Feeling invincible after surviving a motorcycle trip in India in 2017, my fearless friend and I decided to take on Laos. No place on earth could challenge us as much as India — so we were quite blasé about planning this trip.
Landing in Vientiane, the capital, there wasn’t much to suggest a need for detailed preparations — everything seemed manageable. Compared to other South-East Asian cities, traffic is light, especially for motorcycles. Vientiane, and by extension, Laos, is consequently easy to navigate. Apart from the lack of chaos, the city is a fascinating mix of proud communist architecture and French colonial past — all coexisting seemingly harmoniously. An absence of Western chains makes this a place where you lose yourself a little in the past. But probably not for long. One bellwether of economic enlargement, the airport, is expanding and one wonders what will happen once the international terminal adds to its one gate!
Below is a collection of fragmented impressions from the city.
The once mighty Mekong river, now visibly suffering from upriver developments, such as China’s Yunnan Province dams. Downriver, like here in Vientiane, squatters use the opportunity to carve out a living. Across the river, Thailand.
Portraits of your favorite communist heroes.
TinTin, also here!
My friend and I quickly settled into our usual routine of exhausting days on the motorcycle capped by evenings of beer (Beerlao being the local brew), exchanging tall tales and expanding on the ills of the world. We also indulged in a staple that would sustain us over the next days — Khao poun — the omnipresent Laotian noodle soup. Depending on where you acquire said dish, it can be appetizing or downright gnarly looking. More often than not would I stare down into a bowl of unidentifiable animal parts, eating bits before creatively discarding the rest.
A hard ride…
The first day on the road, we got up early — like we usually do — to beat traffic and avoid the worst of the midday sun and heat. In early January, the thermometer still creeps over 90 Fahrenheit, so temperatures are a serious concern for two-wheelers. Our plan was to head to Nam Et — Phou Louey National Protected Area — a forest hugging the Vietnamese border to the East. But we soon discovered that our preparations were inadequate — we didn’t even consider the vast distances and road conditions before planning the trip. And, critically, the bikes we rented (the only available) were off-roaders meant for an hour of amusement in the mud — not the kind of equipment needed to cross the roughly 600 kilometers to the other side of the country.
In fact, the first day on the 250cc’s took a significant toll on our behinds. We were in the seat for almost 11 hours before reaching the city of Phonsavan, halfway to our destination. This was also the point where we realized we’d never reach the protected area, or if we did, we might never make it back.
A small footnote on Phonsavan: despite its size, it only gained reliable electricity (more than two hours a day) about three years ago. This frontier town has a schizophrenic atmosphere — not sure if it’s developing West or East, or somewhere in-between. Laos is also the most heavily bombed nation in history — a fact glibly capitalized on by outfits like “Craters,” a restaurant sporting UXO’s (UneXploded Ordinances) and a menu to go with their peculiar slice of history.
Worn out by our first day, over beer and (again) noodles, we reluctantly decided to abandon the original plan in favor of more the Northwestern mountainous road to Luang Prabang. Of course, again it didn’t occur to us to research the road situation where we were going!
Leaving Phonsavan, crossing the mountains, I felt like I was among the few Westerners having traveled through the area. All along the road through the villages, children were smiling and waving as we passed. Adults more measured but still friendly. Most of the distance covered villages with grinding poverty and lack of services, yet this area has a tranquility and calm about it — quite unlike anything I’ve experienced.
The sense of quiet must have lulled me into sleep because this is where I fell off the motorcycle. What happened is unclear, but my bike buddy found me standing in the middle of the road surrounded by kids, acting confused and talking gibberish. Over the next days, clues such as damage to the bike, helmet, and clothing made it clear that I had fallen asleep on the bike. While recovery was relatively quick, the event brought home the risks we were taking. With medical services being insufficient in Laos, neighboring Bangkok, Thailand would be the closest for anything serious. So hours and hours away from anything familiar, an accident on a bike in the Laotian mountains would be bad news.
Recovering from my concussion, headaches and lethargy forced us yet again to change plans, now cutting down on bike time in favor of three days in the city of Luang Prabang. There’s nothing wrong with the city per se — most tourists favor it over Vientiane — but in contrast to the capital, it is oddly Western and we found the break from noodle soup to be its only redeeming quality. We took it easy, indulged in food that we could identify and spent time resting.
At this point, the other bike started to give us headaches, and we spent the better part of a day trying to get it fixed. Naturally, with the distance back to the capital, the idea of being stranded in the mountains with a bum bike was sobering. Adding to the difficulties, the language barrier is immense once you are outside any big city. But even in Luang Prabang, the bike mechanics we worked with spoke only Vietnamese (yes, Vietnamese guest workers in Laos), necessitating translations between my friend (who speaks some Vietnamese) and the Vientiane outfit.
Into the “white,” a fairly hefty abyss.
But the return went well, despite crossing some intimidating mountain passes with muddy roads and deep abysses on the side. Coming back to Vientiane, we realized that despite a concussion, some flesh burns and close calls, we had yet again made it. This time, a closer call than our near-death experiences in India. One final thought on Laos; hurry if you want to see it before it becomes Thailand sans beaches.