“Where do you come from?” asked the wild-haired German man.
“Ah. How old are you?” He directed the question at me.
“32,” I replied.
“About the age of my son. He lives in Christchurch. When I was in my 20’s I got a girl pregnant in Israel, and she moved back to New Zealand to give birth. Her name is Christine – she was an actress. There were about 50 Christines born in the same year as her in Christchurch in 1947. I’ve never met my son. I don’t suppose there’s much hope I’ll ever see him.”
We had only moments ago sat down at a little guesthouse to order some food and this man, maybe in his 60s, red faced with long white hair clutching a bottle of Beer Lao, had waddled over with the apparent desire to depress us. It was an awkward moment.
“So how long have you been here?” Caroline asked brightly, trying to lighten the almost instantly sombre mood he’d created.
“Eleven days now at this guesthouse.”
We were sitting in the little town of Ban Nahin which, due to its proximity to the famous Kong Lor cave, contained 30 guesthouses and almost nothing else. Each year, hundreds of tourists stop by the town on their way around the equally famous Thakhek Loop – a road that weaves through villages, limestone crags, and a dead forest that pokes out of (another) recently created reservoir. We stayed at a guesthouse that was otherwise empty, but the only place for food in the evening was a different guesthouse – a farang hot spot where we had just met this odd man.
One of his more peculiar tangents was about the Khmer Rouge and genocide in Cambodia. Essentially, he denied it had even happened – or at least it hadn’t happened as is commonly reported.
“It’s the biggest ho-axe in all of Asia,” he claimed. He’d moved to Siem Reap in the early 70s to become a tour guide, living close to Angkor Wat, and was in his words an ‘eye witness’ to the rise of the regime. He also mentioned that he was a member of the communist party while living in Germany. So there’s that.
“Duch (Kan Kek Iew) was giving a speech once,” he went on. “He was crazy. He claimed in the speech that the Rouge had killed millions, but really it was the Vietnamese and US bombs that were responsible for the majority of the deaths. The Rouge killed only around 200,000 – still a sad number, but less than the greatly exaggerated commonly known figure.”
He went on to deny the massacres in the killing fields.
“The Cambodian people used to bury their dead in the fields with no coffins in shallow graves. Many of the bones claimed to be as a result of the genocide were just from regular burial sites.”
He drifted around this topic for a while, but maybe sensed we weren’t immediately leaping on his words with enthusiasm. Conversation went elsewhere. He told us how he was a physicist, and how he, along with a team of others, had been responsible for the design of the LAN port. He told us of traveling from Munich to Nepal with Steve Jobs when Jobs was ‘not yet doing anything, but just starting to get interested in money.’ He told us of going into the huts of Lao girls up in the hills.
We eventually pulled ourselves away, slept, woke, ate noodles, drove to the famous cave, then returned and decided to spend another night in the same town.
We ate dinner at the same place in Ban Nahim, and said a cheery hello to our German friend from the night before. He was listening to an iPod and drinking more Beer Lao, trying to warm himself by the fire. There had been a cold wind blowing through Laos from the recent typhoon in the Philippines, and we’d been wearing all our layers and using our sleeping bags in the guesthouses. I enjoyed my first numb toes in over a year. We left him to it, and met a traveler from the US who we instantly bonded with due to him having the same bike as us. His name was Parker (which with my accent I say as ‘pah kih’).
“So, is it really, really hard to get to neutral on your bike?” I asked.
“Yes!” he grinned. “I wish I could just pull over to take a quick photo and leave the engine running, but I have to stall it to stop it then kick start it up again.” We traded stories of our quirky bikes and travels so far through Laos. Like me, he’d never ridden a manual before, but unlike me, he’d never really ridden anything before. At least I’d had a bit of practice on auto and semi auto bikes.
Cows, goats, chickens and dogs are present at ten-metre intervals along any stretch of road in Laos. Cows seem to prefer grazing on tarmac rather than pasture, and dogs apparently enjoy slumbering on the warm concrete close to centre line (if there is one). That joke about the chicken crossing the road? We now understand where that came from. A chicken’s favourite pastime (apart from scratching in the dirt) is crossing the road. They just can’t get enough of it.
“I saw a guy on a bike hit a cow the other day,” said Parker. “The cow was scared by a truck and ran in front of the guy riding the bike – he flipped over the handlebars. But – this is great – he just stood up, brushed his right shoulder twice, then got back on and kept riding, like it happens every day.”
“How was the cow?” we asked.
“The cow just walked off.”
“Well at least now if we hit a cow we know we’ll be okay.”
“Yeah,” he said, “Just remember to brush your right shoulder twice.”
Parker also told us of how his bike rack had fallen off one day, and a mechanic had welded him a new one out of bits of scrap lying around the workshop.
“My engine was still running and he was just welding it on. I just thought, ‘Well okay then.'”
He told us he’d eventually be traveling to New Zealand and thought he’d like to work on a sheep farm for a while.
“To hold the stick?” I asked.
“Yeah! I want to be a shepherd,” he replied. I thought I’d put him off by mentioning fly-strike and shitty wool and tail-docking, but he revealed that he’d previously volunteered for a few weeks on a cattle ranch in the Middle of Nowhere, Australia, getting paid in food and accommodation.
“Australians are supposed to be friendly,” he said, “but on the ranch I had to prove myself before they’d even talk to me. We’d have to drive the cattle down to the pens on horseback – I can’t ride horses – then process them in 30 seconds. We’d push one over, I’d hold it down, another guy would lift up its leg, then a third guy had to slice off its balls with a razor. Then I’d brand it…” he made a hissing sound, “then a guy would come in with these pliers and gouge out its horns.”
He was brutally blunt and good humoured about it all, and I felt a bit stupid for having tried to gross him out about sheep. “Did you butcher them?” one of us asked.
“Yeah! One guy would take the good cuts first, then we’d use chainsaws.” He laughed, “It was weird. We’d be all covered in blood, and then we’d go and eat sandwiches.”
“I was paid in red meat, so yeah, steak sandwiches.”
As we were paying for our food and getting ready to leave, a French guy came over and asked for the bill for his meal. The owner, an immensely friendly man who was slightly run off his feet with the influx of diners and drinkers, tallied up the bill for him.
“Does this include the rice?” said the French guy.
“Yes, with rice.”
“But I didn’t ask for the rice, you just put it on the table.”
“You eat the rice?”
“Yes, but I didn’t ask for it.”
The owner smiled. “If you eat the rice, then you should pay for it.”
“But I didn’t ask for it. You just put it on the table.” The French guy was also smiling, but both of their smiles were strangely forced.
“If you cannot pay for it, okay, but if you eat then you should pay. But no problem.”
“Okay, but you didn’t ask if I wanted it, you just put it on the table.”
The conversation went on like this. The price for the rice was 61 cents.
We hadn’t intended on driving the rest of the loop, but Parker, who had come from the opposite direction as us, convinced us that it was an amazing drive. We took him at his word and set off the following day.
The last day of the loop was our longest drive yet – 180 km. That may not seem like much, but on bumpy, pot holed roads, it is. I made the mistake of going full throttle for a large part of the drive, and halfway through it our engine lost its guts and the bike slowed down. By the time we got to town (Savannakhet) the bike wouldn’t idle and I had to keep the revs high in order to drive anywhere.
We spent a night at a guesthouse and then the next day wheeled the dead bike to a mechanic. He ran some tests, then concluded that we essentially had to replace the engine. Now, I know very little about motorbike engines, but I’ll try and describe what was replaced: there are two main chunks of the engine proper, the bit where the oil goes which contains important-looking chains, cogs and other essentials, and what I will call ‘the front bit’, which houses the piston in the combustion chamber, holds the spark plug, and is what the exhaust, fuel, and almost everything else are attached to. That second bit? That’s the bit we replaced. It took a couple of hours to do, and now the bike is purring like a kitten.
Incredibly, it was only forty dollars including parts.