The closest border crossing into Laos from Chiang Mai is the Chiang Khong – Houei Xai crossing over the Mekong River via Friendship Bridge IV, with the Thai Immigration & Border Control station a few km south of our guesthouse. It had rained overnight and a pool of water had collected on the lightweight tarp Karen & I cover the BMW with, and as a consequence her Airhawk seat was soaking wet in the morning.
After a breakfast of banana and honey on pancake plus a hot coffee, we all headed off, stopping first at the big Tesco’s to get a few supplies. Karen and I had fun photographing Aad and Mike as they unwittingly parked their bikes in a ‘lady only’ parking area, before we gleefully brought this to their attention.
Exiting Thailand wasn’t too difficult – we were directed into a building where an officer inspected our passports and papers and then informed us that we would need to pay for a police escort vehicle to take us across the bridge. Outside the office and under the big covered area other staff inspected our passports and paperwork – taking a close look as we had overstayed both our original visa expiry date and the export date for our motorcycles, but as we had extended both of these before they had expired we were stamped out without any grief.
A blue and white police vehicle had us follow him up the road and through a cross-over that changed us from riding on the left hand side of the road over to the right hand side in preparation for riding in Laos, before we followed the police over the bridge and up to the Laos immigration buildings where our escort left us 500 baht poorer.
On the Laos side of things we first filled out our visa on arrival application forms and queued at the adjacent window to then pay our visa fees – US$30/each for Karen and myself on Australian passports and US$35/each for Aad and Mike on their Dutch passports.
Once we had our 30-day visas, we then had to visit two booths – a Customs booth that prepared computerised forms for the importation of our bikes and charged US$7 each for the completed paperwork, and then a ‘Personal Car’ booth that filled out a form in duplicate using carbon paper that listed everyone in our little group and vehicle registration numbers, and then charged US$20 for this (for 3 bikes) which all seemed a bit odd …..
We were then summonsed by a tourist police officer to come and talk to him in his office so we all four marched in and took a seat, answering a few simple questions (had we visited Laos before, where had I been, where we we going this time) before the police officer got to his point by telling us that recent changes to laws in Laos meant that foreigners could not bring motorcycles into Laos or ride around without a tour guide upfront and a tour vehicle behind us, on pain of a US$2,000 fine, all brought about by a speeding Korean rider who had injured himself and some locals in a high speed crash in a village. At this point we all started to jack up and where ready to ride back into Thailand when the officer said that for our small group of three motorcycles we should have no problems, but larger groups would be fined. It was all starting to sound a bit dubious but when he agreed that we could proceed on our way into Laos without a guide we thanked him kindly and left his office as quick as we could.
Outside and on our bikes we got going straight away, and straight away we were riding into the rain. We’d seen the dark grey clouds over the Laos mountains as we approached the border crossing but had hoped that the rain would hold off – it wasn’t to be however and the drizzling rain quickly chilled us. Not long after leaving the border crossing – perhaps only 10km or so – I pulled over at a small roadside food stall and we sat down to an early lunch of Lao noodle soup, fresh greens and Coke, whipped up by a lady over a small brassiere whilst a few young boys stared at us intently from behind their mother’s legs. The rain slowed whilst we enjoyed our hot lunch and it had stopped raining when we started riding again.
We had a 180km ride from the border to our destination for the day in Luang Namtha, and it was a full-on adventure ride as the rain picked up again. Neither Karen nor I had the inner linings in our jackets or riding pants and we were quickly chilled to the bone. The road was very twisty through the mountains with some quite steep ascents in places, and it was hard work concentrating on the wet and slippery road as I got colder and colder. Mike and Aad were both suffering from the wet and cold as well, and I had the advantage of having heated grips and a high windscreen that deflected some of the wind and rain. Aad needed to stop and swap his summer gloves over for his winter gloves – his hands were freezing when I felt them.
My initial hope was to complete the ride in one shot, but fairly early on I realised that we’d need a break to try and get some heat back into us and have a bit of a rest from the heavy concentration, so about 140km out of Luang Namtha the distance markers I saw to Viang Phouka – about 70km away – seemed like the perfect place to stop and regroup.
The road was generally in good condition, but it did throw up enough potholes and other obstacles that you could never take your eyes off the road. A section of unsealed red earth had been turned into a muddy bath by the rain, and very quickly our bikes and ourselves were covered in mud that splashed up as we rode through.
Arriving in Viang Phouka I crossed the bridge over the river and followed the GPS and waves from locals pointing us down a series of muddy tracks towards a non-existent cafe, so we returned to the sealed main road, recrossed the bridge and stopped just up the hill at a restaurant Karen had spotted as we entered town. They couldn’t provide any hot drinks but we ordered a large bowl of rice and a large plate of meat, onions and green vegetables to share – anything hot to try and get some heat back into us.
The rain stopped whilst we sat on our concrete benches under cover and ate our second lunch for the day – it was about 3:00pm by now – and the road started to open up a bit so we could press on a little faster than the tighter mountainous roads we’d encountered earlier in the day. With that said we didn’t top 75kmh in the day and always slowed down when entering the many villages along our way.
The villages we passed through were fascinating – often just wooden buildings built up on stumps, with chickens and pigs running around outside, and young children who would turn and wave at us as we passed them by.
I didn’t have the GPS coordinates for our guest house in Luang Namtha, so a few km out of town I waved Mike into the lead and we followed him along a few backstreets and then down a muddy and rocky track that eventually led to our Taidam Guesthouse. Our wooden chalets overlook some paddy fields and fish-filled dams, and were freezing cold inside, but at least we could get out of our wet riding gear.
We walked back into the local streets looking for dinner but it was getting dark and most places were closing for the day. A feint ray of light was coming out of the Chill Zone Beer Bar so we went in there – still cold as the bar had open walls that let the cold wind blow through it – Aad and Karen shared the warmth from a small brassiere as we all shared our combined dinner that consisted of fried cashew nuts, chips, fried rice with chicken, and pork with fried garlic. Whilst the other three had a soft drink to wash down their meals I had a bottle of Beer Lao to celebrate my first day of riding in Laos on this trip and to pay homage to the Laos Beer Drinking Team – as it was Kevin’s inspired suggestion to come ride in Laos back in 2011 that added fuel to my interest in riding overseas.
I’ve been frozen to the bone today – as has Karen, Aad and Mike, and the riding has been quite hard in the wet and slippery conditions, but I’m thrilled to be back in Laos and can’t wait to take Karen further into Laos and show her the places and people here that really impressed me four years ago. Laos – bring it on !!!!