We had our new bike, but we needed to make sure a couple of things were mechanically in order before taking our first long drive. The front light was working (as I wrote about in the last post), but that was just the start. We looked online for a good mechanic in Luang Prabang and found a recommendation of a guy, basically a kid, who was very thorough in his work. We followed the directions to his shop where he and about six other guys the same age (16, maybe 17?) crowded around and laughed at our bike. Before we pulled up they’d been in the middle of performing fancy modifications on their Honda MSX bikes, which compared to our Honda Win were a lot sleeker, newer, more powerful, and less likely to have the engine fall out. I pointed at the indicators and shook my head. Then the rear light. Then the electric starter. Then the petrol cap. Then the empty space where mirrors should go. He nodded, and set to work.
He raised his eyebrows as he tugged at loose bunches of wires that didn’t seem to go anywhere, and then he realised that there was no battery in the bike, so he set to work on the other problems. A mirror was found and affixed (from which I now have an excellent view of my elbow and not much else), but the lights and starter were out of his league. He changed the oil (which is easier and less grubby than doing it on a car) and checked the gears and brakes. Then he cut up some old inner tubes into rings to seal the petrol cap and sufficiently prevented petrol spewing out of it at regular intervals in the future. Satisfied, he wrote up a bill and sent us on our way.
We decided Caroline’s arms were perfectly good indicators, and so weren’t too bothered that the real ones weren’t repaired. Tying our second bundle underneath the rear rack as opposed to on top of it allowed Caroline to comfortably wear our backpack, so we didn’t need to get a longer rack. We also decided that the rear light and electric starter were a luxuries we could do without for the time being. We cruised out of town wearing brand new helmets heading south, feeling the bike on the open road for the first time. Lumberous, I’d call it, which apparently isn’t a word but seems perfect in my head.
In all the traveling we’ve done in South East Asia, northern Laos comes out on top as having the most stunning scenery. Mountainous crags and pinnacles are dotted about the landscape, and the road passes alternatively over these and down through lush valleys. Villages are set at irregular intervals, and are much more alive that some of the ghost-like small towns in Thailand. The rice harvest had just come to an end, and so the expanses of paddy fields were now unappealing brown sticks – yet this hardly detracted from the beauty. One of the tallest climbs pulled us up into the Phya region, where we entered into a chilling mist. At the summit of the mountain and peak of the mist, I couldn’t see more than ten metres in front of me; the road steeply dropped and twisted. Huge humps had formed in the tarmac along with pot holes, and at one point the road had disintegrated into a rocky nightmare – complete with a small river running down it. We almost fell off, but had all four of our legs extended and managed to keep the bike upright. It was the most challenging patch of road I’d ever driven on: thick mist, loose rocks, road river, and an old unfamiliar bike.
We made it to the little town of Kasi, and spent two nights there while Caroline got over a mild cold. We also noticed that the bike was leaking oil. Not good.
After Kasi, we stopped at the inevitable hub of Vang Vieng, Laos’ beautifully situated mega-party zone. The area is popular for at least one, if not all of the following things (often at the same time): tubing, caving, drinking heavily, trekking, opium, weed, buckets of colourful booze, swimming, endless episodes of Family Guy, and mushrooms. There used to also be the ‘Slide of Death’, but after 27 foreign tourists died in 2011, the local government cracked down on the area and the party has slowed down somewhat. We spent one night on the outskirts of the city and put the bike though its paces on two dirt track loops in the surrounding area. No visits to a mechanic were needed!
The following day we drove all the way down to the small town of Thalat (which I wrote about here). During our stay we visited a mechanic to see of he could do anything about our rear light and starter motor.
In this part of the world, you don’t drop off your vehicle at a mechanic and then pick it up the next day, you get given a small wooden stool and are vicariously involved in the entire operation. This is a good way to learn which screw goes where and why you shouldn’t yank a particular wire without knowing what it does. After two hours, we had a new battery, the electric started worked (yay!), the rear light worked, the oil was changed again (our language barrier was such that we couldn’t get them to understand that it might be leaking), and the recently loosened shift lever was tightened. Three mechanics worked on our bike; one who seemed to know exactly what he was doing; one who was a short, bumbling comic-relief, who did things like free stuck lugs from the wrench by smashing the tool on the concrete. The third mechanic was a boy of about eight-years-old who replaced the electrics before riding away on his own motorbike – a dirt bike that completely dwarfed him and was covered in Che Guevara stickers.
Our next stop was Vientiane – the big city. We had to stop here to find a place to fix our broken computer (which took four days) and fix the possible oil leak on the bike. Before we had even found a place to stay, the shift lever shifted too far forwards and got stuck, rendering the gears useless. Luckily for us, there is a mechanic every three metres in Laos and we pulled into the nearest one. A black and white cat that had been alive long enough to be sacred in Egypt sat in a patch of oil and stared out at the passing traffic. It didn’t realise that I was about to pet it on account of being deaf and blind, but it seemed happy as I knuckled at its tough, gritty fur. It began to wash itself but decided almost immediately to give up. Then it slowly stood and creaked its way over to a bag full of used tyres to flop down.
The mechanic and owner of the cat pulled the entire engine apart, replaced two chains, one disk thing (the most technical name you will get from me), some rubber O-rings, and a bunch of screws. Everything was put back fastidiously, with other potential disaster areas being tightened or fixed. At one point he rolled the bike inches from the cat’s paw which it didn’t seem to care about. In fact, the only time the cat budged was when the mechanic draped the compressed air hose directly over it and started blasting oil out of the bike. The cat lurched, probably the most violently it had moved in weeks, then scowled and slowly walked back to its original oil puddle to resume staring at traffic.
Two hours later, at the traffic lights on a three-lane road, the shift pedal snapped forwards too far and practically fell off.
“Apologise to the traffic!” I said, flustered, to Caroline as I wheeled the bike to the footpath. We walked ten metres to the nearest petrol station which had a large repair shop attached. The mechanics all huddled around the bike and laughed at it for about five minutes, then one of them welded the shift lever back on. “But how will you access the engine now?” I asked. The shift pedal is supposed to be removable to allow access to the inner workings of the bike. I assumed that welding was somewhat permanent. “Okay okay,” said one, as though it were no problem. Then they all laughed some more. Time, I guess, will tell.
Apart from almost everything breaking, the bike has been good to us. It only dies when we’re near mechanics, and as of this writing (two weeks after the events in this post) it has carried us almost 1000 kilometres. Not bad for a piece of crap.
Note: after writing this all out our bike died on us today. It won’t idle properly. So tomorrow we’re off to the mechanic.