Been in Vientiane for a week now. And had three days in Bangkok before that. In one apt word: waw (as detailed in my other blog, laoconfidential.wordpress.com).
The biking scene in the Thai capital surprised me, I have to say: a LOT of scooters and semi-automatic two-wheelers. As in a LOT. Anything between 125cc and 250cc.
I heard/saw two Harleys, walked past a parked Ducati Hypermotard Corse, and glimpsed a battered Hornet, and that’s about all in the class above. Given some of the posh cars that drive along, I was really expecting more on the biking front. You live and learn don’t ya.
What I saw there gave me a good indication of what Vientiane would offer. And on that one I wasn’t mistaken. The choice is between plasticky automatic scooters and shabby-looking ‘manuals’, meaning a strange Asian mix of a pedal for going up the gears with the toes and another for downshifting with the heel but NO clutch.
Lots of roadside ‘garages’: dusty and rusty building fronts where someone sticks a spanner in the fairing under the guise of a parasol.
Quite a few dealers as well, either ‘official’ or not. How do you differentiate? Take a coin out of your pocket and toss it.
Given that my Ténéré is 3 months away, I knew from the start I’d get a cheap something in the meantime. Especially since I don’t fancy spending even 60,000 kip (or 5 pounds) a day for a properly dreadful Kolao scooter with no rear suspension, no lights, an engine that either stalls or is stuck above 3,000 rpm, no mirrors and working clocks of any kind. I do really hate to be ripped off.
Question is, which? As in which brand and which kind should I go for.
I did my market study. But eventually, in my case at least, it’s often the human element that counts. The human adventure. The personal contact.
So last week I stopped at one of these building fronts with a colourful array of two-wheelers parked. The brand is, apparently, ‘Demak’. News to me. I knew Lifan, Kolao, and of course all the Japanese brands, but Demak?
Anyway I stop and there and then, on this dusty old busy road, sandwiched between a clandestine petrol station and a sorry flat, after spending the day trying to decipher what each and every would-be seller was telling me, I meet Wei Ling.
Wei Ling is a lovely woman, smiling, helpful, funny, with brilliant English. Surprising, yet unsurprising when you know she’s from Singapore. She got her first job in Vientiane 20 years ago, loved the place as it reminded her of the Singapore of old, in the 60s, a quiet backwater where life’s sweet, slow, and serene. It’s changing. Still, her and I agree that there’s few capital cities as chilled as Vientiane, even now.
So she stayed. Married a local. Worked for Honda. Then a year or two ago quit and opened this Demak dealership. Didn’t have a coin, so can’t tell you if it’s an official one, but in a country like Laos, official doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning as in the UK, where things are pretty black and white. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand about communist dictatorships and other third world countries.
Demak, she tells me, is a Malaysian manufacturer. They’ve got quite a cool ‘Combat’ model, a sort of plastic-covered Minsk-like bike. 150cc, with cruiser-like passenger footrests, big engine guards, a weird look in between a bloated fish and a green bin bag.
A few days later, I try it. It moves forward, and the clutch feels like it’s going to break any minute. And the brakes are very lazy. All in all, it makes the Ten look like the most brilliant bike ever. But it does the job, and anyway anything resembling, even vaguely, the quality of the Ten is 250cc Ninjas, which are about 8000 dollars and for which I don’t see much point in a city where only the main streets are tarmac-ed.
Then I jump on the Demak 150cc supermoto. Actually, I quite like it. Not breaking news since I’m a supermoto fan, but it’s got a lot more punch than the Combat, and sounds pretty okay, considering.
The exhaust note is, in passing, something else where my Ten will be so far ahead of all of the bikes here! Oh man. It’ll be both embarrassing and orgasmic.
In the end, the supermoto is useless as I want to take Alex on the back and the seat is tiny.
Today I went back. I thought I was going to sign for the Combat. But hope and reason prevailed. Reason because the automatic scooter I’m collecting tomorrow is cheaper than the Combat, and will sell easily. And hope because the plan is to get Alex to ride. The Combat would have been useless for that with its weird and ultimately confused and annoying hesitation between auto and manual.
Alex has never ridden a motorbike. Doesn’t have a driving licence either. Traffic scares her. But she took control of that battered Kolao I mentioned for about an hour on Sunday, riding it on country roads with barely any traffic. And she did well.
I also am convinced that it would come in SO handy for her. It’d give her massive freedom and independence, which also means we could get a house a bit further from the centre than without an engine.
My take on biking is it’s empowering. Do it at your own pace, it doesn’t matter, but be free as the river innit.
At any rate, it’ll carry me around until the Ten arrives. If after that Alex can’t be asked and really is reluctant, then I can sell it on, or even keep it as a spare in the event of something going wrong with the Ten. At 1,150 pounds, it’s not like I’m selling a lung.