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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.