A taste of Laos

For some of us, getting away to somewhere warm in the winter is a luxury. Group Secretary Robin Trangmar sneaked off to explore Loas in December 2019. Here’s a snapshot of his adventure on a Honda XR250:

” I’m positioned to get a view through the bend when I see a broken tree branch on the road and then spot the broken-down truck just behind it. Then the big Chinese lorry overtaking the stricken truck and completely on my side of the road. Flashing his lights, it’s clear he’s not giving way. As I start braking and looking for a way out, a family of three on a little Honda Wave emerge from a track on my right and block the escape line. Suddenly everyone is frantically scrubbing off speed, looking for the empty piece of road, and then it’s all over as quickly as it started. You dare not drop your guard.”

It’s my first time in Laos although I’d ridden or travelled in South-East Asia for a while. Whilst the traffic is pretty steady, you still need to look ahead and plan for the next challenge. We crossed from Thailand into Laos on foot and went looking for motorcycle rentals in the capital Vientiane. I fancied a ride on an air-cooled classic, so managed to locate a couple of Honda XR250s which I expected would be ideal for tarmac and rural dirt roads. The chosen rides were in very good order with fresh fluids, good tyres and brakes. In fact, they were as well serviced as my own motorbike. Reassured, we retired for beers.

Next morning, we collected the bikes, tied on the luggage, fuelled the tiny tanks to the brim and plunged into Vientiane’s morning traffic. The pecking order of ‘four wheels good, eight wheels better’ was made clear and we kept a steady pace as we headed down Highway 13 towards Vieng Kham. The views were constantly changing from vertical karst mountain ridges to wide, flat paddy fields. From time to time the mighty Mekong river could be seen away to the right. We stopped in the roadside villages for breaks and were always a source of interest for the locals.

After 250kms, we reached Vieng Kham and filled the bikes with fuel and our wallets with cash and headed into the Annamite mountains towards Lak Sao. Although the traffic was light, the lumbering, slow lorries broke the pace of the ride and we reduced speed, especially as the tarmac was starting to break up, usually in the apex of the corner. The road signs became more urgent: ‘Accident Ahead’ and ‘Slippery Bends’. We crested a hill and as we turned into the first downhill bend, the road became white limestone fesh-fesh and strips of stones the size of cobbles. I was doing fine until one of the ever-present 4×4 trucks sped past throwing up a cloud of dust that was both stifling and blinding. The goggles went on after that.

The next morning started just before first light, when some kind soul gathered all the chickens in South-East Asia under the bedroom window. The long-legged Lao chickens seem to have lungs bigger than a Welsh male voice choir. There was no choice but to get up. I sat on the veranda of the guest house with a mug of tea and watched village life starting, people lighting the cooking fires, chasing cows out of the garden, sweeping the roads and getting the school bus ready.

Breakfast finished, bikes checked, we headed away from the guesthouse on a good tarmac road which suddenly turned into a motocross track with ditches, ramps, fesh-fesh – and a small herd of cows. Two of the young bulls were locking horns and pushing each other all over the track. I spotted my chance to pass, but they suddenly rushed in front of me. I grabbed too much front brake, stood on the back one and slid through the dust towards them. Thankfully they panicked and ran off and at least I didn’t drop the bike. 80kms of this? I’ll be a proper motorbike rider tonight, I thought.

Whilst Laos drives and rides ‘on the wrong side of the road’ the skills you develop in the UK as an advanced rider are still effective; taking, using and giving information, and positioning are probably the most important. With a small capacity motorcycle planning for the overtakes of the slow 12 wheeler lorries can be intimidating. Generally, flying and hiring a motorcycle is a cost-effective solution if you only have a few weeks leave a year, and Northern Thailand and Laos is a great place to ride. Give it a try!!