Battling Bribery: Playing Volleyball to Enter Laos

By Paul Archer

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It’s sods law.  If you fill all the fuel tanks in one country, the fuel will be cheaper in the next one. That’s the way it always works, and succumbing to the strange superstitions that develop over long months on the road, we rolled over the border filled to the brim.

Entering Laos, we were in a jubilant mood; the sun was shining and the atmosphere had changed immediately.  China had been… an experience, a country without parallels.  But, Tibet aside (which had been the most mind blowing, beautiful county), China was restricted by constant rain, six, twelve hour days, a week spent driving and our inability to really communicate with people other than through our somewhat challenging guide (not to mention the communal toilet habits!). The food was brilliant, always something new and interesting (although not necessarily tasty…) sated our appetites most nights (to this day I dream about waking up to a good bowl of dumplings and a tray of chilli vinegar!) but by the time we reached the border, we were up for a change.

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As good a deterrence as you’re likely to get

The road turned rough as we passed through the over engineered, three story, majestic Chinese border gates complete with gold font bidding farewell from the ‘People’s Republic of China’.  It was a crass display of wealth next to the dilapidated bungalow that housed the Laos border. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, ravaged by the Vietnam War, it’s barely recovered 30 years later.  It is the ‘most bombed country on earth’; mines and unexploded ordinance scatter the dense forests going some way to prevent serious agricultural and economic growth.

Bushes and long grass had grown high around the border bungalow, only being cleared for a full sized volleyball court positioned behind the hut.  The visa guy provided us with a visa and immigration stamped us through.  By the time we had finished, the whole building had come out and started to play volleyball.

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Temple

Immigration told us we needed to pay him for ‘overtime’ for doing our passports (all of $7).  We work on a no bribery policy, generally being in no particular hurry, we can normally wait out difficult police and border stops (although we have had to bribe occasionally when there is no other option).  Although it is an insignificant a mount of money, I don’t want to set or reinforce a precedent for future travellers. We refused to pay and a padlocked barrier was put down in front of the car.  Apparently it couldn’t be opened until the next morning.  Although not averse to camping on the border, we had no food or water.  The volleyball players said border was now shut and we needed to pay ‘overtime’ for the man to open it and carried on with their volleyball.

The answer to this problem was abundantly clear; we would have to play them at volleyball to get through.  Maybe if we irritated them enough, they would let us through?  Grabbing the ball I announced with a big smile that I was playing; all of them versus me, if I win they open the gate.  They seemed up for it (but they didn’t have much of a choice; I had the ball), so I gave it a smack and it went right into the net.  My plan was flawed from the beginning; I don’t possess the slightest iota of volleyball playing skill.

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If I win, we go through…

They won hands down and the gate remained firmly shut.  Smiles and jokes carried on, but I upped the irritation.  Every time I got the ball it ended up in the long grass (due to skill or lack of… you decide) and they eventually broke (i.e. got bored) and one of the guys opened the gate, and we entered Laos.

It was dusk so we drove to the first village and found a homestay.  We grabbed a bite and checked out what is classed as nightlife in a village of a few hundred in the middle of the Northern Laos’ Jungle; a building on bamboo struts serving beer to ten local lads and playing very loud Laos karaoke and videos by a Japanese hair metal band called X Japani … (I ask you to finish reading the blog before clicking this as you may find you’ll spend the rest of the day watching these guys on youtube, revelling in their awesomeness and trying to decide the singer’s gender… I know I did: )

Our destination was Vang Vien, home to a weird activity called, simply ‘Tubing’.  Rapidly becoming a staple on the South East Asian backpacker’s circuit, the model is simple; you take a tuk tuk to the top of a river with a car tyre tube and float five miles into the town, stopping at as many of the riverside bars on the ways as possible.  My two sisters were flying out from home to get a ride in the cab and we arranged meet them there.

I woke the next morning and something wasn’t right.  Numerous battalions of some bed bug type animal had fed viciously on my torso, turning it into a scattered landscape of small red and incredibly itchy bites. To make matters worse, we had used all our anti histamine tablets in the dust mite infested hovels where we had stayed in Tibet to stop us sneezing all night long.  Covering myself in ineffective aftersun cooling cream, we headed south and I itched.

Before long I stopped and had a wee; it wasn’t just my torso they had bitten.

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Minging!

The landscape in northern Laos is excellent, rising small hills; you can see thick green forest meeting the horizon.  Hills get higher as you head south and volcanic outcrops stick vertically up from the forest with trees hanging on unfeasibly steep slopes.  It doesn’t seem possible for anything to grow on anything that steep, and you’d be partly right.  Although the road from the border is initially very good (the bit built by the Chinese) it soon descends into a game of sporadically paved, pot hole filled, hairpin lined truck chicken.  Landslides block the road every few miles as the unfeasibly attached trees discover that as soon as it rains, their base on a near vertical slope is untenable and they all fall down along with a lot of mud onto the road below.  Land movers work tirelessly during the wet season to clear these, often just leaving deep mud tracks for you to simply drive over the land slide.

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Off-Road Heroes!

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The Winch

Arriving at one particularly substantial one, we found a small truck had slid out, blocking the road for all.  This was it, the moment we had all been waiting for.  A legitimate reason to use our winch!!!  It had taken over two weeks to attach and cost £500 and had never been used (apart from one half hearted time in Turkey when it seemed more fun to winch then to push).  Leigh and I jumped out and immediately Leigh fell flat on his ass in the knee deep mud.  Momentarily stopping being off-road heroes to take be piss out of our mud-caked team mate, we then looped a tow rope around its axels, winched it back onto the road, dug away the remaining mud and guided him out.  Cheers rung out from the three or four observers and the winch had proved its worth.  

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Our muddy feet (note Johno’s pristene clean ones, apparently the photography has to stand on the car and not help the Off-Road Heroes)

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The Cars, The Family and the Team

A bit further along, a car drove right at us, it looked like some sort of vintage car and all we could hear was the sound of an old ‘honk’ horn (of the variety naughty comedians used for sound effects when they squeeze ample women’s breasts in the ‘60s).  It veered over, and there sat a beautiful Argentinean car from the 1920s.  It belonged to a barking mad family, who had spent the past eleven years driving around the world in this awesome car.  Such a long time, in fact that they managed to have four kids on the road.  Unfortunately we couldn’t hang around and have a chat, they had to be in China the next day and after our reports about the road ahead, they knew they had to get going.  We knew that no matter now hard our break downs are, and how long we’ve been on the road, there’s always someone out there who is doing something harder.  Check them out http://www.argentinaalaska.com/eng/

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Hannah looked positively chav-ish next to this majestic beauty

We stopped at the pretty market town of Luang Probang for the night then set off on our way with loads of time to make it to Vang Vien before nightfall.  Soon there was a clunk, a grind and the familiar sound of metal on metal, out set all our teeth on edge and Leigh exclaiming in polite, four letter words his disappointment at yet another thing on the car breaking.  The brakes went spongy and we stopped on the side of the road.  The brake calliper had fallen apart.  Chief mechanic Leigh announced that the pin holding it together had gone and now nothing was holding the brakes pads in.  Chief blaggers, Johno and I, traipsed along the road in search of something pin like.  Our fluency in sign language (or possibly that we were holding a brake calliper in our hands) allowed us to get directions to a village mechanic.  A pillar drill and an angle grind on a piece of metal lying on the floor of his workshop later and we had a new pin.  Back we traipsed to find that Leigh had found that we were also missing a plate of some sort.  No problem for the It’s on the Meter crew, an iced coffee can, some pliers and a hammer were brought into the mix and we were off.

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The caliper plate from the working brake

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Arm Chair Mechanics

Winding along the lanes, straw huts on stilts lined the road, children played and chickens tried their best to get squashed under the wheels of black cabs.  Each village had a tap on the main road, and as the day drew on, we would get a glimpse of everybody’s evening washing rituals as they hung around the only running water available. 

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Fixed

Our setback meant that darkness fell, and with it half the sky.  Water fell as one big torrent onto us, forming sudden deep rivers in the road as our twenty year old rust bucket sprung a few leaks, our two motorbike lights we had bolted onto the cab as headlights had failed and the only lights we had were spot lights as the road turned into a pot holed, water filled mess.  With nowhere to stay we had to push onto Vang Vien at a crawl, driving over small bumps, only to discover two foot deep holes behind them with clank as our decrepit suspension maxed out for the sixth time that day.

We eventually got to the village by 10pm to find it was not the small village we imaged, but a full blown tourist hot spot, heaving with drunken backpackers.

It was time to put our party boots on.

 

Next up fun with ropes and beer, gin-and-tonic-and-snakewine (complete with real snake), minor surgery in the worlds worst hospital and road side rock stars…

 

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