Since the day we finished the ride in Vietnam we’ve talked about going back to Asia for another bike trip. It took a couple of years to come together but in the end we settled on Laos and Cambodia for a ride in late 2013. After some discussions with a few other mates who were keen to tag along this time we decided it was best just to stick to the same group of Shaun, Jarrod and myself who did the Vietnam ride back in 2011. That way we all knew what we were in for and knew that we all had similar riding skills. It also worked out quite well last time getting hotel rooms with 3 single beds so the accommodation cost was kept to a minimum.
Going back to the rider skill comment earlier it should be noted that none of us had done much riding back in Australia since the last trip. Jarrod and I had both gone and got our learners and probationary bike licenses for travel insurance purposes but both tests were the only times I had sat on a motorbike in the past 2 years. Jarrod had bought a road bike but had spent minimal time on it. As such it’s still fair to say our riding skills were reasonable but definitely not advanced.
Having booked the flights during an Air Asia sale early in 2013 we set about doing some serious research into the logistics of the trip. We had booked to fly into Vientiane, Laos in mid November and fly out of Phnom Penh, Cambodia some 14 days later. The idea initially was to ride around the North of Laos then down into Cambodia and finish in Phnom Penh. Unfortunately after a bit of research it became clear this was going to be too difficult and/or too expensive to do. The main issue being that we would have had to buy bikes at the start and sell them at the end and getting bikes across the border can be difficult at times. As such we decided on doing a loop around each country and fly between the two capitals.
For Laos we got in touch with James Barbush (Jim) from Remote Asia Travel to organise some bikes. We had no idea at the time but this would be the best decision we would make all trip. What a professional outfit he runs! Jim’s an American expat that absolutely loves his bikes and takes a huge amount of pride in the business he manages. We organised 3 x Honda XR250 Bajas (about US$27/day) and he suggested we get a Garmin Sat Nav for the trip as well. He asked us how long we had and if there was anything in particular we wanted to see and he would put together a bit of an itinerary for us. Now anyone who’s been to Laos, or Cambodia for that matter, will probably tell you that the bikes can be sourced cheaper (and they can be found for around $15-$18/day in places) but we happily paid a premium for what seemed like a reputable company as we had a limited amount of time and wanted to be confident the bikes were going to be well maintained. Jim didn’t disappoint! He came to our hotel the night before with Sat Nav and a map in hand and sat down with us for a good hour to run through the itinerary. He wanted to check we were comfortable with the ride he was proposing and to load us up with tips for things to look out for along the way. He had loaded every individual day into the Sat Nav and all we had to do was hit the go button at the start of the day and this thing would get us to where we were going. Not only that, he’d ensured we took all the best bike roads, dirt tracks and winding mountain passes in the country along the way. This was a ride for a true motorbike enthusiast but you’ll hear more about that later. He also supplied us with a phone and an emergency repair kit and said call him any time if we had any issues.
An overlay of the actual route we took recovered from the GPS system at the end of the ride. The small section missing is where the battery ran out one afternoon. I’ll include close up maps of each days ride in the daily posts.
The bike of choice for this trip was the Honda 250 Baja’s. The advantages being that they were a big off-road bike with decent headlights, larger fuel tank and a seat that wasn’t too narrow for the longer days.
Clothing wise we’d opted for a bit of a mix. I had road gear from the previous trip including a DriRider jacket that you could zip all the lining out of which made it fairly breathable. I’d opted for some dirt bike pants instead of the Kevlar Denim Jeans this time as they were a bit lighter and not so hot to ride in. Jarrod had gone for the full motocross gear with just the body armour underneath and Shaun was in full road gear with the same lightweight jacket as me. Each setup had their advantages at different times in the trip but ultimately it comes down to what’s going to provide you a reasonable level of safety and what you’re most comfortable wearing for long days on a motorbike.
Technology; well we definitely stepped it up in this area after the Vietnam motorbike tour. I’d brought along my rather heavy Canon 70D DSLR and a few lenses. Jarrod had a couple of GoPro HD video cameras and I’d also sourced some Bluetooth transmitters to allow us to all communicate while riding. This was one area I felt we’d missed out on in Vietnam as it often required you to pull over just to point out to the others something you’d seen a few hundred metres back. With these there was no need to stop. I opted for some moderately priced versions (the expensive ones can be up to $350 per unit) and they worked for the most part.
The engineer trying to figure out how to mount his Bluetooth transmitter. As a typical engineer he couldn’t just copy how I’d done it and had to reinvent the wheel first.
Yep its working.
A GoPro HD mounted to my helmet and a GoPro HD Hero 3 mounted on Jarrod’s so we can get multiple angles of the trip.
Packing wise we had a little bit more flexibility this trip as we were starting and finishing both rides in the same place we would depart from. That meant we could bring bigger cases to fit all the riding gear in for the plane trip and leave them at the hotel and only carry our clothes in 40L backpacks strapped on the back of the bikes. As you can see above repacking the bags was a bit of an effort.
A quick note to anyone flying into Vientiane Airport: Visa’s on arrival are US$30 and they only take US dollars. We, like half the plane, arrived without any. As such they sent me unguarded around the immigration desks, through baggage claim, customs and out into the arrival hall to exchange some money before wandering back through the lot, again without getting stopped once. Security is obviously not high on the list of concerns over here.
Having flown into Vientiane in the early hours of the morning the day before the ride was to start it was immediately clear that this place wasn’t the big bustling Asian Capital we were expecting. The roads weren’t clogged with cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks all fighting for the last square inch of bitumen like most Asian Capitals I’d visited in the past. Instead the traffic had a relatively gentle flow to it and the streets seemed mostly empty.
The view across the usually mighty Mekong River. Through the city of Vientiane, although wide, it seemed like a relatively sad looking river. I guess much of this would be to do with the time of year but it didn’t look like it would be too hard to swim across to Thailand for an afternoon should we have wanted to.
The first of many of this style of temple we would see while travelling through Laos. Although often impressive the great majority of these temples seemed to be undergoing restorations or reconstruction.
Although we didn’t know it at the time this huge Ford truck would be the first of what would seem be an endless amount of 4 x 4 trucks we would encounter on our motorbike trip around Laos. Everyone has one!
The first of many Beer Lao’s for the trip. At an average of 10,000 to 12,000 kip ($1.40-$1.60) for a longneck at most bars and restaurants it’s a very cheap and tasty beer that we consumed more than our fair share of while in Laos.
Dinner and drinks up at the Bor Pen Yang restaurant and bar overlooking the night markets and the Mekong river below. This place is a must for anyone stopping over in Vientiane. I wouldn’t say the food here is anything special, they played way to many James Blunt songs and it does turn into a working girls bar later in the evening but the beer is cold and the view (if you can get a spot against the railings) is second to none.
The added advantage, they also serve beer from towers with an enclosed tube of ice in the middle to keep it cold.
Looking down at the night markets.
After polishing off dinner and our beer tower we made one last trip through the markets before heading home for a good nights rest before the ride starts in the morning.