Last month I spent a week motorcycling around Laos with a friend, starting at the capital and heading north through probably one of the most scenic parts of Southeast Asia. This is still a fairly undeveloped part of the world, meaning empty roads, not many other tourists, and an unspoiled landscape. It also means the logistics of this trip were not easy, but the ride was definitely worth it. If you are interested in doing a trip like this, read on!
Preparing for the trip
Roads in Laos range from two lanes and decent blacktop on the main highways to muddy dirt tracks in the villages, so you will want to be a fairly proficient rider with at least some dirt biking experience before you go. We went early in the rainy season, which contributed to the mud, but even in the dry season, a lot of the smaller roads will require some dirt riding skills.
The two most sensible starting points for a trip like this are the capital, Vientiane, and Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Town about 340km to the north. Both cities have international airports, but they are very small, so expect to fly through a major Asian hub like Bangkok or Seoul if coming from the U.S. or Europe. You can also take a bus from Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam if you are already in Southeast Asia, but expect it to be an overnight bus (12 hours+) on mountainous, winding roads.
We rented a Honda CRF250 and CRF230 from Remote Asia in Vientiane, who were excellent. The bikes were in great shape and Jim from Remote Asia was very helpful when we had a minor mishap (I lost an ignition key to my bike!). You really will want to rent bikes from someone who can also provide a cell phone and “roadside assistance”, and by that I mean basically translating via cell phone and recommending mechanics. English is not widely spoken in Laos and emergency services are non-existent, so you will want an English speaking contact in-country from your rental agency.
We had no issues with Laotian police (in fact we did not see any outside of Vientiane), so it would seem that you don’t strictly need an International Drivers License or a motorcycle license at all. Your rental bike should come with a Laotian number plate and turn signals, and riding with a headlight during the day is apparently illegal so should be avoided.
Laos has a few excellent motorcycle routes, and the one we took seems to be the most popular. You can order an excellent map of Laos with elevation profiles, road conditions, and city maps from GT Rider in Thailand here. This route took us 6 days of riding at a fairly leisurely pace. There are three long days of riding (over 150km) and one day each spent in Vang Vieng, Ponsavan, and Luang Prabang that you can use to explore the area surrounding these cities.
In addition to the GT Rider map, you should also get an Open Street Map app for your smart phone. OSM actually had pretty good coverage of Laos, including some of the caves and waterfalls outside of the cities. For Android, try OSMAnd, which lets you download country maps for offline use.
Here’s a map of the route we took and details of each leg.
Vientiane to Vang Vieng, 154km
If picking up your bikes in Vientiane, likely your first stop will be Vang Vieng. The ride to Vang Vieng is 154 km and fairly easy and flat until the last 50km or so where there are some small hills. Leaving Vientiane is where you will probably encounter the most traffic of the trip (not much!), but within 50km, it drops off a lot.
Vang Vieng is a tourist town along the Nam Song river with lots of caving, waterfalls, and rafting available nearby. It is definitely worth at least one whole day exploring outside of the town. I think of the three towns we visited, Vang Vieng had the most spectacular scenery. The town is surrounded by a dramatic karst landscape that is even more surreal in the rainy season when the peaks are surrounded in fog. In Vang Vieng, we went to a cave, waterfall and “blue lagoon” (swimming hole) on our one full day there. These were all found on dirt paths leading out from the town, for which Open Street Map was a real help locating.
Vang Vieng to Ponsavan, 233km
The second long day of riding, Vang Vieng to Ponsavan, is 233 km of challenging riding with tons of very steep switchbacks and incredible views of some of the highest peaks in Laos. On this part of the ride, you are heading to Ponsavan, which is the capital of the providence containing the Plain of Jars, a neolithic archeological site with large stone jars (some over 4 feet tall). The Plain of Jars was also bombed heavily during the Vietnam War as part of the CIA’s covert war in Laos, so there is lots of war history in this area as well. Ponsavan has a few NGOs operating to clear unexploded ordinance that have interesting exhibits in the town on the war.
Ponsavan to Luang Prabang, 259km
The last long day of riding will take you 259 km from Ponsavan to Luang Prabang (backtracking to Pho Khoun, then north to Luang Prabang). Backtracking in this way isn’t all that bad because the scenery and riding is so great heading from Pho Khoun to Ponsavan, you’ll have no problem doing it twice.
Pho Khoun makes a good stopping place for lunch, as its about at the midpoint of this ride and there are a few places to refuel and grab lunch. From Pho Khoun, you’ll have similar riding (and that’s to say great!) to Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has by far the best developed tourist infrastructure of the three cities we visited. Luang Prabang is at the intersection of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River and has a large temple in the center of the city with great views of both rivers. There are waterfalls about 20km outside of town as well as rafting, elephant tours, and kayaking if you choose to stay here for a few days.