Lost in Laos
I took a trip to Luang Prabang, Laos with a good friend. We were enchanted by the town along the Mekong River. We were on a tight budget, so we searched for inexpensive experiences. We found out about a bike trail. From our online search (there wasn’t much), we decided it would be a leisurely afternoon biking the rolling hills in the countryside. This seemed like the “off the beaten path” adventure we were looking for.
We borrowed bikes and took a small ferry across the Mekong River. At the beginning of the trail, there was an old worn map showing the route. We estimated it would be no more than 10 miles round trip. There were supposed to be villages, monasteries, and caves along the way. We each had one water bottle and started our ride just past noon, the hottest part of the day.
At first, we had a great time coasting through the countryside on the dirt road. We waved at farmers tending to their fields and took a lot of pictures. The road was not marked and it forked multiple times. We took our best guess at each one and journeyed onward. After 90 minutes, we stopped for a break at the first restaurant we had seen on the ride. My friend and I talked about how we thought the ride would be finished by now. We hadn’t seen a single one of the landmarks on the map. We really wanted to see the monastery and cave. We bought some water and kept riding onward.
The hills were getting bigger and bigger. We had not seen any people in a while. I could see we were riding into mountains. After another fifteen minutes, we decided to flag down the next motorbike we saw to ask for help. We had not seen a town or building since we left the restaurant. We waved at two motorbikes, but the people just smiled and waved back.
At the crest of a hill, I let my friend ride down first. I saw her stop very suddenly at the bottom and move off the road. I coasted down behind her, to see a small river was flowing over our path! We were just deciding to turn back when a man on a motorbike came down the hill. We waved for help and he motioned for us to cross the river and keep going. Then he drove his motorbike across it and out of sight. We decided to cross. We found a shallow path and forded the calf deep river. Then we continued to go up and up steep hills farther from civilization.
Finally, we reached a small town. Nobody spoke any English. They just kept pointing to send us farther down the road. We stopped on the side of the road to discuss how to get back. It was now 4pm; we had been riding for nearly 4 hours. There was no way we would get back to Luang Prabang before sunset. We needed to find a way back. As we were deep in conversation, the entire town began surrounding us. We looked up and saw a circle of twenty people staring and pointing at us. We smiled nervously, fully at their mercy.
A man, I can only guess was the leader of the town, pushed his way forward. We did our best sign language to ask for a ride back. He used an old cell phone to type a price to us. Forty dollars. This may not seem like a lot to you, but in Laos, that is a fortune. My friend and I shrugged, how could we saw no? He led us through the village to a pickup truck. He loaded in our bikes as we said prayers he would actually take us back to the ferry. The ride back took a full hour back over the dusty dirt road. Lesson learned: sometimes there is a beaten path for a reason. Don’t trust maps!