Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw, Muang Hiam, Phonsavan, Phou Khoun

I like to drive. And I believe this is a sentiment shared by most people who've ever operated any motorized vehicle. Under most circumstances (we all know the exceptions), driving can provide a sense of liberation from a person's feeling of geographical constraint, and by extension inspire them with adventurous imagination. Being behind the wheel feels empowering, having access to faculties far exceeding one's own at the push of a pedal or the flick of a switch. In my life and my travels, I've driven quite a bit. From tiny, budget rental cars to massive pickup trucks, campervans, quads, tricycles, go karts, motor boats, and automatic scooters of many types. I'd however never felt brave or confident enough to mount the most iconic road traveling vehicle of all: the motorcycle. Whether you're judging by terrain flexibility, driving immersion or just sheer cool factor, a motorbike just leaves the competition in the dust. And so obviously, going on a motorcycle road trip has long been on my bucket list. Last week, I finally crossed it off, by departing on an 800km, 5-day drive of epic scale in remote northern Laos.

You could say I jumped in at the deep end, choosing a highly technical and challenging, high-altitude loop entirely in mountainous surroundings, with roads of highly questionable quality. Laos is not an easy country to drive in. While navigating on the very sparse network of roads is a piece of cake, there are numerous other road-related challenges. Mountain roads are curvy by definition, but Laos takes it to the next level. During my 22 hours of total driving time, I encountered on average two to three turns every minute, making for over 3000 turns on the whole trip! That's a lot of turns. Potholes are not the exception but the norm on any stretch of road longer than 100m, and they are not your familiar little gravel depressions, but deep, steep wheel-flipping or tyre-puncturing caverns of sudden doom. You cannot take your eyes off the road for more than a second at any given time, or you might be too late in swerving or braking (or bracing) appropriately to avoid a crash. And of course, due to poorer road construction quality and mountain water flow patterns, most potholes occur in turns, where they are hardest to spot and most difficult to evade. Despite my best efforts, I hit dozens of these obstacles every day, at least two or three of which were borderline catastrophic. It didn't help that about 20% of the road was unpaved, which in Laos just means a continuous field of potholes. For my behind and my back, strapped to a 15kg backpack, these bits were a particular joy.

And that's just considering the inanimate elements. Traffic on the road is far from only human, though the humans are, unsurprisingly, the most dangerous. Easiest to contend with are chickens, aware of their fragile status and quick to disperse at the sound of any oncoming vehicle. Ducks, for some reason, do not seem to follow this logic at all and will just stare you down. Dogs are chill yet very road-aware, and thus unlikely to make sudden unexpected turns the way goats tend to do. Pigs are too slow in their movement to even be considered unpredictable, and cows are large and lazy and therefore simply alter the shape of the road. Water buffalos are so massive they're actually intimidating and often require a full stop. Elephants require a 5-minute break, but that's mostly just to stare at them in awe. Cats are always around, but never visible nor on the road, which may be the most concerning observation of all.

Human driving behavior is naturally defined by the size and shape of their carrier. Motorcyclists are ubiquitous and generally well-behaved, though the speed limit they adhere to seems to be defined only by the maximum possible velocity attainable without crashing, which is always at least twice the official one. 18-wheeler cargo trucks are continually straining, whether it's on an up- or a downhill slope, kicking up massive clouds of thick dust in the process, yet are easy to overtake. The smaller and faster trucks are nasty to get stuck behind, as their frame obscures oncoming potholes. 4-wheel-drive pickups are the most dangerous, because they are the least affected by the state of the road and therefore drive at speeds even exceeding those of the motorbikes. Particularly in the turns.

If you manage to deal with all of this, you are rewarded with some of the most stunning scenery you may ever lay eyes on. The limestone karst mountain range which permeates northern Laos and areas of southern China is unique in the world and creates a landscape where massive rock formations just seem to shoot straight out of the earth, hundreds of meters into the air, lusciously covered in thick foliage. Neon-green rice terraces are rolled out endlessly in all directions through the valleys, interspersed with clear-blue rivers and irrigation canals. Due to the subtropical climate, misty clouds form at low altitudes in the mornings, giving the impression of being suspended above a sea of fluffy velvet with only the highest mountains peaking through. People in this part of the world live a staggeringly sober life, collected in tiny villages dotted through the landscape, with access only to basic food and other resources. They are ever-curious, especially the children, and always extremely welcoming and helpful. Most of their activities seem to center around farming and foraging, family life and religious worship. I got wheeled into a local community festival one day, where I was being shown around and told about every detail in the proceedings. In Laotian of course, so I didn't understand a word, but that didn't seem to matter. On another occasion, women from a local town had tightened a long, thin string across the road at eye-level, which they would use to gently force drivers to stop and make a donation to the local temple before being granted passage. With the afternoon sun in my eyes and wearing a fully closed helmet, I almost missed this string entirely, managing to slam the brakes only seconds prior to potential decapitation.

This drive was, by many metrics, an extraordinary one, yet one I deliberately wanted to go on alone. Not to purposely be irresponsible, even though my fears of a burst tyre high up in the mountains and 20km away from the nearest town did sometimes surface that sentiment, but to have time to be with only me and to think and observe my experiences as I was living them. And as stressful as the driving could be at times, it was also profoundly calming, meditative almost, providing opportunities for practicing a certain form of mindfulness by only having a singular task at hand. I learned that driving a motorcycle is not at all difficult, and that I find it extremely enjoyable. It's everything surrounding the bike that's providing the challenges. There is definitely a metaphor for life in there somewhere. And while I might not have mastered my metaphorical motorcycle just yet, I can say with confidence that I am now a relatively accomplished, badass motorcycle rider...

...without a license.

October 18th, 2022

Watch the road trip movie here.

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