Tag Archives: motorcycle

A Rooster as Big as a House

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a friend of mine and his many motorcycle accidents in Laos.

In November 2009 I motorcycled around the southern part of Laos for a month with a close friend who I will call Greg.  It was a trial by fire for Greg, who had never ridden a motorcycle before.  He was very keen to learn and I thought there could be no safer place in Southeast Asia than the beautiful dirt roads of Laos, blessedly free of the traffic that chokes so much of the region.  We landed in Vientiane, rented our motorcycles and headed into the suburbs for his first lessons.

This is a story of three motorbike accidents.  It is a story of fortitude and perseverance in the face of repeated bruising, a story of the human spirit overcoming an increasingly broken body, a story of lessons learned.  But mostly it is a story of luck – that Greg didn’t shuffle of this mortal coil deep in the Laos jungle, wrapped around a twisted metal heap that used to be a two-wheeled vehicle.

The first crash happened somewhere near Thakhek, only a few days into the trip.  Greg and I were putting merrily along a dirt road on the way to a lake for a swim.  I had a passenger at this time, a lovely Australian named Ricky who was on a worldwide tour for a year.  I was confiding to him at the time that I was a little worried about how Greg would go riding.

“But, he seems to be quite safe,” Ricky said to me.  “He’s not going fast or anything.”

It’s true; we were cruising at about forty kilometres an hour, a pretty tame speed for the empty dirt roads of rural Laos.  But as sure as the sun rises, as soon as Ricky said that, Greg sped past us.  He gave a knowing nod and smirk as he did so: catch me if you can, it communicated.

But before I could attempt to catch him or not, Greg pushed his bike into a ditch, smashed the wheel into the corrugated dirt and catapulted himself onto the road.  It was a perfect sequence of events from our perspectives: he zoomed past Ricky & I, came in full view of us and only then promptly crashed the bike.  I shook my head and skidded to a halt.  There he lay, this friend of mine, just gaining his confidence on two wheels, only to be dashed against the hard earthen reality of over-enthusiasm.

The second incident occurred a few days later, further south near Savannakhet somewhere.  I forget where we were headed, but it was just the two of us by now, Ricky having departed for his next destination.  This was before I had a smart phone or GPS and we were relying on print maps.  I knew we had to make a right hand turn somewhere but wasn’t sure where, so I took the lead, ducking through the paddocks checking left then right at each intersection.

Then HO! I spotted the turn.  It was too late to make it, so I put the brakes on after crossing the intersection and turned my head – once more, just in time to see Greg’s face contorted in shock as he applied his front bake, skidded into the dirt and crash out alongside me.  I just stared at him in disbelief.  If he had used his back brake he would have been fine, but for some reason he panicked, and instead of cruising past me or initiating a rear brake skid he opted to put all pressure on the front – and on these red dirt roads, that was a recipe for disaster.

Greg slowly rose to his feet.  Somehow his pants had fallen down.  He stood on the road in his boxer shorts, breathing heavily.  Dust and steam surrounded him as our motorcycle engines purred.  Three farmers, who had seen the whole thing, approached from the fields, and another motorcyclist pulled up to ask if we needed help.  Greg stared at them.  They stared at his naked legs and boxer shorts.  I stared at the whole scene.  Then we all burst out laughing.  Thankfully Greg and the bike weren’t too hurt; but his pride was taking a slow, sure, beating.  After righting the bike I took a quick photograph and we moved on.

The third and final crash was a doozy.  It beat Greg down and could have been quite serious.  Unlike the other two, I didn’t witness it.  Greg and I were descending a steep hill deep in a national park.  After five minutes of riding I realised I hadn’t seen him in my rear view mirror in a while, so I stopped and waited for him to catch up.  Ten minutes passed with no Greg passing me by.  I turned around and rode back up the mountainside.

There, in a small village, sat Greg, despondent, clothes ripped, skin slashed, surrounded by local peasants.  His motorcycle was not exactly a tangled heap, but the clutch had snapped off and there was significant cosmetic damage.  Oh dear, I thought.

“What happened man?” I asked.

“Rooster,” Greg said.  “As big as a house.”

I nodded.  Plenty of animals came at you on these roads.  I had been lucky to never hit anything.  I guess Greg was faced with the prospect of killing the rooster or hitting the brakes – and he went for the front brake again.

We didn’t say much.  He got on my motorbike and I nursed his own clutchless wreck down the hill and towards our accommodation.  That night I tended his wounds, using basically my entire first AID kit.

Did Greg have a good time in Laos?  Yes, he did.  He and I went on to take many more bicycle and motorcycle trips in Asia, and I am proud to say his vehicular stability is now peerless, with nary a stack or a skid for years.

But that trip in Laos in 2009 was a close call – and it could have gone either way.

Injuries and Returns

This is the eleventh in a series of posts running throughout 2015 and 2016 about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about hurting myself and returning to Australia.

This post flows on from the previous entry where towards the end of 2008, at the tender age of 21, I was faced with the choice of renewing my business VISA and continuing teaching in Vietnam or returning to Australia.  I had just come out of an unfortunate employment situation, deciding I needed to head into the remote northwest region of Vietnam to think things over.  This was to be the first time I had entered the highlands of Southeast Asia proper – apart from the Dalat region.

It was my first zomian experience, which only gained significance later when I ended up spending so much more of my time traveling and researching in the mountains of Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and India. I had never heard of zomia in 2008.

I decided that I needed a dirt bike to do the Northwest Highlands of Vietnam “properly”.  The only problem was that I had never ridden a big beefy bike, only having experience with the automatic-hybrid step-through motorcycles so prevalent in Vietnam at that time.  But I had quickly learned to ride those nimble beasts in the monstrous traffic of Ho Chi Minh City so I thought I should also be capable of wrangling a manual dirt bike on mountain roads … with no guard rails or hospitals … for miles …  just fine!

Made perfect sense at the time.

There came recommended to me a gentleman north of the Red River who rented out Honda XRs at reasonable rates, something like US$20 per day, so I headed to him and explained my intention.  I would go on a nice big loop clockwise from Hanoi, aiming for about eight days, but open to whatever came my way.  He provided me with a Honda XR for a test ride and I zoomed off onto the Red River bridge.  Or tried to.  It was, just like my first time on a Honda Dream in Saigon, a baptism by fire. I stalled several times and nearly collided with literally all phenomena.

When I decided I could vaguely control this new strange motorised horse I sealed the deal and prepared my bags.  I didn’t have any real ambitions for the trip except to come to a decision about my residence: Should I stay or should I go?  I took my hardcover atlas with me and plotted out ideas.  I decided I was very keen on visiting Dien Bien Phu, having read so much about it in the context of the French wars and 1954.  At that time Võ Nguyên Giáp was still alive and everything resonated, the locals in Hanoi were definitely less friendly than in Saigon and I felt intoxicating history all around me.

Off I went, bag strapped down, shorts and thongs at the ready.

It was a delightful trip for the first few days.  I met some lovely farmers, a friendly Swedish family on a random red mud road and more buffalo than I could count.  Eventually I made it to Dien Bien Phu just as I ran out of money.  There were no ATMs, so embarrassingly I had to borrow some cash from a friendly chap I met at my hotel, with the proviso that when I got to Sapa I would withdraw cash at a certain bank and deliver the reimbursement, in USD, to a friend of his.

I felt like a right heel for not packing enough hard currency, but then mistakes happen.  In my travels since I have never repeated the situation.  Cash is king. Surplus cash is surplus king.

The lush green of the Cao Bang foothills and Ha Giang passes were a welcome sight after powering through Sapa and Lao Cai.  One mountain path in particular sticks in my mind.  I was purposefully getting off the “main” roads whenever possible, using farmer’s walking paths to cut over mountains and over rivers.  The trail I most remember was barely two feet wide with sheer wet drops into the valley below.  It was mostly stone, presenting different manoeuvring challenges to the dry dirt I usually encountered.  Most importantly, there were no people – and the views were incredible.  Given my novice nature, I managed to stack the motorcycle several times, including twice in sheer mono mode, falling backwards with the bike landing on top of me.  It hurt.

But these small stacks were not enough to deter me.  Instead, I needed The Big Stack for that.

The Big Stack happened in Cao Bang.  It had rained all day and the flat rock road was slick.  I was being very careful, tummy full of noodles, sunglasses down and poncho flickering in the wind.  For some reason I was wearing shorts and flip flops instead of pants and boots.  The stack came at a seemingly normal corner that I misjudged, it was low speed, but the way the bike slid out from under me meant that my knee and foot sliced across sharp rock face, cutting open gashes on the top of my right foot and knee.

It hurt like hell, but thankfully I had some iodine and bandages.  I was about a kilometre from a village, so I walked the bike back and tried to explain the situation.  I was told there was a hospital at the top of a nearby hill, so I walked up some wet grass to an open building with a handful of people huddled inside, vacant expressions all around.  There was no staff, no equipment, weird stains on the floor and … like I said, lots of vacant, mildly disturbing expressions. Many people seemed to have skin conditions.

I’m not sure what kind of hospital it was, but it couldn’t help me.

Looking at my atlas I judged I was about eight hours from Hanoi.  It was nearly sunset.   The skin flap hanging from my knee worried me the most and the joint was beginning to throb harshly, regularly. 

I had been riding for over a week and made a stupid mistake.  It was time to head back to the big city.

That night’s ride was one of the most challenging I’ve ever experienced, and put me in good stead for the hard rides of the future.  The road was nearly all dirt, nearly all being chewed up by night roadworks and nearly all pockmarked with huge ditches and pot holes.  To make matters even worse, the headlight on my motorcycle was so ineffectual it basically didn’t work.  It took ten hours to get to Hanoi, a steady stream of blazing construction lights, pitch black jungle, shitty gravel, stinging pain and suffering.

The one levity I found was picking up a hitchhiker and driving him a few kilometres down the road at around midnight.  He was a nice guy.  I don’t know why he was out on the roads of nowhere at the middle of the night.

By the time I got to Hanoi at 3AM I worked out I had been riding for sixteen hours that day, if you counted the time before I hurt myself.  I rang a mate to see if I could crash with him – he was out at Solace, a nightclub on a boat permanently docked at the river, but he had left his room open for me.  I pulled up, lugged out my pack, stumbled inside and collapsed.  My wounds subsequently both got infected and I still have the scars today.

The next morning I decided I would return to Australia – for now.  So I bought the new laptop I had been putting off buying, flew to Saigon to settle some affairs and then shot back to the antipodes.  I immediately started working full time in the depths of a Melbourne winter, waking at 5AM every day and commuting through empty streets and empty trains.  The contrast with hyper busy Vietnam was massive and it took quite some time to adjust. But I had made my pho, and had to swim in it.

Phuoc and the Ngoc Lam

This is the ninth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 and 2016 about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about friendship.

This story begins on my very first day in Southeast Asia.

It was February 16, 2008 and I had spent the last six months studying for my undergraduate degree while working part-time in a newsagency, scrimping as much money together as I could for the imminent adventure. I was off to teach English at the Marketing University of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, having never set foot in a non-English speaking country before.

I had read the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam backwards twice in anticipation, as well as many Wikipedia entries, novels and history books. I also specialised in Vietnamese cinema studies in 2007, going deep into the U.S. war zeitgeist and the films of Tran Anh Hung in particular. I felt like I had done a thorough job of preparing myself – and in retrospect I guess I did.

The night before boarding the plane I went out on the town with two of my best friends, a couple of guys I’d known since I was 14 and had lived in sharehouses with. We got far, far too drunk; I ended up vomiting and being driven to the airport by my mother feeling downright seedy. Mum and the two mates waved me off, I boarded the plane, buckled in and tried to sleep.

When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City I was immediately drawn in by the heat, the traffic, the smells – I loved it. Instant love. And this was even before I partook in the coffee, beer and food culture.

I caught a taxi from the airport to the Ngoc Lam Hotel on Ly Phuong Kiet and was met by a young porter named Phuoc. Slightly built and with a trendy haircut, I had to almost fight him off as he persisted in trying to carry my backpack. We struggled in the lobby.

“Really, it’s OK!” I implored.

“No Mr Luke, you must let me,” his implacable response resounded, hands darting around my pack, pinching my skin. Little did I know this was going to be the first of many awkward interactions I would have with Phuoc. After capitulating and taking me into my room he said, a little weirdly, and flanked by further pleasantries:

“If there’s anything I can help you with, anything, please, it’s OK. Anything.”

I’ve met my fair share of overzealous people but Phuoc was right up there.

As I settled into the city in the coming weeks I got to know him a bit better. He made constant requests to meet for coffee, and given I was fresh to the scene, I was happy to go along and learn about the city. He showed me some nice places like Nirvana (no longer around) and told me about his life and troubles. Although working at the hotel every day, Phuoc was actually a qualified hairdresser and dreamed of opening a salon overseas. He was also flamboyantly homosexual, which was not easy in Ho Chi Minh City.

Our friendship peaked after about two months when he decided to get to the point. He asked me if I could help him immigrate to Australia by pretending to be his homosexual spouse. We would need to take a lot of photographs, get statutory declarations etc. He had done his research and gave me a package of paperwork. In return, he would give me US $20,000. The offer had a real sense of gravity to it, like Phuoc had always been paving the way to this, that this was a culmination.

I said no.

But Phuoc was reluctant to take that as a final answer. I shielded him off from my other friends and had coffee with him a couple more times, but it got to the point where I had to stop responding to his phone calls and requests to meet. That nearly put an end to it. Nearly.

A month later I was dropping a visiting friend off at her hotel after drinks. It turned out that she was staying at the Ngoc Lam Hotel, where Phuoc worked. I figured that if I was stealthy, I may not see him – or he may not see me. But if we had to interact it shouldn’t be a big deal given the hotel was his workplace. He was hardly going to implore me to be his pretend spouse in the lobby of his employer.

In the end we said goodbye out the front and I rode off without a hitch. A large set of traffic lights are just north of the hotel on Ly Thuong Kiet, and as I was cutting across the city to my place in Tan Binh (through Little Korea town, the alley with the dog carcasses, the two canals that were blacker than black, and the …. Ah, now I miss Vietnam!) I had to go through them. So there I sat waiting in the throng of motorbikes, Honda Dreams and Future Neos and Super Dreams and Waves and all manner of aspirational two-wheeled revolutionaries, listening to the humming of the engines.

Then something else.

“Luke! Luke!” I clearly heard my name above the road noise, coming from behind me, not too far away. I turned my head slowly. There, less than five metres behind, dressed in his gaudy hotel uniform, helmetless and grinning, was Phuoc. But as anyone familiar with Saigon traffic can attest, five metres is a long way when you’re crunched in the middle of motorcycles. He couldn’t reach me, nor I him.

I had two choices. I could have been the better human, smiled, pulled over and reasoned with Phuoc. Perhaps he was going to apologise, let bygones be bygones, say he would never mention the marriage plan ever again. If I had of been a little older, a little more patient, I think I would have done this. Instead, when the traffic light changed I rode off – and fast.

This is how I came to be involved in my first real motorcycle chase. A chase with stakes, imagined or otherwise. He pursued me. I ran from him. Through Little Korea, countless alleys, across bridges, around corners, along footpaths I chugged my little scooter away from the figment of desperation. I only heard his voice once more, at another intersection, when he must have gotten close. It was an absurd situation.

When I had left Phuoc behind a corner at one point I turned into a street that had a large dumpster in it and took a risk out of the movies. I stopped behind the dumpster, in a very tight wedge, and waited. Phuoc rode past, his eyes forward. It was hard to tell, but I don’t think he was smiling. I remember a face of intense concentration. An antagonist.

I wheeled my bike out, rode off in the opposite direction and took a long, complicated route home.

As an emblem of privilege in developing countries I have been approached many, many times to facilitate immigration, but never has it been so drawn out nor so dramatic as that first time. Phuoc prepared me well. And I remain more than a little ashamed, but I was learning.

Dark Sheen to Cat Tien

This is the sixth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a visit to Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog previously, a large proportion of my coveted spare time while teaching English in my early twenties was devoted to exploring Vietnam’s cities and countryside by motorbike. One particular weekend road trip still stands out for its gravity; the roads are full of close shaves in Vietnam, and I have my fair share of “nearly died” moments, but during the weekend in question someone else whom I care about very deeply had her own close shave.

The weekend began in its usual fashion. Classes finished, plans were hatched, logistics organised. I had long been wanting to check out Cat Tien National Park, a wilderness area north of Ho Chi Minh City, and this was the weekend when I finally convinced some fellow teachers to come along with me. Three joined the caravan: Huw, from Cardiff, Wales, and two Australians – Hannah from Melbourne and Amy from Sydney. Hannah and Amy were on contracts at a primary school in Vung Tau, so they had to bus into Saigon before our trip could get underway.

We left early in the Friday morning on two motorcycles: Huw and I on a standard super-CUB derivative, Hannah and Amy on an automatic Honda scooter. It was a nice day and a pleasant ride. We took it extremely slowly as Amy, who was riding the scooter, didn’t have much experience riding in Vietnam. She had some limited riding chops, doing the tourist thing in Bali while in High School, but Bali doesn’t quite compare to Vietnam’s national highways.

We soon left the major roads and found ourselves on the approach to the park. In this part of the country a large number of people had taken to growing corn. Their principle method of drying out the kernels was to lay them out across the single-lane bitumen road, pushing cars onto the gravel and squeezing motorcyclists into a space barely two metres wide. Amy and Hannah had taken the lead on this trip as I wanted to keep an eye on them given their inexperience, and also to ensure that they set the pace and I didn’t accelerate away from them by accident.

Most people take it slow on the country roads in Vietnam, but soon after encountering the corn a single motorcyclist rapidly rounded an upcoming corner. Amy and Hannah were squeezed on the right of the bitumen between the corn and a steep drop into rice paddy. The speeding motorcyclist braked quickly, but couldn’t take much speed off before riding into the corn. He lost control of this front wheel and skidded to the right (his left) – directly into Amy and Hannah’s bike.

I specifically remember shouting “Jesus Fuck!” at this point. I do not know why that phrase came to mind, but that’s what I said. I immediately put on my own brakes as the two bikes collided in front. Amy and Hannah smashed to the ground, but because they were on the scooter, Amy managed to avoid having the bike land on her leg and Hannah popped off like a rocket. The other motorcyclist was on a lighter bike, and was of a lighter build, and was riding solo – all factors that meant his bike came off worse.

He went headfirst into the bitumen. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

I ran straight over to Amy and Hannah and checked if they were alright. They were dazed but no limbs were broken. Amy had a decent gash on her forehead thanks to her helmet which absorbed most of the impact. The Vietnamese motorcyclist had a fair amount of blood coming from his head, leaking into the corn, and was pretty out of it – he appeared conscious, but barely. The family who were drying the corn witnessed the entire event and ran out to help the injured man.

As Huw and I were checking Amy and Hannah another motorcycle rounded the corner with two men on it; they stopped, talked to the family, and lifted the injured man onto their motorcycle. They propped him up in between them, holding him like meat in a vertical sandwich. Then they rode off.

I questioned the wisdom of moving the patient around, coming from Australia where there are strict first aid guidelines and we are encouraged to wait for an ambulance. But out in the countryside – we were about four hours from Saigon – there are no such choices. If an ambulance even could make it out there, it would take a very long time. So five minutes after this poor man had come off his motorcycle, he was back on another one – concussed, murmuring, bleeding and heading for a clinic.

We foreigners hung out with the family for a few hours to make sure that Amy’s head injury wasn’t serious. She had a headache and kept saying she wanted to lie down, which was quite concerning. During this time I worked on getting the scooter going again, which wasn’t too difficult. They are incredibly hardy machines – you could barely tell it had been in an accident, just very minor scrapes on the body.

Eventually we set off again for Cat Tien, now somewhat rattled. The sun would set soon and we were far closer to the national park than to Saigon. Huw took over riding duties from Amy and we coasted down shaded dirt roads to the banks of a large brown river. Here a park ranger deposited our bikes in a ratty shed, took our money and put us on a raft. As we crossed the river monkeys shrieked and walloped through the trees above us; it was a serene moment with dusk enclosing the horizon.

Over the river we found ourselves in a kind of decaying bungalow town; a mouldy, empty jungle camp of blue tiles and muddy paths. A swimming pool lay beside a barren restaurant, choked from bottom to top with green weeds. It was like someone had filled a bowl with colossal, alien alfalfa and lime cordial. All in all it was quite spatially weird, as so many of these forgotten places are: at some point an injection in funds had put in place substantial tourist infrastructure, but years of neglect and underuse created an unsettling atmosphere. Especially when surrounded by jungle.

The park itself was beautiful and well worth the visit. Amy’s head cleared up and we went on a hike, accompanied by many giant green spiders, leeches and the usual litany of jungle animal noises. We clambered onto a rusty old truck for a night safari, trundling along two pockmarked tyre tracks divided by metre-tall grass, searching for deer and crocodiles. There was abundant bird life and plenty of insects to keep Westerners amused.

Before we left we stumbled upon a rather less benign feature of the park, however. Situated down a track behind one of the bungalows was a clearing in the jungle home to a circle of cages filled with colourful monkeys, bears and other creatures. The cages were filthy, the animals looked underfed and seriously unhappy. No doubt we were not supposed to be there, but curiosity is a compelling force. One of the monkeys scratched Amy’s arm, giving rise to fears of rabies, and compounding her rather unfortunate couple of days.

So as we headed back to Saigon that Sunday evening we found our minds again confounded by a mixture of fun, despair, danger and ambivalence. It was wonderful to be doing something so exciting. But was that guy who smashed his head on the road going to be alright? Were those animals going to be sold on from the national park; had they been poached by the very underfunded rangers who were supposed to be protecting the park in their dirty shorts and open sandals?

We never found out. But the memories remain eight years on.

In the next installment I will cover some of the other trips I took while teaching in Saigon, including to Can Gio and Da Lat.