A Motorcycle Diary - Day One

Just because within an hour of being strong-armed into paying baksheesh to an immigration officer it's possible to buy a kilo of grass, get black-out steaming and hire a vehicle you're not qualified to drive, it'd be disingenuous to describe lanky little Laos as utterly lawless.
And yet, what better place to engage in the kind of reckless behaviour that would, in other parts of the world, result in a hefty fine and/or jail time? Wee Mo and I resolve to take advantage in Tha Khaek by going on The Loop, a (sober) three-day motorbike tour around central Laos.
It's no exaggeration to say that my experience who two-wheel transport isn't altogether happy. I couldn't ride a push bike without stabilisers until the age of 11; until this trip I'd never been on a motorbike of any type. I'm still haunted by the shame of watching my younger brother heroically zoom off around the block on the back of my uncle's Yamaha while I nervously twitched the curtains.
We're given a pair of Honda Wave 100's; red scooters hired from Mr Ku, also known by some unkind folk as Mr Kip. “I've got a bike – you can ride it if you like,” says the little Laotian.
It's got a basket, a bell that rings and things to make it look good...”
...I'd give it to you if I could, but you can borrow it.”

And by borrow, he of course means rent. At 100,000 kip a day (£8.50) for each bike, it seems a little pricey for this part of the world, but included is a map of The Loop, an advance driving course that takes all of about 7 minutes to complete, and the guarantee of covering any repairs needed on the journey. Little did we know, but this last clause would be our saviour.
Wrongly assuming that as a man I am a more competent rider, Mr Kip gives me bike 37, a kick-starter and probably the worst bike in Asia. Meanwhile, Wee Mo (who, for those not in the know has a semi-professional moto-cross rider for a brother, and a mechanic with over 40 years experience for a father) gets bike 12, a button-starting dream machine.
Having passed Mr Kip's cycling proficiency test – badge not included – we set out to get petrol. My gauge says I'm running on empty, but a full tank later, it reads the same. I look at the rest of the display and quickly discover that virtually all of it is kaput. Fuel level, speedometer, odometer – all knackered. In fact, the only thing that does work are three lights of five to let me know what gear I'm in.
Most disturbing, though is jammed mileage. 31009.7 km on clock – it's like a Hiroshima wristwatch. What cataclysm befell the driver at that point? And how many miles has this thing done since? Perhaps that's on my mind as I attempt to speed away from the petrol station and come within inches of ploughing into the side of a glimmering pick-up truck. (It's not, but I look like such a prick in the process, any excuse will do.)
Early drama behind us, we set off into the wild. The first section of The Loop is so smooth and scenic that it's hard to believe some of the tales of infamy that we'd heard of back in Tha Khaek. Our guesthouse (the altogether exploitative Tha Khaek Travel Lodge) has pages of gripes in vast logbooks from people who'd attempted the route. Too much dust in the dry season; too much mud in the wet. Back in Cambodia, we'd also heard-tell of a Dutch couple having to abandon the trip and get their bikes on the back of a tractor. Of course it was that kind of namby-pamby flim-flammery that means today the only people in the world speaking Dutch are the Dutch.
As we motor along past lurching karst peaks under a brilliant sun, such travails seem like laughable impossibilities. This is supposedly rainy season and certainly the last couple of weeks have lived up to that moniker. Skies darken, shed their load and clear in a matter of minutes; we're even becoming a little war-weary towards thunderstorms.
But golly! So sunny today! There seems little to worry about as all our naked bits are covered in factor 30 sun cream and that'll protect us, right?
We hare along the new highway towards the town of Tha Lang, stopping off at a few pretty dull caves as we go, taking advantage of the weather and ease of our schedule to take some videos (which won't be ready to see for over a year as our plucky little netbook can't handle HD files).
And biking? It gives me a real freedom and allows me to see so much more of the world than the restricted views from four-wheelers. For Wee Mo, it's the smells and sounds that enhance the whole thing. Put simply: your senses are much more alive when you're biking. I never really feel threatened by the speed too, despite the obvious danger of being eviscerated by a truck and splashing back to earth like fleshy rain.
However, by the time we get to the town of Yommalat, we're really feeling heat. In three hours, my arms have gone from tan, to mahogany, to red, to purple. Wee Mo suddenly has the nose of a terrible alcoholic. Now, either there's an enormous, undiscovered hole in the ozone directly above Laos, or the cheap Thai-made sun cream we bought is fake. I examine to these two possibilities and decide that we've been swindled.
To compound our problems, sun cream barely exists in Laos – the locals either stay indoors or cover up, neither of which are options for us. Every other day we've had in Laos, the afternoons have brought every shade of grey and unanimous rain. Today, there's not a cloud in the bastard.
We scoot on and leave the tarmac for gravel and a winding mountain road towards Tha Lang, where we will spend the night. A few kilometres from our destination, we pause to look at some of the eerie (though strangely appealing) scenery that results from the devastating logging that goes on in these parts.
It's been a good day – neither of us are dead, for a start – and, pissing around, I declare myself a fulling qualified “man of the road” before tearing away as fast as my 100cc motor will allow. Fifteen metres later, fate knocks as the door and off comes the chain. Being a fearlessly intrepid traveller, I fix it, even getting oil on my delicate writer's hands.
The repair doesn't even get me over the hill before it's off again. Four or five slips more and we notice that the entire wheel looks knackered. Wee Mo scoots off for help for the first time.
In her absence, I garble my way through a conversation with two locals, one of whom erroneously thinks I need petrol. Finally, I manage to work out that the mechanic is close by. I push the bike into the forecourt and it turns out that only the grease monkey's wife and five kids are on hand – the man is no where to be found. Nonetheless, they bravely set about the repairs while I call Mr Kip to let him know the problem. 
He negotiates with the woman fixing the bike but refuses to listen to my insistence that she hasn't put the wheel on straight. The returning Wee Mo can't believe how shoddy a job they've done. Some time around this point, the heavens open.
Wee Mo and I look at each other, then at a divine sunset to try and distract ourselves from the knowledge that everything is turning to shit – and that tomorrow we must take this hopeless banger onto The Loop's most notorious section.

Next: From Bad to Worse