Asian Motorcycle Adventures

This story is not about a motorcycle tour per se, but it did occur during a motorcycle tour into Laos with the Superbike Club Of Malaysia. Bird Story was published in the Asian Wall Street Journal on Nov. 10, 2000.

Experiencing an occurance like this is always possible when we hit the countryside on a motorcycle.


There aren’t many capitals in the world smaller than Vientiane, Laos. So I was astonished to find myself crushed amid a pack of humanity during their That Luang Stupa Festival. It is by far Vientiane’s most important holiday and it seemed like the entire city and half the countryside packed the temple grounds eager to begin earning merit for the coming year.

The atmosphere was gay and ebullient in a country where causes for celebration are infrequent. Piquant temple incense and food hawker aromas wafted through the evening air. Hucksters set up games of chance and easily parted hard-earned kip from failed ring-tossers and errant dart-throwers. Massive speakers from a hundred stalls blared sales pitches extolling all manner of products, from mundane items such as soap powder and cooking oil, on up through tantalizingly out-of-reach luxury items like televisions and motor scooters. The entire crowd was in a buying, praying, and partying frenzy.

And throughout this all wandered a squadron of vendors selling pairs of sparrows in tiny bamboo cages.

The object is simple–buy the birds and set them free. This is considered a very good thing to do for the sparrows, and according to Buddhist beliefs, earns their releaser merit on judgement day. It is also said to bring you luck and makes your wishes come true. All this for less than a buck, and you get to keep the cute little cages.

I’m not a Buddhist, and I should have known better than to get involved in foreign and exotic religious rituals, but caught up in the infectious spirit of the festivities, I purchased a cage holding two sparrows. Good luck, no matter from which divine source, is always welcome.

With eyes closed I made a wish and opened the bars to reunite my feathered friends with Mother Nature. Both sparrows just sat there and showed not the slightest interest in freedom. Meanwhile, everyone else’s birds were taking off like missiles as soon as they sniffed liberty.

I gave the cage a jiggle, and then a harder shake, and still the warblers wouldn’t budge. I tried poking them out with a pencil but they would not resign their toe-grip on their bamboo perch.

Squeezing my fist into the cage I ever-so-gently pried one sparrow out. When I unfurled my fingers it sat stock-still nestled in my open palms blinking up at me. With an upward thrust I launched the sparrow skywards but it tumbled pathetically back down to earth with hardly a wing flap. The sparrow was now in mortal danger of being waffled beneath the milling mob’s flip-flops.

Scrambling after the hip-hopping bird, I managed to snare it and re-released it into a fenced-off grassy patch where no foot could trod. During all this time the bird’s mate sat caged, ignoring emancipation.

By now a crowd of onlookers had gathered round me watching my plight and proffering advice in several languages and dialects about what to do with my remaining bird. “Don’t put it into the grassy area,” I was warned, “because a rat will eat it.” “The bird won’t fly out because it is night time.” “The bird can’t fly because it is too young.” “It is too old.” “It is too weak.” “It is sick.” Somehow I had purchased two physically or mentally defective birds.

The fate of one of Lord Buddha’s tiniest, frailest, and most insignificant creature was now inextricably entangled with my own karmic future. Bad luck was staring me in the face if I couldn’t get birdy airborne and out of my life forever. Instead of doing a good deed, which was my original intention, the deaths of two innocent sparrows looked likely to stain my hands. Why oh why did I ever get involved!

I had to do everything in my power to save the life of my remaining warbler, or shuffle this responsibility off to someone else. There were no volunteers–no one wanted a complimentary bird that refused to fly. I searched around for the sparrow vendor who started this episode but she was lost in the crowd. Abandonment was out of the question.

I’m the furthest thing from an ornithologist, but one thing I do know is that birds (except for owls and bats) don’t fly at night. This fact seemed the most logical explanation for my predicament. I postponed my sparrow launching until morning. But a horrid thought crossed my mind–would my earth-bound sparrow live to see the morrow? I couldn’t bear it if it died while in my care. It had to be in poor condition or it would have long been gone. And God only knows how long it was caged without food or water while awaiting a purchaser–this scrawny sparrow couldn’t have much in the way of energy reserves.

I was also worried that this tropical rainforest flyer would freeze to death as I brought it back to my air conditioned hotel room. In the hallway I snatched a cold French fry, without ketchup, from a discarded room service tray. Next I tried to find the smallest object that could act as a water container and ended up using the top of a film canister. The fry and the foot bath took up half the cage’s floor space, and Tweety, now extremely agitated by such unfamiliar decor, promptly upended the water. I weighed it down with pebbles from a planter and this worked–maybe it was the natural look. My sparrow took a few tentative sips and a peck at the fry. I tucked Tweety in for the night by wrapping an initialled bath towel around its cage along with a tea thermos (for warmth), making sure to leave a gap in the top for air.

With great trepidation I fell asleep. Upon awakening I snuck a nervous peak under the towel and was overjoyed to find Tweety looking none the worse for wear. I carried the cage to my open window, opened the bars, and the sparrow shot out in a whirr of wings like a feathered F-18. And with that flight the weight of the world floated off my shoulders.

The route was a torturous one but I think I earned some extra merit from my avian adventure.


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