Interesting times on the road to Phongsali

In mid February, on the road from Boun Neua to Phongsali I was the target of a violent theft attempt, which, luckily for me, didn’t work out well for the thieves.

Let me preface the following by saying that having reported the attempt to the hotel owner, the Phongsali Tourist Office and the Tourist Police here in Phongsali all three have said categorically that this is the first time they have ever — EVER — heard of something like this happening. So I want to make clear that the following is intended not to scare people off coming to Phongsali — it’s great — but more as a warning — especially to travellers on bikes or motorbikes that are travelling solo.

Scenery near new road to Samphanh

I left Boun Tai in the morning at around 06:30, arriving in Boun Neau some two hours later. Once there I stopped for breakfast (pho and a diabolical Nescafe and sweetmilk concoction) and unfroze my arms for about 30 minutes. I was at the cafe opposite the bus station and sat in the sun (in an attempt to dry my wet/frozen feet). I believe the thieves spotted me here and ascertained I was travelling alone.

I tend to ride slowish and a few kilometres out of Boun Neau I noticed a bike that was hovering a distance behind me — odd because locals tend to overtake me as I stop to take pics etc, but this bike came and went, but never passed me. I noticed it, but didn’t give it much thought. When I reached the viewpoint I stopped and climbed the stairs up to the sala thing and back down. This is when they must have passed me (though I didn’t see them).

Scenery near Boun Tai

I got going again, and a few kilometres onwards rounded a corner to see a black bike stopped and positioned partially across the road with a single male on the far side of the bike. I slowed a little and he waved, yelling “stop stop” (that he was yelling in English should have tipped me off, but it didn’t), so I pulled up right beside his bike, but (very luckily) didn’t turn off the engine. As I turned and took off my helmet to ask what the problem was I spied the other guy (no idea where he was hiding) running at me with both hands firmly gripped around the barrel of one of those stockless AK-47s that you see all over Laos.

It was very very clear to me at the time that he was intended to bash me on the back/head with the stock of the gun. I swung with my left arm, which held the helmet and knocked the gun out of his hands. I then turned, and kicked their bike as hard as I could, knocking it over (and almost myself in the opposite direction) and forcing the other guy to jump back, I then gunned my humble Suzuki, tossing the helmet in the basket and sped around the crashed bike and escaped. The entire event was over in about five seconds — though it took about five minutes for my hands to stop shaking.

I rode as fast as I could, almost dropping the bike a couple of times till I reached the next village where I slowed right down, and coasted through — if they were chasing me, I preferred they did so in a village. I never saw them again.

It is my firm belief that these loons, whoever they were, were not out to politely relieve me of some cash, they were out to disable me in a very remote area, clear me out and take my bike — leaving me for dead.

Those that know me know I’m tall but certainly not the fittest dude on the block — Fight Club material I am not! The whole thing happened so fast I can’t really explain how I did what I did. I think, crucially, I didn’t turn my bike engine off, and equally I took my helmet off — if I hadn’t there is no way I would have seen this other guy coming at me.

Mist filled valley on road to Hat Sa

So what to take out of this. I’d say if you’re a single traveller on bike or bicycle, treat any kind of “broken bike” scenario you happen to come across with extreme caution. Don’t turn your bike off. Phongsali is a beautiful province to ride in — very challenging, but beautiful and I’d definitely do it again — BUT I wouldn’t ride it alone. Motorcycles can now be rented in Phongsali, so there is no real need to ride here — unless you want to. Oh, and make sure you have travel insurance ;-)

I’d also like to note that the Tourist Police and Tourist Office here have been outstanding in their assistance — and their apologies certainly were not needed. These things happen — even in Laos unfortunately.

So that’s my story. To the family and friends that read this blog, rest assured I’m fine save a nervous tick in my right eye and a small hole in my right leg — just flesh wounds as they say!

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