Story and photos by Oliver Hargreave
Laos is a dream destination for Thailand-based motorcycle riders - the people are friendly and can mostly understand Thai, the scenery is stunning and the cost of touring need not be high. And it’s next door to Thailand. What could possibly be wrong?
You don’t like motorcycles? That’s fine; all you need is a 4-wheel drive off-road vehicle if you want to go somewhere remote, or a bicycle and maybe a support vehicle, or a car if you are happy to stick to the highways. In truth, it doesn’t particularly matter what the mode of transport is, touring Laos has long been fun, whether you go by bus, boat or bicycle. As with most forms of touring in Laos, whether you flashpack or backpack, it is better to keep it light.
Many roads in northern Laos involve kilometres of twists and turns as they climb to passes and descend down to villages and towns in the valleys. The only relatively straight bits of highway are when a route is following a river valley, but rivers seldom flow straight, so Lao roads tend not to go straight for very long.
But as every biker knows, it’s the bends that test the rider’s skill, offering a perpetual challenge that hooks riders for life. That’s what bikers are: adrenalin junkies hooked on taking it as far as they dare to the rim of the rubber, to the edge of their ability. Yes, things can go wrong; on two wheels you can come off.
And then there’s the ignominy if you drop your machine when other riders have stayed up. But it doesn’t matter since every biker knows that things can go wrong, that the only time on two wheels that you don’t usually have to pay attention is when the kick stand is down.
Then there’s the traffic, sometimes lots of it. Columns of heavy Chinese and Lao trucks grinding up long grades to passes to supply what seems like a national transformation from the gentle ways of a culture formerly dependent on riparian transport not many years ago.
Scheduled for completion in 2021, the Kunming – Vientiane railway punches through rugged karst landscape in a succession of tunnels and bridges that are designed to allow Laotians to get to Luang Phabang and Mueang Xai (Oudom Xai) from Vientiane at 160 kph non-stop. Part of China’s great Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), perhaps the railway will take much of the heavy trucking off the road.
To seasoned bikers, the trucks are just another challenge - slippery slicks on the blacktop left by their water-cooled breaks can catch an unwary rider! But it’s much easier to pass trucks on a bike, even on the long, winding grades where drivers swing prime-movers wide into the oncoming lane to get long trailers around sharp corners. Lao highways are usually narrow in the mountains! Often traffic will jam up when drivers have to inch long vehicles past each other; sometimes there are collisions.
On a bike you can go off road, that is if you have the right kind of bike. Lao and Thai-based motorcycle touring companies supply machines and guides who will take you on amazing routes through high country and narrow valleys. You can rent machines in main tourist destinations or, for those who are residents in Thailand, take your own. With a little research you can go off the main sealed routes for yourself, and you will hear of more possibilities from other riders well-met on the road.
That’s part of the fun of riding in Laos, of riding out of normal life with its known knowns, riding away from the grind of routine challenge. In Laos, there is something new around every corner, and even when you come to a stop, Laos is almost always different, almost always interesting if not fun.
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