The mother of two children clinging to her long, woven skirt encourages her two-year-old son to wave to you by grabbing his wrist and saying "sabaidee," which means "hello" in Lao. When you pass by on your bike, waving back, the woman's daughter calls out, "Bye-bye!," a phrase she probably learned at an early age to use to address passing bike tourists. If you've ever wanted to feel like a celebrity, try biking in Laos. Laotians in remote villages don't see many Westerners rolling through their homeland.
This is my favorite place to bike in Southeast Asia because the kids are awesome. I found locals to be curious, friendly and kind to me as a bicycle rider. Holding out their hands, kids slapped mine in a high-five, sometimes intentionally hard to watch my reaction with smiles and laughter. I guess mischievous kids are the same everywhere.
Laos is one of the three incredible countries visited on the Backroads Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos River Cruise Bike Tour. We follow along the Mekong River, from small fishing villages down to the splendor of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and on to the delights of busy Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.
Rising before the sun is one of the best ways to truly see the local life here in Southeast Asia. Alms are offered to Buddhist monks during the early hours of the day everywhere, and the ritual has gained an audience in the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, where lines of monks and alms-givers cover several city blocks.
The roads here are begging to be ridden and the mountains to be climbed. Passing peaks, waterfalls and rivers, the scenery looks like it is straight out of a painting. Some spectacular sites, like the Kuang Si Falls, are just a short ride away from Luang Prabang, which boasts fantastic coffee shops, historic temples, French colonial architecture and a market with myriad souvenirs.
When you need to refuel, there are new flavors to sample at family-owned restaurants and market stalls. Lao cuisine is not yet on the culinary radar in America, or at best is disguised as Thai. Replenishment typically comes in the form of hearty noodle soups, laap (meat salad), mok pa (fish steamed in a banana leaf), crispy fish from the Mekong and endless sticky rice. Accompanying dishes may be dipping sauce, called jaew, made from roasted eggplant or tomatoes. Mango with sticky rice is a popular dessert, as is fresh fruit. And a cold Beerlao is never far away. Drink it like a local by adding ice!
One of my personal favorite things about Laos is their local healthy alternative to soft drinks. There's something divine about a cold soda to quench your thirst after miles of riding through rice paddies or up and down hills in the countryside. No worries, natural sources of sugar are never far away --street vendors are always cutting up fresh fruit that you can grab instead of sugary beverages. Mango shakes are another alternative. Blended with ice, the sweet mango fruit drink can be requested without the addition of sugar. Or, better yet, sip coconut water straight from a young coconut as it is naturally high in electrolytes, including potassium, and a bit of sodium.
One of the most vibrant memories I have of cycling in Laos was riding through a Hmong ethnic group village during their New Year celebrations. On the side of the road, adolescents in bright traditional costumes were playing the game pov pob to celebrate the Hmong New Year. There were balls flying everywhere and smiles on all faces. I was lucky to witness the celebrations.
Even a few days in Laos can reveal to you some of the happiest individuals you will ever meet. A dedication to family and Buddhism has led the Lao people to seemingly feel content and fulfilled, and this shows through their waves and smiles as you take in the sights from your bike--it's a truly immersive and unforgettable experience.