Luang Prabang - Phonsavan loop - trip report


Aug 31, 2007
Me and my girlfriend, Louise, got back from our three week holiday in Laos and Thailand at the end of November. We spent the first half riding a loop in northern Laos starting and ending in Luang Prabang, taking in Nong Khiaw, Vieng Thong and Phonsavan. Thanks to everyone on this forum for all the useful tips and advice.I have eventually got round to writing a trip report. Hope you enjoy it…

I popped into the Green Discovery shop on our first evening in Luang Prabang and had a chat with the friendly guys in there. I told them what I wanted to do and they arranged for a bike to be bought up from Vientiane the day after next.

The next day was spent looking round some temples, chilling out in the cafes overlooking the Mekong and generally soaking up the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of the place (see photos below).


Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

Day 1

I picked up our white Honda XR 250 from outside Green Discovery in the morning. I rode it round the block a couple of times to get used to the controls before taking it back to the guesthouse. I was amazed to find that Louise had managed to fit the five days worth of clothes and toiletries into a single smallish rucksack. There was even room for me to pack a spare t-shirt and toothbrush of my own.

When we finally set off from Luang Prabang that afternoon the sun was shining brightly and the sky was clear. The road north of Luang Prabang (Route 13) was full of kids on mopeds and bicycles waving and smiling (or was it laughing?) at us, so we had to go quite slow which was fine as I was still getting used to the bike, and Louise could smile and wave back at them all.

The road gradually cleared the further we got from Luang Prabang. We soon found ourselves surrounded by beautiful countryside, which was covered with lush groves of banana trees and rice paddies, rolling hills and dusty villages lining the river, all drenched in golden afternoon sun.

We turned off Route 13 at Pak Mong, taking the road east towards Nong Khiaw. Up to this point the road had been ideal for getting used to the bike – fairly straight and wide and in good condition. The road to Nong Khiaw was much more narrow and was closed in by tall crops growing on either side of the road.

After a while we began to see dramatic dark peaks looming in the distance. The road skirted through these huge lumps of rock, before eventually emerging from a gap between two peaks to cross the river at Nong Khiaw.

By the time we arrived it was dark and pretty chilly so we were very happy to settle down in our cosy bungalow at the Riverside Guesthouse, after a tasty fish curry dinner.

Day 2

I woke up early the next morning to find that our bungalow was beautifully located right on the bank of the Ou river. The village itself is located in the river valley nestled between tall, forest covered peaks. It was so beautiful there that we were very tempted to stay for an extra day and night, but in the end decided to press on.


Nong Khiaw - The high street

As it turned out, the bike had other plans. The electric starter mechanism had packed in during the night, and as the XR has no kick-start, we were going nowhere. Fortunately we managed to track down a mechanic in the village who immediately stopped what he was doing and start tinkering with our bike. After establishing that we had a flat battery he whizzed off on his moped to charge it up while we sat in the shade in his garage. Shortly after he returned and I held my breath while he refitted the battery. I was incredibly relieved and grateful to hear the bike roar back to life.

Once again we were on the road, driving east out of Nong Khiaw. The road wound its way up and down through heavily forested countryside. Located at the top of each peak were sparse villages with magnificent panoramic views of distant mountains and crystal clear crisp air. In the river valleys below were charming villages clustered around the around the river crossings.

One particularly pretty village was Vieng Kham, on the banks of the Nam Xeng river. Hills covered by tropical palms rose out from the water, which was dotted with wooden boats and fishing nets. We decided to stop on the bridge for a drink and to stretch our cramped legs. We got chatting to some friendly local kids who were keen to pose on their bikes for some photos. I noticed that the village had a guesthouse and decided that next time I came to Laos I would stay here for longer.


Some locals in Vieng Kham


After leaving Vieng Kham, the road gradually began to get steeper with potholes coming more frequently. Eventually the road started climbing up into the Phou Loei national park where we were met with signs proclaiming “We are proud to have tigers here”. The national park is very mountainous and covered by dense green jungle. Occasionally the road allowed us to catch a glimpse over the thick canopy of scenery straight out of Jurassic Park. Slowly we began descending and the jungle thinned out, until we were back in the river valley on the other side. We arrived in Vieng Thong after night-fall and checked into the Dokchampa guesthouse which is no Hilton, but was warm and cleanish.

Day 3

We finally managed to make an early start on the third day of our trip. The road east away from Vieng Thong was steep and twisty, but was in good condition. Before long we were high up in the mountains again snaking along ridges affording tremendous views of mountain peaks stretching out into the distance.


The people in the tiny sleepy villages up here seamed to be bemused at finding us passing through, but were as friendly as anywhere else. The dogs, cats, pigs etc. lying in the road barely bothered to move out of the way of the bike as we road passed them.

After about forty miles the road took us down into the valley and into Nam Noen, where we stopped for a steaming bowl of feu (noodle soup) and a bottle of coke.

The condition of Route 6 going south from Nam Noen got progressively worse and within a few miles it consisted of rocks and mud. It was like this for about 10 miles before we reached some freshly laid tarmac. Some road laying vehicles were parked up beside the road so this whole stretch may now have been laid.

Eventually the forest through which we had been driving cleared to reveal a large flat plain stretching away beneath us. The drive down was amazing – the road was in great condition and quite wide, and the hairpin bends which seemed to go on forever, were perfect for leaning right into. Lou kept on having to remind me that I wasn’t Valentino Rossi by digging here nails into my ribcage.


Once we were down in the plain the road stretched out straight in front of us. We turned west onto Route 7 at Muang Kham and reached Phonsavan in no time. We checked into the Malay Hotel where we had big room with a big comfortable bed and ordered a tasty dinner, which was washed down with plenty of Beer Lao.

Day 4

We got up early to explore the Plain of Jars. We got there nice and early and had the whole place to ourselves. I must admit I had not expected much from the pile of jar shaped rocks about which I had read. As it turned out the place was mysterious and intriguing, none of the photos I had seen (or had taken) did it justice.

Heading west and leaving Phonsavan behind, the countryside was much flatter than anywhere else we had been, with rolling hills, meadows and green forests not unlike parts of Kent. It was like this for miles, but the road was fairly straight and practically empty so it wasn’t long before we were back in mountain country. Once again it was up and down and up and down on small roads (all in good nick) winding their way through the peaks.


When we reached Phu Khoun we made a quick stop for lunch before heading north on Route 13 towards Luang Prabang. The road made long sweeping arcs around the side of one mountain after another, providing spectacular views.

In literally every village we passed through it seemed every kid would stop what they were doing at stare at us for a second, before breaking out with a massive smile and wave at us shouting ‘sabai-dee’. This never failed to make me smile, and we felt obliged to shout sabai-dee in return. We encountered this particular group of curious kids near Phon Sai during one of our frequent stops to stretch our cramped legs and sip some water.


As we rode the last stretch towards Luang Prabang we were surrounded by kids on bikes and mopeds who must have just been let out of school. We rolled into Luang Prabang in the late afternoon in time to watch the sun setting from the balcony of our room at the Sayo River Guesthouse.


That is the end of my trip report. However I think its worth saying a couple of other general practical things about the trip that I had wondered about before we left.

On the advice of people on this forum we decided to hire a Honda XR 250 instead of a 125cc moped. As it turned out, Green Discovery who arranged for our bike to be bought up from Vientienne only had this kind of bike anyway (as far as I know you cant hire bikes directly in Luang Prabang).

Before the trip I had not ridden a bike like this, only mopeds and scooters (on holiday in Thailand, Greece, Spain). I found that I could get the hang of the bike quite easily and within a couple of hours I felt pretty confident and safe. Once we hit the hills I was glad we had gone for the bigger bike – two on the back of a 125 would have been really slow. Storage space is limited to the rack at the back onto which we strapped a medium sized rucksack.

Doubling up on the bike was OK but after a couple of hours I always started to get a numb ass until we stopped and got off the bike to stretch and move around a bit. I found that I needed to do this about once an hour to make it bearable. I found that riding for more than about 5 hours a day felt like some kind of punishment.