Potholes, Ravaged Roads, and non-existing Highways
Updated: Mar 29, 2021
On the road from Villabouly to Xe Pon, we dodged potholes big enough to swallow a truck, finally turning onto a good highway to Muang Phin. The friendly girls at the guesthouse let us wash our dust-covered clothes and hose down the bikes.
Guesthouses seemed to appear just at the right moment and we never had to rough it for a single night. They are surprisingly modern and clean. Remarkably most, have hot water, a welcome refreshment after a day on the road.
National Highway #23
National Highway #23 south to Salavan is a clear swath on my map. Curiously, my GPS was not in agreement. With a knowing glance at each other, the unspoken words were “another adventure ahead”. By now, we had seen every type of road condition and established a solid level of trust in both our riding skills and each other. So off we went.
To access Highway #23, we crossed a rickety bridge and found a rough, rocky track. After several kilometres, it turned into the standard red dirt road with the customary potholes and ravines. At Xe Pouan River near the village of Tat Hai, we crossed in style on a motorized ferry, our first.
Climbing the steep riverbank on the opposite side we found ourselves on a sandy path. The cluster of bamboo homes faded in our mirrors as we zigged and zagged in soft sand, that alternately became hard rock and mud.
For the next 65 km, Highway #23 was a maze of paths and trails. It was a far cry from the road clearly marked on the map. We assumed it was in the ‘planning stages.’ Then, as if by magic, the track became a sealed surface for the final few miles to Salavan.
Another Mechanical Failure
Astried said her clutch did not feel right. Having learned to trust her intuition, I asked her to wheel her bike out to take a look. Indeed, the clutch cable was literally on the last strand. We found a shop that had a cable and the nice man said he would install it.
I took a look at the cable and it seemed short. I questioned the man but he assured me it was correct and started to install it. As he tried to make it fit with a cluster of spacers and incorrect parts, I sent Astried out on my bike to check around. She returned with a cable from a different shop just as he was finishing.
I jumped on the bike to test and the clutch would not engage. Much as he tried, he could not figure it out. I adjusted it so that it worked, but the whole setup was wrong. Astried lead me to the shop where she got the cable and the boys put the bike on a stand. They looked at the cable, chuckled, and had it off in seconds. With the correct cable installed, the mechanic jumped on it, took it for a test. It was perfect.
I was a little angry with the first mechanic. He had clearly selected the wrong cable and nearly made the bike inoperable with his attempt to cobble it together. I decided to revisit his shop.
“Face” is very important in Asia. If you “lose face”, it is over. You become an object of mockery as you grow increasingly incensed and the situation is rarely resolved. Smile, remain patient and calm, be gently insistent and things will eventually happen.
With this knowledge, I returned to the original shop with the incorrect cable and stood patiently until he decided to take note of me. I told the man that the cable was too short, and I had told him that from the beginning. I would happily pay for his labour, but not the part, as it was useless. His wife gave me death eyes all the while smiling to save face. I smiled in return and calmly waited as she begrudgingly returned the money.
Tourists, Damn Tourists
After not seeing foreigners for several days, Tod Lo waterfall felt touristy. To escape, we hiked up a challenging muddy track through the jungle to Tad Soung, a 55m waterfall with an endless vista. We laughed at the top when we realized it was possible to drive up. Nonetheless, we chose an equally unusual route down.
On to Sekong where we marvelled at the views ascending the Bolaven Plateau to Tayicseua Waterfall. Scampering over boulders and across the river on a fallen tree, the jungle track to the thundering waterfalls was damp and shrouded in mist. Back aboard the bikes we descended southeast to Attapeu, arriving just at sunset. Although 232km may not sound like a big deal, it was a long day.
Morning sun lit the eastern flank of the Bolaven Plateau as we cruised along the base and then climbed. The ratty roads of yesteryear have been surfaced to service the hydroelectric company and big agriculture that is invading the plateau. Massive Vietnamese owned single-crop plantations with irrigation systems are overtaking the subsistence farmer and the traditional variety of crops. We rode through one such plantation on our way to Paksong, the coffee capital of the Bolaven Plateau.
The quiet room at Savanna Guesthouse overlooked a small lake. The sisters that own it were always laughing and it was infectious. We giggled together as the sun went down.
Astried's brake fluid was low, so we stopped at a repair shop. I suggested she have her chain lubed, as well. When the repairman spun the wheel backwards, the drive sprocket popped off and fell into the dirt. She seems to have very good luck with breakdowns as parts appear just as needed. He installed a new circlip and we were off.
Astried's friend Sabine has a small bamboo home nearby and we spent the next few days there doing some construction and living simply, as the locals do. This included the 4pm walk to the nearest river where everybody – all six of us – gathered to discuss the day and bathe.
East to Pakse on the Mekong River, where Astried got a new rear tire. Mr. Leu had it organized and ready for us, so the exchange was fast. North on Highway 13, we found an off-road route along the river. As always seems to happen, just when it was time to find something resembling a town and a guesthouse, one appears. The Keobusai Guesthouse was super clean and friendly. I was starting to get used to the hot showers everywhere!