I’ve always dreamed of travelling far away. Preferably in a land with a culture as different as possible from my own. When I was around 18, I started fixating on Asia. It seemed to me I would find something there, the adventure I was looking for. The feeling of being lost in the most foreign land possible. It took me ten years to get ready for this trip. It may sound like a long time, but life got in the way. And I was in no rush. I knew it would happen some day. I was convinced, it would happen in due time. I went to college, studied literature, got my first job, got involved in a couple of serious relationships (not at the same time). But no matter what happened, the idea was always the same: at some point in my life, I would strap on a pack to my back and travel in southeast Asia. I was just waiting for the right time.
The right time finally came. Well sort of. Anyway I got tired of waiting, and in december 2010, I borrowed a big backpack and flew to Bangkok. I was so green at first. I remember my first day walking the streets of Bangkok, hungry but not knowing where to eat, how to order; hesitating before every little restaurant. It was my first time traveling alone. This could have very well turned into the story of a disillusion; instead this became the story of an epiphany.
For about ten days, I chased the feeling of adventure, riding trains, hopping on buses and shared taxis. Leaving my fate in the hands of a Lonely Planet guidebook. I went from Bangkok to the Lao border, crossed it and then made it all the way to Luang NamTha, a small town in Northern Laos, close to the chinese border.
The book said the trip from Vientiane, the capital, to this small town a mere 700km away, would last 12 to 14 hours. It lasted 24 hours. We left about an hour late. The bus broke down after one hour. It took about 2 hours to change the flat tire. Which means that 4 hours after the scheduled hour of departure, we were barely out of Vientiane. Then night came and people started immediately falling asleep. I did not. The loud lao pop music prevented me to. As did the old woman who was sleeping on my shoulder. The further north we got, the hillier the terrain. Which meant the driver had to stop more often to cool down the engine by pouring buckets of water on it. These old chinese motors don’t really like steep grades.
When we finally got to Luang NamTha, I could barely believe it. The nightmare had ended. I found a hotel, got a shower and went to sleep in a proper bed.
The next day, I knew I had to make a change. There was no way I would endure another trip like this one. To this day, it is nothing but a horrible memory. Buses suck and I had to get rid of them. Walking around town, I found a bike rental shop with old, beaten up mountain bikes. I had a little experience as a bike tourer. Most notably, I had ridden from Avignon to Lyon one summer, covering about 250km in two days. So if I could hardly be called an experienced bike tourer, I definitely was not a complete beginner. I rented a bike and the next day rode to a village called Muang Sing, some 60km away. I stayed there one day, explored the surroundings, got lost in the jungle, found my way back to my cabin, had a good night sleep and rode back to Luang NamTha. I went back to the shop and told the owner I was willing to buy the bike. I asked for 100$, to which I replied 75. He said “No, 100$”. I offered 80, but he insisted on 100. I tried 90 before we finally agreed on 100. I thought he’d waived the cost of the rental for the 3 previous days but he insisted I had to pay for that too. He was the only guy selling bikes in town, so I had no leverage and gave him the cash.
I showed him on a map where I intend to go with it. He said it was a bad idea and I probably shouldn’t do it. I discarded this warning and the next day, with my backpack strapped to a steel rack, I left in direction of Phongsaly. From what I had seen, the roads in Laos were good and the bike was capable.
Of course, I was naive and nothing went as planned. After a few kilometers on a paved road, I took a turn and the tarmac vanished. I spent all day on a mountainous gravel road progressing slowly at first, and then barely progressing at all since I broke my derailleur going downhill. I ended up walking all of the climbs since I couldn’t shift gears. I crossed villages too small to have shops and didn’t eat anything all day. I only found a small stall right before sunset and stocked up on cookies and chips. I also bought a headlamp as I had given up all hope of making it to a hotel before dark. I rode (and walked) in the dark for 4 or 5 hours; having no idea where I was or how far I had to go to find a hotel. Everytime I met someone, using the phrase book in my Lonely Planet, I asked how far was the next big town. No one knew but rather than admitting it, they would all take guesses. The wildest guess came from a couple of drunk kids on a motorbike. They seemed to find my situation funny. Looking back, I kind of understand the comedy of the situation. But at the time, I have to admit I hated them for laughing at me.
Somewhere around midnight, I made it to a town that was big enough to have a hotel. I have no idea how far I traveled that day as I didn’t have a bike computer, let alone a GPS. It was the first day of a 7000km long bike journey across 5 countries. It was hard, long and I felt miserable most of the time. But I was hooked. I fell deep into bike touring and never got out. You’d think that a day like this could inspire nothing but hate for bike riding. But the truth is that I had found the adventure I was looking for. The uncertainty. The remoteness. The solitude. The feeling of being lost and in somewhat of a danger. That’s what I had been looking for all along and could not find with conventional backpacking.