We got off at a rest area somewhere in the middle of Laos, happy to get a stretch, grab a bite to eat, and in general break the monotonous bus journey. By the time we got to Laos, we were eight months or so into our RTW, which meant that we’ve seen our fair share of buses. This particular trip, from Nong Khai, Thailand to Vang Vieng, Laos – was supposed to be easy. About 4-6 hours give or take, in an air-conditioned mini-van, during the day, along an excellent road. Barely one third full bus ambled on agreeably. No loud chatting, no movies or music. This is as good as it gets in Southeast Asia. And yet we were restless, antsy, and in general in a rather poor disposition.
And then IT happened – pancakers. The Laos’ woman sitting next to us at a rest stop dropped her ice cream (not kidding) in horror, as streams and streams of pajama-clad, blood-shot eyed Western 20-something tumbled out of the VIP bus eager for a drag on the cigarette and a fixing of delicious sandwich. It’s not exactly clear if the shock and awe initiated by their descent came from the fact that she had seen too many pancakers since the tourist boom hit Laos in the early 2000s, or that such a site has never appeared before her. Either way, we knew we had to get out. There was no way we could travel across Laos, for another several weeks, listening to conversations about the party scene, the best sandwich, and how cool, man, this or that party was the other night. We might have been eager participants of all this, such as it were, a few months earlier. But not at that point. We needed a motorbike.
And then a miracle happened – right in the middle of the most unlikely place, a tiny (but touristed) village of Vang Vieng, with a population numbering just over twenty thousand, the clouds opened up, unicorns galloped through the blinding light, and the heavens bestowed on us the most magical of travelers’ gifts – a Vietnamese plated motorbike (a Honda Win, no less!) with all the proper registration papers and in good working condition.
We have tried and tried to look for a motorcycle in Vientiane, message boards, hostels, cafes, web… nothing. It’s when we gave up on the idea and started bussing around Laos, Indi appeared.
Our move on the first night from one, fancier “resort” to a room above the terrace restaurant run by a frenchman, the manager, and a Belgian, the chef, could not have had a more unlikely outcome. A frenchman had two motorcycles, one for everyday use and another for longer trips to Vientiane. We talked over Beerlao, and next day and $300 later we had a bike! Yes, of course, headlamp and breaks had to be replaced, but it was ours! Repairs were a part of the price, and the local mechanic was busy at work that night.
I had to make an educated guess on whether or not a small 100cc engine motorcycle in good – but certainly seen-better-days – condition can carry two passengers, two backpacks, a daypack and a camera bag. Surely our Vietnam motorbike trip with a guide helped with confidence, yet this time we are on our own: no language, no knowledge of the landscape, no tools. But as they say: YOLO! If not now, then when?
Below is our itinerary from Vang Vieng to the Nam Meo border with Vietnam spread over several weeks. We provide you with the route, the road conditions as we found them in April – May 2014, and our impressions of each stop. If you want to read about accommodations that we found along the way, check out our where to stay page.
Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang
First day on the road, first day on our own. My stress level pretty darn high. The distance from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is just over 210 km (~ 130 miles) — but keep in mind, these are Lao road kilometers, not US highway miles. What could be covered in leisurely 2.5 hours in the US, in Laos took a full day of riding, or about 8 hours – with stops every 45 minutes or so, and a longer break for lunch. The road curved and snaked – extreme lows alternated with exhilarating (and quite scary) highs climbing through a mountain ridge. The good news is that this stretch of the highway is paved, which is not always the case. That first day of riding our average speed was about 40km an hour. Between all of the gear, Jenia riding pillion and the swirly road, the speed was plenty fast.
On that very first day, as Indi roared under us and struggled to carry our combined weight, we knew that we made the right choice to throw it all to the wind and get on the bike. Laos is breathtaking — the fog rolled in, the karst mountains peaked out, and we had plenty of opportunities to stop, stretch out, and take a picture after picture. The 210 km route between two of Laos’ most well visited spots is also known for its scenic beauty — and there is nothing better than being able to observe it in open air from the motorbike.
Arriving in Luang Prabang as the sun was setting, the feeling was quite surreal. After eight hours of riding through mountains covered by deep jungle and isolated villages, suddenly a city!
Luang Prabang – Phonsavan
We spent a good five days in Luang Prabang, a well deserved rest after starting our motorbike adventure. Plus, there are plenty of opportunities to take the motorbike to nearby attractions right outside of Luang Prabang, which we took advantage of, and reveled in the fact that we didn’t have to turn over our passports as deposit or return the bike to anyone at any specific time.
Leaving Luang Prabang, we set out pretty early – 7:45 am, and it took us 9 hours to cover the 260 km of highway to Phonsavan. We took a leisurely approach, taking longer breaks for breakfast and lunch. Actually, highly recommend setting out before breakfast — that way you build in an extra stop, and don’t lose any time in the morning. The roads again were pretty good, paved, with little traffic. We were traveling further into the mountains, so we spent a good amount of time, snaking our way slowly up and up and into the clouds.
Of course, it couldn’t all be too seamless. Our travel karma points all cashed out on the initial motorcycle purchase and with ourselves gloating over the fact that we weren’t on the bus, our first breakdown was bound to happen sooner, rather than later. And it did. About half way through this leg of the trip, our throttle was gone. Twist away and nothing happens.The concept of a throttle is quite simple — the outer part is a wire, snaked along the bike into your handle bar. The same handle bar you twist to accelerate. In our case, the wire was not being twisted…
What to do? Given how hilly the terrain is, at first, we just cruised down the hill without a throttle to maybe come across some people. Not the safest feeling in the world, but thankfully the breaks worked well. We certainly got laughs from locals in the next village as we passed by with my right hand pulling the wire away from the bike, gaining some torque and my left hand controlling the steering and breaks.
The good thing about traveling Southeast Asia is that the next village is pretty much always just around the corner. For us, it was just a few short windy turns away and through hand speak, local mechanic took care of all the problems for under $5 and in the timespan of 40 mins. A small price to pay for a potential disaster in the making.
Phonsavan – ViengXai
Phonsavan countryside is incredibly beautiful, and very distinct from the rest of what we saw in Laos. The locals call these plains the hills of paradise – so we took full advantage of having Indi to do many day trips over the two days, out into the Plain of Jars to inspect the mammoth stone urns left over by the giants (per local legend).
On the last morning leaving Phonsavan, the guest house owner asked us where we were headed. Viengxai, and then over to the border. He looked at us, then looked at the bike packed with our luggage — and replied: On that?! with a mild look of doubt and horror. Jenia immediately peed her pants (j/k – almost).
The route from Phonsavan to Viengxai has the largest number of peaks and valleys in our Lao travel with frequent 3000 feet drops. In first gear, you travel maybe 10-15 km/h, and that is a generous maybe. (Look through this message board as they have detailed elevations if you are going on a trip).
It took us almost 11 hours to cover 270 kilometers between Phonsavan and Viengxai. We did stop for breakfast and a late afternoon snack. We also made a quick stop in a small village to drop off school books we purchased at Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang. No complaints about the quality of the road, but the extremely steep gradient and many, many turns were nerveracking. We made it, with Indi roaring and climbing up at a pace of less than 10 kilometers an hour for many a stretch. I believe Jenia’s words were something like – “I never want to see another mountain road again.”
ViengXai – Nam Meo (border)
We spent two days in Viengxai motorbiking around the caves used by the Pathet Lao during the War, which was a fascinating insight into the legacy of geopolitical struggle between communism and capitalism in the region. There is quite a good tour done by motorbike, with a local guide, around the various caves that we would recommend.
Only 54 kilometers separate ViengXai from the Nam Meo border post with Laos. But what those 50+ kilometers are! The first 40 kilometers out of ViengXai are probably the most gorgeous stretch of the road we’ve been on during this trip. We set out early morning after tropical rain showers had passed, and the scenery was just incredible, with the sun shining down on flooded rice paddies among krast peaks near and far. The last 15 km to the border the paved road disappeared, poof, huge potholes appeared, and we began very very steep descent downhill – it was so steep, that sometimes we couldn’t see where the road dropped. Never ridden anywhere like that!
There is a gas station about 5 km away from the border, where we were able to spend some of the leftover kip, and tried to exchange the rest. But no luck, we couldn’t get the nice lady to understand what we wanted to do. We had much more success – but a very poor rate, 2.2 dong for 1 kip, versus the official 2.6 dong for 1 kip – with the border guard on the Vietnamese side. The border crossing itself was a breeze, 15 minutes total. We had no problems getting our passports stamped out of Laos, into Vietnam, and no questions were asked about the motorbike. The guards checked the papers and waved us through!
Nam Meo is not the most popular border crossing due to its remote and isolated location. However, if you manage to get here, on the way to Mai Chau, we can recommend for the ease of crossing, the border officials did not seem surprised at all to find tourists, rather than locals, making the trip (or maybe we just looked so seasoned and confident! )
And that was that, our Laos adventures came to an end. Little did we know, that the worst riding was still ahead of us – the roads are a disaster on the way to Mai Chau, Vietnam. We rode for several hours through what essentially was a construction site obstacle course washed out by the mud slides and obstructed by road work and constructions vehicles – yay! You can find the account of our motorbike trip in Vietnam here.