Guest Post: Helmets and Guns

The experiences of travel, over time, blend together into a hazy mosaic of sunrises and sunsets, curries and salads, aromas and stenches; but then two guys try to murder you in northern Laos, and that doesn’t really blend with anything.

I’d left Boun Tai, a small Lao village in the southern reaches of Phongsali province, around dawn. Submerged in mist I rode for a good 20 kilometres before the sun seared through; dappling among the canopy of leaves to my potholed road below. My clothes were mist-drenched and my long-clenched knuckles ached. Shivering so violently that I almost dropped the bike, I thought once again: What was I doing out so early?

Wedged between Vietnam to the east and China to the north and west, Phongsali is the northernmost province of Laos. A narrow, little-visited slice of land bisected by the Ou River, the majority of its expanse is wilderness.

The road I shuddered along was not new, but had its roots as a war road, built during the Indochinese wars. A rambling and rugged affair, Route 1A is often nothing more than bone-jarring stones held apart by packed earth. I’d been told I could do Udomxai to Phongsali in six hours, but that turned out to be poor counsel when, almost 100 kilometres shy of my destination, night fell. Boun Tai for the night then.

An early start and two hours later, I rolled into market town Boun Neua, a soaked and dishevelled wreck with clattering teeth and wild hair. I grabbed a table and stool from a pho stall, dragged them to the sunny footpath, stripped off my outer T-shirts to dry and ordered soup and coffee. An hour later, dry, warm and tummy-filled I was ready to go — and had broadcast to anyone interested that I was motorbiking alone.

Phongsali, the eponymous provincial capital, is set at the end of a 30-odd kilometre scenic spur off Route 1A. I ride slowly and stop frequently, snapping photos or enjoying the view and silence. It was one such stop, along a drifting ridge run, that I noticed two guys on a bike round the bend behind me and pull over. I thought nothing of it and they were still lolling there when I left.

As I continued, whenever there was a longish straight run, I’d glimpse the other bike — often just as I’d cruise out of sight.

I reached a layover with a viewpoint signposted and hiked up to have a look. Unfortunately the sala was totally enveloped by trees, leaving precious little view to enjoy. A disappointment, but then I was back on the bike, coasting, enjoying the weaving road and its great views.

I rounded a bend to have the spell interrupted by a motorbike positioned across the road, a guy behind it, waving me down.

That he was so close to the blind corner meant I had no real option but to pull up, so I did, with his bike between us. He was saying, “Stop, stop!”, but I missed the rest, so I reached up to take off my helmet.

As I removed my helmet, I halfway glanced over my left shoulder to see a second guy running at me, at full pelt, with a stockless AK47 by the barrel, swung behind his shoulder ready to smash me.

Time slows down — and speeds up — at times like this.

I pulled back on the helmet and lashed out at him with it as hard as I could. I vaguely hoped to hit him, but instead impacted the gun, knocking it out of his hands and him to the ground. Yes, I know — *in one fell swoop*.

I glanced at the other guy, jumped my bike forward a foot and kicked out at his bike with all my strength. We both tottered but it was his bike that fell. I gunned the Suzuki — thankfully I hadn’t turned my engine off — and escaped.

The drama was over in maybe five seconds from start to finish.

Screeching around the first corner, I almost careened over the edge, slowed enough to get my helmet on, then I rode faster than I ever have in my life.

Hands shaking uncontrollably, stomach clenched into the tiniest of rock hard balls and crying tears of panic and fear, I had one thought: their bike is bigger than mine and they’ll catch me.

Time passed, my pulse slowed and the shaking subsided. I reached a hamlet and pulled over by a shack. I waited. Surely they wouldn’t ride into the village and shoot me dead?

I never saw them again.

That night, well soused on Beerlao in a Chinese restaurant in Phongsali, I called another author I’d met in Huay Xai on the Thai border and who was planning on doing the same route by motorbike. “These guys tried to kill me!” I drunkenly blurted out.

He was in Luang Prabang and while sounding doubtful, said he’d ask around about any other incidents. We talked the next day and he said a few locals had told him, after a few drinks, that two French guys had been shot in similar circumstances a month or so previously — but he wasn’t convinced the story was true. He subsequently did the trip with no problem.

My hotelier and the tourist police were aghast; and promptly blamed visitors from over the border. “Lao people wouldn’t do this!” they claimed. “This would be the work of a Chinese gang! Only village heads are allowed to have those guns and there are not many bikes like the one you described.” There’s a border crossing near Boun Neua; the bandits saw me there, determined I was alone, and followed me, they insisted.

I asked why they didn’t steal my bike when I was at the viewpoint. “Maybe they needed your keys?” the officer replied. “You have a nice camera; maybe they wanted that too.”

They promised to investigate and I filed a lengthy report, but my memory was frustratingly evasive. I’ve lived in Asia long enough that I should be able to do better than “short, Asian looking, black hair” but I couldn’t even recall what they wore.

Not willing to ride back down the same road, I changed my trip and pushed east to Hat Sa, where I tossed the bike on a boat and headed south.

On board, I wondered what they had planned. My bike was worth maybe $2,000, and you could add a grand or so for my camera and laptop. Two or three thousand would go a long way up there. Perhaps they hadn’t intended to kill me; perhaps they just wanted to knock me out, beat me and steal my gear.

The nagging question though, was why didn’t they just shoot me? I’d asked it of the police officer. What did he think?

“These people, they’re from China. Uneducated and silly. But sure they would kill you. Knock you or shoot you, they take your things and push you off the road. We’d never find you.”

I laughed at his dig at his Chinese neighbours, but his cheery “We’d never find you!” will always stay with me.

Stuart McDonald is the co-founder of Southeast Asia travel planning site Travelfish.org. He lives in Bali with his family between a volcano and the sea. He still rides a motorbike, but always packs a helmet.

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