This trip took place five years after my initial motorcycle tour foray into Laos, which happened to be the first-one allowed in Laos, ever, and it was every bit as wonderful as the first one. Our turn-around point on this motorcycle tour was the beautiful town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO Protected World Heritage Site because it is a place with significant historic importance for the human race.
One fact not mentioned in this story is that the weather was freezing, the lowest temperatures experienced in over 30 years. Before we left on this motorcycle tour we loaded up with sleeping bags and blankets. To the north of us, we heard the temperatures dropped below freezing, an unheard of phenomena.
Another interesting fact about this tour is that it took place over the millennium New Year. With all the intense hype about would happen when all the computers around the world failed, all of us on this tour kept wondering if there would be any world left to return to. One thing was for certain: the failure of the world’s computers would have absolutely no effect on where we were going.
This motorcycle tour story has been published in the Wall Street Journal on April 20, 2000, and in several other periodicals around the globe.
I am writing this sitting on a tree stump, way past midnight beneath the radiance of a blazing star canopy. In the immense bowl above, a spray of astral dots stretches in every direction towards infinity and bathes the countryside in a frosty glow. From the star shine alone on this moonless and cloudless night, my shadow is knife-sharp against the ground. I have never seen an evening sky like this before and probably never will again. This is the kind of night that sets a mind a racing. Big questions are posed, the answers pondered, as I sit here mesmerized by the cosmos.
It is exceptionally brilliant out tonight because I am literally in the middle of nowhere–Northern Laos to be exact–one of the least developed regions on earth. The nearest city of any note, Chiang Rai, is in another country 200 kilometers and four mountain ranges to the west. I and six others have arrived in this small village of Viangphoukha by motorcycle. We are on the wrong side of the Mekong River, as deep into Southeast Asia as it is possible to go, and loving every moment of it.
Viangphoukha is a particularly clean and tidy cluster of split-bamboo and thatched-roof huts nestled in a crook of a river. Tiger and bear still roam the surrounding jungle. There is no electricity, telephone, running water, or jobs to speak of. But there are a few simple sundry shops, food stalls, and businesses, like the nameless guesthouse we are staying in–two bucks a night for a lumpy tick mattress in a Spartan cell, outhouse out back.
The food is nondescript and we consider ourselves lucky when we find ourselves eating something other than packets of instant noodles and tasteless, bony river fish. Several times, though, we happened upon a local delicacy–vendors selling skewers of barbecued porcupine. Unlike its thorny exterior, the flesh is succulent and sweet–the very reason why the animal needs such intimidating outer protection. The fried eggs in the morning are always fantastic, still warm from the hen, the yolks brightest orange and bursting with roundness. Yet, with all our personal discomforts, I wouldn’t trade our lodging for a five-star suite at The Waldorf or a table at Delmonicos.
Along our route from the Thai border to Luang Prabang, Viangphoukha is considered a metropolis of sorts compared to the numerous hill tribe settlements we have been passing and visiting. Indigenous groups, like the Hmong, Lisu, and Akha, still live much the way as their ancestors did twenty-generations removed. Most of them could not even tell you what century we are in–life here follows the ancient rhythm of nature before numbers became important.
They feed themselves with what they grow, raise, gather, and hunt. Their clothing and nearly all their everyday implements and utensils are crafted from what the forest provides. Chickens, ducks, mongrel dogs, pigs and piglets wander freely underfoot, scavenging for scraps.
The one cash crop in these parts is popaver somniferum, or poppy, from which is made opium. Due to government and NGO pressures, the poppy fields are now hidden from the roadside but are only a short walk beyond the village center. Eliminating opium from a hill tribe culture is as absurd as denying a Frenchman his glass of wine. The opium is mostly used by the old folks to chase away the aches and pains of a lifetime of toil. To forbid them this is both futile and cruel.
The motorcycle riding up here is nothing short of phenomenal. Our big riding dilemma is this; do we ride hard and fast, the way our motorcycles were designed to handle off-road conditions, and which also happens to be a hell of a lot of fun? Or do we drive slowly, taking time to smell the roses, to experience the jungle, and to enjoy the vistas? We end up doing a combination of both, but leaning more toward high performance riding–boys will be boys wherever they go.
Your eyes must be peeled every second on that slice of road directly ahead or you will lose control of the bike and fall. Such prolonged concentration is difficult because the scenery, so breathtakingly beautiful in this rugged and virginal terrain, fights for your attention. It’s a shame, really, but we must drive with self-imposed blinkers on.
The trails we travel are ancient trading routes as old as the history of man and closely follow the contours of this primeval landscape. They hug the spines of mountain ridges and corkscrew down the steeps, then burst out into verdant, picturesque, paddy-terraced valleys. Not an electric wire or telephone pole is to be seen, nor a scrap of litter.
Most of today’s ride was on a horrible stretch of jungle trail that climbed up, over, and down two mountain ranges. From the top of one pass we could see Burma, and from the other one into Yunnan Province, China.
Our convoy, so far, had three falls that damage motorcycles and bikers to varying degrees. Even with limps and bruises and bent rims, this hardly slows us down. A fall is just a wake-up call to pay closer attention, and if you can walk away from one and restart your machine, count your blessings. After the toolbox and first aid kit are stowed away, we can hardly wait to jump back into the saddle to see what surprises await beyond the next curve. There is usually something there we have never seen before, and this trip is no disappointment on this count. We stop at one village, to investigate a knot of people surrounding a man in a tree seesawing up and down on a low springy branch. It was an ingenious but rudimentary pressing machine. His helpers were pushing sugarcane stalks in between the branch he is riding on and the one below. Juice is crushed out between the limbs and drips into collecting bowls on the ground. They gave us a taste and it’s delicious. Then they let us take a go on the press ourselves and pose with us for photos. We reciprocate by letting them sit on our bikes and try on our helmets.
Impromptu meetings like this, between members of such two, disparate cultures, are one of the great joys of motorcycle touring through an undeveloped country like Laos. On a bike trip, we can stop whenever, wherever, and for however long the fancy strikes. Without your own formidable transportation in northern Laos, there is none. And no means of locomotion is more exciting or exhilarating than a motorcycle.
The sugarcane pressers were speaking God knows what. None spoke a word of English. Still, we were able to converse using the elemental human language that is deep within us all: facial expressions and body gestures. We truly enjoy each other’s brief company and encounters like this will be remembered and talked about by both sides for many years to come.
The motorcycles are the greatest icebreakers. None of the locals in this part of the world have ever seen a big bike before except in photos or posters. Few have seen Westerners for that matter. So when seven of us, out of the blue, pull into a village in a cloud of dust, we indubitably draw a crowd of these gentle people who are as curious about us as we are about them. We become their entertainment and they become ours, which is a pretty fair exchange.
I finger and admire an intricately embroidered vest worn by a wisp of an old women with blackened, betel-stained teeth, and she is transfixed by my four-buckle, red plastic, steel-toed, motocross boots. I touch here hat. She wears my gloves. She feels my thigh and is shocked by its girth. I then feel hers and am amazed by her toughness, earned from decades of climbing up and down, with a fully loaded pack, the steep slopes of her valley. We smile at each other warmly, happy for our acquaintance. I give her a hug and she breaks into girlish giggles.
We are giants compared to the hill tribe people and frightened children hide behind the legs of their parents, peeking out when they think we are not looking. I am twice their size on average, and that is fodder for a lot of questions directed at our Laotian guide, Lat. Lat is always being asked “What do they eat and drink to get so large?” He answers them, “A lot!” Then it is usually, “Where do they come from? Where are they going?”
They invite us into their huts for tea, and inside is another world again. The windowless interior is dimly lit and hushed. The packed-earth floor radiates a damp coolness. Thin beams of sunlight seep through the slits in the bamboo wall panels and slash across the interior in shards of brightness. Wisps of smoke from an open fire float nearly motionless through the air. It takes a couple of minutes for my eyes to adjust, but once they do, everything I take in is fascinating.
A bundle of leaves and feathers covered in cobwebs – a spirit shrine – is lashed above the doorway. Animal traps and snares fashioned from twigs and fibers, in all shapes and sizes, hang from the beams and central post. An ancient long rifle leans against a homemade loom with a half-finished cloth in progress. I wander around the hut trying to guess what each item is used for, items essential for their survival. They are amused by my inspection, and when I seem puzzled over an article, they demonstrate its purpose. Everything is functional. Nothing is decorative except for their clothing and jewelry.
I try to imagine their reaction if one of them entered the glaring brightness of my Western domicile – plush carpeting and climate control, tiled bathrooms and gourmet kitchen, Beethoven in surround sound. Would they be able to fathom my microwave oven – cooking without heat, something I can’t, for the life of me, understand.
After spending time with the hill tribes, one soon recognizes that an alien species of human being they are not. They are simply another component branch on our family tree.
I cease paying attention to differences, and instead, savor our similarities. We both have to work to eat. We both have to get along with our neighbors, and we both share our love with family and friends. We get hot, we get cold, we get sick and get better. We get old, but ever-present youth keeps the culture going. And both of us love, more than anything else, to laugh and to have a good time.
I’d even bet that occasionally, on a sleepless night, the hill tribe people think of questions and look for answers under the same starry sky that started me on this reverie.
We would love to stay and linger longer, but our time is limited. To do a tour like this properly, we need double our 11-day time span. Move on we must, and after warm and bittersweet good-byes the next morning, it is back on the bikes for more motorcycle adventuring in the wilds of Southeast Asia.