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Gottschalk Thomas
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A Pomegranate Shower for New Year15.04.2008

Tags: Laos       Comments: 0

New Year in Laos! Even the Solar Taxi can't escape the watery attacks of the traditional Songkran festival - despite firmly closed doors. After water explodes in his car, Louis Palmer enjoys the breathtaking beauty of the Laotian mountains.
Buddhist New Year celebrations in Asia go on for three days. In Laos, all the young people stand armed with water pistols and buckets on the roadside wetting all comers. "Happy New Year!" they call. So when a utopian car appears, the water throwers either stand there open-mouthed or throw everything they've got at it.
I drive through the cities with my integrated doors (the heat!) and the windscreen wipers waving nonstop. All is well until a kid manages to throw his water bomb through a vent in my cockpit and a mixture of pomegranate and water explodes across my steering wheel. Little pieces of fruit stick to everything; the steering wheel, the ignition, my glasses. "Happy New Year!" It'd better bring me luck!

I could do with some extra luck here. The traffic in Laos is dangerous but this time it's my fault because I've caught myself driving on the wrong side of the road a few times. For six months we've been driving across countries where they drive on the left but in Laos they drive on their deserted roads on the right.
The toughest mountain roads of the whole trip
The Laotian capital Vientiane is on the banks of the Mekong River, South-East Asia's lifeline. Now, in the dry season, 50 million people in five countries depend on its glacial water from the Tibetan highlands. If the Himalayan glaciers keep melting as quickly as they are now, the Mekong will run dry in the dry season within two to three decades. That will be a catastrophe for the people living along its banks, who live mainly from rice cultivation. The Mekong region is one of the areas of the world most vulnerable to climate change.
Laos is poor and its most valuable export is wood. I drive for hours through primeval forest, passing clearings, and rice paddies, with the majestic, jagged silhouettes of the mountains rising around me. Butterflies bigger than the rear-view mirror play in the hot midday air and pigs, dogs and chickens rush out of my way. Wooden houses on stilts and hordes of yelling children line the roads.
This is the most demanding mountain driving of the trip so far. Laos is a mountainous country, so I cross one pass after the other, as if I were crossing the Alps from West to East. The views are stunning. Laos is another world, where not only time but all of creation seems to stand still.
Repairs with a machete
I manage the stages easily thanks to the engine brake. When I drive downhill my motor becomes a generator, transforming the braking energy into electricity, which is fed into the battery. The downhill stretch therefore provides some of the power I need for the next uphill stretch. But the rough roads really rattle the Solar Taxi's "bones" (and mine too!). The car shakes and bumps and I worry that it won't stand it for long.
And sure enough, the front battery soon gives up the ghost - the first breakdown on these bad roads. A battery cable terminal has broken off. It's not a big problem, but I haven't got any tools on board. Luckily a young local is able to rework the cable on a stone with a machete so that it can be reattached to the battery.
Late in the evening, after three more mountain passes, I reach our next destination, the world-famous city of Luang Prabang, a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site. The area's beautiful waterfalls, colourful markets, the Mekong and temple complexes make this city the most visited in the country. But unfortunately we can't stay long. They're expecting us in China the day after tomorrow.


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