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The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos

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The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos
Image courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
The thing about later life relationships is the constant sense of time running out. I was in my late 50s when I met K. He brought me an unexpected quiet happiness, and an entirely new outdoor vocabulary.
Canadian born and bred, when the man says “ski”, he means in places with no chair lifts, and a transmitter strapped to your chest in case you get caught in an avalanche.
“Hike” can mean full days, wearing micro-spikes under your shoes, poles in both hands, crawling like a spider on all fours over rock walls.
As for “bike” – well, the man “bike toured” for 3 months through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand in 2017, sleeping on temple floors, braving bed bugs, sharing food with strangers, playing with village children, getting by with nothing but two panniers (bike pouches) by each side of his bike. It got him through a very difficult time of his life.
I, though Singapore born and bred, really identified with his need to move outdoors for a sense of clarity on life and self. People know me mostly as an actor, but I’ve been a jock before I stepped onto any stage or screen, competitive in gymnastics, sprinting, long distance running and canoeing throughout my school life. I also skied long before Niseko became the go-to winter sports for many Singaporeans. I even taught aerobics while studying in the US and part-time when looking for a full-time job after graduation.
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So, when K suggested we bike-tour for 12 days from Vientiane to Luang Prabang in Laos, I was intrigued.
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - Romance of bike touring
Image courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
What is considered “Bike Touring”? Well, the google gods have spoken: “Bicycle touring is the taking of self-contained cycling trips for pleasure, adventure or autonomy rather than sport, commuting or exercise.” And it is nowhere near the sort of road biking you see popular in Singapore or the super speed Tour De France type of cycling.
It is about seeing a place from the intimate view of the roads, trails or pathways of a place and its people. It is about taking your own time, own speed, own agenda, own target. It is about the ability to stop whenever, wherever you see fit or are compelled. It is about freedom.
Let’s do it, I said, and our adventure began.
Bike Touring in Laos
It started brilliantly. Because people who know me know I LOVE TO PACK! I also love to travel as light as light can be and still be want for nothing. I would have to subsist on two panniers the size of cake boxes and a shoebox-sized handle-bar pack for this bike trip. Challenge accepted!
Let’s get to work!
Practical, washable, quick dry, comfortable and lightweight are key considerations, so micro-fibre and dri-fit clothes are great.
My packing process – a sarong on the floor and over two weeks, put in or take away stuff I am considering. I was in curating heaven. Oh, dry shampoo is so much lighter! Oh, the green shorts pair with everything and add a pop of colour to city days.
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - Clothes Packing
What I fit into two bicycle panniers.
Images courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
To my delight, my two chili-padi red panniers were more than enough for hobbit- sized me.
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - Bike Packing
How we packed our bikes for travel.
Images courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
K planned the entire route. How many kilometres to ride a day. Where we should stop. I pre-booked as many guest houses as I could. Sorry but no sleeping on temple floors for me.
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - Planned Route
Our planned route for the trip.
The start of our Laos bike touring adventure
We flew into Vientiane, our “rest and get ready for the real ride” place, for three nights. I remember Vientiane in four words. The first two – Night. Market.
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - Night Market
Exploring the night market in Vientiane.
Image courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
Rows and rows of clothes, sunglasses, bags, shoes, cosmetics, phone accessories. Reminding myself of how small my panniers are kept my wallet tightly closed.
But it didn’t mean I couldn’t look, squeeze, smear, and put against myself in front of the stall’s mirror. I did that a lot. And then K found a t-shirt that said “Hot And Sour Noodies” and we knew we’d have to find space for that.
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - Night Market and Massage
Night markets and awesome hair wash and head massages.
Images courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
Next two words – Foot. Reflexology.
I had the BEST foot massages in my entire life in Vientiane. The google gods gave it 5 stars but I’d give it 10! Can fingers turn feet to feathers? Can! I swear, we levitated and floated our way back to our hotel every night. At the end of each blissful hour (we went every night), I put my palms together and bowed deeply to my masseuse like I would to a goddess, which indeed, she was.
Finally, the time was here. The night before we rode, I asked K what he was most nervous about for the first day of cycling. He said, getting us out of the city. He was worried the bike-touring newbie me would be swallowed up by heavy traffic getting out of Vientiane. He knew we had to get through the madness to the calmer highway.
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - Start to Bike
Images courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
The minute we started riding, I knew exactly what he was talking about. The lorries. The pot-holed roads. The dust. The loose gravel. The noise. The exhaust. Enter – Fierce Singaporean Auntie Kheng! I’m used to ALL of that. I’m Singaporean, D-U-H!
I’m used to roads where no one gives way to you, not when you’re a pedestrian, not when you’re driving, and certainly not when you’re on a bicycle. Fierce Auntie Kheng steadily paddled, swerved, avoided with the type of confidence only fierce aunties exude. I also had good rules to follow that K had set on practice rides before we flew.
The rules:
We got out of the city. Easily. And once on the quieter highway, I understood the allure of this bike touring thing. The breeze on your face. The changing scenery around you. The colours. The smells. How close you are to everything. Close enough to high-five happy children running by us. It felt both familiar, and unfamiliar. I felt both like a young child on wheels, an old lady on wheels. Both ways, equally exhilarating.
The route from Vientiane to Luang Prabang is a mix of highway and rural tracks. Nothing too remote. There would be guest houses and villages all along the way. We didn’t have to plan our rest stops. We would give each other a signal whenever we felt like stopping — and at our age, pee stops were necessarily frequent.
Our first rest stop was at a market of sorts, quiet after its morning crowd. I had what would become my go-to Laotian drink and snack – iced coffee and sweet salty banana chips. We’d sit wherever. On steps. Pavements. But today, I was lucky. The Laotian snack shop auntie brought out a stunted stool with a smile as wide as a whale’s and a heart warm as the Laotian sun.
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - Rest Stop
At the rest stops, essential for hydration!
Images courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
Similarities important in later life relationships
K and I have a similar quiet approach to system and discipline. Something that has played up to an advantage again and again in our relationship.
A look is often enough for us to understand what each other is thinking. The look could say, “time to leave” or “too expensive” or “not a good idea”. And it would be something both of us agreed on. Silently. Like a secret language. I liked that.
There is a mode we often reach for as performers. A relaxed but alert stance. K is a veteran inner-city paramedic so being relaxed but alert is his norm. We aimed to cover approximately 80km a day so today’s look said “let’s not stop too long”.
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - At Leokhamphasurt Resort
Image courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
We arrived at our accommodation for the night, Leokhamphasurt Resort in Phonemy. I called it “the unpronounceable name resort”. My tongue has not evolved enough to wrap itself around the Laotian language.
Leokhamphasurt was the first of many similar type abodes we chose to be in – cheap, not more than S$30-50 a night, a double bed, private bathroom and sheets clean enough to lay our heads on without worries of bugs.
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - Clothes drying
I am a clean freak so I washed as much of my day’s clothes as possible. They don’t always dry in time, so here’s my solution as I cycle (right).
Images courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
I am neither a luxe nor a slum traveler. I’m somewhere in between. Give me a clean and private bathroom. I can do without award-winning design and Michelin starred food. K is the same. So we never argue about accommodation. Or food.
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - At Laotian Tea Break
This group of Laotian uncles bought K and I a typical Laotian breakfast – a fried dough not unlike a "you tiao", and Laotian coffee which is served with tea. One of the uncles also gave us ginseng honey to put into our tea.
Images courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
When it comes to relationships, the prize for me has always been access to time and space. Not just enjoying the same things, but how we enjoy the same things. The tone of my day is important. I like quiet, and calm. K gives me that. He gives me rest.
When you meet each other after the mortgage is paid, after a career is established, after the kids are grown – you’ve got little else to share but your time. And isn’t that the most precious thing two people can give each other?
The Art of Later Life Relationships and Bike Touring in Laos - Relationship
Street food galore.
Images courtesy of Kendell Dickinson & Tan Kheng Hua
K and I have only been together two and a half years but I’ve spent more time with him than any other partner I’ve had within the same duration. It’s a lot about how we like to spend our days.
Especially when we’re in Canada. We love outdoor activities, but when we’re not doing that, you’d find us at home. And guess what, he enjoys cleaning and organising as much as I do. Bingo. He doesn’t even have a television in his condo.
We’d meet friends, sure. Maybe once every two months. We’d eat out, sure. Maybe once a month. He’s retired and I’m project based, so time for work doesn’t factor much. Two introverts met, got along and now introvert together.
Seeing where this later-life relationship goes is the biggest adventure I never thought I’d have.
Kheng Hua and Kendell can be found on Instagram at @khenghua and @kendell_dickinson respectively.

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