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(2015 - Fall/Winter Issue)


Overshadowed by Thailand’s world-renowned beach parties, Vietnam’s rusting war relics and Cambodia’s archaic Khmer temples, Laos is often snubbed by backpackers traipsing across what expats deem “the banana pancake trail.”

This is largely due to the government crackdown on Vang Vieng’s notorious river tubing after 27 tourist deaths in 2011 (a figure that some argue to be under-represented).

Not being one for tubes in the first place, I yearned to experience a piece of the Indochina peninsula that wasn’t overrun with knockoff sunglasses and cocktail buckets. And what could be more whimsically adventurous, I reasoned, than exploring the villages of rural Laos while straddling a motorcycle?

I therefore turned my attention to Laos’s languid countryside and, in particular, the inexpensive motorbike rentals in Thakhek. However, my excitement began to waver when my travel companion Pat returned from test-driving our steed—a 100 CC four-stroke Zongshen—with an apprehensive grimace.

“The gearbox is reversed, the panels are scratched and loose, the bolts rattle and the steering is crooked by about 15 degrees,” he reported.

“Where’s the second mirror?”

He glanced hastily at the rental shop owner, who was counting the 240,000 kip ($33 CAD) we’d paid for the four-day hire. “I tried adjusting it and ... well, it’s in my backpack.”

Timorously, we mounted the quivering beast, scrutinized the blurry map (a photocopied hand-drawing provided by the shop owner) and set off into the dusty yonder.

Noble Steed or Sick Puppy?

We departed Thakhek and headed east past razor-faced karsts and scraggly-topped plains. The recent construction of an area hydro station had flooded the surrounding woodland; skeletal trees loomed above the glassy waters. The smoke of distant clear-burning lingered in the air as the road twisted and writhed up a steep incline through tangled jungles.

Riding through the gravel on the Zongshen was like riding through the Himalayas on a spaniel, and I clung to Pat as we bounced and skidded. The tarmac ended abruptly with a jolt and a squee, replaced by what appeared to be a stretch of kitty litter. Tire carcasses lay strewn across the dirt, which we would recall when we later passed a pickup truck with ribbons of rubber streaming from its rapidly-shedding rims.

One hundred kilometres later, we stopped for the night in Thalang, a shy village of wooden bungalows crouching beside a still lake. The next morning, we set out on ground, which, due to roadwork, was even more decrepit than the gravel we’d ridden in on. But we pressed on undaunted, inching and sliding through fine sand that kicked up and frosted our skin in silted terracotta.

“How long will this take?” I wondered aloud.

“I think a butterfly just passed us,” muttered Pat.

Cryptic signage advised us to “slow up down” and warned of “accident ahead.” Bamboo stalks clustered like asparagus bundles and five-metre-high grasses shimmied in the breeze. Farmers toiled in verdant rice paddies as goats, pigs and cows meandered across the road with no regard for the questionable status of our brakes. Villages consisted of a smattering of stilted wooden shacks—often outfitted with dust-caked satellite dishes—and grinning children who shouted “Sabaidee” as we passed.

“Isn’t it incredible to be in the middle of nowhere?” I enthused when we stopped at a shop selling gasoline in empty water bottles. “Bangkok’s infamous Khao San Road finally feels a million miles away.”

The sudden blasting of Gangnam Style drowned out Pat’s response.

The roads improved in Laksao (a comparatively bustling metropolis with two traffic lights) and it was an easy cruise to Kuon Kham. After an exhausting 120 kilometres, we turned into a guesthouse situated across the highway from where a gilded Buddhist temple sparkled amidst the tangle of jungle.

A Subterranean Void

Day three commenced with a visit to the Konglor Cave: an enormous cavern spliced by a gurgling river tucked within the bowels of the Annamite mountain range. We procured a guide and a motorboat and, stylishly attired in lifejackets and headlamps, sputtered into the abyss. Stalactites and stalagmites gnashed and clawed around us as I silently reminded myself that of course the walls weren’t closing in, that of course I could still breathe, that of course we weren’t going to get lost and die in the gulping darkness.

“What’s that blub-blub-blub noise?” I asked.

Pat gestured to where his feet were suddenly bathed in bubbling water. “We’ve sprung a leak.”

“We’ve what?”

Fortunately, our guide was on top of the situation. Using what appeared to be a wooden doorstop, he poked thin strips of bubble wrap into the boat’s wound.

“Looks like the traditional Laotian reparation methods are still in effect,” quipped Pat sarcastically.

Shortly afterwards, we ran ashore. As Pat and the guide dislodged the boat, I hovered apprehensively in shin-deep water and eyed the bats dangling overhead like folded umbrellas. We clambered back into our gradually sinking vessel and made for the light at the end of the tunnel. I was elated when we finally reunited with the rickety bike and let it whisk us away on the open road.

The asphalt first flanked and then delved toward the crags and spires of the black mountains. We screamed around hairpin curves until we reached the summit and were rewarded by a vision of Laos sprawling below. Standing more than one metre tall, shrines modelled after traditional Buddhist temples peeked out from the mossy brush with offerings of marigold heads and orange juice spilling from their mantels. After covering another 80 kilometres that afternoon, we arrived in Vieng Kham. We supped at a roadside restaurant where transport trucks lumbered past with regularity, rattling the tables and spilling our pho.

During the first three days, the weather had been ideal: filled with warm zephyrs and rosy afternoons. The fourth, however, brought biting gales and churning clouds. Determined to beat the rains, we tackled the final 145 kilometres with fierce intent. Fortunately for us, the passing scenery offered nothing novel, save for the aftermath of a couple of nasty car crashes. When we finally clunked back into Thakhek, it was with aching muscles and dusty smiles, and all of our body parts accounted for.

Despite travelling during the high season, we encountered only a couple of other tourists en route. The total cost between us (including the bike from Wang Wang Rental, guesthouses, meals and at least one large, sweating bottle of Beerlao per day) was 965,000 kip, or $132 CAD—quite the remarkable deal for such a whimsical adventure.

Travel Planner

For more information on Laos, visit tourismlaos.org. All travellers to Laos must possess valid passports. Tourist/business visas are valid for 30 days and can be obtained from Lao embassies and consulates abroad as well as on arrival at the international checkpoints.

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