Tag Archives: roadtrip

Lao Motorcycle Diaries, Part 3

Day 3-4: March 7-8

A misty morning looking out from Bangalow.

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.

It takes a village to repair a motorcycle.

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.

A look at the terrain on our last day of driving.

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.

We saw this sign many, many times.

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.

Small-town gas station.

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.

Luang Prabang: a sigh of relief.

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.


Filed under Laos, Luang Prabang, Phoukoun

Lao Motorcycle Diaries, Part 2

Day 2: March 6th

Day 2 drive: Vang Vieng to Phoukoun

After enjoying breakfast by the riverside, we were ready to hit the road.  Alex drove out of the parking lot, Denali drove out, and I…sat on my bike and listened to a disheartening whirring sound when I tried to rev the engine.

Bike repairs, day 2.

We walked up the road for a water bottle of gas.  No luck.  We walked to the closest mechanic and brought back a boy who looked about 15, and concluded that I needed a new battery.  After a long wait in the parking lot, and several trips back and forth to the shop, we were moving…3 hours after we expected.

Rice paddy green: there's nothing quite like it.

The delay was forgotten as soon as we were on the road.  The next hour, between Vang Vieng and Kasi, was my favorite part of the trip.  The distinctive Vang Vieng mountains were still in sight, and the road curved and winded in a leisurely manner, making the driving easy enough to fully enjoy the brilliance of the rice paddies and the wow-factor of the backdrop.  In Kasi, we stopped for sodas and to dip our feet in a nearby stream, where a group of boys were playing–throwing one another in the water and climbing up trees to plunge into the deceptively deep water below.  They giggled and said falang a few times when we sat down, then continued their shenanigans.

Once we left Kasi, the road began to get steeper and more treacherous, and the peril of stalling out on a steep uphill curve became more real.  The bike I’m used to driving can groan along in 4th gear at any speed if I force it to.  But on the motorcycle, the tell-tale, panic-inducing, clunk-clunk-about-to-stop engine sound began as soon as I didn’t shift down fast enough.  The only thing worse than getting stuck behind a slow-moving truck going up a steep hill was when I actually stalled out uphill, and starting again without rolling backwards or getting demolished by the next truck coming around the blind curve was a challenge.

Time to try a rolling start. (photo credit: Denali)

Alex’s bike stopped on one such hill, and after several tries, it appeared it was not going to start again at all.  Luckily, we were just around the bend from a small, mountain-top village, and we rolled our bikes into town.  As soon as we came into sight, more and more people came out of houses, out of the fields, and into the street, to stare at the strange foreigners.  Before long, we were surrounded by a circle of wary but curious children, who stared at us like we had arrived from another planet.  We were able to communicate with one of the women, who told us that the closest mechanic was either in Kasi, where we had come from, or Phoukoun, the next town–both about 45 minutes away.  As we deliberated about what to do, the wide eyes of the village children continued to follow our every move, but they were a little unsure about all of our attempts to make friends.  Ngaam lai, very beautiful, I said to one little 5 year-old, pointing at her necklace.  She looked skeptical.  Denali made a bit more progress with the help of a digital camera, but there were still no smiles to be had.  Finally, we discovered that with a little pushing downhill, Alex’s bike could start while in motion, and we cautiously made our way out of the village.

Where did these falang on motorcycles come from? (Photo credit: Denali)

After that second delay, it became clear that our original plan was entirely unrealistic.  There was no way we would make it to Phonsavane that day.  We would be lucky just to make it to Phoukoun by dark, so we reluctantly scaled back our plans just to get to Luang Prabang by the end.  Just before Phoukoun, we had been told something about bungalows to stay in…which we soon discovered was actually a place called Bangalow, a village just bigger than the one we had stopped in.  It looked similar, with staring children, roosters, and thatched roof houses, but also with a large truck-stop style hotel that seemed wildly out of place.  The view of the mountains from the back porch won us over, so we settled in to enjoy a peaceful sunset on the mountain top at the end of day two.

This looks like the perfect place to stop for the night.

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Filed under Laos, Phoukoun, Vang Vieng

Lao Motorcycle Diaries, Part 1

Day 1: March 5th

It was 1:30pm and I was waiting at a traffic light on Route 13 South, breathing in a cloud of exhaust from the truck in front of me and sweating in the heat of my windbreaker, gloves and jeans.  So began my first motorcycle trip.  For our short midterm break from work, Alex and I had decided to drive from our home in Vientiane north to Luang Prabang, along with Denali, a fellow Princetonian/PiAer who works for Chiang Mai Rock Climbing in Thailand.

The drive on day one (shown in relation to the whole country of Laos)

Our original plan was quite ambitious.  In 4 days, we were going to drive from Vientiane, to Phonsavane, to Nong Keow, to Luang Prabang, where we would drop off the bikes and then fly back home.  With each passing hour, we discovered how unrealistic this was, and, in the end, were thankful just to make it to Luang Prabang in time for our flight.

We had rented Suzuki Van Vans, which seemed like ideal beginner bikes, since they could handle the roads, but were also short enough for me and came in sweet colors (essential for awesome-looking trip photos).  We had had a brief lesson earlier in the week.  The general driving experience is not too different from what I’m used to everyday on my Kolao motorbike, but requires a lot more concentration in the beginning, since the motorcycles are fully manual, engaging all four limbs between the clutch, gear shift, accelerator, and foot brake.  Stalling out when stopping was a regular fear in the first few hours while driving.

Passing through a village (Alex in blue, me in black, photo credit: Denali)

So by 1:30pm on Saturday, we were on the road.  I was sweating in the full body coverage biking gear that had been recommended (for good reason, I’d learn later in the trip), and we were on some of the least pleasant roads of the trip, those lead outside the Vientiane capital area, which were filled with concrete, diesel fumes, dust, and general grit.  We stopped on the side of the road after the first hour for a water break and to gush about how awesome we felt driving real motorcycles and our faces were all ringed with dirt and grime picked up from the road.

Our aim for day one was to make it to Vang Vieng, about 150 km from Vientiane (which took us about 5 hours, including a noodle soup stop).  Though this day turned out to be the least impressive scenery-wise, it was still exhilarating as soon as we got outside the city and saw mountains and the brilliance of rice-paddy green (a color which deserves its own spot in the Crayola box) for the first time.  We would be taking the major “highways” for the whole of the trip, but after leaving the capital region, these turned into what would generally be thought of as local country roads in the USA.  Amazingly, these major national roads were ringed by tiny mountaintop villages all along the way, where every type of animal and person crossed out paths.  We dodged cows, buffalo (there was a close call with some buffalo who refused to move), dogs, cats, ducks, turkeys, chickens, goats, and pigs.  Alongside the roads in the villages naked toddlers played, and local children stopped and waved as us while we drove past.  In a developing country with a population of only 7 million people, almost everything outside the capital still looks very rural.

Final pit-stop: sunset outside of Vang Vieng.

Just before sunset, the imposing karst cliffs of Vang Vieng came into sight, and we rolled into the town just before dark.  Tired, dirty, sweaty, and relieved after our first day of traveling, we took the first reasonable room we could find…which happened to be about $2 per person.  Vang Vieng is a strange place.  Though it’s still a small town, it’s a major tourist destination, both because of its incredible natural beauty and its reputation as a “chilled out” backpacker party hub.  Based only on my impressions, I would guess that more tourists come to Vang Vieng each year than Vientiane.  With our rigorous driving itinerary, we had neither the time nor the energy to partake in the Vang Vieng experience (either natural or otherwise), so after some Lao food and just a few episodes of Friends (which is ubiquitous in the open-air cafes around town) we headed to bed, ready for a full day of driving to come.

Vang Vieng scenery: After a stressful day of driving, nothing beats waking up to this.


Filed under Laos, Vang Vieng, Vientiane

Ciao, For Now

During our last full day in Sardinia we made the long drive from Cagliari, which is far in the south, all the way up the east coast back to Olbia. Along the way we passed through the mountainous regions, even catching glimpses of snow-capped peaks in the center of the island. The road, known as l’Orientale, also took us through some incredible towns that seemed to barely cling to the sides of the mountains, where the side streets were pericolosissimi–not only was there barely enough room for one little Fiat on the two-way streets (which people natually parked on anyway), but they twisted around blind curves, and were unbelievably steep. One such town we drove through was Orgosolo, famous for its beautiful and fascinating murals, many of which comment on life in Sardinia.

welcome to Orgosolo

welcome to Orgosolo

Olbia, when we finally arrived, was much more charming than my guidebooks had made it sound, but was another town that I could tell would be unpleasantly swarming with tourists in the summer (and way out of my price range, since it’s close to the posh Costa Smeralda resort area). Now, during the off-season, it was calm and pretty, perfect for window-shopping in the expensive stores, and wandering down the quiet alleyways and along the shore.

Olbia in the morning

I felt like we had just arrived, and it was hard to give up the keys to the rental car, but soon we were landing again in freezing Milan, after having enjoyed the mild weather of the Mediterranean (it was in the 60s for most of the week). During the last 15 hours in Milano, we toured La Scala opera house, and wandered around the fashion district a bit, returning to our new favorite Asian-run Italian restaurant for one last pizza. I’ll be back before long though…I’m returning to la bell’Italia with my Italian Slow Food seminar in just two weeks! We’ll be leaving on the 21st of January, and I’m looking forward to seeing Milan again, as well as journeying on to Bologna and Naples…so look forward to more blogging coming soon! I’m in the process of adding the most recent trip photos to my Shutterfly site, so continue to check back for a closer look.

Buon 2010

a Milan office building wishing a happy new year

Update: As of the evening of Jan. 8, the new album is all up.  Enjoy!

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Filed under Italy, Milan, Olbia

The Long and Winding Road


old tower at the end of the Sinis peninsula

After exploring Alghero a bit the next morning, we took the winding road that snakes along the cliffs on the west coast of the island.  While my aunt Pat watched out for the insane Italian drivers and cows on the side of the road (more on animals in the road to come), I got to hang out the window and take pictures of the moutains and blue waters down below.  Aside from the incredible views, the best part of the drive was getting to experience the eccentric little towns that we passed through along the way–the vineyards and olive groves, colorful houses, and tiny churches.  During one quick stop, an adorable lost dog hopped into our car and tried to hitch a ride while we were distracted taking pictures. 

puppy trying to make his escape

adorable hitchhiker

We took an additional detour on the way to Oristano, our eventual destination for the night, to the Sinis Peninsula, home to endless crop fields, tucked-away agriturismi, miniscule towns, and the ancient ruins of Tharros.  When we finally arrived to the provincial capital of Oristano, we were well taken care of by Maria, a bed and breakfast owner and Sardinian native who talked to me at length about her native dialect over breakfast on her rooftop terrace the next morning.  Oristano, while seemingly more urban than Alghero, still had a lovely downtown area, where we enjoyed shopping at the holiday night market, and the extremely friendly owner of a jewelry kiosk who unexpectedly taught me a lot about Sardinian cultural symbols.

Buone feste!

happy holidays from Oristano

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Filed under Italy, Oristano

Sardinian Roadtrip

It’s been awhile, but finally an update on Sardinia!  We arrived on the island from Milan on New Year’s Day, and headed straight to the car rental terminal…somehow they agreed to let us on the road and shortly after we were winding from Olbia to Sassari, along the rural highways of bella Sardegna, which was strikingly green, with flocks of sheep around every bend (source of the ever-present and delicious local pecorino cheese).  We stopped in Sassari, a fairly large (by Sardinian standards) university town, but only stayed long enough to wander around the centro storico for a few minutes.  It began raining as soon as we arrived, and literally everything was closed for the new year…not that it’s unusual for everything to be closed in Italy–if it’s not a holiday, it’s the siesta, or the locals have left on vacation… 


port area of Alghero

After Sassari, it was only a short jaunt over to Alghero, a small and charming town on the west of the island where we spent the first night.  The city is perched above the coast, where wintry winds had whipped the waves into a salty foam.  In the quaint downtown area, Christmas lights and decorations were strung across the cobblestone alleys, and crowds of people emerged around sunset for an evening stroll and window shopping.  We stayed in this neighborhood in an old monastery, which is attached to the still operational church, but has now been fixed up into a hotel.  The cloister, and the former solitary confinement room are now a pleasant breakfast area, where we took our first morning caffe the next day.

cloister breakfast area

cloister in Hotel San Francesco

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Filed under Alghero, Italy