5th - 19th February
Our luck runs out
For the past two and a half weeks, our trip seems to have become a Lao garage tour. In fairness we've been lucky so far - 25,000 miles through often horrendous terrain, pushing our poor car through the full spectrum of extremes: from heat, dust and altitude to sand, rough roads and water.
But now all of our bad luck - besieged for so long - has escaped, re-grouped, formed a sophisticated strategy and attacked us with military precision.
On Friday February 12th, we drove from Luang Prabang to Phonsavanh to begin a sightseeing tour of Laos' remote and beautiful north east. But we didn't get there.
Breakdown in bandit country
One of our cooling hoses, running between the radiator and the engine, manages to inexplicably detach itself suddenly and without warning. With this sort of freak accident there are no happy endings - before we know it the car has overheated massively and cracked our brand new cylinder head, replaced just six weeks before...
There are worse places to break down than a remote Lao province, 40km from the nearest significant town (the Gobi desert, for instance) but there are far better ones too. Although much safer than it used to be, this is still bandit country and not a hugely clever place to be with a dead car and darkness approaching.
Thankfully Ivan, our indefatigable friend from The Apsara, manages to find an English speaking contact in Phonsavanh who can subsequently arrange to get us towed the final 40km or so to the town.
It's no easy process as the road is hilly and windy and we're being towed by a lightweight Hyundai pick-up (with no brake lights, naturally) via a piece of scrappy steel cable, looped through our towing eye and held in place by a spanner.
But we make it, arriving at 9pm in time to find a room for the night and grab a curry at Nisha's, Phonsavanh's curry house and the town's only culinary highlight.
Next morning sees us towed to the biggest garage in town. It's a tiny, miserable set-up, no more than a lean-to covered by several ageing shards of corrugated iron, a dirt floor and more motorised corpses than patients.
Despite the size and complexity of the problem, we don't have an option. Even the kind, gentle Lao can't resist profiteering when you're really in a fix: last night's 40km tow cost us $100 (equivalent to 2 ½ month's average salary) and a local truck owner is quoting us an astronomical $500 to take us back to Luang Prabang.
The garage's owner, via a local translator, says he can fix it. Despite our chronic, stomach-turning misgivings, there's nothing else we can do.
Within an hour, his lads are taking our engine out with a laissez-faire abandon that does nothing for our already threadbare nerves. Nuts, hoses and gaskets end up in random boxes and bottles if they're lucky, others are rescued from the dirt by us. It doesn't bode well.
Passing time in Phonsavanh
Phonsavanh is a pretty grim place, engulfed by the Chinese influence that has surreptitiously spread through this corner of the world like a vast, unstoppable fungus. Most tourists spend one, maybe two nights here, visiting the enigmatic and photogenic Plain of Jars. We end up spending six nights, and we've already seen the bloody Jars.
Barring watching the mechanics, there is virtually nothing else for us to do. We find a local silk production and weaving centre and learn about silk worms. We walk through the town's overly large, Soviet-style grid system to find the spartan Lao Indochina War memorial. Being Chinese New Year we spend the evening dodging firecrackers and eating at Nisha's curry house, as virtually everything else producing decent food has closed for a week. We're back in our hotel room every night by 8pm to watch the ‘Star Movies Asia' primetime movie for two hours of escapism.
It's not a lot of fun, especially when we don't have a lot of confidence in the guys who are performing open heart surgery on our car.
Actually, as the days grind on, things get better. The mechanics order the right parts (new cylinder head, gaskets and piston rings) and diligently clean the engine, put it back together and refit it with their antiquated hand winch. They cleverly work out that we need new timing gear to run an Asian built cylinder head. Wales beat Scotland in the rugby. ‘Star Movie Asia' shows Quantum of Solace, Slumdog Millionaire and The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Finally, we wake up on Thursday morning eagerly anticipating a successful test drive and getting the hell out of Phonsavanh. We've already decided that we'll head straight back to Luang Prabang to get this work double checked by the larger, more sophisticated and friendly garage there.
Things don't quite go to plan - our test drive reveals some new problems - like the engine cutting out on starting, a worrying lack of power and our automatic transmission slipping. Nevertheless the big boss man says "baw pen nyang" (no problem) and insists we'll get to Luang Prabang like this.
Either he can't do any more, or he won't do any more. It's immaterial - we're on our way.
Six hours' driving across 300km of mountainous and remote terrain doesn't make for ideal ‘limp the car to the next garage' conditions. Tough. Warily, we drive out of Phonsavanh, shit-scared.
But despite the problems, we're able to adjust our driving style to get the most out of the car's limited power (disengaging 4th gear, avoiding mid-range revs and trying to loose as little momentum as possible around the hairpin bends). We make it past halfway with a large sigh of relief, and 100km further on we're tentatively imagining how good this evening's beer will taste at The Apsara.
So near, yet so far...
Such dreams are cut short, though, when the engine suddenly starts rattling ominously when we're still 60km away from Luang Prabang. 60km doesn't sound like much, but here, even in a healthy vehicle we'd still be over an hour away. We coast down a long winding hill, but as soon as we hit an incline it's evident we can't go any further without doing some serious damage.
At 5pm, we pull up in the outskirts of a little village, fortuitously next to the smartest house, a two storey concrete affair, painted a pretty shade of pink and with its own concrete forecourt. The owner's wife and children greet us friendlily, even if they are a little confused. It's a far more preferable place to break down than our previous spot!
One phone call to Ivan gets a recovery operation underway; another to remote mechanical assistance in the UK (Chris, as long suffering and helpful as ever!) confirms we're right to stop as we've probably ‘dropped a valve' - those who know will understand; those who don't can look it up.
Insult to injury
Two hours later, our knight in shining armour arrives. Humiliatingly, the cavalry comprises a white, EU-sponsored Land Rover Defender, presumably the only car in the garage capable of getting us home. We're not sure if it's an appropriate use of their funds (at least we're from the EU), but frankly, we don't care!
Despite our initial relief at being rescued, it's a precarious journey into Luang Prabang. The last 60km contain some of the steepest descents and tightest corners. A freak, out-of-season rainstorm makes the already treacherous road greasy, meaning we can't descend through the hairpins at more than 7 km/h. Even with all precautions, there are still a few hairy near-misses as the weight of our car pushes the Land Rover sideways and nearly off the road around some of the corners.
Just after 11pm - four long, damp and rather silent hours later - we arrive at the garage outside Luang Prabang and are decoupled from the Land Rover. Ivan's found a room for us at The Apsara (good thing too as every other guesthouse is shut by this time of night). His chef's prepared some ham and cheese sandwiches - they're demolished as gratefully as the large bottle of Beer Laos that also materialises.
So here we are, in Luang Prabang for the fourth time, praying that the garage can finally fix all our Lao mechanic-induced problems before our (rigid) China entry date of February 25th. At least Luang Prabang is infinitely more appealing than Phonsavanh, and the garage is hopefully more capable.
We can't tell you much about northen Laos - about the infamous caves near Vieng Xai where the Pathet Lao hid out during the Indochina War and American bombing in the 60's, or about the pristine jungle pierced with limestone karsts in the north east, or the remote and still mysterious hill-tribes of Phongsali and beyond. We never made it.
Here's hoping that we get to China, and a land of proper Toyota garages...