3/4 of the motorcycle group on an empty road.

How I Learned to Ride a Motorbike in Laos

It had always been hammered into my head that motorbikes were dangerous and that death or severe injury was inevitable if I was to ever get on one. All of that went out the window the first week I arrived in Thailand.

In Southeast Asia, motorbikes serve as the main mode of transportation as they are much cheaper than a car (and able to fit just as many people if necessary). Since moving to Thailand to teach English I developed a very slow comfort with being on the back of a motorcycle as a friend, coworker, or motorbike-taxi driver took control. However, the idea of being in control, weaving through traffic-and reaching high speeds absolutely terrified me.

After living in Southeast Asia for seven months was in a hostel in central Laos, over halfway through a two-month solo trip and at the peak of my travel confidence. After chatting for about five minutes with a French backpacker in my dorm he invited me on a five-day motorbike trip with his French travel companion and a German girl they had met the day before. I explained that I did not know how to drive motorbikes and that I really did not think it was possible for me to learn.

“It’s fine, we’ll teach you. It’s so easy. We’ll go rent the bikes tomorrow morning,” he said before I even had the chance to say no.

The next morning I walked with them to the rental shop to pick out a bike. The first few attempts at driving were similar to the few times I had attempted before. As my three new travel companions zipped around the parking lot on their bikes, I moved at a crawl, feeling like I could lose control or tip over at any moment. Despite my conviction that I would slow them down, my new friends insisted that I had to come with them. I handed over the money and agreed to take that bike for five days.

The first day was a blur of averaging about 25 miles per hour with a paralyzing fear of every passing truck, car, or cow, while my companions flew at twice my speed. While that day was my first time driving a motorbike at all, it was also my first time driving off-road, in the rain, and at night. While I spent the first day convinced that my death was inevitable on this trip, I also experienced phenomenal scenery, an invitation to a wild Laotian party, and incredible support from people I had met less than 24 hours before.     

Margaret riding a motorbike past small villages in rural Laos.
Zipping past limestome karsts and small villages (image: Margaret Kojm).

The next few days brought two new members of our motorcycle gang, a hike through the largest cave in Laos, incredible meals, and a slightly heightened ability to speak French. In those four days, my sense of impending death slowly shifted towards comfort (and even happiness) when zooming through villages and down dirt roads and highways in full control of the motorbike. I managed to climb mountains, swerve around cows, and finally keep up with my travel buddies. I realized on the second to last day that I couldn’t stop smiling while driving and actually didn’t want the trip to end.

Coutnryside outside Tha Khek in Central Laos.
Scenery outside Tha Khek in Central Laos (image: Margaret Kojm).

Travel has that way of pushing you farther out of your comfort zone then you ever thought possible. Five years ago if you had told me I would be traveling alone in a country I probably had not heard of and riding motorcycles with people I hardly knew, I would have been in absolute disbelief. Those five days serve as just one of many fond travel memories of doing things previously inconceivable. I can’t wait to get back on a motorbike, stateside this time.

 

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