We crossed the border into Laos late in the afternoon and had only a couple of hours before sunset. Dusk crept over us while we were still miles from any town that might offer refuge for the night and we drove faster than usual to cover as much ground as possible before dark. We approached a single-lane bridge with two smooth narrow paths along its length, perfectly spaced for car tires. Between the two drivable tire paths were thick wooden support beams oriented crosswise, perpendicular to the tire paths. Joel, Jörn and David each chose the left tire path. Austin, bringing up the rear, wondered to herself why they’d all chosen the left path rather than keeping right. In keeping with common driving rules she decided to stay right. As she neared the bridge she saw that there was a large pothole just before the right path, which in the fading daylight had not been visible until she was nearly upon it. She quickly tried to switch to the left side of the bridge but was not able to successfully change course at the speed she was going. Instead, her front tire plowed headlong into the wooden beams in the center of the bridge, bringing her motorcycle to a very sudden stop.Austin did not stop though, and while she doesn’t remember the sequence of events, was ejected off her bike and was briefly airborne until she was caught by the high guardrail on the side of the bridge. She somehow managed to land upright on her feet and miraculously endured only a stubbed toe from the whole event. Her bike, d’Artagnan, suffered no injuries. After the adrenaline subsided and assuring that Austin and d’Artagnan were really as intact as they appeared, the team pushed on (at a slower pace) and made our way through the darkness to the nearest little town. After two crashes, barely making it through an international border and driving almost blind in the darkness, we were exhausted. The next two days on the bikes were full of more endless amazing scenery and winding roads that brought us through the middle of nowhere into tiny villages that had guesthouses when we were lucky.Our first destination in Laos was Phonsavan. About 20 kilometers from our destination we noticed that our friend Jörn was out of sight. (If you’ll remember, we met Jörn on the Vietnamese side of the border and he saved the day when he helped to pay David’s Laos visa fee.) Jörn had been bringing up the rear that day. When we lost him, David and Joel pulled to the side of the road and Austin drove back in the direction from which we’d come to see where he was. She almost drove past him without noticing him at the bottom of the sloping shoulder beside the road. She found Jörn standing in the middle of a rice paddy, soaked, with a very sour look on his face, his bike lying on its side partially under water. She ran down the slope to help him. His shoulder, arm and knee had some pretty decent lacerations but he could move all of his parts and thankfully nothing seemed broken. Austin and Jörn went about hauling his bike up out of the rice paddy and toward the road. By this time several cars had driven past David and Joel, waving and indicating to something in the direction Austin had driven. This could not be a good sign. They arrived to the scene of the crash and we all got Jörn’s bike up to the road, addressed his wounds and then assessed the condition of his bike. Fortunately the motorcycle started up without trouble but beneath its fresh coat of mud we noticed that the gearshift lever was missing. After searching the paddy as best we could with the help of a few friendly locals, we determined the lever would have to remain lost. Jörn’s bike would be stuck in fourth gear until we could get it a new gearshift lever. A man directed us to a mechanic 5 kilometers away. Jörn started up his bike. Joel and David got behind it and pushed, running as fast as they could to help him get up enough speed to let out the clutch in fourth gear. It actually worked! We hopped on our bikes and followed him to the mechanic’s shop. A spare lever was found and while it wasn’t a perfect fit, it was better than having only fourth gear. A boy who looked to be about 11 years old did some deft-yet-unprotected welding and then we were off.We made it to Phonsavan, booked into a guesthouse and decided not to move for a couple of days. We made a short day trip to the Plain of Jars, a beautiful grassy area containing thousands of massive stone jars. The function and origination of the jars is unknown, though the most popular theory is that they were used in ancient burial and cremation ceremonies. The Plain of Jars is also historically significant for the reason that it happens to be located in one of the most heavily bombed area of Laos, the massive craters evidence of its violent history. Like much of Laos, the Plain of Jars remains littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO), as nearly 30% of bombs dropped on Laos during the Secret War (1964-1973) failed to detonate on impact. Now decades after the war, UXO continue to pose a significant risk to the people of Lao, many of whom fatally trigger UXO while plowing their fields or walking to school. A great deal of Laos’s poverty is a direct result of the emotional and economic impact on closely knit communities when family members die from explosions.From the jars we drove about 225 kilometers to our next destination, Luang Prabang. It was an incredible winding ride through mountains and along a storm front that threatened us for hours with rain. We managed to stay moments ahead of the rain all day. We spent over a week enjoying the French influenced neighborhoods, dining by the bank of the Mekong River, visiting temples, getting $5 massages and swimming at the Kuang Si waterfall. The waterfall was accompanied by beautiful pools made bright blue by the small particles of limestone sediment refracting the sunlight. We noticed a ferry making frequent trips across the Mekong and decided to take our bikes across to explore the other side of the river. The other side consisted of a series of small villages linked by dirt roads. We enjoyed the new scenery but it began to rain and we decided to make our way back. On the way, the dirt roads became mud roads. Austin wiped out on the slippery mud and this time did not land on her feet. Fortunately she wasn’t driving very fast and only suffered a scraped elbow and the humiliation of riding the ferry back completely covered in mud. That made for a total of 4 crashes in under 2 weeks. Still, we assure you that the driving is safer in Laos than in Vietnam. While in Luang Prabang we also got our first and only ticket for a traffic infringement. Apparently we drove the wrong direction for about 15 meters on a one-way street. We hadn’t realized we were driving the wrong way because the road is actually used for two-way traffic, but being that we were an excellent opportunity for the police to make some easy cash, we got pulled over and fined. We were told we needed to pay about $36 each to the officer. No receipts or official process followed. When we informed the officer that we’d prefer to take care of this properly at the police station with his superior, we effectively reduced our fine to about $12 each. Despite David’s reluctance (he was sure if we continued to bargain we’d be able to get out of the fee altogether) we paid the officer and continued on our way. While we were paying our bribe, several other vehicles drove past us in the wrong direction on the one-way street.On our way from Luang Prabang to our next stop, Vang Vieng, we’d seen several signs warning people not to consume bushmeat. When we stopped for lunch at a roadside stand, for sale beside the road were two recently killed forest creatures that looked like something between a lemur and a raccoon, as well as a giant monitor lizard – still alive and sad-looking, with its hands and feet tied behind its back – and a wild guinea pig stuffed inside a tiny cage made of reeds. We ordered our usual noodle soup with beef, but judging by the look of that beef, it was probably some sort of bushmeat. It was quite tasty and none of us contracted ebola. In Vang Vieng we did what all the young kids go there to do, namely float down the river in inner tubes. We enjoyed ourselves and got sunburned. In the name of David’s upcoming birthday, we treated ourselves the same day to the ride of a lifetime in a hot air balloon. It was absolutely breathtaking and terrifying to see the earth from a wicker basket 3000 feet up.We spent David’s May 27 doing the funnest thing we could imagine: riding motorcycles around Asia. We rode our bikes to the capital city, Vientiane. It was a bittersweet ride, because while it was as exhilarating as ever, we knew it would probably be the last ride with our beloved motorcycles. Vientiane would be our last stop in Laos and the end of the road for our moto love affair. We enjoyed the tiny city’s coffee culture for a week while Joel applied for his Indian visa. One at a time The Black Pearl, d’Artagnan and Carl each found someone new to love them and take them on new adventures. We feel too emotional to speak more about our final goodbyes, but we trust that they are each happy and being well cared for.
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