So, like I mentioned before when I was proclaiming my sartorial decisions to be the only legitimate ones, Luang Namtha is a quiet little place next to a big national park, and you go there to sign up for one of three things: trekking in the jungle, kayaking in the jungle, and/or motorbiking in the jungle. But we had just finished our three-day trek in Xishuangbanna, and although that had been good, memorable, clean (though not in the literal sense) fun, it was hard to work up the desire to spend another few days in wet boots after they’d just finished drying out.
There was something else we wanted to try: Chartering a longboat to take us on a two-day river trip to the Thai border, with a family homestay at a village along the way. This turned out to be twice as expensive as we thought it’d be, though, and seeing as how neither of us is going to be employed anytime in the foreseeable future (OH GOD)(it’s fine, it’s going to be fine), we gave it a pass.
All out of ideas, we signed up for the laziest, wimpiest (and cheapest) thing there was to sign up for: A one-day, guided bicycle ride around the outskirts of the city.
Our guide was a quiet fellow; when we met him, he introduced himself by holding up a finger and saying, “My name’s One.” Since then, we’ve met a woman named Thu, pronounced “two;” now we’re on the lookout for Three, Four, and/or Five.
So One took us in a big loop around the countryside. We rode through tiny villages; we wandered through a market; we had an old hilltribe woman show us her indigo-dying operation; we watched a lady weave a new schoolbag for her kid; we drank home brewed lao-lao in a family’s yard; we visited One’s buddy from high school and had some iced BeerLao in his stilt house, looking out on workers in the endless rice paddies below.
We could have done this loop by ourselves. Our guesthouse had free maps of the area that marked all the villages and roads, and everywhere you go in Luang Namtha, somebody wants to rent you a bicycle. Indeed, there was one moment that day when the three of us passed a group of other tourists on bikes — they stopped us to ask whether the road we’d just turned off was good enough to ride on — when I wondered, did we just lose the world traveler pissing contest? I mean, now these Spaniards know we hired a guide to do the exact same thing they’re doing; they know we spent money to make things easier on ourselves. Are they cooler than us? They probably think they’re cooler than us. God damn it.
I guess there’s this feeling (among all independent travelers? Only in my own head?) that the more people you employ to provide you services, the less authentic your trip is. This is sometimes true. I’m aware, obviously, that many organized tours can be terrible: Air conditioned minivans crammed full of backpackers; vendors hawking trinkets at every stop; the whole thing seemly designed to ferry you from one souvenir-buying opportunity to another. Things like that are pretty gross and yeah, they fill me with existential despair, too, like an endless loop of it, the kind where you go “I didn’t come on this vacation to feel guilty about how privileged I am” and then “okay that’s a terrible thing to think” and then “but seriously, what’s with all these poor people trying to get my money?”
In Ayutthaya six years ago, I remember turning down a tuk-tuk driver who offered to take us on a one-day tour of the town, because – and can I quote myself, here? Ah I can, because I’ve been writing about myself on the internet for forever – “it doesn’t seem worth it to pay 600 baht just to avoid looking at a map for a few hours .”
I no longer agree with this, for several reasons. First, having somebody else handle the navigation is actually kind of relaxing? I’m pretty sure that, if we had done the Luang Namtha bike loop by ourselves, our cherished memories of that day would not have included the many times we would have stopped to pull out the map and bicker about where we were.
Second, having a guide is nice in a lot of other ways, too, not the least of which is the language/social lubricant factor. When we met those other tourists, we’d just emerged from a village where One had introduced us to the couple making moonshine and the mom weaving on her homemade loom. These families weren’t stops on any kind of tourist trail; they were just people that One walked up to and asked, hey, can I show these fat sweaty falangs what you’re doing? So when the other tourists turned down the road to the village, I kind of felt sorry for them – would they get to try some lao-lao? Would they talk to the lady with the loom? Or would they just ride through and gawk at people and feel like stupid asshole tourists?
I’m not saying we aren’t stupid asshole tourists, too. I’m just saying that it’s nice to pay somebody to make me feel like a little bit less of a stupid asshole tourist.
It’s also nice to pay a local to ask people, for me, if I can stick my camera in their faces. Every time One turned to me and softly said, “Would you like to take a photo? I will ask if it’s okay,” I wanted to fucking marry him.
And finally, it’s just nice to pay a local. Especially when, at the end of a long day, he’ll take you to his buddy’s house for a beer.
So! Our bike tour wasn’t especially adventurous and it did bust our budget for the day, but whatever, I’m glad we did it, and hooray.
The other thing we tried to do in Luang Namtha was rent motorbikes. Ha! And ha and ha again! I’ve told this story to some people already so I’m sorry if you’ve heard it, but you know how I like to document my humiliating experiences on my WebLog.
Okay well there isn’t that much to tell, sorry I’ve built it up, I am alone and somewhat drunk at a riverside bar in Luang Prabang right now and the place kind of smells like farts.
So there were guided motorbike tours on offer in Luang Namtha, and we looked into them, but they were also a little expensive (which, at this point in our trip, really just means “they cost more than ten dollars”) and while we were looking into them every citizen of Luang Namtha, man woman and child, zipped by on the street on a motorbike. So, how hard could it be to ride a motorbike? Is what we thought. We don’t need a guide. We don’t need anybody to teach us. We just need to go for it.
I am pretty sure somebody is smoking pot in this bar right now.
The next morning, we walked into the closest bicycle/motorbike rental place and proclaimed that we would each like to rent a motorbike, please. The owner, who had minimal English, indicated that we should choose what kind of motorbike we wanted; not knowing anything about anything, we pointed at some blue ones. “We’ll take those,” we said. The owner wheeled them out to the street and started them up for us. Upon noticing just how intently we were watching what he was doing, he pointed to the bikes, then pointed to me and asked, “You know?” I shook my head. He turned to Ryan: “You know?” Ryan also shook his head. The owner made a skeptical noise and indicated that I should try to ride the motorbike down the alleyway. I did this. It was terrifying and about five seconds in I was like “NOPE NOPE NOT DOING THIS I CAN’T DO THIS OH GOD” and then the owner grimaced some more and said, “Maybe bicycle better?”
Yes maybe bicycle better.
P.S. Do you like how my pants/flats combination makes me look like Calvin’s mom?
Because I do!