For Andrew’s last day in Laos, we decided to take a bike trip out of town. Somehow this was premeditated, yet I completely failed to take all of the factors into consideration: my fitness level, the 90+ degree heat, the conversion between kilometers and miles (not as favorable as I led myself to believe), and the fact that we were leaving at the hottest and sunniest part of the day (around 12:30pm). We had heard about a charming “floating restaurant” on the Nam Ngum River outside of town and thought it might be nice to bike there to check it out for lunch and see some of the surrounding countryside. I’m not a particularly experienced biker. In fact, I don’t even own a bike at home. My experience has increased immensely in the past few days, biking through a city in which lanes are irrelevant and you can switch from riding in the road—wedged between cement mixers and songathaews—or staying safe and sticking to the right side of the road, which means you still might have to play chicken with motorbike drivers riding on the wrong side of the road.
Friday’s “little bike trip” turned into a 6-hour, 50 kilometer (31 mile), excursion in the midday heat. Very little shade, with plentiful dust and coursing sweat were the ingredients of the day. Once we got out of the city, the ride became more pleasant as we passed through what might be closer to rural Laos—rice paddies, livestock, thatched roofs, small country shops. It was clear that we had moved out of “cosmopolitan” Vientiane because of how many more stares we got, along with calls from the side of the road, many from people surprised and amused to see such obvious foreigners biking “for fun” at the most miserable part of the day, when most locals are hunkered down next to fans, or walking with umbrellas for shade. Just another “crazy falang” thing to do.
The level of English also dropped drastically outside of Vientiane, making me wish I had started my Lao lessons earlier. Most of the people we interacted with by the side of the road clearly had no idea what we were saying, and vice versa. We stopped at a very local market to get some juice (served with coconut milk, condensed milk, and ice in plastic bags with straws) and were stared at from the moment we biked into the village. I wanted so badly to take photos of the covered market—the eclectic collection of clothing, local crafts, and fly-covered meat—but felt like it would be almost disrespectful to pull out my big camera, despite the incredible photo-ops. Perhaps at some point when I know enough Lao to ask politely for permission, I’ll feel more comfortable.
After numerous crises in morale, we nearly turned back (knowing we would still have to cover the distance back to Vientiane). At the last moment, ready to leave, we showed a woman at one of the omnipresent lottery stands by the road the name of the restaurant. Little comprehension passed between us, so she yelled across the street to a girl eating lunch. The girl ran over, and after trying to explain directions in English, hopped on her motorbike and had us follow her the last half-kilometer until we finally reached the floating restaurant, Boungnanh. The food—very spicy chicken laap and khao neow—was good, but mostly we enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that we had finally found the place after many hours on the road. But there was still the ride home. After the trek, I’m both sunburned and sore. As soon as the first goes away, I’ll be looking to remedy the second with one of the inexpensive traditional massages all over town. In the meantime, the foot and leg massage I got for $5 today will have to do. I don’t want to sit on the bike again for a long time…but unfortunately I had to ride it to get to the internet café to post this.