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.