Finally I was ready to head South in Laos; I left Phonsovan in the morning on the smaller road, instead of doubling back for hours to the main road. It was great, mostly tarmac, heading through all the smaller towns, quieter, calmer and slowly rising into the hills. It started to get a bit ropy near the top of the hills, the tarmac slowly disappearing and dust and gravel replacing it.
Then it got rougher, I was weaving to avoid the holes, poor Deirdre isn’t made for this stuff, her tiny thin wheels and brittle frame creaking on each one. Then it got crazy rough, sharp rocks padded with out with sand and dust meant I was bouncing along the road just purely holding on, not really in control of anything, at about 15mph. This is ridiculous, it can’t go on for long surely, there’s towns on this road!? Some sections I had to stand and waddle, standing over the bike, to not utterly ruin the suspension it was that bad.
I stopped for a lovely view over the hills and realised I hadn’t seen anyone else on this road for about an hour now, a bit worrying when the road is so rough, if something seriously breaks on the bike I’d no idea how far it was to find someone to help. I double checked the map, I had no GPS but there was no way I was on any other road, there was only one even heading south. I just had to hope Deirdre held together. She had been making some funny noises and slowly losing power for a few days but it didn’t seem too serious.
The spot I was stopped in was amazing. I couldn’t see a single sign of people anywhere. Just a stunning view out to the mountains, it felt very Trip worthy and made the last few weeks of freezing on terrible roads and bouncing along stones feel worth it. Just a nice moment that lets you really take it in, and Laos seemed to be full of these.
After much more bouncing, back down the hills I came to a town I’d marked on the map, or at least I thought I did. It was later than I thought I’d get there but the road had been awful. The GPS on my phone doesn’t work without a SIM in Laos so I was using it like a paper map, just a reference, and working out where I was based on towns and junctions. I’ve done this quite a few times in the trip and not had much problem, sometimes it’s not worth buying a new SIM. Now though, for the first time, I was lost. Properly lost, I was staring at the map and it made no sense, nothing matched up. There was a split in the road ahead and I rode for 5 minutes down each fork in turn to get an idea of where they went and still couldn’t make sense of the map.
I asked a few locals but, as with most places in Asia they don’t really use maps and people don’t know how to read them; the town names are also so similar here that I got a yes for each of the 3 towns I asked if I was in. I had no idea where I was. Deirdre was making even more funny noises now and cutting out all the time. Not good. I rode around the town, it was as basic as a Laos town gets. 90% of the buildings wood huts, a couple of tea rooms and two lodges. I spotted a decent looking bike garage and figured I might as well just stop here. I solved the problem of being lost by just making this the place I wanted to be.
I dropped my bags in a hotel and stared at the map some more and figured out where I’d gone wrong. Thankfully once I got on some WiFi I could finally see where I was, much further along the road than I’d thought, the road had been very slow for a while but I must have covered a lot of ground and passed some of the towns without realising it.
The mechanic at the garage took pity on my lack of Lao and humoured me. I gestured for him to listen to the engine and cranked it over, revving a little and reproducing all the noises I’d become used to. He smiled and nodded along and grabbed a couple of tools. He popped some covers off and started adjusting the valves by hand, the engine is seriously simple. Adjusting the valves on Donkey (a big V-Strom) is 2 hours work at least. He fired her up again and she started on the first stroke and sounded as sweet as new. Winner!
Back in high spirits, I knew where I was and had a working bike again, though I wasn’t looking forward to more rough roads the next day. They didn’t last too long in the morning, though it did throw in a couple of water crossings and thick mud to deal with before it was back on to tarmac again.
I had a lovely chat with a veterinarian over lunch. She had moved from the capital Vientiane to this small town to work for a year looking after farm animals and pets. She wanted to improve her English and I wanted some lunch, so she helped me order some and saved me 10 minutes of gesturing and pointing around the kitchen.
I stopped in Lak Sao for the night and noticed more than a couple of tourist. Seems I’d found my way onto a popular tourist loop, they set off from Thakhek and ride up to this town in two or three days, stopping for a lot of the sights and riding slow on their rented mopeds. I was planning to do it one, see a couple of sights and blitz South. I’m not hear for hanging around and seeing everything along the road, there just isn’t time, I always have to decide what I want to miss.
I did see a lot of mopeds the next day, all in shorts and sandals, crawling along, a lot of them would be first time riders. Who knows what they thought when I overtook them mid corner, trying to get my knee down like a racer and wearing all black gear with the bag bouncing around on the back. The road was amazing, a new dam has been built, flooding a huge area. The surface was new and raised just above the new lake, crossing over it and running along side for miles. The tops of trees, that once made the forest, now stuck up above the water, just dead trunks like huge gravestones, very eerie.
I made such good ground on the new and “tourist ready” roads that I flew by the planned stop for the night and made it a few hours passed that. Unfortunately that left me in a nowhere highway town, in a basic room, with some terrible noodles from a cafe and nothing to do. I had a hard time even getting a room, the guy didn’t understand any English and couldn’t read Lao. I got annoyed once the basic gestures didn’t get through to him “You run a hotel! There’s only so many things I might be asking for here”.
A very long hot run the following day, back onto the plains under the sun. Straight black tarmac just baking me and Deirdre crispy. The relentless Kilometer markers made it fell all the longer. It’s hard not to see every single one riding at only 60kmph, it’s like staring at the clock waiting for hours to pass. “Pakse – 177Km” ….. “Pakse – 176Km” …. “Pakse – 175Km” “PLEASE FREE ME FROM THIS TORTURE!”.
A stop over in Pakse that night was lovely, a popular tourist town meant it had all the amenities I need: beer, burgers and a hotel. I had a nice chat and got a bunch of tips for the next day from a German guy running a hostel and restaurant in town. I’d had a bunch of recommendations for them so I was planning to get to one of the islands for a day’s sightseeing. Though it was another 3 hours on the straight flat long roads counting markers again.
I pulled up to the docks on the river through a real dead end town. It did not get my hopes up for the island, that the town was this run down. The boats waiting also didn’t help. Rickety wooden barges with a bamboo poles holding up fabric canvas. Well this should be fun… One guy saw me pull up and shouted me over, we agreed on the port and price and he jumped on my bike without another word and gunned it on to the boat before I could warn him that the brakes were toast. He loaded up the bikes of two Argentinian guys who had been waiting around and we were off floating across the Mekong, pushed by a two stroke motor powering a propeller on the end of a 5ft metal pole he was holding casually with his foot.
It was a weird, surreal moment just floating along, between some of the tiny rock islands sticking out the water. Chatting away to the two Argentinian guys joining me for the crossing, they were doing the reverse of my trip through Laos and Vietnam.
The “dock” on the island was a piece of wood, straight down onto the beach and deep sand. I hate sand, even more so while riding a bike. Our boat captain drove one of the Argentinian guys bikes off because he didn’t feel up to it, he nearly dropped it a few times then nearly flipped it on the steep ramp. He’s not touching Deirdre! Nobody drops my Deirdre but me! So I jumped on and gunned it off the ramp. Full power kicking sand everywhere and a little wheely at the top of the ramp but I made it.
Now I was on the island I could see what all the fuss was about. I’d landed right into the tourist end of Dong Dhet island. With little restaurants and guesthouses set along footpaths and no cars on the whole island it made a big change from normal. I was heading for the next island over though, Dong Khon. That meant heading to the south end of the island, bouncing over the sandy footpaths that are the only way around here. Another surreal moment riding under the palm trees right by the Mekong on a tiny little track, not somewhere I could have imagined finding myself a few years ago.
I spent the evening sat by the river with a beer and playing guitar. Absolute bliss.
Exploring the island and all the nooks and cranny’s the next day showed what an amazing place these islands are. The french actually built a 4 mile long railway on these two islands in 1893 to get boats and supplies upstream on the Mekong, which is where the bridge came from joining them, though the tracks are gone. The river here descends over waterfalls at every point, making the biggest waterfall in South East Asia, so the railway was the only way upstream. It’s been dismantled now but the old engines stand as statues at either end of the island.
There’s falls to see at every corner of the island so I jumped on the bike and went bouncing around down the tiny paths to find them. With no luggage and no traffic on these dirt roads it’s a lot of fun just riding.
There’s some incredible spots to see the falls, they’re not very tall but so wide they can’t be seen all at once, hiding around turns and twists. In amongst all the rocks on the falls are bamboo stilts and boards, in place for catching fish I think. Locals walk about on the rocks, washing cloths and seeing to the traps, they make it look as easy as wandering around town.
Leaving the next day and some more boat fun. I got back to the beach about 10am and so had every other tourist leaving today, waiting for their small boats to ferry them across. I got a lot of stares as I pulled up, there’s not many bikes on the island, let alone Vietnamese ones being ridden by someone 5ft too tall for one. There was a boat waiting and once I’d peeled the owner away from his card game, I could get on. Across the deep sand again, trying to keep up enough speed to get up the ramp and on to the boat…. but not too much, lest I go over the other side. I like to imagine the audience of tourists behind me was applauding when I managed it, but I didn’t check.
The driver stopped the engine in the middle of the river, drifting toward another boat with 3 mopeds and 5 people on board. I realised it was the boat I’d taken across a few days before, when they lashed themselves together I started to realise what was going on. It took a few minutes to swap the 3 mopeds onto our boat and my bike onto the other then we set off again. It was a bit nerve-racking, rolling the bike between the wooden rafts, knowing that almost everything I own (except donkey) is strapped on board. If that goes in the river, I am really quite screwed in a lot of ways.
A little fight and jostle at the dock on the other side to get some space to drive off everyone seems to just abandon their boats wherever. Then it was up the ramp and away, back on the main land, I felt a bit of a wobble as I came up the ramp and checked when I stopped for fuel, my front axle bolt was almost entirely off. Good job I noticed here rather than doing 60kmph in the middle of nowhere. I pulled across the road and borrowed some tools from a garage, it’s too hot to be digging around in the bag for mine.
A few hours backtracking over the dead straight, flat, steaming hot roads toward Pakse, stopping a little short for another river crossing. I wanted to visit Champasak on the other side, if there’s a UNESCO World Heritage site on my route, I’m surely going to see it. Another boat, even smaller this time dropped me off on the West side of the river, driven by the grumpiest man in Laos, I think he was winning the card game I made him leave.
Wat Phu in Champasak was an incredible place, it could have been an Indiana Jones movie set, it looked so over the top. Crumbling temples and stairways up the hill side. Recessed caves with ornate waterway diverting the drips out of the mountain into stone containers. It had an amazing view back down to the plains that stretched for miles with the Mekong cutting South across them. There have been temples here for over 1500 years, easy to see why, and it lies on an ancient route all the way to the huge Angkor Wat temple site in Cambodia. The history of the place really blew me away, it wasn’t very well preserved, but it wasn’t commercialised either, you could wander anywhere around the place and explore where you liked.
I dragged myself away eventually, a melting sweaty mess by this point, after climbing the steep hill in 35 degree heat wearing my bike gear. I reached Pakse again and stopped in the same hotel, though this time not without an argument about the room first, since it was swarming with mosquitoes. Then it was off for the border run. There was a slew of waterfalls along the route on top of the huge plateau, I stopped at one but after so many in the last few weeks, I felt like I was done with water falling over rocks. Coming down from the plateau I noticed the rear feeling a little wobbly again, I stopped for a break and saw it was half way flat. Bugger. I started off again but it was flat in seconds. I squirmed along on the rubber for a few minutes until I spotted a car mechanic, hoping they’d have some air to get me to the next town I rolled in. They did one better though and one of them shot off to town on his moped to pick me up a new tube. We fitted it and I could get back on the road again. Not without a lot of laughs though, they had no idea how bikes worked and didn’t initially want to let me help, so I just kept fixing things around them until they realised I knew what I was doing.
I spent a nice evening chatting with three Canadian guys that just crossed the border the opposite way coming into Laos. We sat in the restaurant out on the river while a thunderstorm rolled in, wondering how safe it would be sitting out on the water with lightning hitting.
It was quite a long way to the border in the morning, but one of the best rides I’d had in Laos or perhaps even Vietnam. The road was so empty, since the only thing at the end of it was the border, it wound up and down the hills rising out of, and dipping back into thick jungle. It was blissful riding, just rolling along enjoying the scenery and the strangeness of riding through a jungle, and realising how much I was going to miss Laos. It had surprised me almost everyday, been beautiful absolutely everywhere and I’d hardly met anyone who was any less than incredibly friendly. An hour or so of simple paperwork at the border and I was out, and back in to Vietnam.
18/01/2018 – 26/01/2018