“You, what happen, you have accident, you kill someone?” asked the Chinese border guard, pointing at my bloody red hands. “No, no, rain too much” I innocently replied holding up a pair of saturated red gloves. “Oh, OK, OK” replied the guard, laughing.
After a 3-hour ride in the rain you’d expect them to be soaked, but to the Chinese border guard it was something new. No western bikers had been through his checkpoint before, and the sight of the bloody- red hands puzzled him.
We were crossing the Chinese border back into Laos, heading home for Chiang Mai, after a bike trip in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, S-W China. The rain had started the night before and not stopped. Yet, despite the wet and shivering with cold, we felt elated. No-one had fallen off during the ride back to the border, so we had successfully completed our ride in S-W China. Only the jungle road back through Laos remained.
THE NAM THA JUNGLE ROAD The jungle road’s the Huay Sai – Luang Nam Tha road, a daunting 200 kms jungle trail of steep and winding dirt. An off-road bikers dream, with innumerable stream crossings and seemingly endless thick jungle, it is impassable in the wet, and only safely passable for 3-4 months of the year.
Some sections in the jungle seldom see the sun, never dry out, and are always wet and muddy. Riding in good conditions you often have to negotiate thick dust, mud and streams all in a single kilometre. Ten wheel trucks providing the “bus service” on the same road take anything from 12-18 hours, but on a dirt bike it’s a quick 8 hour blast. Get caught out on the Nam Tha road in the wet however, and you are in deep trouble for hours, if not days, on a very muddy, slippery trail in a malaria jungle.
ORIGINS OF CHINA RIDE The seeds for the China trip were sown earlier (in Feb. 95) on a 1,000 kms ride into Laos. This first bike tour into northern Laos was a magical experience; Laos was fresh, exciting and extremely friendly – we received a warm welcome and tremendous hospitality everywhere.
It was a contrast to what four enthusiastic adventure seeking bikers had anticipated. Laos had been closed to the outside world for many years and as the first bikers allowed in to the Golden Triangle area of northern Laos we weren’t sure what to expect. Fertile imaginations provided images of encounters with bizarre characters (zealous NGOs / lost missionaries?), drug smugglers or even plain old-fashioned bandits. But we were “disappointed,” the people of northern Laos were and are all truly wonderful.
CHINA SIDE TRIP On the first Laos trip, we made a short, albeit illegal, trip into China; crossing at a border trading post and riding 15 kms before getting turned back at the first checkpoint. The border guards were not impressed with our little gambit. However we got the impression that with proper visas, some money and patience, that we might be able to make a legal entry (somewhere else) and continue into China. We had to wait till after the wet to attempt another trip, this time armed with the Chinese visas; setting off in early November, as soon after the rainy season as we dare.
FUEL The Nam Tha road was open only two weeks when we got through to find the fuel pumps dry. Fuel, we discovered is not always readily available, but there is always a black market. 50 litres of fuel was scrounged from various entrepreneurs around town, who sold it, by the litre bottle, at double the normal price. But no complaints, we were happy to get the fuel and see private enterprise alive and well in an ex-communist nation. The fuel quality in both Laos & China is not high, with 87 octane in Laos & 90 the go in China. Our bikes peaked out at 90-100 kph, compared to a normal top speed of around 120 KPH.
Each bike carried 4 litres of extra fuel. This was carried on the back of the bikes on special luggage racks welded onto the 250s for the trip. It was used only twice on the trip; between Huay Sai and Nam Tha in Laos, a distance of only 190 kms, but beyond the range of the standard Baja tank. In China fuel is sold at proper petrol stations in the main towns, so it is difficult to run out.
THE RIDING The riding is challenging and requires constant concentration, with no room for error. Speeds are slow and so days are long. A normal day was up at sunrise, be on the road within an hour and go until dusk. Average speeds in the jungle are down to 20 kph. So 150 kms is a full-on all day ride, when you included time for photos and food / drink. The main problem is not so much the rough road, but the lack of a clear view ahead. At the best of times it is impossible to see more than 200 metres ahead on tracks so tight, narrow and winding. It can be quite scary flying along a single lane jungle track. You never know what is just around the next corner: a 10 wheel truck blocking the road, an elephant, a group of hilltribe people or buffaloes sauntering along. Sod’s Law means that you come across these dangers just around that one blind corner, with a reducing radius, which is rougher and narrower than normal, and into which you go a little faster than normal.
If it was the local bus (10 wheel truck) around the corner, there was no room to manoeuvre and you had to pull up damn fast. If you didn’t eat well at breakfast, the adrenaline flow always got you through the day! Riding with a full face helmet also means that it is difficult to hear any vehicles coming. But you need a full face helmet for that extra protection it provides over an open face helmet. Road side bushes whipping across your face are a continual hindrance bouncing along the narrow jungle tracks.
Even the asphalt roads in northern Laos are rough. Sometimes they are so full of potholes it is quicker riding on the dirt. On the smooth dirt you could could a steady pace & rhythm going; but not on the badly potholed asphalt, riding an off-road machine loaded up with luggage. The roads in China whilst asphalt, are still narrow and surprisingly we could not average more than 60 kph a couple of times. Again the problem is narrow roads with lack of a clear view ahead. Being in the saddle all day makes you tired if you’re not fit. Good health and fitness are required to start any trip like this.
FOG Fog’s also a hazard in the cold mornings, and on a bad day it does not clear until 10.00 am. It too increases the challenge of dirt riding. The dust adheres to your helmet visor or goggles and leaves a nice muddy smear when you try to wipe it clear. At low speed in the jungle, condensation inside the visor was also a hindrance some riders had to deal with.
CHINA BORDER CLEARANCE The appearance of 4 foreign devils on motorbikes (bearing Thai number plates) at the border surprised the Chinese. At first they did not believe that we wanted to continue to Sipsongpanna. No westerners had done this at their checkpoint before. But the ride from Chiang Mai through the heart of the Golden Triangle impressed them; we were serious and had genuine visas.
Unsure of the papers to complete or the fees to collect, a series of negotiations were conducted with the Chinese border officials. Language was the biggest hurdle. They spoke as much English as we spoke Chinese, so “expat Thai” served as the happy medium. Despite the communication barrier and a certain amount of confusion, the negotiations were done in a jovial manner. The novelty factor winning the day.
The final obstacle was health clearances for riders and bikes. No one had a yellow WHO vaccination book, they became obsolete years ago, except at Mohan on the China / Laos border, or a quarantine certificate for the bike. More negotiations with suggested fees were required. These started at US $70 for a medical examination by the border doctor, but which was refused more for the thought of getting jabbed with a fresh HIV needle for a blood test than for the extortionate fee. Eventually a compromise was reached and health certificates were issued. The final humorous act being a cute little quarantine spray of the wheels on each bike!
BIKE BORDER CROSSING Crossing the border with a motorcycle is comical. You can’t ride it across, but must walk it through, with the motor turned off! This deflated a couple of egos after riding so far and wanting to be the first foreigners to ride across the Laos / China border. It was difficult logic to understand when you could drive up in a vehicle and pass through. And don’t even try to walk the bike through with the motor running, it diminishes your welcome instantly! One disgruntled rider suggested that the border guards be sentenced to point duty in Bangkok to police motorcyclists riding on the footpaths.
CHINA RIDING After riding on the rough roads in northern Laos, riding in China was like “Sunday cruising.” The roads are like quiet country lanes, tree lined, narrow winding and very smooth. Magnificent Dai villages dotted the countryside and thoughts of paradise soon drifted into our minds.
PSB ENCOUNTER Chinese nirvana lasted less than an hour, when we almost ran over a drunken PSB policeman staggering in the middle of the road. Belatedly, we realized he was trying to stop us. This little oversight almost got us locked up for the night, after a game of bluff was played out over travel permits and fees. We were confident of our permits and fees already paid at the border, but this solitary PSB officer demanded more.
Unsure of the system or procedure, we decided to play the game and wait, as we did not want to get sucked into paying fees at checkpoints every 50 kms. If this was to be the case we’d already decided that we’d rather spend our time and money riding in northern Laos and not China.
Our PSB mate went off, the village lights went out and we were left there in the dark. After 2 1/2 hrs, we thought that the bluff wasn’t working too well. He had our keys, but we had a spare set, plus a set of papers and receipts which he had issued, but not paid for. It was simple communication problem combined with a cultural misunderstanding. Nothing serious, we hoped.
Two passing policemen examined our papers and indicated they were OK, so we took a vote and elected to hit the road. Out came the spare keys and off we went. Two kilometres down the road, there was no mistake about the vehicle following us with horns blasting and lights flashing. It was a police Pajero. Wisely we decided not to out-run them and stopped before they ran us off the road.
Back at the checkpoint, with the village lights back on and surrounded by spectators, we received a bollicking in Chinese. Things obviously weren’t quite right. However our drunken PSB mate was shunted aside, and a senior officer appeared and spoke in Thai: if only we’d pay the correct fees demanded we could go. Simple, with the right communication. The deal was done, the keys returned, hands shaken and we were on our merry but nervous way!
There were no more PSB stops in remote places and on our return the same PSB checkpoint was unmanned. Confirmation that perhaps it had all been a nice little attempted touch-up. In Sipsongpanna we made a 500 kms loop. Nights were spent in Mengla and Jinhong, the capital of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.
MENGLA Mengla’s a scruffy frontier town. Arriving late, around 10 PM, after our PSB rendezvous we found the town virtually closed up for the night, except for numerous places of dubious entertainment. No HIV appetite for us, only food, but it was hard to find. A few lousy noodle stalls littered the footpath. Half the group retired to bed after a quenching can of coke. The other two loitered on the footpath, tempting fate with a bowl of noodles each and a bottle of beer. The glasses were too dirty to drink out of, so we ordered a second beer as we each wanted a bottle each to drink from. Several attempts to find the correct spices to flavour the noodles failed and we made do with Tsing Tao beer. It did the job that night and we slept well. Breakfast was a comedy. The previous evening’s noodles put us off the local cuisine, and we were desperate for some real western food: coffee, eggs, bread or pastry. A 45 mins search around town located a shop that offered eggs, noodles, biscuits and coffee. This made an adequate breakfast, but as we discovered later, it was at a somewhat more than adequate price. A jar of coffee bought 1 hr later at a supermarket equaled the price of a cup at breakfast. A Bangkok gem touch-up! You learn from experience and it was only our first “meal” in China.
The rest of China was a breeze, great smooth winding roads, but perhaps boring on off-road bikes. If only you could ride your chopper or sport bike up the Nam Tha jungle road to China?
JINHONG Jinhong’s not as dirty as Mengla. Stopped at a police checkpoint in the main street, a crowd quickly gathered to look at the westerners and big bikes. They soon blocked the road and the police decided it best if we moved on and waived their check. Directions were given to find the hotel we wanted by the police; service with a pleasure, no rogue PSB tactics. Elsewhere the scenery and villages were superb. Snooker is played everywhere, even roadside out in the open. Pull up on a bike, walk a couple of paces and you can start a game of pool in many villages.
Jinuo tribal women, were seen between Jinhong and Menyang.
The 40 kms ride alongside the Mekong into Jinhong was breathtaking. Then, actually riding across the bridge over the Mekong in Jinhong, one of the very few bridges over the river, was a highlight.
DAI The magnificent Dai villages and the striking architecture of the homes were impressive, but perhaps not as much as the beautiful and elegant Dai women. Clad in lovely sarongs with bright coloured tight fitting blouses, their gracefulness made an indelible impression on the bikers from North Thailand. Arguably the best Dai villages and scenery on the 500 kms loop were closer to the border near Mengla. Here walled Dai villages dot the landscape at regular intervals.
POTHOLE RIDING IN THE WET Heavy rain on the return trip prevented use of the Nam Tha jungle road. Even riding on the potholed asphalt was demanding. Full of muddy water, it was impossible to gauge the depth of each pothole and to know which one to avoid. It was “pot” luck, which ones you got away with and ouch for the ones you didn’t. Kidney belts certainly proved their worth many times in this riding.
BROKEN FRAMES Kidney belts didn’t help the bikes though, and it is no coincidence that the frames on two bikes broke the day after the rough pothole ride. Both broke in exactly the same place, on the rear frame under the seat, suggesting that each bike was carrying too much luggage or that perhaps one of the riders may have been riding too hard and fast.
Welding repairs were done in two separate towns. The first in Udom Sai at the ‘Fixing the can” (car) hene (here)” shop; and the second 88 kms down the road at Muang Houng, attracted a crowd of 50 people, cost half the price and was superior workmanship. The “Fixing the can hene” sign should have forewarned us, however it was too far to go back for a “money back if not satisfied” refund.
The faster rider was lucky to survive his broken frame. After the rough ride we made as easy day trip to Muang Khua on the Ou river, close to the Vietnamese border. Late in the day our illustrious rider got left behind after an extended photo stop. He made a frantic charge to catch the group and to avoid riding in the dark. It was an exhilarating ride, especially when he first thought that he had a flat rear tyre and then a buckled a rim. He even stopped to look down at both the rear wheel and tyre to check, but without dismounting, noticed nothing, assuming that it was just the bumpy road.
Back in Udom Sai over a happy hour beer he boasted of his improved riding skills – reaching a speed of 100 kph on a jungle track riding an odd handling machine. Imagine his surprise then, when a close examination of the bike by his riding mates revealed a broken frame under the seat! Happy hour soon developed into one of intoxicated derision, much to the glee of the “official scrutineers.” Incredibly it was all held together by the single bolt holding the exhaust to the frame. Honda certainly get good brownie points for the strength of the Baja exhaust system and their bolts!
BIKES Of the two bikes, the Honda 250 AX-1 and the Honda 250 Baja, the AX-1 has the stronger frame, but the much softer suspension. The AX-1 has a higher revving motor than the Baja, but because of the lower speeds riding in the jungle it’s water-cooled motor is a big advantage. At extended slow speeds the Baja has a tendency to overheat, with not enough air flow to cool the motor. The electric start of the AX-1 is also big advantage when stopping often to take photos. However when you are actually riding, the Baja gives the better ride with the stronger suspension; although the AX-1 has a more comfortable seat.
Fuel consumption on the AX-1 is better than the Baja, plus with an extra 1 1/2 litres fuel capacity it also gives a significantly better fuel range. The AX-1 with a lower seat height is also much more suitable for “little short-arse” riders.
Having toured Laos & China on both bikes, tour leader David Unkovich, prefers the Honda Baja over the Honda AX-1, but only just. Strictly keeping to the dirt, the Baja’s the one. But once you get into China on the asphalt, the AX-1’s much more enjoyable & comfortable with its wider tyres. Take your pick, which type of riding you want to enjoy. How about one of each, with the spare following in the back-up vehicle?
MONEY One of the little complications encountered was money and which currency to take. US dollars and Thai baht would be best, but there was no guarantee you could always change them. Two of the countries had almost no currency exchange facilities.
It was impractical to carry only local currencies, Lao Kip or Chinese Yuan, as they would have filled a sack for each rider. So each rider carried a mixture of the four currencies – Thai baht, Lao Kip, Chinese Yuan & US dollars.
It was not easy to keep costs in perspective, especially when you were only in each country for a few days and each had very different standards of living. This provided a few a couple of lively discussions on whether we were sometimes getting ripped-off or not. It was all part of the adventure. Thai baht was acceptable everywhere in Laos, but just paying with a 500 baht (US$20) note could be a problem. Changing either a 1,000 baht (US$50) or a US$100 note gave you a plastic bag full of money. Mind you theft in Laos does not appear to be a danger. It is not uncommon so see stall holders walk away from their shops leaving a plastic bag full of money sitting on table for all to see. Try that in the civilized West and see how long your money remains unclaimed. Three days of rain towards the end of the ride prevented the group from reaching Luang Prabang and riding out. The thought of 150 kms of muddy track and waist-deep streams on the Nam Tha – Huay Sai road dictated another route to Pak Beng and the Mekong. Here a cargo boat was hired to make the eight-hour chug upstream to Huay Sai.
PAK BENG JOHHNY Pak Beng then was at the end of the expedition and a place to celebrate. The reports are true, Lao ladies can and do drink beer, as well as the men. Happy hour started with a nice few coldies with an 70 yr. old man & his 18 yr. old grand daughter, neither of whom were fazed by the bikie beer drinkers, and kept pace easily. In Pak Beng, Sunmi restaurant, run by “Pak Beng Johnny” and her mum is the place to go for good food. Johnny and her mum also have a capacity for beer. A dynamic pair of ladies, they know how to cook and drink. We managed a huge feast and several cartons of Beer Lao that night. The westerners retired to bed first, leaving Johnny and her mum to crank up the town karaoke, a bamboo shack complete with generator on the floor, adjoining their restaurant. Despite another few hours of music, singing, dancing and drinking both Johnny & her mum both surfaced for breakfast at 6.00 am next morning, both in better condition than the westerners. We were impressed, so if you’re ever in Pak Beng, look up Johnny & her mum for a beer and bite to eat.
MEKONG BOAT TRIP The boat trip was another mini adventure, with the boat fully laden, only a couple of centimetres of free board and continualswaying from side to side. Each time it passed through one of Mekong’s many huge whirlpools, the boat would shudder and seemingly pause, before surging forward again. The pilot’s ability to chart a safe course against a surging river, among hundreds of rocks just below and above the surface, was remarkable. It was a tense 8 hour ride, but it passed without incident, with the pioneer bikers amazed at the incredible navigation skills of the Mekong boatmen.
THE VILLAGE BATHING SPOT It was a relief to reach our destination, almost. The boat stopped 20 kms short of Huay Sai as it was fast getting dark. At night boats are supposedly shot at, plus it is too dangerous to navigate safely in the dark. After several hours marveling at the pilot skills of our Mekong boatmen, we were dumped on the banks of the Mekong right in the middle of a village bathing spot. It was dusk and the whole village was out bathing. We requested another site, but the boatman insisted this was the only spot possible to moor the boat and unload the bikes.
If it was a bizarre sight to have 4 westerners appear on a boat to unload their motorcycles right in the middle of their evening bath, it was an even more surreal experience for the bikers. In the fading light we frantically stumbled & slipped in the mud trying to unload the bikes and push them up onto the river bank; trying not to disrupt the villagers, if that was at all possible. Then when darkness set in, our torch light failed, and we were forced to start a bike up on the river bank to provide light to unload the rest of the bikes and walk them through the villagers still soaping up and shampooing only metres away. Some of the villagers may have though it a joke, but we weren’t so sure. Our belief in the friendly nature and incredible tolerance of the Lao people was confirmed.
LAOS HOSPITALITY Lao hospitality was also tested on the first day, only 1 1/2 hrs out of Huay Sai, when a team member lost his camera bag (with passport and medical kit) in a village. This necessitated a night in the village while an attempt was made to recover the missing bag, and was one of best experiences on the trip. The food was simple but delicious, and the animated conversation and jovial atmosphere around the fire in the house superb. Despite the cold weather, we all slept well, fortified with “Lao Lao” rice whisky and as many blankets as the family could find for us. Breakfast was also surprisingly satisfying with sticky rice, fried fish from nearby jungle stream and followed by coffee bought from the local shop!
Needless to say, the night in the village and a promise of a financial reward saw the camera bag, passport and medical kit magically appear minutes before departure. The bag had been found 1 km up the track. The offending rider then recalled he riding off with the bag hanging off the rack on the back of the bike, and not around his neck. On the first significant bump he rode over the bag fell off! It had not been “borrowed” as first claimed.
Faced with threat of a finished tour, almost before he had started, passport-less rider most generously offered a 500 baht reward for the return of the passport only, and not to worry about the camera gear and medical kit. It was with delight that his fellow riders witnessed the enterprising villagers request another 500 baht for the camera and medical kit. Their perfect logic being that 500 baht had been offered for the passport only, and that the camera and medical kit must be worth at least that again, but 500 would do nicely thank you. A somewhat parsimonious character, this solicitation surprised and transformed the newly rejuvenated passport holder. Peer pressure from his riding mates however, ensured that in the interest of improved cross-cultural relations, he paid. The night in the village was a rewarding experience for all.
GROUP SIZE Groups are kept small for flexibility and to lower the chances of problems which can arise with a larger group.
Travel in Laos is very isolated with limited medical and motorcycle repair facilities only available in the main towns. Any accidents or break downs and you’ve got a sticky problem to sort out on your own, but that’s part of the adventure. In Thailand riders are spoilt with good infrastructure – lots of motorbike shops (in almost every village) and local medical clinics, if not hospitals, everywhere. But in northern Laos / China this was a more serious adventure with no back-up vehicle. All luggage was carried on the bikes.
With careful bike preparation we have only experienced one “break down” – a flat tyre on the first trip. This itself was entertaining, as it was a flat front tyre on the bike ridden by a motorcycle journalist. Both the tour leader and mechanic noticed the flat tyre when he mounted his bike and expected him to realize the problem immediately. But he was enjoying the tour so much, that he rode 4 kms talking non-stop, before he realized that it was not only the bumpy road making his bike handle poorly. Advised to look at his front tyre, the look of shock on his face when he saw the flat tyre almost threw him off the bike!
Since the first tour, bike tours into northern Laos now require an official guide, a back-up vehicle and a guard. Part of the real adventure is going? China is much more tame and civilized with good roads, sufficient traffic to help in the case of a break down plus (supposedly) good medical facilities in most towns. Fortunately we were not required to confirm this.
HILLTRIBES Northern Laos has a very diverse population with 50 different ethic groups. To the newcomer many of these are difficult to differentiate without a guide book containing colour photos, but the easiest ones to identify are the Lanten, Khamu, Akha, Hmong and Yao. The Lanten women most common around Luang Nam Tha, are especially striking with their plucked eyebrows. Akha’s abound around Muang Sing, up on the Chinese border, while Udom Sai is good for Hmong and Khamu. The early morning markets are the best time to see hilltribes and study the local way of life, with the markets in Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing probably the best. Muang Singh with its Akha, Yao and Hmong population is becoming a Mecca for adventure travelers.