Is it the hustle and bustle of daily life, and the need to escape to the countryside for some peace and quiet, that has people increasingly grabbing their leathers and heading for the open road on a motorbike? Whatever the motivation, the fresh air and liberating experience of riding a motorbike has caught the imagination of those with a sense of adventure.
Motorcyclists looking to southeast Asia for scenic road trips immediately think, perhaps, of Vietnam’s Hai Van Pass or northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son loop. Indeed, the first half of 2016 has seen BMW report increased sales in these countries, as biking their trail areas becomes more and more common. Increasingly, however, the savvy among motorbikers are turning their attention to beautiful Laos for journeys of open-road exploration. After shutting its doors to outsiders after the civil war, and through to 1991, Laos has been catching up in terms of tourism and infrastructure. Thus far, travel through the country has mostly been experienced either from the inside of an ageing truck – the landscape bumping past through the window – or by plane, hopping from one city to another. Over the last 10 years though, thanks to heavy investment in trade routes from China, roads have improved immeasurably, and coupled with improved satellite navigation gear, curating your own journey through Laos has become much easier.
Nothing beats the feeling of independence that comes from heading off the beaten path on a bike to see the countryside and rural sights, winding alleys or jungle footpaths, that you would miss on another mode of transport. Motorcycle travel affords the chance to stop off anywhere, and not just at the scheduled “must-see” tourist traps, but rather to experience true freedom to detour and explore as you please. So, join us as we reveal the motorbiking potential of Laos for anyone with an adventurous attitude.
A country carpeted in jungle, rich in flora and fauna, riven with winding roads and, thanks to the shut-down, much less influenced by the west than its neighbors, Laos is a true escape. A leisurely 200-mile ride south of the capital city Vientiane, on Highway 13, lies the pretty colonial town of Thakhek in central Khammouane province. A pleasant drive all of its own, this mini journey leads riders to the gateway of the country’s favored motorbike route – the Laos Loop. Here, the more than 300 miles of road around Phou Hin Poun National Biodiversity Conservation Area is best traversed and explored by motorbike, and while most come for the legendary Kong Lor cave, there is much to see besides.
Northeast of Thakhek in the direction of Vietnam, take a pleasant ride along Highway 12 – a good, sealed road, lined with with stunning limestone karsts jutting above the forest. Enjoy the scenery with few other motorists to obscure your view or enjoyment, and make a detour north along a dirt stretch to Buddha Cave – or Tham Pafa, as it is known locally. Undiscovered until 2004, when a local villager stumbled upon the entrance, the site is considered sacred because of the 229 Buddha statues that were found inside. This astounding historic collection dates back to the Sikhottabong and the Lane Xang eras, and some items are thought to be of Khmer or Vietnamese origin. Park your bike and walk the rickety wooden bridge over the lake to the entrance, where you will pay a small fee to explore inside. Here the images still sit, along with palm leaf manuscripts and other ancient scripts, among spectacular limestone rock formations.
Not to be outdone is nearby Xieng Liab cave, supposedly named for a novice monk (“Xieng”) found sneaking around (“Liab”), to spy on a hermit’s daughter who was bathing. At the base of a towering cliff, the mouth has become partially obscured by a landslide, and Houei Xieng Liab Creek runs right through the 700-foot length of it. Leave your motorbike in the parking area near the bridge and you can walk on in. During rainy season you can get a little respite from the heat and take a dip, but even in dry season you should be prepared to get at least a little wet. Of special interest to nature enthusiasts, the cave and its watery floor is home to soft-shell tortoises and bats, who nest among the twisting limestone stalactites. The surrounding hills, meanwhile, are home to the rare Francois langurs and Laotian rock rats.
The Nam Theun river runs through Khammouane province and part of “The Loop” crosses Nam Theun 2 – Laos’ largest hydropower project to date. The tarmac here is well maintained and clear, ideal for some leisurely open-road driving, and the views of the countryside stretch for miles. Pass the powerplant itself, just south of Lak Sao, and cruise across the bridge over the reservoir, with the wind in your hair and sweeping panoramas of the almost lunar landscape either side. Between Lak Sao and Nahin, meanwhile, beneath the bridges you may catch a glimpse of a slice of Laos’ more tragic history. In the Nam Theun float bomb boats – long, canoe-like crafts – made from the casings of the bombs dropped by US forces to cut off supply lines to Vietnam during the Vietnam war.
Motorbiking affords the inquisitive explorer the opportunity to stop and explore wherever they like and in the unspoilt countryside of Laos – there is plenty to see. The more mountainous parts of the Phou Hin Poun area wind through pretty rural villages – like Mahaxai, Tha Lang and Nakai – which make great stopping points to eat or spend the night, and experience the simple, authentic Laotian way of life. Greeted by smiling village kids, find a basic guesthouse to park up at and sample a bowl of pho, surrounded by nature. The dirt roads to Lak Sao are challenging, windy and exciting, and you can expect to get muddy (not to mention sore) as you ride through lush jungle before you hit the highway that leads into the town. While not especially scenic in and of itself, Lak Sao is a good place to refuel and enjoy a few slightly more modern conveniences than are available in the more rural villages.
Kong Lor Cave
For many, the ultimate destination of discovery in this neck of the woods is Tham Kong Lor, and since public transport to the surrounding area is limited, by motorbike is one of the best ways to get to the vicinity. From Kong Lor village, you can take the dirt track to the cave or opt to give your bike a break and take a leisurely detour by motorized canoe, to enjoy the mountainous scenery and riverbanks dotted with buffalo on the way to the cave mouth. Either way, at the entrance of the cave you will need to hop aboard a motorboat for the nearly five-mile subterranean sail along Nam Hin Bun – the river that runs through the cavernous rocks. Cited as “one of southeast Asia’s geological wonders”, Kong Lor’s dramatic limestone karst formations are unquestionably stunning, and the river leads to a pool with an ethereal emerald glow – attributed locally to the Hindu God, Indra. From the cave, a pleasant 30-mile ride along Route 8 takes you to Ban Nahin, a sleepy village town ideal for parking up and resting the night.
A Few Pro Tips for Motorbiking in Laos
- Found yourself in Laos and inspired but unprepared for biking? All the gear you need can be hired in big cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and you can usually have any superfluous luggage stored or sent to an onwards destination if you are not planning to do a loop.
- Hire a GPS or, if you already have a device, get a local SIM card for easy-to-follow maps.
- Dusk falls at 6pm in Laos and for safety it is best to avoid riding after dark, as buffalo and dogs are wont to wander across roads and don’t tend to have headlights or high-vis jackets (and nor do most local motorbikers).
- If you’re not riding at night, chances are you will be traveling in the heat of the day: don’t forget plenty of sunscreen and, for safety, it’s best to wear long sleeves and pants.
- Perhaps most importantly, make plans, but prepare for them to change. Laos is such a beautiful country, with such rich culture and history that you will stumble across treasures frequently, especially given the added freedom of travelling by motorbike. Embrace the adventure and allow detours of discovery to take you off the beaten track.