A Monk, A Motorbike Crash & A Mad Mission To Deliver School Books – Adventures In Laos 2010

Phosit’s school and its soccer pitch, near Vang Vieng.

The following is based on an email I sent to family and friends nearly five years ago in June of 2010. It details how a motorbike crash in Laos became a defining moment in several months of backpacking throughout South East Asia. And beware of fake signs leading to non-existent caves!

Hi everyone,

I thought it was high time I updated you on what’s going on here in South East Asia. At the end of my two-week Intrepid tour from Hanoi in Vietnam through Laos and finishing in Chiang Mai in Thailand, I decided to go back to Laos.

This was for several reasons, one being that I wanted to meet up with my friend Rosey from England in Luang Prabang, another that Luang Prabang is quite possibly the most beautiful town or city I’ve seen in Asia. Then there’s the fact I’m meeting another friend in Hong Kong on Thursday and needed to fill in some time and didn’t need any arm-twisting to explore Laos a bit more. And then there’s this other big reason which is probably best described as an odd, mildly epic mission to deliver some school books to a village.

It was this last reason that has really elevated my trip beyond just the fun adventures of what it had previously been. Me and a couple of guys had met a man in a village about a half-hour bike ride across a river on dirt roads from the town of Vang Vieng. We were searching for some caves called the Phoukham Caves which are famous for the so-called Blue Lagoon that’s great for swimming at the foot of the caves. Only problem is that in true South East Asian con-artist fashion, there are about half a dozen fake signs leading to boring caves with little to no water! And of course, you have to pay to go past a certain checkpoint. And the roads are so muddy that your bike stops working and you have to carry it. And it’s 35 degrees!

Phosit with a shirtless book deliverer.

So after searching for hours for the real Phoukham Caves we were back on the main road and seriously exhausted and dehydrated. Then like an oasis in the desert we found this little cafe run by a Thai man in his early 60s and his Lao girlfriend who looked about 40. He fed us and then pointed us in the right direction of the caves, warning which of several further signs were lies. Hilarious really. True to his word, the cafe owner’s instructions got us to the caves and the genuinely gorgeous Blue Lagoon.After exploring the caves and having a swim we went back to the cafe to offer our thanks and have another mango ice-shake (amazing mango ice-shakes in Laos, it must be said).

On the return visit we got the cafe owner’s name which was Phosit and I wish I could remember his lovely girlfriend’s name too. He had great English (as well as French and Italian and a bit of Dutch) having lived all over Europe for 29 years. He’d come back to Thailand about 10 years ago, became a monk for four years and then settled in Laos because he found it so peaceful and beautiful. All those years living in Europe have westernised him to the point of not marrying his girlfriend who I got the feeling is perhaps a widow. They also operate a small farm next to their cafe.

Having been conned several times in the past nine weeks I was watchful for any warning signs but could tell Phosit was the real deal and wasn’t after our money. In fact, it was us who wanted to chat to him and we soon learned about not only his farm, but the school that he also runs. As the most qualified person in the village, Phosit is the head teacher of the local school that I’ve since visited. The families are so poor that the kids have to help their parents all day long and school is just one hour, from 4pm-5pm for half the students and 5pm-6pm the other half.

With Phosit’s girlfriend.

Phosit relies on volunteer teachers from mainly Canada and England to help him and if he ever has volunteers who don’t speak English as a first language he insists that they teach the kids some French or German or whatever it may be. I asked him what he needed more than anything and he said blank exercise books because he makes the students write down everything and plain books are what they motor through. And despite Vang Vieng’s recent popularity as a tourist destination, there is still nowhere in town you can buy decent exercise books.

It was late afternoon when we were talking to him and we were leaving on a bus for Luang Prabang early the next morning. There was no way we could help out other than to eat at his cafe or donate money. And yet Phosit wasn’t asking for cash.

Bidding farewell, we took his address, wished him well and thought that might be that. After several days by which time we’d bussed north to Luang Prabang and caught an overnight boat along the Mekong River to the Thai border, a plan to return to Laos solidified. It became clear to me it wouldn’t be too hard at all to come back to Vang Vieng with some books after reaching the tour’s end in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My fellow Intrepid travellers (who I was splitting with) thought this was a great idea too and generously donated money. The plan was to fly from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, catch up with Rosey for several days, buy the books and then head down to Vang Vieng, about a seven hour bus ride away.

Only problem was that in Luang Prabang I couldn’t find anywhere that sold blank books.

Vang Vieng’s natural beauty is astounding.

And then I was hit by a motorbike.

Don’t worry I am totally fine, though very, very lucky. I was riding a bicycle and went to turn left at an intersection without really looking and a motorbike crashed into my front wheel at about 40ks an hour. I went flying, landing hard on my backside. When I looked up a Lao girl and her bike were lying flat. Fearing that she was really hurt I must confess my shame in that my mind also flashed with the fears of the years of medical bills I could be paying her.

I helped her up, picked up her motorbike and we moved to the side of the road where a small crowd gathered, including a man concerned I was going to do a runner. Thank God all that was wrong with her was a graze to her foot and a bruised leg. As for me, I lost some skin on my left elbow but it was so minor nobody could believe I’d been hit by a motorbike. It was only hours later when the shock faded I realised I was fractionally more hurt than initially thought.

Magically, a motorbike repair shop was literally across the street. As in, literally across the street from the intersection of the accident. Making what could well have been a massive mistake, I took full responsibility for the crash. I knew it was my fault, but somehow this girl, despite being shaken up, wasn’t remotely angry and even more to her credit, was patently worried about me.

A rickety bridge in Vang Vieng.

She then asked if it was alright if she rang her friend to come and help us out because the friend had better English than her. I said sure, and five minutes later an American lady arrived. She was teaching at a school that must’ve been just around the corner and was fluent in Lao.

As the slightly beat-up motorbike was getting fixed the American lady asked if I wouldn’t mind paying for half of the repairs. Of course I agreed, though insisting I pay for all of it without hearing the price. But again I was shamefully nervous – horror stories told me this could be thousands of dollars couldn’t it?

Only it wasn’t. The American told me a figure that was going to work out to be about NZ $14 for the full repair. What!? My quick currency conversion wasn’t wrong. Hearing how cheap it would be to fix the motorbike I again insisted I pay it all, knowing that was the right call regardless of the price. There was no question the crash had been my fault and every likelihood that even a financially anemic backpacking westerner would still have access to more funds than a middle-class local.

Then started a mutual praise-a-thon of us telling each other how lovely we were. They were so relieved  I was a nice guy and in turn I was so relieved that the girl I hit was nice and so too her friend. I was also deeply sorry and embarrassed to have been in an accident knowing full well how many westerners crash motorbikes in Asia. Which was why I was on a bicycle! Never-the-less, I still get confused at intersections when driving / riding on the other-side of the road.

Some of the fake signs we encountered.

So, long, long story short, the next key part of this twist of fate is that from the American teacher I was given clear instructions on where to buy blank school books, something no-one in Luang Prabang had been able to tell me. Unbelievable.

Directions to the bookshop written down, the next turn was realising I’d been in pretty major shock because, one, my tail bone all of a sudden started to ache and two, after aimlessly riding around for another hour I suddenly noticed my bicycle was bent out of shape and in major need of a fixit job itself. Locals then pointed me towards another bike shop that took 90 minutes to bang it back into shape and charged me just NZ $6.

Feeling very thankful but equally flummoxed by everything, I went and lay by a pool the rest of the afternoon. At the pool I met some lovely English tourists who decided my yarns would be better over beers at a ridiculously amazing bar / restaurant / garden / live music venue / beach volleyball pit (yes, all of those things) I’d found the day before called Utopia. What a day.

Ultimately I did a couple of trips to the bookstore and when reaching the maximum I could possibly travel with I donated the rest of the money my fellow travellers had given to a UN sponsored landmine-clearance organisation. After a few glorious days in Luang Prabang I took a bus to Vang Vieng and yesterday made two bicycle trips with my backpack fully loaded out to see a very gracious Phosit. As he said goodbye he looked me in the eye and said, “God will bless you.” And so I tried to tell him how fun the whole Laos adventure had been, which it had. Humbled, I thanked Phosit the monk, school teacher and restauranteur, knowing he’d given far more to me than I had to him.

So that is the update. Hope you’re all well, lots of love,

Vang Vieng

The school bell at Phosit’s school, outside Vang Vieng.


Inside a classroom at Phosit’s school.
The peak of Mt Phusi in Luang Prabang.


My great friend Rosey the English diplomat in the Luang Prabang bar Utopia.


The French colonial architecture of Luang Prabang.


Vintage cars in an historic city.


Musical therapy the night after the bike crash, Utopia bar, Luang Prabang.


Luang Prabang street scene.


Monks swimming in the Kuang Si Waterfalls, near Luang Prabang.


Sunset over a dry Mekong River, Vientiane.


A riverside bar, Vientiane.


35 degree heat and some serious natural beauty, outside of Vang Vieng.


I like to think this photo wasn’t posed…


The actual Blue Lagoon, near Vang Vieng.


More blue than this in real life and very cooling after the bike ride and the fake signs / wrong turns.


The jagged, jungled peaks on the road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng.

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