We rode out to a UNESCO World Heritage waterfall. Deep in a protected jungle – water cascades down a series of crystal blue pools beneath a single mega-falls spewing over the side of the Lost World. Tourists swarm around the rainforest-lagoony perfection while happy bald Theravada monks picnic on the banks. But to reach the top of Big Daddy we had to stalk a long, steep-to-the-point-of-vertical path through the forest thick. Climbing from hardwood root to root and tackling boulders on all fours, my heart swam in happiness. Even despite the Western tourist chatter just barely our of earshot below us, I felt like a real-life explorer on some Indiana Jones expedition. The feeling was doubled to reach the top and find a flooded forest with a solitary old man ferrying people around on a homemade bamboo raft. On the way back down we basked and floated around in our own private tropical waterfall lagoon, which schools of little fish coming to nibble our dead skin (or, if Ed’s theory is to be believed, trying to eat us alive but they weren’t big enough yet). We saddled back up and left feeling refreshed. That night we camped in a peaceful thatch hut in the middle of a rice paddy, where we fried noodles over an open fire and a curious water buffalo stopped in for a cordial visit. That was a good ride.
In the thick, primordial forests of northern Laos where the Hmong and other hill tribes cling fiercely to their traditional ways of life, we stopped for roadside phó. Soon we made a friend. Soon our friend went across the street. Soon our friend got hit by a motorcycle and came limping back with a gnarly split toe. “Hey, can you guys fix me up?” he gestured. We did our best, and soon other villagers were coming up to us: “Hey! My toe’s messed up, too! Can you fix this?” We were in. We looked around and saw that there was a major, full-village construction project going on. In a town made entirely of wood, bamboo and thatch, everyone was coming together to proudly build an elaborate concrete sign for their new school. “Can we help?” Happy to have the extra hands, we spent the rest of the morning shoveling gravel, nailing boards, and holding stuff while the anarchic caucus of bandaged toes passionately debated the best ways of doing things. During a lull in the activity we were kidnapped by a happy gaggle of village youngsters who wanted to show us their local swimming hole, their homes, and figure out how our cameras worked. When it was time to go, we mounted up and hit the heart of one of Laos’s biggest jungles. We pedaled empty roads with our jaws wide open, and spent the aftyernoon stopping to do field recordings and just giggle at the wild, often hilarious sounds of tropical birds and insects. That was a good ride.
Not far from the Xayaburi dam site, and within the area which will become the dam’s reservoir upon completion, we encountered more butterflies that I’ve ever seen in my life. It was an odd juxtaposition: profound beauty coupled with the sadness of visiting communities about to be displaced, but being brushed by bright powdered butterfly wings will never fail to put a smile on my face. SO many colors, SO many patterns. Baby blue bizzaro-Monarchs, enormous orange-and-black numbers the size of a robin, and mint colored gals who I mistook for cabbage moths before they turned wing and showed me their alter-identity as electric drag queens. I saw flying zebras, cheetahs, and a nazi-fly in silky black with a bright red armband. A striped bumble-bee design I swear I recognize from some telecom corporate logo and a whole cloud of little baby baby baby whites. Struggling relentlessly up and down steep, unpaved roads, it was without a doubt one of the most physically demanding rides of our trip. But still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was riding in some sort of dream land. So many butterflies. So many, in fact, that I must confess I accidentally smacked into more than a couple. For lunch we were taken in by a smiling Laotian family to sit cross-leg in a simple thatch home and eat sticky rice with pickled green mangoes out of baskets they’d just finished weaving. It was a good ride.
Feeling like we were flying with our bikes unloaded, we tore around the vibrant, colorful city of Jinghong in southern China. We spent happy days fishing and barbequing with locals, sampling new fruits and soaking in thriving chaos in the markets. We camped next to a crazy squatted riverboat. When it came time to leave, we did so in high spirits to be heading into a brand new phase of the river: stilted homes, tropical climate, new minorities and languages: all marking the true beginning of Southeast Asia. The road was quieted and unpaved from construction, we sang and whistled and were utterly blown away by the river’s beauty. The Mekong is rightly famous for its chocolatey brown waters, but for some reason on this stretch she drops the mud and cloaks herself in a rich, picturesque gown of green and blue. Sunlight skipped and danced through the current. I almost crashed my bike three times because I couldn’t take my eyes off the river. I was love-struck. It was a good ride.
I Laotian, the word for “hello” is “sabadee” – and after cycling through the country I probably have a lifetime average of saying them both the same amount. Probably owning something to our slow speed and the rumbley, squeaky sounds announcing our arrival, everyone in Laos wants to greet us. But particularly the children. We took to calling it the “village sabadee alarm.” The first kid would spot us and yell at the top of their lungs: Sabadee! “Ope! The alarm’s up!” we’d laugh. Then from anywhere in the rippling sphere of earshot, kids come running. Sabadee! Sabadee! Alone on in big packs: Sabadee! They position themselves in anticipation – knowing that something sabadee-worthy is coming down the dusty road, but not knowing what until we hugg and puff our way around the corner, smiles split wide open and the barrage erupts: Sabadee! Sabadee! I’ve said ‘sabadee’ so many times, in a country of so few people I actually start to think in terms of percentage of the total population I’ve greeted. Sabadee! Sabadee! This is my one memory which trumps all others cycling through Laos: Sabadee! Sabadee! Ending every day horse and happy, thinking to myself: “Man! What a good ride!”
Its hot. Sweat dripping down my nose, stinging my eyes and making my hands slip on the bars. My water tastes like hot tea the flavor of plastic. There is no shade, no protection, just the rising and falling of dirt road through wide-open rice paddies. We’ve done 60km today and still have quite a ways to go. My sun-stinging legs wobble, barely strong enough to push me over one more blazing hill. Turning the crest, a moment to rest before pushing over the next hump, when what do I find before me? A little cluster of monks around a motorcycle sidecar: a rural Laotian ice cream man! Twenty-five-cents, five little scoops of runny ice cream dolloped out on a piece of white bread, smothered in some bright sauces and topped with a second slice. There in a rice paddy in northern Laos I ate the best ice cream sandwich I’ve ever had. It was a good ride.