Rattled by a Prabang prang

An eventful tuk-tuk journey in Laos has David Wilson riding his emotions.

No sudden screeching. I see the crash coming a long way off from the back of my tuk-tuk: a sheet-metal "three-wheel" auto-rickshaw stinking of petrol.

We have only just burst free from the congestion bedevilling the Laos temple city of Luang Prabang and begun our journey along the sleepy road that scythes through the paddy fields, towards the Mekong.

Now I am braced for the apparently inevitable, agonisingly slow and faintly absurd collision, which - hang on - could yet be averted. All the 50-something moped driver with the slicked-back hair must do is swivel his head, hit his dusty Honda's brakes. Or swerve.

He keeps edging out. Maybe he is exhausted from hacking scrub with a billhook. Or maybe he has smoked too much of something he shouldn't have. Or maybe he just has bad karma.

My cabbie has his foot glued to the floor. Tuk-tuk drivers take a gung-ho Wild West tack and just expect traffic to get out of the way, which it normally does.

As we bear down on the motorcycle, I can hear myself emitting a moan partly meant to serve as a warning but also an expression of dread and guilt. Aboard the moped behind the older male driver are his wife, cradling a baby, and a girl who looks about eight.

Crunch! An almighty shudder rattles our rickshaw.

We ricochet on down the road before slithering to a stop. Spun towards the verge on the opposite side of the road, the moped we hit strikes the ground with a smack.

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A cavernous silence. The victims rise shakily, unharmed it appears, although the back wheel of their moped has buckled.

My driver exchanges a few tentative words with the victims before drawing his mobile. Within 20 minutes, a dapper Laos army captain rolls up on his moped. He peers into the eyes of the little girl, checking to see whether she has lost the plot. She stares steadily back.

The captain questions the old man and the tuk-tuk driver, who becomes less and less bullish the more the debate rumbles on. Once, the captain breaks off to chuck the little girl on the cheek, raising huge smiles all round. Then he turns back to our driver and finally barks a few peremptory sentences.

Our driver reaches sheepishly into his wallet and extracts the Lao Kip equivalent of about 20 dollars - a fat sum out here. The peasant nods sternly and pockets the money.

End of story. How superb to have dealt with the accident as much as seems possible within an hour. No paperwork, minimal finger-pointing.

That thought takes some of the sting from the crash as we climb back into the tuk-tuk. My driver has not entirely lost his swagger.

He is even faintly jocular but propels our glorified go-kart a touch more slowly. Quite a concession.

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