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Pi Mai Backpack is Gone

The next morning the three of us, Mr. Motta, Mr. Norton, and myself, awoke in our room at the View Khem Khong. The evening before, in an effort to make the two-person room more egalitarian for three people, we had overturned the  beds and spread the mattresses on the floor, allowing us to sleep three abreast, each man with his torso on one mattress and his legs on the other. This was marginally successful, but I dare say all three of us were quite glad to be awake and out of that strange arrangement. A better solution would need to be found for the next night

We made our way across the street from the View Khem Khong to have a seat on the banks of the Mekong. We shared some sandwiches and some very strong dark black coffee. So strong was the coffee, in fact, that it seemed completely impervious to milk. It was the kind that we run into from time to time on AsiaWheeling, which is brewed in a sock, this one for quite some time. A healthy shlop of full cream milk had essentially no effect on the color of the brew. But while the color stayed the same, the flavor was perhaps slightly softened, which was important, for while the strength was high, the quality was not.

Motta left us to attend to his affairs with the Dragon’s interns, and Scott and I climbed back on the cycles. The festival was still a few days off, but squadrons of Luang Prabang natives and even some foreigners were already convening on the street corners with buckets and the ladles one uses to wash one’s self in this part of the world, ready to soak any and all passers by. We pulled over and acquired some plastic bags with which to protect the contents of our pockets and pedaled into the fray.

It was quite intense. We were dripping wet by the time we made it into the central market. In addition to the stationary teams with large buckets and dippers, there were rogue squads of little boys and girls with Chinese-made super-soaker style squirt guns. Luckily it was boiling hot outside, so getting wet felt just fine. We also seemed to dry off in a matter of minutes. It was boiling hot and pretty dry. The sunlight was bright but comfortably diffuse, thanks to the thick shroud of smoke hanging over the region.

First things first. We needed to find a place to repair Scott’s wheel. At Stewart’s suggestion, we headed to the “Lao” part of town (the not touristy part of town) where we found a little shop that sported a welded metal shape that looked like it could be used to aid one in truing a wheel. A grinning old Lao man appeared from down the street  and greeted us. “Sabaidee.”

The Lao have a delightful habit of greeting one another when they meet. And they take such pleasure in it, elongating the word and stretching it out into a long honeyed syllable. “Saabaaaideee.” I took great pleasure in greeting people in Lao, for they lit up with such glee at the greeting and returned it so lusciously, nuanced with the understated song of Lao’s tonal language. Even a very small child would almost invariably return your greeting. Ah, Lao, really a gem.

Sure enough, the man was more than happy to help us with the wheel. While he went to town on the rim, Scott and I produced a canister of paint thinner we had purchased earlier, along with a couple of toothbrushes, and went to work on our derailleurs, cleaning large clods of the red dust of Tamil Nadu, whetted with Indian typewriter oil, from the inner workings of the machine.

About the time that we had gotten the derailleurs back to ship-shape, our fellow had finished with the wheel. He asked only about a dollar for the work, and we were thrilled to get back on the road.

Back in the old-city, the water fighting in the streets had taken on a new fierce intensity. It seemed it was time to arm ourselves. We wheeled back to the vicinity of our wheel truing shop, and haggled our way into three Chinese-made super-soaker style water guns.

With one of them strapped to the back of the cycle, and the other two loaded and in hand, Scott and I headed back into the fray.

Now we were able to participate in the action. Soon the game became spotting those people who were about to soak you, and stopping them in their tracks with a well aimed drive-by. Often though, I was still caught unaware, and was forced to whip around and fire a stream of retribution as we pedaled on, dripping wet. The traffic was very light and quite slow, which was great because wheeling and water gunning (I’m talking to you kids) is not advisable in any kind of technical wheeling situation.

Growing peckish, we ventured into an alleyway off the touristy main street to sample some spring rolls.

To finish off the snack, we enjoyed one of the famed Franco-Lao baguette sandwiches, with ham.

We met Mr. Motta at an Internet cafe that evening.

We had been soaked and dried over 100 times, and I felt as though my clothes had been laundered on my body. Stewart appeared with his interns, the three of them were a little wet around the edges as well, having arrived by longboat from across the river, and shortly thereafter been ambushed by a few water gangs of their own.

“It’s wild out there,” we agreed.

That evening, Scott began feeling under the weather, likely with the same virus that had laid me up during our eleventh hour bicycle repairs in Bangkok, so Stewart and I let him retire early, and went out night-wheeling together.

We called a dinner waypoint at a vast night street food market, where we ordered some fantastically delicious Mekong fish. The fish was gutted and its stomach filled with lemongrass. It was then sandwiched between two slivers of bamboo, which were secured tightly around the fish using bits of wire. The fish was then slow roasted over a charcoal fire. Paired with Lao eggplant mush, which one could dip bits of Mekong seaweed sheet into, the meal was to die for. Two frosty bottles of the local BeerLao, an incredibly tasty golden lager they produce in this magical country, completed the meal.

Since we had been working in an Internet cafe earlier, I had been carrying my backpack with me. Inside the backpack was my computer, my passport, a bunch of cash in about 20 different currencies, my Maui Jim sunglasses, my camera, a bottle of Michael’s Paraherbs and about everything else of value I’ve brought on this odyssey. When I got up to leave the wooden table where we had been eating fish I left my bag behind, leaning against a greasy stone wall in one of the largest and most crowded night markets in Lao. And I didn’t even notice.

After that little occurrence, we made our way to a night carnival being thrown in honor of the impending New Year. It was giant and sprawling, next to where we had purchased the Chinese battery charger the previous day. It was jam packed with Lao people, and on the center stage, a beauty contest was taking place to determine the most beautiful maid in all of Luang Prabang Province. The women on stage were quite beautiful, but covered in makeup. They also seemed uncomfortably packed and cinched into their costumes. A couple of giant spotlights, operated by two fellows hovering overhead chain smoking cigarettes in the basket of a cherry picker, played over the women. I felt very aware of the differences between Lao and Western concepts of beauty as we walked through the crowd. Many of the women  walking by in tee-shirts and jeans appeared to me much more beautiful than what was happening on stage. But, I guess, there’s no accounting for taste….

We wiled away the rest of the evening playing five- and ten-cent carnival games, such as throwing darts at huge banks of balloons. We also tried our hand raging around in groaning and twisted bumper cars while thundering Thai techno-dance music played in the background. The bumper car rink was incredible, festooned with many flashing lights, and pulsing neon shapes. The rink reeked of ozone. The carts had no throttle and no seat belts; they were just always going, powered buy a giant sparking snarl of wire that extended to the electrified ceiling above us.  To reverse, one simply turned the wheel far enough to begin thrusting backward.  Depending on which part of the ceiling you were touching and collecting power from, the bumper car would vary in speed from very slow to downright breakneck. A giant painted sign proudly exclaimed “TUBULAR” in English characters above the rink.

All at the carnival appeared to be in stupendously high spirits, screaming and laughing and generally letting loose in preparation for the impending New Year. We wheeled home feeling like kings and generally enamored with Lao. Meanwhile, my poor yellow bag languished in the ether, lost and forgotten.


  1. Henkes | May 5th, 2010 | 7:07 am

    What a horrible ending! Ah! Please tell me you found it… perhaps I’ll just be left hanging on this cliff until the next post…

    p.s. I am awfully tempted to download the picture of Woody and the two water guns to photoshop in a raging mustache, some chest hair, and a sweaty bandanna. Consider yourself lucky that I am in the middle of finals.

  2. Rebecca | May 5th, 2010 | 7:26 am

    Hi Woody! I’ve heard some of this story from your dad–he is my advance news man so, I believe Stewart is due many heartfelt thanks. Everytime I post a comment I want to end it with “Carry on [Mark’s] wayward son ..” with the melody in my head if you know the tune I’m talking about. I think it’s from my generation. So … carry on!

  3. laura | May 5th, 2010 | 8:08 am

    OH NO!!!!! Woody please tell us you found it!!!
    Scott, hope you’re feeling better.
    Adventure Capitalists indeed! 🙂

  4. Woody | May 5th, 2010 | 9:22 am

    @ Henkes
    Please, by all means, do the move in Photoshop and post it to the AsiaWheeling facebook page!

  5. Val | May 8th, 2010 | 8:44 pm

    Your Lao entries are fabulous and your food descriptions are superb (that fish with the Lao eggplant mush . . . )-but I am left hanging on the edge of my seat wondering about your backpack-and hoping there is a very happy ending to the story!!!

    Guess I’ll have to wait for the next entry.

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