Day 3-4: March 7-8
After a beautiful misty sunrise over the mountains in Ban Bangalow, we were ready to hit the road for the last big driving day, which would end in Luang Prabang. But, sure enough, when we all started to pull out of the hotel parking area, my bike whirred, hummed, sputtered, and didn’t start. We were at the top of a hill, so we tried the good old rolling start, to no avail. Since nothing helped, we pushed the bike to the side of the road, in front of one of the last houses in the village. The man outside said there was no mechanic there, but we could find one in Phoukoun, a few kilometers away. Alex and I sat with the bikes and Denali drove on to bring back a repairman, and, just like last time, everyone in the village passed by in order to stare at the new arrivals.
Some small kids playing under the house took turns peeking at us and then erupting into giggles. Eventually, they got brave enough to run from our hiding place and yell “goodbye!” (seemingly the only English they knew), and then retreat back to safety. Finally, their parents decided that it was inappropriate for them to be playing with the falang and whisked them off to the next house with a scowl. The villagers warmed up to us slowly and warily, but eventually accepted our presence and offered us stools to sit on, and watched us play cards with amusement. Three hours, three back and forth trips by the mechanic, and one new sparkplug later, we were finally able to drive out of the village and on our way.
The driving on this final day was breathtaking, but extremely challenging. Almost the whole day was winding switchbacks up and down the sides of the mountains. The views of valleys, forests, and small villages were stunning, but we couldn’t spend too much time looking at them, or we’d risk falling off the mountain ourselves. I found this out the hard way, late in the afternoon.
I was leading the way down some of the many winding mountains we traversed during the day, was momentarily distracted by people working in a stream on the side of the road…and the next second I knew I was sliding across the pavement.
My tire had hit a bump in the road, sent me off-balance as I was turning, and sent the bike and myself flying. As I, stunned, tried to pick myself off the ground and hobble to the side of the road, the locals I had seen jumped into action, waving to stop an oncoming truck that was rounding the bend, and helping Alex and Denali move my bike to the side of the road.
It finally made sense why we had been sweltering in jeans, gloves and windbreakers the whole way. I had scrapes and bruises, but nothing had broken the fabric, so they were much better than they would have been. Alex and Denali, trained in wilderness first aid, were prepared to leap into action to treat my wounds, but the Lao woman who had been watching had other plans. She disappeared into the brush on the side of the road and came back with a handful of leaves, which she ground to a pulp with a rock, and pressed onto my scrapes before any of us realized what was happening. After a smile and a khop jai lai lai, she went back to her business, and I tentatively got back on the bike, to press on to Luang Prabang, herbal medicine securely bandaged on.
After the numerous setbacks of the day, we were seriously behind schedule. The sun was already beginning to set and we had many kilometers to go. We tried to continue as quickly as we could, but the winding roads and the potholes kept us moving slowly, and soon it was dark. We had purposely not driven at night earlier in the trip, and this last hour proved most harrowing. At dusk, clouds of mosquitoes hit my face and eyes, but I couldn’t blink them away because I couldn’t look away for a moment. The road seemed to deteriorate and potholes were many, sending many other reckless drivers into the wrong lane and into our path to avoid them. The stretch of road seemed endless by the insufficient light of our single headlights.
After an extremely tense ride, we finally, finally, pulled into the picturesque city of Luang Prabang. The city is known for its monks, temples, colonial architecture, and relaxed atmosphere, and we gladly ditched the bikes outside our hotel for a walk around town. We had just enough time in Luang Prabang to reflect on the trials and triumphs of our ride, enjoy some Western food, and wash the herbs out of my scrapes before we left. The next day, after a walk around town, we boarded a flight at the tiny domestic terminal, and went back the way we had come, but this time it took only an hour. To see more photos of the trip, click here.