Great Northern Laos Loop Planning

Discussion in 'Laos - General Discussion Forum' started by jorai, Aug 24, 2011.

  1. jorai

    jorai Active Member

    With a friend I am planning a 4-week motorcycle tour of Northern Laos from Vientiane in November. I’ll be riding my Cambodia-registered Suzuki Djebel 250cm to Vientiane from Siem Reap while said friend will fly into Vientiane, where he has reserved a 250ccm Honda Baja through Jim at Remote Asia.

    After one or the other day-trip around Vientiane we are planning on leaving on a tour of at least 3 weeks which we intend to spend entirely north of Vientiane, presumably along some sort of wide loop through the north, around Luang Prabang with side trips to interesting destinations along the way. Probably towards the end of the trip we would spend a few days in Luang Prabang and take the main road back to Vientiane.

    We are neither into racing nor into riding on highways and we appreciate challenging road conditions and a fair measure of adventure. We also appreciate being able to enjoy the beauty of the countryside we are riding through and to park the bikes for adventures that are not bike-related as well as for a chat or meal with locals or maybe even a day in a hammock with a good view. Thus, we are anticipating traveling well below-average daily distances.

    With these parameters in mind I have been searching the forum for reports of tours that could plausibly be modified or combined to meet our requirements. I have not found any apparently matching tour reports.

    I have taken note of information on the Luang Prabang Loop Thread ( and found the existence of paved all-weather roads along this route reassuring but mainly for plans to fall back on, as we are trying to minimize the amount of time we spent on newly build, surfaced roads.

    I have found tons of reports from very appealing shorter trips of which I think we will end up incorporating some into our tour. However, I found it hard to link many of those reports to the exact locations in which tours took place without the GTR Lao guide map, which I have ordered already.

    Once the map arrives I will be able to decipher road and tour reports and tentatively combine some into an itinerary, on which I would seek comments here. In the meantime, I hope it’s not inappropriate to seek specific comments on this plan early, on questions such as

    1. Is there any trip report that can be recommended as a starting point for planning our route?
    2. Which highly recommended places should we incorporate into the route, either into the loop are as a side trip destination?
    3. Are there any other specific considerations we should keep in mind when planning the route?

    Some of the reports I like for the road mix and road challenges they offer are
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  3. jorai

    jorai Active Member

    As I am thinking further about this and wait for my map, I would like to rephrase my question: Does this plan make any sense?
  4. jimoi

    jimoi Ol'Timer


    Your plan makes sense and certainly ask the members here for advice! I'll keep writing to Uwe and when you have questions, email me.

    In general, I'd just say take it easy and ride a slow pace. You have time and I'll also sit with you in Vientiane when you pick up the other bike. I wouldn't be worried about the paved roads as you'll need some to get around to certain areas Uwe asked about.
  5. SilverhawkUSA

    SilverhawkUSA Ol'Timer

    You can have a look on my website if you wish; for some of the trip reports I have made. I am not taking away from this website, because they are also posted here somewhere. I just am to lazy to search for them.

    There is also some information that may be useful towards the end of this post;

    Check the dates on the reports, as I haven't been over there in the last year, and things do change rapidly in Laos. Good Luck.
  6. jorai

    jorai Active Member

    jimoi and Silverhalk, thanks a lot for helpful input and encouraging words.

    With the help of the GTR-map and forum we have come up with the following tentative and rough itinerary:

    • Vientiane

    • Phonsavan

    • Xam Neua

    • Phonsali

    • Luang Namtha

    • Houei Xai

    • Oudom Xai

    • Luang Prabang

    • Vang Vieng

    • Vientiane

    Upon arrival in Vientiane we want to take a 2-3 day tour to get a taste of what to expect and test the material, before going on a longer tour for which 26 days are available. Assistance in connecting these dots is much appreciated, as well as suggestions for additional and/or alternative dots and general advice.

    Vientiane-Phonsavan: We have yet to figure out a good route for this, specifically at which point along road 13 we should head north, from Thabok, Pakxan or even further east. Phou Khao Khouay NBCA, highest mountain and restricted area do sound like promising milestones along one possible route to Phonsavan.

    In Phonsavan we want to explore the Plain of Jars. We are still unclear about how far east we want to go from there and have put Xam Neua tentatively. We consider incorporating this trip into the route from Phonsavan to Xam Neua

    From Xam Neua we want to head towards Phongsali, possibly incorporating parts of day 9 (Nong Khiew – Muang Khua. Using dirt tracks) and day 10 (Muang Khua – Boun Tai. With detour to Samphanh) from Moto-Rex’s Nov 2010 tour

    and/or relevant portions of Silverhawk’s 2010 tour

    In Phongsali we expect to cover similar ground to Silverhawk’s fateful 2009 trip

    I would also be inclined to visit the northern Laos Village of Ou Tay

    To get to Luang Namtha we want to use the “Oudomxay By-pass” from Phongsali described in this post

    and hope it is still in similar condition. Is this the same as Day 11. Boun Tai – Luang Namtha in Moto-Rex’s 2010 tour?

    From Luang Namtha we want to travel to Muang Sing in order to take the mountain road to Xiangkheng on the Mekong and the boat ride and " old French road" to Muang Long that is vaguely described further down in Silverhawk’s above report by the user ‘pee’. I wonder if this overlaps/can be combined with what dirthonk describes as “long-vieng phukha track” in this unfortunately rather short report of his trip with Moto-Rex:

    From there we consider continuing to Houei Xai, not least to give the Gibbon experience a try and possibly getting there along the lines of day 13 and 14 of Rex’s tour

    Availability of time will probably dictate our route to Luang Prabang but one appealing option appears to be to follow day 2 and 3 of Rex’s trip. In Vientianne we hope to relax a little before returning to Vientiane with overnight at Vang Vieng.

    1. Is this a realistic, plausible or even recommendable route for 26 days in November and if not, what modifications are required to make it one?
    2. Does it make sense to use 4 weeks for one long loop like this or would it make more sense to break this down into two or more shorter tours? Breaks in between tours are probably appreciated for bike and rider maintenance.
    3. Is there a way to explore upper parts of Phonsali without a lot of backtracking? Is it worth it?
    4. Which region along the overall route is most suitable for rewarding day-trip exploration?
    5. We consider the possibility to incorporate a more substantial (2-3 days?) boat trip into our route. Where along the route would be the best opportunity for this? One consideration is that we should be sufficiently sick and tired of sitting on the bikes to adequately enjoy riding a boat for a change. Another consideration is that it should not be too expensive.
    6. Is there a way from Xam Neua to Phonsali north of national road?
  7. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    Just go with the flow.. have a rough schedule and adapt. There is always next time and the time after if you can't fit it all in.
  8. Jorai

    "Vientiane-Phonsavan: We have yet to figure out a good route for this, specifically at which point along road 13 we should head north, from Thabok, Pakxan or even further east. Phou Khao Khouay NBCA, highest mountain and restricted area do sound like promising milestones along one possible route to Phonsavan."

    Suggest you take a look at this thread:

    Could have problems heading north via the Tha Bok route. Unlikely that you'd be allowed the short route to the PDJ via Long Tieng as that area is still restricted for some reason unfathomable to me. The other route via Xaysomboun east to the N-S PDJ-Paksane road might be possible but there are military checkpoints on the road and it'd be a shame to be turned around and lose a bunch of time.

    Re the N-S PDJ-Paksane road, there were some difficulties on it last May, but I was in a 4WD pickup so motorcycles would be more likely to have an easier time of it given their handiness and ability to use the bamboo ferries across one or two of the river fords. And, hopefully, the road's been cleard of landslides in its upper reaches. It'll be a beautiful road when finished and sure do hope that there's a budget for highway maintenance that's used for maintenance or it'll end up like the Boten-Nam Tha-Vieng Phou Kha-Houei Sai road a couple years back, now since fixed up, so I understand.

    Mac, a 4-wheeler
  9. jorai

    jorai Active Member

    I agree but not entirely. If I wanted to go with the flow I would likely not end up on a bike in northern Laos. While I don't mind intersecting occasionally with the backpacker flow I don't want to be part of it. If I followed the traffic flow I would likely not make it far off the highways. And I won't have 5 weeks dry season time in Laos anytime soon again. But generally yes all I want is a rough schedule, some ideas and ideally some sort of assurance that it is not unrealistic.

    Mac, thanks a lot for options and detail on the Vientiane-Phonsavan stretch. Its noted and we will report back what we ended up doing and how it went.

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