My fellow volunteer buddies and I decided the best way to see Laos would be by motorbike. I’m not talking scooters, I’m talking off road monsters — 250cc Honda XR beasts. Ten days of dirty, filthy riding through northern Laos, with a bit of help from Remote Asia Travel.
I had visions of us riding into towns at sunset rousing sleepy communities from their slumber. We’d stop at bars and remove our helmets just in time for the last breeze of the day to sweep across our dusty faces. Attractive young women would greet us with ice cold Beer Lao and invite us in to drink the night away. We’d be charming. People from far and wide would gather in awe to hear our tales from the road.
None of this happened.
In fact on our first day we (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘me’) took a wrong turn which sent us 150km in the wrong direction. We were meant to be heading to Vang Vieng, a place widely known for its river tubing debauchery, but instead ended up in Pakxan. What was initially meant to be a leisurely 150km ride north turned into a frenzied rush back west to the outskirts of Vientiane and back on our intended path in driving rain.
Tubing in Vang Vieng is really an awful club experience set on a river to a backdrop of the most amazing mountain scenery ever seen. While it wasn’t exactly to my tastes it did end very pleasantly floating down river towards town, Beer Lao in hand, watching the sun cast long shadows over the rapidly moving water. In the peace and quiet it was an unforgettable private moment. The further I floated from the muddy clubs the louder the wildlife calls grew until they eventually saturated the evening air.
The next morning, with heads pounding, we headed towards distant mountain ranges and Phonsavan, home of the Plain of Jars. Light mist settled against mountain sides making the ride hauntingly spectacular. Straw thatched huts clung to the side of steep mountain ridges. Villagers walked along wet roads smiling and waving as we passed. Mothers held their children close as we cut through small communities. Older boys stood by the road holding out their hands for high fives and jumped excitedly as we passed.
Although we were only hours from Vientiane it felt like another world. If our bikes were horses we really could have been riding anywhere during the middle ages. Metal pots sat on rocks over open fires sending smoke and delicious smells to linger in the heavy humid air. Chickens, cows, pigs, buffalos and other various livestock wandered causally along the twisting road. Villagers returned in sporadic groups from the fields gathering to wash in mountain streams covering the road in sweet fragrances.
In Phonsavan we visited Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to learn about UXO’s (Unexploded Ordnance) left by the American bombing. We were seated to a documentary which featured an ex Australian military bomb technician and his work with MAG in Laos. The north is littered with so many UXO’s the Laotians have resourcefully used the shells to make everyday objects such as chairs, housing stilts, candles holders, farming tools etc. Not only do the UXO’s prevent Laotians from farming masses of land but they still cause daily injuries and deaths more than 30 years since the ceasefire. It is frustratingly heartbreaking. After our UXO education we headed to Vieng Xai to visit the Pathet Lao caves. Pathet Lao leadership, soldiers and nearby villages sheltered in the cave networks during the repeated bombing raids. At some points during the war, particularly from 1965 to 1968, there were as many as nine raids per day.
From Vieng Xai we took the ‘rock star highway’ towards the river town of Nong Kiau. Children living along the road clambered over themselves to stand by the roadside, wave and yelling greetings of “Sabaidee!” Leaving our bikes at an overpriced guesthouse we took a boat an hour up the Ou River to the tiny community of Mong Noi, accessible only by water. Dotted with hammocks and river side guest houses the town was a welcome sight after many hours on the bikes. Showered and changed we raced to the nearest bar to watch the sun reflect against the water before slowly setting over the mountains.
The next morning, taking a boat further up river, we landed at a remote village to fish and swim. There were many children playing in the mud and jumping off weathered wooden boats into the river. Our catch was fried in a village kitchen and washed down with homemade Lao Lao whiskey, an almost pure alcoholic liquid with a rusty taste. With lunch over we gathered tracker tyre tubes and floated down river back to Mong Noi as the sun sizzled overhead.
Our final part of the journey was Luang Prabang, the former capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Luang Prabang is filled with colonial French buildings and snaking alleys. The town holds a market each night surrounded by local $1.25 ‘all you can eat’ food stands. Freshly squeezed juices and smoothies were sold by giggling local women – a perfect accompaniment for a stroll in the warm night air.
From here it was back to Vang Vieng and Vientiane to return our off road monsters and enjoy one last Beer Lao before returning home to Cambodia.
I’m not afraid to admit in this very public forum that I have cried twice at the splendour of nature. The first and most surprising was at Machu Picchu. I hid behind a large stone as tears streamed from my eyes. It wasn’t a sobbing hysterical act, it was more like a ‘oh, ok, I’m actually lost for words right now’ moment. No sniffling, no sudden vocal blurts, just a calm realisation that I was seeing something pretty darn special. There was definitely no snot.
The second was under my motorbike helmet while driving through the vivid green mountains of Northern Laos.
What? Maybe I like mountains? Well, that’s what I’m telling myself.