We have been in Laos for almost a week now. We took a plane from Kunming, China down to Vientiane, all in a couple of hours. Three years ago, we traveled from China to Laos on land. We were on the train for over 30 hours, then took a sleeper bus, then a sketchy vehicle with bags of rice, stacks of cabbages, and several long PVC pipes stretching all the way into the backseat, then a van to Luang Prabang.
After much debate, we decided to go and rent a motorbike and try it out. We ended up in downtown Vientiane. The streets were brimming with people, lot of them tourists. Most restaurants and businesses have both Lao and English signs. There were more fancy buildings and décor, which is a bit different from the Lao-American college town that we live in. Each province in Laos is divided into ‘Ban,’ which is basically like a town.
After visiting a couple of places (we have gotten used to noting down prices of things we bought and comparing different stores for better deals; buying things here usually takes a little more time, especially if haggling is involved), we rented a motorbike just for one day, to try it out. Steven drove it around the parking lot trying to learn how to maneuver the machine. As easy as other Lao makes it seems, driving the motorbike requires some coordination along with a good sense of balance and judgment. After Steven almost ran into a car, several men who were watching in the parking lot offered their expertise. Meanwhile, I watched from the sidelines with amusement because I was wearing a skirt. (Most women, especially adults, wear the Lao skirt “seen”. It really takes some time to get used to wearing a skirt all the time). So Steven made circles, figure eights, and doodling around the parking lot for the rest of the afternoon.
I got fed up with the mosquitoes biting my legs (oyyye, the skirt!) and I needed to prepare for my medical English class, so I took a Tuktuk (a Lao taxi with no doors) back to the school.
The toughest part of riding a motorbike for a beginner used to bicycle riding is having a light hand on the gas. Twisting the right handlebar counterclockwise toward you is like pressing the gas pedal, and it isn’t easy to feather it to go slow. Going fast and making broad sweeping curves is easy, but we learned by doing tight circles and figure eights starting off. You don’t use those skills often on the road, but meandering slowly through multimodal traffic might occasionally require some sharp turns. Traffic on the streets of Vientiane by numbers is about 65% motorbike, 30% car, 4% bicycle, and 1% large truck. Far fewer bicycles than China, and no animal traffic as compared to India. Pedestrians and dogs are mostly cross traffic, and stay on the sidewalks.
I think the unfortunate predominance of motor vehicles may be a result of the urban sprawl nature of Vientiane, and rural-distributed population of Laos. The motor vehicles aren’t just an environmental problem: Laos imports its fuel, which makes up about 40% of its total imports. And Laos has a growing trade deficit of 50% of imports. Chinese cities in similar geographical regions have more concentrated urban populations, and have lots of relatively cheap residential high-rises within biking distance of the city center. Here in Vientiane, though, nothing rises above four stories except for one hotel by the Mekong. Maybe it’s the difficult marshy soils preventing taller buildings.