Y’all, I’ve made progress with my biking skills! Two years ago I almost had a panic attack while trying to bike ride in Phnom Penh. Although I eventually enjoyed that experience, I ended up not bike riding in Vietnam (days later) or Thailand (a year later).
Time heals all wounds (or makes a person foolish all over again) because I found myself renting a raggedy rusted bike for 10,000 kip and cycling around Vientiane like I was getting paid to do it. I pedaled furiously as a woman on a motorcyle led me to the Patuxai Arch, biked (and walked) my way up to Pha That Luang, and coasted past my earlier misgivings. By the time I returned the bike to the hostel, I was coated in enough dust to fill an hourglass and knew that I would be smelling car exhaust in my sleep.
Yet. It. Was. Glorious.
There was the handsome German I chatted with in the shadow of Patuxai Arch, reading China Rich Girlfriend (don’t judge, not all reading needs to be serious meditations on life) in that same spot, bright blue skies, crisp, perfect weather, and no crowds.
Let me say that again: no crowds!
Though I enjoyed Thailand, I can’t recall the place without thinking about the throngs at the Royal Palace.
Thus, when I cycled up to Pha That Luang, a golden stupa, the empty parking lot shocked me. I rode my bike through that space like a reckless pre-teen with a death wish (OK, really I parked my bike under a tree and walked through it). Where were the tour groups and their fearless leaders bellowing through megaphones? Where were the contortions to take a photo without twenty strangers in it? Where was the frenetic pace?
It wasn’t there.
Pha That Luang, like the people, was quiet and serene. In the entire complex, I think there were thirty of us…and that’s being generous. I treasured the absolute silence and just sat in awe. It made me love Laos even more.
When I returned the bike thirty minutes or so before it was due, I experienced a quiet joy. I’d made my way around a new city with a map and a willingness to approach strangers for directions. Oddly enough, I enjoyed twisting and turning the map in my hands. The tactile nature of folding and unfolding gave me more pleasure than the two-finger smartphone zoom in (thank you, elementary school teachers, for teaching me how to read a map!).
One of my favorite memories is bouncing along the worst unpaved road trying to find a certain New York Times-recommended eatery. After backtracking from a different route because of yapping dogs, I stumbled upon this beauty: Bakery by Boris. It was like a mirage. There I was wondering if my hair was now sand colored instead of black from all the dirt I kicked up and then….just cue the hallelujah chorus music already.
This day on a bike was in sharp contrast to my first full day in Vientiane. Day one, I didn’t leave my hotel room until noon. As a teacher who wakes up around 6:00 AM with no alarm even when school is not in session, this is sacrilegious. My allergies have been fighting me almost every morning while traveling, and this time I let them win.
After Skyping with a bestie back home, I slept. I rolled out of bed 15 minutes before the kitchen closed for breakfast and then…you guessed it…went back to sleep.
Eventually, I forced myself up and out. I’m glad I did because I ended up wandering into a beautiful shop, T’Shop Laï Gallery, owned by a Frenchman (the New York Times rarely fails me when it comes to suggestions). I lingered in there like it was a museum. He knew how much I enjoyed it, so he even invited me to return the next day just to work and relax in the beautiful space. The owner told me he chose not to have a website because he wanted to keep the current relaxed and quiet vibe.
When not lingering over beautiful goods there or standing in awe at local women’s textile handicraft, I ate delicious meals (fresh cheese, sausage, bread, and salad at Le Banneton; duck, fish, potatoes, and more at L’Adresse de Tinay) and watched the sunset from the Spirit House (a cheaper option is to simply watch the flame red sun set while walking in Chao Anouvong Park, which borders the Mekong). I think seeing all of the middle-aged women exercising in the park brought the hugest smile to my face.
Laos, you are loved and beloved.