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.
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 …