I didn't look beautiful when I woke up. I saw the sun rising from my riverfront bungalow and felt drawn to action without preparation. Look at those pinks spread across the Mekong river! I must chase the light fast enough to draw it into the marrow of my bones. Each day I spend traveling in Southeast Asia, I seek moments that I'll remember forever. And here I am on Don Khon island in Southern Laos, watching the sun rise over my right shoulder.
I hopped on a rented city bicycle and set off towards the horizon. I didn't have a destination but East, toward the blossoming morning. The only main road veered north, so I followed its bumpy unpaved route until I found a trail headed towards the sunrise. The tiny wheel sized road took me through a rundown Buddhist temple with saffron monk robes drying in the morning breeze. I could barely marvel the experience before I found myself staring at a stream overlooking the sunrise by dried rice fields. Look at that view.
I followed my beloved trail south with the sunrise on my left and a small village on my right. Sticky rice wafted over the warming morning air. Children giggled in the path and shouted "Sabaidee!" as I crossed. I smiled at an old man rocking in a hammock. I waved at a woman wading into the river to wash up. I felt blessed to venture through the waking village by bicycle. My pedals moved slow enough to make eye contact and feel involved, but fast enough to avoid intruding.
Past the village, trees gathered close around me until I found myself in the jungle. I couldn't believe how easy it was to explore. A quick right and left led me to a rickety bamboo bridge. I briefly parked my bicycle to cross and stumbled across a magnificent waterfall on the other side. Alone, I watched the bright daylight spread over Mekong rapids and beaches.
Back on my bicycle and back into the jungle, I forded tiny stream crossings and bumpy trails. A giant ox blinked at me while I slowly maneuvered around his hind legs. Then, I heard childish laughter through the trees ahead. A eight year old girl scaled up up up to knock jackfruit out of the branches while her young friends watched. They were fascinated by me and spoke the only English word they knew - "hello." We mimed a conversation and took pictures with each other amongst more giggles. I felt blessed they let me into their lives for a moment.
The bicycle moves at a human speed. Strong legs, big smiles, and a quick wave invites others to participate with you unlike in any other vehicle. In Cambodia, students would pedal harder to catch up and pepper me with the four questions they knew in English. "Hello! What is your name? Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married?"
I went through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam through a myriad of transportation options. But I never felt more alive than when I was rattling down a rural road on an old Chinese bicycle waving at all I passed by & whom passed me.
Now I'm back in Long Beach and I grin at the multitudes trying out their bicycles. They're leaving their cars behind and experiencing the human condition, however briefly. They're participating in a community accessible only at the human level - other people smiling and waving with joy for the sunny day. Try that out behind car windows; it's impossible to say "Sabaidee" or "Sues dei" at the people you came to visit. Instead, hop on that bicycle and practice your beautiful smile on each person you encounter.
You never know what beauty you'll see by bike.