Category Laos

bad border and re-think

Champasak to Cambodian border. And back!
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And our total Laos track
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Last visa day and a rush down to the border

Hotter, dryer

Hand-pump gas sation. Diesel and about 86 octane gas

Water buffalo cooling off

Kids cooling off. A vivid blue shrine behind

The Laos exit border. Fast

Then it hits the fan.

Like a hard technical riding section, pics are the last thing we think about at the time. But anyway, we clear Laos and move 100 yards further to the Cambodian entry. Oddly, the guy in the Immigration building, no more than a small wooden booth, waves us on to Customs. His english is ok, his meaning clear: Customs first.

There’s no-one there and we wait. After 30 minutes a young guy shows up on a heavily modified, tricked-out Grom. He’s also in a wooden booth/building. He smiles, asks for my papers. Looking at them, he asks for my Carnet. But Cambodia isn’t a Carnet country. I say “Cambodia isn’t a Carnet country”. He smiles and waves a small stack of Carnet stubs at me (he’s extracted them from others). I’m really, really surprised. I have fucked up I think. For the first since not knowing the 90 day exit before renewal rule in Guatemala. My Carnet’s expired and I don’t need one until after it’s renewed.

He doesn’t give me any hint that he’s looking for a bribe. The worst mistake you can make with an honest official is get a bribe offer wrong. Jail. Cambodian jail, lol! (I know two riders who’ve spent nights in jail, hilarious)

Then I remember a horror story about how a Cambodian border official had screwed some rider over, trapped him between borders, and had confiscated his bike, permanently. So I got on Lucinda and got out of there fast.

I get back to the hotel at dark and find out I’ve been screwed. No Carnet required. I’ve hit the worst border in the most corrupt country in SE Asia and got played. This would not normally be a problem and normally I’d laugh, but this time we have a problem. My visa has now expired.

So having to exit Laos before it gets any worse, the next morning I head for the Thai border, which conveniently is only 90K away. I’ve emailed my friend that our travel plans are delayed. She crossed without problems.

Slightly nervous about my day-late Laos exit, we get across with only minor problems, like Customs wanting to us to buy insurance first, which for a moto couldn’t be found without a long cab ride into the next town, leaving the bike unattended. We promised him we would do it the next day and he kindly and unusually accepted.

The ride from Champasak to Ubon Ratchithani
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Into Ubon

While we mull over things, we tour a couple of temples

This is modern and interesting. Wat Phra That Nong Bua

Sending money up a string. I sent up 20 baht



In Ubon I have a very serious chat with myself. I have to go back to Vancouver at some point soon for my Pakistan visa and to possibly assist with my new Carnet. But this ride has taken far longer than expected and will take much longer to complete. I’ve missed Christmas at home for the 3rd time due to visa realities, despite 4 return trips, and I miss my (adult) daughters. So I ponder something I’ve been thinking about. Going home for a strategic break in the big picture.

Or do I cut back across a reputable border into Cambodia, just south of where I am? How does my friend figure into this?


I never post pictures of where I stay, mainly because it would add to the content when the objective is to streamline it. But here’s a pic of Brent, ex-Peace Corps who with his wife built the Outside Inn in Ubon Ratchathani. Stay here, the food is brilliant and the huge pints cold. We had plenty of good discussions and more than a few beers as I came to my big decision

OK, so now we’re headed for Bangkok, just a couple of days away.

Ubon to Nakhon Ratchasima
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Having made a decision I start the quick ride directly to Bangkok. It’s not a great road. Big traffic through an unattractive part of the country.

We stop here for a break

A vast lake of lilies not in bloom

Kids ride around the park while I take photos

Later, a huge and sudden thundershower, over in one minute. Here I’m hiding under a tree

And through the outskirts of Nakhon Ratchasima. Don’t come here, unless you’re headed to Ubon

to Champasak

Thakhek to Champasak
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And a bigger scale. You can see we’re tracking the river. We think it’s cool that we’ve followed it off-and-on since northern Yunnan. It’s extraordinary and we love it
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Otherwise, it’s been a dry, dusty ride down. But we stopped at this small lake


Very hot, low humidity so not so bad

Mekong alluvial flats. Must be an incredible sight in rainy season

To our destination, an amazing spot for Christmas

The day after arriving we head off on Lucinda to Wat Phu (or Vat Phou) past this lake

Our first Khmer Temple and it’s almost beyond belief. The site is chosen because (out of sight here) a mountain top peaks in the shape of a linga, a phallus shape. So lingas line the avenue to the beginning of a climb. It’s fantastic. Worth a read, the wiki link

The first set of steps



For some reason we don’t take more photos through the various levels. But way at the top, on a large ledge, is a stunning 11th century sanctuary

The 900 year-old reliefs sheltered under doorways.


Just a little higher is a cliff

Under the cliff a trough runs water into stone container bathing a small linga under the water. This is the original feature of the Wat

Small sticks are placed under overhangs, supporting the vast mass above as a reminder of something

A few hundred feet away, a young couple pray to Shiva

The view down. My pictures do no justice to the beauty and impact of this place

Back to the town of Champasak. A lovely small town

School’s out

But generally the Laos pedal under umbrellas. Not only for protection against the sun, but also protection against darkening. In SE Asia, the whiter the skin, in their eyes, the more attractive

We’re going to be in our place for a while, so we spend a fair bit of time out on the river. This is our usual boat. No, we never use the chairs

Shelves cut into the riverbank for planting in dry season


Our swimming spot

The only ‘beach’ for miles apparently. We park right on the point

Teams of snails race along the waterline upstream quickly, for snails. Who knows why

Unable to find out what this creature is. We saw him twice

Further along our beach

Night on the river


My Billabong shirt, gone

Then one morning, my friend went into town on her scooter. Soon after I had a call from the front desk, she was on the phone. She was lying at the side of the road and had hit a cow.

After a fast rescue, the hospital 30 k’s away. A hairline crack in a shoulder bone, a nasty slice up her arm. They were fast, efficient but the equipment was a little desperate. For pain killers they give us take-away morphine, which we thought was a plus

Our plans on hold, we spent a week here in Champasak, until the day my visa expired, which took away any margin of error.

The Christmas Lucinda shot

to Thakhek

Vientiane to Thakhek
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Now we’re running parallel to the Mekong again. We cross rivers like this flowing east to west into the giant river all day

Dry, dusty towns every twenty minutes or so. The further south we go the more the villages have basic services. Nowhere are modern as Thailand though

We stop here to walk down to the great river

Along a path, hoping to see snakes before we get too south

It’s so still it’s sometimes hard to believe the river is flowing

This fellow is towing a net as he walks slowly downstream. If you click on this you’ll see the floats

Despite the every-browning of the landscape, the river banks are emerald-green

A huge river drains in

This pretty flower. The only time we’ve seen it

A few crags, not many. Lunch was across the street

Laos is quiet, always

And into Thakhek. The waterfront street had about a dozen beautiful, restored French buildings

The rest of the town was in disrepair but was beautiful

Tree and monks

Monks on bikes. The best thing ever. Which reminds me. The girls here change into ‘onesies’ at about dusk and scooter around in brightly colored and patterned fleece. Really odd, but nice.

Another thing about boys and girls, and men and women, in Laos is that there are zero public displays of affection. Beyond puberty, not even holding hands. And never ever will you see someone kiss someone else. It’s just bad manners, like looking untidy, no matter how poor

As it happens, I met a French girl and have been travelling with her. (Normally this topic wouldn’t be included in this ride report but it starts to have an unexpected impact on the ride logistics, as you’ll see). She gets a bus from A to B while I ride, then at her destination rents a scooter. Today we head off on Lucinda into the country. Lucinda likes travelling without her panniers once in a while and always when there’s a passenger on the back. Wow she’s a slim bike without her full gear

The route. It’s part of ‘the loop’. I would have done it all but plans have changed with Christmas approaching
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Hard to describe how beautiful the ride up the valley was

We went to a deep cave. A few hundred yards before the entrance a kid stops, says “guide” and holds out his hand. We give him the equivalent of about 50 cents as he charges ahead, even though we can see it clearly

Here he shows off his balancing skills

We ride for another 40 miles up to what we resume is a new reservoir. Drowned trees everywhere

Through limestone gorges


And back to Thakhek. This evening we see a two young guys on a scooter brought down by a man on the street below. The scooter crashed, spilling the riders, and the man starts in on the boys with the most violent attack we’ve ever seen. He’s got a 4 or 5 foot piece of wood and it looks like he’s trying to kill them. The difference between hurting and killing is pretty clear, clubbing them full-force relentlessly after they’re unconscious. Fortunately enough people stop him, but most are scared to approach. Over the last few years we’ve seen occasional violence, and I only include this story because it’s such a shocking contrast to their quiet, reserved, shy usual nature


Brief post

Vang Vieng to Vientiane
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Plenty of crossings as we rode beside a lake

Lunchtime at a chaotic market. There’s an event going on somewhere here

Nearly all fish here

Spiced, compressed and dried

Plus tiny fish that didn’t smell so good…

We followed the market through a long tunnel

Down to the lake


Kids had short races in mini-boats with mini-bowsprits

But no sign of the big boats about to start, so we left.

It’s been getting progressively drier, despite the morning-after rain filled fields

The road has been the worst yet in Laos. We riding visor-down because of the dust which makes us feel claustrophobic as usual

These are everywhere. They’re the equivalent of the truck in most of the country

Approaching the Lao’s capital city, Vientiane

Phat That Luang temple. Perhaps the most important temple in Laos. It’s a stupa, which means someone, probably a monk is buried there. For an example of how complex the histories are of some of these monuments, here’s a clip from wiki:

*** Pha That Luang according to the Lao people was originally built as a Hindu temple in the 3rd century. Buddhist missionaries from the Mauryan Empire are believed to have been sent by the Emperor Ashoka, including Bury Chan or Praya Chanthabury Pasithisak and five Arahata monks who brought a holy relic (believed to be the breastbone) of Lord Buddha to the stupa.[2] It was rebuilt in the 13th century as a Khmer temple which fell into ruin.

In the mid-16th century, King Setthathirat relocated his capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and ordered construction of Pha That Luang in 1566.[3] It was rebuilt about 4 km from the centre of Vientiane at the end of That Luang Road and named Pha That Luang.[2] The bases had a length of 69 metres each and was 45 metres high, and was surrounded by 30 small Stupas.

In 1641, a Dutch envoy of the Dutch East India Company, Gerrit van Wuysoff, visited Vientiane and was received by King Sourigna Vongsa at the temple, where he was, reportedly, received in a magnificent ceremony. He wrote that he was particularly impressed by the “enormous pyramid and the top was covered with gold leaf weighing about a thousand pounds”.[4] However, the stupa was repeatedly plundered by the Burmese, Siamese and Chinese.

Pha That Luang was destroyed by the Thai invasion in 1828, which left it heavily damaged and left abandoned. It was not until 1900 that the French restored to its original design based on the detailed drawings from 1867 by the French architect and explorer Louis Delaporte.[3] However the first attempt to restore it was unsuccessful and it had to be redesigned and then reconstructed in the 1930s.[3] During the Franco-Thai War, Pha That Luang was heavily damaged during a Thai air raid. After the end of World War II, Pha That Luang was reconstructed ***


We went off to see Xieng Khuan. It’s modern. Built by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat in 1958


Nothing really on Ventiane itself, we dashed in and dashed out. Plus there was a trip complication explained in a coming post.

to Vang Vieng

Phonsavan to Vang Vieng
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Riding through Laos (despite the terrible road conditions about 60% of the time) is peaceful and beautiful. The roads, roadside villages and green are a bit like parts of Central America, but bigger and easier. In CA you aways have that unknown factor, the potential for someone or something going wrong. Not here. The flip is that if you break down big here you have a big problem. If you can’t fix your bike yourself you’ll have to truck it to Thailand or go to my ’emergency plan’ (more on this soon too)

The ridge villages you ride through

Then something crazy happens. I round a corner and there’s this huge pack of big adventure bikes. The ones upstream of where we pull in

And downstream

They’re Thai, from Bangkok, on great bikes and bubbling with happy, lol. They’re celebrating the King’s birthday (seems everyone in Thailand does this) with a 5 day blast through a convenient section of Laos. They have not only a superb support vehicle with parts and mechanic, but a police escort. If you’re going to do it, do it big they think. Really fantastic.

They make me a coffee from the truck

I would have loved to ride with them for a day, I think afterwards.

Then, after they ride off, an hour later the views are like nothing we’ve ever seen

Sun in the wrong place for the pic, we ride through these abrupt huge limestone peaks

There’s a surprising stop. Modern, two restaurants

On a big glass plate wall there are ride stickers. No vanity stickers (a subject we’ll also be writing about soon) but SE Asian group/ride stickers from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and one from Laos. Almost better than anything else, they tell the story of the fun these local ride clubs have.

Just a bunch

This club has been around

The Laos club

There’s no compromising or Mr Nice Guy. But they don’t mean it. They just pick up the flavour from bike clubs in the States and go with it

My favorite. An ADV scooter club! Wish I’d seen them

The dream-like views continue

We ride through this valley

And then the sun is a bit behind us

The final 30 miles was all like this

Into Vang Vieng, famous for the incredible situation

Into the town proper.

It’s a complete dump. A backpacker destination, catering to that market niche and famous worldwide for it

Not great

This is the big thing. Or was the big thing. You rent a tube and get driven upstream a few miles

Then you drift down, stopping to drink at the riverside bars.

They used to sell a drink here called Lao-Lao, 45% proof, at a price of $2 a litre. Seriously. Plus there’s pot everywhere but all kinds of mushroom drinks which need a ton of caution, not something backpackers are famous for.

In the worst year, 2011, 27 kids died. They drowned, dove off things onto rocks, did stupid things. According to a Guardian article, the hospital here gets around 10 injured backpackers a day.

So anyway there’s been a big clamp down in various ways to protect them against themselves and now it’s a bit quieter apparently, but is still a dump.

Here’s a riverside bar. You paddle up in your tire, grab a floating table and get drinks from behind

Some very good bridges


This is the common vehicle in the countryside. It’s used to plow fields and carry stuff around, everything. Here carrying a load of ladies across the bridge. The umbrellas? 2 reasons for that, one obvious, one surprising. Later

There they go. Excellent sight

Another bridge, to the floating bars. It’s early so the drinking hasn’t started

A tight fit for 2 scooters

A truck river crossing, excellent

Plain of Jars

Luang Prabang (again) to Phonsavan
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OK, our second attempt to get to Phonsavan correctly.

More of these giant lilies just out-of-town

Close up. Same variety, or species, as the ones at the fish farm on Sumatra

We stop to see a caged fighting cock. The lady is crushing sugar cane in a press

He’s a beauty. Skinny and mean-looking, pacing his cage

The road is in terrible shape but the views are non-stop

The road ahead with the usual linear village. There’s a feeling that the country is empty, for the first time in SE Asia. Example:

Laos – area 236,800 sq km (nearly the same as the UK) population 6.7 million

Thailand – area 513,120 sq km, population 67.0 million

and, for fun,

Island of Java – area 128,300 sq km, population 142.0 million, lol

There are only a few large towns and in between occasional villages that feel like they are about 50 to 200 people on average. The capital, Vientiane has a population of only about 680,000

A large village

This truck in a robust cage, somehow works in this banana plantation


And talking about flowers, that shrub on the right, the poinsettia, does very well here, almost forming small trees. It’s native to Mexico and Central America. It’s the most common flowering shrub we see

That’s our road. It couldn’t be better except there are long stretches of ruin

Riding from one valley to another, again

River village

To my hotel in Phonsavan. The front gate is made from a bomb casing and propped up with old machine guns. Story in a previous postIMG_1797

A bomb casing/planter by the front door


50% off topic, also on the wall is this pic of US soldiers with a monster fish taken from the Mekong near here

Another munitions graveyard in town

Soviet tank turret

This province, Phonsavan in there somewhere, and a bombing map of areas hit hardest by the 270,000,000 cluster bombs dropped on Laos. says Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history

A sign in the museum

Another, of the whole country, and the ugliest photo insert in three years of posting. Standards are slipping

But here’s the main reason we’re here. This whole area is referred to as the Plain of Jars. The ‘Jars’ here date 500BC to 500AD.

Most of the archeological heavy-lifting was done by a French woman, Madeleine Colani in the 1930’s. She is almost revered around here, you hear the name and see it printed frequently.

Walking to Site 1, as she classified it

Jars, from 4 to 6 feet tall. Approximately 2000 have been found in 3 main areas

They’re carved from rock as soft as sandstone and as hard as granite

Carefully noted

Reading about this, there’s a fair bit of speculation about them. Questions, like:

How did they carve them from granite? Only a few are granite, most are quite soft

What is the meaning of them? M Colani’s main theory is convincing. When someone died they were placed in a jar and a cap loosely placed over it. Maybe a year or so later the body had been ‘eroded’ down to a skeleton by normal natural processes, like bugs, etc.. Then the remains were removed and taken to sites like the cave below where they were burned to ashes. M Colani found skeletal ashes in the cave below, for instance.

That’s (most likely) that. But there are complications. For more, the plain of jars wiki

Site 1 1/2

A cave, next to the next jar cluster

Immediately we see this exposed comb above the entrance. Wow, never seen this before. It’s the Asian honey bee Apis cerana

And below a big terrific mass of bees

Inside the cave, don’t know what that is

Beautiful. Cave mound in the backgroundP1050358


On the way to Site 2 we see workers slowly going over the ground for UXO’s. Unexploded bombs

Up a hill





One of the few caps that remain. Most were later taken away by villagers for grinding rice

A wonderful walk to Site 3. This would be harder in wet season. These rice fields will stay fallow until June. The season varies from province to province, but this area only gets one rice crop a year

An old bomb crater


This bug was inside a jar. About 1″ across


On the way back we stopped at this village

Bomb casings support this house

Old Soviet tank turret

The Craters (falang) pub in town.

The day’s wanderings, with guide and truck
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Lucinda thinks we’re good planners. Day’s nicely mapped out, destination lodgings known when needed and all the t’s crossed.

It’s a system from the moment we’re out of bed to when we crash for the night, refined and tweaked over the years. We spend a lot of time thinking about it, even the exact way the duffle is packed and unpacked. New ideas come along once in a while and that’s part of the pleasure of a long riding project. It’s a little crazy. I know a few other long distance riders who are like this. Dan T and Helge, for two.

But today’s going to be different. I’m running two sets of GPS maps on my unit. One, downloaded OSM tiles, and the other a local-knowledge enhanced version I got from a ride cafe in Chiang Mai on a card. I set out my route, tracked it on the laptop, transferred it to the unit and off went. But had screwed up.

Anyway, a nice start

These really good white-flowered bog plant beside the road in places

A great road

The usual villages

Gas in bottles. we haven’t seen this since Sumatra

Couldn’t be better

This orange inflorescence was 2 feet tall



Stopped to watch young guys loading heavy sacks onto a truck. Not a lot happening mostly in Laos so this seemed interesting enough

Two girls making a record of the weight of each sack

They’re these. not sure what they are, haven’t asked yet

Side street

Nice pond

Mom and kids carrying firewood. The first time we’ve seen kids this young do this
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The road turns to graded dirt

Through 1 of 3 slides today

Love these bridges

Into this village.

My GPS is telling me we’ve got 95 miles to go and the road is getting skinnier. While I have a bottle of water I do a quick check of the route. Hum, I think, we should be going south, not east by now. I haven’t been thinking about it, just riding and enjoying the surroundings. Scaling out on the unit, I see we’re on the wrong road! Never ever have I been so wrong for so long. But no biggee, I’ll see what the road looks like on the map.P1050209

Here’s the GPS track, dirt from here on.
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And here’s the map. You can see the yellow road just stops, cropped so you can see it in the same place as the GPS track above. Shows no road

But the road doesn’t stop, it just turns into a small dirt track that was on my other GPS file. We haven’t allowed for this and wouldn’t started earlier. So, what to do? Continue, not knowing what the conditions will be? Or turn around and start again tomorrow? it’s noon. In the worst case, if the track gets bad, and there’s no mud it’ll take 4 hours+. The GPS says sunset is at 5:40. No problem unless we get a shower and hit mud. So thinking about Rule #1, the one that’s got us this far, we turn back for Luang Prabang, not all all unhappy, we have the time (if not the tire rubber, post on this soon) and it was a great ride.

Luang Prabang, water three ways

Brief post, more to come

1 Crossing water

The bamboo bridges in Laos are temporary structures for a good reason. The water here, for instance, will be 15′ higher when the rainy season gets underway. Then the bridges wash away and they’ll rebuild them months later

A monk crosses

Then me

Sketchy, beautiful

2 Falling water

Took a tuk tuk out of town one day

On the way we stopped at a butterfly farm

Hard to photograph

This is our destination. We walk up the river


To the Kuang Si falls. Hard to see from the pic, but they’re 200′ tall. Worth the visit

3 Up water

Up the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves. What a treat
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I was disappointed to find out the lovely boats for the 2 hour ride up the Mekong sat about 10 people. I really didn’t want to spend all day with a crowd. So I sprung 350,000 Laos ($42 US) for a private boat. A huge amount here, but the alternative was hell

The benefits

Open air. Spot the Reefs



It looks like farming moves onto the river flats at this time of year. Lots of activity: crops, cattle, fishing

A fellow rows two sleeping friends downstream on a bamboo raft

We pull up at one of those tourist traps specifically set up for farangs (whites)

Distilled hooch. Poisonous snakes and scorpions inside. The King Cobra is all over the place here, plus the feared green tree snake and two sorts of viper. I don’t buy one but I have a sip of a cobra sample. Not bad

Only one patch of rapids on the river

Approaching limestone crags, we didn’t know lots more of this was a few days ahead

Two hours later, this

It’s the cave

Pull up to a float

Up the steps

The cave entrance

I did a little Googling and couldn’t find out how old this is


Hundreds of Buddhas anywhere they can be rested

Looking out

Up some more steps

A long way, man

To a second cave


Then back to my private launch, yay

A bee colony high in the trees, that white dot

Flashes of monk-orange

Back at dusk. Just perfect

This was on the Napo in the Ecuadorian Amazon, similar