I felt really happy and free at the same time when I left Sterling and Chris in Samneua, Laos. For the first time in a month, I had the road for myself. Sterling and Chris continued the planned route while I had decided to head north to discover new roads and a potential new route for the next year's GlobeRiders IndoChina Adventure. It had been bugging me for some time that we had no safe alternative to the muddy roads in Northern Vietnam. However, looking at the map, there was an alternative route entering Laos in the north from Dien Bien Phu. This border post had just been opened for international travelers to use, last year it was a strictly local border crossing. Long time ago, I learned not to trust other people’s assessments of roads when planning a motorcycle tour, so I decided to take a closer look myself. From the first advice I received, I had been told that the road was very good, but some people also told me that it was a terrible road.
This opportunity to go for a solo ride was also very timely in the way that I felt it was time to ride a little for myself. Having been stuck at the Vietnam to Laos border had just reinforced my desire to be by myself for a little. I took off trusting that between my GPS and a Nelles paper map, I would be able to find my way. The riding was great, relatively good asphalt surface on a small road winding up and down mountains. Some times I could see across valleys and more hills while other times I was surrounded by thick jungle vegetation. The sun was shining and life was good.
A couple of hours into the ride, I started to be concerned about an upcoming right turn that never appeared. According to the GPS, I should have left the main road and headed north. Since the maps on the GPS never are 100% accurate in this part of the world, I did not worry to much, but after one more hour I really had a hard time letting go of the difference between my GPS map and the road that I was following. It was first when the GPS told me that I were far from any roads that I felt relaxed and could trust that the GPS map was no good in that region of Laos. I had a more northern course kind of paralleling the road on the GPS. The strange thing was that it was paralleling 30-40 miles away.
Despite navigational challenges, I had a blast riding through some small villages where nobody understood when I was asking for directions. But with big smiles, I was greeted and felt perfectly welcome and safe. I rode all day like this, for the most part standing on my pegs to work the bumpy road, before reaching a river crossing where there was a boat to take vehicles across. The boat had stopped for the night, so I had to stay overnight there until early the next morning when I could make the last 70 kilometers to the Vietnamese border.
I had been warned about three river crossings, and with the late rain, these could be rather deep for a motorcycle. Not to worry, with all the small bikes in the villages, there were people making money on letting us two-wheeled travelers pass over their personal bridges for about 50 cents each time. Yes, the HP2 is big and heavy bike with all my luggage, but not big enough apparently to refuse me passage or to charge more. Pictures of two of the bridges can be found in the first part of this week's photo gallery below.
Mission accomplished, I had found a good alternative to where we can enter Laos on future tours without a terrible muddy road to worry about. On the way south to Luang Prabang where I would meet Chris and Sterling again, I happened to run into two other foreign motorcycle travelers! Kevin from Ireland (living in Australia) was on his BMW 650, and Chris from France (living in Singapore) had a BMW 1200GS Adventure. It was great meeting these two world traveling guys, that actually had met each other over the Internet, and now were roaming the planet until work was needed, and/or a girlfriend was begging them to come back home. Thanks for your good company guys.
As you see from this week’s installment, I have made a little slideshow from our visit in Luang Prabang where we met a lot of monks living in various temples around the city. In the morning they are up and about at 6am to walk through the streets of town to collect food offerings from the local population. This was a rather colorful experience and a very picturesque event.
Finally I would like to mention that I have received several requests for a little story about my BMW HP2 motorcycle. Seems like many people are curious to hear about the changes I did to the bike and how it has been to travel with so far. Well, as soon as I get some spare time I will see if I can write a story.
Until next time, take care.
HARVESTER OF STORIES
I think about these women that I see working in the fields with their backs bent over as they stoop to cut the rice. They are harvesting a crop that is so important to their livelihood. I think about what we are doing when we travel by motorcycle, stopping and meeting people along the way, and filming them with our video cameras. We are harvesting too, in a different way. We are harvesters of stories and images. On a good day we might collect three or four good ones. Some days, it’s slim pickings. But in the end, the success of our adventure from a media point of view, will depend on our harvest, and how many good stories we have collected.
A lot of travelers are quite content to go to the ordinary attractions, the ones that are clearly labeled in the guidebooks and have the proper infrastructure built around them to accommodate the thousands of people who come. And yet, everyone sometimes has a chance encounter with someone or something that leaves a stronger impression than the ‘official’ attraction ever could. I think this is one of the great joys of travel making the unexpected discoveries along the way, the little unplanned encounters that just happen by chance. In the end, we often learn more about a place or the people who live there from these experiences than any amount of "attraction visiting"s could ever hope to teach us.
I think that this type of experience is something that is strongly woven into the fabric of any GlobeRiders adventure, whether it is an expedition like this one, or a commercially run tour. On a GlobeRiders expedition, at least in my opinion, we try to go a little bit beyond the official tourist map and pry beneath the surface of the places we are traveling through. Along the way to an officially designated tourist stop, we might see something interesting happening on the sidelines and we’ll stop to investigate. It could be a village full of people working on a rice harvest, or a single women collecting rubber from rubber trees. We might see a lot of corn drying on the side of the road and stop to take pictures of that, and learn the story behind it. In fact, when we did stop to film the corn drying on the side of the road, it just happened to be right next door to a gentlemen who raised silk worm larvae, so we filmed him too.
You see, we are always looking for these little inroads into the culture, looking to meet people and hear about the kinds of lives that they lead to gain an understanding about what ‘ordinary’ means in this part of the world. You can only lean so much by going to the official tourist attractions. Sometimes, you have to step beyond these circles of comfort and really interact with the locals.
That’s what this TV show is all about. It’s about us riding motorcycles in this part of the world. But it’s also about meeting the locals, interacting with them, collecting their stories and riding on. I like to think that these encounters are mutually beneficial. It's usually smiles all around - on both sides of the cultural equation - and I like to think that we leave them feeling as good about the encounter as we do.
Greetings from Laos,
We have made it into Laos after a one day delay at the border due to some confusion with our visas. After a long day's ride, we arrive at Phonsavan. The roads have been pretty good with a sealed surface and almost two lanes wide. This part of Laos was the most bombed area during the Vietnam War, and Laos has the distinction of being the most bombed country on earth. Some of the guesthouses in town have their own private display of UXO (UneXploded Ordinance) they have found around their village. We stopped at a coffee shop on the main road with two big bombs marking the entrance, and the name of the Cafe was "Craters", I didn't know if I should laugh or cry.
Outside of town, we stopped at the Plain of Jars. What a beautiful setting, a wide open plain surrounded by a ring of mountains. The plain is littered with hundreds of huge stone jars. They are not sure of their origin but they are around two-thousand years old. Again, we find signs of the war marked by bomb craters and some of the jars having been blown up. Our guide says the locals used to hide inside the jars for protection from the bombs.
After leaving Phonsavan, we have a nice ride through the mountains and stop in Luang Prabang. We will be here for two nights, so it's time to do some laundry and look over the bikes. Luang Praang is an interesting old city on the Mekong. It used to be the capital of Laos and is still the cultural center. We take a long boat up the Mekong the next day to visit a local village that is famous for making rice whiskey, and then stop at Buddha Caves. We get up early the next day to see the monks wander the streets asking for food for the day. There are about 300 monks in town and every day at dawn they march through the streets and the local people (and now tourists) give them rice to eat for the day. The monks all are wearing their saffron colored robes and it is quite a sight.
We seem to be finding the Mekong River wherever we go, and have crossed it by ferry numerous times. The weather has been mostly good, but the ride to Savankhet was a wet one. It is fall here and rice harvest is in progress, and we stop a lot to take photos and mingle with the farmers. It's late and I need to get to bed as we have a long ride for tomorrow.
See you down the road,
An IndoChina Slideshow
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Helge Pedersen Images from Laos, IndoChina Expedition 2007
IndoChina Expedition 2007 Live!Journal Chapters Menu