2460km’s around Northern Laos
3 Dec ’10 --- 21 Dec ‘10
Doug Shearer Ulysses # 48103
After riding around Vietnam last year with a group (featured in Dec 09 Riding On), I was the one, wearing a denim jacket with ‘Ulysses’ on the back, sent across the narrow bridges first to test their strength, I was all ears when a trip to Laos was mentioned by 1 of the group. So on 3rd Dec ’10, 3 of us set of for Vientiane, capitol of Laos, via Bangkok.
Arriving at 1pm we headed for the bike hire shop, PVO, to pick up our rides for the next 2 weeks, 192,000kip a day ($24). Tock was very helpful with getting us under way on a XR250 Honda trail bike, perfect for the next 14 days of adventure around Laos. The afternoon was spent getting a feel for the bike, picking up a map and some local money (kip). Riding on the opposite side of the road did take a while for the brain to accept.
After loading the bikes and breakfast we were on the road by 8am heading for PakLay to the west. With Graeme leading, somehow we missed a turnoff, but via some minor roads (goat tracks) we were back on track. After 4hrs of narrow dusty roads, and me now leading the way, we were on a nice sealed road for the final run to PakLay. 10km’s from Paklay we came to our first crossing of the mighty Mekong River, via a tug assisted ferry. Lesson for the day was that not many towns are signposted so it was a bit hard to determine where you are when lost. A long day in the saddle was rewarded with a nice comfortable guesthouse, a meal and early to bed.
With an omelette for breakfast we were on our way to Xayaboury on a very dusty, hilly road, which set the format for the day. Lots of small villages where the curious locals were aware of 3 white men in full motocross armour passing through. We had shared the road with pigs, dogs, buffalo, chooks and goats, but today we found a family of elephants using the road. After a bad experience with one at the Adelaide zoo many years ago I gave them as much of the road as possible, majestically they passed with all the space they needed. We arrived at Xayaboury at 3-30pm. Being a larger town we found a bike repair shop to adjust and oil the chains on the bikes. The easiest way to communicate with the guys was to do a Charlie Chaplin and mime what was needed. Mostly we found it better to pay for the use of their tools and do the work ourselves because they had no previous experience with such big bikes.
Hongsa was our destination the next day; only a short ride was the plan. That soon changed when it became apparent that we were 80kms in the wrong direction. We found a nice waterfall to swim in so not all was lost. After a puncture delayed us at the ferry for 1.5hrs, we stayed the night at the same guest house and headed in the right direction the next day to keep on track to circumnavigate northern Laos.
Leaving Xayaboury for the second time at 6-30 we found the right road but wished we hadn’t because it was the worst road for bikes, very bumpy and heavy bulldust, dusty conditions. At one stage, as the dust cleared, there appeared in front of me another pair of elephants meandering along the road. While at the market, in Hongsa, we met an old German lady who ran a guesthouse in town and organises elephant rides around the country side, she helped us with a real coffee and directions to Pakbeng for only 20,000kip ($2.50). The afternoon ride was on a near new sealed road, so a bit of speed on lots of long sweepers was the highlight for the arvo.
Pakbeng is a small village of one street on the banks of the Mekong River. Guesthouses, restaurants and gift shops were all about this town, with the owners living above their shops to look after the plentiful supply of tourists that come and go on the Mekong in ‘slow boats’. Leaving the map behind earlier in the day the challenge here was to find another map, these people don’t even know what a map is, let alone sell one !! At an Indian restaurant that night we managed to find a map, written in Thai, (beggars can’t be choosers), and info that a new road just out of town would be best to Houei Xai the next day.
For 20km’s we must have climbed about 1000m up the ridge of some hills on narrow dusty roads that lead us to many roadside villages that looked like they just stepped out of the jungle with humpies on the side of the road, the villagers didn’t even own step-throughs like the rest of the country. This set the pattern for the rest of the day, about 100km’s, riding along ridges of hills, from village to village. You would think these peoples have never seen white men in armour on 250’s before! All were friendly and waved. My armour was put to the test today with a fall in heavy dust on a sharp corner, it passedJ.
Houei Xai is on the Mekong River on Thailand’s border, again lots tourists travelling the Mekong on long skinny boats and lots road transport headed south to Thailand or north to China via Luang Namtha, our destination tomorrow.
Beautifully wide cut and sealed road through hills and valleys was the run for the day, Houei Xai to Luang Namtha was a dream road in a country of dusty roads. A larger town than usual was great, an early arrival in town meant maintenance on bikes was in order.
Oudom Xai was in our sites for today on drizzly wet roads, with the local police and Chinese army representatives checking people’s papers. Hot springs on the river was spotted at a village about midday and, with the help of a group of local kids, we headed off for a short walk through the village centre, across old corn fields to a clean looking creek with hot water ponds around. Much to the amusement of the kids I was the only brave soul that took the plunge. On return I stopped and chatted (with the help of a 12yo boy) with some local men rebuilding their village hall and a couple of ladies spinning goat hair. Tea in Oudom Xai, showed to us by a street kid, was lovingly prepared by a lady, Supalin, on her own in a small cafe, who had the best food in all Laos.
Breakfast the next day also was enjoyed by all at the same place. Vieng Khan via Num Bak was the mission for the day on drizzly wet patchy dirt/sealed roads for about 4hrs. Again the armour saved some injuries when I came off on a fast right hand corner, sealed and slippery like ice, front wheel let go and I slid for about 20mts on my right elbow and knee. This time I lost some skin on my right forearm, great, entering tiger country with fresh blood on my arm.
At Vieng Khan that night I had the help of 2 grown men who had never even put a bandaid on someone, to clean and patch my arm. This guest house had a cow trough to wash in as part of the en-suite bathroom for each room. We shared the house with a couple from California on pushbikes and a lone Frenchman on a XR250 travelling in the opposite direction. I won my first ever game of ‘Bocce’ that night against the local teenagersJ out the front of the local monastery.
Heavy rain woke me at 4-30 and the thought of wet clay roads ahead was a bit daunting after my recent falls. At 10-30 we headed off with waterproofs on in the drizzly rain to Phoa Lao on the main highway to Vietnam. On arrival at dark we were greeted by a town full of drunken people celebrating the 10th day of New Year celebrations, and no guesthouses, so we ventured to the next town, Nam Nuen in search of a bed. Only one guesthouse in town, the owner drunk and passed out, we let ourselves in with a Canadian on a pushbike. No power in this house meant an early night after a few beers at the local restaurant.
Phonsavan was our destination for the day, on a pretty good sealed road, with plenty of small towns on this busy highway to Vietnam. After a lunchtime market stop, I let Graeme and Asko ride ahead so I could take some pics of the locals doing what they do. For the first time in many days we found a guesthouse with a proper shower and toilet, and a Redcross house doing full body massages for $2 an hour. A visit to the ‘Plain of Jars’, where the site was named the heaviest bombed area during the Vietnam war by the Americans, where they are still searching for unexploded bombs in the area.
Xaysombourne was to be our next stopover, but a missed turn again on a rugged, dusty, still under construction road had us going further south than planned. At Thathom, we chatted with a retired Chinese man who gave us directions that we missed yet again and finished up on a very challenging track heading further south. After many river crossings about 300-600mm deep we came to a river that was over a metre deep, only big construction trucks were getting through this river! One of the workers came to rescue with a call to a local man with a raft, made of bamboo for the crossing. He took a look at me and said he would take the smaller 2 first then me on the return trip. That was a good test for the raft with Graeme, Asko and a local on a step-through, 20,000kip ($2.50) each made for a good pay for the young man. Further on we went across a handmade bridge, 10,000kip, and more narrow roads to Vieng Thong where we found a new road just built with great big sweeping corners for us to let loose on after all the narrow wet tracks we had been on all day.
Pakxan was in our sites for the night, a large town on the Thai border. When we went out for tea, we met an Aussie guy, working for National Parks Pouching Protection Service, who was very informative after 6 years in the area. The run from Pakxan to Vientiane was on a very nice, well used highway along the Thai border, The Mekong River.
With 2 days left in Laos, I suggested we head north about 70km’s for a look at a resort/casino, Dansayanh Resort, built on the shores of a huge dam by some rich Thai business men. It was a good move, we found a fantastic championship golf course as part of the complex and decided, after negotiating a price with the CEO, to stay the night and have a round of golf on our last day in Laos. The nights’ accommodation, American breakfast, caddie, clubs and game of golf was 560,00kip ($70). Great course, shared with goats playing in Moto boots, and very helpful caddies made it a day and trip to remember.
The flight to Bangkok, and home to Melbourne was at 10 pm that night, so plenty of time to get back to Vientiane, shower and change for the long trip home.
The food was generally good with the occasional, fantastic feed, I was disappointed with the lack of forests and jungle, 90% taken in the last 10yrs. Hospitality was good and friendly with plenty of smiles and giggles from the locals about our suites of armour and general differences. Some of the most adventurous days we had were when we missed a turnoff, but we did succeed in completing a trip around Laos. 2460 km’s on a good mix of roads and challenges not usually faced in Australia certainly made it a fantastic trip.
Thanks to Graeme and Asko for their camaraderie, where to next?