Laos Motorcycle Diaries

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My nights in Vang Vieng are very different from my days.

I’m staying at a party hostel, Nana’s, which serves free vodka from 8 pm til 10 pm. We spend every night playing cards and then go one of the town’s two bars, which plays k-pop til the end of the night, and lives by the motto: “drink triple, see double, act single.” My first night there a girl jumps on me, puts her tongue down my throat, her hand up my skirt and then passes out. A couple of friends help me carry her to bed where she pees on us. Nice intro.

During the day, meanwhile, I rent a moped, a piece of shit scooter that breaks down every few hundred metres. It barely turns on and has a very sticky clutch so you really have to yank at the accelerator to get it moving, and when it does it lurches forward, going from 0 to 60 kmh. I love riding scooters by now, it is a feeling of such utter freedom. I’d never had a vehicle before so the ability to go where I want and when blows my mind.

There are a few places I want to see, dotted on the other side of town. I first have to cross over the bridge that looks like it is made of Jenga pieces, the entry to which is flanked elegantly with two pillars — oh no wait, those are shell cases. Well, make do with what you have, I guess.

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The toll man gestures at me to stop so I can pay him he 0.50$ it costs to cross the bridge. It obviously started as a row of wooden slats, but so many of them must have fallen off, and patches been made, that now it is more like a game of pickup sticks. Navigating is hard, I constantly feel like I’m going to get thrown off the bike as it tries to make it over a particularly large bump. As I reach the end, so close, so close! I survived! A tourist mini van decides to cross.

Let it be said here and now that tourist mini vans in south east asia are the worst drivers in the world. They hate lanes, they hate the fact that there are other people on the road, and I would not be surprised if they were all on copious amounts of amphetamines. In any case, he decided not to wait 10 seconds for me to be off the bridge, but to wedge himself in, forcing me to drive up onto the stack of boards on the right. The tyre crashed into them, the bike fell, I crashed into the wall of the bridge. Fuck. I bounced back up, trying to get the bike over to the side, but I had no way of doing so without getting the bike up onto the ridge of planks. By this time the van had really blocked us in. I tried pushing up, but wasn’t strong enough, so I turned the accelerator, and the entire bike lurched into the side of the bridge, pulling me along with it. I crashed into the tarmac again, but at least the bike was now at the correct level and I could climb on and drive away, with a few scratches and bruises

I stopped a few metres later to put a bandaid on my poor little knee, and when I tried to turn the bike back on, it refused. In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard it’s poor creaking engine whispering to me: “no, fuck you, you threw me into a wall. I’m not taking you anywhere.” Damn. It took twenty minutes of turning it off and back on again before mopy the moped came out of his sulk and agreed to drive off.

For the next thirteen kilometres, the road was well paved and uneventful, almost deserted, in fact, apart from a troop of water buffalo who refused to move and forced me to slalom amongst them saying “oh, oops, be careful girl!” “you really should watch out for scooters you know” “your bum is blocking an entire lane, betsy”, but I eventually made it to the turn off, from when on the road was all rocks and sand and the feeling of impending collision with the ground.

Ever now and again you’d get this pebble getting stuck under the front tyre, being pushed out and somehow causing the entire front of the bike to wriggle perilously. I crossed another bridge,this one concrete and refreshingly stable, and then arrived in a tiny island of village life. A beautiful monastery greeted me, colourfully painted, with a gong on a platform just begging to be rang.

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A drive through equally bumpy roads through the paddy fields brought me to a stunning lagoon, bright blue with a bridge across it. A few other tourists lounged around its edges. I sat for a while with just my feet in the water, feeling peaceful, until I heard the conversation of two girls next to me, chatting away in french. 22. Speaking about a rape. I don’t know if suddenly people are talking about these things, or if its a traveller thing, it makes it easier to talk about things to people you have just met, but in either case my heart sunk. It’s not that I’m fed up of hearing these stories. I’m just fed up of how many have happened. How each and every girl has their scary story. I’m fed up of women having to tell these stories. I stripped off my clothes and jumped into the icy blue water, swimming around, trying to wash out the feeling of dread that has over taken me.

It’s chilly when I get back on the bike, the cold water droplets on my skin freezing me stiff with the wind on the bike. Through paddy fields, trembling, to a little wooden hut where a little girl with a huge smile sold me a ticket and handed me a headlight. I climbed up the rocks and into a cave. Buddha greeted me, a ray of light shining on him from a hole in the cave roof. I walked further in, climbed down a rickety wooden staircase that led 10 metres down to the gallery leading into the rock.

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It was an ancient, deep cavern, you could carry on walking for three kilometres. I’m still ridiculously claustrophobic, but after the conversation I had just heard I was oddly comforted by the emptiness. This dark cavern where I was all alone felt like a far more manageable type of fear than the ones I am used to.

I strolled in for half an hour, and then sat down on a rock and turned off my headlight. Let the complete dark coat me, let myself be alone and feel it, enjoy the perfectly stable temperature, and the sound of a droplet of water, falling somewhere deep in the cavern and echoing off the rocky walls.

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I let the fear wash over me, the feeling of being underground, trapped, stone all around me. I breathed it in. I let it out. Relief. The dark underground cave wasn’t just a scary prison, it was also a sanctuary, a place for brief respite, a comfortable, womb like home. I could understand why our ancestors rushed down there.

I’m a lot more relaxed on the way out, my smile almost as wide as the little girl’s as I hand back the light, and drive off feeling serene. The next stop on this mini-road trip is another cave, this one filled with water. At the entrance they provide you with a tractor inner tube and you pull yourself into the depths along a long rope. There is barely a metre between the water and the ceiling. The sound of water grows louder as I reach the end of the cave, where a mini waterfall plops down into a huge underground lake.

I’m moved at the beauty of it, all of it and as I drive home the sun setting, casting a golden light over the world I feel so happy I faced my fears because the world welcomed me, and I was reminded of my own part of it.

In our own sedentary lives that is something we are losing, our sense of belonging to an entire ecosystem. It’s even worse for women who are constantly forced to question their nature — their bodies, to be controlled, the outside world, too dangerous to explore. I need to feel my place. I never feel as alive as when I am moving through nature.

Photo by the author

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