Minsking around Laos


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Asia » Laos
March 20th 2007
Published: August 6th 2007
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Three safety features of the Minsk:
1. You do not need to use your horn, because everyone hears you coming.
2. No one tailgates you due to the smoke - in fact no one gets closer than 500m.
3. You can not go fast.

Other benefits of riding a Minsk:
1. When it breaks, you can fix it.
2. The oil leaks mean you do not have to oil the chain.
3. You can not get a flat battery - there is no battery.

So after 7 weeks in Vietnam, we were finally heading west towards Laos. After staying in Mai Chau we ride for four hours towards the border at Nameo. We had spent a while trying to figure out which border post would give us the best chance of a successful Minsk crossing. Officially it was not possible unless we had our names on the ownership papers (you need to be a resident to do this apparently) and a Vietnamese “International Vehicle Transportation License”, which we didn't even attempt to apply for. We figured it would be much easier to just turn up at one of the more remote crossings and smile and bribe. There was no consensus on the best border to cross at with bikes, with stories of both smooth crossings and refusals at the three border crossings we wanted to cross at. In the end we decided on Nameo, emailed Jeremy to tell him to meet us in Vieng Xai (in the north eastern province of Houaphan), and headed west.

A scenic four hour ride from Mai Chau saw us at the border on the 19th of February which was the last day of Tet. Things seemed to be going soothly until the head guy said “mmm problem”, which is not a good thing to hear when dealing with Vietnamese officialdom. He said that we did not have the correct documentation and letting us across would not be legal. After a few minutes of us looking dejected (partly an act, and partly because we were contemplating a long backtrack and ride to get to another border) and being very polite and mentioning that we were meeting Jeremy in Vieng Xai, he all of a sudden said “I help you” and away we went. A tense few minutes for us though.

On arrival at the Laos side the border guard ran down and helped Trace push her bike up the hill to the office. Goodbye Vietnam, hello sweet friendly Laos! We paid a dollar each for I-don't-know-what, had a beer with the border guard, and off we rode to Vieng Xai.

It was a strange feeling for me to ride into Vieng Xai from the opposite direction Jeremy and I had come in two years ago, especially after traveling through Cambodia and Vietnam to get there. The guesthouse we had stayed in two years ago was full which was interesting because when were last there at the same time of year the last guest had stayed 10 days before us. Last time we did not see any westerners during our two days in the town, this time there were twenty or so. We stayed the first night in a big ugly old hotel type thing, but we got the deluxe US$5 room which was pretty good. It even had a sticker in the bathroom informing us it was “Made to the standard American people like”, which is ironic considering the Yanks bombed the bejesus out of the town for FIVE years.

The only problem with our room was that Trace had
Good to get catch up with Jeremy againGood to get catch up with Jeremy againGood to get catch up with Jeremy again

Good to catch up with Beerlao as well - oh how I have neglected you...
found the hot water was not working, so after checking the fuses etc we had a very cold shower - definitely not to the standard American people like. It was only in the morning that we figured out that the tap needed to be turned the other way for hot water...

Jeremy found a girl in Vientiene and as a result got to Vieng Xai five days after we did. After an evening of reacquainting ourselves with the delights of Beerlao (and a recovery day), we headed south east towards Xam Tai, a town and road that was not marked on our map. We had heard that the new road to the town had just been finished a few months prior, so it sounded like an interesting but easy trip. As promised the road was windy, hilly, and excellent (I could be more descriptive but I figure there are enough photos to give you an idea of the things I mention in this text). Definitely not a tourist destination. Along the way we did not get one wave from the kids, just open mouthed stares. One kid even partially slipped down a bank as he backed away from me
Spilled Minsk gutsSpilled Minsk gutsSpilled Minsk guts

Quite a traumatic operation.
as I went past on the bike.

That evening in Xam Tai we found that Trace's drive sprocket was very wobbly. Not good, not good at all. We had not seen any Minsks since we left Vietnam. In the morning we headed off to find a mechanic, and lo and behold the first (and only) guy we found had a dirty old Minsk out the front of his place. Hallelujah! He made a few pained expressions as he explored the root of the problem. After getting into the guts of the Minsk it was obvious - a broken drive shaft. But for US$30 he dismantled his old Minsk, pillaged the drive shaft from it, and three hours later Trace rode off. It has gone strong ever since. He also tuned my bike better than the Vietnamese guys had and noticed the bolt holding the top of my right rear shock was gone so replaced it. What a legend.

That day we headed back towards Vieng Xai then on to the provincial capital of Xam Nua. Jeremy and I were very keen to head out towards a sacred Hmong mountain “Phu Pathi”, where in the 60's the Americans placed a top secret, technologically advanced system for directing bombing over north Vietnam. Predictably the North Vietnamese army started to build a road towards the mountain so they could take it The Americans held out for a day too long and Vietnamese commandos climbed the side of the mountain that had been considered unclimbable, and took control of the top killing 13 Americans. The sapper attack was such a surprise that the Americans did not even have time to blow up the installation, which meant that the highly advanced technology probably passed into the hands of the USSR, an ally of the north Vietnamese.

But anyway, due to this history we wanted to get near the mountain, but everyone we spoke with said things like “too difficult for you”, “bad road”, “too much UXO”, and other less defined reasons why we should/could not go. One guy initially said that it would be no problem on bikes, and that the old US airstrip and mountain was right next to “Houayma” the town we could ride to. After initially saying he would find a Hmong guide for us he left a note for us saying that the area is “prohibited for some reasons”. The seventh and last Lao person we talked to about going there briefly mentioned problems the government was having with the Hmong. This is what I think the real reason is for all the perplexing discouragement we got when inquiring about traveling to the area. Apparently the government has said that the mountain itself would open to tourists once the UXO is cleared, this may actually mean that the mountain will open once the Hmong rebels have been “cleared”. We figured that it would be foolish if we headed to the town after being discouraged from doing so by so many locals (and most likely there would have been an army checkpoint) so we decided not to go.

In Xam Nua I replaced my clutch cable and tightened a bolt on the clutch mechanism too much. This rendered the clutch unusable, and no mechanics in town knew about Minsks or had parts. I needed one silly little part, without which all three of us were stuck in Xam Nua. In the end I took it to an engineers, and he smacked it into submission. Jeremy pointed out how Asian men seem determined to hold things in their fingers before they hit them with something like a hammer. This guy was a perfect example of this. He called his assistant over, and the assistant held the part while his boss hit it. After a couple of hits to the apprentice's fingers, Jeremy could not restrain himself any longer and gestured to a nice big vice that was available. The two men nodded in approval and walked over to the vice, sat the part on the vice, and continued as before...

The following day we headed south and stayed at a small town by the river called Nam Nuen. On the way we stopped at the Hintang Archaeological Area, where there are standing stones that were erected two thousand years ago. In true Lao style there were no visitors to this relatively interesting area while we were there, also the one shop near the site had one of the large burial disks as a table top.

From Nam Nuen we headed west, passing through a national protected area that has about 20 resident wild tigers. Coincidently we bumped into people from the NGO that monitors and attempts to protect the tigers in Laos (www.wcs.org). This is not the easiest of jobs, as a dead tiger can earn US$14,000 in China just for its bones. This is many times more than a rural Laos man could earn in a lifetime, so it is very difficult to try to convince people that preserving tigers is more important than ensuring financial security for them and their families. The people from the NGO informed us that the New Zealand government was the major donor of aid for this project. Nice one you guys at home paying your taxes.

We continued west towards Nong Khiaw riding through the protected forest area for a while. At one stage we were passing through a very small village and two guys with AK47s and no uniform had a rope across the road with plastic bags attached to it. Trace stopped and I stopped after her. One of the guys fired off some Lao at us and was worryingly aggressive, unusual in Laos. As he rubbed the back of his thumb I picked up the words “haa pan kip” which means US50c in the local currency. I was a little worried that if we gave in to this demand he may ask for more, but he was so twitchy and on edge that I figured it would be best if we just gave him the 5000 kip and kept him calm. Trace had some money in her pocket so I asked if she had 5000. In true Trace style, with two men with AKs in front of us, she said “I'm not paying them that, what is it for...”, “Trace, lets just keep them happy eh?”. Once the guy started moving his gun in a subtly threatening way at me Trace gave them the evil eye and a grunt and forked out the 5000 and they let us through. When we caught up with Jeremy we found out he had just ridden around the barrier, which may have explained why the guy was fired up. Who knows, it may have been a semi-legit local road toll - we prefer to think of it as as a hold up by machine-gun toting bandits.

That day after a coffee, a beer, and a M150 (Redbull type drink) I was trying to keep up with Jeremy on his XR250 and managed to get the Minsk up to its top speed of all time of 88km/h. Full credit to the USSR.

After a stunning ride through jutting mountains we hit Nong Khiaw, a beautiful town on the Nam Ou river. Jeremy and I had visited there by boat from Luang Prabang two years previous, but again this time there were many more tourists. After a trip up the river without the bikes to Muang Ngoi, we came back to Nong Khiaw and splashed out on a fantastic US$20 bungalow overlooking the river. It was like a hotel room. I also settled into a lovely period of giardia and ate about four handfuls of sticky rice for the next four days. Jeremy had a booklet to diagnose traveling health issues, which is how we settled on giardia as the cause of my sickness. I was trying to avoid taking antibiotics, but after going to the toilet 14 times in one night I thought sod it, and took the four tablets of tinidazole all at once (as prescribed). By the time I had resorted to this we were in Oudomxai to the north west. I was glad of the small layer of fat I had saved up from our eating in Vietnam, as I can not remember a time I
A pet baby slow loris that we handled in PhongsaliA pet baby slow loris that we handled in PhongsaliA pet baby slow loris that we handled in Phongsali

Better to be in the wild of course though
had eaten that little over four days.

From Oudomxai we planned to head up to one of the least visited areas of Laos, the province of Phongsali. It took seven hours of riding to travel the 235 km to Phongsali town. The first 60 km was a brilliant new sweeping road that followed the river, but after lulling us into a false sense of security it turned to custard with 110 km of dirt/rock/dust road, then a tease of 40 km of tarmac before surprising us with more dirt road for the 20km just before Phongsali. Also Phongsali is not on the way to anywhere so we knew we were going to have to back track.

In Phongsali we stayed in the former Chinese consulate, now the “Phupha Hotel”. We felt secure in the walled compound, especially once we had figured out where the underground tunnels led to. There were only a couple of other guests that stayed there during the three nights we did, so we had the place pretty much to ourselves.

Despite Jeremy's protestations about not wanting to be kept up all night by barking dogs and insane 3am roosters, we organised a two
Welcome to our village?Welcome to our village?Welcome to our village?

Akha hill-tribe people
day walk to an Akha village north east of Phongsali. Getting there involved a 20 km ride to Hat Sa, an hour boat trip north on the Nam Ou river, and a four hour walk straight up. The Akha people were not the most friendly people that I have encountered, and I felt very much like a tourist trying to see strange backward ethnic hill people, which I suppose I was. There is nothing romantic about these hill tribe people (unlike the hunter gatherer Penan I spent time with in Borneo), they are just trying to eke out a living by abusing their immediate environment. The area surrounding the village had been reduced from beautiful jungle to a scarred scrubby burnt landscape. The way the Akha live was for me a powerful analogy for how we degrade the worldwide environment in the west, only it is more apparent in a village such as this because it is at such a base level. We may not throw our rubbish on the ground outside our house, or let our pig crap on our porch, but we do not think twice about driving the SUV to the dairy to pick up some coke, or throwing used batteries in the rubbish bin. Humans are short sighted.

That said, there were a few intrinsically negative things that did not have to be as they were at this village. The village was grotty, and a few basic measures could have made it far more livable. Many of the kids had hacking coughs, unwiped green snot down their faces and a variety of skin complaints. The women were of slightly higher status than the buffalo, but only because they could be trusted to slave away unsupervised while the men drank. And most importantly, the village kept too many roosters, who spent most of the night trying to out-compete each other. Jeremy was at one stage seriously considering buying every rooster so he could personally wring their necks. He did not of course mean this, it was just that he was very tired...

We walked three hours to a village further north on the river than we had reached on our trip up and spent an hour or so travelling back to Hat Sa. At Hat Sa we chartered a boat to take the bikes and ourselves down to Muang Khua, from where we traveled 100 km back to Oudomsai on a the smooth curvy road I mentioned previously.

The next stop was Luang Nam Tha, where we found a large airstrip under construction and had a good blat on the packed clay surface (where else could you do this and have the construction guys wave and make throttle acceleration gestures). Jeremy wanted to go for a good ride so headed on a trip to investigate the feasibility of a jungle road mark “unconfirmed track/road” on our map. He left at 6am, and got back at 5.30pm after 275 kms of riding, 80 km of which was really a walking track. In contrast Trace and I pootled about on a Minsk, bought some handmade bamboo paper from a lovely old woman from the Lantern minority, and ate some fantastic food at the Boat Landing Guesthouse.

From Luang Nam Tha we headed towards Houeyxai which is on the border to Thailand, as we needed to cross into Thailand and back to get another 30 day visa. We were expecting a rough ride for most of the way as Thailand, China and Laos have been constructing a large road to assist trade between Thailand and China, and the last we heard only 20% of it was finished. The opposite turned out to be true however, with 80% of the road smooth, curvaceous, and fast. Fantastic road for a blast, if in fact the Minsks could have blasted.

Once in Houeyxai we crossed the border to Thailand and took a 2.30 hour bus to Chang Rai because it only cost $2 and we felt like getting a bit of city into us. We stocked up on things you can not get in Laos, had a good Thai massage, a green curry, and a dirty old Chang beer. After a huge evening storm which turned Chang Rai into a Thai Venice, we headed back to Chang Kong and then Houeyxai. The next day we left for two nights at the “Gibbon Experience” where we stayed in the middle of the jungle in a tree house 50m high that could only be accessed by a zip line (flying fox). But that is another story. Stay tuned.


Additional photos below
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The mighty Minsk!The mighty Minsk!
The mighty Minsk!

Awesome, it kept going for another day....
An unmarked cave at the side of the road that opened into this massive placeAn unmarked cave at the side of the road that opened into this massive place
An unmarked cave at the side of the road that opened into this massive place

Note the huge blast wall INSIDE the cave 50m behind Trace


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