William Putnam

Off the tourist track in Laos

Just one man, a motorcycle and the open road

"So it was always at night, like a werewolf, that I would take the thing out for an honest run down the coast. I would start in Golden Gate Park, thinking only to run a few long curves to clear my head...but in a matter of minutes I'd be out at the beach with the sound of the engine in my ears, the surf booming up on the sea wall...There was no helmet on those nights, no speed limit, and no cooling it down on the curves...The Edge...there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are ones who have gone over. The others-the living-are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to do when it came time to choose between Now and Later." - Hunter Thompson

About a year ago, I spent two weeks driving a motorbike through the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos. I can honestly say it was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in Southeast Asia. Like all things in this part of the world, the trip involved a lot of frustration, anger, and trepidation. However, I would not trade the adventure for anything else.

I bought the bike in the southern hub of Pakse, after spending a few days in Don Det. From there, a college friend and I drove all over southern Laos. In addition to exploring the Bolaven Plateau, we went east to the Vietnamese border, wandered through several mountains and national parks, and drove north to Vientiane.

I cannot say that anything particularly life-changing occurred during the trip. There were no epiphanies. Yet, the events as a whole led me to view traveling here differently. My bike was an old, manual bike that broke down every few hundred kilometers. It was annoying to get the bike fixed, but repairs are cheap in Laos, and I was able to meet and break bread with many Laotian people whom I would not otherwise have met. The Laotian people are some of the kindest that I have ever met. I was fed for free several times, despite the fact that most people I met had so little themselves.

Many experiences that I would have normally thought of as onerous seemed thrilling at the time. When the storms started, and it was difficult to find immediate shelter, I got soaked by the rain. Getting soaked was certainly not part of my plans, but I was able to focus my attention on other things and laugh off the mild hardships. I remember once seeing a group of baby goats sprinting down the road during a storm. At first, I wondered why the goats cared so much about the rain. But then I realized that the goats were mimicking a group of school children running home in front of them. The simple beauty of it was hard to match.

It was not just the beauty of Laos and its people that made the trip memorable. There is a joy found in cruising on a motorbike that is found in few other activities. When I was driving, I was so focused that all extraneous thoughts disappeared: my mind had no room for them. Riding a motorbike gives an illusion of freedom, something similar to what I have felt when snowboarding or skydiving. There is no way to escape the restrictions of living in a world governed by physical laws, but some activities bring an illusion of freedom, which is as close to freedom as anyone can get.

It's amazing: the more dangerous the activity, the more alive one feels. When the consequences of failure are severe, one has to stay in the present moment. There is no room for irrelevant thought processes. I suppose it's an inherent paradox. I want to live fully, and therefore I must keep the idea of death clearly in sight. And so I keep looking for the edge.



Nice article, you describe the illusory feelings of freedom well and the image of the goats mimicking children running down a mountain encapsulates an impression of Laos well. Understated and non-pedantic.

By brian wadman, bangkok (29th July 2014)

Dear Phet,

I bought the bike in Laos. The bikes there are cheaper, and you can often buy a bike from other travelers. The bikes you can buy in Laos are almost always manual rather than automatic, as most are in Thailand, but I prefer this since it is easier to stay focused when driving a manual bike.

It is not easy to get motorbikes over the border. If you have the correct paperwork (check online, I am not sure exactly what is required), you could probably take a bike from Thailand into Laos, but vice versa is quite difficult unfortunately.

By Will, Bangkok (11th July 2014)

Could you tell me if you bought your bike in Laos or Thailand? Any idea if it is possible/easy/difficult to take a motorcycle over the border into Laos from Thailand and what is required? Interesting read, thank you, it sounds like you had an excellent trip

By Phet, Bangkok (10th July 2014)

And you have nothing better to do with your evenings than show off your brilliant powers of observation online.

By Will, Bangkok (10th July 2014)

So, Laos has goats, and you like riding a motorcycle.

By UrbanMan, Near an aircon (9th July 2014)

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