The first time I had ever ridden a motorcycle with a clutch was when I rented one in Laos. I hopped on the cherry red Zongshen 150cc bike with knobby tires and cargo racks as gracefully as I could. I consciously put on a face which approximated knowing indifference toward the bike. Nothing new, old hat, NBD. Back in Washington, DC, in exchange for professional headshots, a friend had shown me how to shift a motorcycle clutch, but I hadn’t actually started the thing up. It weighed 400 pounds and it was 15 degrees outside, less than ideal for learning the ropes. As it turned out, the guy renting me the bike was totally indifferent toward me and my skill level. I walked the bike about 50 feet away from him, started it up, and rode away. Bike clutches are a lot easier to learn than car clutches.
The beauty of the deal was that it was a one way rental – for about $110 I had a durable, rugged, albeit light bike for up to 10 days, and I could drop it off in either of the two largest cities in Laos. Deals don’t get better than that. I strapped my bag to my bike with some rope (always bring rope), and set off for a little town called Nong Khiaw in Northeastern Laos.
Riding the open roads of Laos on this bike was totally exhilarating – Laos is a developing country that has only just begun to develop, and in the northern part of the country there is still essentially just one two lane paved road – everything else is dirt track or foot trail. Thus traffic is minimal, except for the occasional Chinese-owned Mercedes going twice the speed of everyone else, or huge Hyundai freight trucks leering around mountain corners and sending your heart into your throat. The locals mostly drive Toyota Hiluxes or Ford Rangers – although by far the most common vehicle was the motorbike.
Beer on Ice in Oudomxai
The ride to Nong Khiaw took two days – while the road out of Luang Namtha was straight and flat, it soon climbed into the mountains and followed a ridgeline for the rest of the day. The end of day one brought me to Oudomxai, the commercial and industrial trade hub of Northern Laos, through which goods make their way between Laos, China, and Vietnam. In Oudomxai you are as likely to hear Chinese being spoken as Lao, and so I brushed up on my Chinese, which consists of one word – Xie Xie (thank you).
Although Oudomxai was considerably larger than Luang Namtha, I was the only tourist there. The town is strictly an industrial hub and has only recently tried to jump into the tourist/trekker game. In the evening I walked about a mile to a beer hall that Lonely Planet said drew a “young crowd”, only to find that “young crowd” in Laos is 16-20, vs the 25-to35 crowd I’m used in DC. I had half a mind to turn around and walk right back the way I came, but it had been a long walk full of extremely aggressive guard dogs that reminded me of movies about the Soviet Union during the Cold War, so I stayed for a beer. This was a wise choice. Not only because Beer Lao, the state produced beer of Laos, is deliciously served with ice, but because I found sudden unexpected fame in short order.
Beer on ice – I realize that sounds jarring, or perhaps blasphemous to your European or American ears. But if you’re from SE Asia, or any other area with a hot climate that didn’t have ubiquitous refrigeration until fairly recently, your beer was tough to keep cold. And who likes warm beer? Very few of us. The solution was to just pour your beer into a small glass with a couple of cubes of ice, gulp it down, and repeat. Try this. For real, it’s awesome. Only try it with an Asian or Latin American lager though, or a Heini.
Back to the beer bar. After ten minutes of hanging out sipping on my big Beer Lao and updating my Instagram account, I got a tap on the shoulder.
“I want to be your friend!” said a young guy in a soccer jersey. Behind him were a dozen of his friends smiling. Soon I was literally surrounded by a crowd of young Lao asking me in their collective English where I was from, what I was doing, and more importantly, friending me on Facebook. This was a surreal experience, and incredibly fun. I stayed for a second Beer Lao and headed back through the gauntlet of insanely aggressive Soviet German Shepherds to my guesthouse.
The Road to Nong Khiaw
In the morning, after a delicious breakfast of noodle soup and Lao coffee (so sweet and decadent – if you like condensed milk and sugar, this is for you), I set off for a small village in Northeastern Laos called Nong Khiaw – it’s known for its access to adventure tourism and for the breathtaking limestone kharsts that dominate the landscape.
About five kilometers outside of Oudomxai the road deteriorated into a deplorable state. Travefish.org described it as “literally like the surface of the moon” and they were spot on. The next 100 kilometers were brutal, full of huge washouts, loose gravel, potholes, and giant Hyundai freight trucks taking wide turns around blind corners. Add in searing heat and choking dust and… well I was in my element.
Adventures in Nong Khiaw
Nong Khiaw is epically beautiful. The landscape is dramatic and lush, the kharst mountains rise precipitously from the river valleys and form fertile crescents between them, cultivated by local tribes and grazed by water buffalo. I settled into a cheap guesthouse that was spotlessly clean and had a breathtaking view. I threw my bag into my room, strapped my camera pack on, and took the bike off-road.
This is the map I would use for the next three days in Nong Khiaw, Google Maps and Here maps were both hopelessly inaccurate, showing phantom highways going over mountaintops. Nong Khiaw is full of hand drawn maps of the surrounding area, since no official maps seem to exist at that level of detail. I simply snapped a pic of one of them and planned my own adventures from there. This mostly worked out.
The first night I took my motorcycle onto a rough dirt track that followed the Nam Ou north through several villages. At one point a stream about knee deep and thirty feet wide crossed the road. I had never driven through water on a bike. I dropped the bike into second gear and pulled the throttle all the way back. Hell. Yes.
The next day I woke up early and rented a mountain bike from one of the local outfitters. I grabbed my camera bag and headed out along the main highway (a small paved country road) and toward a dirt path that was supposed to take me through a series of villages and finally to a fishing village on the Nam Ou River. Locating this road was difficult, as I had to simply say the name of the first village on the road over and over again and point north. Most people were simply baffled, but eventually I found the right dirt path.
The path wound through tight valleys filled with rice paddies and thatch roof shelters, water buffalo laying in mud holes, and small, idyllic villages where the children were clean and played with that happy, blissful abandon that only country kids have.
Finally I came to the fishing village where I was told by the ferry master in Nong Khiaw I could hire a fisherman to ferry me across the river to a popular village called Muang Ngoy. This also proved difficult, and required using sticks to trace out the price of the journey in kip, the Lao currency. Finally I found a man that agreed to the price of 50,000 kip, or at about $6. I carried my bike down to the river and put in the boat. He handed me an oar and had me row us out into the river while he worked at getting the motor started.
Soon we were cruising north, along small flat islands, under towering green kharsts, passing fisherman casting nets. One island we passed was covered in small black pigs that strutted about with an air of extreme self-importance. I was reminded of Washington, DC. I named it Pig Island. Along pig island we came into a bit of a hitch. Our two stroke engine (maybe three), was not cutting it anymore, clearly this boat was not made for transporting large Americans. The current was faster along the island and our boat was literally holding perfectly still in the river, going neither forward nor backward. Each time he threw his body weight forward the boat would move six inches up stream. I grabbed my paddle and began to paddle wildly, but to little avail. I locked eyes with him and we silently seemed to agree that we had to synch up our efforts. I made a big deliberate swoosh in the water and at the same time he bent forward violently. The boat surged forward a foot. We repeated this at a furious pace for a couple of minutes – the pigs looked on unimpressed as sweat streamed down my face. Finally we broke free of the current and continued on, both of us laughing at the level of effort we had to put in for this $6 boat ride.
We proceeded north; passing water buffalo that looked at us as alien. We passed a girl fishing in the river, wearing a cowboy hat and a baggy orange sweater and a long brown skirt. She looked straight out of Brooklyn, or a Huckberry ad, except that her outfit wasn’t ironic. That is the first and only time I will see a girl in a sweater, skirt, and cowboy hat standing in a river un-ironically. That is, I suppose, part of the draw for me and many others. To escape the trite world of faux-originality, the fitful pursuit of something unique in a world of ineluctable self-awareness that often leads to mere novelty. And even these moments of purity, of true innocent, unconscious beauty are few and fleeting. They are to be stored away and savored only seldom, in the quiet moments of the evening, or pausing at the end of a pier.
I spent a relaxing night in Muang Ngoy – a small village packed with European tourists. The village is only accessible by boat, but ferries run all day from Nong Khiaw and it keeps a steady stream of tourists passing through. Even with the tourists the village had a placid feel to it, nestled high on the river bank, I sipped Beer Lao with a few other travelers and enjoyed the cool night air.
Adventures at Kuang Si Waterfall
In the morning I hopped a ferry back to Nong Khiaw, throwing my mountain bike on the roof. This was the last leg of the journey – a blazing-fast motorcycle trip down to Luang Prabang, where I would tour one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, the pictures speak for themselves.