October 17, 2004 GMT
07-10-04 STAGE 5 CONTINUED - BACK INTO LAO


After about a month of doing the tourist thing, in Bangkok and North East Thailand, it is time to resume the riding that I come to this part of the world.

I left Ken and his wife Moo in Muktahan and caught the vehicle ferry over to Savannakhet on Thursday morning. Everything for the past month had gone too smoothly, what’s happened to the great stuff ups and misadventures around every corner that had happened in the past?

As soon as I got on Doris, it all begins again; first of all, the Mekong River has dropped over 3m since l last crossed, leaving a dirty big mud bath at the approaching ramp to the ferry.
Large trucks were bogged on the river embankments and have to dragged out by dozers. Doris is going to have a great time riding in this slippery quagmire. Surprisingly we got aboard in one piece and it was once again across the Mekong and into Lao. I had previously arranged a 30 day visa in Bangkok, so the paperwork on both sides of the Mekong was efficient and without any drama.

It was time to catch up with my old riding mates from Chiang Mai, who were riding down through Lao, so after a few emails and phone calls we planned to all rendezvous in a small town about 100k north of here, called Thakhek, it will be good to catch up with the boys, after leaving Chiang Mai over 2 months previous.
Bloody hell, plans change quickly in this part of the world, the guys are now riding straight down to Savanaket, so I booked them all into the Mekong Hotel, were I am staying. I found out later that the Mekong Hotel was the local brothel and night club, up to a year ago, shit I can pick them!

The boys arrive around 6.30pm, totally knackered from their ride from VIENTIENE, although its less than 500k, the amount of concentration required going through villages is doubled from Thailand.
First of all, those baby goats are so cute, until the little f###s become road targets; at 100 to 120k these little buggers have less intelligence than ducks.
Near misses are prevalent, at least in this part of the world they prefer meat than poultry, so there was no kamikaze chickens running around.

Anyway, the next morning it was decided that D1 (remember him from Chiang Mai
) keeps on doing his business thing with the LAO Government, riding around Southern Lao, GPS mapping the areas, for future tourism.
The rest of us, comprising of D2 and R1 (also from Chiang Mai) both expat Yanks, and I, decide to do a bit of back road exploring.
D2 is riding an 850cc TDM Yammy, and R1 is on a fully optioned and loaded 1150cc BMW Adventurer, me of course is on old faithful DORIS.

We decided to explore the recently opened No 9 road out to the Vietnam border, a good 240k ride, then double back about 100k and take the No 23 road from PHIN down to SALAVAN.
The route would take us across to Dan Savan, near the famous battle with the Aussy’s and the North Vietnamese at Khe Sanh.

This was just a trial run to see if we could actually cross into Vietnam on big bikes over 250cc., and also have a look at the remains of the Vietnam War, we were all anticipating the remains of a battle at Ban Dong, that the commo’s claimed a great victory over the Americans, alas, nothing there other than bomb craters filled with water. Everything has been cut up and sold off for scrap metal.

So it was back along the highway to the turnoff to SALAVAN, our maps showing a good dirt road and a quote “river often impassible”, you have to be bloody joking!
After about 35k along a reasonable dirt road, meandering through rain forest resembling Queensland’s mountain areas, we ended up in a village with the road literary coming to a dead end.
After communicating with a couple of Lao blokes in shabby old uniforms, they pointed us to a track running through their village.
So off we go, down a bumpy goat track, until we were confronted with a river about 300m wide and full of rapids, as the 3 of us jumped off our bikes to get a better look, it was to all our amazement to look to our left and see a huge demolished concrete bridge sitting in pieces at the bottom of the river.

Now this was no ordinary bridge, it was a bloody big engineered concrete bugger, sitting about 30m above the river and spanning the full 300m or so. It lay there on its side like a huge dead dinosaur, it looked like it was bombed, but my American mates reckoned it was faulty French engineering, bullshit!
We were offered a ride across the river in nothing more than dugout canoes with little outboard motors, we were assured our bikes would make it, no thanks; it was decision time, so we decided to turn around and make our way back to SAVANNAKHET and strike out early the next morning.
We were rapidly running out of daylight, so the last 100 or so k’s were done in the dark.
I vowed never to ride at night in THAILAND, its just too dangerous, well, double that danger amount in LAO, Its just bloody crazy.
Illegal logging trucks ply this road at night with no lights, you are on top of them before you know it, confronted with a huge truck taking up most of the road with a capacity load of 2m diameter trees packed on it, bloody scary. Then you have all the farm carts, again with no lights, doing about 10k, full of family members, going home after a day in the fields.

We arrived back in our motel, vowing to never ride again at night.
The next morning, after breakfast at a little French restaurant on the Mekong, it was off down Highway 13 towards PAKXE. We decided to do a loop to SALAVAN, turning off the south bound highway about 80k before PAKXE, and head east.
The road began in a reasonable condition, and then soon deteriated into a bloody goat track again, washouts, bull dust and sharp exposed rocks challenged us for every kilometer.
Our bikes were handling the conditions surprisingly well, considering they were all fully loaded for extended touring, then it happened, R1 was always having a joke about how many punctures I got in LAO, well now it was his turn, riding over a dilapidated timber bridge, R1 was just in front of me, when his back tyre just started wobbling.
A quick check and a 6mm bolt, about 100mm long was protruding out of the tyre.

Keep in mind we are in the middle of the LAO jungle, so out with the tools and begin to fix the puncture. At an instant people began appearing out of the jungle, a couple of young wood choppers in old US Army fatigues were the first, then an old lady chewing beetle juice, before we new it half the nearby village were in attendance. Including a guy on a motorcycle selling ice creams!
I couldn’t miss this opportunity, so I got out my mp3 player and speakers, lit up a cigar and laid back and watched the comedy. R1 even persuaded one of the young blokes to pump up the tyre. It wasn’t long before we were back on the road, so after about 150k’s of dirt then bitumen road we eventually caught up with D1, who had booked us into a good hotel in PAKXE.

THE SOUTHERN REGION OF LAO. - Tuesday, 12th October..

After a good night’s sleep, we awoke early for breakfast, to find R1 had decided to press on towards CAMBODIA. For reasons only known to himself, he had told D1, but was a surprise to the rest of us, as only the night before we were planning to ride through CAMBODIA together. Oh well, some people can be very single minded.

The next day, D2 and I decided to follow D1, while he GPS’d many potential tourist spots around PAKSE. After 10 hrs of exploring everything from waterfalls to ancient Khmer ruins, we eventually got back to PAKSE, and settled in along the river at a little café for a well earned feed of fish and a few LAO beers.
The first one of us to think he had seen a ghost, was D1, R1 just rode up on his GS1150, like nothing had happened, and explained sheepishly that he run the customs road block on the CAMBODIAN border and continued down an ever deteriating dirt track, until it become almost impassible, with CAMBODIAN Customs Officers in hot pursuit. After talking his way out of this little oversight, he ventured even further south, after falling of 3 times and getting bogged in mud, R1 decided to surrender to the elements and retreat back to PAKSE.
Remember R1 is at least 6ft 6’’ and riding one of the world’s greatest adventure bikes!

The next day it was agreed to leave PAKSE and head for KHONG ISLAND, on the way D1 wanted to GPS a little island about 30k’s south.
Oh ye, R1 left early for the THAI border, and crossed into CAMBODIA at KAP CHOENG.

Can you image 2 dugout canoes tied together with timber floor boards, about 6ft by 8ft wide? That is what was offered to us to transport our motorcycles to this remote island in the middle of the Mekong.
At first I refused to put my bike in unnecessary danger, but after watching D1successfully ride up a 6”x2” plank from the rivers edge I decided, what the hell, I’m getting too soft, and I don’t want to let the Aussy side down do I!
It took us about half an hour to get to the Island, with my boat rapidly taking on water from numerous gaps in the planks along the 12ft long hull.

We landed on a brown sandy beach, with about 20ft of water to get through before we hit the sand, down came the little gang plank, and the native skipper beckoned me to just ride off. First I refused, hell, how deep is the water? Is the sand solid or muddy? After he jumped into the water and demonstrated to me that the bottom was indeed solid and the water was all of 2ft deep, I gunned DORIS, and off we went screaming up the beach into the jungle, I really surprised myself, so I just sat back again and watched the hilarious goings on with the other 2 on the beach.

We all made it to the edge of the sand were the jungle begins, and find a little track that wandered through a thatched roof village, with old women and little kids, greeting us with wide mouthed amazement. Some of these people have never seen foreigners, never mind big bikes!
After exploring the Island for about 2 hours, we come to the conclusion, that the place would need a little bit more infrastructure before its ready for any type of tourism, try basic accommodation and electricity.
We almost circumnavigated the Island, until we all got bogged in a rice paddy, after an exhaustive time of pushing each other free, we ended up on the other side of the Island, were we found another canoe type ferry to get us across to the mainland.
This time we were ready for it, and besides the distance was much shorter, just a formality really, until we got to the other side. We were confronted with a 30ft high muddy embankment that you could hardly walk up! The only way up was to give the bikes a handful of accelerator and hope that you got traction, and/or the little LAO guys behind you could push you up the hill. It worked, and soon we were off to find the fabled Island of Khong.

THE ISLAND OF KHONG - Thursday, 14th October.

We finally get to the Island turn off after one of the most boring roads I have ridden since OZ. Just k’s of straight, hot, flat bitumen, not even any road kill to break the monotony.
The ferry to Khong Island was a direct contrast to our previous crossing, a left over Soviet floating pontoon, powered by another left over, very used Chinese gun boat! The approaches to the ferry was a modern concrete affair, so it was on and off in no time.

Khong Island is rather civilized, with modern guest houses, and as its flat, push bikes are in abundance for hire. There doesn’t seem to be much to do here, but it does attract backpackers, so it has to be good for the local economy.
After booking into a very nice guest house, it was off for a walk to find a place that made a good coffee.
We came across two Honda 250cc Trail bikes with Cambodian Number Plates, and as we investigated further, it appears 3 young French kids rode up through Cambodia and into Lao, on the very road that stopped the mighty BMW GS Adventurer!
It just goes to show you, you don’t need all the whiz-bang technology and big adventure bikes that the spin doctors and advertising media keep on insisting we buy, to do these kind of trips.

The next day it was off the Island and back to the mainland, with the same boring road, north to PAKXE. Be wary of your fuel situation, at the moment, the closest fuel station is12k out of PAKXE, about 130k away, there is however, the small fuel stops in the villages, so be sure to at least top up your tank.

D2 and I had decided to leave D1 at the border crossing at CHONG MEK, as he still had unfinished business in LAO.
D2 and I continued over the border and planned to stay the night in SI SAKET, THAILAND, before I head over the border into CAMBODIA at the KAP CHOENG crossing, and D2 would continue towards CHIANG MAI, with a few side trips to look at KHMER ruins at Phong Rung, Muang Tam and Prasat Ta Muan.



Posted by Tom Forde at October 17, 2004 02:09 PM GMT
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