Luang Prabang to Vieng Thong
- 8.25 hours riding time (including stops)
We were up at 8am and feeling ok despite the drinks the night before. After a quick breakfast at the hotel we were ready to go except for our laundry. Unfortunately there was no sight of it yet. While we were waiting Jarrod and I set off looking for ponchos and new memory cards. Jarrod’s GoPro had corrupted the card he had in it the first few days and not wanting to risk any more footage we were looking for a replacement. Unfortunately it’s not easy to find a category 10 micro SD card in Laos.
A little later than we had planned, we were on the bikes at about 10am. Despite sticking hair dryers in our boots for a while before leaving, both them and the gloves were still wet making the mornings ride a little uncomfortable.
The roads quickly turned to dirt as we started to head up into the mountains. We followed the Nam Xuang river most of the morning up to Pak Xeng.
The roads were relatively wide and wound along the edge of the hills overlooking the river. They were dirt but were well enough maintained that you could afford to take your eyes off the road a bit to enjoy the scenery. We eventually found a good spot on the road with some mountains in the background to get a wig shot. This had become a bit of a tradition in Vietnam so the mullet wigs made the trip to Laos and Cambodia too (well except for Jarrod’s which was left on a bed when repacking his bag).
We came into a town at one point and I noticed the huge amount of ducks and ducklings in a little stream off the side of the road. I had to stop and get a photo and it gave us a chance to have a little look around the village. The ducks were a little to quick for me though and by the time I got down to the creek with the camera they were already on the run.
This was a little house next to the creek that had a woman inside weaving fabrics.
Soon enough a few of the local kids came out to see what all the fuss was about with us three guys wandering around.
After a few photos we continued on our way to Pak Xeng where we had planned to stop for lunch. Shortly after the bridge we found a great little shop doing noodle soup and parked up the bikes. We ordered a serve each and out came all the trimmings to go with them. As you can see the locals must have iron stomachs as each serve came out with a plate full of the little chilli’s that had nearly killed Jarrod and myself a few days earlier.
For the record Shaun didn’t actually eat this chilli having watched its effects a couple of nights earlier.
I got to reading one of our maps while eating lunch and it had the elevations for the top 6 motorbike riding roads in Laos of which our afternoons ride was listed as one. Over the first 30km after lunch we were going to climb some 800m and we were all looking forward to it. We also realised we had quite a few kilometres left to travel for the day and it was already 1pm so we were going to have to keep up a reasonable pace. We settled up the bill for what was a delicious lunch (it cost us 15,000 kip or $2.10 per serve) and got back on the bikes.
Barely 2km out of town I saw Jarrod swerve erratically a couple of times on a straight section of road and quickly spotted the reason.
A flat tyre. We pulled over and Jarrod confidently said he’d have it changed over in no time and we’d be back on the road. We were finally going to get to use the emergency kit Jim had supplied us with back in Vientiane that had a couple of spare tubes, some tools and a hand pump. The idea of the hand pump was only to get enough air in the new tyre to limp us to the next town where we could find a mechanic to pump it up properly.
Jarrod set about unpacking the kit and quickly noticed a problem. We didn’t have the right size spanner to take the back wheel off.
I volunteered to ride back into Pak Xeng to try to find a workshop and see if we could borrow a spanner. Thankfully we were only a couple of kilometres out of town so it didn’t take long to get back and I found a motorbike workshop on the edge of town. Now the fun part was to begin. How to explain I needed to borrow a spanner without speaking any of the language. I pulled up out the front with my bike and set to pointing to the rear wheel nut and then the spanners on the workshop floor. Eventually the young guy got the gist of what I was talking about and started to try a couple of different spanners to find the right size. While he was doing that a woman came out of the shop next door to see what all the fuss was about and came up to chat as she spoke a little English. I started to try to explain the situation to her in the hope of her being able to translate it to the mechanics. I was mid explanation and turned around to find my wheel already half off my bike. The mechanic had found the right size spanner and had interpreted my pointing as instructions to remove my wheel so I quickly had to stop him and try to explain exactly what I needed. After a bit of translating back and forwards the woman told me that instead of borrowing the spanner the mechanic would ride out on his bike and help us change the tyre which was a far better outcome so off we went.
We got back to the boys parked up on the side of the road and in no time the mechanic was off rummaging around the edges of the road looking for something to jack the bike up with. As you can see from the photo below I think he did a pretty good job considering the tools available.
Within minutes he had the wheel removed and indicated that we needed to take it back into town and one of us was going to have to carry it. Hesitantly Jarrod excepted his fate and hopped on the back of the guys bike and held on as well as he could.
We had been waiting on the side of the road for a while now and as usual we had started to attract quite an audience. There was a school up on the hill just around the corner and it must have been lunch time because some 30 kids had gathered about 20m up the road staring and giggling (I’m not sure whether they were laughing at the look of us or the misfortune we were having). As was common in Laos they were all a little shy about getting too close to us and most would bolt any time I turned the camera in their direction. All in all they hung around for about 20 minutes but the second the bell went signalling lunch was over they all disappeared back up to the classroom.
I did manage the one photo of these young guys and their mum in the doorway of their thatch hut.
About 15 minutes after leaving, Jarrod and our new mechanic mate returned with the repaired tyre and in no time he had the bike back together and ready to go. The culprit that had done the damage was a 3 inch nail that we must have picked up in town. Expecting to pay a bit of a “tourist tax” on these repairs we asked how much for the work he’d done and to our surprise he wanted a whole 30,000kip ($4.50). Given he’d probably just saved us a couple of hours by not having to do it ourselves and got us out of the bind with the missing spanner so we gave him $10 and thanked him immensely.
All in all we lost about an hour but given we were already running behind schedule Jarrod was getting a bit concerned we were going to end the day riding in the dark. Ever the optimist I kept insisting “we’ll be fine” as we made up way up the steep narrow mountain roads (ok so I turned out to be wrong). The afternoons ride was probably the most fun I had riding all trip. The roads were narrow and winding but remote enough that you didn’t have to worry about much in the way of oncoming traffic. The surface was also well maintained and flat enough to push it but just loose enough on top to slide the back out a bit around the corners. For a novice rider such as myself I found it did take a while to get used to the sensation and not panic when it did start to slide but by the end of the day I was loving it! It did also help that I sat right behind Jarrod most of the day who has grown up riding on this sort of stuff and he was there as a gauge for speed and line around all the corners as well as an early warning system if we did encounter any oncoming traffic.
This was the view we had most of the day and a great example of the condition of the roads.
You can see the road we were on continuing through a village in the background. We followed the ridgeline all afternoon.
At about 4:30pm we made it to Sam Soun and back to the paved road. With 92km of windy stuff to go it was now clear we weren’t going to make it into Vieng Thong before dark. We pushed on as quick as possible and as such there’s no photos from here on in. The road was bitumen and in reasonable condition except for the odd pothole but it definitely wasn’t wide. The traffic had also increased significantly since we were back on a major road.
By the time we reached Nong Kham it was getting dark and the temperature had dropped dramatically. I pushed on as long as possible but eventually had to pull over and put a couple more t-shirts on under my jacket. The boys both opted for hoodies but I had left all jumpers at home to save space. The extra shirts made it a little warmer but to say I was comfortable that last hour of the ride would be misleading. This last section of the ride would have probably been really enjoyable in the daylight as we had now entered some serious jungle though the Phou Loei NPA (wild Tiger protected area). In the dark however, you were so focussed on looking for potholes in the dark that we didn’t get a chance to enjoy it.
As a side note we found out from talking to a few tourists that there is supposed to be some amazing wildlife to see up around Vieng Thong however you do need to plan ahead as guides can be in high demand and at times not available for days.
We arrived cold and tired into Vieng Thong at about 6:15pm and pulled up to the first guesthouse in town. As we did, a fellow Aussie from Margaret River, Western Australia was walking out and stopped for a chat. Although he was staying in the guest house we had stopped at he recommended we check out the one a few doors up that was the same price but had better rooms. After a quick look through both we took his advice and moved up to the Dokkhoun Guest House and took two rooms for 70,000kip ($10) each.
Vieng Thong isn’t a large or exactly “happening” town so we wandered up the street and found the only restaurant that looked like it was open for dinner. After a feed and a couple of quiet beers (and with me still feeling the cold having not brought a jumper) we called it a night by 9pm and went to bed.