For this month’s South-East Asia adventure we catch up with Benjamin Blech and his girlfriend Nang, the pair of them tackling the road from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan in North Central Laos.
It was one fateful day in Luang Prabang, during a three-month tour of South-East Asia, twenty-four hours after my friend and I had decided to cross one of the remotest parts of the country on two beat-up old Suzuki’s that first brought us together…
‘You’re crazy’ she said, standing with perfect elegance under a bright red umbrella, her dark vivacious eyes smiling back at me in the scorching April heat. ‘I know – but I’ll be back, and next time we’ll do it together’, I promised, as the engine spluttered to life.
Then a student in between lectures, Nang is from a small rural village fifty miles into the mountains north of the city. I was a writing traveller from the fringes of Western Europe. Our lives couldn’t have been more different, yet I knew I would see her again, and eventually fulfil my promise.
This year, with my friend now back in England – nose to the grindstone, Nang and I finally returned to the misty peaks of northern Laos, hoping to find everything just as we had left it.
Once a lawless land run by drug lords and a homegrown terrorist network, the northern provinces of Laos had been the epicentre of fifty years of almost relentless war, with more bombs dropped on Northern Laos per capita than anywhere else on earth. Even when peace was officially declared in 1975, the road to Xieng Khouang – the one that we’d be taking as we travelled between Luang Prabang and Phonsavan – remained the undisputed heartland of a bloody insurgency, resulting in years of gorilla warfare between government forces and Hmong separatists, which continued right up to the late 90s, sometimes resulting in attacks against foreigners.
With the conflict now officially over, today the only real danger you will encounter is the road itself. With such rapid economic development sweeping in from China, Vietnam and elsewhere, Rt 13 is simply not built to accommodate the monster loads that trundle up and down the mountain passes between Luang Prabang and eastern Xieng Khouang Province. Having said that, a little care and some sensible planning is all that’s really needed for you to enjoy this spectacular stretch of little-known South-East Asia.
Leaving the last remnants of urban sprawl at our backs, it’s not long before I remember what first drew me to this enchanting land. As the enthusiastic little engine of our appropriately named Suzuki Smash purrs a little softer, the climb turns into the first of many descents, giving us our first glimpse of the misty mountains on the horizon, woven into mile upon mile of rolling green hills, towering jungle, and gently meandering rivers.
As we pass the first hill-tribe villages, children surround us and cries of ‘sabardii’ fill the air. In need of a break, we pull over, throwing up the dust outside a village shop. Some of the children take a rare opportunity to practice their English, or just stand and stare in amazement as we guzzle down a bottle of cold water at breakneck speed, taking the edge of the heat of the day. The shop owner confirms that it’s roughly five hours to Phou Khoun. Having loaded up some more water and dried sweet potato chips, we thank her, before speeding off into the fresh mountain air, Roger Miller’s King Of The Road in one ear, a hundred miles of whistling wind in the other.
With everyone else trundling hastily on so-called VIP buses on route to the heavily touristed Plain of Jars, motorbike travellers and cyclists are the only outsiders who ever get an insight into the communities who live along this rugged stretch of road. In particular, I’ve always loved rolling into villages with nothing even close to a tourist attraction. There’s nothing artificial about them, and no expectation of selling you anything. Everything is just as it would be on any normal day in a Lao village. It’s as if you are stepping into, if only for a moment, another life, another way of living and seeing the world. That’s the true wonder of adventure travel.
On the surface, Lao villages (Ban in Lao) look much the same. They all revolve around traditional agricultural practices. Many are still off-grid and without running water, although today that’s slowly becoming the exception, rather than the norm. The annual calendar revolves around both Buddhist and Animist beliefs. Animals roam free, rooting around in the dusty red earth. Most also seem as though they are inhabited entirely by children and their grandparents, as their parents work to secure whatever venture their extended family depends on. Yet looking closer, no two villages are ever identical.
In terms of accommodation, unless you’ve arranged a homestay from Luang Prabang, the only accommodation on route is in the beautiful, predominantly Hmong village of Ban Kiu Kacham (four hours from Luang Prabang), or the small market town of Phou Khoun (five to six hours). Aching, exhausted and overheated, we spent the night in Ban Kiu Kacham. It’s a pleasant place to stay, but there are no facilities to speak of. There’s one guesthouse with a simple outdoor restaurant, serving tasty (if a little pricey) local food. We also picked up some plastic bottles of petrol from a nearby market, just enough to get us to Phou Khoun the next morning. Otherwise, Phou Khoun is a good alternative and helps shorten the second day.
But what better way to start the day than on the back of a motorbike, bleary-eyed, chugging slowly by misted mountain-tops, rice paddies, and wallowing water buffalo, the wind at your back, the sun on your face, and nowhere to be? Although rampant logging, slash and burn agriculture and mining have clearly taken their toll on the area in recent years, as two-wheeled adventures go, the wind-swept countryside around Phou Khoun is a real show stopper. Nothing could have prepared us for the scenery we would see that day, and it just got better and better. As we entered Xieng Khouang, it didn’t take us long to realise that we were now in territory few visitors ever see.
Just outside Phou Khoun, I met a corner that was deceptively sharp. Gently applying the breaks I shifted down in order to get more control, only to cause an almighty crunch, followed by a high-pitched screech. Too fast for third, I knew I’d either taken the chain off or broken the drive shaft. Fortunately, most Lao villages have surprisingly well-equipped repair shops. With no one around to take a look, we borrowed some tools from the family who lived next door and opened up the casing around the chain. Fortunately everything vital was still intact, it only the chain, meaning that we were soon on our way again.
Despite the stunning beauty and friendly people we met during our journey through Laos’ rugged north, there was a more troubling side to the whole experience. There’s one particular image that will stay with me forever. As we entered the outskirts of the next village, I noticed an obstruction on the road ahead. Dazzled by the glare of the sun on the grimy tarmac, I lifted my visor to try and identify what it was. Gently applying the brakes and shifting down a gear, I gradually ruled out the possibility that it was a traffic accident. Then as we drew closer, it became clear that we were looking at the figure of an elderly man, crawling on his hands in a crab-like position, dragging the bandaged stumps to which legs were once attached.
I knew about Laos’ unexploded war ordinance problem during my first trip to Laos, but it wasn’t until I ventured a short distance into nearby bushes to answer the call of nature that it started to make sense. “Mines. Keep Out! Danger of death!” read the florescent yellow sign, bolted to a barbed-wire fence. It was then that it hit me. There we were, on a journey of complete and shameless recreation, while so many lived on the edge of survival, thanks to a war that ended more than thirty years ago. Worse still, just down the road, millions of dollars worth of copper and gold is being blasted out of the ground, day and night, 365 days a year.
Our journey continued. The flat, wide-open plains of Phonsavan could not be a starker contrast to the dramatic upland landscapes of Luang Prabang. It was the first straight road we had seen in two days. Cruising along at 70 km/h felt amazing having crawled along for the past six hours at 45, unable to see more than 200 meters in front. As we rolled through the miles of rice paddies, the wind in our faces, the ultimate freedom within us, I had already decided that I was going to do many more trips like this, and that Laos would continue to be a part of my life for some time to come.
We reached Phonsavan just before dark. Built to replace the ancient city of Muang Khoun (completely destroyed in the Indo-China War), the town itself looks like something out of Apocalypse Now, with it’s dark, unimaginative streets, fuzzy neon billboards, and an endless array of empty munitions cases, crafted into flower pots, chairs, and even fishing boats. As we scouted around for a room, I noticed a girl no older than sixteen, calling out to us as we passed, as she sat alone in the shadows of a dimly lit shop front, on an almost deserted street, her bare thighs curled up in front of her. It had been an incredible journey, without a doubt one of the most amazing adventures of our lives. Yet somehow, for the first time in a long time, I felt a calling to return to the upbeat and comfortable atmosphere of Luang Prabang.
On the way back, daylight faded no more than twenty kilometres outside Luang Prabang, leaving us nothing but the light of the moon, our pathetic headlights, and the occasional onslaught of an oncoming bus. We had made the classic blunder of the inexperienced mountain rider, dramatically underestimating how long it would take to cover the last 50km. An hour later, we were stargazing by the side of the road, unable to see our own hands in front of our faces. It was funny at first, but it soon sunk in that we were in trouble. As the temperatures plummeted, we began to realise that our headlights simply didn’t make the grade for this sort of terrain.
Weighing up our options, we decided that we could either sleep in the open air, filthy, cold and hungry, or press on, and run the risk of getting driven off the road. We were cold, and exhausted, and the mosquitoes were out in force. We agreed that neither option was in any way attractive, but that all things considered, pressing on was worth the risk. Unable to see more than a metre in front of us, we motored on into the darkness, scanning for potholes and sticking close together in order to maximise what little light we had. Sounding our horns around each corner, we continued as if trying to find our way out of some underground tunnel, for what seemed like an eternity.
Needless to say we got dinner and a shower that night, such as it was, in a slippery asbestos shack, having swallowed no fewer than fifty mosquitos and narrowly escaping death. Chinking two ice-cold beers together in the still air, we made a toast. ‘To life’ we said, before turning our attention to the amusing mistranslations of the menu; the end of a great adventure.
Top 5 Tips for adventure riders going To Laos
Always take basic safety measures (good helmet, lights, protective clothing). If you are seriously hurt in the middle of Laos, there’s nothing anyone can do for you. There’s no rescue service and no hospitals equipped to deal with an emergency.
Don’t assume that unmarked tracks are safe. Landmines and unexploded war ordnance (UXO) are still a problem throughout much of the country, particularly around Phonsavan. All official roads have now been cleared.
Make stops in local villages. One of the advantages of travelling to Laos by motorbike is that it’s easy to meet some of the country’s friendly people.
Bo pen yang, literally ‘no problem’, could be Laos’ national motto. No matter what goes wrong, smile, laugh it off and carry on. That is very much the spirit of Laos. You will enjoy your trip far more if you just go with the flow.
Allow plenty of time. Everything takes forever in Laos. Don’t give yourself a tight timeframe in which to complete your trip. As a guide, guess how long you would need and then double it to ensure you experience what Laos is all about; relaxing and having fun!
Must have kit
1. If Laos had a mantra it would be cash, cash, cash. There are no banks in rural Laos! Credit cards? Don’t be silly! Make sure you take enough to cover your trip (at least one-way).
2. A Golden Triangle map of Laos (GT-Rider.com). Great for finding out where the nearest village is, and what to see along the way.
3. Extra fuel. You really don’t want to run out 20km from the nearest village.
4. A loose-fitting, breathable rain jacket for those wet, steamy days.
5. Insect repellent. When you’re away from the villages, it seems there’s nothing that doesn’t want to eat you.
Want to do this?
How long does it take?
Allowing for breaks and some sightseeing: Luang Prabang to Phou Khoun (60km, 4-5 hours). Phou Khoun to Phonsavan (130km, 9 hours, longer in the rainy season).
When to go?
November to late January, temperatures are pleasant. Avoid April unless you are comfortable with extreme heat (mid-40s is not uncommon). You needn’t rule out the rainy season (May to October), as it’s a beautiful time to be in Laos. But be prepared to get wet and cancel your trip at short notice. Check conditions with the district tourism office before you leave, as some mountain areas are prone to landslides.
If your bargaining skills are in order, a decent Japanese bike will set you back no more than £6 a day.
Turn up and find a guesthouse, or arrange a homestay in a local village from Luang Prabang. Outside of the major towns, there are no high-end hotels, but a nice, cheap, clean room is easy enough to find. No more than £7 per night. Food and drink is basic in rural areas. £3 per day, per person, would be plenty. Petrol: £10-15 one-way. Check that your bike has the necessary pass required under Lao law when travelling between provinces (bai anou yad kahn ket in Lao). If not, the owner can arrange this for you pretty cheaply (around £20). If you don’t have one and the police stop you, you may have to pay a heavy fine.
Fly to Bangkok (Thailand) from any major UK airport (£400-600 return, depending on the season). From there, you can take an overnight train to the Laos border for less than £20 one-way. There are currently no direct flights between the UK and Laos.
Fly or hire?
Without a doubt, hire in Laos. It’s cheap and it’s easy. The only exception would be if you want to travel over an international border by road, in which case you are best to buy a bike in Thailand or Vietnam, as they are more relaxed about visitors importing bikes temporarily.
Paperwork for you:
Technically speaking, a Lao motorbike licence is required. But in the real word, any driving licence from any country, whether for a car or motorbike, is perfectly acceptable. A 30-day tourist visa in available on arrival at most Lao border crossings for around £20.
Is it for you?
Bumpy roads, friendly people, incredible scenery, and unmatched cultural diversity, make Laos a guaranteed adventure. Providing you obey local laws, everything is cheap. For this particular trip, you don’t need any prior knowledge or experience. Solid planning and a bit of common sense should be all you need.