I’ve never been a fan of flying.
The crying baby two rows in front. The middle-aged dude snoring like a freight train on your left. The lady who believes she has chief rights to your armrest. But no matter how bad it gets, you know it will eventually be over and you’ll step off the plane in a new part of the world. It’s this anticipation of the unknown that makes even the most unbearable on-board experiences fly by, excuse the pun.
My month-long motorcycle trip through the South East Asian country of Laos – so long anticipated – was finally beginning. We’d not really planned a thing, my comrade Junior and I. Just a crumpled map with start and finish marks; our simple formula for adventure as we set forth for tropically monsoonal lands.
Laos history traces back to the kingdom of Lan Xang, founded in the 14th century, by a Lao warlord, Fa Ngum, and his descendants remained on the throne for almost 600 years. Before becoming independent in December 1975, the territory had a litany of rulers: the Burmese and Siamese, the French (whom took it upon themselves to name the country, the plural of the ethnic group), and even the Japanese.
I had read that Laos was regarded as the forgotten country of South East Asia, often sliding under the radar of many travelers to the region. In 1998 the Government even went as far as promoting “Visit Laos Year”. Yet despite their best efforts, monks still outnumbered tourists throughout the country. Today is a different story however, with Laos holding a cult-like status among modern day explorers.
Flying in over this land-locked country (nestled between Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam with China and Myanmar to the north) I look down upon a thickly forested landscape breached by rugged mountain peaks.
Traveling in the “off season” is rife with positives and negatives in general. Riding motorcycles through Asia in the wet season particularly is full of ups and downs. Ups: it’s quieter, usually cheaper in the cities, and cooler. Downs: it’s wet. Really wet. Not to mention the fact that the local shop we were meant to be collecting our motorcycles from had shut up shop for the rainy season. Seems that exploration by two wheels in the wet season was by no means a regular occurrence here. But word spreads quickly in the small town, and soon enough we had our transport and were set to hit the road.
The devilish, wet conditions we encountered for the first two days would eventually open, as the sun began beaming down. We welcomed her graciously to warm our backs and dry us out. With the township behind us, we were riding through dense forest with remote villages and idyllic waterfalls scattered upon the landscape and onto huge plateaus, contrasted by mountains jutting skyward.
The beauty of riding motorcycles is that they allow you to truly enjoy the best and the worst of these conditions in an intimate manner. It also allows total freedom; you’re no longer a slave to the extremely relaxed Laos public bus system. With two wheeled hogs - you go where you want, when you want.
Meeting the Locals
We’d been on the road all morning and it was smooth sailing so far. However wet roads, hunger and not being wary enough of local wildlife movements would soon see me and my wheels come to a halt.
Cows grazing roadside were suddenly panicked onto the road. With little time to react, Junior stabbed his horn in an attempt to startle them off our path. Not being the most intelligent of animals, the largest of the herd decided it would head directly into my line of riding. Slamming on the brakes to avoid running up the anus of the lumbering creature, my back wheels slid out laying me sideways on the road and the rest became a blur. Scraping myself off the road, I was able to move all my limbs to my absolute relief. Nothing broken. However, I was missing a few chunks of skin; the claret was running freely and my left ankle resembled a mutilated puffer fish. A pretty good result, considering I almost wound up colliding with a 200kg walking steak.
Another 50km to the nearest hospital made for uncomfortable riding for the remainder of the day, but things could always be worse. Did I say hospital? I meant dingy, cat-infested hut from which we could purchase the most basic medical supplies.
The Hillside Rescue
We were riding north on our two-wheeled hounds and seven days had passed. The more rural we rode, the more primitive the road became. Asphalt gave way to dirt roads, some sections resembling a muddy swimming hole more than a means of safe passage. At the worst of times sections of the road up to 500m long were inundated by thigh-deep water, which had run down from the mountains. This was a clear indicator of why the locals at the bike shop had warned us off riding in the wet season. Local farmers would emerge from their now waterfront homes with a look of intrigue. How are these two unknown outsiders possibly going to navigate this quandary? We quickly realized that this stretch of our path was impassable. Hope was fading, the grim thought of having to back track a full day’s riding starting to kick in. It was then that a tractor emerged, driven by a smiling, local gentleman. He hooked us up to a make-shift timber trailer, offering us salvation. For a small fee, he and his buddies were willing to tow our bikes across the submerged section of thoroughfare. Disaster averted. However, this would not be the last time we relied on the locals’ generosity.
Jungle Book Day
Riding could be slow; especially now, post cow incident. The paranoia of local wildlife darting into our path resulted in a much more sluggish pace. The past days had been filled with new landscapes at every turn: mist-shrouded mountain peaks flanked by jungle-clad valleys and endless fields of rice paddies. There was exploration of bottomless caves, sleeping in small jungle bungalows, calling local villages home and occasionally dabbling in the native remedies with the locals. Any element of tourism was still very primitive and raw – almost non-existent. On one occasion, guided by half a dozen Mowglis no older than 10, we trekked through rainforest until we were privy to front row seats of mother nature’s brute force at the base of an epic 70m plus waterfall. This was their backyard, and they were happy to share it with some strangers of the land. It felt like we had stumbled across our own slice of nirvana. (Note: this could also have been due to the lasting effects of the “happy shakes” the evening before).
It’s been a rough few decades for the Laos people. In fact, this is a considerable understatement. The country was dragged into the Vietnam War, allowing the use of its land as a supply route. This alliance with North Vietnam allies led the United States to dump an alleged 1.9 million metric tons of bombs on Laos (this is approximately a staggering 280 million bombs), mostly in the northeast stronghold. For comparison’s sake, 2.2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Europe – in total, by ALL sides – in World War II. This makes Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. In light of this, one of things that amazed me the most was the gentle nature of the local people. With this ruinous past it would be easy to be jaded toward the outside world, yet the outward sincerity and kindheartedness I experienced was astounding.
The reason we travel is to see new parts of the world and experience the lifestyle others live. The locals here are truly the coolest people I have ever encountered on my travels: exceptionally friendly, so relaxed, and genuinely happy. It’s a strange thing what exploration of the unfamiliar does for your mind. All experiences, good and bad, create a subconscious education of the world that brings a simple and refreshing stoke.