We left Phonsavanh in a cloud of dust to ride motorbikes in the mountains of Laos. Phonsavan wasn't a favorite place in our "world top places to go" list. The cold temperatures were driving Shelly and I to warmer climates, and the town was nothing special in our eyes. I think the most important thing about the trip from Phonsavanh to Vang Vieng, was that we learned more about each other and ourselves through simple lessons.
On Our Way Out of Phonsavan
We left Phonsavanh and while driving out-of-town, after a couple of days break, our bodies required a re-adjustment on a bike. Your joints ache just a little more due to de-conditioning and your senses are dulled. Almost like you forget to ride a little. Therefore, we took the first 50 or so kilometers at a safe 40-45km per hour. The roads were great and the weather was cool but not uncomfortable. The sun was shining and it felt good to get some sun on our faces. The ride was enjoyable.
Shelly in the mountains of laos
Riding Motorbikes in Laos
Riding motorbikes through Southeast Asia is more than where you go, but how you get there. In general, the experiences I have had over the years of riding motorcycles are irreplaceable. My experience started when I was 15 or 16 and bought a motorbike, I believe it was a Suzuki or Honda 100. I bought it with my own money at a neighborhood garage sale and pushed it home. My mom was none too happy with my purchase. My next bike would be at 21. I bought a Honda 400 /4 cylinder bike from my friend Ike Howels for what I remember to be 100 dollars. I had a Seka 750, a Honda 500 shaft drive, a Harley Fatboy. I have years of riding under my belt and experience with hazardous riding on dirt bikes in various terrains.
Since leaving Hanoi, Shelly has been careful and safe. She has made some steady strides in her ability to ride and we are making more kilometers per day in transit from city to city. Yet over the last week or so I have been trying to assist Shelly in improving especially on mountain roads. Some roads are fairly narrow-winding roads, that in my mind requires experience. The way I feel about learning to ride is driven from my own experience and as we draw on our own experiences, be careful not to close your mind around them. I tend to do that and shouldn't.
Roadside Eatery In the Mountains of Laos
Lao Mountain Life
We stopped by in a little village along a river where the people bath daily . Naked children played in the river while the mother's bathed in sarongs. I couldn't help but feel like we were really in Southeast Asia! That iconic view of the steep mountains, river below, people bathing and washing laundry. We stopped and had noodle soup for lunch along the river and ate......surprise surprise.... the noodle soup, sweet cracker, and choco-pies diet. This diet was getting old. Ordering anything else can be an ordeal of charades and acquiring a meal less than satisfactory. Noodle soup at least gives us energy and it's cheap.
We ate for about an hour and half, and relaxed watching the village and the village watching us. Sa Bai Dee's back and forth to any passerby. As we got back on the road, I felt we needed to make up time, and was thinking in my head that although 40km per hour is acceptable, in the hills we were averaging 12 miles an hour or less. If this country has this much mountain activity, we should arrive in Cambodia sometime in February!
The Mountains of Laos
Reflecting on My Riding Experience
In my head I thought that Shelly would have figured it out like I had, but I also remembered back on the things that people have taught me. My friend Chris taught to counter-steer. That is when going around sharp corners to take them faster, you actually take a right hand turn by pushing left on the right handlebar. Think about this... So If I go right I need to steer left? I remember going to Palomar Mountain in Southern California with Chris and practicing. Watching how much faster and in control he could take the turn than me. I needed more patience with Shelly and at times I get frustrated with her slow pace.
Phou Khoun Crossroads
We arrived at Phou Khoun. The city was dusty cross-road town that joined the main Lao highway 13 and 7. We had arrived to the junction via highway 7 joining up with 13 that is the main road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. We were beat up, tired, and at 1300 km above sea-level.. much like Phonsavanh in climate. We tried to get something to eat and simply could not have noodle soup for the third time that day. (We also ate noodle soup at our hotel before leaving the for the day).
We found a guesthouse with a large soft bed that filled the room, and a squatty potty bathroom. Clean but basic. We went across the street to the Hmong Talat Market, which is a local mountain tribe basic market, and tried to find some food. We found a lot of bbq'd meat on sticks everywhere and other things we couldn't identify. We asked what each meat was, and decided on the beef. It looked great and probably cooked it at 9am that morning. It was tasty yet, chewy in a "jerky" sort of way. We really didn't care. It was the badly needed protein our bodies craved. We also picked up some fried chicken wings. They looked good and were not in the least. Dry and hard, the coating was pretty much the only sustainable portion of it. We hung out walking the crossroads tired and none too happy about our meager food. Once Shelly and I got back to our hotel, we had a talk.
The Mountains Of Laos
Motorbike Instruction - Advanced Riding
I felt that her progress was slower than I wished for and voiced my concern that we might not make it at this rate to Cambodia. We decided to change tactics. She has followed me with the thinking that if she mimics me she will learn how I do it. I often find myself quite a bit further than I like. Losing sight of each other is not how we should ride these hills. I proposed that the next day I follow her, and see how things go. I taught her about apex turning with drawings, on what line to take on turns. This entails starting a right hand turn wide left, and cutting the corner in the shortest place. This in effect cuts a turn into a straight line. I also taught her about accelerating in a turn and why it's important for keeping your center of gravity with the bike while it leans around a turn. I suppose I should have taught her this in Hanoi before leaving.
The Mountains Of Laos
Night and Day Difference Riding
We awoke the next morning early and without showering, we left town. I followed Shelly closely and shouted out when to break before a turn, where to start the turn and when to accelerate through the turn. In 20 minutes, Shelly was riding so well, that I had to keep up with her. This was controlled turns taken like a pro. Amazing transformation in one day. We arrived at Vang Vieng at 4pm after leaving at 9:30, and after stopping to have a delicious beef dish lunch that we had to point out in a Knoll's Spices recipe brochure. Charades weren't going to cut it, or we would get soup. So the lady from the restaurant, brought us a Knolls brochure and we found something that we wanted her to cook, there is a first for everything! After ordering, an Israeli man rode by on his bicycle. We waved at him, said hello, and he ended up joining us for lunch. His name is Orli. We had an interesting conversation and hearing his stories on a bicycle. We make friends everywhere we go.
The road was frequently broken up the last 20km into Vang Vieng. There has been substantial flooding that had eroded the asphalt in large river like patches. We will hit about 500 meters of asphalt then 50 meters of what is effectively a dirt and gravel road. Dusty and rough. My back light actually shook lose from the housing. Shelly rode the rough road with confidence and skill. She gained valuable experience on rough roads and mountain roads in the same day and she felt great about herself and her ability to do this. It was what she was missing and despite the last 20km of a 130km day of riding, it was the best day of riding we have ever had. Amazing views of mountains, enjoyable riding, and a great place to stay for a few days.
Changing Your Perspective
Change In Perspective
We talked about today and how astonishing Shelly's skill level increased. I learned that sometimes the way we think something should be, hope for, wish or desire... isn't achievable. Not because we didn't try hard, but because the manner in which we are trying to do something needs to be reversed. Once following her on her bike instead of her following me, Shelly achieved! I think that Shelly also learned she is much more capable to do things she didn't know if she could do, simply by learning this one technique in riding.
I think life and travel is the same. We live life sometimes trying to change something by doing the same thing we are doing expecting another result. Sometimes it takes just one small tweak and some additional instructions to change your life for good. Much like Shelly getting infinitely better in one day from just a suggestion or two and having her lead the way, it clicked. Sometimes in our daily lives we need to change the small things to make it click in the big picture.