Scott Wilson is the co-host of the TV show Departures, in which he traveled the world for three seasons with his friend Justin Lukach and cameraman Andre Dupuis. He’s also a keen motorcyclist, and he told us back in January that he was about to make a trip to south-east Asia.
Fortunately, he returned to tell the tale, and here’s the story of that trip though northern Laos. Warning: Don’t read any farther if you suffer from wanderlust. – Ed.
Photos by Scott Wilson, unless credited otherwise
Every year it seems to get worse; the agony of waiting for riding season to begin again. Each winter I begin poring over weather data, trying to figure out realistically how many weeks it will be before I can get back in the saddle again. This year I decided to take a different path. About the time that the bike covers and battery tenders came out, I booked myself a ticket to South East Asia: a land of ample warmth, sun and, consequently, happy riders.
From past travel experiences in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, I knew that road conditions would vary wildly, which would test my limited skills off-road. I’d like to say that choosing the right bike for the trip is key, but Laos isn’t exactly flush with rental options. Extensive internet research yields several rental companies (mostly owned by ex-pats), and I was able to book the last of the few Honda CRF 250Ls available in the country. Most other options available are either very old or not suitable for roads outside of the capital city. The CRF cost $35 US a day, with no need for extra insurance or even an international driver’s licence.
After close to 26 hours in transit, the plane touched down in Vientiane, the capital city and starting point of my week-long tour of northern Laos. Although Vientiane is a far cry from the size and westernization of Bangkok, it’s on par with what you might find in Ho Chi Minh City or Phnom Penh. You won’t find a Burger King on every corner, but don’t be surprised here to see an Italian restaurant just outside the gates of a Buddhist temple.
The streets seemed vacant and the city dormant as I made my way to the hotel to get some rest before hitting the road in the morning. In my room, I stared at my 20L drybag like a Rubik’s cube, trying to figure out what I needed and how to fit it. Knowing I’d be wearing MX gear (generously provided to my, otherwise only road-outfitted self, by Alpinestars and Bell Helmets), I was able to squeeze in the following:
- 1 x pair of flip flops (there’s no feeling better than putting these bad boys on after a long day in MX boots)
- 2 x pairs of shorts
- 3 x T-shirts (yes, I would have to do some sink-laundry on the trip)
- 4 x pairs of underwear (relax, I just said I’d have to do some sink-laundry)
- toiletries bag containing the essentials
My backpack would carry the rest: wallet, passport, sunglasses, phone, camera and mini tripod. This left just enough room for a daily bottle of water and some gas station snacks en route.
Everything else would stay in my dufflebag at the hotel, which I’d see again in a week’s time.
At dawn, I was wide awake (thanks mostly to the jetlag) so I headed downstairs to grab a “tuk-tuk” (an auto-rickshaw) to take me to the home of the US ex-pat from whom I was renting the bike. The temperature was a bit chilly as we made our way along the Mekong and I got my first real glimpse of the city under daylight. Vientiane was now very slowly coming to life and the streets were not quite as desolate as the night before. I signed the necessary paperwork and had the rundown of what I needed to know about the bike.
My steed for the next week was a 2013 Honda CRF250L. Although its odometer was up over 45,000 km, it looked and sounded like life hadn’t been too hard – though with Honda’s reliability and robust reputation, it can sometimes be hard to tell. One of the most bizarre notes was that the hazard light button had now been re-wired to be a toggle on/off switch for the headlight. It was explained that here in Laos, it’s illegal to have any headlights on during the day! I had to ask again to clarify: “sorry, it is ILLEGAL to have headlights on during the day?” Though I wasn’t offered any real explanation or justification, I was assured I’d get a fine if I chose safety and common sense over the local law.
Being somewhat vertically challenged, the CRF’s seat height was a nice surprise – it’s easy to swing the leg over, but also to get the feet down when necessary. This became evident very quickly on my maiden voyage on the bike back to my hotel to collect my precision-packed baggage from the night before. The traffic, in just an hour or so, had now become very hectic as the morning rush had begun.
The once empty streets were now buzzing with cars, trucks and a whole lot of scooters. Coming from a place where lane-splitting is illegal, it took some time to figure out the “go-with-the-flow” method of being on two-wheels here. Lane-split where/when you want and get yourself to the front of the line by any means necessary. Scooters and bikes went between any/all lanes and even up onto sidewalks, curbs etc. Yet, somehow it worked. The cars were very aware of all the buzzing beehive of bikes and scooters around them and gave them JUST enough space to let the jostling-for-position happen. You had to take the opportunities without hesitation. The whole “oh, no you go first” method of polite Canadian motorists will just cause accidents in this scenario.
In the blink of an eye, I was out of the city and the density of Vientiane became rural farm land mixed lightly with karst topography. The roadway became tranquil once again. At this point, the complexity of my navigational notes were to a) keep the Mekong river on my left and b) stay on this road until I could go no farther.
In recent years, the Chinese government has invested heavily in road infrastructure here. While this benefits the locals, it is with selfish motives, as the Chinese aim to connect their southern frontier with Thailand and Vietnam, for better trade. The other observation was the shocking number of active or “under construction” gas stations. For some reason they’re popping up at a feverish pace, likely in anticipation of this new road infrastructure. However, not more than 60 km from Vientiane the road quality degraded down to a very narrow tar/gravel mix and eventually to a dirt road.
While the uneven dirt roads were tempting to play with, restraint was necessary due to the blind curves and a who’s who of road hazards. Imagine spinning a roulette wheel: what’s it gonna be? Dog? Child? Disabled vehicle? Water buffalo? Man-eating pot-hole? That is, if you can even see it through the truck-induced dust plumes.
After passing through many dusty little towns and experiencing multiple road conditions, I found myself at the “end of the road,” literally, where a long steep dirt path terminated abruptly at the Mekong river. High above the water a new bridge was being built, but with a completion date presumed to be around 2050, I sat and waited for the next ferry. I could see the town of Pak Lai only a few kilometres downriver where I planned to stay the first night, but it remained just out of reach for another hour while I waited for enough traffic to arrive to warrant the ferry to cross again.
Just as the sun was setting, I entered town and found one of a few guesthouses that offered rooms for the night. The owner seemed thrilled to see someone drive in and he hopped to his feet with a big smile to welcome and show me around. The parking lot was empty and as I walked through the halls I couldn’t hear a soul; clearly I was the only one here. He seemed insistent on me coming to the attached karaoke bar that night, but I assured him I would be asleep by 10 and I was true to my word.
With the last light, I wandered around town catching the evening practices of monks in the town’s Buddhist monastery and fighting my way through the menu of the only restaurant in town. I leafed through the Laotian language menu a few times as if it would magically present pictures or English text on the second pass. Alas, no luck. The neighbouring table had a plate that didn’t look too bad, so I pointed at it and ordered the only thing I knew by name: BeerLao (the local brew). I ate what I hoped (and told myself) was chicken and rice, enjoyed every drop of my beer and called it a night.
Day Two brought mostly sealed roads and bright blue skies. I made it to Xayaboury without any issues. In fact, it was so trouble free that after I checked in to my guesthouse and realized it was only 3pm, I did some Google map sleuthing and found some interesting roads nearby that seemed worthy of exploration. After another meal of pointing and guessing, and after watching some elephants play in the water across the river from me, I jumped back on the bike to make use of the rest of the daylight.
The CRF was able to flex a bit of its off-road muscle as I rode myself right off the end of Google maps and into the unknown. Every village I entered seemed more and more puzzled by my presence and the roads continued to degrade as my grin increased. A few small river crossings and 50 or so kilometres of dirt-heaven made the day feel complete.
Under a layer of fog, I began my third day passing through a small mountain range. The chill of the early morning air without the sun cut through the MX jersey and armour quite easily. The Mekong again crossed my path, but this time I had caught up with some more of that Chinese investment and found a brand new bridge that connected both sides of the river. I took advantage of the view from the bridge to grab a few photos (and warm up a little) before moving on toward Luang Prabang.
Not far from the town of Muang Nan, I turned down a side route that would take me along a precarious path for the next 98 kms on the edge of the Mekong. It’s hard for me to describe to non-riders the thrill and elation this dirt path brought. This jagged ribbon of dust bucked me along for hours through banana plantations, across rice paddies, through small villages, across streams and constant views of the Mekong below me down the embankments. A veritable Holy Grail route – it’s the sort of ride revered by motorcyclists.
Although the CRF’s suspension is usually thought to be its shortcoming, especially compared to other 250 dual-sports like the Yamaha WR or even Suzuki DR, it took a constant pounding without ever putting me off and making me feel out of balance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly Nitro Circus material, but I flew down the trail and ripped through corners with great control and ease. The bike, the earth and I, all at one. The euphoric zone finally wore off as I reconnected to pavement again. Who knows how far it had been before I actually realized that the signs were appearing with something odd. English! “Kuang Si Waterfall”. It piqued my interest for the view, and the chance to rinse some sweat and dust from my body, capping off one of the best riding days of my life, so far.
As I made my way into Luang Prabang, it really hit me: the congestion, the amount of development, and tourism. I hadn’t seen another “foreigner” since leaving Vientiane three days earlier. It sounds silly, but it felt weird. All of a sudden, everything was so accessible and easy again. So many restaurant choices, hotels, nightclubs and – gasp! – English menus.
For the evening, I enjoyed the new-found accessibility but by morning, I already craved the desolation of the path less taken.
The pipeline of tourists from Vientiane came back and forth to Luang Prabang by bus along Highway 13. I made a few adjustments to my plan and decided to overshoot the turn and take an alternate path to Vang Vieng. This would cross the mountains via a route that didn’t look quite as appealing from the maps, but would mean FAR less traffic.
The CRF needed a bit of caning during the climb portions of the mountain cross, especially when trying to pass slow-moving truck traffic, but otherwise performed admirably. The scenery at the top was outstanding and I could already see the karst scenery of Vang Vieng to the south east. The road was still under heavy construction/improvement with many sections of loose gravel – this made the descent a bit slow, but not exceptionally stressful thanks to the limited traffic. I could only wonder what the 10,000 switchbacks of Highway 13, clogged with tour bus after tour bus, would be like, and was happy with my decision.
About an hour from Vang Vieng, I was forced to reconnect with Hwy. 13 for the rest of the journey. While the traffic did increase, the scenery more than made up for it. With every kilometre, the limestone cliffs became more pronounced and intricate, and as the sun began to set in the afternoon, the shadows only enhanced the dramatic terrain. I had to stop just to be able to safely soak in the ambience.
Closer to town, the same effect too place that I’d observed in Luang Prabang. It was as if the tourism and westernization was emitting a tangible force field approximately 10 km from town. Bus loads of visitors on an easy day trip from Vientiane or making their way to Luang Prabang were darting across the street, making their way from their hostel to one of the TV bars playing reruns of Friends or Family Guy as they lounged almost catatonically eating “magic” pizzas and having endless beers.
I’ve heard this problem used to be much worse. Backpackers came in droves to float down the river on inner tubes, stopping every 20 metres at a waterside bar to load up on cheap beer and continue on. It wasn’t long before the inevitably drunken tuber tipped over, or mishandled a giant rope swing and broke an arm, leg or even drowned.
Fortunately, there’s been an effort to close most of these riverside bars and the message has started to sink in. Visitors are now coming with more cultural respect and for eco-designed tourism: hiking, kayaking (sans-alcohol) and horseback riding to name a few, but some have still come all this way just to get blindly inebriated and absorb western TV shows they could get back home.
The beauty of being on a motorcycle (and in particular, a capable and agile bike like the CRF) is that it was so easy to escape it all in an instant. One quick look at the map and I could disappear back into the Laos I had been experiencing over the past five days. Within 10 minutes, I was riding along paths and mining roads still being carved out, and through towns where my presence (and the bike’s) brought children out of their homes to wave at the side of the street. Men came to admire, as if I was the first to come through in a decade.
My evening side trip into the surrounding countryside reignited the fire in me, and made me understand why riding this trip was essential. When I came to an unexpected dead-end, I turned around and started again. The surrounding mountains held me within 35 kilometres of town, like a rock-walled playpen, giving me the confidence that I couldn’t ever get too lost before the light was gone.
I rode back into town a little less cynical of the situation. Instead, I enjoyed the night for what the town had to offer: a great meal and a few ice-cold BeerLaos.
I have some of my most vivid memories of this trip from the last day. It’s not that anything stood out more this day than any other, but as the last day in the saddle, I forced myself to absorb every detail I could to ensure it stuck with me. Watching the world go past as children made their way to school, farmers harvested rice, and monks clipped the flowers of a monastery. The smells of burning brush, metal work in a roadside shop, dust and diesel exhaust, and the unmistakable smell of fish paste drying. (Hey it’s not all roses, but it’s what stays with you!)
My last day was like a collage of the senses making a “best of” mix-tape of my week in Laos. The journey hadn’t been especially long, but my experience of seeing northern Laos from a motorcycle allowed me to access and experience parts of the country I would never have seen, even if I had spent a month there.
Even though Laos didn’t have a ton of bike options, I cannot think of a better pick for me on this particular trip. The CRF250L’s power was enough to get me along the Laotian highways and out to pass, even up mountain roads, yet it was light and capable enough to throw off into dirt tracks whenever they revealed themselves. Its fuel efficiency also made it stress-free to get between fill-ups (also thanks to its fuel level display which seemed quite accurate). I certainly never found myself day-dreaming of an R1200 GS or even a KLR 650.
I committed to this trip thinking it would stave off my riding addiction until spring: bridging the gap from November through March. However, I now see it was a huge mistake. I tried to fight fire with fire, but now the need to ride burns hotter than before I left. At last, I’ve discovered the antidote for riding withdrawal – just don’t stop!
Huge thanks to Alpinestars and Bell Helmets for hooking me up with the following essential gear for this trip:
Bell MX-9 Adventure Helmet – I can’t say enough great things about the comfort, airflow and integrated face-shield design, allowing me to forgo the MX goggle option. Luckily, I can’t speak to its protective qualities, but this helmet now integrates the new MIPS protective design, dispersing rotational energy from crashes, in addition to the usual direct impact protection.
Alpinestars Tech 10 boots – Admittedly, when I unboxed these boots, I was unsure they were necessary for the ride I was doing. There were many straight and paved kilometres where that may have been true, but for all the other hours and hours spent on broken and potholed pavement, let alone dirt roads, double and single track, they gave welcomed confidence. This is a boot engineered for riding WAY beyond my capability, so I felt well protected for any situations I might find myself in. More surprising? The comfort of these right out of the box. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to throw on my flip-flops at the end of the day to explore towns and villages, but after 8-10 hours in these things, that’s amazing.
Alpinestars Techstar Venom Pants and Jersey – I felt, at times, wearing all this gear was overkill in a place where most riders (scooter or motorcycle) rarely wear a helmet to complement their flip-flops. However, not only did it instil confidence of protection (when combined with knee and chest/shoulder padding), but it was the best choice by far for the climate. It offered protection all day from the blinding sun as well as protection from the potential “off”, all the while having airflow equal to the completely unprotected locals. Thinking back, I can’t recommend any better set-up for this particular trip.