Still undecided, I walked to the river, where local tuktuk drivers relaxed and waited for customers. "Two thousand baht," one of them said, when I asked how much to go to Huen Hin, the Stone House, the ruins of a rest house that dated back to the turn of the twelfth century, "It's fifty kilometers away."
Sixty dollars seemed a stiff price for a roundtrip of a little more than sixty miles, and the man's attitude was off-putting.
"Not today," I decided and went back to the Sala Savanh.
"How much would it be for a tuktuk to Huen Hin?" I asked the boy who had served me breakfast. He agreed that two thousand baht was exorbitant and made a phone call. "Is a motorcycle okay?" he asked, "One thousand baht."
I shrugged. I had resolved to avoid long-distance motorcycle travel after being almost immobilized for a week after a jaunt from Paxse to Champasak when I was a couple of years younger, but it was a beautiful day and "All right," I agreed.
Soon a motorcycle pulled up, driven by a man who smelled like six months worth of stale cigarette smoke. His smile revealed a scanty collection of teeth and he moved with the stiffness of an arthritis sufferer. He's old so he'll be cautious, I told myself and perched behind him, trying not to feel apprehensive.
His wife had no such qualms about revealing her doubts about our proposed journey when we stopped at the driver's house to pick up motorcycle helmets. Her harangue was echoed by her daughter, but the old man ignored them both. Handing me a helmet, he jerked his head toward the motorcycle and off we went.
But not very far--after a few kilometers, his phone rang and at the end of the call he turned to me and said "I have to go back, okay?" I thought he had forgotten some crucial requirement for our journey, but when we arrived back at his house, his wife led us to their garage and a huge farm truck that was easily of the same vintage as her husband. "This is better; go in the truck," she ordered. The old man moved toward the driver's side, looking as though he might burst into tears.
Back at the riverbank, I was now fully determined to go to Huen Hin, and was equally determined to pay no more than the fifteen hundred baht that Miss Darling at Lin's Cafe had just told me was a fair price for a tuktuk. None of the drivers who surrounded me seemed to agree with her so I resorted to passive-aggressive bargaining. "It's okay. I don't want to go today--maybe next time," and I turned to walk away.
"Okay, okay--fifteen hundred baht," the tuktuk spokesman agreed and called to a knot of drivers who were watching from across the road. One of them sauntered toward us, a man wearing clean but ripped Levis who looked a lot like an older version of Tony Leung. Nodding in agreement, he led me to his vehicle.
"Five hundred baht," he said when we pulled into a gas station and I watched him hand one-third of his prospective earnings to the attendant. After a quick stop at a house where he filled a plastic bottle with water from a tap, our journey began.
Soon we were on a road where the recent rain had battered deep potholes into the coarse gravel that had been strewn over red dirt. I could smell wood-smoke, sun-heated earth, the sweet, clean smell of grass and leaves, and as we passed an occasional farmhouse, the unmistakable odor of fresh manure. Once in a while, a sharp jolt of citrus hit my nostrils and I tried unsuccessfully to find its source as we bounced away from the scent.
People wearing ski-masks and shorts planted rice seedlings in paddies that escaped the precision of their counterparts in Thailand, taking on the outlines of trapezoids, rhombuses and shapes I'd not encountered in elementary geometry. As a breeze rippled the sun-dappled water, the rice shoots looked as though they were dancing in the heat--or perhaps it was our tuktuk that was dancing, manically jouncing past small craters in the road and over little bridges that provided painful bumps as we began and finished each crossing.
This road was very familiar to me. I had spent my earliest childhood hating to ride in the family Jeep because traveling in 1950s Alaska meant journeys as bone-rattling as this one was turning out to be. I clutched the side of the tuktuk with white-knuckled hands to keep from falling to the floor and the driver's body was in constant motion as he tried to avoid the holes that peppered the track that we followed. The tuktuk lurched and bounded over every inch that its tires hit; it rattled ominously and I wondered how it and we would weather the return trip. Fifty kilometers on paved roads and fifty kilometers on what I was positive was a portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail were completely unrelated in any way. I began to remember childhood trips of seventeen miles and back that took all day, and the time my father drove into a pothole that proved to be a ravine.
We stopped at a little roadside shop and the driver said, "No, stay here," when I got up to join him as he walked over to it. He returned with two bottles of cold water and handed one to me; I held it in my aching hands as he rotated his shoulders and cracked his neck.
"Are you okay?" he asked and I replied, "Yes, but is the tuktuk?'
"We'll go back to Savannakhet on another road," he told me and I felt a surge of relief until he resumed our odyssey and we passed a roadside sign. We had traveled a little over ten kilometers and had thirty-nine more spine-crushing ones to go.