Southern Laos with the boys.....

Discussion in 'Laos Road Trip Reports' started by Tom Forde, Oct 20, 2004.

  1. Tom Forde

    Tom Forde Ol'Timer


    After about a month of doing the tourist thing, in Bangkok and North East Thailand, it is time to resume the riding that I come to this part of the world.

    I left Ken and his wife Moo in Muktahan and caught the vehicle ferry over to Savannakhet on Thursday morning. Everything for the past month had gone too smoothly, what¡¯s happened to the great stuff ups and misadventures around every corner that had happened in the past?

    As soon as I got on Doris, it all begins again; first of all, the Mekong River has dropped over 3m since l last crossed, leaving a dirty big mud bath at the approaching ramp to the ferry.
    Large trucks were bogged on the river embankments and have to dragged out by dozers. Doris is going to have a great time riding in this slippery quagmire. Surprisingly we got aboard in one piece and it was once again across the Mekong and into Lao. I had previously arranged a 30 day visa in Bangkok, so the paperwork on both sides of the Mekong was efficient and without any drama.

    It was time to catch up with my old riding mates from Chiang Mai, who were riding down through Lao, so after a few emails and phone calls we planned to all rendezvous in a small town about 100k north of here, called Thakhek, it will be good to catch up with the boys, after leaving Chiang Mai over 2 months previous.
    Bloody hell, plans change quickly in this part of the world, the guys are now riding straight down to Savanaket, so I booked them all into the Mekong Hotel, were I am staying. I found out later that the Mekong Hotel was the local brothel and night club, up to a year ago, shit I can pick them!

    The boys arrive around 6.30pm, totally knackered from their ride from VIENTIENE, although its less than 500k, the amount of concentration required going through villages is doubled from Thailand.
    First of all, those baby goats are so cute, until the little f###s become road targets; at 100 to 120k these little buggers have less intelligence than ducks.
    Near misses are prevalent, at least in this part of the world they prefer meat than poultry, so there was no kamikaze chickens running around.

    Anyway, the next morning it was decided that D1 (remember him from Chiang Mai
    ) keeps on doing his business thing with the LAO Government, riding around Southern Lao, GPS mapping the areas, for future tourism.
    The rest of us, comprising of D2 and R1 (also from Chiang Mai) both expat Yanks, and I, decide to do a bit of back road exploring.
    D2 is riding an 850cc TDM Yammy, and R1 is on a fully optioned and loaded 1150cc BMW Adventurer, me of course is on old faithful DORIS.

    We decided to explore the recently opened No 9 road out to the Vietnam border, a good 240k ride, then double back about 100k and take the No 23 road from PHIN down to SALAVAN.
    The route would take us across to Dan Savan, near the famous battle with the Aussy¡¯s and the North Vietnamese at Khe Sanh.

    This was just a trial run to see if we could actually cross into Vietnam on big bikes over 250cc., and also have a look at the remains of the Vietnam War, we were all anticipating the remains of a battle at Ban Dong, that the commo¡¯s claimed a great victory over the Americans, alas, nothing there other than bomb craters filled with water. Everything has been cut up and sold off for scrap metal.

    So it was back along the highway to the turnoff to SALAVAN, our maps showing a good dirt road and a quote ¡°river often impassible¡±, you have to be bloody joking!
    After about 35k along a reasonable dirt road, meandering through rain forest resembling Queensland¡¯s mountain areas, we ended up in a village with the road literary coming to a dead end.
    After communicating with a couple of Lao blokes in shabby old uniforms, they pointed us to a track running through their village.
    So off we go, down a bumpy goat track, until we were confronted with a river about 300m wide and full of rapids, as the 3 of us jumped off our bikes to get a better look, it was to all our amazement to look to our left and see a huge demolished concrete bridge sitting in pieces at the bottom of the river.

    Now this was no ordinary bridge, it was a bloody big engineered concrete bugger, sitting about 30m above the river and spanning the full 300m or so. It lay there on its side like a huge dead dinosaur, it looked like it was bombed, but my American mates reckoned it was faulty French engineering, bullshit!
    We were offered a ride across the river in nothing more than dugout canoes with little outboard motors, we were assured our bikes would make it, no thanks; it was decision time, so we decided to turn around and make our way back to SAVANNAKHET and strike out early the next morning.
    We were rapidly running out of daylight, so the last 100 or so k¡¯s were done in the dark.
    I vowed never to ride at night in THAILAND, its just too dangerous, well, double that danger amount in LAO, Its just bloody crazy.
    Illegal logging trucks ply this road at night with no lights, you are on top of them before you know it, confronted with a huge truck taking up most of the road with a capacity load of 2m diameter trees packed on it, bloody scary. Then you have all the farm carts, again with no lights, doing about 10k, full of family members, going home after a day in the fields.

    We arrived back in our motel, vowing to never ride again at night.
    The next morning, after breakfast at a little French restaurant on the Mekong, it was off down Highway 13 towards PAKXE. We decided to do a loop to SALAVAN, turning off the south bound highway about 80k before PAKXE, and head east.
    The road began in a reasonable condition, and then soon deteriated into a bloody goat track again, washouts, bull dust and sharp exposed rocks challenged us for every kilometer.
    Our bikes were handling the conditions surprisingly well, considering they were all fully loaded for extended touring, then it happened, R1 was always having a joke about how many punctures I got in LAO, well now it was his turn, riding over a dilapidated timber bridge, R1 was just in front of me, when his back tyre just started wobbling.
    A quick check and a 6mm bolt, about 100mm long was protruding out of the tyre.

    Keep in mind we are in the middle of the LAO jungle, so out with the tools and begin to fix the puncture. At an instant people began appearing out of the jungle, a couple of young wood choppers in old US Army fatigues were the first, then an old lady chewing beetle juice, before we new it half the nearby village were in attendance. Including a guy on a motorcycle selling ice creams!
    I couldn¡¯t miss this opportunity, so I got out my mp3 player and speakers, lit up a cigar and laid back and watched the comedy. R1 even persuaded one of the young blokes to pump up the tyre. It wasn¡¯t long before we were back on the road, so after about 150k¡¯s of dirt then bitumen road we eventually caught up with D1, who had booked us into a good hotel in PAKXE.

    THE SOUTHERN REGION OF LAO. ¨C Tuesday, 12th October..

    After a good night¡¯s sleep, we awoke early for breakfast, to find R1 had decided to press on towards CAMBODIA. For reasons only known to himself, he had told D1, but was a surprise to the rest of us, as only the night before we were planning to ride through CAMBODIA together. Oh well, some people can be very impetuous!

    The next day, D2 and I decided to follow D1, while he GPS¡¯d many potential tourist spots around PAKSE. After 10 hrs of exploring everything from waterfalls to ancient Khmer ruins, we eventually got back to PAKSE, and settled in along the river at a little caf¨¦ for a well earned feed of fish and a few LAO beers.
    The first one of us to think he had seen a ghost, was D1, R1 just rode up on his GS1150, like nothing had happened, and explained sheepishly that he run the customs road block on the CAMBODIAN border and continued down an ever deteriating dirt track, until it become almost impassible, with CAMBODIAN Customs Officers in hot pursuit. After talking his way out of this little oversight, he ventured even further south, after falling of 3 times and getting bogged in mud, R1 decided to surrender to the elements and retreat back to PAKSE.
    Remember R1 is at least 6ft 6¡¯¡¯ and riding one of the world¡¯s greatest adventure bikes!

    The next day it was agreed to leave PAKSE and head for KHONG ISLAND, on the way D1 wanted to GPS a little island about 30k¡¯s south.
    Oh ye, R1 left early for the THAI border, and crossed into CAMBODIA at KAP CHOENG.

    Can you image 2 dugout canoes tied together with timber floor boards, about 6ft by 8ft wide? That is what was offered to us to transport our motorcycles to this remote island in the middle of the Mekong.
    At first I refused to put my bike in unnecessary danger, but after watching D1successfully ride up a 6¡±x2¡± plank from the rivers edge I decided, what the hell, I¡¯m getting too soft, and I don¡¯t want to let the Aussy side down do I!
    It took us about half an hour to get to the Island, with my boat rapidly taking on water from numerous gaps in the planks along the 12ft long hull.

    We landed on a brown sandy beach, with about 20ft of water to get through before we hit the sand, down came the little gang plank, and the native skipper beckoned me to just ride off. First I refused, hell, how deep is the water? Is the sand solid or muddy? After he jumped into the water and demonstrated to me that the bottom was indeed solid and the water was all of 2ft deep, I gunned DORIS, and off we went screaming up the beach into the jungle, I really surprised myself, so I just sat back again and watched the hilarious goings on with the other 2 on the beach.

    We all made it to the edge of the sand were the jungle begins, and find a little track that wandered through a thatched roof village, with old women and little kids, greeting us with wide mouthed amazement. Some of these people have never seen foreigners, never mind big bikes!
    After exploring the Island for about 2 hours, we come to the conclusion, that the place would need a little bit more infrastructure before its ready for any type of tourism, try basic accommodation and electricity.
    We almost circumnavigated the Island, until we all got bogged in a rice paddy, after an exhaustive time of pushing each other free, we ended up on the other side of the Island, were we found another canoe type ferry to get us across to the mainland.
    This time we were ready for it, and besides the distance was much shorter, just a formality really, until we got to the other side. We were confronted with a 30ft high muddy embankment that you could hardly walk up! The only way up was to give the bikes a handful of accelerator and hope that you got traction, and/or the little LAO guys behind you could push you up the hill. It worked, and soon we were off to find the fabled Island of Khong.

    THE ISLAND OF KHONG ¨C Thursday, 14th October.

    We finally get to the Island turn off after one of the most boring roads I have ridden since OZ. Just k¡¯s of straight, hot, flat bitumen, not even any road kill to break the monotony.
    The ferry to Khong Island was a direct contrast to our previous crossing, a left over Soviet floating pontoon, powered by another left over, very used Chinese gun boat! The approaches to the ferry was a modern concrete affair, so it was on and off in no time.

    Khong Island is rather civilized, with modern guest houses, and as its flat, push bikes are in abundance for hire. There doesn¡¯t seem to be much to do here, but it does attract backpackers, so it has to be good for the local economy.
    After booking into a very nice guest house, it was off for a walk to find a place that made a good coffee.
    We came across two Honda 250cc Trail bikes with Cambodian Number Plates, and as we investigated further, it appears 3 young French kids rode up through Cambodia and into Lao, on the very road that stopped the mighty BMW GS Adventurer!
    It just goes to show you, you don¡¯t need all the whiz-bang technology and big adventure bikes that the spin doctors and advertising media keep on insisting we buy, to do these kind of trips.

    The next day it was off the Island and back to the mainland, with the same boring road, north to PAKXE. Be wary of your fuel situation, at the moment, the closest fuel station is12k out of PAKXE, about 130k away, there is however, the small fuel stops in the villages, so be sure to at least top up your tank.

    D2 and I had decided to leave D1 at the border crossing at CHONG MEK, as he still had unfinished business in LAO.
    D2 and I continued over the border and planned to stay the night in SI SAKET, THAILAND, before I head over the border into CAMBODIA at the KAP CHOENG crossing, and D2 would continue towards CHIANG MAI, with a few side trips to look at KHMER ruins at Phong Rung, Muang Tam and Prasat Ta Muan.

    for more reports on Doris & Tom
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  3. Bla

    Bla New Member

    Reading some of the messages has inspired me to write. I've been living and motor biking around in Cambodia for 10 years and traveled quite a lot in Asia before that. I have made 3 trips to Laos, a month by bicycle in '91, then by Honda XR250 in 2000 and 2003. All were great trips, so even though the info is a bit old, I'll post it here anyway.

    (Note that I can get by in Khmer, Thai, and Laotian, and language does make things easier and more interesting. Also, some of these places are very remote. Give it a bit of thought before going.) Sorry, I guess most of you are well traveled, but perhaps not everyone is.

    Most recent Lao trip first, a month in South Laos, mid-Jan to mid-Feb 2003.

    Picked up a one-month Lao visa in Bangkok. Crossed into Laos from Thailand at Chong Mek near Pakse. I worried they might not let me in with my bike, so didn't mention it when I got my passport stamped in. Never had problems, but I see from other posts here that I should get papers for it next time (It has Cambodian documents and license plates and I always get the Thai papers when I take it to Thailand. I’ve taken it to Thailand 15-20 times, crossing in or out Cambodia at 6 of the 7 ? bike open check points and never had a real problem.)

    First nights in Pakse, Tad Fan Waterfall, and the Bolven Plateau. Pleasant.

    Rode down the east side of the plateau (past a big waterfall I later learned) on a moderate dirt road to join the road between Se Kong and Attepeu. I went north to Se Kong.

    Met a friendly Brit VSO teacher training there. He had a Yamaha 200cc with a single bicycle style seat. I started drilling him for info on roads out of town and the day after next we left for Dak Cheung, due east of Se Kong near the Vietnam border.

    Brilliant dirt track ride. Some quite deep river crossings, steep climbs and pine forested ridges. Lots of war junk, including a 20m long wall completely made of the open half bomb casings used to deliver 20-50 (?) of the small round cluster bombies that kids still find so neat looking. (I found one of the bombies myself in soft dirt further north. They do look cool. The organic-machine look made popular later by the Alien movies. People can be so clever about killing!)

    The ride took most of the day going at a good steady pace with a few longer stops. Arrived in Dak Cheung about 4 and eventually found the one government guesthouse and someone with keys. Only two places were serving evening meals, each with 4 tables. A nice little town.

    Next day we rode as hard and fast as we could on a rough bit of trail going due north. I was keen on climbing the highest mountain near there, a treeless peak rumored to be home to a rare Asian mountain sheep/goat. The road left town and in 5 km became a pair of tire tracks. After 15 km more it became a footpath and after a further 8 km became lightly worn vegetation. I think we could have kept going, the mountain still waits, but we turned about and went back to Dak Cheung. We explored a couple of other roads, then went back down to Se Kong by the same route as we had come up. My new friend had been riding all his life and was in his sixties! I have some great shots of him blasting through a 2 foot deep river crossing. Fairly challenging and highly recommended.

    Rode down to Attepeau the next day and made that my base for the next 8 days. Warmer and more cosmopolitan than Se Kong, I found the people friendly, guesthouse excellent and the food pretty good. Did the normal tourist routes and also tried to get to the Cambodian border. First at the ‘Dragons Tail’ where Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia meet, then going about due south on a nice Ho Chi Minh road.

    First attempt to the dragons tail I got lost, but made it back to Attepeau before dark. Second attempt, took an extra jerry-can of fuel (my tank is only 7l. about 180km on the highway), more food, and a hammock & mosquito net. Went much further but got lost again and tore the alternator wire out from the front of my engine just at sunset. I had a fair tool kit, but didn’t feel up to opening the engine block up way out there. It was a 6-hour grunt pushing up and down mountains to meet the end point of road construction eating forest on the way to Vietnam. The D6 Caterpillar slash & burn crew helped me load it onto a 10-ton flatbed grease truck for a twenty km trip from hell back to the main road camp. The chief engineer was staying 10 km east of Attepeau and we put the bike on his Toyota till there. Next flagged a 3-wheel Jumbo, tied it on hanging off the back and got a ride to the Se Kong river across from Attepeau. Negotiated a night time ferry crossing and fell into a guesthouse at 8pm. Motorcycling, gotta love it!

    Just writing about it makes me tired so that’s enough for now. If anyone cares to hear more, I’ll add to this later. Just ask.

    Other places traveled that trip included the Ho Chi Minh trail starting 20 km east of Attepeu north to Dak Cheung – fantastic but almost killed me – then down to Se Kong again. And Saravan north west to Samoy for tea with Viet border guards.

    In 2000, in via Nong Khai friendship bridge. Meandering up to Muang Sing. Past the Lao border, the Chinese marker and 5 km into China. 25 km NW of Muang Sing along a track towards where Burma Laos and China meet. The road to Huay Sai and Thailand. Then hugging the Lao border all the way to Dan Sai and Lom Sak before rushing back to work in Battambang.

    On the 1991 cycle trip did the road from Saravon to Muang Phin among others.

    Happy Trails
  4. SilverhawkUSA

    SilverhawkUSA Ol'Timer

    "If anyone cares to hear more, I’ll add to this later. Just ask". OK, I am asking. Sounds like you have had some great trips. Having been a little limited on what we did on our trip due to the type of motorcycles we had, I would really like to come back to Lao on a true off road bike.

    Anything more you can write up would be great.

    Dave Early

    Ever notice that "What the Heck!" is usually the right answer?
  5. Bla

    Bla New Member

    "Just ask", I said. Sorry to take so long. I'll continue my personal saga. . . .

    Made 2 trips south of Attapeu. Found a lovely bit of old Ho Chi Minh road, but was stopped by too much deadfall. I consider mines and bombs, but if others have gone round a fallen tree, generally I'll risk it too. But this formerly quite enthusiastic road hadn't seen wheeled traffic for quite a bit. Sometimes I could get around them, but generally it was bumping it over under power, or lifting the bike by hand. With a 250cc I can manage it, but it gets silly by the 3rd big tree. I generally stop myself before the first litre of sweat, but I'm a massive sufferer of the "what's just around that next corner?" syndrome, and if, upon walking ahead 10 minutes, the way is swell and do able beyond the tree, I can go beyond silly to stupid sometimes. Anyway it was continueing beautiful when I turned round. Well worth a try for others, or me later. Tree problems usually vary with time, so if it doesn't get worse, it'll have to get better.

    To get to the road, as I recall (two years ago now) I crossed the Sekong on the South of town ferry, not the East one, and rode quite fast SW on the main Laos/Cambodia smuggle road a bit over half an hour, there was a quite substantial - read noticeable - Y junction. A shop or two and perhaps a school. Head south there, through the village and flat fields 1-3 km then it starts going up and around some hills. I dropped down after that at one point but my trend was still higher and south. I was on that road less than 2 hours all told and I saw a small gaggle of women closer to town an a father/son pair in the jungle so it gets a fair bit of daily foot traffic I guess. Worth a look!

    Can't recall the name of the resettlement village due east of Attepeu near the tourist waterfall mentioned in Lonely Planet, but that's basically the start of the fabulous and challenging ride north to Dak Cheung and Sekong. A quite big logging road goes east from there then swings north up a fairly big Sekong river tributary. When this river turns east the road continues north up some very steep climbs. (I think it is a protected area, but I heard there are big "log then dam" or "log the decide not to dam" plans for the upper river area, so the lower road might improve and spawn an eastern branch.) Sometime - in the seventies?- the road was paved with big bowling ball sized rocks. Fair bit of bounce and rumble while intact, but probably better than red clay during the wet. The problems happen, when it is half washed away.

    I was trundleing up a steep bit, second gear, more than half throtle, standing up, well forward, shoulders about over the handlebars, fair cliff down on the right - read death - fairly woody/rocky 2m. high cutbank on the left - read intense pain - and I was working towards more than a bit of worry about what might happen next. The bowling ball style road ended just as it got steeper and I started to swing around an outside switchback corner over the cliff. Great! It wasn't wet and the clay was far easier to keep the front wheel down on. Once around the corner, yet still over the cliff, I briefly had a flash of serious fear. Luckily, I supose I had no time for it. I had no choice. I went as far forward as I could possibly go, right up on my toes, head somewhere over my front axle and gunned the engine.

    You see, the bowling ball pavement intermitently resumed, again and again, over a very steep 100m. section. Quite insane really. Then straight clay again over less steep ground another 500m to the top of that pitch. I stopped, my arms jello, to let my heart slow to 150 beats a minute.

    Even in retrospect, I really had no choice: even crashing into the bank on the left of the 2.5m wide road, the bike still could have flipped over backwards and over the cliff. Full throtle was all I could do, and the bike, and my luck, came through when needed.

    I guess there are more remote places on the planet, but it would take a bit of work to get out of there with major injuries. Some local poor folk might be inconvienienced, government officials, parents, siblings etc. (Hopefully they aren't reading this!) Something that bears consideration.

    I was glad I made it. Hoped I wouldn't need to descend it. And sure I wouldn't go up it again.

    Now I would. I guess I'd be more aware of approaching the "stopping without falling is not possible" point. I'd stop just before it, and wave you ahead to go first... Well, now you've read this, so it would have to be some other poor sod... I would try it now though. I think the exact place where the "paving" stopped was as bad as could be, thus it must be better now.

    There was a shell of some armoured vehicle, not really a tank I think, at the crest of the hill. All together quite a spectacular start to that section of the trip. It never got more scary, but the whole thing was perfectly excellent. Still that will require another installment.

    If anyone reads thus far and still wants more... just ask.

    P.S. I'm off to the Thai/Cambodia border south of Battambang at Sen Chao, Samlot district tomorrow. A stunning location as well. Leave Btb before 10am, back before 8pm. Anyone keen?

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