“I’m going to ride motorbikes through the jungles and crisscross the muddy roads of Laos for my thirtieth with three of my favourite humans”. No matter how many times I said that out loud it still didn’t feel real. It didn’t feel real when Andy Jason and I were sleeping in KL airport during our stopover. Not even when we landed in Vientiane and spotted the first rip-off Thraisher tee, the first of hundreds.
We jumped straight into a cab and met up with our fourth Loast Bandit Brother, Kes, who was waiting for us at the rental place with our rides. Twenty minutes later we were rolling through the laneways of Vientiane. The moment the reality of the trip only kicked around this point. Somewhere between the city traffic thinning, the bitumen ending and watching my shadow race alongside the stoic Mekong River.
We stopped at a roadside shop; buzzing with adrenaline and full-face grins we smoked cigarettes. I found a sturdy little black switchblade amongst the canned coffee and soap. The knife and a pack of cigarettes came to 3.90AUD. Sabaidee, welcome to Laos.
Laos is maybe the least known about of the South East Asian countries in our circles. It’s landlocked, has a low population and about as many waterfalls as houses. It’s said to be relatively harder to get around than its neighbors. It copped a ridiculous beating from US cluster bombs during the Vietnam War, a war it wasn’t officially involved in. Everyone who I knew that had been to Laos repeatedly told me how friendly the people were, how beautiful the landscape was and how terrible the roads are. Perfect for a motorbike trip.
We rode for the rest of the first day into Xanamkhan, 150km west along the Mekong. We stopped for lunch at a tiny restaurant where everyone was drunk and the music was insanely loud. We had landed on the first day of Songkran, a three-day festival to celebrate the Laos New Year and every meal is a party. April also marks the beginning of monsoon season and is the hottest month in Laos. We saw evidence of this as rain engulfed the town and we decided to stay the night
We found a guesthouse and packed our bags out of the rain. That night when it dried we rode through the town, well the 200-meter stretch of houses and shops to find dinner and Beer Laos. Over a pho dinner we began our ritual of eating, planning tomorrows riding and smoking 75 cigarettes. In the morning we packed early and rode towards Pak Lay, 75km northwest. Once we found a guesthouse in Pak Lay we unloaded the bikes and went straight back out to find some trails.
This is where we got to really test our moto skills and dial ourselves into the riding. There are endless farm trails that go off the two main roads in Laos, and there’s single-track leading off most of those farm trails. We picked a loop on the map and hit the dirt and mud. I’m used to riding a 600 single at home and I was having a ball being able to throw the 250 Honda around muddy corners and pull it up the rocky inclines. We had intentionally gone rural enough that we had the trails completely to ourselves most of the time, occasionally passing though tiny villages and the odd modified tractor trailer. Ridding a motorbike anywhere, anytime is an exhilarating feeling and I recommend it to anyone who’s keen. Add endless rolling mountains on your horizon and a complete lack of road rules and you’ve got a dreamtime combination.
At some point in the afternoon the monsoon rains swept back over us turning the ruts in the road into little streams. My front tire was flattening the dirt bumps and mounds as the ground softened and the water running over the hard packed clay made for fun climbing. Accelerating up a slope my rear wheel bounced sideways off a rock and I began a pinball journey forward. Just managing to hold straight and throttle out of it we pulled over under a bamboo lean too and watched the track quickly turn into a river.
We shared the shelter with some local boys, passing tobacco and banana chips around, communicating via shakas and the very little Lao we spoke.
We spent the next few days exploring the trails around Pak Lay during the day and eating with the locals at night. The people here were extremely hospitable, inviting us to a house party where we danced for hours eating crickets and getting our faces doused in baby powder for New Years celebrations. After we had eaten our weight in sticky rice we left Pak Lay for Luang Prabang for a planned one-night stop in the city before heading further north.
There’s a main road that pretty much runs the guts of Laos and we used it to knock down the k’s on longer travel sections. It’s certainly not as exciting but dodging the speeding SUV’s and insane tour buses driving double breasted around blind corners keeps you alert. We had really got a taste of the freedom of trail riding in our days around Pak Lay and the highway ride north was making our arses sore. I was also silently stoked the Suus boys had some butt padding stitched into their Road Denim, because for every km there was approximately 26 potholes. That’s about when Kes spotted a tabletop mountain off to the right. Like something straight from a 90’s crim film we all dropped off the bitumen and headed through the bush searching for a break in the thick bamboo to climb the hill.
We followed a fence-line until we saw a gap and slowed to assess the climb. There were two young boys, around six and nine sitting on fence posts on the thin single track. I said excuse me and motioned towards the hill and asked if it was okay to us to go through. I got nothing back, not a murmur. I noticed both kids had water bottles stuffed with soaking mushrooms and they both had long, thin machetes strapped to their hips. Their saucepan black eyes met mine; they jumped off the fence and ran past me before I could say another thing. We concluded there wasn’t any danger as long as we didn’t jump the fence into the farm and stayed away from whatever was being grown in there.
Suus Road Denim: https://suus.com.au/collections/road-denim
Bell Moto 3: https://suus.com.au/collections/helmets-1
100% goggles: https://suus.com.au/collections/goggles
Part 2 to follow ...
Words by Max Ray Fin