Laos Expedition 2004

Mar 15, 2003
The Lao Expedition-2004 was off to a start on Sept. 26. Davidfl (Africa Twin 750), Robert H (BMW 1150) and I on my TDM850 headed off from Chiang Mai for a Laos mapping trip. David had a specific schedule he had to adhere to as he was actually getting paid by the Laos Ministry of Tourism for doing this mapping. The rest of us were a little more free as we were just tagging along for the adventure. David had stickers made up ‘Laos Expedition-2004” with our bike photos and the GT-Rider logo which became quite popular on the road, stuck in some pretty out of the way places and ferry boats.

We had a shaky start as we had to push start the BMW three times before even reaching Chiang Rai. At the Charin Resort, after our usual pie stop, a decision had to be made by Robert, back to Chiang Mai for parts and repair or continue on and take a chance on repairs on the way. As we debated Robert pressed the starter button and it came to life with little hesitation. Onward to Chiang Khong.

A night in Chiang Khong and we ferried to Huay Xai, Laos. Robert field stripped and lubed the starter motor while we made arrangements for a boat to Pak Beng as the road out of Huay Xai is still considered to be pretty much impassable on our bikes. 6,000baht for our own chartered boat through a previous connection of David’s. On arrival the “additional passengers” that had been allowed on by the Captain were ordered off. We were wise to this trick from Tom Forde’s earlier experience. There were plenty of bodies around to help load the bikes and everything went off without incident. Later however, Robert discovered about a dozen Lao stowaways in the engine room. As they weren’t bothering us, if they wanted to ride the 6 hours downriver there, more power to them (I suggested inviting them inside but was quickly out voted).

After a very pleasant cruise of reading, chess games and a little napping we arrived in Pak Beng and again found many hands available to offload. We were dropped off in the mud and clay next to the paved loading area but we rode through with only a little bit of tire spinning and foot dabbing. This was nothing compared to what we later experienced.

Leaving the sleepy town of Pak Beng (Donevilasah Guesthouse) the road is dirt for maybe 30-40k but it was doable with little difficulty. Somehow we judged this just right as the rains had stopped and roads were dry with little dust yet accumulated. We made slow progress North (Hwy 2) to Oudamxai (my odometer showed we averaged 26 kph) as we made so many photo and village stops. Every time we entered a village it was as if the Circus had come to town. Kids came running in droves if we stopped, and adults soon followed. We were actually getting tired of waving every time we passed someone on the side of the road. The locals would shout greetings and drop what they were doing to rush to the side of the road. We stopped a couple times and bought sweets for the kids in the village. We counted about 45 pieces of “kanom” given to the kids but the shop keeper kept tallying up 100 pieces. In a second village after again having fun with the kids, we were invited inside the shop keeper’s kitchen and had home made noodles while sitting in the smoky, dirt floored living quarters. Again, when it was time to leave they made some very clumsy attempts at overcharging us. (The old woman said she needed new teeth). Our patience and generosity were seriously tested by these greedy shopkeepers. Fortunately, the friendliness of the majority of people made up for this.

We saw so many fascinating things along the way; I would have to write a full length magazine article to describe them. At one point we stopped to photograph a young man skinning, over a fire, a Python that was at least 2 meters long and still wriggling around after being decapitated.

In another stop we were exposed to a true ‘National Geographic’ type experience. We just stopped for a short break by chance. On a steep hill overlooking the roadside huts where we had stopped, we saw a group of men and could hear a drum and music coming from the nearby thatched homes. David climbed the dirt path and soon called for us to climb up. A young child had died and a funeral/burial ceremony was in progress. We were invited inside the hut where we observed a young child wrapped in a blanket and in traditional Hmong dress on the floor. In the corner a man lay smoking an Opium pipe while other males played a drum and a very large strangely shaped bamboo wind instrument. As we watched they constructed a shelf on the wall where the baby, a bowl containing a dead chicken, a small bow and arrow and other items were placed. The family came to the child to mourn as the music was to be played for 24 continuous hours. The child would then be buried in the hills.

The people actually encouraged our photo taking and did not seem to consider this an invasion of their privacy at all. Actually most of their spirits seemed high and they actually enjoyed looking at our digital shots. They gave us a very friendly send off as we decided to continue on our way, and we made a donation to them to pay for the wake which would carry on through the night. Incredible stuff!

We finally made Oudamxai and still had time to do a side trip (Hwy 4) to a nearby mountain village which had a rather amazing little riverside restaurant/bar facility. The next day on to Luang Phrabang (Hwy 13). The road was fine and had more beautiful mountain scenery than one could take in and ride at the same time. A couple nights in the touristy town of LPB, some dinners on the river and we are off again.

This leg of our trip could be handled by anyone with average motorcycling skills and any type of motorcycle. Negotiating for a boat takes a little bit of local knowledge and not knowing the language could present a few problems, but nothing that cannot be overcome.

Photos at:

Dave Early

edit: add new photo link 30 Jul 2008

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Mar 15, 2003
Laos Expedition 2004 (cont:)

LPB – Phonsovahn

We left LPB and headed south. David had to make it to an appointment in Vientiane, Robert and I were going to Phonsovahn. After working our way out of the mountains we take a break at Phou Koun, and soon Robert an I head east on Hwy 7.

Hwy 7 has got to be one of the best motorcycle roads I have ever ridden. Many of the roads in Laos have been rebuilt or newly constructed with aid from Japan, according to the signs. This road twists along mountain ridgelines doubling back on it’s self in places and providing great views. We only encounter a few other vehicles. The surface is absolutely perfect fresh asphalt. Unlike Thai mountain roads, there are none of the ridiculously steep grades or turns so sharp one has to almost come to a stop. This road can be cruised at any speed, but remember you are still always dodging livestock, goats, chickens, ducks and of course the usual water buffalo. If you should have a mishap it would be long painful way out so don’t get too aggressive. It is also interesting to see how much difference a few weeks and a change in weather can make. Tom had rain throughout his trip, we had mostly sunny skies and cool temperatures which made for a totally different experience if you read his reports.


We made Phonsovahn in the late afternoon and decided to see the Plain of Jars site 2 and 1 before the sunset so we could leave for Xam Nua in the morning. Site 2 took some local knowledge to find and directions from whomever we could ask. One of the most significant archeological sites in Southeast Asia and the dirt roads are either unmarked or marked by small signs no more than a foot long. Other than to say you have been there, site 2 is really not worth making as the main site, site 1, has many more jars and covers a much larger and more scenic area. Also, to our dismay, we learned that site 2 has not been totally cleared of unexploded ordinance.

Arriving site 1, you are immediately aware of the Mine Advisory Group signs, markings and clearing procedures. All around the jars the earth has been dug or prodded and marked with survey stakes and geo markers.

We actually were quite lucky in getting there at sundown as we were the only ones in the fields. The sun was setting as a mist rose around the jars and it created a truly mystical feeling.

I found it interesting to see the trenches, caves and other installations in and around the jars. Others have criticized and remarked that they could not understand how the U.S. could bomb such an archeologically significant area. As photos in the Laos National Museum (Vientiane) confirm, the Pathet Lao and their command staff had dug in and were actually using the Plain of Jars area as a major command and control point. Amazingly, reports that I read say that ‘the jars’ themselves suffered no damage throughout the repeated carpet bombings.

In Phonsovahn you need to stop in and give your support to the MAG guys. There is an Aussie there, and I am sorry I don’t remember his name who heads the Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) clearing operation and is a wealth of information. One of the things that he told us about site 2, which put our minds to rest, is the misinformation about the UXO. This area is saturated with unexploded bombs and such, but not landmines like Cambodia. The UXO lays dormant under ground and unless jostled or disturbed is generally not going to do anything. One can walk over the earth above a UXO and it is not going to explode like a landmine. Don’t get me wrong, it is still extremely dangerous and they say death or injury to local farmers, children or scrap metal scavengers, still occurs on almost a weekly basis. Stop in their office, a donation of over $10 U.S. buys the t-shirt and goes to a worthy cause.

Dave Early

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Mar 15, 2003
Laos Expedition 2004 (Cont;)

Xam Nua-Vieng Xai

The next morning we headed up to Hwy 6 up the mountains to Xam Nua. This area was the headquarters of the leaders of the Pathet Lao and the Communists party leaders headquarters during the war. I mistakenly remembered Xam Nua from the book “The Ravens” as the secret base for the American Forward Air Control operations. Actually they flew from Xam Thieng southwest of Phonsavahn which is still a restricted area and closed area and suspect to be the base of the communist Lao continuing fight against the Hmong.

Near Xam Nua is the sacred mountain Phou Pha Ti, which is the highest point in the area. During the war, the CIA built a radar station atop this mountain and staffed it with clandestine American soldiers. It was overrun by the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao with many Americans and Hmongs being killed. The actual number is still listed as classified. The Americans later bombed the site into obliteration to prevent it’s use by the communists. The local tourist office has no reference to any of this military activity and lists it as only a religious site.

We stayed the night in Xam Nua and then continued to Vieng Xai. In Vieng Xai one must search out a building which is listed as the Cave tour headquarters. We were given a guide who took us to about 4 different sites where the Pathet Lao leaders and supporters had dug huge caves into the limestone karst peaks and survived the years of bombing. Inside these caves were concrete and wooden walls, with concrete floors. The caves were divided into meeting rooms, living rooms, sleeping and eating facilities. Outside the cave entrance were constructed ‘resting rooms’ where they would stay until the bombers approached. The cave which housed the Defense Minister and his entourage has a huge block and concrete blast wall built in front of the cave entrance to stop a missile or bomb from being “bounced” in.

Each cave built for the party leaders was equipped with a safe room sealed by heavy metal blast doors and air filtration systems supplied by the Russians. After the war, large homes and estates were built in front of the caves as this was initially to be the capital of Laos until it was decided to move to Vientiane. Our guide related how his father was killed by American bombs while working in his rice field. Our guide was friendly and expressed some interesting viewpoints, although it was clear he was instructed on many things he could and could not talk about. Also the interior and exterior of the caves show recent “restoration work” which he admits is ongoing. One very large cave is actually the size of a stadium and is said to have been used as a concert and entertainment venue, besides a meeting area during the war. The unfinished bare earth sections are said to have housed up to 2,000 villagers, much different than the relative comfort of the leaders that is now portrayed. Again, photos in the National Museum show large troop and anti aircraft installations were present in and around this area. I am suspect as to how much history has been altered in this area. The whole village of Vieng Xai has a ghost town type of feel. Large vacant buildings, some extra wide streets and infrastructure show some grandiose plans that never materialized. The mountain scenery however is breathtaking.

Once we left Phonsavahn and headed up Hwy 6 we felt a complete difference in the attitude of the people. It is the first time in my travels that I felt more like a trespasser than a welcome tourist. There were few of the warm village welcomes and kids waving. When we stopped, people seemed to shy away in fear or showed extreme caution. Robert said the American Flag on my helmet may have had something to do with it.

In the village of Xam Nua it self there is little to do and we had trouble actually searching out a restaurant that was open for business. No internet and a few small bars. Our guesthouse was actually quite nice though, with hot water and air conditioning. After some reluctance the owner allowed us to park our bikes in the lobby but he informed us he went to bed at 9:00PM and we had to have them in by then. There are many Chinese/Vietnamese immigrants and the area has strong ties to Vietnam.

If this hasn’t deterred you, the road may, Hwy 6. Although paved, it is one of the most winding roads I have seen. The surface is not broken but still rough. We called it the “Russian Roulette Suicide Road”. It is a long climb up and one meets little traffic. But it is truly a one lane road and when you do meet oncoming traffic there is only maybe a meter to maneuver around whatever is coming at you. The turns are mostly blind and the trucks and buses sound their horns as they approach, but usually by the time you would hear this it would be too late. If you meet someone in the blind apex of the turn you are simply road kill or falling debris off the edge of the mountain ridge. The return trip is steep enough that you are constantly holding your weight on your arms as you lean forward on the bumpy surface, trying to keep your speed in check, and pick whatever you feel may be the safest edge of the road. I hit some spilled diesel oil or something in one turn at the same time I was working around an oncoming minibus and it was as close to crashing as I care to come. Robert had some equally close calls and we were spent by the time we reached the bottom.

Unless you are a real history or war buff, I would not make the Xam Nua trip. It is a long, hard few days of riding with little reward. We followed our same route (the only one) back to Phonsavahn, spent the night and then blasted on down to Vientiane. It was truly the most exhausting part of the trip and used up time that could be used exploring the more friendly and scenic areas available.

To make a long story longer, we worked our way down to Savanakhet where we hooked up with our riding buddy Tom Forde who was waiting for us. His report picks up from there where we later experienced harrowing river crossings on matchbox boats, an island with no roads, flat tires where we were served ice cream in the middle of the jungle, desertion by one of our riding mates, and self induced torturous treks to see ruins and waterfalls. And we call this fun!

I left Laos with Tom through Pakxe and we later split at Si Sakhet, Thailand. Tom was heading for Cambodia and I was returning to Chiang Mai . David remains in Laos and I may return through Vientiane at the end of the week. David and I will again head north. So far I logged about 3,800 miles on this trip (sorry my speedo doesn’t do kilometers) and the Yamaha TDM has performed flawlessly in every situation (although it doesn’t like deep mud or sand much). I hope my luck continues….

Dave Early

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


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Back in Luang Prabang, slowly heading home.
Re those stickers, there's no doubt they are in demand, as they have disappeared from outside walls in many places, & the shop owners say everyone wants them - including the truck& bus drivers.
Weather here is decidedly cool compared to a month ago.
See ya soon, mate!

Keep the power on
Mar 15, 2003
Photos Laos Expedition 2004

I added some photos of the trip to my Yahoo account. Sorry for the long link (cut and paste):"ph&.tok=phLG78BBI_hp1kvG
Mar 15, 2003
Northern Laos and Home.

I woke up early in Nong Khai to get a good start on crossing the border into Laos and the city of Vientiane. Checked out of the hotel, loaded up the bike, pressed the starter button, ….nothing!!. Not even a click. With the help of a couple Tuk-Tuk drivers I push started the bike and found a shop with a battery charger. After two hours of charging and convincing them I did not need a new battery I was ready to head across. Little did I know this was an omen of things to come.

The border crossing was time consuming as usual but I had no real problems. My bike is legally registered so I just had to make the rounds to all the offices and windows and I was on my way. Almost!

I exited the inside offices and walked to where I had parked my bike right in front of a couple customs officers, but the bike was gone. With a forced smile I asked ‘OK, where did you put my bike”. They insisted they did not know what I was talking about and had not seen a big motorcycle. After a heart stopping few minutes with much gesturing and finally finding a person that could speak some English we worked it out.

A tip: both sides of the Vientiane Customs/Immigration building look exactly the same. If you get turned around and come out on the wrong side, are in a hurry, and not paying attention you can look like a complete idiot. Take it from one who knows. So, over to the other side of the building, find my bike where I left it, attach the stickers to the windshield and I am off.

I could only make it as far as Vang Vieng with the amount of daylight left and checked into a cheap guesthouse. I had never stayed in this town over night before. The scenery is beautiful in the daylight and at night it takes on a whole different appearance as everyone turns on their decorative lights at night and makes the shabby streets look like backpackers heaven.

The next morning I hold my breath as I try to start the bike. I had disconnected the battery as I still did know why it had failed in Nong Khai. It fired up without a hitch. As I was leaving Vang Vieng a little way up highway 13, I stopped to take a photo and shut the bike off. When I started it again the wire leading to my GPS went up in a big cloud of smoke. That’s one way to find a short. I pulled the wire out and switched to battery power for the GPS and all was well. It was an uneventful run up 13 and I reached Luang Phrabang and hooked up with David in the the late afternoon.

OK, back to work. David and I hook up with a guide given to him by the tourist office to show us a unique village and cave on the other side of the Mekong from LPB. We do our negotiating/bargaining/loading motorcycle onto a boat routine and across the Mekong we go. We offload in another world. The streets in the small village of Xieng Men are dirt and resemble a motocross track. We are led to a trekking area on a path, sorry I can’t refer to it as a road, that involves multiple river and water crossings. Mud holes, logs and steep rutted climbs and descents and finally comes to a village that I don’t even recall the name. We then are asked to trek across a rice paddy and climb a mountain side up to an insignificant cave. Yes, David and I trekking and mountain climbing, an unusual site indeed and probably not to be seen again. To try and not draw this out too long I’ll just say that it took us all day and we covered a total of 26 km round trip. I bashed in the exhaust pipes on the TDM manipulating a combination mud/log/water crossing, and just about was pushed over the limit of my patience when I walked into a barbed wire fence that was at forehead height, leaving some very nasty looking scratches across my already thin hairline. This of course happened as I was trying to walk around and figure out how to turn the bikes around as the path was to narrow and we could go no further. Finally, the three of us had to pick the bikes up one end at a time and maneuver them 180 degrees without dropping over the side of the hill. Great fun. Don’t worry much about this area as it does not now appear on any maps and I can think of little reason why it should.

The next stop Nong Khiaw. A beautiful ride north of LPB to a sleepy little riverside village. The mountains in this area are breathtaking. There are a few caves to explore and the area shows the result of bomb craters and UXO. There is electricity now, but most of the so called guesthouses and restaurants are not much more than huts. We did find a beautiful place called Chan-A-Mar guesthouse. They only have two rooms but they were high above the rivers edge and looked out over the mountains and rainforest. They advertise on the internet for $100 a night home stay with some trekking/tour packages thrown in. For walk in, they charged us $10.00. We also were lucky as all the other guesthouses had filled up, which shows the growing popularity of this region.

The next morning we took a speedboat to Muang Ngoy. About a 40 minute trip through a great mountain gorge and winding river. Muang Ngoy is very small village. We GPSed it by just walking around. Every other building it seems has a sign that says guesthouse or restaurant. Again, not much to offer except some trekking, caves and fantastic scenery. Most people make it a day trip and then back to Nong Khiaw.

From here we headed to Oudomxai for the night, backtracking our initial route in. As we put our bikes away for the night, David commented about the sulfur smell coming from his bike. We both thought it was definitely battery acid but could see nothing wrong.

The next morning when David attempted to start the Africa Twin it was dead. We pushed it to a local motorcycle shop but they could do nothing to alleviate the problem. We ate a quick breakfast and decided to try and make it to Luang Nam Tha hoping it would charge on the way. Wishful thinking.

About half way to our destination David finally dropped to one cylinder, the bike let out a big backfire, and promptly died. We were in a small village but with some asking around he was able to hire a six wheel truck that would take the bike to Luang Nam Tha. I rode on. The roads were good until we made the turn on 138 west. The road instantly turned to crap as the Chinese are contracted to improve the road. It was dirt, ruts and riding through the middle of road excavations all the way in. I didn’t stay much ahead of the truck with David’s bike.

We checked in to the Boat Landing Guesthouse about 7 km south of town. It is what is trying to be a first class accommodation in a third world environment. Eco friendly as it’s main theme it is constructed of wood and bamboo and has many fine rooms available and a very large dining area, where we were to spend innumerable hours killing time. The only thing against it, is that it is quite pricey for this region at $28-$45 night. Of all places to be stuck we pick the most expensive in Northern Laos. They did give us a break and showed us great hospitality while assisting us sort through our problems. David called Joe’s Bikes in Chiang Mai and Joe bought a battery that afternoon shipping it to our friends at Tamilla Guest House in Chiang Khong. They gave it to a tour group that was headed the next day for Luang Nam Tha. Sounds good so far.

Of course the battery did not show up as scheduled. Seems they bypassed us and went on to Muang Singh, about an hour and half north of us. Also no one seemed to know the name of the tour group or their destination. With the help of the staff at the Boat Landing the battery was located and shipped the next day by truck to Luang Nam Tha. We quickly installed the battery fired up the Africa Twin, AND……….. only one cylinder! We checked all we could to no avail.

So the next couple days while David hired a Honda Dream to do his work around Luang Nam Tha I headed off for Muang Singh and area to do some of the GPSing and check out the area.

A very good winding mountain road leads up to Muang Singh. Muang Singh is a small village/town. I rode east about 16 km to the China border. The road is a good asphalt surface and is being established as a truck trade route. I was only allowed to the Laos checkpoint where one can say “been there, done that” and turn around and head back.

Going west from Muang Singh is a dirt road of about 85 km that goes from rice paddies to mountains finally ending at the Mekong River which divides Laos and Myranmar. Xieng Kok is the name of the final village where speedboats are available to take you to Huay Xai if you desire. The road is not challenging in it’s condition but is rough and bone jarring due to the surface of embedded rocks and stones and is definitely hard on tires.

As you get closer to Xieng Kok there are many hill tribes plying the roads and villages. You obviously cannot help but notice that most the woman of child bearing age wears either open blouse, tunics that are intentionally open around their breast or no tops at all. They are not shy at all and it is a natural part of their culture, to aid in breastfeeding I guess, although many did not have children. It does give one the feeling that you have really reached back in time and definitely are in a remote corner of the country.

At one village I was invited into the lodge and there were probably 40 Hmong men in traditional dress sitting around and drinking, eating, and drinking some more. They loved having their photos taken and after some instruction passed my camera around taking pictures of each other. The women waited on us, of course, and also were up for photos. Great stuff. After a few shots of homemade Lao whiskey the road back did not seem nearly as rough.
I look forward to going back to this area and spending more time and doing more exploring. One definitely should take a dirt bike however. Again, although great for 90% of our riding, my TDM was just too big and heavy for this type of road.

So finally the decision is made. David hires a pickup truck for his bike and I will ride mine down the “jungle road”. Now, as long as I have been riding with David we have avoided this road from Huay Xai. In the past we have hired boats to go by river to the next available road 6-8hrs down river at Pak Beng. The only way to avoid this road now is to add many days to the trip and considerable expense. I admit I lost some sleep over this as it has been described as everything from the worst road I have ever seen to being rough but do-able. On the message board, “Marc” say he has recently done the road and it was not that bad. “Great fun” I think he said. Thanks Marc, that helped.

The night before we are to leave the truck driver says he has done the road and it is not that bad now. So in the morning we are off. The first half of the road to Vieng Phouka is supposed to be the worst. As it turns out, it is just what Marc said. Great Fun!

The most difficult part is negotiating around some construction areas where the Chinese are busy turning big rocks into little rocks by hand and tearing up the already muddy areas with their trucks. The mountain rainforests are awesome. I lost track of the number of water crossings, but in only one did I feel like I was in a little too deep but I had enough momentum to pull through. The mud pits had subsided some due to the lack of rain in the past few weeks and I managed to negotiate them without assistance. Many log bridges are encountered where the logs are laid parallel with the road. One must pick a pair of logs closest together or filled with dirt so that your tires do not fall between, and just go for it. Don’t get it wrong though because some are so widely spaced you will definitely fall through.

About 3 hours later I arrive in the town of Vieng Phouka. David in the truck is not that far behind. Here we GPS the town and some surroundings, have lunch and are off again. This is supposed to be the easier ride but in fact is the worst. Due to the lack of rain the dust has already built up to where it is 6 to 12 inches at spots. Riding on this is the same as riding on snow with my tires. Never for a minute can you lose concentration. The problem comes from trucks carrying Lignite from the mine south of town and going to Huay Xai. In one stretch I must negotiate a convoy of 14 trucks and they are not helpful in letting one pass. Along with the setting sun and the dust you are just riding blind. At some points you must just put on the brakes and stop because you cannot see in front of you or the side of the road and become totally disoriented. At sunset we arrive in Huay Xai, probably the dirtiest I have been in my life, but the Jungle Road has been conquered.

Another ferry crossing, a night in Chiang Khong and we are headed home. David’s bike in a truck, my TDM bloodied but still running well.

So for me after, 6 weeks, 9,200 km, 14 boat rides, and more stories and adventures than I can possibly write here, I am home. An oil change, a new rear tire, front wheel bearings, a re-wire job on my GPS completed, and I am now waiting for the next trip.

Photos at:

edit: 30 Jul 2008 add new photo link

Dave Early

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


Feb 7, 2003
Hi Dave:
Thanks for your wonderful write up and the pics.

My trip to Laos will most probably come true in early Jan 2005.

Plan to enter Loas at Pakxe and go North till Luang Prabang, going to Phonsavan.
As I have only around 2 weeks in Loas, and I want to enjoy myself along the way in a more relax mode, so does not plan to go further than LPB.

Starting to prepare my bike and other stuff for the trip.

Dec 1, 2004
Great slideshow Dave and David! Xieng Kok 019 is my new wallpaper...really nice nibbles. Also like Jungle Road 025 Buffalo Boy. I've got a couple of shots of that piggy-wiggy in Pak Beng and you will be able to see the 100 photos I took on my Chiang Khong-Jing Hong-Luang Prabang-Chiang Khong trip last month.

Tom in Hua Hin


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
My good riding buddy Dave "Silverhawk" Early has written up an excellent report on this trip. Overall it was an awesome time & ride. If you haven't checked out Dave's photos yet, take a look at them from the link in his report above.
As I was too busy wrapping up these 4 guide maps there have been no comments from me, but now that the maps are pretty much out of the way, I'd like to add my trip summary. This is one that I started working on when I first got back, but never really finished. However rather than not submit something, here are my rough notes, which are better than nothing (some of you lazier miserable guys pls take note!)

6 weeks “on the road” to check out new places for a guide map update & a series of 4-guide maps for the NTAL. The weather was perfect, as we set off immediately after the “last” rain in late Sept.
Unbelievably, 6 weeks & no rain except for some heavy night sprinkles for 2 nights in Luang Namtha!

Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai – Chiang Khong,
Chiang Khong – Huay Sai
Huay Sai – Pak Beng
Pak Beng – Udom Sai
Udom Sai – Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang – Vientiane
Vientiane – Savannakhet
Savannakhet – Pakse
Pakse – Savannakhet
Savannakhet – Thakek
Thakek – Vientiane
Vientiane – Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang – Pak Mong - Nong Khiew – Muang Ngoi
Muang Ngoi - Nong Khiew – Pak Mong – Udom Sai
Udom Sai – Luang Namtha
Luang Namtha
Luang Namtha – Huay Sai
Huay Sai – Chiang Khong
Chiang Khong – Chiang Rai – Chiang Mai

CHIANG MAI - CHIANG RAI - CHIANG KHONG: the regular way. R118 Chiang Mai to Chiang rai. Then R1 to Mae Chan, then R 116 to Chiang Saen, then R1129
CHIANG KHONG - HUAY SAI: The boat & with luck a lift over the Mekong on the car ferry.


HUAY SAI - PAK BENG: by boat & skipper Tui.


Always a brilliant trip down the ‘khong. Cost 6,000 baht – the price has gone up with the increase in petrol prices. But I suspect it still might be a bit high, because as soon as I mention this price to any other boat owner he immediately said he wants to go for the same price – no negotiations necessary. But believe me Tui’s boat is worth it. Highly recommended.
PAK BENG - UDOM SAI: Good. Approx 15 kms real easy dirt


at the Pak Beng end. Quite do-able on a regular road bike if need be. I did this in the wet in June this year 2004 & it’s still a piece of cake in heavy rain. However Tom Forde got stuck here a flooded weir crossing in September 2004. See ... OPIC_ID=11 for a report (it was an amusing trip!)
UDOM SAI - LUANG PRABANG: all asphalt, & generally good, if not a bit bumpy in some places & the odd “greasy / oily” asphalt to keep you on your toes.
No slacking off & looking at the scenery while your riding now – either watch the road, or stop & take photos.


LUANG PRABANG - VIENTIANE: good nick just about all the way, although a couple of short 200 metres dirt sections


from small landslides. Still most likely S E Asia’s greatest motorcycle ride / road – you can really get out there & ride. The endless corners just flow, & there’s kms of 3rd gear corners to just roll on & off the throttle for “hours.”


Plus scores of wonderful villages with super friendly people. (Note that route 7 from Phou Khoun to Phonsavan, gives R 13 a run for the money in riding stakes.)
VIENTIANE - PAKSE: a drag. Route 13 south from Vte is just good for speed & if the road was 4 lanes it would qualify as a motorway.


You can sit on whatever speed you like – just don’t forget to back right off going through villages & over the “mickey mouse” Jap built bridges south between Thakek & Savannaket. There’s a good sharp 30 cms rise / drop either side of each bridge. Hit these at anything over 120 kph & you will be airborne. The asphalt stops short of the Cambodian border by just a few kms!
PAKSE - VEUN KHAM: & the Cambodian Border: same as above. Route 13, flat, straight & good only for speed.


Fewer villages than route 13 further north, maybe. Once you hit Veun Kham its straight onto dirt & a serious trail into Cambodia - only good if you’re a keen off-road / moto-x rider.

TYRES – if you’re going from Thailand, start with nice new fresh tyres. The roads in Laos are just about all chip metal & eat your tyres out. This applies especially in the twisting mountain roads where you are never on a steady throttle, but continually opening & closing the throttle. I love this sort of riding, just powering on & off, but there’s not doubt it chews out your tyres.
BRAKES – the same as above. Start with fresh new pads as the endless steep & winding mountain riding takes it toll on the ol’ brake pads & if they are half worn when you leave, there wont be any left to get home.
RIDING BUDDY –take a good compatible riding buddy with you. It makes life a lot easier & more enjoyable to share & discuss experiences. It also helps when one of you breaks down & there’s someone reliable to help out when you need it.
MEDICINE – a half decent medical kit is an advantage as good pharmacies are few & very far between in Laos. If you need a pharmacy, the best ones are often located in the immediate vicinity of the local hospital. I needed one in southern Laos for a leg infection & was not hopeful of securing the right pills, but found two well equipped pharmacies right outside the Pakse provincial hospital!

CROSSING THE MEKONG with the bikes, using a variety of river crafts. These ranged from regular passenger boats


to some weird “vessels” that depending on the trip at the time, resembled large floating slabs of steel big enough for bulldozers


to crushed metal matchboxes


to floating bamboo pontoons.


And it was the floating bamboo pontoons that gave you the biggest thrill, especially right out in the middle of the Mekong where it is several kilometers wide.
THE BEER: Beer Lao


the best in the world? CHEAP at 25 Thai baht a big bottle.
THE COFFEE: I love that thick Lao coffee with sweet condensed milk & could not drink enough!
THE PEOPLE: the warmest

most genuine honest folks


the planet?

PRICE GOUGING by the Mekong boatmen. You almost never got a fair price straight up & had to bargain hard for the boat, then laborers to help load the bikes on & off each boat! This did tend to get a bit tiring after a while & on more than one occasion several men got a severe ear bashing from one very disgruntled farang biker.
AFRICA TWIN BREAK DOWN - between Udom Sai & Luang Nam Tha. I should not complain, as it is the 1st serious break down after 21 motorcycle trips into Laos, & if the battery could have held together for just another 4 days I would have been “home” in Thailand. As it was I had a new battery on the way within 48 hrs; however it was delivered to Muang Sing, up on the Chinese border 60 kms after Luang Namtha, then it took another day to locate it & bring it back to LNT! Then once installed we found that it was not just the battery, but also other electrical components. This breakdown was amusing then, when in Luang Namtha after we installed the battery & still the bike would not run properly, I headed up town on a taxi to track down an automotive electrician, only for the taxi to break down after 200 metres with an electrical short from the generator! I then walked back to the ghouse & hired an electric start Honda Dream, but which turned out to have a flat battery & had to be kicked started. Vehicles & broken electrics were the order of the day. It was then that I resolved to truck the bike out, rather than tackle the 180 kms jungle road & most likely suffer another electrical break down, in the middle of the jungle.
So, after trucking the bike into Luang Namtha, two more truck journeys resulted, (1) to Huay Sai,


(2) from Chiang Khong to Chiang Mai. Total trucking fees amounted to 9,000 baht, plus bike repairs = ouch! 6 weeks later the bike is back on the road, after replacing the battery, regulator, CDI, several blown fuses & bulbs. And still to go are a non-functioning digital trip meter, and a tacho that only revs to 2,000, plus a decidedly dodgy GPS power supply. But life goes gloriously on & the Africa Twin’s ticking over nicely with 120,000 kms on the clock!

THE MOUNTAINS & HILL TRIBES in the North are exceptional, & there’s no doubt the northerners are the most friendly & laid-back people in Laos. The Lue villages


from Pak Beng - Udom Sai are beautiful, as are just about all the village people Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng!
MUANG NGOI & NONG KHIEW are both pristine spots


& better then Vang Vieng! (but the nightlife = zilch.)
But I am desperate to return to the south & the amazing limestone karst


forest area east of Thakhek. R8, & R12 with their sidetracks are begging to be properly explored by the adventurous. Dare I say it but Khammouane province is going to be top dog for eco-tourism in S E Asia in the coming years? Plus Pakxong & Attapeu in the deep south, which I had no time to explore, but I’ve seen enough hints to want to keep going back.
PHOU ASA the ancient rock hilltop fort



S-E of Pakse is quite an incredible site & worth checking out if you’ve got a day. But don’t believe the locals in Kiat Ngong that say you can ride up there - either hike or take an elephant!



THE MEKONG ISLANDS Don Khong & Don Ko in the south were fabulous. Once you get on these places in the middle of the Mekong, its like stepping off the planet & going into a time warp. And unbelievably the people were even more friendly than the rest of the “mainland Lao!”
THE MEKONG FALLS KHONEPHAPENG (& most likely Li Phi, if you want to take a boat trip on the Khong) were certainly impressive



& well worth checking out if you are down in the deep south. The Irrawaddy Dolphins I’m not sure about, as they aren’t so plentiful & not always around after you’ve hired your boat. Still if you’re a bit of a nature fan, interested in the wildlife & boating on the Khong, then by all means take a boat & try your luck.

WORST ROAD was the goat track trail


across the Mekong from Luang Prabang.

A 17 kms trail that took us out to a trekking area that was magnificent for scenery but was really tough on the Africa Twin & TDM.

MOST BIZARRE EXPERIENCE: The RCA disco karaoke in Luang Prabang, complete with laser lights & smoke machine. We arrived late, somewhat inebriated; the place was packed & we got the last table in the joint. It was really jumping and after being across the ‘Khong all day on the other side, checking out the trekking area, where there was no electricity, totally shyte roads & genuinely poor villages, the disco was an absolutely surreal experience. This really hit home when the smoke machine kicked in & totally enveloped us in smoke. Unknown to us, we had the table immediately in front of the smoke machine 2 meters away! We could not even see each other across the table & just cracked up with laughter thinking about it all. It was so bizarre - just a few hours earlier we had been out in the boonies riding on goat tracks, through mud, streams and dust, and lunching with poor villagers living in thatched bamboo huts with no electricity or running water. Life’s pretty weird at times I thought!

Huay Sai: Oudomphone gh


Pak Beng: Dong Vilasak gh (the new one)


Udom Sai: Linda Gh
Luang Prabang: Souansavan Gh


Vientiane: Lao Paris Hotel


(& the Khopchaideu Pub each night.)
Thakek: Southida Gh


Savannakhet: Mekong Hotel
Pakse: Lao Chaleune Hotel


Nong Khiew: Chan a Mar (for US$10 a night, not the US$100 as advertised on the internet!)
Luang Namtha: The Boat Landing, if not a bit pricey (& possible doubtful value for money for some.)

1. Vientiane – the Mekong


& The Kopchaideu Pub
2. Luang Prabang – Mekong riverside,


The Soudephone
3. Pakse – Mekong riverside, almost anywhere
4. Thakek – Mekong riverside, 1 small pub / restaurant slightly downstream from the main intersection.
5. Don Khong – anywhere riverside on the Khong.

I can’t wait to go back for any of the above!!
Last edited:


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
If you’re hanging out in Luang Prabang for a few days & want a nice little dirt


side trip to do, there’s a brilliant, easy one that goes 21 kms out to Long Lao village, downstream & “uphill” from LPB.


To get to Long Lao head south-west from LPB along the Mekong on the road to Kuang Xi waterfall.


You need to make 3 turns to get to Long Lao. The turns are 2 lefts & a right.
The 1st one is a left turn 450 meters after the Xieng Keo resort.
Go 3.7 kms & make another (2nd) left. (If you don’t turn left here you end up in Ban Xath village, which is pretty nice too.)
From the 2nd left go 3.6 kms & make a right at the fork. (En route to the 1st right turn, ignore the left turn by the small dam, that goes to Houay Tong)


From this 1st right turn by the Xieng Muak agriculture station, it is “straight” onto Long Lao, 10.4 kms away.

Keep the power on
Last edited:


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong

Interesting....the boat skipper Tui...... 2019 & 15 years on walking beside the Mekong @ Chiang Khong & one of those giant cargo boats is moored at the Thai bank, a voice calls out - David sabai dee. What the heck, who is that? And bloody hell the skipper is none other than Tui!


Onboard the cargo boat, Tui on the bridge with my brother & his missus.
It's good to be remembered after all those years.


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Update - Phou Asa - November 2020


One of the highlights of this trip was a visit to Phou Asa S-E of Pakxe.






The origins & history of this site are a bit of a mystery; but I recently stumbled across this report on the Kingfisher Lodge site, that would seem to throw some light on it's origin.

The Stones of Kiat Ngong.

As an accomplish of Mrs Patrizia Zolese, a chief archaeologist for this mission to Vat Thong Muang, Mr Marco Vadori published this interesting science article.

This visit dates to 2002 to the village of Ban Kiat Ngong, Pathoumpone District in Champasak Province.

Their curiosity got awoken for this, as like the Tomo (Oubmong) ruins, Phou Asa, although totally different in structure and construction are the only such sites on the left bank of the Mekong River.

This site at the edge of what is now known as the “National Protected Area, Xe-Pian Wetland” some 60 kilometres south of the province’s capitol of Pak-Xé or more commonly known as Pakse.

The village of Kiat Ngong then consisted only of wooden huts/buildings as do all her surrounding villages and have been since memory.

Back then with a population of over 25 elephants they took a ride up, just outside Kiat Ngong Village, the Asa hill/elevation.

They were presented with a black, rocky, barren flat vantage area overlooking the surrounding hills to the right as well as a large part of the wetland to the left, all covered in forest, much as it is today.

Walking atop this barren black area towards the far end, countering a little incline, they found what is today known as Vat Phou Asa meaning the Asa Temple on the hill.

Described by Mr Marco Vadori: “The ruins were covered in vegetation and completely abandoned, an impenetrable ruined small temple with a large stupa a few meters away, enclosed in a larger rectangular enclosure dotted with bizarre cylindrical pillars (counting 108 of them) surmounted by a circular monolithic slab, all structures are made of dry stone masonry”.

What an adventure this must have been back then and still is today.

Now for the interesting stuff

The official story as per, Lao Ministry of Culture, Education and Tourism:

The “Temple” was the work of the Kha people (a generic and derogatory name that literally translates to “slaves” in the Lao language and refers to all tribal people including the Mon-Khmer ethnic subgroups locally such as Brao and dates back to the uprising against the Kingdom of Champasak early 1800’s.

The insurgency was led by a Monk named “Ay Wat Sa” from which the place got its name, Asa.

This version though left Mrs Zolese with too many questions apart from its name Ya Sa / Asa added to the Lao word for mountain which is Phou.

Phou Asa “Temple” is absolute unique in that there is nothing similar in Laos nor in her surrounding countries and one of her principal features is to find it still, in her loneliness in the forest as in the time of her construction.

One is very impressed by the vast lithic assemblance, those long rows of cylinders almost all still standing. Enigmatic in their silence as the megalithic Plain of Jars in Xiang Khouang Province.

One might get the same feeling of a mute testimony of lost civilizations, ancient wrecks that continue to emanate an aura of fascinating mystery, stones speaking a language long lost.

It was not until the winter of 2015/2016 that Mr. Marco Vadori, using Kingfisher Ecolodge as his base, ventured out along the base of Asa mountain to carry out inspections and excavations in order to find out more about this intriguing place.

His theory is that this “Temple” must have been a fortified place, an Acropolis, therefore in her close vicinity there should have been evidence of an ancient urban centre, and here before his very eyes, at the edge of the wetlands, emerged a city.

To get back to the official version and why this could be incorrect:

The rebellion of the tribal people took place between 1817 and 1821 targeting Chao Phnom Manoi, the King of Champasak at that time.

This indisputable historical fact has different versions depending on the source being it Thai, Lao or local.

What they all have in common though is that Champasak (Town) was taken, sacked and destroyed, also all mention the King fled to Bangkok in former Siam.

All mention the counterattack by Siamese forces and the King of Vientiane who pushed out the rebels. On the Monk leader of the rebellion, to whom the mountain now owes her name, the stories differ. After his flight from Phou Asa to Attapue he was killed on Phou Ya Pou, escaped into the forest or captured and taken to Siam.

The structure of the “Temple” is entirely from dry rock, stones assembled with great skill but absolutely distant from any works left by the Khmer buildings such as Vat Phou Champasak or other monuments throughout this area including Angkor.

It also needs mentioning that since the collapse of the great Khmer Empire in the thirteenth century, no one ever moved a rock anymore in the region.

All constructions since, being it the Lao, Brao or any other ethnic groups have been only using wood.

When the French arrived in the late nineteenth century, they found Champasak’s structures solely made of wood except for a brick pagoda in Sino-Lao style from the mid-nineteenth century.

At the time of the French arrival when written history started, the natives were practically living naked, armed with stone axes and absolutely oblivious of any lithic construction technologies, besides the edification of temples does not belong to animists like the Brao and other minorities in this area.

We can also rule out the idea of people living in this forest building stone walls to protect their villages from invaders as there is no proof of them even putting up wooden barriers for protection.

Another oral history, by an elderly Brao from Taong, a village near Kiat Ngong.

They link the Asa ruins to “Groong”, an epic and messianic character of Brao mythology and Vat Phou Champasak to Groong’s brother Yoong.

Groong is often associated, by Laotian and Cambodian Brao animists, to several places of natural elements of interest. Think of waterfalls, large rocks, trees or forests.

This then leads back to mythical times and the construction of the Asa “Temple” atop the (Phou) mountain in the forest in ancient periods.

Other local testimonies refer to how Vat Phou Champasak was constructed by giants 8 “soke” tall (a soke is the length from elbow to fingertip in Lao), reference to mythical ages that suggest the construction of the Asa “Temple” existed from more ancient times than when King Chao Manoi or the Monk Ay Sa lived.

The ruins atop Phou Asa have all the features of a Hindu design, the wide rectangular stone walls, offering a perfect view of its surrounding area and with four meters wide and two meters high easily defensible. Also, the dugout baray inside as well as the ones outside to hold (drinking) water for the dry season.

More recent finds around Ban Kiat Ngong, an Asian “Venice” in the middle of a forest:

Modern day Ban Kiat Ngong sits at the foot of Asa mountain on the edge of the Xe Pian wetland.

Due to altimetry reasons this area is the first to get flooded during the monsoon and the last to fall dry in the hot season subsequently this is the favourable location for people wanting to collect water to see them through the dry season.

The morphology of the terrain features characteristic volcanic rock formations that naturally tend to split into blocks.

Right on the edge of the wetland, in an extensive area that includes the entire Kingfisher Ecolodge compound, lapping eastward Ban Kiat Ngong and continuing into the “boeung” (wetland in Lao) there are kilometres of stone dikes, protecting the soil from annual floods from the boeung.

There are recognisable canals, water locks, passages, docks and stairways as well as terraces for cultivation of rice.

The evidence of human intervention in constructing such a complex water control system, and its construction using local lava rocks must be associated with the ruins of the Asa “Temple”. There are flights of stairs using large slabs of volcanic rock similar to the ones used at the Asa structures.

This, to Marco Vadori and Patrizia Zolese, have them believe that the presence of a village, at the foot of the Asa hill connotes differently to what was, till now, seen as just a bizarre Trible temple and transforming this into an undoubted antique acropolis.

As on the other side of the Mekong, at the foot of the Mountain of Shiva (now Phou Kao) set the ancient city of (probably) Shrestapura, similarly crossed by man made canals, bridges and Temples.

More pieces to this jigsaw puzzle with a short history of the region and general considerations:

The prehistoric age, the emerging of historical societies are all closely related to each other as well as to southern China. These were not just a collection of isolated worlds but rather well-connected areas as testimony the excavations and dissemination as far as in Indonesia of bronze drums called Dong Son and dating back 3 to 100 years BC from Yunnan. Three of these, of considerable size are exposed in the museum of Pakse.

The first century of western counting brought the first of the Indianized South-East Asian kingdoms, the Funan.

This kingdom, in the Mekong Delta however was composed of city-states, territories, kingdoms and principalities often at war with each other. The Funan, due to her location between India and China and the decline of the aera of the Silk Route in the third century plus the boost of traffic by sea, expended her control over most of southern Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia.

Through Chinese chronicles it is known that the northern kingdom called Chenla over-run all Funan around the fifth to seventh century. At this time Shivaism was made the state religion

The Chenla kingdom evolved into the Khmer Empire and the first commemorative stone in the Khmer language, let carved by king Isanavarman, is dated 612AD.

At this same time in Annam, todays central Vietnam, around Hue a second Indianized kingdom named by the Chinese as Lin Yi, was developing, a forerunner of the still Shivaism Champa Kingdom.

Their main centre of worship was My-Son in the mountains some seventy kilometres from today’s Da Nang. Here a stele, dated from the fourth Century AD, was found announcing the foundation of the temple dedicated to Shiva by King Bhadravarman in its inscription.

The first capital of the Chenla Kingdom named Shrestapura was most likely the same city as founded by King Devanika, at the foot of the Linga-Pervata, today called Phou Kao. On its ruins the current town of Vat Luang Kau is build, the last in line along the Mekong making up for what we now address as Muang Champasak. In the seventh century AD the Chenla kingdom was split up between Laos and modern-day Cambodia with its second capital founded by King Isanavarman I, Isanapura, todays Sambor Prei Kuk.

Today, as before, Ban Kiat Ngong is located on the road that connects Vat Phou Champasak to Attapeu and continuing over the mountains to Vietnam/Champa. Is was a strategic location overseeing the road to Vietnam/Champa and the importance of its abundance of available water all year round.

In Funan the stagnant waters of the Mekong Delta presented challenges to its residents such as the constant efforts building drainages, while in the territories where the Chenla Kingdom was born and developed, the challenges on the water front were the opposite in that they needed to store the water during the rainy season to get them through the long dry seasons. The implementation of major water projects and their management required a centralised and efficient governing. In the end this is what made the Chenla Kingdom dominate the other kingdoms as their effective water management allowed for year-round available crops which allowed the population to flourish thus also allowing for a superior military strength compared to its rivalling neighbours.

At Ban Kiat Ngong, kilometres of dikes remain visible, it practically is a huge baray (Khmer water reservoir). Perhaps this is the place where the ancient Khmer developed their ingenious water management skills on which they build their Empire? Besides the large Baray’ at Vat Phou Champasak, there is one at Ban That, and 3 Khmer towers, flanked by a smaller one, on the road to Angkor Wat.

This smaller one, probably the oldest Baray is strikingly similar in construction to those of Ban Kiat Ngong, composed of stones arranged in rows superimposed one on the other forming a sort of steep stairs.

These Baray were build using a natural slope, dug out the upper part with the landfill used to construct the dike at the lower end as is the great Angkor Western Baray measuring 8×2.2 kilometres.

The author closes remarking: “I like to think that the fortunes of the Khmer Empire, with all the wonders left behind by them from so many centuries ago, may have had its cradle right here at Ban Kiat Ngong and her “boeung”.

Marco Vadori.
San Vito al Tagliamento, Italy June 16th, 2016.

Source: A possible history! - Kingfisher Ecolodge