us out to the little shop near the airport, dropped us off, and drove away.
The bikes that lined the shop were dusty but appeared to be new. Caroline asked the guy inside if he had any 2nd hand bikes (yes, Caroline can already say that kind of thing in Lao). He frowned, and showed us a grubby Honda Scoopy. We asked how much, and he quoted 8 million kip. That was almost 1000 USD, which was far too high. We declined and walked the streets, asking various mechanics if they knew of any bikes for sale. Shaking their heads was the reply.
We popped into a little tour shop run by a Frenchman and repeated the question we’d been repeating all day.
“There is no market for that in Luang Prabang,” he informed us.
At this point, after hours of running around and getting nowhere, we decided that luck was not on our side and we might have to travel to another large city – Vietniane – to continue our search. Passing yet another mechanic, Caroline noticed a hand-written sign. Most of it was written in Lao, but ‘Honda Dream’ was clearly written in English. We asked a lady at the mechanic if was a bike for sale, and she replied with a stream of Lao. Not understanding any of it, we took a photo of the sign with the intention of asking our guesthouse owner to translate it.
The Honda Win is a bike that pops up a lot when you search the internet about motorcycling in Laos or Vietnam. They are old, beaten up looking things that apparently fall apart like crazy, but that makes them decidedly cheap. We saw an army green one outside a travel agent, and so we entered and I asked who it belonged to. A friendly Cambodian man who spoke English owned it, but he wasn’t interested in selling it and didn’t know where we would be able to find one.
And then our luck turned. Another one of the workers made a phone call, chatted for a bit, then handed me the phone.
“Hello?” I said.
“Which one do you want?”
“Okay. I can meet you in 30 minutes. 250 dollars (US).”
“Does it have Vietnamese plates?” I managed to say something sensible.
We thanked the travel agent people profusely, bought them some Hershey’s Kisses, and ran off to Western Union to get the US currency. This involved withdrawing Laos Kip from an ATM, filling out some forms, taking those forms to another room, paying the Kip and filling out more forms, going back to a counter in the first room, filling out more forms, and then collecting the USD. The bureaucracy would normally annoy me, but we were both feeling elated by the fact that we might have actually found a bike.
“Hello, sorry I’m a bit late,” said Ki, the young man who was selling the bike. “Do you know how to ride?”
“Yes, I’ve ridden semi auto. It’s not much different is it?”
Turns out that yes, riding a beaten up old crusty manual bike is a lot different than the modern bikes I’ve been used to. I spent about ten minutes stalling.
“You said you could ride!” said Ki angrily. “You must listen! To start, make sure you go all the way down to 1, then tap this (the gear ‘up’ lever) just a little tiny bit. Then you can start the bike.”
I slowly managed to do a lap of the street, stalling once on a roundabout. Unfortunately the wheels lock up if you’re not in neutral, and getting to neutral involves tapping some sort of code into the shift pedal. My utter uselessness with the old, manual bike made for several very embarrassing instances: my loud revs because I thought the clutch was a brake, my stalling and spluttering in the middle of intersections.
“Does it have papers?” we asked Ki.
“Yes!” he said, and showed us a hand-written piece of white A4 paper with the word ‘contract’ scrawled on the top. The lights didn’t work and the gauges didn’t work. The auto starter didn’t work because the battery was dead. There were no mirrors. The fuel cap didn’t seal properly or lock at all. When I revved the bike, petrol vomited out the cap and left pink dribbles down the side. It was unclear whether or not it would fit our packs.
Did we buy it?
After we swapped our $250 for the bike and dodgy-as-hell ownership papers, Ki had me follow him out to the airport where there were straight roads to practice on. He also had us stop by his friend’s mechanic shop where the front light was repaired. At least something now worked. As we chatted he seemed very concerned about our well being. “Be very careful driving in the town. It’s very busy,” he said sternly. We swapped phone numbers and he left us with our new terrifying toy. I drove around for about half an hour, topped up the petrol, then we returned, exhausted, to our guesthouse to shower.
In the evening, rain began to fall on Luang Prabang. Suddenly our phone started ringing. It was Ki.
“You cannot leave the bike in the rain.”
“No. Water will get into the petrol. You must keep it under shelter.”
I went down to figure out where to put the bike, but discovered happily that the kind guesthouse owners had already wheeled it into their lobby.
Our next step is to fix, replace, or check the following things:
New petrol cap
– Fix the indicators
Check gear pads
And then we’ll need some accessories:
– Chain and lock
– A bigger rack for our stuff