Saturday, April 3, 2010

Get your motor running, head out on the highway

We'd been dying to rent a motorbike and get out onto the open road, wind in our hair and all that, and we finally decided to pull the trigger in a place called Tha Khaek in Southern Laos.  There's not much in the town itself but there's plenty of things to see and do just outside.  Route 12 is part of "The Loop" a 3-4 day tour popular with backpackers on motorbikes.  We didn't have that much time so we decided to rent a bike for the day, head east out of town and take in some of the sights along Route 12.

We rented our wheels from a small shop across from where we were staying in Tha Khaek.  It was a pretty small operation run by a friendly Lao guy.  He had 3 bikes to choose from - old, crap, and old and crap.  The shop owner must have sensed we were looking for a bargain as he immediately offered us old and crap.  He said it would be perfect for our day trip and there would be no need to spend the extra 10,000 kip for one of the slightly better bikes.

As neither of us have any experience riding motorbikes Lee asked for a bit of a rundown on how things work - how do you turn it on/ where do you put gas in/ where is the brake? - that sort of thing.  He showed us the gas tank first.  He did this by lifting up the seat to show us where to put gas in.  The thing is the seat wasn't even attached!  He just lifted it off and put it on the floor!  Not a good sign.  The he tried to start it.  The electric starter wasn't working so he said we'd have to kick-start it.  After a couple of attempts he got it purring...and then it died.  He eventually got it started again but it kept dying.  It seems the idle was set too low or something (again, we know nothing about bikes).  After a bit of a think he suggested we take it down the road to have the mechanic adjust it.  That's when we decided it might be wise to pony up the extra 10,000 kip (about $1.25) to secure his best bike - the Fuma.  125ccs of raw, unadulterated power!  We still had to take it to the mechanics for a "tune-up" but after that we were ready to go.

We headed east out of town and into the countryside.  The scenery was beautiful.  We passed through small villages, between limestone karst cliffs, through rice paddys.  We dodged cows, held on for dear life as massive trucks rumbled by covering us in thick clouds of exhaust, and waved at small kids as they played by the side of the road.

Our first stop was at The Falang, a section of river that is a popular swimming spot for tourists and locals.  It took some finding as the signage isn't great but we eventually got there.  Unfortunately, as it's dry season the water was pretty low and it didn't look too inviting so we passed on the swim and hopped back on the bike got back on the road.

Another few miles down the road we stopped off at the Nang Aen Cave, a huge cave with concrete staircases constructed throughout.  It looked like something out of David Bowie's "Labyrinth."  Next we went to the Xien Liep Cave.  There's no real road or path to the cave but a little boy appeared out of nowhere and beckoned us to follow him saying "cabe."  We followed out little tour guide through the woods for about 10 minutes.  Along the way he stopped to capture a pretty decent sized beetle which he peeled the wings and legs off of and ate.  Mmmmm.  After making our way across some fairly tricky and rocky terrain (which our 5 year old guide easily managed to we got to the opening of a large cave with a river running out of it.  Very cool.

We decided to take a few minutes to take in the scenery before heading back.  While resting Courtney taught our little guide some English words using the "Let's Speak Lao" guide we'd picked up in town.  He was quite the little student, Courtney wanted to take him home.

Our last stop was Pa Fa Cave - the Buddha Cave.  The cave was only discovered in 2004 by some guy looking for bats.  When he found it it had several hundred Buddha statues in it (hence the name).  Now Lao people and monks regularly go to the cave to pray.  To get to the cave we had to travel about 9km along a dirt road through a number of villages.  The road was pretty tough to drive on and every time a bike or car passed us we were covered in dust.  Great fun though.  Well, it was great fun until we were on our way back.  We got to the last turn before the main road and we ate dirt...literally.  We took the turn a bit wide and a bit too fast and before we knew it we were halfway down a ditch!  We were both fine save for a couple of scratches but the camera didn't make out so well.  Court had it out to take some photos of the scenery and unfortunately some dirt got in the lens as we went down.

All in all we had a great day and would definitely recommend it to anyone out in these parts....just remember to ease up off the gas as you get to the last bend on the dirt road coming back from the Buddha Cave.  Oh, and bring a little gift for the unofficial Xien Liep tour guide, you'll make his day.

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