An engine rebuild in Kaleum

Kaleum, Sekong Province, Laos

Last night’s hotel in Kaleum definitely wins the Gold Medal for the worst hotel of the ride so far. I parked the Panther outside yesterday afternoon and was handed the key to Room 1 by a rather rotund transvestite, who indicated I hand over 60,000 kip (£5) for the pleasure. As I lugged my panniers to my room I noticed a festering damp patch in the concrete hallway. That’s the remains of the last guest, I thought darkly. My room wasn’t any better. The only definable features were a stained bed, spiders webs and the rotting corpse of a gecko.

The loo and shower block were in the middle of a fetid rubbish dump, where stray dogs and a pig foraged for scraps.  A single cold tap dripped into a malarial basin of stagnant brown water. It was so grim I almost opted to stay covered in sweat and grime for the night, but the desire for a semblance of cleanliness overcame me, and I picked my way across the rubbish and doused myself in cool water. If you ever find yourself in Kaleum, I recommend you bring a large bottle of whisky and drink most of it before you check in.

I loaded up the Panther this morning while the transvestite delicately laid strips of raw water buffalo meat on a satellite dish to dry, waving merrily at me as he/she did so. Then, bumping up the track,  two policeman appeared on a moped. They were both very young, and very thin, barely eligible for facial hair. They looked so out of place in their pressed green uniforms and shiny shoes it was as if they had stolen them from their fathers and were playing at being policeman for the day. ‘Sabadii’ they said, and the less pubescent of the two got out an official looking briefcase. ‘Where are you from? Where are you going? Why are you here? Passport please’. I handed over my passport, and they both peered at it, flicking through the pages, looking  at all my visas and stamps. I had visions of being bustled off and questioned in Kaleum police station. There are a lot of controversial things going on in this area, which the government are not keen on people knowing about………..But having filled in some paperwork they said thank you and rode off.

The Panther just about started, coughing into life at the fifth kick. Her engine had been sounding increasingly awful since the bashing she got on the road to La Hap two days ago, and I had a nasty inkling she was in need of major surgery. I’d given her the basic once over yesterday – oil change, new spark plug, tyres pumped, brakes tightened, air-filter changed – but I feared her problem was way beyond the realms of my infant mechanical know-how.

After breakfast – pho and egg whipped up by a one-eyed cook – the Panther entirely refused to start. Numerous attempts at her kickstart produced no more than a loud pop, then ominous silence. I’d done the impossible, I’d killed my C90 – I couldn’t believe it.  I dialled Cuong’s number, and asked his expert advice. ‘It sounds like the cam chain. You’ll never find a decent mechanic in Kaleum, get the bike on a truck to Sekong – and find a Vietnamese mechanic there’. Digby called back a few minutes later, ‘Look, if the worst comes to the worst we can always send you a new engine. There are worse places to be holed up for a few days than Sekong’. I really hoped it wouldn’t come to that. I wasn’t worried though, in a weird masochistic sort of way I felt quite excited. Seemingly disastrous situations like this often lead to memorable incidents – an adventure isn’t really an adventure unless things go wrong after all. Whatever became of us, no doubt it would be interesting.

Just as I was pondering our future, watched by the one-eyed cook and the transvestite from the hotel, a man walked up to me and said in faltering English. ‘You need mechanic? I’m Vietnam. There’s good Vietnam mechanic just up the road.’ What incredible luck. I wheeled Panther 100 metres up the road to a tin and wood shack, where a sinewy, tattooed young man was crouching down, taking apart an engine.  With a bit of sign language we established what the problem was, and he set to work on Panther. Cuong was right, the cam chain was broken, as was the cam sprocket. No wonder the poor bike had been sounding like a tractor since La Hap.

Things weren't looking good at this stage...
Things weren’t looking good at this stage…

By this point it was 9 am, and next door to the mechanic’s hut a major party was going on. 15 men and women sat around a wooden table, the floor around them piled with discarded bottles of Beer Lao. Loud Lao pop crackled out of blown speakers, and several of the women danced, while others sat and smoked large bamboo bongs. Not your usual Monday morning scene.

I stood and watched the mechanic work, his long thin legs folded under him as he peered at the engine. At the back of the hut, his young wife chopped up a hunk of fish on a grimy chopping board. A woman wandered by with a bamboo bong, handing it to me as she passed. I took a deep inhalation then handed it back  and she walked on, as if handing her bong to a ‘farang’ was entirely normal procedure. Intermittently, I was joined by other spectators, with nothing better to do on a Monday morning than watch a pink moped being fixed. One of the temporary observers was a Vietnamese engineer who spoke basic English. ‘Are you here on a picnic?’ he asked, ‘you know, tourism’. Well, I guess you could call it that…

By 11 am  the mechanic was putting the engine back together. He tried the kickstart. Nothing. Not a whisper. Damn it. He unscrewed the other side of the engine, taking off the cylinder head and removing the piston and piston valves. It seemed the broken cam chain had, in technical terms, really screwed up the whole engine. I resigned myself to not going anywhere today and wandered off to get some cool drinks for the mechanics.  The party in the hut next door let out a holler as I walked past, excitedly waving me in. By now the pile of empty Beer Lao bottles was a foot deep in places, and the two dancing women were barely able to stand. They grabbed me, cross-eyed with inebriation, and thrust a warm glass of beer into my hand. Well, just one, I thought, and drunk some – to cheers from the assembled revellers. One of the women, the drunkest one, started grabbing me rather too enthusiastically, gyrating against me, wooping. More cheers. What the hell was it with this town? First a transvestite, now drunken female advances. I drank the beer and retreated to the sanity of the mechanics.

Bamboo bongs galore in Kaleum
Bamboo bongs galore in Kaleum

Oddly, every time I wandered off from the mechanics, the younger of the policeman appeared out of nowhere, smiling innocently. I had a feeling he’d been tasked with keeping an eye on the foreigner, although if that was the case, he really needs to practise his subtle stalking skills.

At around 1 pm, just as the mechanic was putting the engine back together for the second time, a peal of thunder rolled around the hills and Kaleum was engulfed in a violent downpour. Everyone vanished indoors, except for three tiny, naked children who hurled themselves with gusto into the newly formed puddles. A woman castigated them from her shop, the children merrily ignoring her.

Then – Hoorah! This time the Panther started. And not only that, but she sounded like her old, purring self. Not a hint of a rattle or splutter. I said thank you at least ten times, paid the lovely mechanic 200,000 kip (about £17) and rode off, delighted.

It’s too late to ride anywhere today so sadly I am going to finish this and go and check myself back into Room 101. I can hardly contain my excitement at seeing my friend the dead gecko again. Tomorrow I’m going to head for Sekong to hunt down a hotel with proper plumbing, laundry and wi-fi. If I succeed, I’ll upload some photos to the last two blogs.

For now – adios.

The fabulous mechanics
The fabulous mechanics