Excerpt: Laos is attractive for biking tours, but all roads are not build the same. To avoid the worst and the off-road segments I entered through Muang Ngeun. It is an easy crossing with great itineraries from Chiangmai to Pak Beng and Oudom Xai. First part of a Laos trip report (2). The complete photo story can be found at : http://picasaweb.google.com/campusadvis ... 6874560514 See also: Part 2 – The Road to Luang-Prabang : An Easy Road to Laos - 2 The Road to Luang Prabang Part 3 – Plain of Jars : An Easy Road to Laos - 3 Plain of Jars Part 4 - Back to Nong Khai An Easy Road to Laos - 4. Back to Nong Khai Preamble Back Home The loop is closed, but I will drive it again, leaving the engine off, and trying to revive my dream to share the story. Before my memories fade out, I must record some enthusiastic words about my first motorcycle trip to Laos. It was a great experience and I enjoyed every slice of this 2713 km ride, from Chiangmai to Luang Prabang and back through Nong Khai. My previous contacts with the country of the “Million of Elephants” were on business trips, to Vientiane only, about twenty years ago and then in 1995, travelling over the newly opened “Friendship Bridge”. For this first peregrination I have no incident to report, no accident to deplore, not a single crushed dog, no tales about big changes or huge developments, I just had an agreeable ride through delightful sceneries, lush vegetation, remote villages with amicable people and a couple of touristic landmarks. Of course, Laos is now on the travellers map, with open borders (well, nearly) and reasonable infrastructures, but it's no yet invaded and amused visitors still meet amazed locals who wink and smile with loud “sabai dee”. Preparing the trip Whilst rambling around North and North-East of Thailand, I frequently meet the majestic Mekong. Following him on hundreds of kilometres, I often gaze across this natural border into less known territories. The temptation to jump over and to discover a fascinating land and the roots of Isan became more and more pressing. Stories from [GTR] bikers who have “done it” were encouraging. They testify that it is feasible, sometimes on stony roads, muddy trails and over bamboo bridges, but with few administrative hurdles. Finally, they came back smiling. I knew that soon or later I had to traverse the border myself and decided about an auspicious day, somewhere at the beginning of May. I had visited Chiang Kong some month ago and knew about the ferry and the easy border crossing from that city. I thought that it was one of the two logical passing points for the North, the other being the Nong Khai bridge. From Chiangmai, it is a day drive with a relaxing night at “Tammila Guest House”, before a morning cruise over the Mekong. With this appealing itinerary in mind I scouted recent “GTR” Laos reports. I was struck by the fact that all bikes were “off road” able. Some pictures of the “trails” were explicit about the hindrances to expect. Then I took the way to “Kafe” were David_fl (1) confirmed the likely difficulties, on some sectors “under renovation”, particularly between Luang Namta and Oudom Xai. The rainy season looked through the door and I wanted to avoid a deep jump in the mud, for my first ride into Laos, solo on a touring gear. My “plan B”, to avoid the rugged segment, was to cross the “Friendship Bridge” in Nong Khai and to drive back to Thailand through Pak Beng. It was a satisfying alternative, but whilst preparing it, I got another warning. Apparently, the “open border” policy of Laos has some limits. Thai registered motorcycles are not allowed into the country through this point, even if a Farang is driving. There are still two other possibilities. One is further down, in Paksan, but I was not keen to drive so far South. The other one is in Nan province, the Huay Kon to Muang Ngeun point. For both ways I was not sure to be granted a “visa on arrival” and not amused to drive to the Lao consulate in Kon Khaen. Luckily, I got in touch with Auke (1) who just went through the Huay Kon border, without problems and confirmed the choice of this route to me. The evening before my departure, I filled out the border papers downloaded from the GTR site and got a last meteorological bulleting from David, announcing some heavy downpours on my itinerary. Actually the depression had already reached Chiangmai, and the night was quite wet. Part one Huay Kong - Pak Beng crossing point Up to Chian Klang The rain from the night had cleared the air, leaving some mist attached to the mountains and low clouds playing with the horizon. It was a pleasing cool morning with a pale waxing gibbon vanishing in the early dawn. I started the GPS tracker and flagged down my meter at six o' clock, leaving Maerim toward Sansai on the outer ringroad 121. Early joggers and cyclists were exercising along the way, enjoying the freshness that I could feel flowing through the mesh of my cloth. When I passed the bridge over the Ping river, a profound happiness arose, the pleasure of a departure and the joy of freedom, unique to two wheels, as I never experience such feelings for journey by car or plane. After a couple of red lights, I joined route 118, definitively leaving Chiangmai for the North. Progressively the light became stronger, the direct sun being still shaded by remaining clouds. Not stopping for a couple of pictures is not making justice to the itinerary to Mae Kachan. Wat Phra Tat Doi Saket, on his hill, was cut out like a shadow puppet against the bright horizon. A little further, the highway is reduced from four to three lanes and begins to dance and to turn up and down following the curves of the mountain. Remembering the legend of Mae Nang Kaew, people shortly blow the horn at “Pee Pan Nahm” the limit of Chiangmai and Chiangrai provinces. Khun Chae national park would also be worth a visit but without a first “black shot”, I just went on gliding on the excellent tarmac, till I reached my first scheduled stop, Mae Kachan's Amazon coffee. Climbing smoothly toward Wang Nua, the journey really begins. Route 120 is another trail of the superlatives. When travelling around the North of Thailand we are short of great qualifications for many fabulous itineraries, each one providing renewed pleasures and an impression of uniqueness. On the sector between Mae Kachan and Phayo the pavement is excellent, the landscape gorgeous and the twisting slopes delectable. It leads through doi Luang national park, up to an altitude of 900 meters, with a view point and a small market. From Phayao to Chian Kham, “1021” is a straightforward link of 80 kilometres. The fun begins again on route 1148 to Fai Kwang and Song Khwae. This sector is a nice mountain road with a river crossing were I rejoiced at the sight of kids playing and splashing in the water. It's really worth the loop and an agreeable bonus of this “Laos border” itinerary. After Song Kwae, a short-cut leads over the mountain, toward Chiang Klang. It must have been a dirt road not so long ago. Now route 1197 is paved (sort of). The first half of his 24 kilometers is quite narrow and irregular, whilst the second part is in good conditions. It's a nice forest promenade, passing a couple of small villages. A lovely food shack, with an open view to the valley, was appealing and I stopped for a noddle lunch. The last part of the trip is on renewed surface, allowing to fully enjoy the steep curves down to the valley. After 350 kilometres on my odometer, I checked in to Chiang Doi resort, in Chiang Klang. There is not much to do in this sleepy city, particularly out of season. I enjoyed a light meal of fish and vegetables, whilst watching the sunset and the dimming light over the river and the mountains. Crosing the border (MuangNgeun) Six o'clock, the repose was long enough and, without breakfast, I was soon on the road again. No real rush, as the border might not open early. It was a gorgeous morning, slightly fresh, with scattered clouds and a light haze. I had already forgotten the weather forecast, or at least, I hoped that I could benefit from a mistake. Route 1180 is pleasant and mostly in good condition, allowing a fast progression. “Asian Highway 13” is the other name of the road. It's a little put on and probably refers to the dream of a large network, linking Eastern countries. On the last sector, near his destination, the trail is slightly rugged, but the pleasure of arrival hides these small annoyances. I expected it, but was still amazed to find the border line in the mountains. Usually it follows the Mekong, down in the valley. This sector is an exception, as the mighty river is totally owned by Laos, just after Houei Xai and for quite a while. “Nan Immigration” is a cozy building with a relaxed atmosphere. I parked my bike somewhere and walked to the office with a bunch of filled forms, downloaded from GTR site. Not all were necessary, as I had no passenger. The officer chose to rewrite one on his own paper, as he had made a mistake. Using the GTR forms has been a good preparation, particularly to be aware of the required informations, even so, in some cases, a different document will finally be used. Another benefit of using these documents is the small financial contribution made to the maintenance of GTR website. I had forgotten to xerox my passport and the bike's “green book” (first page). A photocopier service is available, a short walk away, but the additional steps could be avoided. After immigration, custom papers are stamped on the right side of the building. A precise re-entry point has to be stated and I got a two weeks permission, as this was what I had asked for. Arriving just after eight o'clock in the morning, the whole process, on the Thai side, took about twenty minutes. I was supported in the paperwork by helpful and friendly people. Driving to the Laos control post, I was reminded, at the first lorry encounter, that this country had not been under British rule. No signs are posted, as mistakes are probably less consequent than on the “Friendship bridge” in Nong Khai. A couple of barracks and a simple barrier mark the border. The immigration office is located fifty meters further down. There was no queue, but formalities took about 40 minutes. People have time to chat and to play cultural quiz, like “what is the difference between Switzerland and Sweden”. Conversation can be done in Thai (probably also in English) and all civil servants are relaxed. The cost for visa on arrival is 35 US dollars, the stamp in the passport is an hundred Thai Baths and 70 for the motorcycle. One ID picture is also required. On Thai or Lao side, nobody checked or ever looked at the motorcycle. Another check point, just to show the papers and I was done, enjoying the roads of Sayaboury province. A petrol station is right there and I thought that it was appropriate to fill the tank, as you never know where you will find the next one. I stopped in Muang Ngeun, to buy a sim card. It is cheap, without administrative burden and quite useful, as a signal was available along all the paved roads. In that shop I experimented my first communication hurdle. I was delighted and considered normal to be able to use the Thai language in Laos. But here, only gesticulations were understood. I still got what I needed and learned from the neighbouring stall that these where Chinese people, hardly even fluent in the official language. Later during my trip, I could really experiment and appreciate the large ethnic and cultural diversity of this small country. The road over the hills, from Muang Ngeun to the Mekong, is in good conditions. Newly cut, it runs like a scar through the ocre rocks, unwinding a yellow ribbon toward the horizon. The weather was enjoyable, despite some humidity and blurring haze. Another curve, and suddenly the enchanting Mekong was in front of me. He did not seem very healthy at that season, with is meagre flow and stony bones, but I was happy to meet him again. As a couple of touts lured me to their ferry, I paid the requested amount. However, went I spotted the boat, actually two boots assembled with a couple of planks, I was in no mood to enter in an acrobatic adventure. I switched to the reasonably bigger ferry and paid some additional fees. I probably cashed out a total of 120 Thai Baths, nothing to worry about for a smooth cruise toward the North. The road on the left side of the Mekong is under construction, but already a good dirt trail, soon to become an excellent link. Following the river it offers some spectacular views into the valley. As it bypasses the village of Pak Beng, it is easy to miss the entrance and to drive further down, along the Beng river. In Pak Beng, I checked in to "Boumee Guest house", just at noon. At that time I was one of the very few visitors in town. Pak Beng is quiet during the day and there is not much to do, other than to enjoy some food and a couple of drinks. The view to the bouldered meander of the Mekong is impressive and ambling along the street, to observe the life and chat with locals, rewarding. I wondered if wearing a helmet was compulsory for bikers and got this smiling answer: “it's not Thailand here”! As I blundered around the (only) road my face became well known to the locals. Big bikes are still an attraction in Northern Laos and, each time I stopped, I got signs of appreciation and a question about the price of the gear. Kip figures have too many zeros to make the conversion easy and my answers must have been very gross guesses. The afternoon was hot and humid and many kids were refreshing up in the river. Boats with freight had also arrived and dockworkers were busy like ants to unload and reload the merchandises. The excitement begins in the middle of the afternoon, when the first boats, cruising up from Luang Prabang or down from Houei Xai arrive ad the muddy pier. Touts, porters and children hurry down to the landing places, some running for candies, others for customers to channel toward their guest houses. At a private place, with a direct connection to an upmarket hotel, a VIP cruiser also stopped for the night. Boat after boat, the village got his daily load of tourists drifting along the Mekong. During that season the harvest is not large, but it is an appreciable income, as people are shopping and patronizing the various restaurants during the evening. Electricity is still a limited commodity in Pak Beng and only dim lights and neon from shops provide a meagre illumination along the road. Guest houses (at least Moumee) keep power on and ventilators working all night long. The next day, I woke up early. As baguette an “red wine by the glass” are part of the French legacy in Laos, I was longing for a breakfast. Enjoying the morning view from the balcony, with a hot coffee, was a pleasure that I had no reason to skip, as my scheduled itinerary was quite short. At seven o'clock, I started my journey toward Oudom Xai, bidding farewell to the Mekong, still dressed with morning haze, and I followed the gorge of river Beng. Route «*2 W*» is a delightful treat. The pavement is mostly good, with the exception of short segments covered with earth sliding down the hill and some worn out curves. Filtered by haze or through stratus clouds, sometimes shaded by the forest, the pale morning sun illuminates the landscape, leaving intact the coolness of the dawn. You do not devour this itinerary, you savour it, loving every piece of the journey, every meter of the travel, curve after curve, you appreciate the freshness of large canopies, the blended scents of the forest and the timeless village life. It would be weird to rush when locals follow a slow pace, it might even be dangerous as the road is shared by the entire population, for all kind of activities. Slowing down allows to greet the people, to enjoy their smiles and to wink to cheerful kids. «*Sabai Dee*» this ubiquitous lao greeting is more than a salute, it is an affirmation, a exclamation of appreciation and contentment, a mood statement. It means*: «*we are happy that you are here and hope that you like it*». As the path is cut through a steep sloped mountain, there is no much place left on each side. Hilltribes living on his edge use the surface as a village place, their straw and bamboo shacks hanging over the border of the Beng gorge. There is no much distraction in the mountain life and the passage of an alien on a two wheeled mechanic attracts a lot of interest. Kids are playfully running around, adults dare to touch it or fulfil a dream to seat on it. Every woman, regardless of her age, seemed to wear a child in her arms or bundled on her back. This is a good augur for Laos demography, who needs a boost after the losses from war and political exodes. Suddenly the horizon becomes wider, open on a large plateau circled by mountains. The hamlets are bigger and more organized, they even have name plates and the red capped milestones are engraved with destinations. Some houses are now build in stones, activities are more diversified and cattle replace the small black pigs from the forest communities. The final part of the trip to Oudom Xai goes again through some forests or along scorched hills with a acrid smell of ashes. During the whole morning, I did not meet a single car, circulation was limited to a couple of lorries and «*Honda*» bikes. Arriving in the Oudom Xai, I stopped at Oudom Kham hotel (a recommendation of David) and unloaded the bike for an afternoon tour.