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Motorbike Adventures in Laos…
with Siam Bike Travel

Part 1: Is it a Road or a River…

...I kept asking myself as I forced my bike up some unnamed hill in northern Laos through the soaking rain, navigating the muddy streams of water coming down on what was supposed to be a dirt track. Finally, the drizzle of the last few days had given way to heavy rain and we were absolutely grateful for it. Months of hot, dry weather have left several inches of fine red dust on the dirt roads. After three days of constant drizzle the dust has turned into slithery, slimy mud which gave us a hard time riding. Driving a piece of soap across a wet bathroom floor would have been easier.

Coming over the top I see a family of diminutive hill tribes, none of them over five feet tall, staring at me in disbelief. Elbow, chest and knee protectors, airbrushed helmet, rainbow colored gloves, off-road boots - is this an alien or what? I smiled and waved at them, and immediately they waved back and broke into wide grins, old grandma showing off her betel nut-stained black teeth and red gums.


Our journey started five days ago in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Eight riders, all decked out in off-road riding gear, a backup vehicle for luggage and spares, the mechanic, a licensed local guide - we are quite a sight! Normally we wouldn't ride that late, almost into the rainy season, but some of our guys couldn't get away from business until now. Northern Thailand offers plenty of exciting enduro rides but we want to get into Laos as quickly as possible to have a bit of leeway with our schedule in case things turn disastrous. Northern Laos is no playground for the uninitiated or unprepared: Only three million people in a country the size of England, no phones, electricity just for a few hours in the evening, real jungle, very basic medical care. Siam Bike Travel, our tour organizers, have done Laos motorcycle tours for four years and always returned - riders, bikes and all, despite roads that got washed down into rivers and bikes that needed full head jobs after river crossings. We took the lightest enduro bikes available, fully aware of the looming mud wrestling and the famous Mekong River trip where we have to lug the bikes sideways into a Mekong riverboat. Six of us rode on brand new German Sachs 125s, which have state-of-the-art suspension and excellent brakes. After ripping out the catalysers (no unleaded fuel in Laos) and a couple of other modifications the bikes weigh in at 115 kg and 27 BHP - perfect, especially with the electric starter!

The other two guys ride a Honda CRM 250 and a Honda Baja 250. Our mechanic and the local guide enjoy the comfort of the air-conditioned backup car, a Suzuki 4WD. For them it's a job while we're having fun.... Walter, one of our guides, hands out the Thor chest and back protectors. "Against poisoned blow darts from the head hunters", he explains. Two of our guys start looking really concerned and it takes them a few seconds to realize that head hunters live in Borneo and not in Laos. Masochists… start your engines!

From Chiang Mai we head off towards Chiang Rai, already drenched in sweat, thanks to the blistering hot season. While we're nursing our hurting behinds on the narrow enduro seats, we dream of superbikes and the cool season. We keep to our self-imposed speed limit of 100 kph. Thais drive on the left side of the road except when cutting through right hand corners or when seated behind the steering wheel of an 18-ton truck. We realize that motorcycles occupy the bottom slot of the Thai tarmac food chain and size does matter, no doubt about it. Zipping through Chiang Rai we drive straight to Chiang Saen, located at the banks of the Mekong River. We can see Laos on the other side! Fast and wide, this is one of the world's greatest waterways.

We squeeze into one of the waiting Thai-style longtail boats, first taking off our heavy off-road boots. The boat driver opens up the throttle of the tuned car engine, which has open exhaust pipes with no mufflers, whatsoever, and the plywood shell we're sitting on starts planing across the water. What a blast! We must be doing at least 70 kph, skipping upriver like a roaring stone. After the boat stops at a gas station on the Laos side, we continue our wild ride towards the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet. The driver has put on a motorbike helmet against the spray and the noise. We're all enjoying the thrill of the bumpy, speedy ride on the river. In most countries this boat would be highly illegal - not a single life preserver in sight, a vicious looking, unprotected racing propeller on a three-metro shaft that swings in a wide arc from the gimbaled engine, no muffler, no safety inspections, but heaps of fun! Dutifully we snap our photographs of the Golden Triangle, and the little speedster turns around and takes us back, this time with the added speed of the river. This could be addictive - we watch two boat owners racing each other, just for the heck of it. By now we're all dehydrated and gulp down several bottles of "Sponsor", the local electrolytic beverage, before we suit up and continue. We're nearly there, another hour's worth of riding along the Mekong River and we'll arrive in Chiang Kong, the border town…

What’s next?
Ride on to Chiang Kong in Part 2 of the Motorbike Adventures in Laos.

Many thanks to:
Text and photographs © 1996-2000 by Siam Bike Travel Co., Ltd.



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