Nth West Laos Trip Report

Discussion in 'Laos Road Trip Reports' started by tzsuj, May 6, 2007.

  1. tzsuj

    tzsuj New Member

    Hi, I just wanted to post some info on a trip I just did in Nth-West Laos 20/4/07-2/5/07.

    I am a novice rider, as is my girlfriend (never ridden motorbikes before). We came into Laos from Vietnam on an extended backpacking holiday. The decision to do some biking was not planned, but we were tired of the long and slow bus transport that we had experienced to date in Laos. We also wanted to see more of the little villages you tend to whizz by in buses.

    We thought would we would be OK on the bikes for the first time given the lack of car traffic and the generally OK road quality we had experienced in eastern Laos so far. We therefore went ahead with the idea and after trying without success to rent bikes in Luang Prabang (evidently, this province no longer allows hiring of motorbikes to foreigners after a spate of accidents there) we headed to Udomxai to try our luck there. If we couldn't get bikes there, we were going to abandon the idea, as there would have been too much backtracking on our eventual journey to Cambodia.

    We picked up a GT Rider road map before we left Luang Prabang just in case we could get the bikes in Udomxai. Its a pity I didn't notice that there was a GT Rider website before we left (discovered this in Huay Xai after about a week of riding).

    After asking at 6 places in Udomxai, we managed to get a Chinese Zongshen 110cc scooter there. We wanted 2 bikes but the guy could only get one, so we said we'd take it for 10 days starting the next day. Luckily he rustled up another (Honda NSR 250cc (I think) road bike) when we returned to pick the bike up the next day. Rental costs were US$8 & US$10 per day respectively. It was maybe a bit much for the scooter, but we were desperate.

    Day 1 Udomxai - Luang Nam Tha
    Bitumen road all the way, but potholed and large sections dug up for future repair. No cars, a couple of other scooters, a few animals on the road around villages, OK scenery. Generally a good ride. Scooter had its first spill over a 4" drop in an unsealed section of the road - damage was a bent footrest that prevented gear changes, scuffed up hand grip, minor fairing scratches, something that caused an oil leak and some roughed up nerves. Honda had its first spill on the gravel shoulder of the road when I was just pulling up to take a photo - only damage was to my pride. Left at 2pm, got in at 6pm. Scooter limited to 3rd gear for the last 1/2 of the trip.

    Day 2 Luang Nam Tha - Muang Sing
    Got scooter repaired, I noticed a pre-existing split in the sidewall of my front tyre that I changed out. Luang Nam Tha itself not much to look at - more of a trekking base. Did some good short bike trips to That Phum Phuk stupa and villages of Ban Nam Di & Ban Pa Sak (silk harvesting). Road to Muang Sing was bitumen - all good. Excellent scenery all the way particularly close to Muang Sing in the National Park. Left early afternoon, got in at 6pm.

    Day 3 Muang Sing
    Stayed 2 nights in Muang Sing, with 1 day walk to Hmong & Akha villages with government tour guide - highly recommend it.

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    Akha Sugarcane Cutter​

    Day 4 Muang Sing - Xieng Kok
    Left at 9am next morning - good bitumen road for about 5km, then hard dirt road for the rest of the way with some bitumen parts around the major villages. Lots of killer rutts though - ones running across the road at a slight angle - that make fo nasty surprises after good stretches. I came off when I tried to steer around one and brake at the same time - minor fairing scratches and some bark off my hand, knee and elbow but nothing major as I was only going 20km/hr before I braked. Stopped and had some watermelons off a truck from China at around Muang Long - great guys and great watermelons. More rutted roads to until Xieng Kok where bitumen took over. Got in at about 2pm. Some big party was in progress blocking the road when we arrived - had to have a rice wine from the locals to pass thru. It ended up being a 'rocket festival' where homemade bamboo rockets are launched off a highpoint over and into the Mekong. Basically the whole town was there and getting into it. The rockets are supposed to bring rain apparently. One backfired in a bloke's face and he was carried around like a hero - kooky. I made some enquiries as best as I could about boats to take the bikes down the Mekong - no luck that day - everyone partying. I went for a quick ride to see if there was a road to Xieng Dao (the sketchy Lonely Planet map seemed to indicate there is one, Gt map doesn't have one). I went along a track that might have been it, but no signs so I turned back. Stayed the night at a 'Resort' overlooking the Mekong and the banks of Myanmar - superb views. Nice people running it.

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    Watermelon Quality Assurance Officials​

    Day 5 Xieng Kok - Tamphabat
    Got 2 speedboats at 8am to take us & the bikes to Xieng Dao - got him down from 320,000 to 260,000 kip each boat for the 30 minute trip - still dear but no other options (no slowboats appear to be around). Pretty cumbersome to load on at the beach landing but we and they managed, brilliant & fast boat trip down the Mekong. Cumbersome unloading on the beach at Xieng Dao and it took us close to an hour to get the bikes up the sand to the start of the road. The road from here was all dirt - more sandy than gravel, but still nicely hard packed and very few rutts. Seems to be some road improvement works happening - drainage, road widening, grading - all in isolated pockets though and not a continuous project ?? The catch was the creek crossings - about 10 in total that day. I walked them all first because of our bikes' low clearance so it was quite a stop-start day. We made all the crossings no problems. Water was always around 5-6" deep. It was great scenery and really the start of villages that don't see too many foreigners - all very friendly. Some of the bamboo forests in Bokeo are a sight to behold - no other plants, just whole hillsides of bamboo. I thought we could make it to Huay Xai that night but pulled up stumps at a small village called Tamphabat, 71km from Huay Xai. No guesthouses, so we stayed with a family there and ate bamboo shoots and sticky rice for dinner. 50,000 kip for bed, dinner & breakfast. I had a shower in the open village wash area with an audience of 10 kids gathered around and other people looking on from their windows - pretty funny.

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    Speedboat from Xieng Kok to Xieng Dao​

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    First of Many Creek Crossings - Day 5​

    Day 6 Tamphabat - Huay Xai
    We left early and got to Huay Xai at 12 noon. The roads were a bit of a mixture - mostly dirt, but there were some good hard packed stretches mixed with rutted and loose surface areas. From memory, a lot was hard packed but with large rocks exposed making for a shaky ride. The last 30km into Huay Xai were a dream on good bitumen. Didn't do much around Huay Xai - nice place to relax. Got asked by police where we were going - they were just showing an interest rather than any official questioning. Stayed overnight in Huay Xai.

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    Tamphabat House - Overnight Day 5​

    Day 7 Huay Xai - Xiengkhone
    Got a slowboat down the Mekong that had tourists packed in on wooden school benches. Very reasonably priced - 120,000 kip for 1 person and 1 bike to Pak Khop (4hrs). Getting the bikes on was easy with a big plank. Pak Khop landing area isn't much chop though - just a steep sand bank with a few ledges to get over. The sly deckhand wanted 90,000 kip to help me get the bikes up it - I told him where to go. A couple of other tourist passengers and some good natured locals helped out carrying the bikes up to the rocky flat part of the
    landing. I gave the locals 40,000 kip for their efforts. Strange things on the boat - the bikes were tied down together upright at the bow area - you wouldn't believe the amount of tourists who thought it was OK to sit on the bikes, lie across the seats, or put their feet on the seats. The bikes weren't in great condition, but treating other peoples' property like this I found just plain ignorant. I got sick of getting up to the bow to ask them to remove their shoes from my seat. Every time they apoligised. The road to Xiengkhone was OK for the first 10km but then it turned into a bit of a shocker - big longitudinal ruts, loose surfaces, steep descents, etc, etc. Lots of 1st & 2nd gear work + walking the bike down thru the rutted and steep parts. I think there was only 1 creek crossing though. We got in at 6pm very tired and scored a guesthouse.

    Day 8 Xiengkhone
    We wanted to get a start at first light but just as we set out, it started raining. We thought about the hills we had been over in the last few days and how it would be in the wet - not good on a road bike with a bald back tyre and a narrow tyred scooter - and decided to give it a miss for the day. It stopped raining by 10am and the roads were probably OK to ride around town on by 12 noon. We just read some books and went for a sightseeing scooter ride that afternoon. Got some fairing repairs to my bike from the previous bone shaking day.

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    Fuel Station - Xiengkhone​

    Day 9 Xiengkhone - Muang Ngeun
    The next day started as the previous - all ready to go at first light and then the rain came. Thankfully it only rained lightly for about 10 mins. We gave it about 30 mins and then decided to head off. The road was fairly good overall - lots of hills and descents, but the moisture over the last few days seemed to pack it in nicely and it wasn't slippery at all. We got in 3 hrs of good riding and then the rains came again and stopped us in our tracks - literally. The roads greased up in minutes and we just couldn't control anything. Luckily we were about 500m uphill from a little village when we stopped. The ponchos came out and we walked the bikes down the hill - even this was an effort - to a little bamboo shelter where we waited for 3 hrs until the roads were dry enough to keep going. The rest of the day was OK but we both had a couple of slides with the sometimes mushy roads - and the steep hills continued. The Honda got a bit of a working out in first gear and had a really hot (boiling) radiator a few times - it came through though with a bit of TLC. We got to Muang Ngeun at about 3pm and in the town I got a flat rear tyre - excellent timing. I got it replaced with one with a bit more grip but a lot thinner than the road tyre that was on it - looked a bit funny and it was a bit less stable but beggars can't be choosers.

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    Great Park Scenery - Day 9​

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    Rutted Roads - Day 9​

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    Rain Shelter​

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    Isolated Villagers​

    Day 10 Muang Ngeun - Hongsa
    We left early again and got some good roads. The first bit from Muang Ngeun was a combination of gravel and new bitumen (I think ??) but there was a lot of loose surfaces. Nonetheless it was a good ride. The 40km took us 2hrs to do with a few stops for photos. Saw an elephant going off to work along the main road about 20km west of Hongsa - great to see this as it was one of the reasons for coming this way. We saw another elephant in its holding field closer to Hongsa but this was from a distance. Its worth noting that Hongsa has closed the German Elephant Conservation Centre that is referenced in the Lonely Planet. We wanted to check this out to find out more about the elephants and how they work in logging and agriculture. The road about 7-8 km west of Hongsa is really bony as well - shook everything up that I got tightened up previously.

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    Elephant Going to Work​

    Day 11 Hongsa - Luang Prabang
    This was a big days ride - 6am to 6pm. Went through heaps of villages that don't see foreigners often - some of the adults have really scared and worried looks on their faces, some of the kids are friendly and some run away and wave from the protection of a fence - great to experience. The road starts out innocently enough from Hongsa until an unmarked Y intersection that splits to Luang Prabang or to Sainyabuli. I gather most traffic goes to Sainyabuli first then onto Luang Prabang which explains the villager's reactions. The road was pretty arduous for us - got worried at times we weren't on the right road as it went from 2 lane dirt to 1 lane dirt to overgrown track (2 wheel lines along it) and there were no signs (even in Laos script). The hills were steep and some extended uphill stretches were just sharp rocks that we had to power over (no flats surprisingly). Its worth noting that there were some trees across the road that prevented cars from going there - we got around them OK, but they didn't look like they were going to be moved anytime soon. Anyway after the first half of the leg that was mostly hills, we got into a flatter section that we went along much easier. We got to Ban Xieng Maen (opposite Luang Prabang) at about 5pm and then got the longtail across to LP. Cost was 70,000 kip for 1 boat with the 2 bikes and us loaded onto it. The guys were great and helped us onto the ramp with the bikes. Spent the rest of the evening chasing up some last minute fairing repairs.

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    Bamboo Road Gate​

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    Interesting Bridge​

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    Desperation Fuel Stop - Ban Na Nay​

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    The Scooter Makes it Thru Again​

    Day 12 Luang Prabang - Udomxai
    Bitumen road all the way with a couple of potholes and rough sections. Watch out for the big bundies in the middle of the road as about 50km north of Luang Prabang - real show stoppers (and they don't look like they are going to be moved soon either). Left at 8am got in at 2pm, gave the bikes back, sorted out the extra rent on the bikes and then hopped back on the bus back to Luang Prabang.

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    Nasty Surprise - Highway 13​

    Overall, we had a great trip, though at times we wished we were elsewhere. We got to see stuff you wouldn't be able to see otherwise and also had a few good experiences along the way. The trip would have been better with some more suitable bikes (now we are in Vientiane and see that you can rent Honda Bajas for US$15/day !!!).

    We were lucky not to blow any tyres or snap cables, etc (we didn't have any spares) and were also lucky not to have any serious slides (we just had shorts, t-shirts and inappropriate footwear) - things to remember for any future rides we are tempted to do.

    Keep up the work on the website and maps - they are a great resource for all to use. I hope this account is of help to someone.
     
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  3. dirthonk

    dirthonk Ol'Timer

    great trip there mate, looks like you gave that nsr a new lease of life after probably years of driving from one karaoke parlour to the next and back, what was the scenery like from hongsa to luang prabang?? ive driven from luang prabang via the sainyabuli route before and its great for scenery and combined with some steep rutted sections is a wicked drive, i was on a baja though so slightly more suited to the job!
     
  4. DavidFL

    DavidFL Administrator Staff Member

    Tzsuj
    Good report & pix. Glad you had a great time. Youve done a few roads that not many have done - well done.
    A question - would you recommened doing any of these alone?
    You're also right that you were lucky with no serious break downs or accidents. My luck ran out on the Hongsa - Muang Ngeune road & now it's been done safely by a girl!
    So congratulations & many thanks for contributing to the GT Rider board.
    Im sure you're report will inspire a few others to tackle some of the roads / trails you did.
     
  5. tzsuj

    tzsuj New Member

    To Davidfl

    I think all the roads could be done alone. If you have the right equipment for the job, a few critical spares and the time to take it easy, you wouldn't have any problems. There was always little fuel stations as well. If you did run into problems, there was always some passing traffic during the day that could help you out. People were always helpful with directions as long as you kept the questions simple.

    The road from Hongsa to Luang Prabang was our longest stretch and all turn-offs were unmarked, so this combined with the infrequently travelled status of the road made it the hardest for us. It was always reassuring to have someone with me on this road.

    To Suzukiluke

    The scenery was pretty good. Typical of Loas really - lots of tiny remote villages, lots of mountains in the first half, then it got to a more gentle run towards Luang Prabang. We did see more elephants going to work about 1½ hrs out of Luang Prabang which was excellent. In all, out best scenery was the NPA coming into Muang Sing and the whole day from Xieg Dao to Tamphabat.
     

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