How Laos Nearly Killed My Blog

Every once in a while, I ponder what it would be like not to have a blog. After all, I’ve been blogging pretty much without interruption since 2005 when I spent the winter semester in Italy. I guess I did take a break for my senior year, but that didn’t last long: soon after, I moved to Korea and started writing about such exhilarating topics as trying to buy corndogs during my dinner break. Then I went to Southeast Asia and India and kept it up. Then I went back to Korea and ran not one but two blogs, one about general hijinks and one about exploring Daegu’e green scene.

So, over the years, blogging has become a more and more substantial part of my life. Especially now since, by virtue of riding my bicycle through all sorts of crazy places, my life is inherently bloggable. Or is it? One of the major themes of Vipassana is to learn to watch your thoughts arise and pass away without giving them any importance, to regard them like clouds passing overhead. Whether this sounds like a good life philosophy or not probably depends on how much time you’ve spent on the cushion and how closely you’ve experienced the fact that thoughts, whims, emotions, memories, plans, and so forth arise without rhyme or reason and then pass away or get replaced just as suddenly. If you tried to write down your steam of consciousness, you’d be drowned within seconds. What’s the point of trying following each one to its conclusion or trace it back to its source when none of them seem to have either?

Considering myself a blogger, on the other hand, means that I’m always attempting to hold on to things. Maybe a nice, witty comment comes to mind as I see some road sign with messy English. Maybe a chain of well-argued environmental criticisms arises when I see some F.U.S. Maybe I experience some great joy and instead of simply basking in it, I attempt to put it into words and keep it in my head until I can get to a computer.

I often wonder, does the blog hovering in the background of everything that happens to me make me more or less attentive to such moments? Does verbalizing what I’ve felt make me feel things more deeply? Have I become better at being human because it? Or is it merely grasping at the wind, trying to catch memories before they’ve passed away, fighting against the transience of everything that happens in a life on the road? Do I miss new experiences because I spend so much time on the computer trying to put old ones in order, or because I’m thinking of what I’ll write about them even before they’ve finished happening?

As usual, there are no answers to be found here. Well, except to one question: What took me so goddamn long?

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What the first: heat. The digits of my two hands more than sufficed to count the number of clouds I saw on an average day during my first week. Even if I woke up at six and started riding by seven, I could hardly get two hours in before thoughts of stopping and resting in the next bamboo shack began to flood my mind. After another hour of sweat and struggle, I would usually succumb, sitting around in whatever shade I could find until four or five PM, napping, eating, reading, or playing frisbee with any kids nearby. Then I’d ride until late, crash early, and get up even earlier to try it all again. Or, some days, I wouldn’t ride again, I’d just crash wherever I could. For example, one day, I only made it 30 km.

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Taken from the bridge over the Nam Ou (maybe?) river in Nong Khiaw, a town 25km out of my way but well worth the trip. I have now experienced this enough to say: nothing beats riding along a river between two mountain ranges. Awesome views, cool air, easy roads, small towns, friendly folks.

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What the second: loads of foreigners. China felt like home because I had been there for nine months, could talk to strangers, and had picked up all sorts of tidbits about culture, cuisine, geography, etc. Laos felt like home because I could hardly go a day or two without running into other travelers; French, Belgian, Italian, German, Dutch, Danish, English, Canadian, Australian, American, Korean, Chinese. All over the place, all the time. And, most of them being younger and slightly less insane than me, generally interested in hearing about my trip. Result: stories for them, not for you. Or for posterity.

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Parable: I stop at a temple to use the facilities. I leave the door slightly cracked open so that I can keep an eye on my bike and belongings. While I’m in the middle of my business, two boys, 10-12ish, start poking around my bike and fiddling with one of the bags. I yell from my stall: “Hey, I’m watching you!” and they run off. I wrap up and return to my bag to find: they’ve left me two mangoes. Dawwwwwwwww!

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Between Nong Khai and Pak Mong, if you’d like to check it out…

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This guy drives a truck for one of the beer companies here – not Beer Lao, but the cheaper one. His mom runs a little guest house. I stopped there one evening; he was still out but his wife, 22, was still in. She spoke good English and pretty quickly told me that she had just had a baby, but that she didn’t want to be married and didn’t love her husband. Not handsome enough. Still, she had to do what her mom told her.

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Ah ha, I had almost forgotten about this! See that Korean writing on the package in the middle there? Yup, that’s Korean seaweed. Why? I stopped at a resort to eat in their restaurant and rest in one of their shacks. I talked to the sub-manager briefly, and when I mentioned that I had been riding since Korea, one of the guys who had been working in the garden with the rest of the crew popped up – not only was he from Korea, he was also the owner of the place! Hello, free lunch and free beer! Even better, he had formerly been in the business of chopping down forests and exporting wood to Korea, but he fell in love with a Lao woman with some sort of animist belief about trees feeling pain, and he decided he’d rather run a guesthouse on the river. Good man. Thanks, Ben 사장님!

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Back to Luang Prabang, UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the famous morning alms ritual.

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Every morning at sunrise, the monks come out and locals give alms. The monks get to live a life of contemplation without worrying about food, and the locals get a chance to practice generosity by supporting the monks. They (the givers)’re also reminded every morning that there are other people doing their best to live a life of contemplation and compassion. And, on a practical level, so many boys spend time as a monk that the giving of rice like this is kind of a way to pay for all the food that one’s sons have or will have received.

Sad fact: lots of foreigners run up and take flash photos in the monks’ faces, even though Lonely Planet and common sense both tell them not to. Sadder fact: the monks ask that tourists not give them food unless they really mean it. Saddest fact: the monks ask that tourists not buy the rice they plan to donate from street vendors, since the vendors tend to buy cheap rice and sell it at high prices. Bad for the economy, and it gives the monks stomach aches.

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More sad stuff: a visit to the UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) museum. During the Vietnam War, the USA dropped tons of bombs on Laos. Usually, “tons” is an exaggeration. Here, it’s the ultimate understatement. Some bombs were dropped either to try to disrupt supply chains to Vietnam, others because Thailand would only allow US planes to land if they were empty – so the planes just unloaded leftover stuff wherever they could. Result: on average, one Laos family every day pays the price. Children get killed while playing, farmers lose limbs while working, etc. Needless to say, this effects the poorest of Laos’ population – those who live in the countryside and whose daily routine includes spending time in the forests, fields, and rivers that have yet to be cleared. And those who have no source of income except for selling scrap metal from bombs that they dig out of the ground.

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A child’s picture of life during the war.

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The UXO Lao organization trains teams to find and defuse bombs, as well as to educate villagers about the dangers they pose.

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Scene from the Luang Prabang night market.

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Camping again.

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What the third: rain and fog. The weather had changed, and not for the better. The day I set out from Luang Prabang was also the day that rainy season started in earnest. Not just the sporadic afternoon showers that had been plaguing me since China, but days on end without sun. Like my first days in Laos, there were no clouds to be seen – because there was just about nothing to be seen. Cars, trucks, scooters, and people were swallowed up by the fog, invisible until about 10m away from me. Worse, this was supposedly some of the most fantastic scenery in Laos – the country’s highest mountains, tons of switchbacks, views of deep, forested vallyes, seeing rivers from above. Ideally. Instead, I just saw white.

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Met: Anthony and Matt, two Brits on a little journey of their own. New York to San Fran, then to New Zeald, Australia, SEAsia, into China, and over the mountains and West back to Europe. Nice beards, lads. Oh, and they’re on a charity tour for a brain cancer foundation – a brain tumor took the life of one of their friends shortly before they began their trip; he had been planning on joining them. You can read up on their travels and make a donation if you’d like at http://www.travellingyoung.co.uk.

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My waterproof panniers held up fine (go Ortlieb!), as did my handlebar bag (go Giant!). And my backpack cover did pretty well too (go Black Yak!). But, as for my jacket…it’s no good after about thirty seconds. Thus, an average night in the hotel involved stringing up every article of clothing, turning the fan on full blast, and hoping they’d be dry by morning. They never were. There’s nothing quite like waking up to slipping into some wet spandex.

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Finally, on the fourth day of completely miserable riding, I got out of the high altitudes and constant rain, catching only the tail end of the mountain scenery. Next 1500 km, from here to Bangkok to Chiang Mai: all flat! In other words, the worst is over, and I kicked its ass! Matt and Anthony, on the other hand – you’re just getting started. SUCKERS!

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What the fourth: Then, a ten-day farmstay, with farming in the AM, website design in the afternoon, and English class in the PM, and then card games and travel talk with the other volunteers. In other words, no time to blog.

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Then, three days in Vientiane, waiting for my Thai visa and chilling out at a top-secret no-white-guys-allowed (except me, because I’m on a bike) Korean hostel run by Jini, also a long-distance cycle tourist. Except he stopped after 20,000km to relax and run a guesthouse. Another possibility for my future…

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And now I’m in Thailand, my home for the next three months. Hurrah!

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6 Responses to How Laos Nearly Killed My Blog

  1. Jeff says:

    Hooray! Three months in Thailand. Man, this is gonna be good.

  2. Andy Pekema says:

    I appreciated your break because it gave me a chance to catch up after your recent posting onslaught. I’ve enjoyed them all. Keep it up.
    Also, some of the scenery photos you’re posting are incredible. I had no idea that stuff was out there.

    • Michael Roy says:

      “Onslaught.” I like it! Prepare yourself for another.

      Isn’t it amazing that after all the camping and traveling and mantripping we’ve done, there are still millions of beautiful places left to see?

  3. ian says:

    3 months! that’s great for a cycle tourist.Slowing down and catch the culture and delicious cuisine in Thai.