There’s loads to see in Laos? On yer bike…
By Michael Alty
They are everywhere. Backpackers sporting their ‘In The Tubing Vang Vieng’ memorabilia proudly through the streets of South East Asia from Chiang Mai to Hanoi. Strutting their stuff in their vests and hoodies they parade that circular logo like a war medal: testament to the cuts, bruises and near death escapes of Vang Vieng. If you’ve not been you probably have it on the list of ‘must do’s’ and if you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about just find one of the above backpackers and ask.
As fun as it is, is this alcohol fuelled watersports theme-park, turned backpacker pilgrimage, all that Laos has for us?
Well not quite. Yes, there is the pleasant, touristy, northern entry and exit junction of Luang Prabang, with it’s sandwich vendors, chocolate & banana roti stands, chilled bars and a bowling alley to keep you drinking past the 11pm curfew. Meanwhile it’s southern counterpart, the relaxing Four Thousand Islands will have you reading in a hammock, spotting Irrawady dolphins and generally lazying about for days on end.
But Laos is a still a good sized country and that’s only 3 things on the list – as great as they are, they aren’t that much off the beaten path.
So, guidebook in hand, we were determined to try and find something adventurous to do and try to see some of the ‘real’ Laos – I know, what a cliché. It took a while but eventually we found something called ‘The Loop’ – a 475km, 4 day ride across the central Laos countryside. After a flirt with scooters in Vang Vieng, we all had the two-wheeled addiction and decided we’d head to the Travel Lodge Guesthouse in a little place called Tha Khaek to do it.
The conveniently placed bike rental man, who had set up shop next door sorted us out for bikes (any driving license will do) and we headed back inside to read the infamous Loop Logbook, a sort of backpackers Bible. The several volumes, spanning many years have been written by other psychotic backpackers looking for adventure with 125cc between their legs, complete with numerous hand drawn maps and recommendations. Despite tales of breakdowns, punctures and the odd scrape, pretty much everyone seemed to love the experience.
The next day, copied, hand-drawn maps in hand, ‘helmet’ clipped in and daypacks over our shoulders we went for a test drive. It started well. One of us fell off twice, once right in front of Mr Bikeman – who looked sick with worry for our accident prone girl friend and probably his precious scooter, politely asking ‘Are you sure she understand how to use bike, I think she not very good?’
Nevertheless, with the oversized backpacks ditched at the hostel, we rode off onto the heat-blurred tarmac, sun on our faces, hair fluttering in the wind, fingers clinging for our lives on the handle bars, helmets choking us as the wind fired them back onto our shoulders and faces deformed like we were on a rollercoaster.
Despite our less than good look, there’s no other way to describe the scenery than spectacular. Over the four days we covered jungle paths, dust tracks and tarmac roads lined by impressive mountains, rivers, valleys and picturesque villages. There were some other dubious stretches, known as ‘roads’ in Laos, which looked like something created from exploded bombs or landmines. No surprise then that the same girl friend ended up with a few extra grazes on her arms at this point.
Along the way there were plenty of things to see including various caves, one of which is believed to heal your ailments- though surprisingly, it seemed to do nothing for her grazes. At the very least, the occasional fuel stop, from one of the many stalls by the side of the road with their bizarre contraptions containing a red fluid will always provide some entertainment.
After riding most of one day at breakneck speeds, to make sure we beat the sunset, we arrived just in time to squeeze in a boat trip at the Holy Grail of the trip – the Khong Lo caves.
Surprisingly, riding like a lunatic on pretty terrible roads had caused no sign of any mechanical problems. But, right on cue came a tyre blowout at about 2kph, caused by an innocuous looking twig and resulting in an unscheduled trip into the nearest village about 30 minutes away.
Acting as a taxi service I entered the village with my mate and his wheel on the back. If you’ve ever wanted to know what an alien might feel like if he walked into your town then I think I might know. Adults with looks of bewilderment and excited kids appeared from everywhere and in minutes most of the village crowded round trying to help as we attempted to speak a clearly unknown dialect of Laos from our limited word list (kindly provided by Mr Bikeman). Eventually they worked out it wasn’t food we were after and the village mechanic left his game of football to spend more than an hour riding around with us fixing the tyre. By the time we’d finished the sun was almost down. Although we’d missed the cave our other friends had checked us into a cute, little homestay complete with it’s own small beach and some random, inquisitive kids sat up trees.
The next day, finally, we made it to Khong Lo. The boat trip through the 7km of underground caves was truly mind-blowing. Everyone seemed awestruck as we floated down the river, meandering along through the darkness as the flashlights revealed the vast scale of the caves and the strange, silent, empty, underground world we found ourselves in. The trip up to that point had been a great laugh and a great experience but this rounded it off perfectly.
And for all the health and safety conscious among you, don’t worry. Helmets were provided free of charge for the bike and whilst on the boat in Khong Lo everyone is given their own ‘bathing suit for water funny’- which in most countries is called a lifejacket!
All that was left was to head back to Tha Khaek, sit round a fire and grab a Yellow Curry and a few bottles of Beer Lao.
So what else can I say. Yeah, the usual backpacker haunts are a great laugh and great places but Laos has a lot more to offer than just those. On trips likes these you do spend a hell of a lot of time on the bike but it’s definitely worth it for loads of reasons. You get to hurtle round on a scooter for one. There’s a real sense of adventure, of being out there ‘travelling’ properly and having some really unique experiences to come home with. But perhaps most importantly, you get to see and experience the beauty of a country which it appears a lot of people have never seen properly, both in its scenery and the friendliness of it’s people. I wouldn’t dare say I’ve seen the real Laos but I definitely got a peek of it.