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The Most Dangerous Thing I Do

I usually ride my motorbike to and from work, 25 kilometers each way, six days a week, and five of those rides are at night, Monday through Friday. This is the most dangerous thing that I do, and it is, without a doubt, the most consistently risky thing that I’ve ever done. It’s been said that this is one South East Asia experience that you can live without. I’ll vouch for that, since I’ve had a fair number of close calls. I’ve been at times incredibly aware and careful and, to tell the truth, very, very lucky. Some other riders, though, have not been so lucky.

This is from a recent article on Yahoo! News, dated Aug. 28, 2016:

“Look at me, stay with us,” the paramedics shout as a barely conscious motorcyclist is bundled into a volunteer ambulance in the Laotian capital Vientiane, where rampant drink driving brings nightly carnage to the roads.

It is a grim scene familiar the world over.

But in Laos, an impoverished and authoritarian communist country with almost no state-funded medical services, these kind of vital lifesavers are volunteers and entirely funded by donations. . .

And they have never been more in demand.

Poorly maintained roads, dilapidated vehicles, an increase in motorcycle use and the widespread prevalence of drink driving makes Vientiane one of Asia’s most precarious capitals for road deaths.

I’ve seen two terrible accidents in the last couple of weeks on my ride back to the village, both of which occurred at night (rather than my Saturday afternoon return ride from Vientiane).

The first involved two motorbikes and a pick up truck. It looked like the two bikes had smashed into the back of the truck, putting quite a large dent in the tailgate. I came upon the accident, which happened in the lanes leading into town, and saw the pickup had pulled into the lanes leading out of town and had parked half on the road and half on the sidewalk. The two motorbikes were down on the other side of the road, looking pretty torn up. A couple of motorbike helmets lay in the road. As I drove slowly past, I noticed a large crowd of people surrounding the area, but ambulances and police hadn’t yet arrived, so this had just taken place. Then, I noticed a young lady, perhaps in her early-twenties, sprawled in the middle of the pavement. Her head was turned away from me, with her right cheek on the road, lying on her right arm with her left one behind her back. She looked pretty, from what I could tell, but, unfortunately, she looked quite dead. Usually at least a few people will be trying to help these accident victims, checking to see if they’re OK, comforting them while waiting for the ambulance, applying some makeshift first aid, or, sometimes, checking for a pulse. No one was near this victim, but many were looking at her from a respectful distance. I’ve ridden past a number of accident scenes in the last couple of years, but this is the first one that brought tears to my eyes. The victim looked so very much alone, lying in the middle of the pavement under a harsh street light. I can only imagine what her parents must have felt. With any luck, perhaps she was just knocked unconscious.

The other accident happened about a week later only a few kilometers down the road. Again, two motorbikes were involved, and it looked like they had smashed into each other. As I came upon the scene, I saw one guy, wearing a helmet, limping heavily to the side of the road with the aid of a bystander. Another man lay face down on the pavement, no helmet on, and a man was checking for his pulse on the side of his neck. The bystander stood up and walked away. I don’t know if the victim was dead or just unconscious, but I think the former. I went slowly and carefully on my way, though I don’t take time to dilly-dally and gawk, like many other people do. Again, this had just happened, probably no more than a minute before I passed through the area, which is right across the road from a karaoke bar that is usually very crowded. Of course, many motorbikes and cars are parked there, and, of course, many people get quite drunk there. I’m always extremely careful when I drive through the area because of the number of cars and motorbikes entering and leaving, and because of the number of drunks I’ve seen staggering down the middle of the road.

So, the conclusion is that I will continue to drive my bike with the utmost care and attention. It’s usually fun and a bit exhilarating, but it’s certainly no time to take risks. Wish me well.

An Exciting Life-Not

Boring

What does it say about my “exotic” life in another country when the most exciting thing to happen in the last several months is that the local authorities finally decided to bring in a scraper and level off the rutted, pot-holed dirt road that runs through the village? A luxurious motorbike ride was in the offing, a ride that wouldn’t bounce me up and down and shake me up, causing my internal organs to become displaced. A ride that I wouldn’t have to make at 10 kilometers an hour in order to prevent my motorbike from shaking apart. I was looking forward to it. I was excited!

scraper

That was last Sunday. For all of one day, Monday, going to and from Vientiane, I enjoyed the level road. That all changed on Tuesday, when we had some heavy rains. When the road was horribly wash-boarded and pot-holed, the dirt was at least hard, compacted. The scraper tore up all that hard dirt and left a loose mess that the rain turned into a 6 kilometer long mud pit, from the village all the way to the main road. What a nightmare ride! I really had to watch where I was riding. In the worst area, not too far from the main road, vehicles had to stay all the way to the left, trying to avoid oncoming bikes and trucks, because the right hand side was, and still is, completely impassable due to the deep mud there. Not even the big sand- and gravel-hauling trucks will attempt passage on that side.

At this time, Thursday, the condition of the road is similar to what it was before it was scraped. It won’t be long until it’s back in the same condition. The forecast isn’t calling for much rain in the near future, so the mud should dry up soon. I’ll still have to make a few more night rides before it dries, which can be a nightmare on that back road. Even at 10 kilometers an hour. Who said my life wasn’t exciting?

Slaughter on the Streets

motorbike wreck

This is not my photo, nor is it a picture of what I saw last night. It was taken in Vientiane, and it is typical of an accident scene here.

Riding my motorbike back to The Farm last night, I came across two traffic accidents. The first one was horrendous–two covered bodies lay in the street down the road from Wat Si Muang, near a traffic light, though the accident occurred away from the light. There was a very large police presence and dozens of gawking onlookers. I noticed the bodies as I rode slowly through the crowd, but I didn’t see what kind of vehicles were involved. Perhaps they had already been removed or maybe the bodies were those of pedestrians. The traffic light ahead was red, so I continued to ride slowly toward it. All of a sudden, a teen-aged boy on his motorbike, who I had seen as one of the gawkers, raced past me and ran through the red light.

That’s just insanely stupid, especially after the scene he had just witnessed. But, it’s a normal occurrence here; a huge number of motorbike riders routinely ignore all traffic laws. They run through red lights and stop signs, they operate their bikes without headlights, they don’t wear helmets, they exceed the speed limit, and when they turn onto a larger road from a side street, they rarely look to see if another vehicle is approaching. They also drive drunk. Put ’em together–teen boys, booze and motorbikes–what could possibly go wrong?

Another law that people ignore is riding on the wrong side of the road. This was the most difficult abuse for me to get used to. They do this because they’re too impatient to wait for traffic to clear so that they can cross into their proper driving lane. So, they ride along the side of the road, against traffic, peering back over their shoulders to see if there is any oncoming traffic behind them, and when the proper lane is clear, they’ll cut over to that side of the road. This can be terrible at night, when a speeding biker wearing black clothing and having no headlight comes at you all of a sudden out of nowhere, forcing you to swerve out of his or her path. This has happened to me on more than one occasion.

They do this as if they had special permission to turn your lane into their own legal avenue to get to the proper side of the road. At first I used to yell at them and swear and honk my horn, to let off steam. Everybody, and I mean everybody, does it, including foreigners. I’m one of the very, very few riders who will wait until traffic clears before I cross into my proper driving lane. Because of the relatively huge number of cars that the new middle class is buying, Vientiane is totally unprepared to handle all the traffic, so there is very little legal parking. People park their cars on the road, effectively cutting one of the driving lanes in half. It’s when motorbike riders going the wrong way come around one or more of these parked cars that it gets really dangerous, especially if there is heavy traffic next to you in the other driving lane. What do you do–swerve into the other lane and hope the drivers notice you and give way, hope that the other motorbike rider will use a little common sense (usually in short supply) or do you veer off to the right side of the road toward the parked car? I’ve usually been able to (cautiously) get into the other driving lane. It’s a scary proposition, just one of the many frightening things about riding a motorbike in Laos.

I don’t mean to single out motorbike riders, because drivers of other vehicles disobey the traffic laws and drive drunk, also. They, too, drive down the wrong side of the road, speed and generally drive like idiots. I would estimate, roughly, that 80 percent of motorbike riders and at least half the drivers of other vehicles would not pass a driver’s exam. Most drivers here, I’ve heard, don’t even have a driver’s license. Not surprising.

Anyway, I rode out of Vientiane toward The Farm. Just past the new U.S. Embassy there is a final traffic light. As I approached it, two ambulances raced screaming from the other direction and turned right at the light, heading toward a hospital along that particular road. I thought that there might be another accident further along. Sure enough, as I neared my turnoff, there was another large crowd of gawkers and police surrounding a scene that included a tuk-tuk that had a severely smashed-in front end. I didn’t see another vehicle, so again I don’t know that a motorbike was involved. I kind of doubt that there was, due to the magnitude of damage to the tuk-tuk. I continued on, hyper aware and extremely cautious.

It seems like every couple of weeks there is an article or letter in the Vientiane Times deploring the carnage on the roads of Laos and demanding that something be done about it. The authorities repeatedly say that they are going to crack down on those who drive drunk, speed and flout other traffic laws. However, nobody appears to be doing anything to change the situation. And the slaughter continues.

Not So Laid-Back Vientiane

Many guide books describe Vientiane as being “laid-back.” They are either out-dated or misinformed, because the capital is far from relaxing. Compared to Bangkok or Beijing, I suppose it is, but it’s nothing like it was a short ten years ago, the first time I was here.

As an example that Vientiane is changing for the worse in some ways, a few weeks ago the Vientiane Times had a second page headline that read “Businessman, driver survive hail of gunfire.” The businessman wasn’t wounded, but his driver was hit three times in the right arm. The businessman, a Mr. Tong, is a “successful entrepreneur who has been involved in charitable works,” according to the newspaper. It goes on to report

“According to his account, Mr. Tong told friends that it was the truth that there was somebody who would like to kill him but he still did not understand the reason why they wanted to do so. He noted on his status that his was a flourishing business but in a competitive sector where it was not always simple to be successful. There had been so many rumours, but on Friday he learnt firsthand the extent of the danger lurking in society. Mr. Tong added at the end of the message that he wanted a peaceful resolution and forgiveness to the person or people behind the attack.”

Yikes, perhaps one more thing to worry about while I’m riding my motorbike to the village at night after work: stray bullets.

Another concern is missing manhole covers, as was reported a week ago. Thieves have been stealing them to sell for the metal. I think they’ve been taking them from sidewalks, not main thoroughfares, because the report stated that a car had been damaged while trying to park on a sidewalk. I’d hate to come up at night on a gaping hole in the street on my motorbike. I’m pretty sure I’d be a goner.

So, Vientiane, while somewhat relaxed, is not the sleepy capital it once was. Progress or not, it’s definitely changed.

Snow in Yeosu

Yeosu rarely gets any snow. It snows about once a season, and it hadn’t snowed yet this winter until this morning. I woke up at my usual early hour, 5:30, looked out my bedroom window and saw quite a few large flakes coming down. Because it was still dark, I couldn’t see how deep it was until I went to work, when I had to slog through about two inches of soft, wet snow. One of my colleagues, who has been here about as long as I, said that she thought this was the most snow we’ve received in at least five years, and I agreed.

I don’t really care for the stuff, after living through 40 years’ worth of Montana winters, but this snowfall, our first and probably only one this winter, was kind of entertaining. I saw a few people slipping and sliding on the sidewalks and a few cars weren’t being very careful on the somewhat icy road. I almost went down a few times myself.

So, here are a few snapshots I took while I walked to work. At first sight, I thought the fellow in one of the photos below was using a snow shovel to clear the road, but another teacher told me later that he was using a sign! Other people were using brooms. Like I said, we’re not used to snow.

Motorbikes in snow

Right outside the front door of the dormitory, two lonely motorbikes.

Benches in snow

Nobody’s gonna be sitting here for a while.

Footprints in the snow

Looks like I’m not the first one to go up the steps this morning.

Steps covered in snow

Careful walking up the steps or you might find yourself going back down

Shoveling snow

This guy’s using a sign to shovel the snow. Are there any snow shovels in Yeosu?

Tire tracks in the snow

A few cars have been by already.

Camellias in the snow

The camellias probably aren’t enjoying this.

Thai Planes, Trains and Mototaxis

This is the first post, then, about my recent vacation in Thailand and Laos. Let me say congratulations, though, to Yingluck Shinawatra, leader of the winning party in Thailand’s recent election, future Prime Minister and sister of deposed ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra. Hopefully, the election will help to unite the country and heal the wounds caused by all the strife there recently. Some commentators on Thai politics think it will be a good thing, but there are those who think another military coup is possible. I left the country just a few days before the election, and, while I did see more than a little campaigning going on, I didn’t see any demonstrations or acts of violence. Good luck, people of Thailand!

Next, I have to comment on the quality of Thai Airways. I used to enjoy flying with the “Smooth as Silk” airline, but lately their service has really declined. The quality of the food served on flights has gone down noticeably from, oh, say about five years ago; the attendants, while not surly, don’t seem as interested or caring; and the in-flight entertainment has become sub-par. On the trip to Bangkok, all we had were the overhead video monitors–no individual seatback screens with video on demand (older planes, I guess). On the trip back to Korea, we did, indeed, have the video on demand, individual screen system–nice. However, less than halfway through the flight, the system went down–no video, no music to listen to, nothing. That made for a much longer flight. Yeesh! I’m gonna have to start booking my travel on another airline, methinks. Sorry, Thai Air, you’re gonna have to pick it up quite a bit to keep my business.

Ok, I got that out of the way. I only stayed in Bangkok for one night, so I didn’t get around too much. One thing I always do in Bangkok is eat at the Bourbon St. Restaurant, which, as you might guess, serves mouth-watering Cajun cuisine. It’s only about a kilometer or so from the hotel, so I could have walked there. I felt like having a little fun, though, so I decided to take a motorbike mototaxi, a rather unsafe way to travel in Bangkok’s notorious traffic.

It was around 7 p.m. and Sukhumvit Road was experiencing its usual rush-hour jam, so taking a regular taxi probably would have taken around half an hour. On a mototaxi, it took about 10 minutes, with the driver weaving between the non-moving cars and buses, working his way to the front of the pack waiting for the traffic light to change. Then, at the green light, he roared to the back of the next stalled pack and again squeezed to the front. You have to really keep your arms and legs tight to the bike–you’re the meat in a sandwich and the buses and cars are the bread. It’s actually not that bad in a traffic jam, because not too many of the big vehicles are moving–just watch the arms and legs. I took a couple of videos while I was riding on the back, holding on for dear life with one hand and holding my compact camera with the other. I’ll try to get one of them posted here for your amusement.

So, I did make it to the restaurant ok and had a great meal of red beans and rice. Fantastic! Be sure to give the Bourbon St. a try if you’r ever in Bangkok. It’s on Sukhumvit Soi 22. Check their website for directions.

Another thing I like about Bangkok is all the surprising cultural trappings that seem to pop up out of nowhere. I walked back to Sukhumvit 11 (no sense pressing my luck on the mototaxis), and this statue caught my attention. It looks like it might be a shrine of some sort, and it was located across the street in front of a bank or department store–I really don’t remember which. I didn’t notice it on the ride down, but that was probably because I was too busy taking the videos and trying not to die. :smile:

More mundane transportation is the overnight train to Nong Khai. It departs from Hua Lamphong Station at 8:30 p.m. and arrives in Nong Khai around 8:30 a.m. The train is usually late by about 20-30 minutes, although it’s been on time occasionally on my past trips, but this time we were 2 HOURS late getting into the northeastern Thai city. Again, on the return trip, the train was almost 2 hours late arriving in Bangkok. Very unusual, but not a big problem for me, since I wasn’t on any real pressing time schedule. (Nai had a pretty long wait in meeting me, though.)

Here’s a shot of Hua Lamphong I took from a restaurant above the main waiting area.

I kind of like the rickety, over-aged night train–it’s seems like an escape to the past, when people weren’t in such a hell-bent-for-leather hurry to get somewhere else. On the train, it’s not the arrival that’s important, it’s the trip. The train has a dining car, so I rocked and rolled my way down a few cars and sat down to have a snack. You meet all sorts of interesting folks. I talked to one Norwegian guy who co-owns a guest house in Vang Vieng, Laos, and he told me that the police up in the “frat” town (about which I’ve previously posted) had clamped down on the after hours (closing time–midnight) partying there. That’s excellent news–it’s a beautiful area, but the young backpackers that seemed to party ’round the clock had turned it into something less than appealing to older folks like me.

I also struck up a conversation with one of the police who patrol the cars, checking passports, watching for thievery, and other such mundane chores. I took a photo, but for some reason I had the settings on my camera messed up and didn’t get a clear shot of him. However, it does give some idea of the swaying motion of the train, so I kind of like it anyway.

So, I’ll end this rather long post with my arrival in Nong Khai and try to get some more photos and stories up this weekend. Stay tuned.

Out and About

Except for quite a bit of haze, it was a beautiful day in Yeosu, so I took the motorbike out for one of my infrequent rides, another one along the coast. I’m extremely careful about riding the ‘bike–I don’t want to emulate my friend Nai in Laos, A.K.A., Mr. Accident-Prone. The back roads along the sea are very wide and have very light traffic, so there’s not a big problem with other vehicles. Also, I’m quite wary of any other obstacles, like potholes, wet spots, and other potential disasters-in-waiting. Here are a few photos of my ride today and I’ll post some more soon.

The first one is of what I call Sindeok Beach East. I posted a couple photos of this area on Sept. 27th from one side of the small peninsula that juts out into the sea. This is a smaller, more beautiful beach (in my opinion) that is just a short scramble over the rocks. Along the left side of the photo, near the top, you can see one of the buildings on the other part of the beach.

East Sindeok Beach

East_Sindeok_Beach

A kilometer or so farther along the coast road is the very small fishing village of Soji, if my memory serves me correctly, and if I read the sign, in Korean, correctly. Very lovely, peaceful area only a few kilometers outside of the city.

Soji Fishing Village

Soji_1

I’ll try to get some more shots posted in the next few days, and I hope to get out to a few other areas, so stay tuned. More later.

P.S. Happy Birthday to my mom. Getting younger every day.

Motorbikes and Chili Burns

Ahhhh, it’s that time of the year when we English teachers get a week off: no more classes until the 26th. I’m going to Seoul sometime next week to stock up on stuff that I can’t get in Yeosu, but other than that I’m just gonna hang out here, hopefully take a lot of photos and definitely take in the Yankee post-season games.

I hate to even mention that the Yanks are playing well: I’m afraid I’ll put a jinx on them. I just finished watching the first game against the Angels and they looked great. As I said earlier in the season, they seem like a special team, with a group chemistry not unlike that of the great Yankee teams of the late 90s. I hope they can go all the way to take their 27th World Series title.

Well, motorbike guy has done it again. The 4th or 5th time in a couple of years. Yup, my Laos friend Nai had ANOTHER accident riding his unworthy steed. He’s in the hospital in Vientiane after suffering a back and face injury while wrecking on his way to the market in his village. He told me that it had been raining and the road conditions were bad, which I can believe, having traveled on the slippery, muddy, pothole-laden road that runs through his village. It’s almost inevitable that you’re going to lose your balance in these conditions. He did. He has paid the price again. I phoned him today and he’s recuperating in the hospital in Vientiane. I told him that the next time I return to Laos, I’m going to take the ‘bike and toss it in the Mekong. Sheesh.

The weather in Yeosu is definitely starting to remind me that winter is not that far away, with the nights turning chilly, the wind kicking up and the leaves on the trees putting on their autumn show. We’ve actually had gorgeous weather during the day lately–sharp blue skies and mild temperatures. But the nights, and the trees, have been telling a different tale. It’s definitely fall.

This evening sure feels like a harbinger of my least favorite season, so I’m making a big batch of chili. I cut up some spicy, green, Korean chili peppers earlier to add to my somewhat culturally mixed concoction, but I made the mistake of rubbing my eyelid with my hand. For about 10 minutes I thought the burn was going to go straight through to my eyeball! 😯

Tip: Wash hands after preparing chili peppers.

Thai Problems

It looks like the strife in Bangkok is escalating, with reports that tear gas was used by the army to clear out protestors blocking some of the major intersections. To top things off, Apr. 13-15 is Songkran, Thailand’s New Year and one of its major holiday periods.

Laos also celebrates Songkran. I talked to Nai last night, and he has been hired to sing at one of the parties being held there today. This one is being sponsored by his brother’s construction company. I asked him to be careful, because many people are injured or killed in drunk-driving accidents this time of year, and knowing Nai’s penchant for getting into motorbike accidents, I am obviously worried. He told me “I cannot drink beer tomorrow. I sing a song for party.” Good. Keep it that way, Mr. Accident Prone. :satisfied:

Spring

It looks like it’s finally here, at least in Yeosu. It was cold and rainy Thursday and Friday, but today we’ve had abundant sunshine and temperatures in the mid-fifties. I was walking around and noticed that some of the shrubbery and trees are starting to blossom, including, I think, some cherry blossoms. Hopefully, I can put away my winter clothes since this week highs are forecast to be in the mid-sixties. Sweet!

I actually DID go to Odong Island last weekend, and I have some new photos of the area. As soon as I get them processed, I’ll put a few of them up here.

I see that both Korea and Japan, as expected, advanced to the next round of the World Baseball Classic. The HUGE upset, of course, was the Dominican Republic getting eliminated by the Netherlands. I can imagine the folks back in the D.R. are still wondering what the heck happened. (NOTE: I just checked the Classic website in order to get the link to post here and I saw that Puerto Rico demolished the U.S. 11 to 1. Another upset coming up?)

My friend Nai got into another motorbike accident a few days back. Thankfully, he wasn’t hurt too badly, but he’s very upset that the other person involved, an 82-year old man, was injured and is in quite a bit of pain, so Nai tells me. It sounds like it was the older fellow’s fault. It seems he pedaled his bicycle against the light into traffic. Nai beeped his horn and put on the brakes, but he couldn’t get stopped in time to keep from knocking the guy off the bicycle and onto the road. Even though it wasn’t his fault, Nai is going to pay for the other person’s medicine until he gets back on his feet-a traditional show of respect for one’s elders, I guess. I’m really gonna have to try to get Nai to give up on motorbikes as much as possible. He always seems to be having trouble with them, one way or another. The bike he rides around on now is one that I helped him buy. I don’t think I want to help him buy another. He needs to get training wheels or something. More later.