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Falling in love with motorcycle touring while exploring the Bolaven Plateau.

Given that Laos is a country with some of the worst medical care in the world, the concept of heading into the remote Bolaven Plateau on a motorbike called a “Suzuki Smash” seemed comically stupid.

I had gory visions of our faces being smeared along potholed roads in the middle of nowhere as our little 120cc Suzuki fulfilled its appellation. Maimed on the side of an isolated road, our only option would be to strap a “Send Help!” note to the neck of a grazing cow, kick it in the rump, and hope for the best.

But after reading that the stunning landscapes of the Bolaven Plateau are best explored on a motorcycle, my partner, Ivan, and I decided to take our chances with the Smash and put our faith in the rescue cow.

“Just for a day or two,” I told Ivan. “Just to see what it’s like.”

We began in a town called Pakse—the third most populous city in Laos—which is one of those small cities that only exists as a central place to drop off people who are headed to more exciting destinations. Pakse features all the character and pizazz of a dead goldfish.

The drabness of Pakse peeled away after a short drive from town, and we found ourselves surrounded by green countryside. The empty road cut through green rice fields, which were interrupted occasionally by coffee plantations and clusters of stilted houses that spilled with happy children yelling “Sabadeeeeeeeee!” (Hello!) as we zipped by.

It was dreamy. And then the rain came …

We didn’t pick the best time of year to do this. September is right in the middle of the rainy season,  but we weren’t going to let a little rain stop us. We forged ahead through downpours, doing our best to enjoy the sensation of being stabbed in the face with a thousand razor-sharp raindrops.

When you have rain coming at your face at 60 km/h, the best way to ease the pain is to open your mouth wide and use your tongue as a shield. So when the rainstorms hit, we’d cycle between laughing with joy, screaming with pain, and holding out our tongues like a pair or deranged freaks on two wheels.

To get out the rain for a little while, we stopped for some Beer Lao and roadside noodle soup, which is much easier to eat than rain, and also more tasty. It’s like Vietnamese Pho: broth, beef, noodles, and seasoning. Delicious.

In a little town called Tak Lo, we found a cozy bungalow nestled in a rainforest by a raging waterfall, and we fell asleep to the sound of pouring rain.

On day two, we followed a turnoff down a dirt road that pointed to a tribal village. As the road became increasingly wet and sloppy, the sport of motorcycling began to resemble skiing if skiing involved more mud and cow shit.

We reached a town made up of shanty huts and mud and children playing in puddles. But no matter how busy they were digging in mud, foraging in mud, or dancing in mud, they were never too busy to give us a smile, a wave, and a “Sabadeeeeeeeee!

As we walked through the small village, stepping over pigs and chickens, the whole place chimed with the music of little voices singing their hellos. Huge grins of white teeth stood out against the brown mud, and I briefly contemplated sticking one of the adorable babies in my backpack to take home, Brangelina-style.

I’m not picky. I’ll take this baby too:

The adults in the village were smoking from bamboo pipes that looked as though they could hold a dope wad the size of a tennis ball. Since there was an absence of Rastafarian flags and Bob Marley music, we knew that it wasn’t marijuana they were smoking but a very potent tobacco called thuoc lao.

We’d been on the bike for most of the day when we decided that, in order to avoid Pakse for another night, we’d head south to a town called Champasak.

The sun was on its way down, and I was growing nervous about finding a place to sleep before dark. The streets were becoming more and more potholed, and cows wandered into the road to spread their fat bodies over the warmth of the tarmac. Nothing would move them.

“Move!”

“Moo!”

“Move!”

“Moo!”

We needed sunlight to navigate the roads without crashing our Smash. The cows were certainly never going to rescue us, but there was a good chance that one would kill us.

Then we realised that Champasak was located on the opposite side of the Mekong. To get there, we’d need to ferry across with our bike.

We were running out of light, but who cares about practicalities when you’re treated to a view like this?

Just before dark, we found a hotel room resembling a city loft apartment. It had a fluffy blanket and a bath and a TV with free movies, and because we were visiting in rainy season, it was only $28 a night.

I was happier than this guy:

We stayed three nights exploring and relaxing in the peaceful riverside town of Champasak, and it wasn’t long enough.

When we got back to Pakse and returned the bike, I was heartbroken. Over our six day trip, I became addicted to the rush of wind across my face, the sensation of raindrops on my tongue, and the freedom of being suspended in the air on the back of a motorcycle. I wanted more.

And now, after returning to our island home in Koh Tao, I’m itchy with wanderlust as I dream of all the places a motorcycle can take us. Northern Thailand, Vietnam, China, India, Europe …

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48 Response Comments

  • Lisa McKay  September 20, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Glad to hear you had a good adventuretime. Northern Laos is begging to be explored by motorcycle, too. And there are some RIDICULOUSLY nice hotel rooms up here. Just sayin’.

    Reply
  • Hannah  September 20, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    This looks like heaven! I love exploring by motorcycle – it’s the first thing I’m going to do when I get to India. So glad you had a great time, your photos are stunning 🙂

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  September 22, 2012 at 9:01 am

      Remember the sunglasses. Those flying bugs can really hurt the eyeballs!

      Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  September 22, 2012 at 9:01 am

      Well I would’ve if you’d invited me! *Pouts* 😉

      Reply
  • Tatiana  September 20, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    I’m glad to see a recent post by you! I was wondering what you’ve been up to! I’ve ridden on the back of a motorcycle and really enjoyed it.

    Your photos are really great.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  September 22, 2012 at 9:02 am

      Thanks, Tatiana. I did drop off there for a while. I get too distracted to update the blog when I’m on the road.

      Reply
  • idit  September 20, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    hi Torre
    it’s funny cause my last post was about Laos too, just the north town of Luang Prabang… and if you have an interest in Laos (which obvious you have) you must read this great book: “Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos” by Natacha Du Pont De Bie.
    thanks for sharing your joyfull adventures with us and all the best
    Idit

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  September 22, 2012 at 9:04 am

      That book sounds fascinating, as does the soup in the title! Thanks for the recommendation and your lovely comment.

      Reply
  • adri, oky  September 20, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    que envidia!! como disfrutan la vida!!! ivan, dice oky, que le ganaste por varios cuerpos, en ser aventurero!!. la proxima salida de oky, es a jupiter!! un abrazo para los dos y felicitaciones!!

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  September 22, 2012 at 9:05 am

      Thanks for the comment, Adri & Oky! Ivan translated it for me. 😉 Love to you both.

      Reply
  • Sarah Somewhere  September 20, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Okay, I’m studying Spanish and have no idea what that comment below says, something about ‘envy and adventure?’ Ah well, awesome post, brings back so many great memories of scootering in SE Asia. The roads in Laos are abismal, but makes it all the more fun eh?! BTW Cambodia is awesome for that sort of thing too, as well as one of the coolest places I’ve ever been…

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  September 22, 2012 at 9:09 am

      You understood more of that Spanish than I did!

      Cambodia, eh? May have to venture there too. The roads on the Bolaven Plateau were actually perfect (apart from the dirt turn-offs). I suspect that’s not the case for the rest of Laos, though. We took a sleeper bus from Vientiane to Pakse and we were awoken throughout the night by the bus wheels hitting potholes the size of the Grand Canyon.

      Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  September 22, 2012 at 9:12 am

      I think you’re right! Adventure is the smell of fresh rain and rice fields and third-world sewerage systems. I wonder if I could turn that into a perfume? 😉

      Reply
  • Ying  September 21, 2012 at 3:32 am

    I’ve always loved Laos and its simplicity. Your very vivid photos have evoked some dormant memories that I have of that country and those times where I rode behind a motorcycle for a week, having my very own Motorcycle Diaries adventure.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  September 22, 2012 at 9:14 am

      I kept thinking I was Che Guevara on the back of that bike. Hehe.

      Reply
  • Cat of Sunshine and Siestas  September 21, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Swooooning! Not sure which I like better – your voice or yuor composition in your shots. Lovely!

    Reply
  • Elizabeth  September 21, 2012 at 10:56 am

    uh-Mazing! wonderful pics! can’t wait to check out Laos in December… looks breathtaking!

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  September 22, 2012 at 9:17 am

      Thanks! Just read your latest blog post. You’re not enjoying Thailand? Where are you located?

      Reply
  • Jaana Kulmala  September 21, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    Oh, lovely pics! What a great adventure – straight to the dirt roads. I really enjoyed reading this.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  September 22, 2012 at 9:18 am

      Thank you. Believe me, we didn’t go straight to the dirt roads. We started out at about 20 km/h before we (I) worked up the brave to venture off the paved road.

      Reply
  • Wanda St.Hilaire  September 21, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Absolutely beautiful. What an amazing adventure.

    Wanda

    Reply
  • Rease  September 23, 2012 at 1:46 am

    This would definitely be a struggle for me, I’m not huge on motorcycles. When I was a kid, I crashed a motorbike and got trapped beneath it (more out of panic than anything else) and got burned by the leaking oil. I’ve been a passenger on motorcycles since, but I’m always just waiting to get off. However, I think the views would be worth facing my fear in this case! The rainbow photo is gorgeous!

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  September 23, 2012 at 2:49 am

      Fair enough—you’ve been traumatised. You can see the river (and maybe a rainbow) without having to suffer on a motorbike! Motorbikes make it easy to see this area, but you can still get on a bus, or hire a tuk tuk or taxi to take you places.

      Reply
  • Maggie  September 24, 2012 at 10:57 am

    I love this post. The pictures are great and the writing is like listening to a friend tell a story. Thanks for the insight into rural Laos!

    Reply
    • Conrad  September 25, 2012 at 7:38 am

      Subtle writing, nice pictures, great country – me like.

      Reply
  • Erica @ Expatria, Baby  September 27, 2012 at 7:35 am

    Okay, okay, okay, now I have a serious case of travel envy. I’ve just moved to Indonesia, and while I’m waiting for all my things to arrive, I’m dreaming of going places and doing things, creating and discovering this amazing part of the world. And now I’m pretty sure I want to do it by motorbike. That’s totally a safe way to travel with a toddler, right?!

    Reply
  • Amy  October 3, 2012 at 8:13 am

    Sounds like you had a great time!

    I had an ill-timed bike tour, as well. In Turkey, we rented bikes to go to a canyon two hours away. It was beautiful during the day, but coming back after sunset in November was not pleasant. It was warm during the day, but cold at night and we hadn’t anticipated the cold (plus the wind from travelling 40 mph on the bike) and we didn’t bring extra layers. And we couldn’t even see the landscape. At one point, we pulled over to fill up on petrol and the attendant saw we were cold and let us warm up in his office/cabin.

    Next time, we’ll know better. 🙂

    Reply
  • Will Jackson - The Bearded Wanderer  October 5, 2012 at 6:02 am

    Looks like you had an amazing trip there Torre. I’m definitely planning to make motorcycle my preferred mode of transport around South-East Asia. Can’t wait!

    Reply
  • Tracey  October 14, 2012 at 2:57 am

    Wow. What a beautiful adventure … the scenery and experiences I’m sure will stay with you for a lifetime. I’ve never tried any motorcycling, but perhaps that’s a fear I should overcome sometime soon? 🙂

    Reply
  • Ollie  October 20, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    This is by far the best looking blog I have ever seen, those photos are amazing and the water colours in the other post rock! I have just arrived in thailand, laos looks beautifull!

    Reply
  • Bethany ~ twoOregonians  October 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Just catching up on posts, Torre. I love this! Ted and I were talking today about how some of our very favorite times on this trip have been during motorbike explorations…there’s something so brilliantly freeing about two people on two wheels with the wind and the open road. (All very romantic…until the rain comes, as you said…but even then the melodrama makes for a good story.)

    I haven’t written yet about our time in Laos, but I’ve found myself mulling over similar memories of the kids in the village and the women smoking bamboo pipes and the muddy roads and brilliant greens whizzing by. It’ll be fun to pull the threads together in a future post or two…

    I wish our paths could’ve crossed in real life! Thanks, as always, for sharing your world through your blog.

    Reply
  • Tan  November 24, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    Motorbike is a great transport to discover and experience real local en-route! Thanks.

    Reply
  • Beo  January 29, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    How much were the scooters, if I may ask?

    Great trip by the looks of it!!!

    Reply
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