Location: Nakam, Laos
I’m in a teeny village about forty-five miles from Vientiane. It’s only eight o’clock at night but the sun is down, the dirt roads are pitch black and empty, and there’s no food, no water, and most importantly no booze available anywhere. My friends and I are lucky we were even able to find a guesthouse on this less traveled path, and even luckier that both rooms have working air conditioning and one of them has a shower.
It’s been one of those days you replay in your head a thousand times over, whether you like it or not, and I’m having one of those moments where you don’t know where you stand yet about the day’s events, maybe because I’m in shock or maybe because I’m just happy to be alive or maybe both. And it’s just another day in my backpacking adventure; that’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
Last night, I woke up to a feeling I unfortunately know well: the almost-ticklish, warm seeping wetness of a nosebleed. I’m used to these midnight surprises; it happens to me when the seasons change or when it’s too dry out. But this particular one was unusual for the amount of blood that poured constantly out of my left nostril for at least twenty minutes. But it finally subsided and I flipped over my now-bloody pillow and tossed and turned until my alarm rang. I don’t believe in omens. Or at least I didn’t.
This morning, Cody, Baby, Jack and I had had our secondhand motorbikes for two days, and the novelty had yet to wear off. Cody and Baby practiced the most, scooting unsteadily up and down our hostel’s street in the middle of the night while everything was quiet and the only people left out were hookers on motorbikes, hunting for potential customers. After my initial fears of crashing upon takeoff subsided, I found that driving the bike was incredibly liberating. However, I still wanted way more practice before we hit the road. Unfortunately, our friends were pushing to move on to northern Laos and we had to cut preparation short.
Barely forty-eight hours after our initial introduction to motorbike mechanics, we packed all of our shit up, strapped it onto the backs of the bikes, bought four extra large bottles of water and a handle of Lao Lao, and set off for Luang Prabang, a two-day’s ride north through mountains and countryside. After we left Vientiane, the next village with flushing toilets would be at least a day’s ride away. Otherwise, we’d be passing through only farming communities and nature.
Cody and Baby drove while Jack and I rode double on the backs. I made a fleeting comment about the importance of servicing our bikes before we left the city, but to no avail. As we pulled out of the gas station, Baby popped a wheelie, but quickly regained control and composure. Cody stalled several times at stoplights, but he seemed to be getting the hang of manual gears. We were on our way for better or worse.
Cody and I rode in front; I was in charge of directions (aka don’t veer off the only highway for the next 90 miles). When we’d left the traffic in the city behind and entered the dusty countryside, I couldn’t stop thinking about Baby’s definition of the bike as “freedom.” As cliché as it sounds, it really felt like I was flying. Unlike traveling in a cramped bus, peering through dirty windows and cradling my backpack in my lap, I was out in the Laos countryside, able to get a good look at the landscape around me. The afternoon sun beat down on me but the wind kept me from becoming soaked in sweat. Even though the heat should have been overwhelming, I was cool in my jeans, black tank top, and thick skater helmet. And I was too busy taking in the lush trees, straw-topped huts, herds of cows, and local life to concentrate on any discomfort, anyway.
But that joy only lasted a little while. We’d been riding for about an hour. Cody had gained a newly discovered confidence at the wheel and we were heading full speed down the paved road. Then, just as the asphalt crumbled into a gravel patch, a middle-aged woman on a shiny beige scooter cut us off and drifted left, then right, breaking.
We were going too fast to stop in time.
Everything happened in slow motion. Her taillight flashing red. Cody swerving sharply to the right, our bodies jerking with the movement. The gravel crunching below the wheels and the sharp squeak of Cody hitting the breaks. Too fast for the weight of the bike, for the speed we were going. Then the gravel rushing up at us and under us and around us. My body being flung into Cody’s, my face mashing into his shoulder blade, fingers wrapped in a death grip around his iPhone in my left hand. And the sound of skin and metal skidding across gravel, ripping an angry path through the red grit and rocks. We skidded forever, flesh tearing against rocks, and I choked on the cloud of dust around us.
When we did stop, I still hadn’t processed that we’d fallen. Only that it was strange that there were rocks everywhere and the white of Cody’s tank top under my face. And from the fog of my confusion, Cody’s voice, muffled by his helmet. Under me.
“Are you okay?”
Why wouldn’t I be?
“Cass, you okay?”
Holy shit, we crashed. Oh fuck, oh fuck.
“Yeah, are you?” I was surprised by the steadiness of my own voice.
“Yeah. Good, we’re okay. We’re okay. Get up.” Cody said. He let out a sigh of relief. I pushed down to lift myself up, my palms against the earth, and I couldn’t move. A sharp pain twisted up my right leg.
“Cass, get up.”
The realization hit me hard. “I-I can’t. The bike is on me.”
We were completely pinned down. I could hear the soft crush of rubber soles on gravel as someone ran towards us. And then came a gush of air and a release of pressure as the bike was lifted up off my back. Hands grabbed my shoulder and torso, rolled me into a sitting position.
My backpack felt heavier than before. I lifted myself into a crouching position. I was still holding tight to Cody’s phone and I let go. It slipped out of my fingers and onto the ground. Cody had pulled himself up, was standing.
Oh, thank God. We’re okay.
Hands dragged me up so I could stand and I found myself facing Jack, who looked way more freaked out than I felt. I shifted from leg to leg, testing them out. Phew, my leg isn’t broken. I’m fine. Then I looked at Cody and my stomach dropped. Blood was pouring from his knees, forearms, and the palms of his hands, trickling down his arms and legs in dark streams. His basketball shorts and tank top were ripped all over and stained a dirty orange. He stood in front of the bike, assessing the damage.
“Are you okay?” Jack’s voice. Everything sounded far away, like I needed to turn the volume up.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” I wanted to take my backpack off but that seemed like a lot of movement and I wasn’t sure I could handle it. My laptop and camera were in it. I hoped they hadn’t broken. I stared at the ground for a moment, wondering whether I should check them out. It was too much effort. Baby had run over to Cody by now, was pulling our bike off the road so traffic could get through. Jack reappeared in my vision, holding a water bottle.
“Are you okay?” He asked again. I nodded. I could tell from the look in his eyes that he kept asking because something was wrong. But I felt fine, just a bit numb.
I checked myself out. My jeans were ripped in one knee and the patch of skin showing was bloody. A slender flap of skin was dangling from my left thumb and the bottoms of my palms were both pretty cut up and bleeding. I noticed red was dripping down onto the ground beside me and when I lifted my right arm, saw the entire underside, from wrist to elbow, was wet with blood. But I couldn’t find where the wound started or ended.
Jack uncapped his water bottle and poured liquid down my arm. Crimson rained down on the dirt.
I noticed Cody was walking away with a local man, back the way we’d come. A Laotian woman waved hello to me.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?” The lady asked me in broken English.
“I don’t think I need-“ She was staring at my forearm, her eyebrows furrowed.
“Okay. Yeah, hospital.”
She and her daughter, who also spoke English, accompanied me down the road to the hospital, a one-story, two-room white building that was thankfully only a few hundred meters away. When we arrived, she knocked on a door and it slid open, revealing several beds and sleepy-eyed nurses dressed in white uniforms. The woman told them what happened as they brought us to the next room, which was empty except for a chest of drawers, a metal desk, several chairs, a folding slider, and two stretchers fitted with plastic green mattresses. The woman’s daughter told us to take off our shoes and lie down on the beds.
Nobody seemed surprised that two foreigners had wandered in beaten up from a motorbike accident.
Nurses wearing medical masks and holding squeeze bottles filled with clear liquid surrounded us. When they dabbed at my wounds with what must have been some sort of hydrogen peroxide, bolts of burning pain leapt up my limbs and I cried out. I glanced over at Cody’s bed to distract myself and saw that the nurses had bunched up his shorts and shirt and were hard at work cleaning him up; his entire right side was cut up and bloody with road rash. It looked agonizing.
They saved cleaning my forearm for last and I lay with it propped up, blood dripping onto the bed. My thoughts were jumbled. At least my black tank top won’t stain. Don’t look at your arm. I can’t believe they ripped my jeans more to clean my knee up. They’re ruined. Don’t look at your arm. I hope nothing’s broken in my backpack. Just don’t look. I could hear Cody hissing in pain on the other bed.
The little girl and another boy, maybe the son of one of the hospital staff, stood at the end of my bed. They stared wide-eyed as two nurses mopped my arm up and swabbed iodine onto it. I muffled a scream. When I finally chanced a glance I immediately wished I hadn’t. Whatever was going on there was deep. I could see the white of my radius peeking out from one of the gashes and I felt nauseous when I realized how much of my skin was missing. I heard Jack behind me ask in a whisper if I needed stitches and his relieved “good” when the nurse told him I didn’t.
When Cody and I were bandaged up, we were handed plastic baggies of medicine. Painkillers, iodine, antibiotics, extra gauze, and silkworm extract for inflammation. The total bill was only $20. I’d forgotten that I didn’t have travel insurance and was relieved when I saw that.
I walked across the street to a vendor and bought Cody and myself orange sodas. We’d lost enough blood that a boost in sugar would be beneficial. Cody was freaking out a bit; he was obviously still scared shitless about what had happened and said the bike was probably destroyed, anyway. We were in the middle of nowhere, though, and after a bit of group discussion, decided to check the bike out and if it wasn’t too damaged, see if we could still make it to Vang Vieng, the next village, by nightfall. We could ditch the bikes there and grab a bus the rest of the way to Luang Prabang.
When we went back to the bike, the headlight was hanging off by the wires and the ignition box was tilted. But after some masking tape adjustments and a couple test kickstarts, we found out it still worked. We rode on and made it through about four hours down through the country before things got worse.
Cody and I were just riding up our first mountain when our bike started dropping gears and stalling. I got off and Cody kickstarted it again. It revved, got up to second gear, and dropped again as soon as it started up the slanted road. We repeated this several times to no avail. It wasn’t able to take the weight of two passengers and two backpacks. We were stuck.
It was nearly sunset and the reality of the situation was beginning to set in. It was important to only ride in the daylight as now neither bike had a working headlight (Baby’s had never had one). We had to turn back and find a mechanic and shelter before dark. After a panicked drive through the fading light we found ourselves in a village with a mechanic who not only fixed our bike, but even made the headlight work. But when we drove back down the road in the dark, Cody said he couldn’t see a thing. The terrain, strewn with pot holes, gravel patches, and the occasional stray dog, was already treacherous to navigate. And now there was only moonlight to guide us and the weak yellow gleam of our single, flickering headlight to protect us. Cody pulled over nearly immediately; we’d either have to set up to sleep on the side of the road or walk. So we decided to park the bikes by a gas station and walk, attempting to use the Google translate on my phone to ask locals for the nearest hotel or guest house.
Then, as Baby untied the packs, disaster struck again. The bottle of Lao Lao, nestled amongst our belongings, slipped from its nook and plunged to a quick death, smashing against the rocky ground. We really couldn’t win, could we? We tramped along the side of the road and people on porches stared; most tourists buy tickets for night buses that pass by these parts in the dark and don’t stop. Nobody spoke English out here, there was no Google maps that worked on these empty roads. We were strangers lost in the middle of nowhere.
After much hand gesturing and several botched translations on my part, a local managed to get across to us that there was a guest house in the next village over, Nakam. Only about five kilometers away. We were relieved and prepared to do the walk without question; everyone was tired and aching but not delusional. Sleeping on the side of the road was a worst-case scenario. A 5K trek was much better, if far from ideal.
And then our luck changed, if only momentarily.
A pick up truck driving by us pulled over. The friendly little woman inside asked if we were headed to Vientiane. She wrinkled her face in confusion when we told her we just wanted to make it to Nakam, but pointed to the back area of her truck. Get in.
She drove us right up to the entrance of Somchai Guesthouse, and when we tried to offer her money, she turned it down. I couldn’t see her face clearly in the dark, but I could tell she was smiling. Her voice was cheery, bright. We referred to her as Our Guardian Angel from then on.
Somchai was quiet. I think we might have been the only customers there. I couldn’t believe our luck when we found out they had two available double rooms with air conditioning, and one of them had a running shower. It was around seven when we threw down our bags; no one had eaten since 11AM, when we’d taken off from Vientiane, and we were all starving. We’d also run out of water and needed to replenish it ASAP. Jack went on a hunt for food, water, and booze, but returned forty-five minutes later empty handed. He’d walked all the way up and down Nakam and hadn’t found a single store or restaurant, only a group of drunk locals who goaded him into taking a shot of mentholated spirits so strong he gagged and then sent him on his way.
I helped Cody remove his gauze and tape and when I saw his wounds, I cringed. They weren’t deep, but they covered large areas of his joints, which meant it would hurt for him to move while they healed. He also began to complain about his right ACL, which he’d recently sprained. Stabbing pains were shooting through it whenever he bent it. He hadn’t noticed on the bikes because of the adrenaline rush, but now he was very aware of the injury. When he hopped into the shower to clean out his scrapes, he swore when the cold water hit them.
“Fuck, ow.” He hissed, “SHIT OH MY GOD FUCK AHH.”
I felt queasy as I heard his cries from the shower, but I didn’t understand the torment he was surviving, not yet. When I removed my bandages, I saw that several areas were blackened by either dried blood, dirt, or dead skin. I’d have to clean them out, thoroughly. My arm was still bleeding, too, which was worrying.
When it was my turn to shower and the water hit my palms and forearm I screamed and ducked out of the blast. It felt like everything was on fire, sizzling and burning worse than I had ever imagined pain could be. I sobbed as I rubbed soap into my wounds, the pain so intolerable my vision going black and my knees shaking. And later when Cody poured iodine on them, Baby held a towel to my mouth I could bite down on and scream into. When the pain had finally dulled from acute to just throbbing, I went to take a photo of Cody’s and my battle wounds, only to find my phone was missing. After a short flurry of a search, I realized exactly where it was. I’d left it in the back of the pick up truck. Jack sent several text messages in broken Laos to Our Guardian Angel, promising money for return of the phone, and we waited.
Cody and I re-wrapped ourselves up and sat on the bed, trying to figure out a new game plan for the next day. We were still half a day’s ride from Vang Vieng, and there’s no way we could make it up the mountains with four people on those bikes. We were also half a day’s ride from Vientiane, which could be done, but which we didn’t have a rider for. Cody refused to drive the motorbike, again. Jack and I both refused to drive as well, very aware of our limited practice on them.
Baby didn’t want to give his bike up. He was already pretty skilled, a natural behind the wheel. But he couldn’t ride to Luang Prabang alone. It would be at least a couple days’ ride through dangerous mountains. No way would we let him undertake that, especially not after what we’d just been through.
We decided that the next morning, Baby would ride his bike back to Vientiane while the rest of us hitchhiked. Baby would sell his bike in the capital city and from there we would all catch a bus up to Luang Prabang. In a half-hearted burst of group cheer, we all put our hands in the middle, lifted them up and called out, “Go team!”
And then another awesome thing happened; the woman from the pick up truck called Jack’s phone in response to his messages! He handed it to me and I ran outside to the owner of Somchai, a bubbly woman in her mid-twenties. But she didn’t speak a word of English. Neither did her younger brother. So they were given information by the woman that couldn’t be relayed back to me. Finally, the owner called her daughter, who spoke limited English, and asked her to translate. The daughter then wrote out the woman’s address on a piece of paper and sent a photo of it to Somchai’s owners. It turned out Our Guardian Angel lived in a district only forty-five minutes outside Vientiane, and was happy to meet me there to return my phone the next day!
That night I fell asleep watching Mean Girls dubbed in Laotian on the 1990’s gritty television screen attached to the wall above my bed. However, I didn’t rest long. Cody couldn’t find a comfortable position with all his wounds and I ached too much myself to feel relaxed. So here I am, writing this at 4AM. We’re headed back to Vientiane in a few hours. We’re going to hitch a ride there and hopefully get bus tickets for the next day. And leave our motorbike dramas behind us.
- Full tank of gasoline: $1
- Medical bill: $20
- Somchai Guesthouse: $5
- Extra gauze, tape, and bandages: $1.25
- Mechanic: Free, because he pitied us useless tourists
- When you ride a motorcycle, always wear protective gear. Enough said.