The weather forecasts that Aad had consulted hadn’t said good things were coming, and when I checked it looked like rain was going to be with us most of the way to Phonsavan, 267km south-west of Vieng Xai. It had taken Aad and Mike nine hours to travel this route yesterday with only 2 X 5 minute breaks along the way, and Aad reporting thick fog and thick mud in places, with his Triumph sliding sideways through the mud at times. Yippee – bring on an adventure ride !!!!
I’d set the alarm for 06:00am but when it went off Karen was keen for a bit more of a sleep-in so it was about 07:00am when we got up. I wanted to leave Vieng Xai no later than 08:30am as I wanted to get to Phonsavan before dark. We packed the bike – the front locking-latch on my pannier wasn’t co-operating so a whack with a piece of timber sorted that out.
Karen returned the unused condom (still packaged) and 300,000 kip to our host, making it quite clear with him that she didn’t think much of his room-cleaning service, and walked the 100 metres or so to the Indian restaurant we’d discovered whilst I rode the bike there. We met the young Finnish guy there who is back-packing around SE Asia and enjoying local herbs and other plant products as he does so. He chatted about his travels along Australia’s east coast and spoke highly of Nimbin 🙂
Breakfast was banana pancakes for us both, tea for Karen and a Lao coffee with condensed milk for me. Just as we were getting ready to leave – we were taking photos of our Indian chef actually – the young Italian couple wandered in. I need to check their Facebook site or website – Cycling Around Asia dot Net from memory. A lovely couple – full of energy and enthusiasm.
It was 08:29am when we left the Indian Restaurant on the bike, careful not to drop it in the thick mud that had caked the rocky parking area out the front. I needed to maintain an average speed of 30kmh to make Phonsavan by nightfall, and our first target was Xam Neau, 27km away. The road was shrouded in mist but we chipped away carefully and consistently. The earth movers that had delayed us a few days ago had moved away from the road and whilst their work area was still a muddy slick we didn’t have any problems getting up the hill – these Karoo 3 tyres are handling mud quite well at this stage (but they whine a lot and they are giving Karen the willies – on our first day with them she was ready to slash them to pieces so we’d have to go back to our old favourites – the Continental TKC80’s – and I must agree that I much prefer the Conti’s. With that said – when choice is limited the Karoo’s do a satisfactory job).
Approaching Xam Neua the mist became much heavier – so thick that I was riding with the hazard lights on to make the bike more visible, and I was using the GPS to show me which way the curves were going, and what radius they were describing. It was absolutely freaky – whilst oncoming traffic wasn’t heavy they would just appear out of the mist, usually without any lights on at all and very difficult to spot early. It was almost impossible to look out for potholes as the road surface was obscured by the swirling mist. I rode with my visor open and the windshield of the bike jacked up high – this arrangement allowed me to see the path ahead in its clearest form, as every time I pulled my visor down it would cloud over with water droplets on the outside.
We didn’t stop in Xam Neau but pushed straight on. The steep hill on the far side of town was a muddy shitfest of a road – this is where Aad had been sliding sideways yesterday. I got pinned down by a girl on a slow motorbike ahead so dived to the inside into the thicker mud to try and get around her but quickly discovered that the road surface on this line was all corrugated under the mud and so Karen and I had a very bumpy and slippery drive up the hill – but we nailed the slow bike and I had fun along the way 🙂
South of Xam Neau the mist didn’t improve and if anything it got even worse as we climbed up to about 1,400 metres above sea level. We carried on in the cold and the mist – I was warm enough in my riding gear with my inner layers in it, but Karen was feeling the cold in her unlined suit, even though she was wearing a bright yellow poncho she’d bought yesterday that made her look like a big Minion. We pushed on, dodging the oncoming traffic that appeared out of nowhere and just aiming to keep the bike on the road because at times I couldn’t see the road ahead of me.
We had a short break as I needed a leak, so I found a safe spot to park the bike and whilst I watered the plants a couple of inquisitive cows strolled down the road to check us out. Back on the bike we were quickly back into the mud, but this time it was largely dry and had formed hard ruts and ridges that we needed to negotiate in the low visibility.
To keep our spirits up I started chatting about food (a frequent strategy we use), and our discussion about hamburgers started us getting hungry so when saw some roadside stalls selling banks we pulled over to buy a few. Karen got off the bike and negotiated with the banana woman to buy four of them, whilst I stayed on the bike as quite frankly it’s a bitch to try and park it on the side of the road most of the time. As we are riding on the right hand side of the road I try and park on that side, but usually the verge on the right side of the road is sloping to the right and the BMW is too upright – frequently I need to turn the bike completely around so that I can get it on the right angle.
Anyway – Karen had a short walk along the market stalls we’d stopped at and took some photos of the dozen or so rats hanging up by their tails from one shop after she had bought her bananas. A lot of the ladies had come down to see us and Karen tried to get them into a group photo shot but some of them turned away every time she lifted up her camera.
One village we passed through looked like all of its inhabitants were gathering for some form of tree planting ceremony, as they had gathered in groups along the roadside with small saplings and digging implements.
Whilst our bananas were nice it didn’t take long before we started thinking about food again, and as we couldn’t see anywhere to eat in Pho Lou we pushed on past this junction town about 6km further south and saw our first place to sit and eat since passing through Xam Neau a few hours earlier. We ordered two bowls of Lao noodle soup and we wolfed that down, Karen trying to extract some heat from the small brassiere nearby. Once we’d eaten and warmed up a bit we chatted to a Californian couple in the restaurant that are riding two push bikes from Myanmar to Tajikistan via SE Asia and China. They’ve got 15 months for their trip, which had just started a few weeks ago. Full credit to them – I’ll keep to my motorbikes and sidecars thanks !!!
For the first five minutes of our next riding leg I was able to enjoy the bike at its peak, playing with the dynamic mode and eating up the curvy mountain road, but it wasn’t long before we were back into the thick mist, with the bike backed off into its more forgiving rain mode and the hazard lights flashing eerily. We rode through roadside villages like a ship in fog, passing people walking along the edge of the road and barely being able to make out their shapes. It as a draining, surreal experience, not helped by some of the trucks that seemed to spring out of nowhere right in front of us as they used up all the road and more.
Eventually however we dropped down from the mountains into a wide valley below, leaving the mist behind us. It was on this last mountain descent that we had the worst scare of the day – having successfully negotiated all of the challenges thrown up already in terms of mist and mud we were faced with an idiot in a four wheel drive overtaking a slower mini truck bearing down upon us at great speed as he tried to get in front of the truck. I’d blipped our loud horn when I saw him pull out but that just spurred him on I think so next we were hard on the brakes trying to give him more room and I’d swear he just managed to shave in between our bike and the truck as we passed each other. We’d seen some quite considerate drivers today – most often the big truck drivers – but this wanker in his 4×4 was right at the other end of the scale.
Approaching Phonsavan we passed through a number of villages in which we saw two lines of traditionally dressed girls and guys throwing tennis balls backwards and forwards to one another – a mating game from what we learned later from Mick the Irishman (more about Mick in tomorrow’s blog).
I’d been aiming to arrive in Phonsavan an hour earlier than Aad and Mike, and still with 200km of fuel in the tank, so it was a juggle between speed (which is somewhat relative as we didn’t exceed 66kmh in the whole day) and fuel efficiency. As it was we pulled into our guesthouse car park around 4:45pm – cutting about 45 minutes off their trip, and with 220km worth of fuel onboard. The big fuel tank on our GS Adventure – 30 litres – is reason enough to pick this bike over the standard GS with its smaller fuel tank, as with less frequent refuelling stops required we can push on if we want to.
A lot of our evening chats with Aad and Mike revolve around what is or could be the perfect adventure bike – and I’d have to say that our big BMW really earned its stripes today. Out of the box it had everything I needed to make today’s dangerous and at times quite scary ride more manageable – auxiliary headlights on the crash bars, hazard lights, heated grips so I didn’t lose the feeling in my hands, the adjustable windscreen, variable riding modes, GPS that allowed me to ride via instruments, tractable engine performance from down low right through to 7,000RPM and above that allows predictable power delivery, ABS and traction control, and a comfortable seating position that doesn’t induce fatigue even two-up. Ultimately the best adventure bike is a personal choice and there is no one correct answer, but I wouldn’t want to have been riding anything else today. With Karen riding pillion my number one priority is always safety and the big BMW – ungainly and unsightly as it is – just ate up the crappy riding conditions without a hiccup. Credit also to Karen as she did a great job today on the back of the bike. All pillions can exert a big influence on a bike as its being ridden, and in the tricky conditions today Karen never flinched once, allowing me to concentrate on the job I needed to do on what has been one of our toughest riding days on the trip (nothing will beat Albania though!!!)
Dinner was a hamburger at Craters Restaurant, along with Aad and Mike. I’d enjoyed a couple of meals here last time I was in Phonsavan – 2011 I think – and Helge Pederson and his riding mate stopped here when they were riding around SE Asia to make the documentary ‘Globe Riders – Indochina’. And the chocolate icecream they served for dessert was delicious!
There’s a sombre collection of large (and defused) bombs on the verandah of Craters, remnants of the 1964 – 1973 war – the secret war that the USA waged against Laos without ever declaring war or telling the American people about what it was doing. Tomorrow we’ll go visit the Plain of Jars and the Mines Advisory Group office just across the road, and we’ll learn more about this war and the devastating impact it has had, and continues to have, on this country and its people.