Luang Prabang to Vientiane on motorbikes

March 1st, 2008 Latitude: S Longitude: E

Flying up was a 55 minutes fasten-seat-belts-and-eat-your-snacks-experience, riding down again on a motorbike is something to remember a lifetime. The N13, the road from Luang Prabang in the north of Laos to the capital Vientiane ranks among the most beautiful stretches of road this planet has to offer.

Riding south from Luang Prabang? Bring enough time, we were warned. First of all because of all the curves, the mountainous up and down of the N13 between this centre of the Laotian north and the plains around Vientiane. The road cuts off the long western curve of the Mekong between the two cities and leads right through several mountain chains. Making time to take pictures and enjoying the landscape was another good advice we got.

The idea had been born last year returning from a day-trip out of Vientiane on a Honda 250 dirt bike. Already then it was clear that we would be coming back this year to work in Luang Prabang, and that we would have to travel from Vientiane to the north and back as we had business to attend in the capital before and after.

Flying up to Luang Prabang had been a pragmatic decision: The long-haul flight from Germany through Bangkok to Vientiane had left us exhausted, plus being jet-lagged doesn’t cater for a relaxed trip. But in between working for two weeks in the north and another week in Vientiane, the weekend would be perfect for this two-day trip.

Leaving Luang Prabang

We left Luang Prabang Saturday morning after a last Coffee and Croissant at the notorious JoMa bakery, a stop at the gasoline station and a short trip to the market next to the radio house to wave a last good bye to the girls who’d been selling fresh Lao coffee to us during our breaks for the last two weeks.

Temperatures had finally gotten to where you’d expect them in this region, somewhere in the lower 30’s (that’s Celsius) after more than a week of cold, cold temperatures and cloudy skies. Still we put on long sleeved clothes – after all we were heading for the mountains.

Luang Prabang is not a big town. Past the stadium, past the chinese market, past the southern bus terminal, a last goodbye from a rusty billboard and off we were.

The long and winding road

2008-02-23_04-26-06_UTC_Laos_Luang_Prabang

Driving through villages, kids are waving, huts look like they were built a thousand years ago, chicken are crossing the road, followed by cows and goats, seeds are dried in front of the house, children and older people alike roll long leaves to make raw material for the roofs. Curves and curves, rolling hills and mountains, the landscape in shapes of green and blue rolling into the glazing sunlight.

Another road side attraction

Riding like this takes all your concentration. The road is good, but any mistake might send you flying over the edge. We stop again and again to take pictures or just leave the camera untouched to take in the landscape whenever we felt it’s larger than life. The concentration and density of impressions can make you forget time, but when our stomaches indicated noon, we stopped at one of the many road side restaurants. Instant noodles, hot broth and an abundance of fresh vegetables are served for the perfect lunch, juice and ginger tea round off the road side feast.

2008-02-23_04-47-32_UTC_Laos_Luang_Prabang

No discussion about who’s doing the dishes in this joint…

Speed can be measured in meters, miles or kilometers per hour – or also in a bigger scheme. As we drive south, both the vegetation and landscape are changing. Green is the prevailing colour from the deepest valleys we drive through up to the mountain tops left and right of our route climbing up to above 2000 meters altitude. Often the road climbs up along the slopes for miles and miles, crosses over the ridge and winds down again on the other side. The ride is playful, a symphony of the landscape, the road cutting through it, the motor between our knees and our ability to lean through the serpentines. Brake, bend into the curves, release, pull the gas and accelerate into the next turn, hours and hours, almost like dancing.

Altitude log Lpq2vv
The altitude log of the first day from Luang Prabang created using a GPS enabled cell phone

Down to Vang Vieng has us speeding – we have called and reserved the last two rooms at The Elephant Crossing, one of the few hotels in this backpackers stopover, but they will be held only until five in the afternoon. Vang Vieng looks with its abundance of neon lights like a Lao version of Las Vegas, only for backpackers, where eating burgers and fries while laying in front of a TV-set running US-american dailies like “Friends” is the favourite and widespread “activity”.

A good place for a sun-downer

2008_02_23_VangVieng

The Elephant Crossing is quite a water-hole in this place with its beautiful terrace and the panorama on the other side of the river. While we’re having our first beer, backpackers float by on tubes, another favourite past time in Vang Vieng.

Next morning sees us on the road for the second part of our trip. No need to hurry. The distance between Vang Vieng and Vientiane might be the about same as Luang Prabang to Vieng Vang, but the road is, well, straight forward. In some places actually to the extent that there’s no curve or bend for more than a dozen kilometers. But before we reach the plains of the Mekong we are treated to what best could be described as flying-carpet-style riding. The countryside is just a series of rolling hills with the road as if built by passionate motorcycle fans.

Vientiane is not a good final destination for such a tour, as the city greets us with its endless string of workshops, houses, truck-stops, companies, dirt and dust and mad traffic. Well aware of what’s awaiting us we decide to take a long enough break at a fish farm with restaurant to get one of the typical “surprise yourself lunchs” that are the rule in rural Laos as long as you don’t speak enough Lao to tell people what you want – and maybe don’t want. Grilled fish, vegetables and the notorious sticky rice send me sleeping afterwards, dreaming my way back into the mountains…

What does it look like?

Google Earth ImageYou can have a look at what the trip is like using Google Earth. For this, download the files behind this two links (using you right-click menue) of the trip from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng and from Vang Vieng to Vientiane and open it in Google Earth. To see the pictures of the trip displayed in Google Earth with the exact position where they where taken, you want to do the same with this link to my Photos of the trip from LPQ to VTE.

You’ll find all my pictures from the trip also on my Flickr-page.

How to do it yourself?

The bikes we organised through remoteasia.com. This company is owned and run by Quynh and Jim, where he seems to have the motorbike and travelling competence and she run’s the office. Both of them are not only very professional but also very friendly and fun to deal with. We booked by e-mail, made a down-payment to secure the reservation using Paypal, met them on our stop-over in Vientiane to talk about the trip beforehand – What would the road be like? How do the bikes work, etc.? Everything of importance (see my list below of things to think of when going on a motor bike trip in Laos).

Remoteasia also organised the transport of our luggage from Luang Prabang to Vientiane house to house while we were riding the bikes with the light pack we needed for the overnight stay in Vang Vieng.

As this was a one-way trip only, our bikes were shipped up from Vientiane to Luang Prabang on one of the many buses (how this is done remains a secret of Remoteasia and there business partners…)

Good to know

  • Make sure you get the right size of bike. The usual dirt bike you can rent in Laos is a Honda Baja 250 cc. These machines offer enough power to get you anywhere. Some of them are quite high, so if you are less then my 1,90, you might not feel safe getting on and off if you get a bike as high as the one I had…
  • Make sure the bike is in order. Renting a bike like this involves a number of people. There is the owner of the bikes, most of the times Mr. Fourk in Vientiane who also maintains them. Jim of Remoteasia will check the bikes if everything is in order. Then the bikes will be shipped up to Luang Prabang on the bus and handed over to you at the office of Green Discovery. They are the ones who pick up the bikes at the bus terminal. So even if they should be ok, as they go through quite a few hands, you want to make sure they also are
    ok. If not, there is a workshop in Luang Prabang willing to fix anything if necessary.
  • When renting, helmets and other security equipment will be provided. Make sure you give an indication of the size of your head beforehand so you don’t end up with a helmet to small or to big.
  • You might want to bring a washable inlay for the helmet or use one of the tube-like scarfs as the helmets have seen a lot of sweaty heads during their life…
  • Get the Laos road map published by GT-rider.com. Not only is it the best road map available in Laos, it is also laminated, so it will last long enough to get you where you want to go and back. GT-rider.com also features a very helpful online forum.
  • If you don’t speak Lao, a no-words-dictionary like this one from Langenscheidt is a good thing to have as in between the tourist-spots english speaking people are few and not always at hand when you’d need them…
  • Sunglasses, sun protection, long sleeved jacket, gloves and enough warm wear, as the road goes upt o about 1300 meters in altitude and even if it doesn’t get freezing cold, you still want to feel comfortable even after several hours of riding…
  • A good idea is to get the bikes a day or several days before so you can get accustomed to them before hitting the long road. It will also allow you to day-trips out of Luang Prabang.
  • Bring a camera.

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