Days like the delightful day of September 5th, 2010, made me realize how this small, understated country was changing the way I looked at the world. I awoke early and went off in search of a tailor to customize the Laos skirt I bought at a market. I scavenged for breakfast (and ended up finding a delicious noodle stand that served excellent iced coffee with sweet milk) and I decided to rent a motorcycle for the day. I have had plenty of experience driving motorbikes around Southeast Asia, but they have all been Automatics. Today, my only option was to drive a manual. It felt different, but I easily adapted. My faithful travel companion, James, and I rode off into the wind in search of an adventure and a waterfall. It wasn’t too hot and the rainy season was nice to us, deciding to only sprinkle instead of drenching us in a downpour.
As the sun resurfaced, we decided to take a fruit break and stretch our legs. On a side road, we found a lovely little bridge which was never finished being built. It was overlooking a serene pond, with a trickling stream, and lots of green around us. There was misty mountain tops in the distance and a bright sun illuminating the sky behind that. We sat adoring the environment around us. A little old lady and her husband pulled their motorbikes over beside ours and proceeded to walk down near the water. It looked like she was taking off her clothes, and I didn’t want to be a voyeur, but I also wasn’t quite ready to leave yet. She ended up getting in the water up to her waist in a t-shirt and rolled up pants, while searching for prawn. Her husband silently observing, smoking cigarettes.
Then a dragon fly landed on my left hand. I slid it onto the railing and examined it’s magnificent structure. This ‘spot’ we had chosen to chill at was such a beautiful setting, with the purest of nature around. It made me feel so alive and healthy. We decided to carry on with our journey, but I really wanted to keep exploring the remote back roads we were on, and continue following the good omens. It was a great decision, because what we discovered next opened my eyes forevermore.
Riding these backroads on my motorbike let me feel an immense sense of freedom. Gusts of wind caressed my skin, and twirled my hair. The tall mountains make me feel small, and the trees providing fresh, crisp air, made me feel alive. The wispy clouds floated happily, and the sun between these magnificent hills enlightened the sky with warmth and vibrant colors.
I looked to my right and viewed clusters of small villages with numerous families, each doing their part to make their small community work. They dwelled in simply constructed huts, raised high on stilts in case of floods. The shirtless brown men would play football (American soccer), while the kids would play in streams or amuse themselves with toys made of sticks. The women would be cleaning dishes, washing clothes in buckets of river water, or chopping away at bloody meat with a shiny butchers knife in hand. The chatted amongst themselves. I wish I could be a fly on that wall… The chickens were busy pecking at the ground and crowing obnoxiously, while the flea bitten dogs would sit in the middle of the road, play fighting and barking at the few passerby’s. You’d see wild pigs living along side the locals, and would often have to stop our bike to wait for the burly hogs to take their time crossing the road.
This was life made simple out here.
No high-rises to block the sun, no electricity to distract you from natures time, and very little pollutants… This city girl was in great admiration of the naturally harmonious elements providing such a relaxed atmosphere. I wished I could bottle this feeling for later use, but then realized if I had it all the time, it would no longer be a treat. The thing that made this experience exceptional for me, was every smile on the Laoatians faces. Never in my life have I felt such a sincere, warm, ‘thank you for experiencing this’ feeling from a group of people. I exchanged smiles with everyone in my path and was amazed at how these locals…poor as could be, performing back-breaking farming every day…were so happy to see me. It felt as if the young girls were looking at me in amazement. The little boys hoping they would have a new friend to play with.
This random journey into the unknown provided me with such an appreciative and enlightened heart. It made me really FEEL the dynamic of family. It made me FEEL the amiable locals hearts. It made me FEEL simplicity. And it made me ADMIRE life for what it naturally is. It was genuinely one of the most illuminating moments in my life. I rode away in the highest of spirits, feeling all the wiser.
Honestly, in the beginning, I wasn’t really looking forward to visiting Laos. After exploring the rest of South East Asia (with the exception of Indonesia, Burma & the Philippines) I though I had covered all I need to see…’How could things be that much different there?’ was my mentality… Every fellow traveller I ran into before coming to Laos seemed to be at a loss for words about how exactly to describe the place, but all said how beautiful it was and that they enjoyed it. This is a common thing to hear from everyone who has gone abroad and out of their comfort zone…”This place was AMAZING” or “Wow, that place was so beautiful.” You can read about it, hear about it, and watch it on TV or in movies, but unless you have been to that place – you will never understand the magnitude of it…You simply have to see for yourself to understand.
After driving past the village, while reflecting on what I had just seen I was awestruck. How funny this life is, and the conditions under-which we are born into. This ride was surely enjoyable. I felt like I didn’t have a care in the world … until … I crashed the motorcycle!!!
As I was driving down the gravel backroad, about 20 minutes from our waterfall destination, I thought I felt a flat tire. I was going about 50 kilometers per hour as I glanced behind me to look at the back tire. All the sudden the foot break started doing something funny, and the handle bars locked up and started convulsing. For a moment I regained control, but I knew we were going to wipe out, so I bailed … barrel-rolling sideways on the rocky road with James still screaming on the back of the bike…
The bike dropped and skidded to a halt, James looked pretty shaken up near the ditch, with his foot stuck under the bike, but there was no bloodshed or broken bones. We walked away with minor scratches, although that bike had plenty of bent metal and a crack running up the body of the motorbike. I’m not sure why the first thought that crossed my mind after realizing we were both okay, was that of self-gratification? In the moment, I was impressed with my acrobatic dismount from the failing motorcycle, and especially that I managed to keep both my flip flops on while protecting the electronics and mangoes that were in my satchel. James couldn’t believe I left him on the back of that bike alone to his fate. It was a fight or flight moment, and I flew. I guess I thought James would do the same, surely he realized we were going down?… Slightly perturbed, we cautiously hopped back on the still operating bike and arrived at a Waterfall what seemed to be moments later.
The location of this waterfall was made into a kind of tourist resort. It was a very natural setting, using the earths materials to provide the snazzy ambience. You could take elephant rides to visit local villages, or cross rickety old bamboo bridges to get a get a panoramic view of the Tad Pha Suam Waterfall. It was really refreshing, but after ‘suffering’ through what could have been serious trauma, we decided we needed a nice relaxing drink and a game of cards to calm our nerves. Muay Thai Fighting was playing on a rather clear screen, and I sipped my Herbal Rose tea while playing James in a game of Gin Rummy. I am always in awe of the beating the local martial artists take, such endurance and persistence. Satisfied with our stint of relaxation, we decided to head back to that bright red motorbike and again assess the damages, hoping it would safely get us to a tune-up shop.
In renting motorcycles, we are responsible for any damage. Being a frugal traveler, I wasn’t about to pay quadruple the price, so I knew I had to find a backroads man in a shack on the side of the road to help me fix it! After several failed attempts, I gave up. The communication barrier with the pleasant Laos locals wasn’t the problem, it was the bent handle bar that needed replacing. We carried along our merry way, with James sitting quietly on the back of the bike, most likely fearful that I would crash again.
We continued on our path home, hoping to get back to the town of Pakse before it got too dark, but I was still in search of gear to fix the broken motorcycle. We stopped at a long row of shacks, where there seemed to be lots of activity. I found a mechanic shop, and the piece that was needed to fix the inverted handlebar. This part would have probably cost a hundred bucks back in the US, but I got it in Laos for two dollars!… Now, I just needed someone to install it. We continued wandering down the bustling dirt sidewalk, until the raucous in one of the shacks caught my attention. It was 5 drunken Vietnamese men blaring karaoke, singing, drinking, and laughing hysterically. I slowed down while passing to observe their belligerence, and before I knew it – I was holding the microphone singing American tunes! We didn’t understand these guys, and they didn’t understand us, but for that 10 minutes we sang together, everyone was all smiles. We all kept giggling at the guy in the corner of the filthy shack, who drank too much and passed out early. The only thing I really understood them telling me the entire time was, “I-am-Vietnam” being said over and over by one man in a drunken stupor… So I would reply, “I-am-America” and at least we understood that about each other.
Under normal circumstances, I would jump on the opportunity to experience local culture, but when they offered me a swig of what they were drinking, (which I was hoping they would!) I took a look at the plastic bottle containing, what I thought was a homemade rice whiskey, and noticed chunks of charcoal floating at the bottom. I opted out of a taste, for fear of loosing brain cells. Plus I couldn’t forget my mission to fix the bike. We shared a couple more laughs, and I was able to make out, “forget-me-not” as I was leaving. Thanks American Cinema. I tried to assure these humorous, old Vietnamese guys that I never would forget them, and we continued on our way.
After another failed attempt, we drove back into town deciding to deal with this motorbike mess in the morning. The vanilla sky above me left me speechless…and somewhat hungry as the clouds reminded me of cotton candy.
We developed quite a hunger throughout our venturesome day, so we went to a highly acclaimed Indian Restaurant, where we quickly saw an Austrian friend we had met in previous cities. We swapped travel tales and ordered half of the menu (for seven dollars). Then a stranger behind us asked to join our table. Of course we obliged and really enjoyed his company throughout the duration of our meal. His name was Felix and he was German. He was a true traveler, and had been all over the world – his stories certainly reflected this. My favorite story he told was how he was looking for work in Australia, so he called a number posted on a job-board next to a grocery store. Soon he found himself picking pearls out of clams of on the coast of a private island bought by a wealthy wallstreet broker. The island was infested by alligators so as they worked, people with guns would keep an eye out for any gator coming too close. They lived and worked on this island for months, killing their meals, hunting wild pig with nothing but knifes, hoping the small airplane would come and deliver goods to live off. He had been injured and sick many times thought his travels and his body reflected this. He showed us his battle scars which accompanied enthralling stories. We talked about how some travelers aren’t as respectful to people and their cultures as they should be. He was so passionate about this subject. I was entertained by this fellow traveler, and his thick german accent, while he was complaining about ill-mannered backpackers and how they have changed for the worse throughout the years…He was an unforgettable character. I wish I could have videographed his stories to share with others.
We ended the day with a much needed shower, sterilized our petty wounds, and went to bed early. Since I enjoyed the sunset outside of town so much, I really wanted to watch the sun rise that next morning. We set out into the early morning mist with half a tank of gas. So there we found ourselves on more dirt roads outside of town in the opposite direction from yesterday. I could tell James was a tad nervous as I tend to pay more attention to the colors tones glistening and the saturated clouds flowing around the shadowed plateaus. He’d squeeze me when I need to focus on the road. I probably should have let him drive so I could admire my surroundings, but I just love the thrill of driving free.
We found a temple that was in the process of being built and decided to go explore up the hundreds of muscle burning steps that lead to the top. We crossed paths with Buddhist Monks in their bright orange robes and freshly shaven heads. They were wildly swigging weedwackers along the sides of the stairs to keep up a manicured and tended appearance. Finally at the top we were granted a view overlooking the entire city. We sat up here for quite some time admiring our surroundings. Visually. Mentally. Spiritually. It was a stunning and another eye-opening excursion.
Ultimately, we had to take the motorbike back, and pay whatever they were going to fine us. We explained the situation mainly by pointing at the broken parts, and after a brief consult between the workers, they said ‘Twenty’…. TWENTY?… As in twenty thousand?… surely the bike isn’t that much?!… Turns out the motorbike only cost us 150,000 Kip ($20USD) in damages…I COULDN’T BELIEVE IT!!!… That would have never happened back home in America?!… I would have paid much much more than that for the experiences and memories that were made in the last 24 hour rental. We gave them $25, apologized again, and left to eat lunch at the noodle place next door.
In hindsight, I think none of the locals wanted to fix the bike the previous day because they knew foreigners messed up another bike, and were trying to take the cheap way out. They were doing their fellow Laotians a service, by not taking business from them.
That night we hopped on an over night bus and awoke in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. We didn’t want to stay here though, our destination was Luang Pragang, high up in the northern part of Laos, so at the bus station we hopped into a small van that would navigate through curvy mountains, and seemingly dangerous terrain. We arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and perhaps one of the most charming cities in Southeast Asia.