Back on the road in Laos

(Em) The process of officially exiting Thailand from the border town of Chiang Khong was a piece of cake so it boded well that this, our first overland border crossing in a while, was going to be easier than normal. Chiang Khong is right on the banks of the Mekong, with Houey Xai, Laos’ counterpart border town, just across on the other side of the river. And herein lay our first problem; to cross the river with the bikes meant sidestepping the hoards of tourists all clambering into narrow boats and join the big boys on the car ferry. ‘Ferry’ is perhaps a little generous – it is a tug boat dragging a large metal pontoon – but that wasn’t our problem. The sticking point was that they were trying to charge 500 baht instead of the 200 baht that Dean and Dave had reportedly paid just weeks before. We tried nice, we tried indifferent, we tried nasty (well, not really) but they wouldn’t budge so it was very grudgingly that we bought our tickets. The whole time this was going on, I hadn’t failed to notice that the trucks driving onto the previous ‘ferry’ had had to do so through a couple of feet of water and mud where the on/off ramp didn’t quite reach the bank. Er, surely we wouldn’t be expected to do that on our bikes?! It seems I had been too long mollycoddled by the comforts of Thailand; of course that’s how we had to board the ferry! They were nice enough to try and move the larger rocks and pebbles out of the way but needless to say, I was bricking it. I came very close to wimping out, especially when I saw James’ rear tyre spinning and sliding when he went up ahead of me but there were two trucks rumbling impatiently behind me so I had to take the plunge! Of course, it was fine; another example of the importance of mind over matter (something I’m still getting the hang of…).

It was a pleasant ride across the river – very slow as we were against the tide and our pontoon had the aerodynamics of a brick, but that gave the deckhands time to give the first truck a wash. A clever use of time and resources, they just hauled water up from the river and sloshed away! Once we made it off at the other side (luckily the ramp touched down on solid ground this time), we rode up towards the village to find the sustoms and immigration office which we’d been reliably informed were nowhere near the port and in completely unmarked buildings. Having located them, we got our carnets signed (remarkably quick and simple) and I stayed with the bikes on the main road while James walked down to the passenger port to get our visas. Or not. He trudged back up towards me fifteen minutes later looking somewhat concerned. ‘Well, I’m ok, but you’re not allowed in the country.’ What?! It turned out that Thai immigration back on the other side of the river had put my exit stamp, quite understandably, in my old passport next to my Thai visa, whereas now I was starting my new passport, Laos immigration needed to see the stamp in there! Bugger! There was no way round it so, frustratingly, I had to get a ‘speedboat’ (narrow boat with a motor) back over to Thailand. It was a bit of a worry seeing as it was now five o’clock and they could be closed, or I could get it done and then find that the boat service had by that time finished for the day. This would not be ideal as James and I would have no way of communicating with each other and would be in different countries, James with two bikes to ride, and me with all the money (I took his wallet with me to pay for the boat!)

Luckily, the whole process was pretty seamless. There was no queue for the boat and it only took a few minutes to cross the river. Back on the Thai side, the nice immigration guy was happy to put an exit stamp in my new passport and I was back over to Laos in a jiffy where we got our visas with no further drama. However, while I’d been to-ing and fro-ing from one country to another, James had been giving the bikes a cursory once over when he realised, to his horror, that the two bolts which hold his front wheel in place were missing! Seriously worrying; god knows how long he’d been riding like this (James: although it could only have been a couple of days as the bikes had recently been given a good going over.) The wheel could have come loose at any point, potentially wrecking the forks (and not to mention James if it was at high speed). Equally disturbing was the thought that someone had intentionally removed the bolts, either because they needed them or, a more sinister possibility that we didn’t like to entertain, removed them maliciously (James: the chances of both bolts coming loose at the same time are pretty remote!). It was typical that this should happen now, in a small dusty border town in a communist country with only small scooters, rather than during the last couple of months in Thailand where there seems to be a big bike shop on every corner. We’d wanted to head off early the next day but now we might have to spend hours running around trying to fix the problem.

There wasn’t a lot we could do straight away with the shops all closed for business for the evening so we booked into a guesthouse and had a much needed shower (the weather has been getting hotter and hotter recently as the ‘cool’ season – still in the mid 30s mind you – gives way to the hot season where the temperature reaches 40 degrees with very high humidity). Later on that evening as we sat enjoying a refreshing Beer Lao and banana/coffee shake (truly a winning combo, by the way), a motorcyclist went by on what looked like a bigger bike. James rushed off to chase him down and came back ten minutes later with the phone number of a local mechanic – great! The guy was a German ex-pat on an ex-German military KTM 400cc something or other…. Unfortunately, come morning we had no luck with the number but some locals soon pointed us in the direction of garage down the road. They rooted around in piles of scraps for any bolts that might fit (clearly not the most organised of establishments) and eventually came up with some that would do the trick. Phew! With that sorted, it just remained to obtain some third party insurance – an official requirement but very cheap – and by midday were on the road for our first day riding in Laos.

And what a fantastic day! We’re the first ones to say how much we loved our time in Thailand but there’s no denying that in all its perfection, it had felt more like a holiday than an overlanding adventure. Here we were in Laos and we felt truly back on track, riding on shoddy broken roads and getting waves and shouts from locals for whom a ‘big’ bike rumbling through the village was certainly not a regular occurrence! Life really seems incredibly simple in these parts, and certainly a world away from Vientiane (the capital of Laos where we’d been a few months back to do a Thai visa run). Most of the villages we rode through were little more than a scatter of bamboo huts on stilts, with a few goats and pigs thrown into the mix. Absolutely immaculate though, and always accompanied by friendly, smiling Laotians. All along the route, people could be seen beating freshly cut swathes of some sort of long grass onto the side of the road, presumably to rid it of pollen before using it as a building or weaving material (I was covered in prickly barbs by the end of the day!) We were quite shocked by how many children we saw out working, either beating grass or carrying loads in backpack type baskets, and we didn’t pass any schools, at least not obvious ones. (James: unsurprising as Laos average wage is less than $1000 per year, so all the family is expected to contribute).

At just under 200km and with sweeping rather than twisting bends, it was a comfortable day’s ride and we arrived in Luang Nam Tha soon after 4pm. Luang Nam Tha is actually further to the north east (very near the Chinese border), whereas we were essentially heading for Luang Prabang further south east from where we’d entered Laos, but the limited road network combined with northern Laos’ rugged mountains means that, unless you take a two day slow boat along the Mekong, you have to go north in order to eventually go south! Fine by us though; we could already tell that Laos was going to offer up some great riding so the more, the merrier. Luang Nam Tha is a simple town, centred around just one main road, but it has its fair share of guesthouses due to it being a trekking hot spot. We stayed at a beautiful place set back from the road, made entirely from teak with fresh, airy rooms and wide verandas. Not what we were expecting to find at all, and it was so nice we were tempted to stay longer. However, trekkers we are not and there was nothing else to stick around for, so the following morning we decided to ride the remaining 300km to Luang Prabang…

For latest photos click here.

10 Responses to “Back on the road in Laos”

  1. julian says:

    Hi Besttwo.
    Laos sounds good. Will look at the pix now. Keep the info coming.
    Love from dadinsaudiwheretherisasandstormandrainx

  2. Jackson says:

    How good is Beer Lao huh??
    i loved my time in Laos, live it up for me.

  3. Mama/Kate says:

    Laos……………….sounds just like my childhood on the farm in deepest Devon.
    You guys – your resourcefulness impresses me. Much love, as ever. X

  4. Mama/Kate says:

    And apparently endless cheerfulness! X

  5. Mary says:

    I’m suffering from blog withdrawal symptoms!!

    Hope eveything is ok out there with you both.

    Love Mary

  6. Martha says:

    I would have stuck around for a bit of trecking – sounds fun! (Marcus: No, it doesn’t!!) xxx

  7. Motoventurers says:

    Sorry Mary! Rest assured there is a significant amount of blog in the pipeline and coming your way. We’ve been roughing it recently so not so much chance to get everything back up to date. Should makes for good reading though!….

  8. Motoventurers says:

    We’re with you Marcus! It’s 40 degrees here and incredibly humid! Add to that the fact that it’s the slash and burn season for the locals so there’s smoke everywhere!…..

  9. julian says:

    he keeps checking but a BFZ blog free zone.
    Got some choice comments from the nana but am in Istanbul at present so can’t quote exactly. You can imagine …….! X

  10. Mama/Kate says:

    Well, I would have done the honours but Nana’s latest letter has gone AWOL. I wonder if someone has already consigned it to the recycle bin? Yes, having said that no-one would be interested in what SHE had to say, she went on extol your calmness in the face of adversity. I, like Jules, can’t quote verbatim but there were numerous capital letters, under-linings and exclamation marks. x

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