Up close with and stuck in northern Laos (Northern Laos)

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December 7th 2008
Published: December 11th 2008
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(Day 247 on the road)80%!o(MISSING)f the roads in Laos are unpaved. I feel that by now I have seen a good deal of these roads, especially after our latest motorbike adventure very much off the beaten track:

In Vientiane, we used a travel agency to ship our big backpacks up to Luang Prabang in the north. Now free of the big weight, Karen, Harriet and I biked north on Highway 13 to Vang Vieng. "Highway" however is a pretty strong word even for this most important of Laos' roads. It is littered with potholes and unpaved patches, making the going pretty slow at times.

Vang Vieng is infamous for its party culture and its drunken tubing down the river Nam Xong (floating down the river in a tractor inner tube and stopping at the various bars along the way to get as drunk as possible). The whole place is swarming with tourists drinking (Beer Lao and buckets of whiskey or else) and taking the various drugs available at the numerous bars. They all feature the same menu and play endless repetitions of American TV series (mostly "Friends"). All in all, this completely drowns out any Laos culture that used to be there. If you can read German, there is an interesting article about Vang Vieng here. I am not taking a moral high ground here, but I found it to be just a little too loud for me, and did not enjoy it too much. But to each his own, I guess.

We stayed a couple of days (me relaxing one day and one day kayaking where Karen capsized in her kayak within a minute of setting off), and on our last day, Karen had the opportunity to sell one of our motorbikes for 200 US$ to another tourists, and she went for it. So very suddenly we were left with only two bikes and three people. As Harriet and I wanted to go up to see the Plain of Jars and Karen was not too bothered with that, we split up here in Vang Vieng, planning to meet up again in Luang Prabang a few days later to sell the remaining two bikes.

From Vang Vieng, there are basically two routes to the Plain of Jars: North and then east via the highway, or east and then north via a dirt road and through some very remote parts of Laos. Of course, we went for the dirt road, and estimated that it would take us about two days to cover the 120 km. In addition, we could also see Long Cheng along the way, the CIA headquarter during its Secret War in Laos in the 1960s. Well, it didn't work out at all.

The going was much much tougher than we had anticipated. The path was incredibly bad, littered with small rocks and large potholes, forcing us to drive at a very slow speed. The green, lush and hilly scenery however was beautiful, and we thoroughly enjoyed the drive. However, by the end of the first day we had only covered about 40 km and realised that it would take us a lot longer than we had anticipated.

On top of that, Harriet's motorbike was also playing up a bit (three flat tires in two days plus engine problems), and by the end of the second day the bike would no longer start. The local mechanic in the small village where we spent the night managed to get it going again, and we set off towards Long Cheng, a mere 9 km up the road. 20 minutes later, we were back in the village, as the engine had now died completely. So we spent the full third day in the village waiting for our bike to be fixed. Food was limited and monotonous, and we subsided pretty much on noodle soup, as we had for the last two days already. But spending a day in the village with its friendly people was a very rewarding experience.

The next morning, day four, the bike was running again but did not sound quite right at all, plus the bill for the mechanic and the used spare parts was huge. Harriet and I were both very unsure that the bike would last very much longer om these rough roads, so we had a quick discussion what to do. After a while, we decided to ask the villagers if they wanted to buy the bike from us. To our surprise, one guy very quickly agreed to our asking price and also paid the mechanic bill, making us feel that we had not asked for enough money.

Anyway, the sale was done and the bike was gone, and we were left in the middle of nowhere, with two people, only one bike, and at least two days driving to get back to paved road on possibly the worst tracks Laos has to offer. But there was no other way, and the only decision we had to make was to push on or turn back. In the end, we had to head back: Long Cheng turned out to be impassable for foreigners, as the area is still subjected to occasional fighting between rebel groups and the Laos army. Taking turns on driving, we spent two long days back to the paved road, until we finally reached Vang Vieng again, where we had set off six days earlier.

Just by looking at the facts of our little adventure (almost a week of driving, not getting where we wanted to go at all, wrecking and having to give up one of our bikes) it may seem that this was a pointless and frustrating experience. However, to us, we had somehow got what we wanted: We spent six days in a very remote area of Laos away from all tourists, sleeping and eating in small villages along the way, getting a first-hand view of the traditional Laos way of life, and meeting some incredibly friendly people on the way. Oh happy days.

Next stop: Plain of Jars (Phonsavan, Northern Laos).

To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com. And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


15th February 2010

How Much Did This Adventure Cost
If you don't mind, you must know that people reading your blog and thinking of doing this themselves, have got to be asking themselves, how much did your adventure cost, if you don't mind sharing? Thanks, Jason Vance (wishing I could live the dream)

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