At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.
In the distance the road split and the orange blob on the back of the motorcycle taxi veered left. I pointed ahead and motioned to Brad to follow. “If we keep that monk within sight we’ll find the temple.”
The rural road out of Phonsavan quickly turned to red dirt. It was smooth and fast, but given Laos’s insane population of livestock, we had to remain on guard for suicidal cows and sleeping dogs. The monsoon skies were moody and it was anybody’s guess when the dark clouds would burst like water balloons and fall upon the radiant green sticky rice fields.
As I expected the monk led us directly to the temple and hence to our destination. The temple shared a parking area with the Plain of Jars site #3. We made it here after all—despite the highway 7 road bandits and the scare they caused us a couple of weeks prior. A big red sign sponsored by an NGO provided some statistical information on the area; in 2005, 6,863 pieces of scrap metal and 22 pieces of unexploded ordinance, or UXO, had been cleared from the area surrounding the jars. While this seemed like an awful lot of bombs to find in such a small area, it was nothing compared to the untold millions of them still scattered throughout the country.
After traveling to Laos it became apparent that my schooling had failed to bring to light this dark piece of American-Laotian history: the CIA’s Secret War. It was indeed my country that created this nightmare of a scenario; between 1964 and 1973, America’s military dropped 80 MILLION bombs on Laos—killing some 350,000 men, women, and children and uprooting a tenth of the population. This was far more bombs than the U.S. dropped on both Japan and Germany during World War II. Seventeen bombs per minute for nine straight years rained down on innocent civilians who knew not even what America was. And of these 80 million bombs, 24 million didn’t even go off. This has left Laos, 40 years after the war, still dealing with the aftermath of America’s distaste for their choice of political system and its unfortunate proximity to Vietnam. To this day 100 people die every year, 40% of whom are children, from unexploded ordinance.
One of the most highly bombed regions in Laos was in the North, in a place we had just come from. The Laotians in this region cleverly opted to spend the war years living in the region’s vast limestone cave systems. One such cave—Vieng Xai—became a safe haven for 20,000 villagers. And if one could forget for just a moment the terrible fact that bombs were dropping from their skies like raindrops, the whole network of tunnels, kitchens, assembly rooms, schools, and sewing rooms were utterly fascinating.
So the big red signs we saw all over the countryside weren’t surprising anymore. They also unfortunately created a constant reminder that any place without them could be littered with UXOs. Bomb clean up is a slow process and unfortunately, while the tourist sites receive much attention from NGOs, many other places in the country do not.
From the temple parking lot a local pointed to a bridge that led us through a thicket of tall bamboo branches. The bridge ended at the spine of two rice fields and we walked between them. These fields were just two out of the dozens that connected and ran down the valley. Field workers crouched over in rows and planted rice saplings while in the next field over a man up to his knees in mud and water pushed a tilling machine. Aside from the mechanized tiller, very little about the scene unfolding before us had likely changed much at all over the last 30 years. We watched the rice workers while they watched us. They were our entertainment and we were theirs.
Past the rice fields the area opened up into a hilly grassy meadow and at the top within an outcropping of mature trees was the Plain of Jars site #3. We wandered amongst the ancient stone jars, amazed by the site and its accessibility for anyone to explore.
Actual historical knowledge of the site is sparse but it is believed that the Plain of Jars dates back to the Iron Age (2,500 years) and that the jars were made from solid rock and used as burial urns. The jars vary in size from around one to three meters in height, and it’s believed that the dead were first placed in the larger jars for distillation, ensuring a gradual transformation from the earth to the spiritual world, and then placed in the smaller vessels for cremation. All of the jars have lip rims, so it is also assumed that at one time they all had lids, although few have been found. This suggests the lids were made of perishable materials and did not survive the years.
Local legend has it that the jars were made for the mighty Khun Cheung, who after a long, hard, and victorious battle, needed them for brewing and storing his supply of rice beer. We think Laos deserves a bit of hard won leisure—a moment to kick up its feet and get lost in a victorious rice beer—so we’ll just stick with the legend.
I wiped the perspiration from my face, lugged my backpack onto my lap and opened the door. In the corner of my eye I noticed our SPOT GPS tracker in the center console. It had a button which, when pressed, would update an online map showing our current location. As an afterthought I picked it up and pressed the button. Dead batteries. I changed the batteries, pressed the button again and waited until the green light blinked, indicating that the signal had gone through.
The sun shone brightly overhead as we made our way away from our bungalow in Nong Kiao and onto the dirt track. Above us the mountains hissed with the sound of jungle heat, while below us the swollen river whispered and whooshed around the rocks and bushes that lined the banks. As we walked away from the van our SPOT tracker silently went haywire, sending a rogue message into space where it was reflected by a satellite and passed back to Earth. Seconds later the message was relayed through a server and dispersed to a list of emergency contacts. The message was abrupt, ominous.
Brad and Sheena need help. This message was sent because they pressed the “SOS” button on their GPS tracker.
Within minutes a response had arrived in our email inbox back at the bungalow. It was from Sheena’s father—one of our emergency contacts.
WHAT IS GOING ON?
We walked on, none the wiser, into the wilderness. Cicadas buzzed in the trees while a dugout canoe silently floated past on the Nam Ou.
The dirt track rose and fell as it passed over ridges and washes extending like fingers from the mountain to touch the ribbon of water. The jungle thicket to our right soon dissipated, replaced by bare hillsides planted with corn and beans and rice paddies. Simple thatched huts dotted the bare hills, providing a place for farmers to escape the tormenting sun. To our left the river carried on, opaque with suspended mud that would eventually mix into the flow of the Mekong.
The S.O.S. message was transmitted six times in a row, one minute apart, before the signal went silent. Having heard nothing else from us after the S.O.S., Sheena’s dad immediately sprung into action. It was early morning in Arizona when he found himself launching an international rescue mission. He first called my mom to bring her up to speed, and then tried to contact SPOT for guidance. After much searching, he eventually found a phone number for the company, but no human existed on the other end—only a robot slinging cheerful automated messages repeating mantras of how great the SPOT tracker is.
Unable to speak to a human, he gave up and decided to try the State Department—a place widely rumored to employ actual humans. He also posted the body of our S.O.S. message to our Facebook page to get the word out.
After an hour of walking we saw the first signs of civilization. A dilapidated hut obscured by dense trees, a fence concealing a garden and a shed, a simple schoolhouse. We rounded a corner onto a straight section of road where we could make out the figures of several small children in the track. It didn’t take long for them to notice us; only a handful of people would pass through the village all day. Suddenly the children transformed into wild animals. Their legs were sprinting towards us before their bodies knew what was happening. Sheena and I stopped in our tracks, uncertain. What the…?
In the final few meters before they arrived they all simultaneously threw their hands out, palms turned skyward. They gasped for air and panted wildly, but their eyes were big and hopeful and full of excitement, their hands unwavering.
“Hello pen! Hello pen!” they shouted. Pen? We hesitated, and one of the little girls mimicked writing on the palm of her hand. “Hello PEN!” she shouted, smiling and excited. We showed them that we didn’t have any pens, or anything useful for that matter. Unable to comprehend why foreigners would be walking in the wilderness without pens, a few of them persisted.
Finally they realized that we must be very unlucky foreigners, and were indeed traveling without pens. They stood in front of us, hands behind their backs. The girls swayed back and forth looking at their feet, tracing out shapes in the dust with their bare toes. A small boy stood in the back of the group with his head cocked to one side. He must have been wondering how we could have been so foolish to have left home without any pens.
Suddenly one girl broke rank and ran into the weeds at the side of the dirt track, and the rest followed. They frantically grabbed at the weeds, and a minute later emerged with handfuls of flowers. They consolidated them into a bouquet and the girl in charge handed them to Sheena with a shy smile. The poor foreigners. At least now they have some flowers.
The children fell in step behind us, matching our strides while giggling and smiling. After a few minutes they stopped in the road and waved goodbye to us, yelling over one another the parting chant of the milk-face:
“Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye!”
It didn’t take long to get a representative from the US State Department on the phone. Within minutes Sheena’s dad had been patched through to the US Embassy in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The representative took down the coordinates and then typed them into his computer.
“They’re way up in the mountains in a place called Nong Kiao,” the man said, “we don’t have anybody up there.” He explained that our last known location was in a tiny village way off the grid, and that the closest police station was nearly a day’s drive away over bad roads. He told Sheena’s dad to hang tight, and that he would mount a search and rescue mission from within Laos.
We made our way down the exposed dirt track under the heat-lamp sun that left patches of dry salt on our shirts. Around a bend in the road a man rested in the shade of a rubber tree next to a makeshift wooden shelter that housed a pile of freshly picked pineapples. We placed our order and the man picked up his machete and cut off several enormous leaves from a nearby tree. He used one leaf to clean off the blade of his machete, and then placed the rest on the ground to form a clean work surface. He set the pineapple on the leaf mat and proceeded to slice it into edible chunks before wrapping one leaf into a to-go container. We paid him the equivalent of twenty five cents and continued on our way, fresh pineapple juice dripping from our leafy satchel.
A short while later we ducked into a grove of lime trees and found our way down to a shady place where a tree had fallen on the river bank. We found the flat parts of the downed tree where it was most comfortable to sit, retrieved the tuna and crackers from the pack, and drained the oil from the tuna can into a gopher hole. A small team of ants crawled onto my shoe, over my toes, and down the other side into the powdery dust. In the river a dugout canoe with a small outboard motor slowly worked its way upstream. The canoe slowed as it came to a narrowing in the river where the water velocity increased, and then regained its speed and disappeared around a river bend.
It was nearly midday when the representative from the State Department in Vientiane started making calls. He called every police station in the capital to sound the alarm about the American couple in the mountains who had dropped off the radar after sounding an S.O.S. alarm. He was a diligent man, and he knew that people were counting on him to bring the couple back safely. And he might have launched a successful rescue party if Laotian police were the hard working type. But as it turned out the State Department representative was unable to locate a single on-duty police officer in the entire capital city. By late afternoon the effort had gone nowhere.
When we passed the pineapple man on our way back he was chatting with a tiny dirty man with a backpack. The pineapple man waved at us and then said something to the tiny man and pointed our way. The tiny man grinned a big toothy grin and then trotted over and began walking with us.
“Mugugullubub boggily rai chap moo gulai!” the man said. I noticed that his eyes were a little glazed over.
I spoke clearly and slowly in hopes that it would help the man understand my language, which he clearly didn’t speak. “We do not speak Lao. We speak English. I do not understand what you are saying.”
“Grubai! Ha! Wulai buggarudai cruap gai!” No language barrier would stand in this man’s way.
“I am sorry,” I continued, even more slowly than the first time, “I do not understand the words that are coming out of your mouth.”
“Ha! Willynu rug moo kwai bloo roomai!” He spoke quickly with grand gestures of hand and body as if retelling a very exciting story. He continued on for what seemed like ages, occasionally glancing my way for a reaction, to which I would respond with droopy eyebrows, or a smile, or with raised eyebrows depending on the reaction that I guessed his story warranted based on his facial expression. Occasionally I interrupted him mid-sentence.
“Sir!” I would interject, “I have no idea what you’re saying!”
The tiny man didn’t care. Whatever he was on prohibited him from realizing that the words coming out of my mouth were of a different language than the words coming from his, so he filled the minutes with nonstop jibber jabber. I decided the man just needed someone to talk to, so I joined the game.
“Kuan ton prai muglai ekkamai loo boo crap-”
“Wait a minute! Did you say airplane? I thought you might have said-”
“Doo da bai kumai-”
“Excuse me, but your airplane story reminded me of a story of my own. Do you know how these bamboo trees came to be here? Well let me tell you sir, and please make yourself comfortable, for my tale is a long one. The length of my story will indeed remind you of times in your life when you wished that things had gone differently. Like the time-”
“Gooba dai prai-”
“Tanning leather? Well why didn’t you just say so! The first step to tanning leather is to obtain a hide. Now this is the tricky part, for animals with suitable hides for tanning are often quite mean and hard to kill…”
The kilometers ticked by in this manner—him speaking in gibberish, and me interrupting him to tell my own meandering made up stories—until we reached the village of the children, at which time the tiny stoned man got distracted and stopped walking long enough for us to make our escape. A half an hour later he passed us by on the back of someone’s motor scooter. As he passed he tried finishing his story.
“Goo moo bannnnnntaaaaaiiiii…”
When we got back to Nong Kiao it was late and we were exhausted from the relentless sun. We spied our tiny friend sitting in a ditch beside the bridge over the Nam Ou, so we walked to a small kiosk and bought him a lemon soda. We delivered the soda to the man (he didn’t remember who we were and was very confused at his great fortune) and made our way back to our bungalow. After showering I opened the computer to check my email.
What I found upon connecting to the outside world was nothing short of a Mongolian clusterf@#&.
It didn’t take long to suspect the SPOT tracker as the cause of this mess, and a quick inspection of the device verified our suspicions. The plastic safety cover protecting the S.O.S. button was still firmly in place, ruling out an accident on our part. The green message light, which should have stopped blinking hours before, was still blinking, and I was unable to power off the device without removing the batteries. I made several quick emails to family and posted on our Facebook page that we were fine. First I called Sheena’s dad.
“I’m glad to hear from you.” It was the understatement of the century. He sounded pretty flustered, and I explained what had happened. “You should call your mom,” he said. I hung up the phone and rung my mom on Skype.
“OH MY GOD, ARE YOU OKAY!?” She was audibly upset, to put it mildly. “Oh my GOD I’m so glad you’re okay! My sister is here and she’s been trying to keep me calm…”
I explained that our SPOT tracker had malfunctioned, and that we found this whole affair rather surprising. She finally calmed down and suggested that I write a strongly worded letter to SPOT. Sheena’s dad was two steps ahead of us, and wrote a detailed incident report with suggestions about how to improve their customer support for people in these situations in the future. Four days later a robot replied to his email, verifying that, in fact, no humans actually work at SPOT.
The morning was warm and I awoke in a patina of sweat. I roused Sheena, swung my legs over the sleeping ledge and lowered myself into Nacho’s cabin. Already the sounds of the temple and the town filled the air. Monks chatted with one another, street touts advertised their wares, and tourists fended off obnoxious tuk tuk drivers.
“Hey you mister! You want tuk tuk? You go waterfall, you go elephants? Mister! Tuk tuk?”
The sun beat down on me as I walked to the line of huts where the monks lived, perched atop stilts behind the temple. I blinked several long blinks to let my pupils adjust to the sunlight as I walked.
“Excuse me,” I called out, “do you speak English?” The monk standing in the doorway shook his head and pointed inside. He went back into the house and emerged with another.
“Yes?” the second monk said, shyly, as he adjusted his orange robe. He looked to be about 18 years old.
“We’re ready to go. Do you have the keys to the gate?” He disappeared into the house and emerged with a ring holding a couple dozen old keys. He trotted down the wooden stairs and fell in step beside me as we walked back to the gate enclosing the temple grounds.
We’d arrived in Luang Prabang the previous day around lunch time, plenty of daylight left to secure a suitable campsite—a seemingly simple task, until one considers the state of camping in Southeast Asia.
In South America we were spoiled by the ubiquity of camping options. Most nights we slept in the wild near rivers or rock outcroppings or deserted vistas. Over the course of our final five and a half months in South America we’d spent only one night in a hotel. One night in a hotel to one hundred and sixty five nights of camping.
In Southeast Asia, however, finding places to camp has been no easy task. What undeveloped land there is usually remains undeveloped because either it’s covered by impenetrable jungle, it’s too steep to walk on, or it’s polluted by unexploded land mines. “Camping” has been reduced to finding a suitable parking place in a low traffic area where we can draw the curtains and imagine that we’re surrounded by nature.
After an hours-long search for a suitable camp spot in Luang Prabang we came up empty handed. We asked at hotels, hostels, and shops if we could stay overnight in their parking areas, but were refused. We drove endlessly up and down the outlying roads looking for anything resembling privacy. Nothing. But there was something. When we had first set tires upon Luang Prabang’s streets I had suggested it, but Sheena outright refused. Only after reaching the point of exhaustion, she relented.
“Fine,” she sighed, “we can try to camp at the Buddhist temple.”
We drove to the temple in the bull’s eye center of town, found some monks, asked about camping, explained what we meant by drawing pictures, were invited to come chant with them, gained permission to camp, drove inside of the temple grounds, popped the top, and drank a beer. We had forgotten to ask if drinking beer in the temple grounds was cool, so we did so with curtains drawn.
“Do you mind if I try the key?” The young monk had worked his way through all two dozen keys, but none would open the gate’s lock. The sun had long since cleared the horizon and now bore down on us from the cloudless sky. The poor guy doesn’t know how to use a key, I thought to myself. He handed me the ring of keys and I started trying them in the lock. Nope. Nope. Not that one. Nope. I worked through all of the keys and stated with the utmost authority to the young monk that indeed, none of these keys was matched to this lock.
The boy retreated to his hut. A minute later, he returned with an older monk, one who had been there longer and had more knowledge of keys. The older monk took the ring of keys and proceeded to try each one. When he had finished, he started over at the beginning and tried each one again with more twisting force. I watched him as he applied all of his strength to each key, and I hoped that none of them would break off in the lock.
By now a crowd of monks had formed around us. The foreigners were trapped in the temple, and that was something to see. Whoever had locked the gate the night before had misplaced the key, but the monks weren’t ready to accept defeat. They worked diligently and with good humor to find the right key for the job. A third monk, even older than the first two, decided that the problem was not with the key, but with lack of experience. He took hold of the key ring and went through it twice, testing each key and turning it with great force before conceding that in fact the proper key was missing.
The foreigners are patient, but the sun is high and the day is getting hot. How long will the foreigners remain calm? We must get them out of here before it’s too late!
A young monk, acting on orders from an older one, ran behind a building and returned with a fist-sized rock. He began feebly smacking the lock with the puny stone, an action which caused the gate to ring out like a temple bell with each awkward swing. His aim was sloppy and he began hitting his fingers on the metal of the gate.
“Hold on,” I said—a command not understood to Laotian people not well-versed in English. I held up my hands like a traffic cop until the boy stopped smashing his fingers, and then I walked over to Nacho.
“What’s going on?” Sheena asked. I told her that they’d lost the key, and that I was going to have to coordinate a jailbreak. I opened the ammo can on Nacho’s front bumper and pulled out the switchblade hack saw that I’d picked up at the Home Depot, but hadn’t yet found occasion to use. The monks were excited by this, and motioned for me to give it to the oldest, wisest monk.
The wise old monk began timidly sawing at the lock, but his efforts were fruitless. The blade repeatedly slipped off of the shiny chrome surface of the lock’s shackle. After a while I took over. After getting halfway through the shackle I stepped aside and handed the saw to a young monk so that he and his fellow monks could own the glory of finishing the job. Finally, after several of us were covered in sweat, the blade passed through the shackle.
In the movies, this is the point where the lock victoriously falls open and we make our escape. But in Laos, escape scenes unfold much more slowly. Despite the shackle being cut, the lock still inexplicably refused to open. The young monk picked up his fist-sized stone and continued feebly smacking the lock. I made traffic cop hands and retreated to Nacho, returning with a large crescent wrench.
“Stand back!” I said, and then fitted the jaws of the wrench around the lock’s body. I leaned my weight on the handle and slowly twisted the shackle until it could be removed. The monks cheered as the lock came free of the gate, and the young rock-wielding monk enthusiastically dropped his rock and slid the gate open.
At this point I would normally flop around the group giving celebratory chest bumps and bottom slaps, but being that we were guests in a Buddhist temple, I restrained myself and thanked each of the monks in turn by pressing my hands together in front of my face and discreetly bowing my head while repeating one of the few Laotian words I knew—”kopchai…kopchai…kopchai…” The monks smiled and walked together back into their huts.
We had won the battle, but there was still a war to fight. Our first night in Luang Prabang was behind us, but we had several to go. I could see the defeat in Sheena’s eyes before any words were said. While she’s usually very picky about our camp spots, she already knew that there weren’t any good places in Luang Prabang. It would be up to my less discriminating eye to choose a suitable spot, and I quickly found one: a parking space wedged between obnoxious tuk tuk drivers on the tourist street that runs along the banks of the Mekong. I triumphantly backed Nacho into place while explaining to Sheena that she needed to lower her standards. For camping, of course.
As it turned out, our new French friends had also ended up in Luang Prabang, and had chosen a similarly questionable campsite just down the street from us in a parallel parking spot. We convened outside of their camper for a picnic dinner on the bank overlooking the river. The children ran wild through the dark while we enjoyed the evening. Afterwards we strolled back to Nacho, our path illuminated by street lights; the tuk tuks had long since gone home and the street was ours.
We opened Nacho’s rear door and set up the shower, and then took turns washing under the cool water on the street in the middle of Luang Prabang. Outside of the shower, of course, we imagined rock outcroppings, deserted vistas, and solitude.
We spiraled our way up into the sky, slowly working our way over the jagged backbone of the Annamite Mountains. The curves in the road had put a twist in my stomach and I had to alternate between admiring the view and reading my Laos guidebook. Since Brad is the driver, my official role is route planner (and cook) and I take pride in leading us to the most interesting sights.
I had picked the Plain of Jars as our next destination, described as a collection of ancient funerary urns and the remnants of a lost civilization. We were a few hours in to our drive and as Brad drove I scanned my book for potential highlights along the way. A little orange box on the bottom of page 149 caught my eye. It was titled “Safety in Xieng Khuang.”
Occasional attacks by mountain bandits or insurgents have given Xieng Khuang province an uncertain reputation. In particular, tourists have long been discouraged from travelling along Route 7 between Phou Khoun and Phonsavan due to attacks on vehicles by armed bandits – these days, the threat appears to be less….Of more immediate danger are the mines, bomblets and bombs littering the province.
Crap. I flipped back and forth between the boxed text and a map of the region. I feared I was in trouble this time. Maybe I would finally be fired from my high ranking position as route planner. I didn’t want to ask, but I had to.
“Brad…so what road are we on anyway?”
“Route 7, Miss Bean. It’s slower than I thought it would be, so we probably have a few more hours before we make it to that one big town. We definitely aren’t going to make it to Phonsavan today.”
The last time I missed one of these warning boxes we had spent 12 hours driving down a rubble-strewn road in Guatemala that was still recovering from a landslide, and later in the trip through the back roads of the FARC rebel group’s “red zone” in Colombia .
This was an out-and-back sightseeing adventure so even if we made it to the Plain of Jars problem free, we’d still have to come back through the bandit infested territory. I feared that if banditos tried to capture Nacho on foot, we wouldn’t have the juice to make a run. It would end very much like one of those slow motion bad dreams.
Most likely nothing would happen, but if something did I could just imagine how stupid we’d look on the news. “These fools actuallymade it through the first time, but then they decided to drive back through the danger zone! Oh the naïveté of youth.”
“I think you should pull over, Bradley,” I said. I had some explaining to do.
We pulled over and scanned our surroundings. So far we had passed through a dozen or so bamboo and wood thatched villages scattered along the mountain roads over the course of a few hours on Route 7. While they looked peaceful enough, we began to create elaborate stories in our heads with our new information.
There sure weren’t many men around, only children playing in the dirt, women carrying grain, young girls fetching water, naked boys with spears, and kids manning their parents’ banana stands. Were they decoys in this crazy bandit game? Were they radioing us in to the higher ups on their walkie-talkies?
Maybe the men were watching us from the trees? I tried to convince myself they were just working in the fields of sticky rice.
While we sat there on the side of the road wondering what to do, a man slowly walked by Brad’s window. Slung over his shoulder was a homemade rifle. The barrel was made of a long piece of pipe, and it was attached to a stock of hastily carved wood. At the back of the barrel a makeshift hammer was cocked against the force of a long spring, waiting to be released to fire the gun. We’d noticed several men along the road carrying these, but couldn’t tell what they were until now.
We were quite sure that the men used their homemade rifles to hunt for bush meat, but nevertheless we did what we’ve done only a few other times on our trip: we flipped Nacho 180 degrees. We realized that this was a longer side trip than we were wanting to take and that we just didn’t feel all that comfortable. We had psyched ourselves out. The Plain of Jars just wasn’t meant to be.
A few hours later we were back at our starting point. Just the previous day we had crested this same ridge, shocked by the views but even more shocked to spot our first campervan in Asia parked at an overlook. As we had approached it, we both guessed they were French. And they were. We’ve come to find that almost all of the French people we meet drive the same style of campers, find the best camping spots, and are quite high on the list of nationalities who travel overland.
As often happens with people who live in their cars, we became instant friends and decided to call this destination home for the evening. The weather was so unpredictable in the mountains and with the snap of the fingers our beautiful panorama of bamboo huts sprinkled down the side of the peaks disappeared. We had been engulfed in a gigantic marshmallow of white puff which dumped endless buckets of water on top of us.
“The kids are so excited! They haven’t worn their sweaters since we were back in France!”
Benoit and Aude were from Paris, traveling with their four children. The French government has made such things exceptionally easy for families to do, providing the parents with all of the curriculum needed to educate their children on the road for up to one year, and even providing a free service for grading papers through email.
Alexander, the oldest, was required to practice his English every day and so we became a part of his lesson. In their camper the family had taped a piece of paper to the wall with a list of useful English phrases:
What is your name?
I would like rice with vegetables.
I miss my friends back home.
I wondered, did these kids even know how cool they were? Did they know how cool their parents were? If anyone can make you believe that it is possible to travel with kids (and actually kind of want do it yourselves) it is the French. And besides, we could see there were substantial benefits to traveling with kids. They make you coffee in the morning. Brad spent the night scheming ways to kidnap one of their children. “I wonder which one makes the best coffee,” he said, and then rolled over and fell asleep to the sound of raindrops on the roof.
Brad sat with his back to the Mekong River and I watched his face slowly darken to a silhouette of black. The sky was smeared with the most brilliant blues while the dark clouds seemingly sat on an invisible sheet of glass. We rested here, along the Mekong River on one of the many balconies that hung from the side of Chiang Khan’s traditional timber houses.
Fishermen in cone hats floated down the river in their long tail boats. I was thrilled to be where we were, and feeling like I had just met a celebrity because the Mekong is just that—more popular than Leonardo or Oprah in this part of the world. The same water that flowed past us originated on the Tibetan Plateau in China and is said to be, after the Amazon, the world’s second most aquatically bio-diverse river. As a result it is also the lifeline and trading route for millions of people.
As the sun set, the fishermen made their way back to their respective shore. Since the river forms the border between Laos and Thailand, some of these fishermen went home to Thailand for the night while others went to Laos. The two sides of the river represent two uniquely different worlds, cultures, and faces.
Brad hummed the lyrics of “Mekong” by The Refreshments, a local band from Arizona, and ordered a beer.
Barkeep, Another Mekong please
Yes of course you can keep the change
A new glass here for this new friend of mine
Forgive me I forgot your name
Being that we were along the Laos-Thai border it was decision time. We were at a loss for what to do next: cross into Laos at the Thai-Lao Friendship bridge (just a mere hour away) or follow the Mekong for another couple hundred miles South and then drive back up the other side in Laos?
Thailand had been really good to us with more mountains, elephants, temples, spicy food, beaches and bioluminescent creatures of the sea than we could ask for. Yet we agreed it was time for a new adventure.
For our last miles in Thailand we passed through the country’s spring-roll-wrapper and rice noodle production capitals. We made a quick stop for lunch at a rice noodle stand, snapped an obligatory photo of Nacho next to the King and crossed the border towards Vientiane.
Oh joy. Capital city time.
If there is one thing we hate doing it is driving in capital cities.
We were ready. I paused the music and cleared the emergency break of jammed books and water bottles and Brad tightened his grip on the wheel, prepared to swerve around dogs and children and motorcycles if need be.
But then the most amazing thing happened: the unrelenting chaos never came. We passed Patuxai, the city’s war monument and then all of a sudden were cruising down the capital’s main avenue. It was strangely peaceful. We could hardly believe that this was the country’s capital. There was even street parking! Well kind of. We did as the Laotians do and launched our bus on the pedestrian sidewalk and parked.
“Pepe, we’re here.” Five minutes after hanging up the phone we met Pepe, another friend of a friend of a friend of a friend in the Volkswagen community.
Reason #168 for choosing a Volkswagen for around-the-world travel: instant friends.
Pepe was not a native Laotian but was originally from Thailand. He had however married a Loatian woman, had a child, and had now lived in Laos for the last 20 odd years. He also owned a gas station where he stored his Volkswagens, which he had temporarily put to use as storage containers for boxes and boards and other materials. The gas station was also a great place for Brad to change the oil in Nacho. Pepe introduced us to his young son, who wasted no time in naming his dad’s 1960’s-era VW bus “Nacholine”. Next, we all watched as smoke mysteriously wafted up from under our floorboards—something that Brad discovered minutes later to be the controller for our UV water purifier in self-destruct mode.
The guys talked car stuff for most of the afternoon and when dinner rolled around Pepe led us to a Vietnamese joint. Despite the capital’s petite size, its selection of international food was fantastic: Laotian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and because of former French rule in Laos, French food. There was even French-Lao fusion food on the streets such as the baguette fully loaded with cucumber, meat, pickles, radish, green papaya, meat pâté, sweet chile sauce, spicy hot sauce and topped with cilantro and spring onions.
As for dinner, Vietnamese food was new to us so Pepe did the ordering: cut-up fried spring rolls, sausage, a plate heaping of vegetables and herbs, rice noodles and rice paper wrappers, and many, many bowls of dipping sauces.
“Watch.” Pepe pulled a sheet of rice paper from under the lettuce stack and cupped it in his hand. He added a small piece of lettuce as the next layer.
“Always cover the rice paper with lettuce, that way they won’t dry out. Next take one piece of everything on the plate: a slice of cucumber, some bean sprouts, a little bit of rice noodles, basil, mint, cilantro, some bitter herbs, and a bit of sauce. And last, add a slice of sausage or fried spring roll if you want.”
While he talked I built my own supersized lettuce wrap.
“You put the entire thing in your mouth. This way you will get all of the flavors in one bite.”
I tightened my wrap to condense its size and stuffed it in my mouth. I was in heaven. This was what I was looking for. Not only was the mixture of flavors amazingly fresh and good but the scene around me was something entirely new: men eating lettuce wraps. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Nothing turns an ordinary man into a beefcake like a lettuce wrap in hand.
For the next few days, with our umbrellas at our side we explored Vientiane’s temples, the massive gold stupa, the night market, and riverside boardwalk. The women in Laos all wore traditional sarongs, even if working office jobs, paired with a collared blouse and high heels. I can’t describe how or why, but life felt different on this side of the river.
On one of our last evenings, Pepe took us to a fancy Laotian restaurant where he said important people from the embassies and government take their visitors. At the front of the restaurant a small stage was set up where a male college student played the khaen, a traditional Laotian wind instrument made of a double row of bamboo-like reeds. Girls with porcelain faces and cone-shaped buns atop their heads performed the national folk dance of lamvong, extending their arms and legs in deliberate movements while their hands swayed back and forth, their fingers arched back towards their wrists.
Pepe told us that the arch of the fingers in Laotian and Thai dancers is very important; a symbol of the dancers experience and abilities. Dancers start training at a young age, beginning with their parents bending their fingers back in attempt to mold the bone. As a result many dancers are extraordinarily elastic and able to bend their fingers backwards almost to the wrist. The young Laotian dancers and musicians at the restaurant were all students at a local music school, practicing here as part of their program. At the end of each dance, each girl would bow and then quickly race off to the back in a fit of giggles.
While we watched the girls dance we ate sticky rice,a food that can easily be described as every Laotian’s staple: eaten as the base for every single meal in Laos. This translates into a consumption rate of 240 pounds of rice per year per person! In comparison, the average American consumes 20 pounds.
Pepe showed us the proper way to eat sticky rice. He pulled a chunk of rice from the clumped mass in the bamboo container and held it between his fingers. “What you do is squeeze the rice between your fingers.” While he talked, he continued to squeeze and pinch. “Many foreigners don’t do this correctly. Some of the eat it with a fork!” He looked surprised and disgusted. “They don’t understand that the more you squeeze, the better the sticky rice will taste. Once you are ready you just dip your sticky rice into your curry or soup.”
I pulled off a chunk of the sticky rice.
Without going into the history of my dislike for rice I will say that I didn’t believe kneading this bland hunk of rice between my fingers would make me like it any more. Yet I followed procedure. I pinched and I kneaded and I eventually turned my rice into an unrecognizable ball of white putty. It was moist and chewy and delicious. I realized I was beginning to fall in love.
In the evening we left the restaurant and returned to our sleeping headquarters. We had parked Nacho along the Mekong River across from the Grand Hotel. Just a few steps away, a long row of clothing vendors had set up on the boardwalk for the night market. People walked around selling snacks, and mobile pedicurists each carried a stool and a shallow tub for washing feet and carrying manicure tools, ready to start scrubbing with the wave of a hand. Yes, we live in our van down by the river. But it’s the Mekong River, so we’ll drink to that.
“What on Earth was that?” Sheena asked, wide-eyed and alarmed. “Just a little bump,” I said reassuringly.
As dictated by Murphy’s Law, it was 92 kilometers into a 100 kilometer diversion off of Thailand’s northwestern mountain circuit that would have taken us to a high mountaintop campsite next to a glistening lake, when the road turned up at an unnaturally steep gradient. As we rounded the bend we saw the road kick straight up and we knew it was over before it began. I gunned it, we slowed, I kept the pedal on the floor, we slowed more, I feathered the clutch, and then the engine died.
“Bloody hell.” Just a few days prior we’d come within 10 kilometers of the highest point in Thailand before we were forced to turn around for lack of power. Nacho weighs 5,800 pounds and we have a 90 horsepower engine. Solid.
Without engine power to boost our brakes I couldn’t hold Nacho there on the hill for long, so I slowly guided us backwards until we came to a small side road. I wedged Nacho up onto the path and started the back-and-forth motion of a 36 point turn, Austin Powers style. Finally, I pulled onto the road, but when I did, the steepness of the side road exceeded our exit angle and our exhaust pipe and rear bumper slammed into the ground.
“Probably nothing!” I said as we carried on. I made a mental note to check that out later. Two days later I finally remembered to look at it, and found that we’d dented our bumper a little, but the exhaust pipe looked fine. When the exhaust pipe fell off the next day, it became clear that, in fact, the exhaust pipe was not fine.
All right, no exhaust pipe. The muffler was still there, so seemingly the only difference was that exhaust gases would come out the side of the van instead of being diverted backwards. We carried on through Chiang Mai, and drove a few hundred kilometers south to the town of Sukothai where we imagined ourselves passing our days strolling among ancient temple ruins.
“The idle’s a bit erratic,” I told Sheena. “I’m going in for a closer look.” We’d checked into a guesthouse, and that’s where I left Sheena as I walked to the field next door to see why Nacho was misbehaving. I removed everything from the back and popped the engine lid for a closer look.
Lots of dirt, little bit of oil—normal.
Throttle position switch still clicks—good to go.
No loose connections, no broken hoses—sweet action.
A big charred ball of wires stuck to the exhaust heat shield…hmmm.
My mind went into analytical mode, recounting the possibilities. Oh yes. Mmhmm. Oh, of course. That’s bad. Soon enough I’d realized why engineers invented exhaust pipes in the first place. Whenever I sat at idle, the heat from our muffler had been wafting straight up into the engine compartment rather than being diverted safely out the back. This had caused the heat shield to become red hot, which in turn melted our main engine wiring harness, which was inexplicably strung right across the heat shield. I picked it up and inspected it, but it was obvious that all of the wires had melted and shorted together, causing all 14 of them to become one big charred mess. It’s a miracle Nacho didn’t burst into flames, as this charred ball sat directly under our brittle plastic semi-leaky fuel rail from 1984.
I hopped on a little girl’s bike that I found at the guesthouse, and pedaled it to the nearest home supply store, where I bought 30 meters of monofilament wire. Not exactly “the right stuff”, but one can’t be picky when one’s engine is in shambles and one’s wife is contentedly sitting in her comfortable guesthouse, unaware that she might have reason to be discontented.
And that’s the story of how I came to be sitting in the hot field in Sukothai for the whole day rewiring our entire engine. Thank goodness for multimeters and beer.
Being that we were still on Earth, and thus still under the constant pull of gravity and Murphy’s law, it started to rain just as I was finishing up. And boy did it rain. And rain. And rain. I opted to save the test drive for the next morning, when we would jet out of town to explore the nearby temple ruins.
When morning rolled around we loaded Nacho up and crossed our fingers. I turned the key, and to our collective delight Nacho whimpered to life, stuttered, nearly died, and then resumed an unhealthy idle fluttering between 800 and 1500 RPM. Yes! Back to normal!
I threw it in reverse and pressed the gas. Rather than moving backwards, as expected, we traveled straight down, approximately eight inches, into the ground, which was unexpected. Huh.
As it turned out, the heavy rain had turned our field into somewhat of a soil crème brûlée. The slightest movement of our tires had caused us to break through the crispy top layer and sink into the clay custard below. Out came the sand ladders, out came the shovel.
Damn you, Murphy!
The white guy with the tiny shovel caused quite a sensation, and soon we had a small audience of old Thai ladies and seemingly helpless backpackers from the guesthouse who must have forgotten that it’s customary to offer one’s help when a fellow countryman finds himself stuck in the mud.
After several nearly successful tries, which saw our tires slipping deeper and deeper into the custard, the little old Thai ladies decided that we would not be successful without their help. They sprang into action, throwing bits of debris into our tire holes, and then motioned for me to fire it up. I delicately put it in reverse and slowly released the clutch. Seeing little promise of success, the little old Thai ladies started pushing. The bigger of the two pushed on the front bumper, while the smaller one, weighing in at around 75 pounds, placed her hand on my door handle and pulled with all of her might.
Slowly Nacho crept backwards, and soon I was crawling out of the quagmire, trying not to run over the skinny lady, who was still holding onto my door handle. Success! The backpackers went back to their coconut waters and their books, the old ladies helped us wash off our sand ladders in the well, and soon we were on our way to the welder to get a new exhaust pipe.
What a cluster. And to think, this all started with a little bump.
We are very excited to announce the release of our book, Drive Nacho Drive: A Journey from the American Dream to the End of the World! If you’d like to read it, click below to buy it on Amazon.com, and then help us spread the word by sharing our news with your friends.
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From the back cover
On an afternoon just like many before it, Brad Van Orden sat at his desk. When a coworker meandered past his window, Brad succumbed to an impulse and blurted out the most outlandish thing he could think of—”Hey Steve, let’s drive your hippie bus to Tierra del Fuego.” This prompted Steve’s halfhearted response: “I don’t think so.”
But this got Brad thinking. What if we just dropped everything and left? Isn’t there more to life than this? He messaged his wife with a question: “Want to do this?”, to which she immediately responded: “Yes!” They clearly had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
Drive Nacho Drive tells the hilarious and sometimes harrowing story of what happens when Brad and Sheena trade in the American Dream for a year on the roads of Central and South America aboard “Nacho”, their quirky and somewhat temperamental Volkswagen van.
As a result of questionable decision-making skills and intermittent bad luck, Brad and Sheena repeatedly find themselves in over their heads. Whether negotiating cliff-hanging roads in rebel territory, getting caught illegally smuggling a transmission in a suitcase over international lines, mounting a stealth mission to steal Nacho back from a deranged Colombian auto dismantler, or clinging to the side of a vegetable truck while descending a 16,000 foot Andean pass, there seems to be no limit to the predicaments that these two can get themselves into.
With Drive Nacho Drive, the Van Ordens deliver a thoughtful, hilarious, and mouthwatering depiction of adventure and misadventure on the Pan-American highway—one that will leave you shaking your head and holding your sides, while asking yourself,isn’t there more to life than this?