Flying down Khouvieng Boulevard I passed parked Tuk Tuks whose drivers we would never again have to turn down for rides. I passed the morning market and the pet store, swerved around pedestrians as the motorbikes swerved around me. What had been a 20 minute walk turned into a 7 minute bike ride. I’m free. I’m mobile. I feel infinite!
Laos is not an efficient place to do anything, including buy a bike. Matters were greatly complicated by the stature of my roommate, Corey. Corey and I roomed together at our Pre Departure Orientation in Washington D.C., are living together for two months in Vientiane and will be placed together in a southern province this fall when school starts. She’s my lifeline here and we’ve taken to doing most things together. She’s also 6’1” in a country where the average man is 5’7” finding a tall enough bike frame for her was an adventure.
On Sunday, I checked out a Facebook posting for 2 silver touring bikes $50 each from an English Language Fellow who was leaving soon. Two other people responded to the ad first. While I didn’t get the bikes, I did have a great chat and ended up with an amazing apartment in the building, so all was not lost.
There aren’t a lot of used bikes for sale in Vientiane and it was hard to pin point how much we should pay. It seemed like anything under $400 USD would be a reasonable price. We asked around and received vague tips like “there’s a bike shop run by a French guy, somewhere near the city center,” and “Sometimes you can rent a bike long enough they’ll sell it to you.”
Maps.Me to the rescue! This map app that works offline is a life saver and a quick search brought up a plethora of choices. We went to Seven Day Bike (Dong Palan and Dongpalantha How 9) on Tuesday. The clerk who spoke the best English told us he had 17 new bicycles. The price was in Thai Baht (not uncommon) and seemed reasonable but the frames were too small for Corey and the handle bars were super skinny and short.
We walked up to CCR Bicycle Shop (GPS 17.959673, 102.625774) which was closed Tuesday evening. Went back Wednesday evening, same. Thursday was a holiday for the women’s union and while they did have 1 bike with a 20” frame, it was over $500 and they wouldn’t budge even if we bought two bikes there.
On to a shop that only sold kids bikes, then into an alley that on the map was simply labeled Bicycle Shop (17.965646, 102.61501). The man who ran this shop had used bikes up and down the alley way, but of course no frames over 18”. I found a red bike with silver fenders that I liked. It had a built in light, cross bar bag, water bottle holder, and just needed the handle bars tightened and the right hand break lever repaired. It was $85 and I told him I wanted it. He said to come back in the afternoon around 2 and all the repairs would be done. He also mentioned a car dealership that had hundreds of used bikes for sale near a school and roundabout but couldn’t remember what it was called and couldn’t find it on the map but assured us it was walking distance. We were sure we’d never find it.
We crossed Lane Xang to Famai bicycle shop (GPS 17.966322, 102.611363) where they had two larger frames, both around $400. We used these as a bench mark and ventured further into the city center. Lao Bike (Souphanouvong and Blvd. Khounboulom) had bikes for rent but not for purchase and another place near there was closed.
Oudia Bicycle(on Thadeua Road at Thatkhao Road) was closed and when we peaked inside it was a wasteland of tires and rusted frames and tools ankle deep as far as the eye could see. Top Cycle zone (on Thatkhao Road at Thadeua Road) was closed and manned exclusively by a cat who refused to open the door, but they appeared to have a nice selection. At any rate one could see the floor.
On our way back to the alley man and Famai, we happened upon the roundabout with a school and a car dealership. We went into the Nissan and Lexus dealer, taking off our shoes at the door to inquire about bikes. The woman at the desk said, “Used bikes? We have.” We followed her to the back where a man on a cot was receiving a massage next to two broken bikes. “Sorry,” she said, “All finished, no more.”
Back at the bike alley, a group of three children and one repair man were looking at the red bike with silver fenders but no work had been done on it. The owner said the part for the break handle was hard to find and that I should come back tomorrow at 2p.m. for a “New bike, same price.” This seemed suspicious. I mulled it over on the way back to Famai.
Famai bicycle shop is owned by a husband and wife team from Vientiane. They had two “big bikes” and Corey chose a black Trekk. While the husband filled the tires and adjusted the seat and handlebars, I tried out a white Coyote, just to see. It was like night and day compared to the red used bike from the alley. So smooth, such effective brakes, so sleek, so new. I was in love. Between the two of us we counted out over 4 million Lao Kip. Using a lot of hand gestures and a giant calculator to help in the translation. I’ve never had so many bills in my wallet before. In a cash economy, credit card machines are a rare luxury. We road home effortlessly on our new purchases, locked them in the parking garage of our building and planned our first long ride for Saturday.