Stories from my diary is a series of articles from my cycling journey from Rotterdam to Singapore. In this series I share stories from my diary that I kept daily. I was on the road for a year from 2 February 2015 to 30 January 2016. In addition to stories from this diary, I also share personal awareness of the impact that this cycling journey have had on me. Today #5 in which I take you to an exciting moment in Vientiane in Laos.
November 12 – 80km (12480km)
It’s getting dark and I’m cycling into Vientiane the capital of Laos. I’m looking for a hostel for the coming days. I feel really enthusiastic when I cycle into a new bigger city. The busy traffic, the people, energy and the coming contacts and conversations. In every new city I start with the big hostel check. To get a feel for prices and atmosphere. I drive past a number of hostels in the centre of the city and in the end I choose the most competitively priced, the Vientiane backpackers hostel. 40,000 Lao kip for a night with breakfast, which is €4,-. The best decision with my tight budget.
After putting my belongings at the bedside, I take place at a table downstairs. I end in a conversation with Laurence. Laurence is 55 years old and is from Canada. 5 years ago he sold everything in his possession to go traveling. Laurence does not seem at ease. He starts telling about the villages he has been visiting. He says that he was confronted with young girls posing as prostitutes. It touched him. Upset he confesses that he had drunk half a bottle of whiskey last night to deal with this harsh reality.
November 13 – rest day
In the morning I bring a visit to the Thai embassy with Jor from Spain and Toya from Switserland. Applying for and receiving a visa takes one working day. It is Friday and I’ll have to stay here in Vientiane on Saturday and Sunday. Monday I can pick up the visa.
In the evening I bump into Jørgen, an older man of 82 years. He is full of energy but looks not healthy. He asks my help to find a place to sleep. I help him and while walking he enthusiastically tells stories about who he is and how he shapes his life. He is from Denmark and has been a sailor all his life. Now he travels from his monthly pension. He has plans to go to China in the coming weeks when his pension is paid again. I pay a few nights for his hostel and give some extra money for breakfast.
November 14 – rest day
At nightfall I walk around the center of the city. After having eaten something I sit down along the Mekong river. The sun sets. The sky is beautifully blue and the temperature is starting to be very pleasant. I enjoy the people who walk by. There are many foreign tourists who hang around here.
I decide to smoke at my leisure. I still have a little bit of hashish in my pocket. In Luang Prabang it was offered to me by a tuc-tuc driver. At first he offered me marijuana. Upon closer inspection, I came to the conclusion that it was fake. It looked like a pile of grass. I then told the driver that he should sell that junk to someone else. Then he offered me a little bit of hashish. That looked ok.
When it gets a bit darker, I decide to try it out. I empty the cigarette on a long rolling paper and clumsy the piece of hashish through it. Although the use of soft drugs is strictly prohibited in Laos, there is a reasonable culture of backpackers who come to Laos especially for this purpose. Many tourists go into the jungle to smoke opium in villages with locals. Just to be sure, I immediately throw the small empty bag in a garbage can, including the few remaining papers. You never know.
I look around me a bit. It’s quiet and I light the hash joint with confidence. The sun rises on the edge of the horizon and beautiful stripes form upwards. Finally some rest from cycling for a few days, I think peacefully.
Out of the blue, a man suddenly sits next to me and immediately grabs the joint from out of my hand. “Are you smoking weed?” He says while he look me in the eyes. I’m frightened but remain calm. I deny that I’m smoking weed. “No it’s just tabac.” I say in a white lie. He raises his voice to show that I do smoke weed. Before I know it there is a group of men around me. “You have a problem, you are smoking weed,” says the man next to me. I deny. He asks me to blow in his face. I look straight into his eyes and blow. I say with an angry tone that they have to search me to prove something. “We take you to the police station and make a test, if the test is not good you will be put in prison for at least three years,” the man continues. Another man walks in front of me holding handcuffs. “The only way out is that you pay us 500,000 Lao kip.” What? That’s about €500,-! I think to myself.
A lot goes through my mind. Is this real? Are they really police officers? Can I really go to jail for this joint? What is their proof? I suddenly think of a conversation with backpackers who have experienced the same. They paid $300,- to prevent trouble. The police are corrupt here in Laos, but this can also be just a group of men with a well-paid side job. The moment I think this, I switch a button in my head. I shout angrily in a loud voice: “If you need to take me to the police station? Take me! Let’s go! I won’t pay you anything!” Two men start searching me, the boy next to me threatens to take me to the police station. He explains that they look at my blood to see if I have smoked anything. I decide not to give in and at that moment they lower the price to 250,000 Lao kip. I’m done. I’m anxious and tensed but I no longer let go of my decision that I’m not gonna pay them. I tell them again firmly that I’m not going to pay. A long heated discussion follows and luckily they eventually walk away. I take a deep breath of relief.
My heart is still beating in my throat. Are they really police officers or just scammers? I will probably never know. It is now completely dark and I walk straight back to the hostel. I need to talk about this with someone but I’m alone. It feels annoying. Did this really happen to me?
November 15 – rest day
It’s my birthday. I turned 28. I get up alone and it feels a bit awkward to go and celebrate my birthday in a hostel in Vientiane. I normally look forward to a birthday, but now here in the backpackers hostel on my own it feels a bit lonely. I actually prefer to be with family and friends on this moments.
In the afternoon I quickly feel better because I am going to a Buddha park with Jor, Toya and a German lady. It’s nice. Back at the hostel I’m persuaded by two people from the Netherlands and France to go get some birthday cake. We get a carrot cake from a trendy bakery. That cake is about €10,- but luckily my birthday friends are contributing. Later I blow out some candles and we sing a birthday song at the hostel.
It’s a great little setting and eveneens. But I still feel a void that no one is around me from the people which are really close to me from back home. Tomorrow there is another and better day, I promise myself before going to sleep.
November 16 – 81km (12561km)
In the morning I pick up my passport and visa at the Thai embassy and immediately cycle out of the city. I want to leave as soon as possible. It feels good to be on the road again on my bicycle. In the evening I camp and make a campfire to keep the mosquitoes away. In my tent I watch a downloaded movie on my phone. Tomorrow I will cross the border with Thailand and I’m really looking forward to a new country.
These moments, the encounters in these few days have left strong memories. It was very interesting who I met. People who were traveling for a few months, fortune seekers, adventurers or people who had completely exchanged their lives for hostels and hotels. Some seemed totally scattered, others knew exactly what they were doing. Most of the people I spoke to had a critical attitude towards orderly Western society. We sometimes wanted to feel what it is like to not be confronted with rules and regulations on so many levels.
Norms and values in a society generally gain meaning if they lead to order and stability. Knowing that you will get up tomorrow and that your life has a structure and purpose is very important for your personal development. But what if you grow up and others decide everything for you and corresponding terrible expectations are created. All expectations that demand responsibility. You become uncertain of it. Deep inside, everything resists these expectations. The problem is, you have never learned to stand up for yourself. You avoid discussions. Emotions created stay inside of you. All that flowers inside of you never will be a bright shining booket because you are full of flowers from others. Then it’s great to travel to Southeast Asia to shake off all those expectations and emotions in order to feel that you can finally be yourself.
This is how I have felt for a long time. Little by little I found out that all expectations were not the problem of others or society itself. It all lay with me. I created all those expectations myself, although of course others had an influence on them. To really understand this is a relieve. If I create them, I can solve them myself and consciously determine who does or does not influence those expectations.
To be in an environment where the reality is very different is very valuable. It lets you reflect on the reality that you constantly carry with you at home. But it is exciting. I do believe that when you travel you can find yourself because others who blocking you from that are not close to you somewhere far from home. But it is very important that you can embrace the truth of your own self. To realize that false expectations also form a structure and you’ll have to let that structure go.