This will likely not come as a shock to my regular readers but I am not the most athletic person in the world. Especially in the last year as I've focused my attention on growing my content strategy freelance practice, I've spent far more time in front of a lap top than I should and without even realizing it, my fitness level has suffered. A few years ago I was regularly swimming and running and now I find myself huffing a bit when I climb stairs. With the new year, increasing my physical activity is something I want to make time for.
So on the last day of 2010, either as a way of torturing myself or as a way of cementing this focus for 2011, I took a 35 kilometer bike ride through the beautiful mountains around Luang Prabang, Laos to the stunning Kuang Si waterfalls and the Asiatic Bear Sanctuary. To put this in perspective, I can't remember getting on a bike in the past year, though I was cajoled into taking a spin class in early June that nearly killed me. Cycling is literally a pain in the ass, or at least that's been my experience.
Why did I even attempt to do this trip?
- I wanted a memorable and meaningful way of ending 2010 - one to set the tone for a healthier year to come.
- To see if I could do it - prove that even though it would hurt that I could push through.
- I really wanted to stop off and spend some time in some of the small villages on the way.
- The route is supposed to be stunning - I wanted to see it up close, not speeding past through the bars of a tuk tuk or dusty windows of a mini-van.
How to Prepare for a Long Cycle (or Trek)
Assuming you are as out of shape and inexperienced as I am, preparation is the best protection against injury, disappointment and getting lost. It really helped me to make a list the day before we left with an outline of everything I needed to take with me, including:
- A map: even though our route was relatively straight, it gave me enormous peace of mind to know that we had a map just in case. In Laos, most people outside of the cities don't speak English (and may not be able to read a map) but it can't hurt to have a visual - something that allows you to point to where you're trying to get to.
- Multiple layers of clothing, including a hat and sunglasses: we left our guest house at dawn (7 am) and most of our three hour ride was under the overcast sky of early morning. When we set out it was cool and we wore sweaters but by late morning the sun was out, we were hot and sun protection became important. The last thing you want to do is get sunstroke in the middle of the mountains.
- Toilet paper or tissue and hand sanitizer: Outside of the cities in Laos, bathrooms are either non-existent or are not at all what a Westerner might expect. If you are lucky enough to find a facility, the likelihood of it having paper or somewhere for you to wash your hands is almost nil.
- Sunscreen and bug spray: Obvious, but very important.
- Band-aids (or plasters if you're from the UK): Or better yet a small first aid kit. If you get blisters or take a tumble, you'll want to have something on hand to patch yourself up.
- Water: Water is heavy to carry but it is absolutely essential. Check a map to see if you'll be riding through any towns where you'll be able to replenish your supply. We knew that we'd be going through at least four villages that were likely to sell bottled water so we only started off with what we needed.
- A snack, preferably something high in carbohydrates: We picked up a small loaf of banana bread on our way out of town and even though I didn't feel hungry, stopping to eat a little bit gave me a huge boost in energy.
- Stretch: If you haven't done a lot of exercise, make sure to do some stretching before taking on anything big both before and after. You'll still be sore, but it will help.
- A friend: Unless you are knowledgeable about the local area and used to a lot of physical activity, I wouldn't recommend that anyone wander off into the country side on a long journey alone.
Although I am still stiff from the ride, it was a wonderful experience, one that I would do again and recommend to anyone visiting Luang Prabang. We left at dawn so once we outside of the city, the road was largely empty and we got to see a side to Laos that few people who stay in the urban centers get to experience. The clouds were low over the mountains, the farmers were out tending their rice fields, water buffalo grazed on the edge of the road and lovely, excited children ran out of their huts to smile and give us a high five as we went past.
We stopped for a drink in one village and three shy little girls kept giggling and waving at me from the side of the road so I took out my Fuji Max Camera and took a picture, showing them how it 'magically' went from a white, empty frame to one with them in it. It was such an experience to see a polaroid through their eyes, with absolute delight and wonder. I gave them their picture and within seconds I had an entire village of women and children around me, asking to have a picture of themselves or of their children. And so we spent about 20 minutes there, me taking photos and giving them to the villagers; with each photo everyone gathered around to see the paper develop, every time with the same level of excitement and awe. It was without a doubt one of my favorite moments of the past year.
Finally (after three hours of PAIN!) we arrived at the Kuang Si waterfalls and they were absolutely pristine - the kind of waterfalls that every hotel in Las Vegas tries to recreate but fails at miserably. Turquoise water, gigantic butterflies, ancient trees. You can even swim in the pools at the base of some of the smaller waterfalls, which I did, although the water was a bit cold.
After exploring Kuang Si and the Asiatic Bear Sanctuary, we took a tuk tuk back to Luang Prabang and watched the little villages and fields fly past. Tomorrow we leave Laos for Vietnam and I'll be sad to say goodbye to this stunning country and hope that I'll be back again before too long.
Happy New Year!