Lost in Laos

I've been a lucky bugger as far as bikes are concerned. My biker’s brag list includes New Zealand, Australia, Assen TT, Andalucía (off-road), Lake District, Turkey, Norway, and Vietnam. So when I tell you that easily the best biking day ever was on a Chinese skinny-tyred flatulent step thru, you can maybe appreciate this had to be something special.

It came about on a family trip to Laos and Cambodia for Christmas and New Year. The day after Boxing Day my son Rob and I travelled to Vang Vieng, 10 hours of twisty mountain passes in a sweaty, overcrowded local bus.

Next morning, Rob was sent out to find two bikes for the day. Expectations were not high, but hey, two wheels are two wheels. He came back with some crap story that the best bikes in town being two brand new Chinese shoppers for 24,000 Kip per day, helmets, fuelled, ready to go. Arse! 24,000 Kip, that’s £2! Per hour maybe? Another fricking job for me to sort out then...

Twenty minutes later we’d laid down our 48,000 Kip and wobbled off on two brand new, fresh out of the crate Lifan 110s. Yes, truly the best and cheapest bikes in town. Maybe Rob got an apology at the time. If not, here’s one now. Sorry Rob. Ouch.

A warming sun, huge forever skies, father and son out on the open road, a very foreign field, nowhere to be and no one to answer to, and none of my mates to witness my Asian shopping trolley embarrassment. Perfect.

The bikes were completely crass of course. They didn’t stop, didn’t steer, had the suspension of a hardtail, and really didn’t go. Ratio changes in the semi-automatic box took minutes. We pottered about the picturesque town, down to the river, through the market, over wooden bridges, out to pretty temples, pagodas and fish farms. No maps and no mobile signal to summon one up. So that’s a nice hour filled, what next? There’s only one thing for it, let’s get lost.

So down the tarmacked road out of town for 20 miles or so, swerving round bony, lazy cattle, potholes you could lose a Hummer in, avoiding every kind of agricultural harvest laid out on the road to dry. Express buses and Chinese overloaded trucks barrelled past, unsettling us in their stifling backdrafts.

Then, taking the next dirt road we came to, we turned left, maybe right, maybe right again and three lefts. Through glades of tall bamboo, between verdant paddy fields, over small gushing streams we went. So quickly out of the semi-tourist environs of Vang Vieng and into a world of field-to-table farming, National Geographic landscapes, jungle wilderness and who knows what.

Through a gap between two small hills, the hardened mud turned to a steep, rutted gravel track. Our skinny tyres washed out almost immediately, and we both had quick tumbles. The laughter started at this point, and never went away, defining the day.

We rode and rode, hard as they would go, over looooooong plank bridges with no handrails, 10cms wide over boulder-strewn fast flowing rivers, through villages whose relative affluence seemed to decline with every mile travelled. No map, no idea.

Around lunchtime we hit yet another frustrating full stop valley. It was beautiful, but by now we were getting sick of struggling to find a way through. We’d turned and were heading away when an old guy sprinted out of a hut and grabbed me by the arm, highly animated. We presumed it was a trespass thing but when he calmed down a little he gestured to follow him.

Cautiously we did, and inside the hut his wider family proceeded to ply us with warm Fanta and pushed grubby tickets in our hands in exchange for a few Kip. We’ve too many travelling miles under our belts to fall for Asian money-making scams, but we were in the deepest countryside, felt as though this was territory untravelled by fellow westerners, and so despite our cynicism, went along with it.

And I’m so pleased we did. Our new friend marched us through the jungle to a bamboo footbridge leading to the cliffs that marked the true head of the valley. This ran over a fast flowing river that seemed to just lead to a shingle beach. Crossing the bridge, we saw an opening in the cliff and he led us through an unmarked entrance to what turned out to be the most magnificent caving complex. Lit only by the torches, we clambered around caverns, tunnels, waterfalls and magnificent limestone structures.

Reluctantly we ended it after an hour or so, even though he evidently had much more to show us. Humbled and blown away by this magical underground discovery, and with no sense of time, direction, or location, we dragged ourselves away, wound the throttle to the max and pushed on, forgetting that we’d forgotten about the one gallon tank. Being the lardier rider, my bike started to cough and splutter first.

Uh oh. There were maybe 10 houses in the hamlet where we’d come to a halt, each one looking as though it could be blown over in a light breeze. This was close to subsistence society, certainly no electricity or vehicles. A door opened, a curious local looked out, all smiles. I gesture at the tank and shake my head. He disappears, and then comes shuffling out with what I take to be a bottle of local cloudy hooch. Typical of the wonderful Laotian people to offer sustenance at the time of need. Grateful as I am, getting pissed out here is not going to make things easier. I politely decline his hospitality, but he points at the filler cap and his hooch bottle. As he removes the top, it smells refreshingly like unleaded, despite its appearance, and in it goes, along with one more and a couple into Rob’s bike too. Top man. Our salvation fill-up cost us slightly more than hiring the bikes, but it’s the best value fuel ever bought.

So the adventure goes on, full throttle only. Coming across a fast flowing small river, the footbridge is too tight even for us, with only a ford as an alternative which is clearly designed for tractors. Again using sign language, we ask some locals if it’s okay to cross on the bikes. They are encouraging, and squat down to watch. No pressure then. We commit.

I go first, easy to start, but a bloody big sink-hole in the middle has me almost to seat level. Luckily I have enough speed to bounce through it into the shallows on the other side. Rob chooses a different line, but a hidden boulder gets him. He’s off and down. We drag the submerged bike to the shore and hit the starter button. Nothing. We’ve destroyed this little bike on its very first outing and we’re stranded again. We debate fashioning a tow rope. Can we split 3.5bhp between two bikes? A scavenge around doesn’t reveal anything promising. So we sit, scratching our bums for inspiration. Just for the hell of it Rob tries the dead starter again, the bike fires first time.

In due course we reach a road we recognise, and the apparent unrideability and frequent falling of this morning is a distant memory. If you have the cash to go to Laos, go, it’s unmissable. If you don’t, go anyway, the locals need your money more than you do. It’s a bit pricey to get there, and at least two flights, but it’s cheap when you are and the mopeds are almost for free.


AUTHOR’S FOOTNOTE: Reading this through I now wonder whether your heart goes out to the family that rented us these bikes for almost no money and think us to be prize pricks for abusing their generosity. In our defence, we did wash the bikes, and there’s maybe a little artistic licence as to how hard we thrashed them, and most of the falls were cushioned by our bodies. And we did leave a tip of £1 each. OK, you are right, we were pricks. We need to go back and make amends. You coming?

RIDER >> SIMON KING
BIKE >> LIFAN 110
DISTANCE >> 150 MILES