Phonsavan to Vang Vieng
- 7 hours riding (including breaks).
Since Jarrod and Shaun had missed seeing the Plain of Jars the day before, Jarrod and I settled on getting up early and heading out there for the sunrise. We set alarms for 5am and its safe to say Jarrod didn’t need his. Thankfully we all had separate rooms that night as Jarrod had spent the entire night in the bathroom as his stomach had finally had enough. I got a message from him at 5am letting me know (with far too much detail) and we agreed to call it off and go back to sleep (well me anyway).
Luckily for those of us needing a little extra motivation to get on a bike that day we knew both halves of the days ride were listed on our map as Great Motorcycle Roads of Laos. The ride from Phonsavan to Phou Khoun would see us starting at about 1,100m above sea level then dipping down to 900m before a series of peaks topping out at about 1,500m. The ride from Phou Khoun to Vang Vieng would be our last section in the mountains starting at 1,400m before dropping 800m in the space of 20km, finishing the day down around 200m.
It was still quite a cool morning when we set off and I was again layered up with singlets and then t-shirts under my riding jacket. The other boys had their hoodies on underneath and it would stay that way for the first couple of hours. The roads out of Phonsovan started off fairly flat and except for a few ponds and some limestone pillars it wasn’t out of this world (and we were starting to wonder if we’d been mislead about the quality of the days rides). Thankfully after about 20km the corners gradually became a tighter and tighter until we found ourselves on some amazing banking corners that just kept coming and coming. With a quality surface and wide double lane roads under us we could finally pull back on the throttle and really have some fun. After 6 days on the bikes on predominantly dirt or patchy bitumen roads it was a real thrill to lay the bikes over and see just how much grip these things had. We powered through the first hour and a half without a stop as everyone was enjoying it too much.
Eventually we came to a town with a little coffee shop next to a bridge and decided to stop for morning tea and to have a bit of a discussion about who’d got their knees closer to the ground. Again forgetting we were in Asia we ordered a couple of what in Australia would be fairly expensive bananas, only to eventually realise the lady was saying we could have the whole bunch for $1.
We polished off all we could eat of the bananas and then returned the rest to the lady so she could sell them again before getting back on the bikes. The roads after morning tea weren’t quite as good as they’d been earlier in the morning but still a lot of fun and with minimal stops we made our way towards Phou Khoun for lunch. We pulled into the main junction in Phou Khoun at about midday and it was immediately clear we were back on the tourist routes for the first time since Luang Prabang. The town had 3 or 4 large tour busses that were all stopped for lunch and 3 or 4 groups of bike riders all riding big BMW tourers. The majority appeared to be Chinese riders and all were decked out in the top of the line riding gear.
We sat down for another lunch of beef noodle soup in one of the busy restaurants near the central roundabout and couldn’t help laugh at the comparison between us in our filthy off-road gear on little 250cc dirt bikes and all these guys on their huge BMW tourers decked out in head to toe black leathers with top of the line helmets, GPS and communication gear. While the extra power of the bikes might have been fun it was clear these guys hadn’t come from the mountains we’d been through as the bikes would have been way too heavy for the roads we were on. As we were settling up for lunch we realised a group of about 20 of these riders were getting ready to saddle up and head towards Vang Vieng as well and we couldn’t resist. The roads around the town were poor at best and regularly covered in gravel sections which really didn’t suit the big touring bikes. We decided to wait and let them get a head start only so we could have the satisfaction of flying past all of them on the winding road down out of the mountains. All was going perfectly to plan until we hit a service station about 5km from the town centre and realised they’d all stopped to fill up. Conceding it would probably take them half an hour to fill up all those bikes we took off on our own (and never saw them again that day despite regular stops).
The view for the first 30km or so out of Phou Khoun is truly spectacular. From such a height looking down over the limestone pillars coming up out of the valleys is a breathtaking experience. We would pass through these simple thatch hut villages set on the side of the mountains and I couldn’t help but envy the people living there. It’s a very simple way of life but to wake up to view like they had every day is something many of us would pay millions for back home. I did get to wondering (you have plenty of quality pondering time when you’re on a bike for 8 hours a day with nothing but the wind rushing into your ears) whether you would appreciate a view like this if it’s all you’ve ever known? I can only imagine many of these people would have been born here and especially in some of the more remote areas we’d been through over the last few days, would possibly have never left their little towns.
We stopped for a photo opportunity at what was clearly the start of our major decent back towards sea level. You can see the winding road down in the left of the photo of Jarrod below.
The ride down was unfortunately over all too fast. We had enjoyed the last 3 days in the mountains so much that to descend and leave them behind in only 30km seemed a little unsatisfying. The roads down where ok and despite the odd patch of gravel to keep you on your toes, lots of fun. The steep decent also meant an abrupt increase in the temperature. By the time we got back to flat ground we had to stop and strip off down to the essentials as the heat and the humidity were well and truly back.
We pulled into the spectacular Vang Vieng about 3:30pm just in time to watch a wedding precession (of Hilux’s) entering the city. Vang Vieng provides a very different perspective to what we’d become accustomed too and instead of looking down over the mountains we were now gazing up at them. We checked into the Khamphone Hotel and requested a room on the 3rd or 4th floor as the views from the balcony was stunning. For $120,000 kip ($17) per twin air-conditioned room you couldn’t do much better than this place. Check out the view…
We changed into some lighter clothes and decided to hit the town. We hired some mountain bikes from the end of the road for a couple of dollars and set off to explore. We went across the river at the south end of town and made our way up the other side of the river bank to most of the restaurants and hotels. We eventually crossed back to Saysong Island and decided the lounges on the edge of the river looked like a great spot for a beer while we watched the sunset.
While a spectacular spot, this river and the town of Vang Vieng had earned quite a reputation (generally not a good one) for being a bit of a backpacker heaven where absolutely anything goes. It was the place to spend your days laying on a tractor tyre tube floating down the river drinking, smoking and “floating” your days away. After a few very unfortunate deaths from methanol poisoning (cheap local made spirits) and drowning, the government set about cleaning the place up. They shut down basically all the bars along the river and definitely quieted the place down a little. While we sat and watched the sunset we did have maybe 8 or 10 backpackers float on past us but it all seemed very tame.
Anyone who tells you the place has been completely cleaned up though is lying. Once the sun set Vang Vieng still knows how to party and the streets are still full of young backpackers. Every second restaurant or bar we walked into would supply us with the menu and then the “special menu” that they were very careful not to let out of their sight or to quickly take off you if a phone was brought out that might snap a photo of it.
Not looking to party too hard given we still had another long day of riding tomorrow we found a couple of quiet bars and enjoyed 2 or 3 beers and played some pool. The boys decided to move to bourbon and coke so I had a couple of Johnnie Walker and cokes (or so I thought) to finish the night and we back in our rooms by about 10:30pm. Little did I know but I’d just made the first very big mistake of the trip.