Weaving my bike around buffalo dung and chickens, I began to have serious second thoughts.
The rough plan was to ride south 500 kilometers in six or seven days, generally sticking to Route 13 which snakes parallel to the Mekong River, and eventually crossing back into Thailand at Savannakhet.
During the Vietnam War the United States dumped two million tons of bombs on Laos. In the north along Route 13 towards Luang Prabang there have been recent incidents of bandits attacking tourist buses. The route I chose was considered safe, but to be sure I asked the day before at the US Embassy if the road was indeed secure. The reply: "I don't know, it should be."
H anging for a couple days in Vientiane was easy living, it's a downright charming place with French colonial architecture and tree lined avenues. One can walk anywhere. Life moves gracefully in a blend of past and present, East and West. I was reluctant to leave it behind, asking myself how people in the countryside would react to a large white American wearing a goofy green helmet storming through their backyard on a beat up orange mountain bike. They had to ask themselves what I was doing there, or at least pose the question to me. Five kilometers outside of the city someone did just that.
E'ryting Is Gonna Be Allrigh', Mon
She turned off several kilometers down the road, but her impression remained: I no longer felt alone or afraid on this dusty road in Laos. (note: I was never that afraid, just a little tweaked at times)
In the countryside now, my constant companion is the sun. For miles there are only rice fields, road, and sky. Life in Laos moves so slow that at 20 kms per hour I feel like I am zipping by it.
Now, in Laos, one doesn't drink so much as you chew a cup of coffee. It's a thick, gnarly, potent concoction with an inch of sugar coagulated at the bottom -- rather enjoyable. It wasn't long before an audience gathered, young and old, short and tall, to witness the spectacle of me drinking this cup of coffee.
A place to lay my head
The town is quiet except for some kids kicking around a cigarette wrapper in the dirt. I ponder the night's sleeping arrangements. According to the guidebook there are no hotels in the area so I've already prepared for the worst-- packed in my left rear pannier is a mosquito net hammock, but after eight hours of riding I wouldn't mind leaving it there.
Flickering candlelight sends shapes dancing across the temple walls as I hold court with a half-dozen young novice monks. They teach me how to write my name in Laos and I find them to be a gullible audience for my magic coin tricks.
Roosters really do wake people up in this part of the world. Sipping tea while massaging my sore ass I stand at the river's edge. A stray cow wanders by. The sound of its wooden bell, a lazy, warm, friendly, content sound keeps perfect time with the scene, seemingly symbolizing life in these parts. I pack up, check my gear and head south.
The Heat'll Get To Ya, Boy
Sunburnt and dusty I begin to get a sense of fitting in out here. I am unaccustomed, however, to such long stretches of quiet unless I'm asleep or passed out, but then I wouldn't know what's going on. While riding, I do know what's going on: It's me and the road and the bike and the mind... it's me and the road and the bike and the mind... it's the mind and the road and the bike until ultimately it's just the mind. It's fun at first until you start talking to cows and trees just to bring yourself out of this self-imposed stupor zone.
I come to a fork and look east to the craggy mountains in the distance Route 12, Vietnam. Something says to forget responsibilities at home and turn here, head toward the unplanned, the unknown. This could be the elusive adventure.
My mountain bike is back in its corner now buried in a heap of smelly clothes looking much the same as it did before the trip except for the tires; I never cleaned them, just left the dirt caked on. Every now and again I'll glance over at it to remind myself of the trip in Laos, that it really did happen I didn't just see it on TV.
Just the Facts
[click here for map]
Southeastern Asia, northeast of Thailand
5,116,959 (July 1997 est.)
total: 236,800 sq km
land : 230,800 sq km
water: 6,000 sq km
tropical monsoon; rainy season (May to November); dry season (December to April)
total: 18,153 km
paved: 2,505 km
unpaved: 15,648 km (1995 est.)
mostly rugged mountains;
some plains and plateaus
lowest point: Mekong River 70 m
highest point: Phou Bia 2,817 m
timber, hydropower, gypsum, tin, gold, gemstones
arable land : 3%
permanent crops: 0%
permanent pastures: 3%
forests and woodland: 54%
other : 40% (1993 est.)
*courtesy of CIA