I’d been toying with the idea of swapping my backpacking life for bike touring since becoming single. Life had put so many cyclists on my path after the breakup that I took it as a sign for me to “convert” and begin a new journey, figuratively and literally. So when my friend Jochen asked if I’d like to tag along to cycle a few hundred kilometers with him in Laos, a country I absolutely love, I jumped on the opportunity to test the water under the safe wing of a well-seasoned cyclist and see for myself if this way of traveling was for me.
One year ago today, on January 1st 2014 at 8am, we locked the door of our flat in Montreal for the last time, leaving behind an empty shell of what was our life of the previous seven years, and dropped the key through the mail slot. As it resonated loudly in the dark empty box, I felt an excitingly familiar feeling in my stomach: we were homeless, the unknown awaited us. It was amazing to ring in the New Year in such a drastic, life changing, exciting way, and the feeling hasn’t left me since.
One thing anyone who is even mildly technology dependant should do before travelling anywhere for an extended period of time is to have their smart phone unlocked. Having 3G in South East Asia (in fact in any foreign country!) opens up so many possibilities. All of a sudden you are not dependant on tuktuk drivers telling you that your hotel is miles away, you can look up this nice hotel you just stumbled upon on Tripadvisor to see what other people thought of it and you can pretty much just hop on a scooter and go get lost anywhere, knowing that your trusty GPS will always bring you back home at the end of the day. 3G in South East Asia is extremely cheap and surprisingly very fast and reliable in most places.
Finding a place to stay in South East Asia is hard. It’s not difficult to find accommodation, in fact the plethora of options is completely overwhelming and makes advance booking unnecessary and expensive. What is really difficult however is finding those diamonds in the rough, and steering clear of problems like bed bugs, noisy neighbours and hostile staff – problems that often don’t become apparent until you’re already payed up and settled in. It’s no good being precious, and some of the roughest places can also turn out to be some of the best places, but that’s no reason not to try!
Nong Khiaw sucks you in like soft, oozing, relaxing quicksand. The memory of the border crossing that took you from Sapa, to Dien Bien Phu, to Muang Khua aboard cargo buses overstuffed with teeth-sucking chumps seems to be fading away into the distance, despite the fact that it was, hum… well it was yesterday. You flop into a hammock and feel your pulse rate drop as you take in the river and karst views from your balcony at Sunrise Bungalows, a beer Lao in hand, and realize that you have arrived somewhere truly special.