Few experiences match that roaring between the thighs and the singular sense of freedom in the jungle footpaths and winding alleys of the Southeast Asian countryside by motorcycle. For the sheer thrill of open-road exploration there is nowhere quite like Laos.
After decades closed to the outside world, Laos tourism and infrastructure have been playing catch up. Most travel through the country comes from inside of an ageing truck – the landscape bumping by the window – or by skipping from one location to the next by plane. Over the last 10 years, however, thanks largely to heavy investment from China, roads have improved immeasurably, and with little more than a bike and some satellite navigation gear, travelers can cut their own path through Laos.
“It’s diverse and not too challenging for bikers but still an adventure for those new to Laos,” says Mr. Thongkoon, a guide and keen biker. “A lot of history – French in Luang Prabang, Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, remnants of the Second Indochina war to name only a few – culture, diverse life in Laos, hill tribes, beautiful and ever-changing landscape, a trip on the iconic Mekong. Really exciting.”
Going Up the Country
Those in the mood for a little adventure can make their first stop at the so-called Nam Lik Jungle Fly, a two-kilometer zipline through the canopy
After arriving in the mostly likely port of arrival, Vientiane, heading North on Highway 12 is probably the smartest move. This makes for an easy ride – a safe, sealed road lined with with stunning limestone karsts jutting above the forest. The ride throughout this first leg – whether it takes you hours or days – is smooth. But, luckily, adventure isn’t far.
Those in the mood for a little adventure can make their first stop at the so-called Nam Lik Jungle Fly, a two-kilometer zipline through the canopy. The jungle can, indeed, be a chaotic place, and while the zipline will get your blood pumping, those who can keep a cool head will see the jungle in new (slightly terrifying) way.
Sweaty from zipping through the canopy, the famous Blue Lagoon of Vang Vieng should be the next stop. This site, admittedly, can get a little crowded, but the feel of the place isn’t exactly somber contemplation. At peak hours this area has more of a party feel, where you can swing into the opaque, aquamarine water and splash about with abandon.
If the sun is still up the Buddha Cave, or Tham Pafa, comes highly recommended. Undiscovered until 2004, when a local villager stumbled upon the entrance, the site is considered sacred because of the 229 Buddha statues found inside. This astounding historic collection, some of which are thought to be of Khmer origin, dates back to the Sikhottabong and the Lane Xang eras.
Long Road to Phonsavan and Beyond
Large, carved boulders sit in pristine plains, and in some places it looks as if the Easter Island heads were having a tea party and suddenly decided to dine and dash
When it’s time to start traveling toward Vietnam, as long as riders stick to the highway, the easy ride should continue. In fact, this part of the ride is basically flat and riders might be itching for some rough roads at this point, but the end result of this turn to the east is perhaps one of the strangest sites in Southeast Asia: the Plain of Jars.
The Plain of Jars at Phonsavan is difficult to explain; it is, on the face of things, thousands of stone jars scattered around valleys and foothills. But, that doesn’t do it justice. Large, carved boulders sit in pristine plains, and in some places it looks as if the Easter Island heads were having a tea party and suddenly decided to dine and dash. In fact, these “jars” were part of prehistoric burial practices dating back to the iron age.
To the jaded traveler, especially those who like to see the countryside zip by from a motorcycle, few things can be categorized as unbelievable, but the Plain of Jars is simply surreal.
Riders won’t see a sight like that again on their trip, but, pleasantly, the ride gets a little rougher after this. And, what’s more, those traveling alone can feel free explore the various towns and tribes of the area.
Heading west toward the Mekong and after some interesting river crossings, serious riders will be faced with a choice of ending their trip or heading North for a better ride.
Those heading North will find some of the toughest rides but will also be removing themselves from the beaten track. Those trying to hit Oudom Xai from Pak Mong will find a steep but steady drive, but those coming from Luang Namtha will find steep spikes and some rough roads if they stray from the paths. The best reason to continue north is probably the peaceful villages and kindness to be found in places like Muang Khua.
Luang Prabang and the End of the Road
One might easily spend their entire holiday in Luang Prabang and feel as if they’ve traveled miles
Luang Prabang isn’t the end of the trip, but it’s drawing to a close, so it’s best for riders to enjoy the feel of this spiritual city and its regal charms. Nowhere in Laos is like Luang Prabang – nowhere in Asia. It’s royal and humble, somber but bursting with imagination. One might easily spend their entire holiday in Luang Prabang and feel as if they’ve traveled miles.
The road south is relatively easy (or, as with most motorcycle trips, as easy as you want it to be), but there are a few important stops along the way from Luang Prabang, including the Elephant Conservation Center, Laos’ first hospital dedicated to elephant victims of logging and disease.
There isn’t a straight shot back to Vientiane from there, but a night in Pak Lay can be very relaxing after days of religion and river passes; here there are quiet rain forest walks and rides on elephants for tourists.
The final leg comes along the lazy Mekong, and while there’s much to enjoy along the way, it’s a bitter sweet ride. With one of the most famous and historic rivers in Southeast Asia flying past on your right, you’ll find yourself casting your mind back to rivers, caves, and lost villages – of plains full of iron age tombs and of one of the holiest cities in Asia.
When you hit the lights of the capital, it’s hard to stop driving.
A Few Pro Tips for Motorbiking in Laos
- In Laos 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 a forward destination if you are not planning to do the full loop.
- If you already have a device, get a local SIM card for easy-to-follow maps. This is essential for navigating the jungle roads.
- 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. (Note: neither do the local motorbikers).
- If you’re not riding at night, chances are you will be traveling in the heat of the day. Don’t forget sunscreen, and even though it’s hot it’s best to wear long sleeves and pants for safety.
- Most importantly, make plans, but prepare for them to change. Laos is a beautiful country with a rich culture and history and you will frequently stumble across treasures and secrets. Embrace the adventure and allow for detours.