Laos Tour Diary - Luang Prabang to Vientiane
The problems started well before we had met. I tried to pay Jean Louis, our ex pat French Laos Tour guide, via international money transfer but my bank required his residential address which he had not provided. I suggested Paypal and after some confusion about it being the email address I needed, not the account number, the payment went through. Only then did it became apparent Jean Louis knew nothing about Paypal and did not understand the money would not go directly into his bank account but would be held within Paypal. Added to this was arrangements of flights, trains and accomodation with a complex series of steps to get into Laos and then up to Luang Prabang through many many emails. So there was some tension from the start.
On the night before the trip we had dinner together at a French/Lao restaurant in the middle of Luang Prabang. A short ride over a terrifying old wooden bridge in flip-flops (I have learned to stop calling them “thongs”) and our first taste of some Laos traffic. For $50, a very expensive meal in Laos, we have an absolute feast - six or so courses and a what feels like an endless amount of Laobeer. Talk is of Laos, the adventure, the government and taxes. Jean Louis is suddenly friendly and we have a great meal, followed by a stroll through the market which sells only tourist junk and a startling array of French Laos fusion street food.
Finally ride day arrives. We have improvised ways to pack our small amount of clothes, camera gear, ipad and other misc crap onto the backs of the bikes, Yamaha TTR 250s after leaving our main luggage with our guide’s wife in Vientiane; using plastic bags and okkie straps. The result is not pretty but appears stable. One bike requires some love with a screw driver to get started and mine appears to be loosing a small amount of oil. Its adventure time.
Our first day riding down is from Luang Prabang to the Plain of Jars via the main roads as the dirt road we were going to take is too dangerous at the moment. The road is instantly magic - a twisty mountain road that is mostly sealed and traffic is mostly on the right side of the road around blind corners. We ride slowly as we are still getting used to the traffic and the bikes. Coming from a GSXR1000 a TTR250 should feel underpowered, and certainly gear selection is critical, but the twisty roads and dangerous traffic make the bike feel just right. We are the fastest thing on the road by a factor of two for the buses and trucks and four for the various families on scooters also making the journey. And eight for everyone else on foot.
All along the roads are small villages perched precariously on hillsides, thier whole houses made of woven bamboo and banna leaves open to the weather, road and dust. Running water for each village consists of a pipe coming out of the drain on the side of the road and every at every one were children bathing, women washing clothes and collecting water. It is not a sight you would see in any other part of the world and constantly reminded us how different this place is from home.
We stop for refreshments at a random village at the top of the hill. We are in an everything emporium selling a variety of snacks, doubling as a restaurant bar and home for the owner. The toilet is of the squat variety and other family members are huddled around a true old-fashioned large asian kitchen cooking the days noodle soup. It smells amazing, even through the diesel fumes I am coated in from following a bus up the hill that did not want to be overtaken.
When we stop for lunch at a junction town a bit further along there is a loudspeaker in the main round about about blaring the government messages. We are informed by our guide that as everyone has satelite tv now, no one listens to the propoganda any more but it still blares out three times a day. After a some delicious noodle soup and some energy drinks (warning - much stronger than the western equivalents) we hit the road again.
Suddenly the twisty uphill we had earlier seems positively straight. The road down to the plain of jars is some kind of madmans rollercoaster. Some corners wind around the mountain, then seem to wind around again feeling like we have defied physics and performed some kind of 360/720 around the mountain. The camber was always spot on, even if each corner was made up of gravel. The riding flows now, the traffic is lighter and the up here the mountain is verging on cold. Already we are all having a blast.
We stop in Phonsavan where we learn about the great work for MAG in clearing UXO’s, or unexploded ordinances, from around the region. Xieng Khouang provence is one of the most heavily bombed region’s of Laos. The statistics of the amount of dropped ordinances are insane - a B52 load was dropped every 8 minutes on average for around 9 years and nearly a tonne of bombs was dropped for each person in Laos at the time. There are so many stories of bombs still wrecking innocent peoples lives daily.
Our accomodation here was billed as a “honeymooners delight” and after winding our way up the hill to get there we can see why. Its a collection of huts ontop of the hill overlooking the town. The view is breathtaking. While we eat, government members outside chew through French wine, whisky and most of the food in the resturaunt apparently celebrating something. After dinner we are offered a “Happy Cocktail”, infused with Ganja, but apparently it is out of stock due to the season so we resort to drinking a cocktail infused with Orchid. It tastes… plant like. We fall asleep listening to the noises of a Laos village in the valley below us, cicadas and chickens and turkeys all going about their lives. We are almost shocked at the temperature which tops into the teens during the night. We never expected to feel cold in Laos.
Day 2, and we head south on dirt for a destination known only to our mad guide Jean Louis. The riding is not easy with suicidal poultry diving at wheels as we go past, cattle, water buffalo, small children and poor road quality attempting to derail us. At one point a huge earthmover dumps an enormous pile of dirt in front of us on the road, forcing us to leave the dirt track to navigate around the pile. Other trucks and steamrollers are apparently building the road as we go and it is every man, scooter, bike, truck, bus and steamroller for themselves to get through in one piece. Families travel via strange tractor-like vehicles that have a large cabin in the back. After a short lunch with Jean Louis we discuss options. We decide not all of the party’s off-roading skills are up to this level of challenge and head back for the dangerous but a little bit more familiar asphault. The entire village, four houses consisting of about 15 people, come to watch us eat sitting in someone front room/emporium that is open directly to the road.
Day 3 we ride back over the mountain heading for the “party town” of Vang Vieng. Its a great ride down with spectacular views of the mountains. At lunch there is a moment of panic when Jean Louis learns the restaurant has no Beerlao, resolved by a scooter rider dispatched to get more. He decides its time to tell us some morbid stories. Apparently the father who owns the restaurant was killed in a road accident just outside. Then he tells us matter of factly that his neighbour killed some 13 people and injured many more while driving drunk at night. It’s difficult to know what to say to such stories from Jean Louis, a man hardened to life in South East Asia from some 30+ years over here. We are just visitors into the madness that goes on here daily while for him, from the world he left filled with too many rules.
We ride to Vang Vieng weaving in and out of trucks and vehicles. While riding my bike suddenly stops and I’m forced to pull to the side of the road. When I get off the bike I hear and hissing sound gasoline is pouring out of the bike. Before I have time to react locals have gathered and are looking at the bike with me. I set it upright and one of them reaches in and re-connects the fuel line. I move the bike out of the puddle of gasoline and fire it up again - back in business.
After arriving in Vang Jean Louise and I we go for a quick 1 hour blat on the dirt leaving the girlfriend to explore the town, for fun and off-road practise. It takes all of about two minutes to leave all tourists behind, obnoxiously blaring past their bicycles flying along the dirt road. We weave over bamboo bridges and through small river crossings eventually arriving at a small village in nowhere. The villagers all come out of their houses to see who we are and why we have arrived. We say a quick hello then make a quick exit.
Vang Vieng is not the party town it was previously. The government has cracked down on the partying shutting down many of the establishments previously offering opium cocktails and the various dangerous devices launching people into the river. We can still find ganja and magic mushrooms for sale on the “happy menu”, but most restaurant/bars are very quiet and there are many closed huts that used to be surrouded by debauchery.
Day 4. The final day is always a sad affair. To mix-up the monotony of the “highway” we head down a dirt track. A teenager on a scooter rides next to us keeping up despite his apparently inferior vehicle. He puts his helmet on as he is riding and weaves in and out of us. Up ahead another earth mover is doing god knows what and we slow to approach it. Out of nowhere the scooter pulls infront of me then sees the danger and hits his brakes, too quickly for me to realise and react. I lock the front and end up eating some dirt, making a small collision with his bike. We assess the damage to me (scrapes and sprains only) and to the bike (looks ok, starts up) and get the hell out of there. Something is wrong, the handle bars are no longer sitting straight but its not a major problem and we continue on.
We are expecting this dirt track to lead nowhere but suddenly we pull up at a large restaurant on the man made Nam Ngum Lake. While we sit over the water regular large floating restaurants leave the main restaurant so you can cruise the lake and enjoy your food. It’s Sunday and everyone has come up from Vientianne in their Sunday best while are covered in dirty riding gear. We order another feast - turtle tom yum, spicy shrimp, fish laap and something for the vegetarian. More beer and delicious food is consumed.
Our final ride back to Vientiane is stressful and challenging, with much heavier and more varied traffic. At times the vehicles are four abreast, the scooter overtaking the tractor being overtaken by the truck being overtaken by the car while we weave around the outside. It’s the boat race festival, the largest festival on the Calendar in Laos and everyone appears to be heading into town. Jean Louis stands up the whole way and seems to enjoy the game of chicken with oncoming traffic.
We are glad to be back ”home” and have a quick coffee with some other bikers who have just been out for the Sunday blat. Ex-pats gather and share stories of the roads less travelled they have been through. We wanted adventure, and we seemed to find it everywhere we went. What an amazing country, one made to be seen on a motorbike.