This year we bought two 110cc scooters in Vietnam and pondered for a while if we would go with them and travel a bit around Laos. Last time Hendi went to Laos 9 years ago, traveling outside of the big cities areas by your own mean was quite an adventure due to the very poor state of the roads. Well… it is also true that he chose to go mostly by back dirt roads. Although at that time he had a tired, but real dual sport bike (XR 250). This year we had agreed to stick to main roads, but still, back in 2008, what was marked as highways on maps were often no more than larger hardpacked dirt roads which would transform to rivers of mud under the rain and dry leaving big crevasses and bumps. With basic street tires, weak suspensions, inefficient drum breaks, heavy luggage and the monsoon season starting, we were not sure to be up to that challenge.
To help us make that decision, we sought information on the web about the current state of the roads and were surprised at how little we found. Finally we decided to give it a try and now that we are back from this 900 miles (1450 km) journey, here is our report (Click on the pictures to enlarge them). This is absolutely not exhaustive but we hope it will help fellow 2 wheels travelers who are thinking to hit the road in Laos to plan their trip.
- Roads have dramatically improved in Laos and main roads and highways are now mainly paved. They have milestones and signs at the main intersections which is very convenient even when you travel with a GPS.
- Remember the bigger one on the road always have the right of way. However, we found cars and trucks to be relatively courteous in the North (above Luang Prabang): trying to leave as much space as possible when passing you, moving out the way when they were driving in the middle or wrong side of the road, stopping at intersections and waiting for you to clear it, etc… In the south, there tend to be much more bullism.
- Cows, buffalos, goats, pigs, dogs, chickens, children, you will encounter them all on your way, wandering on the middle of the road. Don’t expect them to do anything to avoid you. Worse, in a fit of panic, curiosity or bare stupidity, a good number of them will actually rush toward you and do their best to throw themselves under your front wheel while you try to brake and swerve to save their lives and yours. Especially be on the look out when crossing villages and in mountain roads blind turns.
Road #6 – Nameo to Sam Neua
This is the first road we took in Laos after crossing the border with Vietnam. The road is paved but narrow and very damaged. It is a difficult ride up to Viang Xang (about 80km from Nameo). Pot holes, big bumps, rocks, gravels, sand, wet and dry clay, very steep slopes, blind and sharp curves, wood bridges with loosen planks,… you’ll get it all and often in combos. We found this portion really challenging but we’ve been rewarded with beautiful rural scenery.
Road #6/1 – Sam Neua to Vieng Thong
This stretch is wider and generally in good state. It is still mountainous and winding, a lot of portions are really steep too with switch back curves. We also came across quite a lot of fallen boulders and trees on the road and rests of previous landslides. So although ok to drive under dry weather, this road could probably become pretty treacherous under rain. There also the scenery is beautiful as you will cross forests and jungles.
Road #1 – Vieng Thong to Nong Khiaw
This is a super scenic road especially as you approach Nong Khiaw and get in the middle of the spectacular karstic formations of the region. Although still in the mountains, this road is not as abrupt as the previous ones and quite easy to drive on. It seems it’s been patched and repaved recently but you’ll often find gravels at the outer edges of curves, a few potholes still remain and on a stretch of about 25 miles (40 km) toward Nong Khiaw, the pavement have been scraped and you’ll get there a mix of hardpacked dirt and gravels of various sizes.
Road #1/13 – Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang
It is a nice beautiful and easy stretch. You’ll get some hills and sharp curves but nothing to compare with the #1 and #6. The road is very wide for Laos and in good state however you’ll come across several large depressions and humps on the pavement. Those are easy enough obstacles to avoid or even to go through smoothly if you slow down but you may be off for some bad surprises if you don’t stay focused.
Road #13/4/13 – Luang Prabang to Vang Viang
One of the most beautiful section of our journey in Laos. The road #13 is mostly in the same state as the previous part. Around Xiang Ngeun, you’ll get the option to switch from the #13 to the new road #4 and join back again the #13 about 60 miles (100 km) further. In Luang Prabang, locals advised us not to take this route as there had been landslides which took away the pavement at the top of one of the two main passes of this road. But actually we highly recommend it for several reasons. It will save you around 30 miles (50 km) to go to Vang Viang which can represent a lot depending on your vehicle. The #4 is in very good state which compensate for the steepness (many 10% and plus slopes) and winding of the passes. The two portions where the landslides happened are only a few hundred yards/meters and it is completely manageable on two wheels if you go slow and carefully. And the views are fantastic ! (Our pictures just don’t do it justice).
Road #13 – Vang Viang to Vientiane
Although not difficult, this stretch was very unpleasant. The landscape becomes really boring about 40 miles (70 km) after Vang Viang as the traffic increases. The road is wide, quite flat and in decent state but you will still get a fair amount of potholes and you can’t release your attention.
Road #13 – Vientiane to Boungkoang
This road is in good state, mostly flat and fairly straight. This was a smooth ride however the rural scenery there doesn’t present much interest.
Road #13 – Boungkoang to Thakhek
We liked this section, the road is still good and flat and the scenery got better with mountains, forests, small rivers and ponds making their appearance again.
Road #12 – Thakhek to Nakai
After riding a plain where rice fields and karstic picks alternate, you will reach back the mountains and be granted by little rivers and waterfalls, grassy hills and small forests. The landscape on this road is magnificent, the pavement is in very good state and the mountainous part is not as intense as in the North.
Road #8 – Nakai to Lak Sao
This road continues in the mountains and go through the Phou Hi Poun National Park (which extend to Vietnam as the famous Phong Nha Khe Bang National Park). There is a little guard post with a gate at the entrance of the park, we slowed down as we approached and friendly waved at the guard, he raised the gate arm and let us throught without anymore formalities. This road is in good state too and very scenic but with a few steeper slopes and sharp curves.
Road #8 – Lak Sao to Nampheo
We crossed back the border at Nampheo. The road from Lak Sao is in relatively good state besides a few potholes. You will see there nice rural landscape along beautil rivers.