This is a magazine story reprint about the first-ever motorcycle tour allowed inside Laos, which took place in 1995. At this point in time, no one knew a thing about what to expect or what one would see or encounter after crossing the Mekong River. But that never stopped the old explorers, did it?
Last published: TWO WHEELS, Australia, March ’97.
It’s hard to remember to breathe through your nose when you’re bouncing along a jungle trail at thirty miles per hour dodging hanging vines with your head and trying to avoid the edges of cliffs. But this would be the first piece of advise I would give to anyone doing a motorcycle tour through Northern Laos — remember to breathe through your nose. This is what will stick with me foremost when I reminisce about this first-ever motorcycle trip into Laos–the fragrant smells of the jungle. Since my nose juts out in front of my face, I let my snoot lead me through Laos while my eyes and the rest of my body followed closely behind.
Actually, I was letting my friend David Unkovich lead me by the nose through Laos. David is a transplanted Aussie who has been riding bikes across almost every square inch of the Golden Triangle for over ten years. And every time he rode anywhere near the Mekong River, he would look longingly at the other side hoping one day to have the opportunity to lay down tire tracks in this virgin biking territory.
Our excursion into Laos was unprecedented because this is the one of the most xenophobic nations in Asia, as well as the least developed. Tourists have only been allowed inside since 1989, and that was only within the capitol of Vientiane. To see the rest of the country, special travel permits are required. A government minder must tag along to the remotest provinces. To add to the obstacles, Laos has only 14,000 kilometers of roads, almost all unpaved, and hardly any in the provinces we planned on visiting.
Once known as “the land of a million elephants”, The Lao P.D.R., or Peoples Democratic Republic, realistically stands for “People Don’t Rush”. In a country the size of England there isn’t a single railroad track. Phone numbers are three digits. There is no glue on the stamps. Electricity is a hit or miss affair, mostly miss. The majority of Laotians are subsistence farmers whose main export crop is opium, which has only recently been de-listed as an official commodity.
Basic information about Laos is scarce – between our group, our knowledge couldn’t have filled a bumblebee’s purse. All we had was the Lonely Planet guide to Laos, the thinnest book in the series, by the way, – and a dubious map of Cambodia and Vietnam that just happened to include Laos. In the library were I tried doing my pre-tour research were two books on Laos, the same amount of books devoted to napkin folding.
One of the Laos books was about nineteenth century Laos under French rule?not very useful on a motorcycle trip. And the other one was the Lonely Planet guide book which I already owned. Well, they say ignorance is bliss.
One more huge problem remained: where to get the requisite mounts? Enter Josef Sauerborn, who owns a motorcycle repair and rental business in Chiang Mai. He would provide the bikes only under the condition that he could tag along to keep an eye on them. The fourth member of our party was photographer Chris Stowers. A man who knows his priorities, Chris hastily cut short an assignment shooting sheiks in Brunei to shoot rapids on a dirt bike.
We transported the bikes across the Mekong in two long-tail boats to the border town of Houay Xay, itself only opened to foreigners since 1993. Our party was ledger entry numbers 98, 99, 100, and 101. This was not a very busy border crossing.
Houay Xay anchors one terminus of Laos Route 3, which is an old, French, dirt logging road that disappears into the mysterious Laotian interior. As we roared down the narrow, twisty, steep, dusty, and rutted trail we kept one eye glued to the rearview mirror, half expecting to be followed. But after a few hours of unmolested cruising, we realized that we had really been let loose in Laos.
Colorful jungle birds flit across the skies, the sun’s rays slant through the forest canopy overhead. And the aromas. Oh, that sweet jungle bouquet. The air was so laden with floral odors it was like driving through a car wash of smells. Through sections of invisible fragrance mist, I snuffled to drink up the air with my nostrils from under my helmet. We were in a new and wonderful world of bursting greenery and life.
Mr. Unkovich’s knowledge of the Thai language, which is similar to Lao, was invaluable in our encounters with the various hill tribes along the way. The lousy road conditions made it impossible to ride for more than an hour at a clip, so we stopped for frequent breaks, timing them with many of the road-side villages. As soon as David pulled out his picture collection of some related hill tribe settlements in Thailand, we were embraced as friends. This was particularly reassuring when villagers would approach us with home-made long rifles strapped across their backs. Their fly-catching expressions of astonishment at seeing falangs – foreigners – pulling up on dirt bikes quickly turned into smiles and back pats. Further on we stopped at a Kamu village, where tradition forbids the use of metal tools.
At one memorable Akha village we were greeted by the women, as the men were out hunting. They were costumed to the hilt, with their hair severely parted and pulled back, highlighting a broad forehead and the most beautiful upturned lips. Their laughter was musical, infectious, and hearty, on the edge of hysterics. After looking at David’s pictures they posed for us willingly and we promised them copies.
Each of the hill tribes have their own particular attire. The colors of their hand-made clothes, the garment styles, needlework designs, hairstyles, head coverings, and jewelry are all endemic to each hill tribe. Once you become familiar with their outfits you can tell exactly which hill tribe a person belongs to by what they’re wearing.
As far as asking directions went, the villagers weren’t much help. The majority have never left their birthplace. David was told at various times that our next destination was 120 or 300 kilometers away, that it would be a 5 or 20 hour ride, over lots of mud or not too much mud, depending on who was queried. But since the entire province we were passing through often had only one road, there wasn’t any chance of getting lost. It would have been so enjoyable to spend a day in each village, watching a life unchanged for millennia, especially after hours of bone-jarring riding. But since we were so unsure about what was beyond the next turn, we had to keep pushing on.
As rural and isolated as Laos is, though, development is coming. Over a few streams were very substantial concrete bridges under construction, seemingly on the way to nowhere. Later, in a bulldozed valley, a food stall owner told us that by next year 200 trucks a day will be hauling coal to the Mekong over the same road we just came in on. This was impossible to believe until we passed a new coal mine. If you dig out coal, there better be a way to bring it to market.
We descended our fourth mountain pass and coasted down into the Loaung Namtha valley and onto a dusty, rubble-strewn street of the provincial capitol. Having passed only three cars all day we were surprised to see dozens of new Mercedes-Benzes and Nissans in the parking lot of the local hotel, which was barely more then a cement blockhouse built in the Chinese anti-architectural style. It turned out that Loaung Namtha is the car smuggling center for southwestern China. Buyers flock here to pick up their purchases on vehicles that have come from as far away as Arabia and America. A Chinese trader from Kunming told us in fractured Chinglish that the deals are made in Bangkok. The Thais then buy the cars and ship them by boat up the Mekong as far as they can go, then drive them 300 plus kilometers to the border for pick-up, much the worse for wear.
“I’m a hell of a lot better trail rider then I was twelve hours ago,” said Chris over dinner of noodle soup, rice, boiled vegetables, and a bony river fish. Joe wondered if his cowboy boots would ever dry from the 99 streams and rivers we forded today – David counted them.
The next day at the biggest junction in northern Laos, five cows were chewing their cuds in the middle of the deserted intersection, next to the only road sign we saw on the whole trip. We saw hundreds of more new cars in three big lots full of Hondas and Toyotas. A shot-gun wielding guard said this glut was because the Chinese had been cracking down and nothing was getting through at the moment. A quick survey revealed that the car of choice was the Lexus, with Accords running a close second.
During our next 60 kilometer drive through primeval forests of huge-girthed trees, we passed some poppy fields, and decided to stop. Once you know what to look for, the chest-high purple and white flowers are impossible to miss. Whether it is really grown for local consumption, as they claim, is hard to say, but we certainly saw many instances of local use. The farmers who tend the flowers showed us how they lightly score each pod vertically with two or three cuts. Immediately, a pinkish-white milky substance oozes out and beads up, hardening by the next morning. Then the tacky gum is scrapped into a bamboo cup, ready for smoking or refinement into heroin once it leaves Laos. Most of the elderly enjoy the opium pipe in the evenings. They say it helps to relieve the aches and pains of old age and feel they earned this right after a lifetime of backbreaking work in the fields.We reached Muang Sing, which is nestled into a crevice between the Burmese and Chinese borders, and check into the Sing Thong Hotel. For US$6 a night, you get five beds to a room, mosquito netting, and candles, but no towels, soap, running water, electricity, or toilet paper.
Everything you need to survive in Laos can be found in the local morning market, which seems to draw natives from most of the province’s 39 different hill tribes. Behind the still steaming cattle carcasses of the butcher’s stalls, opium smokers were already lighting up for US$0.68 a dose.
The long return trip was tougher because the scorching weather had been baking the earth and the dust was significantly deeper. This makes traction a lot more slippery, demanding even more concentration and allowing less room for error. Joe and David agree that we came to Laos at the perfect time. During the rainy season the road would be impassable because most of the 99 rivers would be too deep and strong for any vehicles to cross. An earlier departure would have been too muddy, and any later, deeper dust would make driving a torture session.
Up and down the four mountain passes again, waving to the villages we stopped at on the way in, and stopping at a few new ones on the way out. As fatigue set in, the driving got harder. The paper clip turns that were a blast last week turned tedious. Chris loses his front fender to a rock and takes personal filth into a new dimension. The last piece of road puts up a bitch of a good fight but we’re not to be denied.
A blood-red sunset leads us back to the Mekong and Houay Xay, exhausted but in one piece. Overall it wasn’t the hardest trail riding in the world but Joe sums it up perfectly. “It’s the longest piece of dirt I’ve ever ridden on. 205 k’s. No intersections! No traffic lights! Where else in the world can you drive 205 ks and not pass over one piece of asphalt?” Well, we hear there’s a place hard by the India-Burma-China border …….