The Laos motorcycle diaries

The jungle-rich, three-day odyssey known as the Loop twists its way sinuously through jungle, paddy fields and karst country to one of the country’s most spectacular sights.

Landlocked Laos, fortressed by mountains and dissected by the mighty Mekong River, is best travelled by road; its dramatic routes twisting sinuously through jungle, paddy fields, mountains and karst country.

Normally seen from one of the country’s wheezing buses, there is an exciting alternative for those eager to drive through Laos’ stunning panoramas. Over the last 10 years – in a voracious desire to create speedy supply routes to trade neighbours Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand – China has invested heavily in widening and sealing the Laos’ roads. This, combined with affordable satellite navigation technology, has made the country a new favourite for amateur motorcyclists. After all, wouldn’t you rather be the architect of your journey with the wind on your face, than stuck in the back of a decrepit bus beside a cage of bats?

In 1975, after the Vietnam War and parallel Laotian Civil War, the communist country slammed its doors to the outside world until 1991, meaning that Laos has had far less exposure to the West than some of its neighbours. Beyond its main cities – Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet – four-fifths of the population live off the land, including its more than 100 ethnic tribes; and the country is still thickly carpeted in forest that harbours tigers and leopards. To best explore this mysterious world, hire a speedy motorbike to tackle the rough trails and mountain roads. You can arrange to have your bags forwarded to your destination and even drop the bike off at the end to avoid doubling back on yourself.

Start your journey in the languid capital of Vientiane, where The Midnight Mapper (ask for Don Duvall) hires handheld Garmin GPS devices to help you safely find your route in the most remote of Laos’ backwaters. If you already have a device, an excellent digital GPS map is also available via sim card. Thanks to Duvall’s slavish obsession to detail – taking 10 years to map every corner of the country – the possibility of getting lost in the jungle is now nearly impossible.  

Before you leave Vientiane, spend a few days soaking up its French restaurants, bakeries and spas, before heading to Jules Classic Rental, a Western-run outfit in the centre of the old town. They have well-maintained heavy-duty dirt bikes for hire and a solid reputation to match.

From Vientiane it is an easy 340km ride south on Highway 13 to the pretty colonial town of Tha Khaek. The road is generally flat, with Thailand on your right across the Mekong River and dramatic jungle rearing up like a dragon-green tsunami to the east. Given that dusk comes around 6 pm, try to travel early, before the vampish dangers of night increase your chances of colliding with an errant water buffalo. Also many Lao lack bike lights, and dogs have a suicidal leaning to sleep in the centre of the road. An hour of this nocturnal Russian roulette will fray your nerves.

In Tha Khaek, stay at the delightful Inthira Hotel, the town’s only boutique accommodation. While this former colonial outpost is pretty enough with old French houses, Chinese merchants shops and locals playing pétanque under the tropical sun, its main purpose is as a base for travellers who come to tackle the jungle-rich, three-day, 500km odyssey known as the Loop; the highlight of which is the country’s most spectacular cave, Kong Lor.

Up until now, travellers attempting the Loop had to rely on unreliable narrow-wheeled scooters to take them over demanding terrain, from passing trucks throwing up thick dust to sheer mountain roads with gravel surfaces. Not surprisingly, fatalities occurred and casualties were myriad. Fortunately a new professional motorcycle hire company, Mad Monkey Motorbike (Fountain Square; 020-2347-7799), has set up in Tha Khaek, making it possible for you to rent one of their regularly serviced motorbikes, safe in the knowledge that if you break down in the surrounding backwoods the friendly German owner will come and get you.

Day one of the Loop heads 140km northeast from Th Khaek toward Vietnam, surging through lush jungle and along unsealed roads past lunar landscapes of flooded valleys. From there it rears west from the logging town of Lak Sao back into Khammouane Province. Lak Sao might not be much to look at, but you will be glad of its acceptable hotels, street food and ATMs to accommodate your first night.

The second day sees better conditioned roads as you motor 100km west to Kong Lor Village through extraordinary karst country, the triple canopy rent  by forbidding charcoal-black cliffs, visible for miles around. Amid this surreal topography are lethally tight switchbacks that snake through clouds of fluorescent butterflies and past roadside tribal folk with antique guns slung over their shoulders. It is best to overnight in Kong Lor village and see the cave early the next morning, giving yourself plenty of time to ride back to Tha Khaek before it gets dark.

Less than 1km from Kong Lor Village, your first view of Kong Lor cave is that of a dark mouth leering at you from the base of a towering limestone mountain. From its ragged teeth flows the Kong River, which you have to board a stuttering longtail boat to navigate. With its stalactites and stalagmites twisting in the church-high darkness, Kong Lor cave looks like a backdrop from a Star Trek movie. As the river flows quick and dark through the heart of the mountain, it is just you, your feeble torch and the boatman, puttering into the Stygian gloom.

The trip through the cave takes about 40 minutes, the boat emerging mole-like into the sunshine where you stop by a small ban (village) for a cold drink. The relief is short-lived, however, as you have no choice but to return back the way you came. At 7.5km long, this eerie cave is surely one of Laos’ most unforgettable experiences.

After the cave, grab some lunch before travelling the last 180km of the Loop, back to your pressed linen sheets and rain shower at the Inthira Hotel.