The boat trip from Hat Sa to Muang Khua on the Nam Ou River in Laos

This was my first attempt at video, so excuse the shaky hand and the out of focus bit when I tried to zoom it.

Those who have been on this river in wet notice may notice just how clear the water is — in the wet it is the colour of coffee with milk.

The music is by a Khmer artist, Ros Sereysothea and the song “Chnam oun dop prammuy” translates as “I’m 16”. Nothing to do with Laos I know — it just happened to be what I was listening to as the time and seemed like a good fit.

It is a beautiful trip and I highly recommend it.


On travelling in Laos

A short trip, but a good trip. Two weeks motorbiking through far northern Laos. As usual, I tried to do too much, but it was easy to pare my intentions back to something more reasonable — and importantly — enjoyable. Biking through parts of Luang Nam Tha, Udomxai, Luang Prabang and Phongsali provinces, I’d picked a mix of well trafficked and less travelled parts of the country and mostly got just what I was looking for — some feeling for the wilderness Laos offers along with a couple of cruisy days by the river supported by a steady supply of iced BeerLao.

Boat at Nong Kiaow

Sampan at Nong Kiaow

Where I went
The trip took me through Huay Xai, north to Luang Nam Tha (where I did a two-day trek) then east to Udomxai, before heading north again via Muang La, Boun Tai and Boun Neua to Phongsali. From there east again to Hat Sa, where I threw the bike on a large sampan and boated south to Muang Khua — the northern most gateway to Vietnam. From Muang Khua, south to Muang La and Udomxai before taking a sharp left and east to Nong Kiaow, where I wound down for a couple of days before riding back via Udomxai to Luang Nam Tha, where I returned my trusty bike and back to Huay Xai and out. All up around 960km by motorbike and even now, a week or so later I can still feel every pothole.

Of all the above, Luang Nam Tha and Nong Kiaow — Muang Khua at a stretch — are the only places that could be described as having any kind of a traveller’s scene. The others are traditional Lao villages and towns where foreign travellers remain more of an oddity then a stable means of income. Public transport remains basic, unreliable and time-consuming — expect early starts and late arrivals — timetables should be treated a bit like a palm reading (I see in your future a bus leaving … sometime). Arterial roads are potholed and rutted, while secondary sealed roads are often excellent. Large stretches of really awful unsealed hardbase road remain — especially in Phongsali province.

Scenery between Luang Nam Tha and Udomxai

Scenery between Luang Nam Tha and Udomxai

Beds and stuff
Accommodation varied considerably. Promised hot water was only hot on two occasions — who makes these forever broken hot water heaters to stick on walls? Mosquito nets were the exception to the rule — only two places had them. An average room cost around 50,000 kip, with the cheapies coming in at 30,000 kip and a pricey one 100,000 kip. Often not a stick of English was spoken, but if you speak at least rudimentary Thai you’ll get by — though Lao would be better!

My room at the Boun Tai Hilton

My room at the Boun Tai Hilton

Feeding frenzy
I ate a lot of pho. Every day in fact. Sometimes twice a day. I ate a lot of larp — something I’d happily eat thrice daily. Lots of fresh vegetables matched only by the copious amounts of MSG. There is no need to seek refuge in western food in Laos — the local food is great — but I’d pass on the bowl of fresh duck blood.

Staying hydrated
I drank a lot of water. A LOT of water. At least four litres a day. All day in the sun, on a bike, makes Stuart a thirsty boy.

I drank a lot of beer. BeerLao. Not four litres a day though — ok maybe once — and I found it doesn’t work as a water substitute.

I was offered laolao (local ricewine) all too regularly, at all times of the day. I don’t recommend it before breakfast, nor in the evening if you expect to be able to function (ie ride motorbike) before lunchtime the next day. I do recommend trying it — there’s more to laolao than getting pasted — it can also be a handy in with the locals.

Scenery north of Muang La

More mountain scenery

Like anywhere, I met a typical mosaic of travellers — some great people — some less so. The good thing about travelling is when you finally escape the political lecture from a French nutbag in Phongsali, you can just travel in the opposite direction.

Special note of thanks to Harma, the British traveller who offered me her jacket.

Most travellers knew very little about Laos. “We came for the tubing but stayed” was a typical refrain. Most were having a ball and everyone said it was “like Thailand 30 years ago” — even those who hadn’t hit 30 yet.

Misty morning ride north of Boun Tai

Misty morning start out of Boun Tai

On guides and gospels
Every single English speaking traveller I met was using either the Lonely Planet Laos, or the Lonely Planet SE Asia Shoestring book. On the dead-tree book front, LP own Laos as far as English speaking travellers are concerned.

Travellers complained bitterly about both — in my opinion, fairly regarding the SEA book, unfairly re the dedicated Laos book.

Most people I met had never heard of Travelfish — they all have now 😉

Old building, Phongsali

Chinese house, Phongsali

I was amazed how little of the Lao language travellers tried to learn. Few ventured past “Sabaydee”. Counting, thankyou and basic Q&A are not difficult in Lao — don’t worry about the tones — just try it — you’ll certainly be the exception to the rule.

Hat Sa

Hat Sa boat landing - yes, it was cold!

Words over pho: Muang Ngoi
Everyone I met who had been to Muang Ngoi had either been robbed there themselves or knew someone who had been. If you go to Muang Ngoi, don’t leave anything of any kind of value in your room.

Words over pho: Vang Vieng
Reports on Vang Vieng were mixed. People tended to start out scathing but came round to admitting they had a fun time there. Most were happy Vang Vieng was the only place in Laos that is, well, like Vang Vieng.

A lot of reports of assaults, robbery and fights alongwith some quite distressing stories of stupidly smashed people doing incredibly stupid things. Also most who had been tubing had the scars to prove it (cuts and abrasions).

River scenery an hour south of Hat Sa

On the river an hour south of Hat Sa

Trekking in Luang Nam Tha is more expensive than in Thailand. Trekking in Udomxai is more expensive than Luang Nam Tha. Trekking in Phongsali is more expensive than trekking in Udomxai. The main challenge you will find is finding enough people to do the trek you want to do without it costing the earth — this is an acute problem in Phongsali where there are very few foreign travellers — despite there being what looks like some fabulous trekking.

There are now treks operating from Phongsali into Phou Den Din Protected Area — looked very very interesting, but a bit expensive (four-day trip starting at 1.6 million kip for two people). Your main challenge will be rustling up enough people to get costs down.

Akha village before Boun Tai

Akha village near Boun Tai

If you want to see Akha villages and Akha people doing their thing, but don’t want to go trekking, then get a motorbike and go riding — by the time I got to Boun Tai from Udomxai I’d been through a half-dozen or so villages and observed far more of the “Akha day to day living” than I saw on the trek out of Luang Nam Tha. Still, unless you’ve got an A-level in Akha don’t expect too much on the conversation front.

There are a growing number of travellers doing “apres trekking” where they just show up in an area and go for a walk in the woods to see what they find. This sort of thing is well established in Luang Nam Tha, Muang Sing and Muang Long but less so elsewhere. I would give a note of caution in this regard — especially in the remoter border areas near Boun Tai and Boun Neua in Phongsali.

I met two Europeans in Boun Neua who, having arrived by bus from Phongsali planned to ditch there bags at a guesthouse and go trekking off into the hinterland, with no guide and no language skills — I narrowly escaped being murdered by bandits an hour later. This is cowboy country — get a guide — and be wary of putting yourself in a situation (as I did) where you can easily be taken advantage of — not all locals are happy smiley people who want you to have a great and fabulous time in Laos.

Kids at Samphanh

Kids at Samphanh

Boats and stuff that floats
Boat travel remains one of the best ways to really take in Laos’ beauty in a comfortable manner. Travel downriver when possible — it is faster and more comfortable. The boat from Hat Sa to Muang Khua is more scenic than that from Muang Khua to Nong Kiaow. It takes the same time to get the later boat as it does to motorbike between the two via Udomxai (we had a race!).

River scenery south of Samphanh

South of Samphanh entoute to Muang Khua

There were two foreigners (including me) on the boat from Hat Sa to Muang Khua and five from Muang Khua to Hat Sa — it is still very much a “local experience” — and a striking contrast to the floating cattle trucks that used to ply the Huay Xai to Luang Prabang route.

I’d go as far as to say it is worth getting the bus to Phongsali just so that you can take the boat from Hat Sa to Muang Khua. Be sure to allow a day or two in Phongsali once you’re there.

Nong Kiaow sunset boat

Sunset boating

Pretty stuff
The scenery (from a motorbike) is spectacular. Despite my mishap, the Boun Neua to Phongsali road offers tremendous mountain scenery, closely followed by Sin Xai to Boun Tai and, in particular, Boun Tai to Boun Neua. Much of the Udomxai to Sin Xai road follows a river and so is quite pretty.

Udomxai to Nam Bak less so and I don’t recommend leaving Udomxai at midday guaranteeing you four hours under a scorching sun. Luang Nam Tha to Udomxai is pretty rough and ready. Some good viewpoints, but heavy roadwork making for a lot of dust and distractions.

It gets cold. Very cold. No need to pack a jacket — just buy a cheap Chinese one in Udomxai or Luang Nam Tha. Try and get one with a cool phrase like “People say Cats green now please!” emblazoned on the back.

My trusty steed

My trusty steed - 960km and not a single flat tire!

When planning your time in the north, bear in mind two things. Public transport is infrequent and it takes a long time to get from A to B. Trip times vary considerably. From Udomxai to Phongsali by bus I heard from travellers who saw the trip take 8, 10 and 12 hours — on consecutive days. Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua was taking 12 hours (due to massive roadworks on the Lao side of the border).

Travellers reported Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha taking 7 hours, yet another saw Udomxai to Luang Nam Tha (roughly half the distance) taking 8 hours due to multiple breakdowns and a truck in front of them blocking the road when it dropped a load of rubble. Travel in Laos, especially in the north, is not a strictly timetabled affair.

If you’re looking for a more unadulterated Laos, this slice of north could be what you’re after. In the scheme of things there are few other foreigners (never more than about a dozen in Phongsali) but all the basic infrastructure is there — guesthouses, restaurants, even internet — to make it relatively easy travel.

Morning mist at Nong Kiaow

Nong Kiaow

There’s no boisterous party scene, but there’s always a wedding or streetside laolao session beckoning and you’ll struggle to come across locals that are particularly jaded and sick of stooopid falang antics. It’s not Luang Prabang when it comes to sights, but the hilltop stupa in Phongsali offers tremendous views and there is a great herbal steam in Udomxai — you know — it’s the little things that can make a trip so memorable.

Bye bye Laos, Hello Thailand

Boats to ferry me back to Chiang Khong

The far north is a low key antidote to the better travelled central and southern regions of Laos. It’s difficult to put one’s finger on just what the appeal is, but most of the travellers I met were really having a good time. As an Israeli traveller I met said, “Laos lacks character but has a magic”. While I wouldn’t say it lacks character, it most certainly has a magic — go check it out for yourself.

Interesting times on the road to Phongsali

In mid February, on the road from Boun Neua to Phongsali I was the target of a violent theft attempt, which, luckily for me, didn’t work out well for the thieves.

Let me preface the following by saying that having reported the attempt to the hotel owner, the Phongsali Tourist Office and the Tourist Police here in Phongsali all three have said categorically that this is the first time they have ever — EVER — heard of something like this happening. So I want to make clear that the following is intended not to scare people off coming to Phongsali — it’s great — but more as a warning — especially to travellers on bikes or motorbikes that are travelling solo.

Scenery near new road to Samphanh

I left Boun Tai in the morning at around 06:30, arriving in Boun Neau some two hours later. Once there I stopped for breakfast (pho and a diabolical Nescafe and sweetmilk concoction) and unfroze my arms for about 30 minutes. I was at the cafe opposite the bus station and sat in the sun (in an attempt to dry my wet/frozen feet). I believe the thieves spotted me here and ascertained I was travelling alone.

I tend to ride slowish and a few kilometres out of Boun Neau I noticed a bike that was hovering a distance behind me — odd because locals tend to overtake me as I stop to take pics etc, but this bike came and went, but never passed me. I noticed it, but didn’t give it much thought. When I reached the viewpoint I stopped and climbed the stairs up to the sala thing and back down. This is when they must have passed me (though I didn’t see them).

Scenery near Boun Tai

I got going again, and a few kilometres onwards rounded a corner to see a black bike stopped and positioned partially across the road with a single male on the far side of the bike. I slowed a little and he waved, yelling “stop stop” (that he was yelling in English should have tipped me off, but it didn’t), so I pulled up right beside his bike, but (very luckily) didn’t turn off the engine. As I turned and took off my helmet to ask what the problem was I spied the other guy (no idea where he was hiding) running at me with both hands firmly gripped around the barrel of one of those stockless AK-47s that you see all over Laos.

It was very very clear to me at the time that he was intended to bash me on the back/head with the stock of the gun. I swung with my left arm, which held the helmet and knocked the gun out of his hands. I then turned, and kicked their bike as hard as I could, knocking it over (and almost myself in the opposite direction) and forcing the other guy to jump back, I then gunned my humble Suzuki, tossing the helmet in the basket and sped around the crashed bike and escaped. The entire event was over in about five seconds — though it took about five minutes for my hands to stop shaking.

I rode as fast as I could, almost dropping the bike a couple of times till I reached the next village where I slowed right down, and coasted through — if they were chasing me, I preferred they did so in a village. I never saw them again.

It is my firm belief that these loons, whoever they were, were not out to politely relieve me of some cash, they were out to disable me in a very remote area, clear me out and take my bike — leaving me for dead.

Those that know me know I’m tall but certainly not the fittest dude on the block — Fight Club material I am not! The whole thing happened so fast I can’t really explain how I did what I did. I think, crucially, I didn’t turn my bike engine off, and equally I took my helmet off — if I hadn’t there is no way I would have seen this other guy coming at me.

Mist filled valley on road to Hat Sa

So what to take out of this. I’d say if you’re a single traveller on bike or bicycle, treat any kind of “broken bike” scenario you happen to come across with extreme caution. Don’t turn your bike off. Phongsali is a beautiful province to ride in — very challenging, but beautiful and I’d definitely do it again — BUT I wouldn’t ride it alone. Motorcycles can now be rented in Phongsali, so there is no real need to ride here — unless you want to. Oh, and make sure you have travel insurance 😉

I’d also like to note that the Tourist Police and Tourist Office here have been outstanding in their assistance — and their apologies certainly were not needed. These things happen — even in Laos unfortunately.

So that’s my story. To the family and friends that read this blog, rest assured I’m fine save a nervous tick in my right eye and a small hole in my right leg — just flesh wounds as they say!