900km, Ho Chi Minh Trail, Laos
3017km’s on Honda XR250’s (1 Baja), 12km’s on pushy’s, 94km’s in a long boat, over 15 days, was the total for our second trip to Laos. In early December, in the middle of their cool summer, four Ulyssians from Melbourne, Doug, Graeme, Craig and Sam dressed in Moto-X armour headed off to do battle with the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail supply route in southern Laos, down the mountainous jungles near the Vietnam border.
The 440km, 3 days and 2 nights on Highway 13 south and Highway 8 heading east to the Viet border was a good way to get to know our bikes and get a feel for the traffic on the highways, including watching out for trucks and buses who love to own the entire road. The only casualty for the trip was a calf who jumped out in front of me, leaving him with a broken neck and my gear lever facing the wrong direction. Moto workshops are plentiful in Laos but they do need some supervision with the XR’s. A Longboat ride through Konglo Forrest and a 7km long cave with rapids, led us to stay in cabins with stunning views of the locals working the river. Watching kids skinning frogs while we had breakfast was a great start for the next day.
Riding through a major thunderstorm, climbing 2000m to reach the Viet border, was not the easy morning we expected. Nam Phao was the start of the HCM trail from Vietnam into Laos. The storm cleared as we headed back down the mountain to Lak Xao for the trek south. Fuel here was from a 44 with a hand pump and glass bowl on top. From here to the end of the trail in Laos, traditional old style villages were a regular part of our daily lunch breaks of noodles, sticky rice or more noodles. Road 8S, in the central flatlands, was a narrow dusty road that was built up to pass through the middle of a huge shallow lake built for hydro-electricity. After a night in Gnommalath and basic guest house stop (100,000kip-$12.50), we headed for Highway 12, Thailand to Vietnam thoroughfare, and Na Phao on the Viet border.
Heading south from Nongchan, the Moto Armour proved its worth on many an occasion in the next 120km’s (7hrs) of battle, water crossings a plentiful now that we were back in the mountains and jungle. Some with narrow bamboo bridges built by the locals, (20,000kip, $2.50 to pass), 1 by Boat and many we took ala natural. The fastest U turn in water was performed by Sam in 1 of these crossings, only took half an hour to drain exhaust and fuel to get going again! On one of the timber made bridges, walking the bikes across seemed the best option, although 1 of the planks snapped, we managed to keep the bike on the bridge, much to the amusement of the locals . Finally we reached Vilabury about 5-30 after the hardest days ride I’ve ever done.
Next morning Sam’s bike did not want to start L. Electrical L. While waiting for the problem to be sorted, between local mechanic and boss from ‘JulesClassicRental’, we met Chris, a Pom on the same mission, heading south on HCMTrail. Chris had a GPS(Gizmo), so after Sam’s bike was fixed, we decided on a short tour to a village, 20km out, that holds the title of the ‘Most Bombed Place’ on earth. 10km from town we turned into a goat track, for the next 20km (1.5hrs) it really was ‘Hell on Two Wheels’, deep ruts, mud, sand, deep rocky water crossings, and yep more offs, we still had to get back yet! We came across bombs, even used as gluts to stack timber on, of varying shapes and sizes scattered throughout a 4-5 hut village. This must be the place! 800,000,000 bombs dropped in Laos, 20% didn’t go off. Watch ya step when having a pee!
The next day after breakfast we rode Highway 9E to Den Savan, for the third visit to the Viet border, then south again from Ban Dong. We stopped at this intersection to look at tanks, field guns, etc., in the front yard of the local Agricultural Department office, which also served as a small museum. On arrival we witnessed the sacrifice of a calf, cutting its throat upwards, to please a minister who was due to arrive any minute. We managed to get a couple photos of the artifacts before abruptly being asked to leave, ‘’No Whiteman allowed for this ceremony’ said the official in Army uniform.
The next 100km (8.5hrs) battle began on an ordinary dirt road with a 1km stretch built from cobblestones, fenced off on the side of the main road, as a museum artefact. Most of the HCM supplies trail was built from cobblestones by an American Battalion for better use in the wet season (normally from April to September). 500,000 ton of equipment was moved around on this network of tracks, sometimes a canopy pulled over them for cover. This lead us onto a swing bridge over a river, then jungle goat tracks from here for the rest of the day and naturally, more off’s L. I should add here that the off’s’ we had on these goat tracks were normally at slow speed in VERY hard conditions, so we did have a few bruises to show for our trouble but managed to keep things moving. Further along we found a Russian personal carrier and field guns just left on the side of the track. Over the years a lot of abandoned machinery was cut up by the locals and sold off as scrap metal. Coming into a village in this jungle was like stepping back in time, no bikes or little shops, just jungle people arriving to see who is making all the noise. From the centre of the village there was the 1 track in! and 4 tracks out! Which 1?? Got it 3rd time lucky, with some help from our ‘Gizmo’, and spotting the cobblestones in places along the path helped. Lots more water crossings, some bamboo bridges, some just rocks and mud. One had a gatekeeper that hid a part of the bridge in the bush, for a fee (20,000 kip each $2.50) ‘I help you cross’ he says, and into the scrub he goes for a sheet of metal to complete it. We later learnt from a factory worker in Vientiane that the average wage is 10,000 kip a day, so the gatekeeper did very well that dayJ. The hill climb from the river led to a broken throttle cable, the Pom come in handy again, thanks Chris for your spare and tools. Meanwhile I had a 10min snooze on another troop carrier, figured it was safe from exploding. We heard that a hut in one of the villages exploded 10yrs after it was built; the bomb was buried under where the mother cooked on a small fire each nightL. On three occasions along this track we stopped to chat to the bomb squad, French and Germans who didn’t speak English. Arriving in TaOi about 4-30pm I declared for the second time this trip “that was the hardest days ride I’ve ever done”. Our guesthouse that night was a hard bed with a mozzie net, and a saucepan in a gherkin drum for a shower. And warm beer with some ice J with a bowl of noodles for tea J.
The roads from here to the Cambodia border through Salavan, Sekong and Attapeu to finish the HoChiMinh Trail took a couple of days on good dirt and sealed roads with only a puncture to mention. We then headed across the bottom of Laos for a rest, Pakxe, near the Thailand border. One night at a 5star deluxe hotel (350,000kip $43) and Khong Island a place in the 4000 islands area of the Mekong was in our sites. All set for the trek south and another bike problemL, mechanical this time, so still suffering from Battle Fatigue we decided on a rest day, that really wasn’t a hard decision to make. Waiting for the bike to be fixed was a good time to use the pool, with a relaxing massage to follow. Next morning with a replacement bike we headed 180km south, on Highway 13 NthSth, near the Cambodia border. An 80km boat ride around the Mekong River and islands was underway at 6am the next day, sunrise with an egg sandwich and Laos teaJ. What a magnificent River system, so many people living from it over its 3000 mile journey, from Tibet in the north to the South China Sea through Vietnam in the south. After the days on HCMT it was so nice to spend a day enjoying the sites without the armour on. A good place to enjoy a ride around the island in shorts and thongs watching local kids heading home from school, crossing parts of the river on bamboo rafts. Life on these islands doesn’t move to fast, apart from a few stepthrough’s and mobile phones, things seem to be as they have been for many years.
A ride 900km North on Hwy13 to Vientiane was our next challenge, heading home. This highway runs from Cambodia in the south to China in the north. A puncture whilst leaving Khong slowed things for the morning but we reached Pakxe by midafternoon for another night at the Pakxe Royal hotel. Savannakhet was our stay the next night, where I sprung kids in balaclava’s trying to get fuel from the bikes in the middle of the night; with a loud growl from me they ran like rabbitsJ. We did chain the bikes altogether each night as added security everywhere we went. Casino Royale, built so the Thai people could cross the border and try their luck gambling, was the night’s entertainment. I lost 400,000kip ($50), but had a lot of fun with the locals, free beers for the night J went down well.
The final run into Vientiane was on a Sunday. There were festivities in every town/village, and with no anti-drink laws it was not a pleasant ride. The sun setting in front of me, dodging drunks in cars and on foot heading home was challenging. Only saw 1 girl get knocked off her scooter by a driver opening his car door without looking and Graeme saw a couple of bikes tangle up that night. On the last day a couple of us headed off to play golf, only to be stopped by the local authorities, and fined 50,000k($6), straight into the pocket(no paperwork), for having the headlight on. Only took 3000km for me to find this out.
Summary; it was a fantastic adventure riding The Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and I would gladly do it again, but there’s a lot more to see out there in other countries around the world.
GPS; not sure on this ‘Gizmo’. It did keep us on the trail a couple of times when in the jungles, but from past experiences in S/E Asia it’s not really a problem if you do get off the planned route for a while. On the previous 2 trips to Laos and Vietnam these situations turned out to be some highlights of the trip, it all adds to the adventure. I reserve my opinion on Gizmo’s.
Thanks go to Graeme, Craig and Sam from Melbourne Ulysses and KTM Chris from London for their camaraderie on this great outdoor adventure.
Where to next??? Doug Shearer Melbourne Australia Ulysses # 48103