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Laos – Motorbike independence

17 February 2012

Having spent a relaxing couple of days in Four Thousand Islands we headed back to Pakse, hardly a delightful spot but unfortunately the transport hub for that region.

After a taste of independent travel (well, three hours gentle cycling in Don Khon) and almost four months of hopping on and off tours and being shepherded round by taxi and tuk tuk drivers we fancied a change of pace.

I have always enjoyed the freedom of hiring rental cars in different countries, travelling at your own pace and stopping only at sights that interest you with no guilt that the driver (me) feels that you are being uncultured by ignoring a feature of national heritage (it has to be done sometimes). Hire bikes are more the deal in Asia, so we decided to take a spin with that…

Having arrived in Pakse at mid-afternoon, we wanted some basic, budget accommodation. The Lankham hotel, doubling up as a motorbike rental, certainly served up basic, small, budget accommodation and so, after being offered some even smellier rooms at different locations for twice the price, we checked in there for around 90,000 kip (circa $11-12) and agreed to hire a 110 cc semi-automatic Suzuki motorbike for two days to take our own tour around the nearby waterfalls and Bolaven plateau (the coffee growing district of Laos) for 70,000 kip per day (including helmets, although make sure that the visor is actually see-through and not scratched to hell…). I have only driven a moped a couple of times before on small islands and can’t really tell the principle difference between them and motorbikes (something to do with Mods and Rockers my Dad may say?), but thebikes seemed well maintained (the odometer, lights and gears seemed to work, although the tread may not have passed UK standards).  

Never having tried a semi-automatic bike before I took it for a little spin to work out the functions (actually, surprisingly easy). Now, in the Lankham’s defence the guy did say I should go straight to the petrol station but I left Anna with the bag and headed around the block before intending to head back to pick her up. Unfortunately, the petrol included is very minimal and my bike cut-out at a nearby traffic lights, leading to an embarrassing walk of shame back to the hotel. I didn’t repeat that mistake and filled the tank for $5 before we headed for a relaxing breakfast.

Our route for two days was a clockwise circuit to take in the main waterfalls in the region, 85km to Tad Lo, staying the night there at Sayse resort, and then around 140km on day two to complete the circuit taking in Tad Fane, the Bolaven Plateau and Paksong and returning to Pakse to get the night bus up to Vientiane followed by a further bus to Vang Vieng.

A very crude map...

It’s not until you actually get out on the road that you realise how poor the Laos’ people’s road awareness is, they just do their own thing, assuming that it is someone else’s responsibility not to crash into them. Fortunately, cycling several years in London ingrains an assumption that everyone is trying to kill you and fitted the ethos quite well. The roads that we took were in very good condition, with only the odd kilometre or so of dirt track approaching the waterfalls. I would definitely recommend completing the circuit in a clockwise fashion as the road to Saravan is quieter than the route between Pakse and Sekong which contains a lot more day-trippers to Tad Fane and commercial traffic from the Bolaven plateau.

A handy stop on the first day was at the Phaxuam waterfall and eco resort after about 38km of riding (around 17 km after the northwards turning at km21, see map). This was an impressive first waterfall with a quaint bamboo bridge although it was very popular with Thai tourists and not a relaxing watering spot although nice for an iced coffee.

  

We ploughed on to Tad Lo and arrived there shortly after lunchtime. This actually consists of three waterfalls, Tad Huang which is within sight of the Sayse resort, Tad Lo which is a trek up the hill, beyond the Tad Lo Lodge & Resort and then Tad Luang which is better approached by taking a different turning. We checked out several of the lodges and were pleasantly surprised, having booked a room in Sayse resort for $35 to be offered a twin room at around $15. However, the nicest resort is Tad Lo Lodge which has resident sheltered elephants and a decent restaurant and apparently you can watch the elephants bathe at dawn and dusk, although we were unable to find the right spot.

The staff at Sayse resort did not seem overly keen to assist guests, despite a large dining area that has a great setting looking out upon the falls; they stopped serving dinner by 8pm and seemed to be hard to track down for lunch or breakfast. We ended up having dinner at a guesthouse across the rickety bridge (Anna refused to ride the pillion as we crossed the bridge) and breakfast at the Tad Lo lodge as no-one seemed around to serve breakfast at our own accommodation.

       

After lunch on day one, we had a cooling swim in the base of Tad Huang and trekked up to find Tad Lo and try to see the elephants. My advice for swimming in waterfalls is to ensure you’re your swimming shorts will actually stay up under pressure. Despite realising during whitewater rafting and windsurfing that the elastic in mine had seen better days I had yet to find a pair I preferred to my luminous green shorts (they were bought for a stag do) and the waterfall at Tad Lo almost robbed me of my dignity. Fortunately the language barriers there meant that the locals did not spring to my assistance when Anna saw me battling against some rapids and so I was able to emerge with my shorts intact by myself. Although we saw the elephants in the distance we were not able to see them bathing and finding the actual Tad Lo fall itself was quite a challenge (although essentially following the river works out fine).

The next day we continued our circuit, turning right off the main route to Saravan at Ban Beng and heading into Thakeng. We had barely used half a tank of petrol the previous day but filled up for another $2.50 at Thakeng to ensure that we would have enough petrol to see us through the day. As we pulled into the petrol station, a young man was sitting next to the pump listening to his ipod. The previous service station had not been self-service but he showed no acknowledgement of our presence and it took to me opening the petrol cap and reaching for the pump for him to query whether I wanted to “fill up?” 

We reached Paksong (the main coffee growing area) after 60km, earlier than anticipated and stopped off at Kaiffe’s Coffee, as recommended by Lonely Planet. Paksong was at a much higher altitude and was a lot cooler with threatening rain clouds. Although the espresso Mr Kaiffe served for 10,000 kip (about $1.25) was pleasant, it was not the experience we had hoped for as he spent most of the time moaning about business with a local. Fortunately it did not take long to take our drinks and we headed on to Tad Yuang, about 40km out from Pakse. By the motorbike parking for Tad Yuang (3,000 kip per bike and 5,000 kip per person entry) was the modern Paradise Café which served a great lunch and better coffee than Mr Kaiffe (they had imported their machines from Italy) and I would recommend this as a stop rather than the less scenic stop in Paksong. Mr Kaiffe’s Laos wife normally organises tours but she was away the day that we visited.

Tad Yuang was a very pleasant walk, with beautiful gardens at the top that are apparently normally swarming with Thai tourists (only being about 60km from the Thai border there are many Thai tourist buses on this route) and we worked up a sweat so that we enjoyed a second iced coffee at Paradise Café on the way out.

      

Although there is apparently a 2km walking track from Tad Yuang to Tad Fane we could not find this and instead drove there. You could only really see this waterfall from the distance and we enjoyed some more drinks from the Tad Fane resort overlooking the waterfall. This looked like a very nice resort, arranging $3-5 dollar tours of the area which includes a nature reserve and may have been a better place to spend the night than Tad Sayse if it had fallen better in our route.

Tad Fane - not the easiest to access...

Tad Champee, would've been nice to swim, but we were pushed for time.

These rickety bridges were everywhere!

On the recommendation of a fellow tourist we then crossed the road (on bike) to Tad Champee. In hindsight, we should have missed this out as it took a 3km dirt track to reach the Falls. Although it is apparently a nice place to swim (albeit shaded with cool water) we reached there at around 4pm and only really had time for a couple of photos from the rickety bridges before we felt we should push back to Pakse as we had to get our bus from the Lankham at 7:30. As we had been climbing much more on day two we seemed to be drinking petrol and so the petrol gauge was nearing a quarter tank at this point. Fortunately there are numerous petrol stations dotted along the route and we put another 10,000 kip in the tank after Tad Champee to see us through.

The roads until then had been quite good condition and quiet but we started to see a lot more traffic as we descended towards Pakse. At about 36km we came upon a patch of thick gravel which unnerved me slightly as the bike waddled through it. A kilometre further on the bike started behaving strangely, with the rear wheel snaking. As other vehicles also seemed to be slowing down I first assumed it had perhaps rained here earlier as threatened and left the road greasy but as it continued I pulled over and tested the surface at low speed before realising that the rear tyre was flat.

As luck would have it, some Laos workers on a nearby rooftop pointed me back up the road to where three young boys were changing a tyre, supervised by an older gentleman. I wheeled the bike up to them and, from the hanging tyres and compressor generator realised that we had had the fortune to have a puncture within a few hundred metres of a tyre repair workshop.

We then, naturally engaged the older gentleman in business, showing him the flat tyre. He did not seem to speak a word of English but did helpfully hold up a cut inner tube, point at the boys mending the bike and draw a “30” in the gravel. Frankly, we would have paid much more than 30,000 kip (about $3.50) to have the tyre changed and so I endeavoured to engage his services. Strangely, he smiled at the boys (who had barely even glanced at us while working on the old moped in front of them) and sat back down with a paternal smile.

It was past five and the light was beginning to dim. I was anxious not to ride in the dark due to my light refracting visor and the fact that my only other option was sunglasses and so I proceeded by a number of mimes to try to indicate to the gentleman that time was pressing and we had to be in Pakse. He was very friendly and offered us a seat but seemed content to let the young boys continue their business. Anna even produced the Lonely Planet in the hope that it would have some helpful phrases, but he ended up just reading with interest the chapter on the local area.

Finally getting the bike fixed...embarrassed by our lack of Laotian...

As even more luck would have it, across the road, several houses up, another elderly gentleman had a number of tyres hanging outside of his house and even had an air compressor. I wondered if his English may be better and headed over. Very kindly, he offered me a chilled beer and through an embarrassing series of mimes I tried to convey that my motorbike had a flat tyre. He just looked confused and put the Pepsi back in the fridge.

Heading back, Anna had made no headway, save to get some visible criticism of the Lonely Planet from a local point of view. Frustrated with my attempts at getting progress I wheeled my bike away (half hoping that this would prompt an offer of action) and across the road to the older gentleman. He seemed to have more products, even packets of inner tubes and cans of oil so I felt that this may work and, as he did not seem to be fixing a bike, he may be keener for the business.

The older gent tutted at my dilemma and indicated my flat tire. I gave my very best “I agree” face and, with a resigned look of inconvenience, he fetched some tools. Having managed to lever off the outer tire without unbolting the wheel he showed me that the inner tube was flat. Not really a surprise to me, but at least he seemed to be making progress. With a variety of resigned nods and a perpetual look of inconvenience he fetched out several spare inner tubes, unbolted the wheel, fitted the new inner tube and activated the compressor, relying ultimately on my touch to decide whether the tire was a satisfactory pressure.

It was while he was fitting the tube that we heard the motorbike across the road come to life. Watching in awe, we saw the older gentleman mount up, thank the boys and ride off into the sunset. Only then did we realise that he was not a paternal mechanic but actually a customer in the same position as us and that the young children were running their own business. Clearly he had helpfully been telling us how much he was paying and our repeated attempts to get him to fix our wheel while the young mechanics fixed his must have looked exceedingly crazy!

Nevertheless, as our wheel was reattached and realigned it gave us an indication of how much money to get ready. Our mechanic seemed a little unhappy at the chain connection but did not seem to propose to do anything further and indicated “30,000”. I was so relieved that he had actually done the work that I tipped him 10,000, which goes against everything the Lonely Planet seems to suggest and which confused him even more but made me feel better.

I felt slightly less pleased as we rode off and a regular “thunking” came from the chain. Still, it was enclosed, the bike was moving forward, it was getting dark, but if we ploughed on at a steady pace we may even make the bus.

The next 30km were not fun, bugs in the eyes, keeping the revs to the point that the chain did not seem to protest and trying to anticipate the kamikaze moves of the Laos rode users but we made it back to the hotel for 7:10. I tried to explain that the chain needed inspecting but am not convinced this registered so I sank a couple of quick Beer Laos in succession. These proved to have been a wise call for the bus journey ahead…

From → Travel

2 Comments
  1. I really enjoyed reading about your trip. The descriptions of the surrounding area and the small details make your blog a pleasure to read. You referenced Lonely Planet several times…did you plan this trip and the differnet way points prior to your excursion or do you get tips from local sources onplaces to visit? Keep up the great blogging as I literally felt like I was there on your trip.

    Vaughn Berger (Las Vegas, NV USA)

    • Thanks! To be honest, my girlfriend has done most of the planning for this longer trip but for this particular excursion it was a mix of inspired by the Lonely Planet and chatting to local sources regarding the state of the roads and good places to go. We used the Lonely Planet Laos edition through Laos and found it a useful base of knowledge and places to go although there are aspects which appear out of date/inaccurate/subjective!

      Cheers, Jez

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