Getting into Attapeu in early evening, I declined a price of 10,000kip for a tuk-tuk into town. It probably wasn't an unfair rate given that I would have been its only passenger, but the distance was short so I tried to negotiate something better. I try not to back right down in these circumstances. As a matter of policy, this will often get better results, but will mean you end up with nothing on occasion. This occasion, for example. It was only a couple of kilometre into the middle though, plus another as I shopped around for somewhere to stay. By then there was just enough to time get some nice dinner before bed.
I went out in the morning I search of the tourist information bureau, on the edge of town. Conveniently located in an unmarked office in a local government building with a unrelated role (something like agriculture, as I recall it), I was taken there on the back of a motorbike by a man who found me walking around the grounds of the Ministry for Information looking lost.
They were able to explain to me how to find some interesting villages of minority people living south of the city. Again, remember, this is Laos; it may be a city but in our terms it is just a tiny town. I walked back into the centre and found a place willing to rent me a motorbike for the rest of the day and headed off. I found them OK, but the locals didn't look too happy about it. Normally you can exchange cheery greetings with everyone you pass and it is almost expected with children. Here, everyone looked very unhappy to see me and even the children often just stared or ran away when I waved or called "Sabaidee" at them. I know that a lot of these people have a very bad relationship with the communist government so maybe this mistrust extends to outsiders generally. They don't see themselves as part of Laos so perhaps just want the outside world to leave them alone. I didn't stick around for much longer than it took me to get sunburnt and just came back.
I also tried to buy some shaving razors, but with no success. One man, who kept calling me Mr Long Beard, searched his shop extensively for them, but found nothing. I have had this problem throughout my time in Laos. No one sells them of the type I need. Well, they sell the original handle, but not the replacement blades, which seems odd. So, my beard has been getting longer and longer.
My plans the next day were for further afield. I hired the same motorbike, still full with the petrol I had bought the day before, and went out west towards the national park. My objective was to find two waterfalls here. The Lonely Planet instructions were sufficient to send me in the right direction but inaccurate enough to have me turning around twice and stopping to ask for directions before I found my turning off the highway.
Once on the rough stony road, it all made more sense and, at the point I was expecting, I could see the first of the waterfalls with my eyes. I found somewhere to park the bike and walked down a path to find the river. Here I could put my socks onto a dry stone slab and clamber across the rocks and through the water in just my sandals to peer over the edge as the water fell to the ground scores of metres below before continuing its progress to whichever sea beckons it. Very pleasant.
Back on the bike with my socks in my back pocket, the other waterfall two kilometres further along was harder to locate I saw it at a distance at one point and stopped to take a couple of snaps.. Further along, at what seemed like the right point to find the top, I saw a pathway leading from the road. Walking down it, I quickly found three more motorbikes parked up, suggesting that other people had found this spot also, which was encouraging. The path got thinner and thinner until I was just picking my way through the undergrowth, trying to head towards what might or might not be the sound of gushing water. I walked and walked until I decided I needed to go back to the real path and begin again. But I couldn't find this either, so I had to slowly push and clamber my way through more undergrowth in the general direction of the road. In my mind, I hoped that the mine clearance teams who had worked extensively in this area since the Vietnam war had done their jobs well. In total, I was going for half an hour before I finally noticed the distinctive red surface of the main track through the bushes ahead of me.
None of this left me feeling too great and I now discovered that one of my socks had fallen out of my back pocket at some point. Either that or I had been pick-pocketed by the butterfly that had been so attracted to it when I took it off at the first waterfall. There was no hope of every recovering it which was a shame because I liked that pair. The fact that I was emotionally mourning the loss of socks showed that my enthusiasm had gone. I figured that I had seen these falls at a distance, which was good enough for me, and gave up on it.
I carried along the road for another ten kilometres to reach the Bolaven Plateau. In the middle of the national park, the ground rises and then becomes flat for a long distance. Then, I turned around and headed for home before the sun exited for the night. After thirty kilometres along the rough, bumpy track, I reached the main road. At the junction, I bought a small amount of petrol from a petrol station that was actually just two girls operating a tube connected to a water-cooler type thing in a wooden hut. I got just enough to bring me back to half-full so I could get it home without giving the rental man too much to siphon off and sell elsewhere.
Riding the open road, I thrashed the engine for all it was worth and raced all the way back to Attapeu as fast as I dared. It might not have been very fast in reality, but it felt fast to inexperienced me, it was fast by Laos standards where everything is done at a slow pace and it was fast for the little bike which was on absolute maximum revs for much of the time. The key point here is that I was burning petrol at a much higher rate than I had done when I was on the outward leg of my journey. When Laura and I had run out of petrol in Luang Nam Tha, the bike had continued for twenty kilometres after the fuel gauge needle reached the bottom of the dial. This time, I still hadn't quite reached 'empty' when the engine spluttered to a halt four kilometres from the end.
I got out and pushed, accompanied by a local man whose bike broke down for mechanical reasons at the same spot two minutes later. After fifteen minutes, I pushed it into a petrol station. A real one this time. The girl working on the pump was taken aback when I assured her that I wanted just two thousand kip's worth of fuel (about twenty pence), but I only needed to enough to get me across town to return the bike to the rental place. This worked fine, me being careful not to push my luck any further and riding nice and slowly now.
In the morning, I packed up ready to leave Laos. I was out early to find a bus that apparently ran to the border for 50,000kip at seven thirty. Finding the bus 'station' was a nightmare. I know my mime for buses is good because people have instantly understood it everywhere I go, but here people just smiled at me and nodded. I found it in the end though, basically just a bus parked in a private garage. They wanted to charge me 100,000, which seemed far too much to me, and then only came down to 90,000. I might have accepted 80,000 but they weren't interested in pursuing the matter, so off I walked.
Once again, walking away may be a good way of asserting your determination in the negotiation, but I didn't actually have any other options. I walked to a petrol station across the long bridge and sat down by the roadside. It was still early but I was already pouring in sweat. I decided to wave my Lonely Planet with 'VIETNAM' on the front cover at passing vehicles and those exiting the petrol station to see what happened.
After twenty minutes, a minivan screeched to a halt besides me. They were going to Kon Tum, which would take me to the border plus 80km beyond into Vietnam, which was good. They wanted 80,000kip, which I had been willing to pay for half that distance earlier. Now, even though I knew I held considerably fewer cards, I cheerily refused and said I wanted to pay 60,000kip. I even let them go away and waved my book at further vehicles. But, before getting back in their empty van, these two guys came back and agreed to my price. Job done!
It didn't turn out to be such a sweet deal after all though. To learn why, you'll have to read the first journal in Vietnam. In the mean time, I'll leave you with that as a good cliffhanger, just like the closing episode in each series of Dallas. Before that, we rode on to the border where I was able to change my currency through the window of a little office of the Laos bank. Border officials gave me some forms to complete, scanned my bags and I was out of Laos and into Vietnam.