Dust. Lots of it. It turned trees sepia and settled on our faces like a layer of foundation. It hung in the air like fog, blurring out the edges of craggy mountain peaks and forested hills that dominate the Vientiane Province. It took up the little remaining space in the overcrowded local minibus which we were crammed into for the 5-hour ride from northern Vientiane to Kasi.
We were headed there for what I thought would be the most challenging part of our holiday – off road biking. Little did I expect that this innocent bus journey would put my pampered, delicate first-world body and mind to the ultimate test with The Most Uncomfortable Seat (TMUS) in the whole of my travelling history.
I volunteered to take Wong Xi’s flip-out aisle seat to share the burden of TMUS during the second half of the ride. The bumpier, windier half. TMUS has unparalleled features such as a seat that slopes down to the right (so I’m constantly battling between whether I should use my core to centralise myself in the seat or relax and slump against the Lao stranger to my right), a slightly sharp metal bit that pokes my thigh when I relax and let my bum slip to the right, and a backrest that’s broken (so if I lean, I lean into the legs of another fortunate Lao stranger sitting behind me). Nothing short of a First Class seat, really.
But, we survived. And couldn’t spill out of the bus fast enough to meet Steve, our friendly Welshman motorbike instructor-guide who’s so tanned from being outdoors under the scorching Lao sun that he didn’t stand out as much as I expected him to. He’s an almost one man show that runs Uncle Tom’s Trails, taking people out on private motorcycle tours around the Kasi district.
Steve wasted no time in getting us familiar with the manual bikes, as well as his relentless dad jokes.
Within 3 or 4 hours, he got us all confident enough to manoeuvre figure 8’s, change gears, and ride up and down rocky dirt paths.
I’ve had some experience riding a manual bike off road, but to disastrous effects as I was terribly ill-prepared. With Steve’s effective and crystal clear method of instruction this time around, I realised how I was doing everything all wrong before. It’s also refreshing that he gets a massive thrill from teaching inexperienced riders, and by the end of the day, we were all in high spirits.
It has been a long day. Sipping on bottled Lao beer at the end of such a mentally and physically draining day felt like heaven.
Steve and his local friends treated us to an incredible spread of seafood gravy, sausages, vegetable soup, and sticky rice that night.
As we ate in the restaurant shack, accompanied by greedy pet dogs and the descending silence and darkness of the rural village’s night, I felt very privileged to be part this very local side of Laos.
Like a proper guide, Steve educated us over dinner on the Lao psyche and culture. He also shared his story, of how he went from starting the business from scratch without understanding a word of the Lao language, to becoming best buds with the local bike mechanic who now works for him. I was quite disappointed to learn that cats and dogs are still occasionally consumed by the villagers. I understand that it stems from poverty, but what’s curious is that they keep pet dogs, and can somehow separate that from eating dogs.
After dinner, Steve took us back to our guesthouse in his sidecar motorcycle. And as he sped along wide, unfamiliar roads, I reveled in the chilly wind wisping my hair about, acknowledging that this is what makes freedom so addictive. Miles away from home, with not a care in the world. In Incubus’ words, and in this moment, I am happy… Happy. These fleeting, foreign moments are always my favourite travel memories.
We hit the road again in the morning, after simple yet satisfying breakfast of deep fried sunny side ups, white rice, some amazingly herby and potent soup, and hot tea.
First along smooth tarmac, past low-lying suburbs sparsely populated by shops and houses, then off the main road and into smaller villages where we had to dodge lethargic cattle. I was smiling like an idiot behind my full face helmet all the way. The thrill of riding a powerful machine that lets you experience speed and nature in such an exposed way is almost palpable.
After passing through wide open fields surrounded by lush mountains, we arrived at some rocky terrain. Riding on flat, empty roads is an incredible feeling, but handling the bike over three-dimensional grounds is just as fun! It’s a lot slower, but I love being able to put our new riding skills to the test with little obstacle courses made up of rocky slopes and bumpy paths.
It also helped that Steve’s very sensitive to our inexperience, and always took the extra care to stop before every slightly steep ascent or descent to warn us and refresh our memory on how we should handle the bike in such situations. But the slopes never turned out as scary as he described! But I guess it’s always better to be extra cautious than ambitious.
I wish the expedition went on for the whole day, but our time with Steve was up sooner than I would’ve liked. We said our goodbyes in the afternoon, and promised to come back for longer bike trips.
Up we went, back on the same minivan that battered my soul on the way here. But this time around, we went all Singaporean and “choped” proper seats earlier so we don’t have to suffer for the 1.5hour ride down to Vang Vieng, where we’d stay for another couple of days.