Northern Laos by a first-timer

bartonthemove

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Nov 1, 2005
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Hi everyone!

Just finished my tour through northern Laos. It was my
first time on a dirtbike, on dirtroads, and in Laos, so if
you recognise yourself in this profile, this may be
useful.

A lot of you veterans out there may laugh, but a few
things were real eye-openers for me, so I'll just pass
them along to other first-timers.

THE GEAR

I was backpacking and had no plans of biking and didn't
bring any gear. I bought a pair of jeans, a pair of sturdy
shoes and a pair of straps at the morning market (Thalat
Sao) in Vientiane. The bike came with a helmet (a decent
one, except that it had no visor) and I bought a chinese
motorbike-raincoat (a poncho that covers even your hands
and headlights! only 30.000kip) at the side of the road
somewhere around Udom Xai. I wore sun-glasses and drove
short-sleeved.
It seems to me that this is the absolute minimum of gear
you need to travel on a bike in Laos.
A helmet with visor is definitely preferable, because
without one, bugs will fly into the helmet en end up in
your ears all the time.
Driving without a helmet is not recommended. I saw a Lao guy on a motorbike drive into a passing cement-truck in Luang Nam Tha. The truck did about 60. the guy wore no helmet. Believe me guys: wear a helmet!

THE BIKE

I rode a Honda Baja 250 and rented it from Green Discovery
(next to Kop Chai Deu bar) in Vientiane. I must say, the
bike did well and the advantage is that you can drop it
off in Vang Vieng, Luang Phrabang and Luang Nam Tha as
well and it's slightly cheaper ($15/day) than PVO, but
they didn't give me any tools or spare cables, so what to
do if something happens on top of a mountain, I don't
know. Next time I'll probably go to PVO, just to feel
sure.
Also I had to explain on several occasions why I didn't carry a pasport. I understand that PVO gives you a written statement in Lao that explains this. Would have been very useful (see Udomxai - Luang Nam Tha!)
Only one thing: the exhaust got disconnected (a bolt fell
out) and landed on my reartyre. If some guys at a
gasstation wouldn't have noticed, I'd probably have blown
my tyre. Luckily I had my Leatherman and a few inches of
wire.

THE ROADS

The tour I did was this:

Vientiane - Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang - Udomxai - Luang
Nam Tha - Muang Sing - Huay Xai - Muang Ngoen - Hongsa -
Sainyabouli - Luang Prabang - Pak Xieng - Vieng Thong -
Phonsavan - Vang Vieng - Vientiane

Vientiane - Vang Vieng
Mad traffic at first, road reasonably good, scenery not
really interesting. A thorough way to get used to Lao-
traffic, after this the rest of Laos is very quiet.
Things get a lot quieter after Phon Hong (about halfway).
The scenery is stunning and the road mostly very good (a
few nasty treacherous spots around some corners though!)

Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang
Beautiful road, only a few bad spots in the road. You pass
through villages that seem to come from a hundred years
ago. Slow down when driving through these villages: you'll
have a better chance to avoid kids, old people, dogs,
puppies, cows, goats, chickens (especially chickens: they
just don't seem to be able to decide which way there going
to go) and you get a chance to smile and wave back to the
people.

Luang Prabang - Udomxai
Road was ok, but here the wheather seemed to get a little
wet. I found out that the (brand new) tyres on my Honda,
were not so good on wet tarmac. Be very careful in the
curves when it is raining!

Udomxai - Luang Nam Tha
Rain started to pour now and the road was muddy as hell.
With my clothes and glasses covered in dirt and all my
attention on the road (trucks started to drift towards me
from the short curves!) I missed a sign, accidentally took
the turn-off to Boten and roared into China without
noticing! Got caught of course and spent half an hour with the Chinese border-police and 2 and a half with their mates from Lao. I don't recommend this, as I was just able (but only just) to talk my way out of an emberassing investigation involving lubricants. In the end they were nice and let me go with a 1000 baht fine.

Luang Nam Tha - Muang Sing
Very beautiful and perfect road. I recommend it! Do it as
a day trip from LNTha or stay at the Adani guesthouse a few
km's out of Muang Sing and visit some of the traditional
villages on foot. Not the ones close to the guest house
though.

Luang Nam Tha - Huay Xai
This is the dustiest road in Laos. They're working on it,
so it'll probably be great in a few years, but now you'll
be litterally surrounded by dust and dusty trucks carrying
dusty soil, so as a result you'll be very, very dusty!
Especially since the first 30 km's are very wet and muddy,
so the durt will stick very well. Bring a bandanna to
cover your mouth and nose.

Huay Xai - Muang Ngoen
Getting the bike on a boat involved some investigations,
but I managed to get it done (for 600 baht) and be dropped of at Pak Pet (about halfway to Pak Beng). From there I wanted to drive
to Muang Ngoen (about 95km) and do Hongsa - Sainyabouli
the next day. The boat should have dropped me at 2, but it
got to be 4. At sunset I had only managed to do 30km.
This is the muddiest road I've ever seen. Maybe you pros
outthere will laugh but there were some vast fields of mud
on this road in which my tyres lost all grip. I got stuck
in a ditch a few times and had to pull the bike out by
hand, fell and had to lift it up while slipping and
sloshing in this knee-deep mud. Of course by sunset I
wasn't yet there, so in pitch-dark it still got a bit
worse.

A few tips I think are useful (vets please correct if
wrong, i was learning on the fly) when driving through deep mud
- do it slowly, in first gear
- keep a few fingers on the clutch so that you can keep
the engine running if you get stuck
- don't take your feet off the steps. If you HAVE to, put
them beck on ASAP, so you will regain stability
- try to let the bike find it's own way (more or less),
because it will slide into the deeper tracks anyway. Try
to take advantage of that in stead of forcing it away from there
- try to avoid having to do this after sunset
- carry extra fuel: driving in first gear for 30km
consumes al lot of gas

This was the only road I rode without my helmet and
glasses, because when I stopped in a village (for asking
directions) wearing them, people would be scared and run
into their houses.

Then, eventually, I ran into a few guys with AK47's, who
stopped me and wanted to see every document or supposed
document I had on me. It took me 3 hours of smiling and
talking (no english here) and flipping through my phrase book to get away.
I was not very happy, especially with the guns.

Muang Ngoen - Sainyabouli
The road from Muang Ngoen to Hongsa is no problem. The
road from Hongsa to Sainyabouli I definitely recommend! Only a few muddy spots, and all of them in the first 15km, after that it's easy.

Sainyabouli - Luang Prabang
A seriously ass-spanking road. To me, one of the least
enjoyable in Laos.

Luang Prabang - Vieng Thong
Beautiful road, especially the bit from Pak Xieng to Sam
Soun. Stunning scenery. Beware of the 2 crossroads that
are not on the map. At the first, take a right, at the
second, take a left. In Vieng Thong, stay in the first
Guesthouse on the right.

Vieng Thong - Phonsavan
OK road, bit chilly and foggy. Stay in the Vanhearoun Guesthouse: they have a boiler, which makes for warm water with pressure!

Phonsavan - Phou Khoune (junction Routes 7 & 13)
I asked around and everyone I asked said it was safe. I
first wanted to go south of the Special Zone, but local
people advised against this, so I took route 7. I think it one of the best roads in Lao. Beautiful scenery and road is almost as good as back home.

As a whole, I loved it. So much better than on a bus! I'll be back for a longer while and buy a bike! Anyone has any tips for that?

Lots of fun,
Bart
 

BobS

Ol'Timer
Jan 20, 2003
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Nice report, Bart. Now, aren't you glad that you went solo on a 250cc instead of 2-up on a scooter?

BobS

"The true secret of giving advice is, after you have honestly given it, to be perfectly indifferent whether it is taken or not and never persist in trying to set people right."
 

DavidFL

Administrator
Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
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Chiang Khong
www.thegtrider.com
Bart
Great report with lots of substance / info in it for other riders.
I reckon that you lucked out with the mud & rain, as normally I'd say don’t do what you did in the wet, especially alone! I wonder whether that now you know how good / tricky it was - would you do it alone again / advise other people to try to same thing alone?
You've also got one over me on the Pak Pet - Muang Ngeun - Hongsa - Xayaboury part.
So, well done! Let's hope you come back again for more riding, with the appropriate road & trip reports.
If you want to know about buying a bike (in Thailand) take a look at
https://www.gt-rider.com/bikes.html

Davidfl
Keep The Power On
 

SilverhawkUSA

Ol'Timer
Mar 15, 2003
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www.daveearly.com
Bart-

I agree with Davidfl. Thanks for the good information. I am heading for Laos myself next week, doing the reverse of some of your route. Huay Xai-Luang Nam Tha-Udomxai and then north. Everything you say about the dust is true (came down that way last year) but at least I am happy to hear that section is dry. Wouldn't mind trying your route later on. Good to have current information.

Dave Early

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

scot harper

Ol'Timer
Nov 14, 2004
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Hey guys post some picies, Hawky, be a cicil B an take a motsa, dont care if its a mangy cat dog, buff, but if you see any hoties, clik away. The swead got picky cred, loved his bridge shot, bye for now......Scott.
remember Brakes or gas theres no in between!!!!