Travel Through Laos on a Harley-Davidson

By Peter Forwood

Laos on a Harley (16/2/05 - 4/3/05)
Distance 1687 km (412393 km to 414080 km)

This is part of the eleventh section of my around the world trip.
Complete Trip Overview & Map

Coming from Vietnam or read our previous visit to Laos  

17/2/05 Lao receives a reasonable amount of international aid money. Non Government Organizations vehicles can be seen all over the country. They seem to be at the point of a lot of countries we have visited where this aid is becoming expected. People in countries receiving short term aid are appreciative, long term aid they become expectant, like many places in Africa. They stop looking for solutions to their own problems. I often wonder too why aid agency workers vehicles are always seen at some of the best hotels in town. A little saving there can result in a big difference to the families needing assistance. The smaller hotels are usually locally owned, putting money directly back into the community. Having given up on a meaningful visit to Vietnam I headed north to Thakhek, 300 km, past cleared timber land now with smaller regrowth being cut for charcoal. Children sweeping the fields with metal detectors looking for bomb fragments to sell as scrap metal

18/2/05 Just out of town children with metal detectors were sweeping rice fields for metal to recycle. The USA flew over half a million missions over Laos during the Vietnam war, dropping two million tons of bombs. It is estimated 30% remained unexploded, and at the current rate of clearing it will take the UN over 100 years to declare Laos safe. Stanley, a 72 year old Slovenian American rode his bicycle and mono wheeled trailer from Argentina to Alaska two years ago. He has just ridden from Magadan in north eastern Russia through Mongolia, China, Vietnam and I met him today 80 km out of Vientiane in late morning. For me it was just one hours more ride in the 30 degree plus heat, for him, he arrived at 7 pm after his 140 km day. We had dinner together over his plans to finish his ride around the world across Myanmar, India, Iran etc. to Slovenia. Motivated by the challenge rather than the enjoyment he crossed the Gobi Desert in November with overnight temperatures of -20 and Christmased in Beijing snow before heading southward. We both agreed that despite the calendar having 6 months of spring and autumn combined, finding consistent temperatures of mid to low 20's, perfect for riding bicycle or motorcycle, is still difficult. Welding a crack in the frame near the left side footrest

19/2/05 Two days ago I noticed a crack in the tubing of the main frame of the motorcycle. On the front left there is a bracket supporting the foot board, stand and crash bars that is welded to the frame tubing. On the rear underneath side the crack extended about 70% of the way around the tubing, probably stressed by hitting rocks with the foot board brackets and crash bars when dropped. I had ridden cautiously over the last two days to Vientiane to have it repaired. Businesses in Asia seem to be in a hurry to get a job done rather than getting a good job done. I almost always have to slow down the process allowing thinking time. By grinding a gouge in the frame and weld filling, welding two supports to strengthen the frame and attached to the bracket, hopefully it will be stronger than original. Two hours of me grinding and directing, and them welding, for just $US 5.00. Someone along the way once commented that if you start spending more money on the motorcycle than on yourself you need to rethink the priorities. In Asia with petrol at $US 0.60 cents a litre and a few parts bought from home it's conceivable that when riding a lot of km's a day that the motorcycles expenses would indeed exceed mine.Collecting river weed, dried and eaten as a snack

20/2/05 It's been two months since Kay and I separated. The adjustment for me has not been easy and still continues. During that time I have travelled alone and at separate times with two mature women. One travelling with me on the motorcycle for two weeks, the other a mix of us meeting up at the next destination and riding together. Both lovely ladies with diverse backgrounds. Their worldly experiences and interests adding enormously to my travelling. This area of the world is relatively full of tourists, many single travellers, many happy to enjoy someone else's company for a meal or a few weeks, even longer if desirable. Missing though is the continuity of long term memories shared. Headed north to Vang Vieng, the beginning of the mountains. Immediately greener though the air is hazy from rice stalk burning and land clearing along with dry season lack of rain. Vang Vieng was a small village along a river with lovely limestone mountains as a backdrop. For better or worse tourists discovered the area and it has now grown into a drop out place. The main street is lined with restaurants with raised eating areas like in the Sinai, Israeli salads and Hebrew menus. It also has the "Happy" foods menu (marijuana) in pizza, drinks, pasta or almost anything else. Each restaurant has a TV and enormous selection of latest release pirated DVD movies but the main showings are episodes of "Friends".Elephants crossing the river daily to work, taking tourists for a ride Patrons sit relaxed as the world passes by. There are other activities, elephant rides, visits to caves, canoeing or tubing. Despite the drugs Laos seems to have minimalised the impact of tourists on the sex trade by making it illegal for foreigners to have sex with any Lao national. I have seen no signs of sex workers here, unlike in Thailand and Cambodia where the trade is openly displayed.

21/2/05 Tourism has passed many of the locals by. The older generation going about their lives as always, oblivious to the tourist development surrounding them. Growing small vegetable plots, grazing buffalo, collecting weed and fishing in the river, traditionally dressed and using ancient methods. It's not often that I can be in an area where locals will ignore me where they carry on in a traditional way. But having so many tourists the locals don't see me photographing as they move through daily chores. Most things seem to be done as a social event. The building of a community hut, tidying up a towns rubbish. Even ordinary chores are open to the neighbours, bathing or washing clothes in the river. House fronts are often open as shops, restaurant bathrooms double as the houses bathroom. Meals are often prepared in front of the house watching people watch people. I washed the dust off the motorcycle, riding it into the river where two elephants and their mahouts had strolled earlier.Locals using the cave as a shortcut through the mountain

22/2/05 A popular all day tour is mini bus to a local village, canoe down river to a cave, jumping from a platform or rope swinging into the river, lunch, more canoeing, another cave, a beer, watching the slow moving dope smoking tube riders float by, more canoeing back to Vang Vieng. Thirteen were in our group, a relatively quiet bunch, the river at low water progress was slow. We arrived at the first cave as a few locals were heading inside. With leaves they lit sticks of bamboo as a light, hurrying through as they burnt quickly. This cave, from one side to the other of the mountain, a shortcut to climbing over. The locals, with chain saw, were heading into the hills to illegally cut timber which would be floated through the cave in the wet season. Our canoes all leaked, having been pounded on rocks many times, slowly filling with water they became unstable and everyone ended up swimming at least once. 

23/2/05 A day relaxing, sitting on the balcony of my bamboo hut overlooking river and karst mountains. The diary web page has become so extensive over the last nine years that finding information is difficult. I recently started a new section, called short stories, which summarizes certain aspects of the trip.Grass and bamboo hut accommodation Some are factual others just of interest. Each story requires a lot of research on my part as nine year old memories aren't accurate. It's a good way to review the trip in my spare time, write a summary, and publish to the web. Something that occupied my relax day today.

24/2/05 Just 230 km but a slow mountain road with great scenery through the dry season haze to Luang Prabang. It's here the mountain people have been harvesting the land for centuries. The trees gone, the main cash crop comes from making brooms. The feathery seed heads of a reed like mountain grass is collected, deseeded, to make the soft brooms. The fields grow cabbages on the good soil, and a four year rotation of crops on the hillsides. Many villages have relocated to the roadside to take advantage of the transport and electricity. Often not the best location, perched one house deep between the road and hillside. Children with little land to play on wave from balconies as people pass by.

25/2/05 My daughter has confirmed her wedding date as the 22/10/05. I spent today planning the trip across Russia, Mongolia to Central Asia to realize I will probably have to fly to the wedding from that region.16 century Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang Not being able to enter eastern Russia till June because of the weather and not wanting to get stuck in Central Asia after winter starts in November it looks like it will be a short stay in Australia.

26/2/05 Another days research on the next six months, working out km's for the trip using, and a different route could have me in the middle East by the wedding, and a warmer spot in December to return to.

27/2/05 Luang Prabang is on a peninsula between two rivers. Laos original capital it has wat's dating back to the 16th century and plenty of French architecture to add to its appeal. Lao has become a tourist destination and this town is its most notable attraction drawing fly in tourists visiting the region. The main street is lined with European theme restaurants with French the predominant. Prices here match the level of tourism, more upmarket tour groups. It is starting to go a little like other UNESCO listed towns of Europe, a town specifically for tourists. The wat's attract many novice monks, 100 can be seen each morning lining the main street to collect alms from the faithful. The same number, or more, tourists arrive in mini buses to photograph the event. After being house bound for two days it was great walking the streets, looking at old buildings and being a tourist.Making grass roofing for village houses  

28/2/05 Most people take the boat to Nang Khiaw, six hours but the road follows the river almost all the 140 km's. The Portuguese couple, next to my room have been spending time in Luang Prabang waiting for their Thai meditation course to begin. At the last minute Barbara asked if she could come on the motorcycle. One of the best days riding. Stopped at a local village, grass and bamboo huts, a battery operated satellite TV bringing them the leap into the 21 st century. We wandered about for an hour, children following, women cleaning tree bark for processing into strips for baskets or making grass roof panels. The men, mostly idle as usual, sitting smoking and talking. Another stop where the river weed is dried, flattened and tomato, garlic and sesame seeds added, eaten as a snack. Tobacco, an alternative cash crop, becoming more popular, also seen drying roadside. Barbara tried some of the local product wrapped in a page of an old school note book, as the locals here smoke. Nong Khaiw has a few guest houses overlooking the river. Later in the afternoon we entered one of the local caves.Barbara trying some of the local grown tobacco With a small torch, lantern and candles climbed and crawled for almost two hours into the mountain, often in mud or down muddy slopes. Bats and cave crickets our only companions.

1/3/05 This area of Laos was heavily bombed during the Vietnamese war. The people moved their town into caves nearby and built a hospital, bank and markets there. The main cave, high up a cliff was only  accessible by a long bamboo ladder. Four of us explored the caves and offshoots further into the mountain, in the afternoon, washing off some of the dust in the nearby river. It's an easy relaxed village, with guest house restaurants overlooking the river traffic and events.

2/3/05 230 km through Udomxai to the Chinese border crossing at Boten. Slow, averaging 40 km/hr over mountains, many small villages, many open treed areas and little traffic, universal in Laos. The last 20 km to the border under a Chinese road construction team, dirty and dusty. Arriving at the border at 4 pm, it took fifteen minutes to convince the Lao officials to allow me through to check if China would allow the motorcycle entry.Climbing down into the cave hospital used during the Vietnam war Having left my passport on the Laos side as return security, and arriving at 4.30 pm, right on border closing time, the 20 police officials saluting the lowering of their flag were not flexible in my request to enter with the motorcycle. I was coldly advised that only with an escorted Chinese tour would the motorcycle be allowed entry. Trucks, cars and buses appear to cross the border, only with Laos or Chinese registration. The town of Na Toei, customs clearance in Laos, 20 km from the border and where I stayed the night, in the only guest house, just three rooms. This is not the normal thriving border town where smuggling or trade is the main business. This is a quiet town, a little bit excited now because of business brought by road construction.

3/3/05 Death comes instantly to the cat caught under the wheels of a border crossing truck as I eat my breakfast at one of the many outdoor restaurants. The town is awake and there is eerie laughter over the event. Not a chuckle but a short humorous expression. Something that has had my hackles rise on many occasions in Asia, whenever someone has an incident, that short humorous burst. The small girl runs to see if the cat is hers, lifting it gently from the road she is smiling, it's someone else's. It doesn't remain on the roadside for long, the owner collects it, removing it to his property, a valuable source of meat not to be wasted. The street is again quiet, the old man returned to smoking local tobacco from his bamboo water pipe and the women cook fried banana dough balls waiting for the buses to pass. Two Frenchmen on rented motorcycles, popular in northern Laos remote areas, stop, and we share a coffee. I leave the border town, just 37 km of road construction to Luang Nam Tha, a popular place to start treks to local villages.

4/3/05 It had come over cloudy yesterday afternoon and with thick wet fog this morning pushed me on before threatening rain. The road to Huay Xai is impossible in the wet season, it takes buses eight hours in the dry for the 187 km's. The first 50 km the worst. A one vehicle width track up and over the mountain, across eight small creeks and a couple of log bridges. Amazingly Thai trucks trade goods into China along this route, about 20 passed this morning. Roadworks are being carried out along the entire length in an effort to increase the trade. What looked like a coal mine about half way adds to the truck traffic which digs out the corners on tight curves and powders up the light clay soils. Covered in dust I arrived six hours after leaving and waited a further two hours to get a boat across into Thailand.

Move with me to Thailand  


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Story and photos copyright Peter and Kay Forwood, 1996-
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