A riders club I belong to had been planning to do a tour from Thailand through Laos in February this year. The situation with taking the bikes across the border changed and they converted the trip into another Thailand ride. Even though northern Thailand is a road riders paradise I opted out and decided to try take a small look at Laos by myself.
I flew from HCM city Vietnam to Bangkok with Vietjet who are famous for the cabin attendants in bikini promotions. Alas nothing like that on my flight. I found myself in Bangkok for no reason. I originally planned to ride over the border from Thailand so bought a ticket here cheap in advance with the option to then go to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai depending on where I could get a cross border bike rental. I emailed a few shops people said offer this but got no replies and the idea to fly in to Laos started to take shape.
Massive queues at BKK immigration, what a mess, sea of people trying to get tourist sim card or taxi. I took the train then a motorcycle taxi. No helmet wrong side of road, what could go wrong…
Prices seem to have spiraled out of control in Bangkok tourist areas. $7 for a local beer in the western oriented bars is bit rich and whilst you can still eat cheap on the street or in food courts, restaurant prices are higher that Tokyo. Time to say ‘So long thanks for all the fish’ Bangkok, I’ll be making another city my hub for flying about SE Asia in future.
Arriving Luang Prabang was a spectacular landing between very high mountains, wow, I was excited to be going to ride here already. Leaving the tiny airport you feel like you are ‘in the province’ with simple houses and a muddy road but then this changes dramatically once in the old part of the town. Here has a colonial look to it with lots of French and German people smartly dressed.
Apart from that at the other end there were also many backpackers in hippy cafes all vying to loudly out boast each others travels. Good luck to them, I wish airfares were so cheap when I was young. I rode a push bike I borrowed from the guesthouse down to the Mekong river for a beer to watch the sunset away from all the men with hair in buns wearing scarves…
I arranged to rent a Honda CR250 with KPTD business centre who seem to be the only place with big bikes. The price is rather high at $70US per day but not a lot of other options and after the ride in Taiwan on a scooter I know the feet forward position and small wheels pound my lower back too much. I also found the Yamaha XT125 I rode in Vietnam too underpowered meaning I got stuck behind slow vehicles far too often eating a lot of diesel soot. So while very tempted to save money I opted for the 250.
Staying at a guesthouse nearby nobody spoke to each other over breakfast each morning, everyone head down looking at their phone. Then when I arrived on the CR250 the morning I was starting my ride everyone wants to talk to me. A couple guys wanted to ride also so we chatted a bit, shame that could not have happened earlier but oh well. People ask me why do I travel alone and the answer is if I wait to meet someone like minded I will never get anywhere.
As soon as I set off on the CR250 I knew the extra money was well spent. Easy to overtake anything with a smooth engine that felt like it had about 5 times the power of the XT. Good ride quality and even the narrow seat was far better than the XT. I had decided to ride south the Vang Vieng. I had no firm idea where was best to ride but both routes to the south were mountain passes so a natural loop existed and Vang Vieng is noted to have scenic rock formations.
Within a short space of time you clear the town and follow a small river. What a great spot. Very soon you start to climb quite high above low clouds. Oh wow – I think I think I made the right choice coming south.
The views are superb but there is no clear spot to take photos and I was not going to wander off the road anywhere since Laos is still littered with millions of unexploded bombs – although probably not in this region.
I wear ear plugs and so it took me awhile to notice this odd sound then I thought it was just the knobby tyres on the tarmac but at one point I turned and saw my bag had come half off over one of the rough sections and was rubbing against my rear tyre. The damage to my bag was a corner torn away which must have happened first then a big hole in the bottom.
Fortunately nothing had fallen out, nor had it burst open or fallen off. Inside the bottom was my 2nd pair of jeans that had taken the brunt of things wearing through a few layers of denim but somehow staying put and saving the day. The one time I did not double check my bag.
I spread out some plastic bags I always carry to kind of block the holes, repacked accordingly and carried on.
The scenery was just amazing. The road follows the mountain ridges servicing many small villages. These people are living a simple life, their houses all on the edge of a road would be squatting with no land rights. I saw many young girls gathering fire wood but some seem to be attending the odd school. In every village many small open fires where people were sitting around to get warm. Hard to see how anyone from here could get anywhere in life. I took a lot of photos whilst riding but alas most did not come out good.
I stopped at a road side stall area just to get some water but ending up having lunch when offered cup noodles and rice with chilli dip. The lady made living selling drinks and mountain herbs dried to a powder that is traditional cure for minor ailments. We did not speak same language but managed to communicate.
I took a photo of myself with her but later when viewing it she seemed so unhappy and was obviously very poor which made me sad so I deleted it. I bought a little bag of her ground ginger and rode on.
I came to a place next where the view ahead seemed to be of strange world.
Sorry the photo does not cut through haze like the human eye can, the mountains far ahead in the photo (on left) were clearly visible to my eyes but look like clouds here. Very rugged landscape.
Another attempt. There was a fair bit of haze and I only have my phone – not that my big camera could do much more but a polarizing filter and raw image file would have helped. From here I dropped down to the valley on my way to Vang Vieng after 200km of non stop mountain riding but still the scenery was great.
What a ride. This route is fantastic yet I have not read anything highlighting it on motorcycle blogs. The guys back at the guesthouse basically discounted riding south saying nothing in Vang Vieng. Well for sure Vang Vieng town was a disappointment, dusty street of tourist trap type eateries and hotels. But the town seems incredibly popular with travelers from South Korea. All the shops had signage in Korean and I counted eight Korean mini-marts – in a small regional town!
I found some jeans which I needed after loosing my 2nd pair in the bag incident. And my new fancy USB charger went bang and up in smoke upon arrival at the hotel. Quite an eventful day. I am getting charged far too much to replace these things here but what can I do.
The weather went from steamy hot 31 to 18 degrees the next day with light mist. A freak weather situation for this time of year I am told. Seems a shame to have the CR250 parked up at $70US a day but besides it being miserable riding conditions I can’t see anything. The mountains and rock formations are all shrouded in clouds. So I edited my photos and typed this ride report up. I found a shoe repair stall who could fix my bag. It was a big job with the damage done and he really did a good go at rebuilding the entire corner and double lining the base and gluing the seams, I don’t need to replace it for the remainder of this trip hopefully which makes the somewhat expensive repair worth it.
The following day the weather was still poor. I had the option to stay on and extend the bike rental but the day after the forecast was no better. This bizarre weather apparently was the fall out of the same typhoon that affected my ride in Vietnam prior to this. It should be fine and hot but it was 16 degrees and light rain. I did not pack for this but layered up best I could. At least I had waterproof warm gloves with me just in case.
The roads were muddy and super slippery and I am on bike with nobby tyres. I could not even touch the brakes. I rode out of the rain in about and hour and a half then the roads dried so I stopped at a gas station to fill and noticed my lower legs, feet and bag were covered in mud.
I was wearing neoprene shoe rain covers (made for bicycle riders) and bicycle rain pants (both very compact) so grabbed the hose and washed these down while wearing and took my bag off and hosed it down too. I then checked my mesh jacket back and it had also been covered with mud so hosed this down too. (I was wearing a rain jacket underneath) A mini van pulled in and despite the warmth of the car they looked miserable all squeezed in like sardines and no doubt driven by a lunatic. Decided I’d rather be cold.
Setting off from here I had two choices, the old road that I had ridden over or the new road which is less curves but much higher. With the rain stopped so I thought take the new road as planned since the endless curves of the old road would be hard work if wet.
This didn’t exactly go to plan. The rain returned during the ascent and it became very cold. Nearing the top was a line of vehicles. They were all stopped at a very steep section that was damaged with landslip and was very slippery mud. The cars and trucks were not able to get traction to go up and perhaps at risk of sliding over the edge coming down. I usually would have stopped to weigh it up but was waved past a van and then found myself already where it was too steep and slippery to stop. By a bit of luck I chose a good path through the mud and taking it steady I made it through. No photos unfortunately but conditions were such I needed to keep moving.
The summit at nearly 1900 metres was freezing cold and zero visibility. The descent was mostly riding in thick cloud with very limited visibility, couple of car lengths to total white out. Some vehicles were off the road no surprise given how they were driving.
For a small section there was a break in the clouds and I could enjoy some views and clear road but it only lasted a short time then back into dense cloud.
This would be an excellent ride in better conditions, the road is a well surveyed sweeping curves and high pass. It’s a shame I have had really bad luck with the weather. Here is how Google shows some of it on a clear day.
About 60km out of Luang Prabang the CR250 started making strange noises. I could not make out what the problem was, it was a clunk clunk clunk when moving forward with the throttle applied but nothing when the throttle was closed. It might have been the front sprocket but sounded like the gear box. I rode on not sure what else to do as no mechanics until I get to town anyway.
About 20km out I stopped at another gas station and went through the whole washing routine again with my riding gear. I took the bike for lap of the gas station and it sounded really bad. Limped on in to town skipping my plan to look at the valley to the north and dropped my gear at hotel then took the CR250 back, by now it sounded terminal.
In SE Asia if something happens while you have a rental it is your fault regardless. So if a bike breaks down you may well be asked to pay for repairs since if you had not been riding it then it would not have broken is the logic. Even if you get a puncture never mention it or you may be asked to buy a new tyre.
So when asked any problems I said no, got my passport back and left. Sorry but the older I get the more my way of doing things has altered.
Whilst I lucked out on the weather in return I was not stranded with a broken bike. Well that’s how I look at things. Glass half full and all that. But if it had been better weather on day two and I had ridden I doubt very much the bike would have made it back today.
Looking down main street of Luang Prabang on another abnormally cold day just before I left.
My thoughts on Laos are it deserves more mention for riding than it gets but I only saw a fraction. It is certainly on my list for a another ride in the future, perhaps from Thailand on a extended loop. I’ll skip the touristy towns next time. Once I was away from them people were very friendly, children all waved and most people stopped to look. In the hill tribe villages the sound of the CR250 being different to all the scooters people all turned their heads as I rode through every small group of huts. It was great experience and at the gas stations everyone wants to try talk to me. On the ride south I saw the rail line being constructed by China that will link Laos and open up the country. Perhaps consider doing a ride here sooner rather than later.
On my way now to Sri Lanka. I took a home made three wheeler to the airport – trying to save a dollar but froze with the wind chill haha. Thanks for reading another overly long post by me. Writing more than needed has taken my mind off being stuck in a plane surrounded by people playing Bollywood movies on their phones at full volume … are we there yet.