Over the course of our trip, Jessica and I had a lot of conversations about learning to ride a scooter – the far and above preferred mode of transportation in SE Asia. Without knowing how to drive one, we were stuck with the super touristy bus routes or having to haggle with a tuk-tuk driver.
Our conversations usually went something like this:
“Hey Jessica, we should learn how to ride a scooter today.”
“Definitely. We should go rent one.”
And then we go buy a ticket for the bus because neither of us can actually work up the nerve.
On our second day in Luang Prabang, the 22-year-old guys working at our hotel overheard our usual conversation about maybe renting a scooter to go the Kuang Si Waterfalls.
Without missing a beat, they reassured us that this was both a great idea and incredibly easy. They even offered to give us a lesson and call the rental company. Maybe it was our sense of pride – or the fact that they were already dialing – but we finally decided to give it a try.
In less than ten minutes, a giant red scooter was waiting for us in the driveway of the hotel. I handed over my passport and signed away my right to everything should anything go wrong. Because I had four minutes more scooter experience (a very brief one-road lesson in San Francisco) compared to Jessica’s zero, we decided that I would drive.
The guys’ “lesson” consisted of them telling me how to turn it on, watching me go up and down the driveway, and then saying “Great job! You’ll be fine!” and walking away.
After doing a few laps around the neighborhood for practice, I came back to pick up Jessica. I told her that I could go straight and right, but because my balance wasn’t great, left turns were totally out of the question. With that warm reassurance of her safety she got on. I made three right turns and began our hour-long drive to the Kuangsi Waterfalls.
Because Laos is a small, developing country, for most of the drive we had the road to ourselves. Rather than being smushed in the back of a tuk-tuk with tons of other tourists, it felt like we were on our own adventure through the rice fields, palm trees, and jungles of Laos.
Because my scooter was ordered by a 22-year-old Swedish guy, it was the kind of scooter that a 22-year-old Swedish guy would want to drive – really big and really fast. So big that I felt myself struggling to hold it up at times.
My lack of strength meant if Jessica shifted her weight at all, the entire scooter responded. To counteract that, I made her press forward against me as much as possible, and I restricted her movements to blinking and breathing. For most of the drive, we were both suction-cupped to each other with sweat, Jessica was statue still, and my arms ached from the vice-like grip I had on the handles. This was decidedly not freedom-inducing.
As mentioned previously, because Laos is developing we had the benefit of fewer cars on the road. But because Laos is developing, that road is total crap. Potholes are everywhere, and the bridges are basically terrifying balance beams. On our way back driving through the city, it was almost comical in the kinds of things we had to dodge – every animal from Old McDonald’s farm, men carrying towering stacks of wood pallets, and an actual dump truck of rocks unloaded without warning in front of us.
My nerves were pretty much totally fried and Jessica had stopped speaking.
Despite enjoying the freedom and the scenery, I found my first trip pretty stressful. Particularly the part when I made a bad turn, slammed on the breaks, and skidded into a brick wall. At that point, I made Jessica get off the back, and I rolled back to our hotel at a shameful crawl, letting bicycles and small children walk past me.
It took several days [drinks] to recover, but I tried again on a much smaller scooter, alone. And that was fantastic and so much easier.
So I don’t know if I have solid advice one way or another. Learning how to drive a scooter in Asia will definitely give you access to so many more experiences – just know that some of those experiences include crashing into a brick wall.