As this posts, I’m flying home from a month in Asia — a few days in Bangkok, then cycling trips in Sri Lanka and Laos. I blogged a little bit about the Sri Lanka trip [here] and [here]. I loved the Sri Lanka trip but it was a bit intense — difficult riding, we got lost a lot, and there was a group of 10, and that’s a lot of time for introverted me to spend in company. I ride when I travel to be alone with myself, and to be present in the place I find myself, and it’s harder with a big group.
I landed in Luang Prabang in Northern Laos on New Year’s day, and was instantly wrapped in a soft calm. I wandered around the old town, had a massage, and ate excellent food. One night, as I ate a sublime vegetarian curry, I watched my server dreamily catch and release raindrops on his fingertip off the yellow awning over the terrace.
The four day bike trip in the mountains of Laos was wrapped in the same kind of mindful softness. Northern Laos is remote — there’s only one road from Luang Prabang in the centre to Vientiane, the capital a few hundred kilometres south. We rode that one main road about 250 kilometres, through twisting, curving climbs and downhills, and flats through tiny villages, subsistence farms, small rice paddies. My group was small — just me and a female couple from Australia a little older than me. They were easy-going and riding-seasoned, and the flow was simple. We mutually agreed on van transfers on rain-slick mountain roads, shared awe and long photo pauses.
Half of the ride was in the mountains, often in mist, surrounded by waves of dark green sharp hills, clouds settled down around us. Climbs were long, but affable and gentle, occasional trucks and motorbikes, but mostly just us, the road, the mist, the mountains.
The softness of this kind of riding makes me more porous, and the world around me flows in. In every village, children come running from the side of the road to shout “SABAIDEE!” (Hello!) and high five us — sometimes a little too hard. Pigs escape from their pens by the side of the road. People bathe at the cold village taps, men in their underwear, women wrapped in sarongs, children naked. I stop to watch the sad drama of a group of people attempting to lasso a cow with a makeshift vine-rope after it’s been injured by a car. Notice that babies are wrapped to men’s bodies as often as they are to women’s. Pedalling into a land and soundscape that isn’t accessible any other way.
In Phousavan, we spend the morning at the market then at a little exhibit learning about the devastating impact of the US bombing of northern Laos during the American/Vietnam war. It’s horrifying history — many bombs were dropped on Laos because they couldn’t reach the Vietnamese targets and couldn’t return with full loads; there were rules of engagement in Vietnam about civilian targets, but because Laos wasn’t technically at war, they didn’t apply. There are unexploded bombs everywhere still in Laos, and the napalmed hills won’t grow anything for 200 years. [Good piece on this here].
The three of us are quiet after the morning, and when we start riding, we soon end up in mountain cloud and fog. It’s hard to see, but my body needs to move, to be fully present in this place to make a little bit of human connection with the stories we’ve heard. The other two women get in the van, but I ride, carefully up and into the mist, feeling the cold. The guide tries to have the van follow me closely but I ask him to move on. I want to be alone with the road, responsible for my own safety.
In the mountains, the villages are mostly raised thatched huts with woven roofs; as we get further south, houses become more prosperous, made of cement or brick and with electricity, satellite dishes. Roadside stands shift from selling firewood and occasional bananas to selling oranges. In the mountains, people walk between villages carrying bundles of sticks, firewood, in bags braced by their foreheads. In the valley, there are more motorbikes and bicycles leaned up near the road as people tend their crops. The people in the mountains have almost nothing, barefoot children hopping because the road is so cold on their feet. I wasn’t properly prepared for this level of chill and I’m often shivering; they are huddled around tiny bucket fires.
The final day of riding — the 15th day of riding of my trip — is nearly 100k. We start out in Phoukoun in the mountains climbing for an hour, then descend through the hills to the valley. I have a couple of skids on curves that remind me to pedal cautiously (I crashed the first day on gravel in a curve, unfamiliar with the brakes on this bike), then I’m on my own for most of the ride. I’m so grateful for a body that lets me do this, feel this place through my pores, my own effort and openness rather than through the window of a van.
I notice one little girl walking her bike up a hill and I call out Sabaidee! She sees me and hops on her bike, starts to race me up the hill. At the top, she extends her hand for a high five and we hold hands for a brief moment.
Just before we get to Vang Vieng, we stop at a bridge over the Nam Xong river. There’s a little monastery high on one edge, and the mountains that have wrapped around me all afternoon crowd close. My feet and hands are sore, but I stop, feel gratitude, know why I do this.