I’ve ridden a bike since I was 6 years old. I learned to drive a manual (stick shift) car when I was 16. But I never really understood how gears worked until I was scootering uphill in Laos and I realized I’d soon be going backwards. It was a measly 125cc, which is to say that it was weak and lacked anything resembling horse-power. Even slug-power would have been stronger than this scooter.
Bessie (the scooter) was struggling, getting louder but going slower, until a turtle could have passed us. Yes, there were two of us on this poor little scooter. Luckily this dramatic tale has an anticlimactic ending: my friend jumped off the back of the scooter and I rode Bessie up the rest of the hill. And that’s how I learned that downshifting is important before going uphill. In my defense, all the previous scooters I’d ridden had been automatic so they took care of the gear shifts.
We were headed through the north of Laos back to Thailand when we stopped in Luang Namtha. It was a tiny ghost town that looked like it was built for three times the current population. I don’t know where everyone was, or where they’d gone, or when they’d arrive, but they certainly weren’t there anymore. So we scootered north to wave hi to China, since we were in the neighborhood. The roads though the mountains were winding and unreliably paved. Trucks and cars passed us like a big game of Frogger, except there were no second chances or extra lives.
The day after I woke up in terrible back pain and I never figured out why. We crossed the border and took a bus to Chiang Rai, all the while I fought a fever. The next few days were a blur of horrible headaches, one which landed me in the hospital after a day of excruciating pain. It took two hours for the morphine to kick in and a few days to fully recover. It was a grumpy few weeks of stomach bugs, food poisoning, and exhaustion. My body was telling me that it was sick and tired, and it needed a break. Luckily I wasn’t traveling alone so I had could lean on friends to take care of the travel logistics.
I recovered enough to enjoy the Thai New Year, a massive water fight called Songkran. It lasts for days, which is fun at first but gets kind of old when you want to leave the hostel without getting an extra shower.
Our last stop in Thailand was Pai, a small village up in the mountains. It was a long scooter ride, first along the highway dodging buckets of water being thrown our way, and then winding through the hills. Pai was a strange place, it was built up for tourists with cutesy shops, restaurants, and bars everywhere. The thing to do there was…nothing. We would wake up late, eat a meal, nap, watch TV (there was even wifi), get a Thai massage, meet up for dinner, wait a while to go to the bars, then go to bed. We befriended other travelers and made a quaint scooter gang, a motley crew to visit waterfalls and watch sunsets. Before I knew it, a week had passed.
We rode back to Chiang Mai in the rain, the first rain in weeks. It was a cold and uncomfortable ride, every raindrop stings when you go 40mph on a scooter. But we made it in one piece for the flight to Bangkok and two days later I left Southeast Asia, on my own again. I was a little sad to be leaving but really I was looking forward to new adventures.