Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Laos by Four-Wheel Drive: My New Respect for Ford Trucks

I've traveled across the lands of foreign countries in various ways, but heading out in a four-wheel drive diesel truck navigating with a crappy map and road signs in a non-Roman alphabet is the most liberating I've done.

I'm in Laos visiting my friend Ian who's a cartographer for an NGO that removes landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) that was dropped by US planes back in the 60s and 70s. He's done this type of work in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and now Laos, where he lives in Vientiane with his wife, mother in-law and an extended family of non-English speakers and three-year-olds.

Ian and I got drunk with this Maori dude in a rooftop bar overlooking the Mekong and decided to head out the next day with hangovers after renting a 4X4 Ford Ranger diesel stick shift pickup truck.

I had a pocket compass that I bought off a Chinese street vendor in Saigon and Ian had a map copied from a fax machine that we scored from the local ecotourism company. (Suckers!)

I drove that whore of a truck through 450 miles of Lao highway, sloppy muddy roads and flowing creeks --- often at high speeds and in darkness, swerving to miss sleeping dogs, herds of cattle, herds of goats, packs of children, motorbikes without lights, huge freight trucks, ox carts, motorbike carts, and passed out drunk dudes (yes, on the highway).

Our destination was Kong Lor cave (no wiki link) that's navigable only by boat through 4.5 miles where at times the ceiling is 100 meters. But since it's the rainy season in southeast Asia, the cave entrance was flooded so we just explored the muddier parts with the truck.

We'd drive down the main road, see a muddy side road, put it in low gear 4WD, and go balls out. Backpackers glorify ripping off the locals by haggling down to the last dime, and think that taking 44-hour bus rides is the pinnacle of getting in touch with the locals. But those type of budgets prevent you from experiencing the wilds of Asia as it was meant to be seen: with the windshield wipers on full blast, bouncing with your head almost hitting the ceiling, a wave of brown water coming at the windshield, the roar of a diesel motor, steam coming off the manifold, and being covered in mud up to your eyeballs after digging out the truck with half a dozen rice farmers.

This is what it looks like:

Behind the truck is what I just drove through. That's our Maori friend scouting out the trail for a way back:

Taking a beer break while we decide how to proceed. Despite being in a 4X4, the truck still had street tires which only plowed through mud at high speeds. Stopping would mean certainly getting stuck in the middle of freaking nowhere. We would've had to get towed out by water buffalo:

We decided to turn around at this point. Notice the water buffalo grazing up ahead on the road:

We stopped in a village for a Beerlao:

Beerlao and mud:

Since it's the rainy season, this is a regular sight --- roads that are completely washed out by rivers or creeks. We didn't try to cross this, but went through more shallow ones. Next time I will rent a truck with mud tires, a winch, and a snorkel for the air intake.

The mountains of Laos:

Everything got covered in mud:

What an awesome adventure LB. That is what I call living life. Way to go.
I'm sure you'd rather be watching FTV in some anonymous hotel room...

I am with you. Lonnie is living a great life. Awesome experiences.
I want to be you
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