It didn’t kick in until the morning that I was actually in Laos. A country I hadn’t even considered on my trip at all, except maybe as a possible side adventure while in Thailand on Donkey. I didn’t really know anything about it, but figured it couldn’t be that different to Vietnam. That was quite wrong, it was very different in some important ways, and similar in unimportant ones.
It was still freezing those first few days and it was punishing too; mountain roads with high winds and thick clouds to ride through. I stopped for a dancing, warming break because I couldn’t feel my fingers and toes, when a big Honda CRF 250 blasted by. I didn’t expect to see such a big bike in Laos and didn’t even notice it was a foreigner until he had passed me. Then another 4 came along and I managed to give them a limp wave and a nod as they passed. I’d never catch them up, poor Deirdre is doing all she can pulling 20mph up some of these hills, and tops at 40mph coming down with a tail wind unless I coast.
I did manage to catch them though about an hour later, they’d stopped for a break and were chatting to a Portuguese couple riding 2 up on an Vietnamese bike identical to Deirdre, the poor little thing had their two huge rucksacks strapped to the sides. I’ve no idea how they got up the hills. I stopped with them and everyone laughed, nobody expected to see any foreigners in this quite remote part of Laos, and here were 3 groups bumping into each other at the same spot. We swapped names and stories until we’d all warmed up a bit then headed off again.
I got a little head start but the Hondas came flying past within a few minutes, up the hills they were pulling off leaving me literally in their dust. I started to catch them again on the downhill runs, and even passed a couple of them to their surprise. After riding Deirdre for 5 weeks I really had the hang of the cornering and these guys were on rented bikes for only the fourth day, not yet very used to them. I was holding way more speed in the corners and the road was winding so much most of it was corners.
That was the entire afternoon, they’d pass me uphill, and I’d slowly catch them down the hill. Awesome fun, a mountain race course that helped me forget that my fingers were slowly turning black. They pulled in for the night at a hotel and I figured I might as well stay too, they had a guide with them and he knew the nice cheap places. I pulled up and they’d bought me a beer and had it ready. Legends. Two Swiss and two Scottish guys, one of them 71 years old, what a hero. We had a great night with some beers and dinner in a little restaurant, they had all travelled a hell of a lot over the years, one of them in Navy, another touring for 6 months in the US, one touring South America, and the older guy had worked in Pakistan for a few years. Plenty of stories to go around.
Those guys were shooting off early in the morning to make it to Luang Prabang in one day, some 300km, a very long way for me and Deirdre, and their guide said some of it was off road. I decided to take the two day route around their “shortcut” I didn’t trust how much off road there would be and already made the mistake of riding in the dark in Laos once, never again.
Taking the long way around took me over some higher and even colder mountains, the views were incredible though, really breathtaking. Green jungle mountains just seemed to go on forever. With no civilization in sight, a complete contrast to back in Vietnam where there’s the mark of people everywhere.
Pulling in to Nong Khiaw was a big relief, I had expected another small wooden town with 1 or 2 hotels, not realising it was a popular tourist spot. The high street greeted me with rows of nice looking restaurants and guesthouses advertising “heating”. Yes please. I ended up spending a day off there, the forecast said that this freak cold-snap was to pass the next day so I waited it out and had my first day off after five long riding days. I had my first Lao dish of Laap that night too, and was very surprised; ground meat, rice and vegetables with lots of mint, lemon and spices. Not the flavours I was expecting of Laos after Vietnam and it is easily my favourite local dish of my trip so far. I’ve not had anything like it before or since and it’s a very basic dish there.
The little restaurants were so simple in this town, most no more than shacks on the side of a house, but the food was great, they were cheap and the people running them unbelievably friendly. They wanted to know where I’d come from, where I was planning to go and what I thought of Laos; more than happy to answer my questions about the town and their lives. I spent most of the day off sitting on the laptop in one of these, by the little tinpot fire in the doorway with a couple of dogs running around.
The ride to Luang Prabang the next day was a lovely run, back to sunshine, good tarmac and a rolling road following the river. The town was beautiful too, the area I ended up in surrounded by the river on 3 sides making almost a little island feel. It was pretty touristy and expensive though, and despite sitting on the river side with some really good Indian food I decided I wouldn’t be sticking around like I’d planned. It was pretty but, I realised that night, unrewarding. There was nothing different, new, or particularly Lao here, it was just a clean nice looking place. This was a new one for me, if you’d offered me somewhere warm, clean and pretty a week ago I’d have ridden through the night for it.
Vang Vieng was the target the following day and what an incredible ride to get there. I took a wrong turn and realised after only a few miles, but looking at the map decided it was more fun, and not that much longer. I was wrong, it was a lot longer, but so much fun. Barely any traffic, just a few busses, and a proper mountain road, hairpins and amazing views all day. I stopped for lunch with a French coach tour group (a busy restaurant is a good restaurant) and they were baffled by what I was doing, it was a totally new idea for them and it was very fun to introduce them to it: Buying a motorbike and riding it for two months wherever you feel like.
I found one of my favourite views of the entire trip that afternoon. After coming over one mountain the land lowered a little but with a couple of tall, sharp peaks. They stood out in the landscape like the Lonely Mountain (I was listening to The Hobbit at the time). There was a viewpoint for photos and a little cafe with a 270 degree panorama. The road faced the amazing views for miles and lead right by the base of the mountain I’d been staring at, onto the plains and between the sharp hills.
The ride got a bit more serious at the end of the day, about 10km out of town. I stopped to take a photo of another amazing view and saw a foreigner stood by a moped just down the road. I rolled up intending to ask for some advice about the town and she was bleeding from her head and looked totally out of it. She had crashed and had skin missing off half her lower leg, a big gash on her arm and a cut above her eye. She said “I’m fine, you don’t need to stay, my friend is coming”, but when I asked her what happened she couldn’t remember. Yeh, I’ll stay with you. She was up and walking but had taken a big whack to the head. I kept her talking and gave her some stuff to clean up a bit. She was from Czech Republic and had been travelling for 20 something years, renting mopeds all over the place without any incident. Shit happens. After half an hour her friend arrived with a truck to take the moped and get her to the hospital. Hopefully she’s OK, but she had a very sucky couple of weeks I’m sure.
After Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng was exactly what I was looking for. It was maybe a little more touristy, but in a very Lao way. Wooden huts, simple town, river side bar with hammocks and good simple food. I stayed for a day and found one my favourite “offices” of the trip: in a restaurant on a wooden deck in front of a great view, warm with good food and coffee; I could barely remember freezing my tits off a couple of days ago.
I spent the afternoon swinging in a hammock with a beer chatting to people back home. I’d intended to explore the town, then came upon the bar by the river, with hammocks facing out watching people drift by in rubber rings and kayaks and all of a sudden it was sunset.
I back-tracked on myself for a couple of hours the next day to head to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars. I would usually be irritated at myself for back tracking but I was more than happy to. Those few hours took me back on the glorious road with the views over the sharp mountains. I had a break at the top again with a simple lunch and stared out for a long time. A couple of days later I gave a couple I met the recommendation to get on the right-hand side of their bus coming this way for the views. They messaged their thanks afterwards, it was that nice.
A couple of hours later I suddenly realised the landscape had changed entirely. It had been a gradual thing I hadn’t noticed, but it was suddenly drier, dustier and the trees were fewer and far between. It seems those tall mountains I was coming over formed a barrier and the climate is very different here.
I made it to a VERY nice hotel and treated myself to a soft bed for the first time in a while. I saw a Blue Toyato truck from Thailand in the car park, the same one I’d spotted a couple of times in the last couple of days on the way to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. Then bumped into the owners by accident in the lobby, a German guy and his Russian wife. We swapped our “summaries” of what we were doing and agreed to meet in a couple of hours for dinner. They were very well travelled and we had an awesome night swapping stories, I got a lot of tips for Thailand and Cambodia from them.
The next morning for breakfast I bumped into a German couple in the lobby, we headed for breakfast and swapped yet more stories. They were heading out to the Plain of Jars too so we arranged to meet. It’s so easy meeting other travellers, you already know you both have the same priorities and ideas, you both picked this place at this time, to see these things, common ground is already there.
We spent the day wandering around the ruins together, riding on the dusty rounds between the sites, which were were stunning. Stone Jars thousands of years old, still somewhat unexplained in their existence, littered around 3 different fields. The first of which was huge, with hundreds of them. The second felt like I was back in Sherwood Forest in Nottingham, lots Oak and Pine trees (or something close) with dead leaves covering the ground and pools of water hiding in the shade, Jars leaning every which way. It was a bit surreal. The third field was at the end of a little trek through dried rice paddies and meandering buffalo. Less like Nottingham.
All round these sites were marker stones we couldn’t understand until the guys looked in their guidebook and discovered the ground around here was still covered in land mines. The markers were from the Mines Advisory Group to say this was a safe and cleared path to see the ruins, stray from the path at your own risk. It was sobering, there was farm land surrounding them, people worked and walked here all day everyday, and the unlucky ones were still finding mines. Riding the next day I saw a truck in a field with the MAG logo on the side, people were still working out here to clear mines planted decades ago.
It was time for a little more Deirdre care, the last 2 days I’d had to kick-start her every time. The battery wasn’t holding any charge at all. Thankfully, I’m about 90kg and the tiny single cylinder engine puts as much resistance as a tea cake under my weight. A new battery cost a couple of pounds, including them fitting it, albeit with my help to stop them removing half the bike to get to it.
I was planning to head south now, very aware that I’d already spent a week in Laos and made it only 100km south since I entered. It was a beautiful place but I have to get back to India at some point and at this rate that would be in 2019.
10/01/2018 – 17/01/2018