It Takes A Village

11 Mar 2008

The boatman's not stupid. Muong Ngoi's reachable only by boat, but most people stay only a night or two, so we can leave the bike here in Nong Khiaw and come back for it later.

But we want to go further upriver and return by road, and that means taking the bike with us.

We'll have to charter a boat, paying $25 for the trip, instead of the usual $2 each. But we're already paying that per day for the bike, so that doesn't dissuade us. The deal is done. I'm looking apprehensively at the steep concrete stairs running for thirty metres down to the water, but it's under control.

Five guys, none of them much bigger than me, point to the stairs, point to the bike, and ask for a couple of dollars. We give them the thumbs up and they grab it, one controlling the front brake, the other four hanging on to the luggage rack as the massive trailbike rolls down at nearly a 45 degree angle. They're grunting with effort, shouting instructions to each other - monosyllabic languages always sound frantic to non-speakers - and grinning at the same time.

There's some confusion and discussion at the bottom, but eventually they simply bring the narrow boat alongside, pick up the bike, and heave it in. Without their lean muscle and complete lack of fear, we'd never have done it. I love this about Laos, and about South-East Asia in general: money, and not even very much money, makes your problems go away. (In London, problems make my money go away).

The handlers are overjoyed when I give them 50000 kip, or about $5, between them. It was fun to watch, but I would rather have been involved. It's my bike, after all.

An hour later, as the boat pulls in to Muong Ngoi, I get my wish. There's a steep set of concrete stairs with a one-metre drop at the bottom. Further to the left, there's a dirt track at the same preposterous angle, running up the slope for about fifty metres.

The boatman and a few of his mates heave the bike out of the boat and stand it up on the shore, but now it's our problem. A crowd is gathering, and others are watching from guesthouse balconies overlooking the river.

A lightly-built, exceedingly beautiful Lao woman stands on the bottom step, speaking good English over folded arms. The locals are offering us a place in a shed near the river for a few dollars a night. But she'd rather we brought the bike all the way up to her guesthouse at the top, and she seems to be running the show.

Over Lyn's protests, we go with the flow. The stairs aren't even remotely possible. So we wheel the bike over to the track, and half a dozen locals grab the luggage rack while I control the steering. There's no talk of payment; they're enjoying this. The guesthouse owner fetches her brother-in-law, a huge Swedish guy, but even with his help, the track is too steep.

Somebody makes motorcycle noises. We need the engine to help with this, so, almost drunk on danger, I start it up. (It starts first time. We're paying twice the going rate for this bike, and it's worth it). Lyn stands on the right, controlling the throttle, while I work the clutch, and half the village stabilises the bike.

It doesn't work. Lyn and I are close, but not so close that we can work a throttle-and-clutch combination independently. Ahead, the track gets even steeper - it's close to 45 degrees for several metres, before flattening out again. Even if we could control the engine, we need to weight the rear wheel to get any traction.

There's nothing for it. I'm going to have to ride it.

With five people hanging on to the rack, the bike's unlikely to fall, but that's not what it feels like. I have shorts and a t-shirt, no helmet, no shoes, no gloves, no hospital within a day's travel. I keep wanting to slide sideways to put a foot down, a heavily-ingrained instinct with an unstable bike.

Eventually, though, I stay put, let out the clutch, and the bike lurches up the slope. Lyn signals someone to run around to cover my unprotected right side. My left foot is dragged slowly through a thorny bush, and there's absolutely nothing I can do about it, but I almost feel good - it's my damn bike, and I'm going to suffer for it. Later, half our helpers gather around my foot and pull the thorns out for me.

The helpers - including the tiny Lao woman - are really suffering by now, but they're not complaining. There's talk of lying the bike down where it is, under another guesthouse. Despite Lyn's strong support, the idea never gets going. Reasons are given, but really it's because everyone's having too much fun.

One more big push brings the bike up to a gentler slope at the start of the village. A few people clap. I wish I'd turned to thank, or even just recognise, our helpers, but I'm too tired, and too focussed on the next task - riding the bike to the guesthouse. Without my shoes, my feet don't reach the ground at all.

It's an embarrassingly shaky start, and after fifty metres the Swedish guy takes over, maneouvering the bike across a drainage ditch as wide as the front wheel.

We park it, stagger upstairs, and collapse onto our bed. When we emerge later on, everyone - farang and local - knows us as the people who brought their motorcycle to the village without roads. It's been expensive, inconvenient and dangerous, but a hell of a lot of fun. And it's true: It does take a village to raise a motorcycle.