On the night of the super blue blood moon eclipse I walked onto the balcony of my haunted hotel, and watched clouds scuttle across its surface until I couldn’t tell what was eclipse and what was shadow.
I’d stopped at the Champasak Palace Hotel in Pakse, south Laos, because it was supposed to be haunted, and because it sat opposite a cafe that sold the best coffee I’ve had in South East Asia. As I sipped my espresso I looked up at it speculatively: a hulking mass of faded marble, colonnades and corridors, it was home to the Prince of Champasak, Chao Boun Oum, until he fled Laos in 1974 at the end of the civil war.
By the time I went to bed that night I had, to be honest, forgotten all about the ghost. I was exhausted after a difficult few days riding north from the 4,000 Islands. A couple of beautiful days of sandy tracks and remote islands, where the rice paddies touched the Mekong on both sides, had been strung together by quiet ferry crossings and bowls of noodle soup. But it culminated in a difficult night when I rolled into the supposedly languid backpacker town of Champasak at the end of a long day.
Yorkshire super-cyclists Ian and Kirsty, by now a couple of days ahead, had warned me that a festival was making accomodation along our route hard to find. And they were right: by the time I reached Champasak every single guesthouse was full. Worse, I was low on cash and the town’s two ATMs had broken, so I didn’t even have the bailout option of paying a tuk tuk to take me on to Pakse, the next major city. I tried the patience of the monks at the local Wat, but was turned away. In the end I paid a motel owner the price of a half-decent room to camp in his garden.
So on the following evening I was tired out by my usual bedtime of 1am, and had just switched off the bedside lamp when the elevator outside my bedroom door rang as if summoned to the floor. I listened as the doors groaned open: and no one walked in or out. The sleepiness that had just started to draw in scuttled away and I felt suddenly edgy when, a few minutes later, the same thing happened. And then a few minutes later, the same thing happened again. The next time it happened I felt an icy coldness at the back of my throat and remembered the ghost.
At almost the same moment a loud noise – wood on wood, like something being dragged across floorboards – started from the room above me. It must, by this stage, have been close to 2am, and the noise was so loud it sounded like someone was moving a bed or a wardrobe. Thing was, I had explored the hotel earlier in the day and there was no bedroom above mine: just an empty veranda. It was hard to hear clearly over the whir of the air conditioner, so I reached for the remote to switch it off. But when I turned on the lamp to find it, the bulb flashed, once, brightly, and then blew. I lay looking up at the ceiling, lit now by the rusty glow of the moon as it emerged from its eclipse, and listened to the scraping sound coming from above me.
I slept like a log, and the following morning did what any rational person with a thermal camera built into their mobile phone would do and booked a second night in the room. At midnight – after a few solid hours watching Paranormal Activity movies with the lights off to get in the mood – I went ghost hunting. I tiptoed through the empty corridors without turning any lights on so that all was blackness for me and brilliant light for the thermal camera. It wasn’t until I reached the very top floor that I felt any unease at all. But as the lift doors opened there I felt suddenly so unsettled that I didn’t even step out: I took a quick photo and hit the button to return to my floor. And I was glad I did, because as the elevator doors closed I opened the app to view the thermal version of the picture I had just taken of the dark corridor.
The following morning I left Pakse on Highway 13, a long road that runs all the way from the border with Cambodia to Lao’s northern border with China, and within three minutes veered off dramatically into the airport to see if I could fly instead. I couldn’t, of course, at that notice; so I set my mind to the 700km of gruelling headwind, dull asphalt and speeding HGVs that lay between me and the capital, Vientiane. Among the many days of glory and adventure on a cycle tour are the occasional weeks of intense boredom, particularly if you’re following a major highway. But I’d been promised that the road became scenic soon after a pretty Mekong-side town called Thakhek, so I downloaded BBC Radio 4’s complete series of Poirot radio plays and passed the hours involuntarily exclaiming things like “THE BUTLER DID IT” to surprised Laoatians whom I cycled past during moments of plot exposition.
I had serious bike problems, too, which added a frisson of excitement. After I broke a spoke crossing from Cambodia I sent out a distress call to the international cycle touring group I’m a member of, and within hours a young French cyclist arrived at my door in Don Det with three replacements. But alas, my bicycle’s rear wheel is a confusing thing – I mount the luggage rack on a skewer through its centre – and, when trying to remove the cassette to replace the spoke, I managed to bend this hard-to-replace bar with such gusto it became impossible to remove the wheel at all. It made riding tough: the bent skewer chewed at the frame, and my brakes dragged on the wonky wheel. But it wasn’t reason to panic unless I got a puncture in the rear tyre: and not only had I only sustained two punctures in 10 months, I still had 35 intact spokes. I was cautiously optimistic, as I explained to the bewildering number of Dutch people I met riding Highway 13 in the other direction.
Of course, just after I blew past the turnoff for a biggish town called Savannakhet, the rear tyre punctured. I pushed the bike to the side of the road and tried everything I could think of to get the wheel off and reach the tube, but to no avail. As I stood there optimistically kicking it a puzzled-looking Laoatian man cycled up to me. Aha, I thought, the kindness of a stranger will help me out at a sticky moment! But I had misread the twinkle in his eye, and he lunged in to kiss me. It takes more than this to fluster a woman who has taken three Central Asian cargo boats back-to-back. “Not NOW,” I shouted, and wheeled my bike back onto the highway to thumb a lift into town.
When the team on the car show Top Gear attempt ridiculous challenges like driving to the North Pole, they are threatened with having to use a tasteless back-up car if their own can’t make it. My own tasteless back-up car was the long distance bus to Vientiane, which heaved past me once an hour as I sat on the pavement in Savannakhet and tried to mend my bike. I had an added incentive: my guesthouse was cheap, but this was likely because the toilet in my room overflowed every hour or so, bringing with it into my bedroom a wave of sewage upon which were borne high the many cigarette butts a previous resident had dropped around the room.
Eventually I extracted the inner tube with the wheel still in place, patched it and listened. Silence. I pumped a little more air into the tyre: silence. The next morning it was still inflated and, beside myself, I rode triumphantly past the bus station and onto the highway, now for me a symbol of all that was free and beautiful in the world. Whether the wind had eased or the wheel settled back into a groove I don’t know, but 100km flew by. The next day I left the motel early and started towards Thakhek and the scenic leg of my ride north.
Then, a few kilometres outside Thakhek, I got another puncture. I patched it again but no sooner had I loaded the bike than a sad hiss deposited it back on the tarmac. I went through the same process, using my last patch; this time the fix didn’t even pretend to hold. The inner tube was spent. I had a spare in my bag, but of course I couldn’t install it without removing the wheel. I tried everything, including hitting the skewer with a large brick with such force that it crumbled in my hands.
I hitched into Thakhek and to a scooter shop, where a mechanic and I, aided by a pair of pliers and an enormous mallet, extracted the wheel. While he replaced the tube, I smashed the skewer back into something that resembled a straight line. Finally, somehow, we got the wheel back on, high-fived, and the next day, as I left Thakhek, the ride finally opened up. I’d bashed the derailleur with such force that I now only had two gears, but I didn’t care: it was spectacular. I could just make out the great limestone mountains of Vietnam in the east. The wind had changed, and I had my first tailwind for a month. I flew along the smooth highway – 20km, 25km, 30km….
And then with a quiet ping, another spoke snapped. It was, as every cyclist I’d spoken to had warned might happen, the spoke next to the one that had broken in Cambodia. There was a gaping hole in my load-bearing wheel. In a rare moment of decisiveness, I turned around and rode, tentatively, to Thakhek bus station, to catch a bus the last stretch to Vientiane. Spokes and tubes I could replace; but one jumped curb now and my expensive wheel would fold like a Pringle. I watched the beautiful scenery shoot past through the window of the bus, and a few hours later, flung the bike at a competent French mechanic in Vientiane and told him to take as long as he liked. I had a long-looked-forward to date with two cyclists I’d known since Europe, Holly and Conrad, and in the meantime there was a spit-and-sawdust gym opposite my hotel. I walked in, cast a withering glance at the stationary bicycles, and spent a blissful afternoon practising my deadlift. Cycling is one thing, but you never know when your biceps and a brick will be all that lies between you and the end of the road.