Dr. Frazier Adventure Road Through Laos

February 5, 2010
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

“Road no stop.” The hill tribe villager was pointing down the track I wanted to follow. The map I had purchased in Thailand showed the road going through to where I wanted to go, but where I had stopped it had become more of a footpath than a dirt road.

My road into a local village was an uphill struggle when dry  but would have been impossible when wet  the mud becoming slicker than ice.
While appearing seemlingly innocent now, this road out of the small village turned to foot-deep mud just out of sight.

My Lao language skills were less than my Thai, and those were limited to a few hundred likely mispronounced words. While the two languages were sometimes similar, in the small hill tribe village I was in the members spoke no words in my Thai cranial dictionary. As the second-most common language in Laos was French, I tried some of that. Three years of French in school gave me a larger vocabulary, but none the villager could understand. Finally we settled on hand signs, and with the help of his teenage daughter who was familiar with some American music, he and I found some English common ground.

“Road” was a word which we both understood. As I pointed back from where I had come, then forward towards where I wanted to go, he shook his head in a “yes” up and down motion. I asked “Motocy OK,” while pointing to my motorcycle. He answered with more affirmative head shaking and said “no stop.”

Between the map showing the road being continuous, his head bobbing up and down affirmatively and the two words “no stop” my conclusion was that it was possible to drive through. I put my helmet back on, thanked him and our teenage assistant and drove onward, following the dwindling trail into the dense green jungle.

Bad road and animals could be found around a curve or on a strait section of road. More than a few motorcycle wheel rims had been waffled by their pilots not being able to avoid them.
When traveling through Laos, riders must always be aware of what might be waiting around the next bend.

Ten minutes later my motorcycle was stuck in a track of foot-deep red mud. While I unpacked the motorcycle so I could pull it backwards and out of the impassable muck, I had an adventure motorcycling enlightenment. In the 90 degree heat, I was sweating so profusely my vision blurred and I felt as though sweat was running out my ears, likely enhancing the adventurist epiphany. I realized the map was wrong, the size of my motorcycle was wrong and my interpretation of “Road no stop” was wrong. I was stuck in the jungle.

When the villager had been saying “no” he meant the track could be done on some small displacement step-through Honda or copy thereof that was common in Laos, some small motorcycle that could be dragged, pushed or pulled over the bad sections, but no to my 400cc behemoth. Putting it all together, when he nodded yes, he meant “yes it could be done,” no meant “not on my motorcycle” and stop meant “yes, the footpath went through to the next village.” Interpreted another way he was saying “Road for you is a no, so stop.”

After an hour of fatigued pulling and pushing I was back in his village, tired, soaked with sweat, and wanting to see an unnatural act performed upon the map maker. I was cheered a bit remembering seeing a small hotel an hour or two back towards where I had to go, if I could make it by dark.

The villager found me, we laughed about my mistake and then both hushed as we heard a hissing. It was not from water or gas dripping on the hot engine, it was that horrible sound made by air escaping from a tire. It was then I knew I was in for another unwanted adventure, like spending the night in the remote jungle village possibly trying to sleep in a hammock made for a person half my size while swatting mosquitoes on likely an empty stomach and with sweat-matted hair.

The Plain of Jars  near Phonsavan in the Northeast of Laos  was still without an explanation for being  or from where they came.  The depressions in the ground around the 2 500-3 000 year-old stone jars were from bombs dropped by the USA during the American War  1964-1973 .
The biggest of the jars weighed 3.7 tons.  This one was mid size.
A sign at the Plain of Jars indicated the site had been cleared of UXO  but tourists were warned not to wander off the main trails  a warning well heeded.
The Plain of Jars in Northern Laos is worth the adventure in its own right. Stone urns pepper the field that some believe were put there by aliens.

I had been to Laos several times before, twice crossing from Thailand in the north and once flying in with my helmet and riding gear and then renting a motorcycle in Vientiane. This time I had chosen the rental motorcycle option because it was cheaper and less time consuming than making the trip on my own motorcycle from Thailand. I had left my motorcycle parked on the Thai side of the border and bussed me and my gear over the Friendship Bridge to Vientiane. For some unknown reason the Laos authorities did not let motorcycles enter into the country across this bridge. I had come out of Laos across the same bridge before, but had never been allowed entrance across the same bridge through Laos Customs. It had been a fluid situation for some years, but this time I was prohibited from entering.

Renting a motorcycle in Vientiane was easy. There were several rental agencies and most offered nearly the same options: a well-used 250cc dual sport or dirt bike model. These were often the same motorcycles the local motorcycle tour operators used for their guided tours and generally cost less than $25 per day. This time an acquaintance in Laos, who was an experienced tour operator, found me a 400cc Honda Transalp, the same motorcycle that I had met in its earlier life in Thailand.

The country of Laos, or correctly the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is a relatively new country on the world map. It gained full independence from France in 1954, and then had some ups and downs during and after the American War (Vietnam War to Americans). The country was landlocked by Burma (Myanmar), People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand and covered 91,430 square miles (some still disputed with Thailand) or was about the size of the state of Utah in the United States. Of the claimed 21,716 kilometers of roads in Laos, 9,664 were paved and 12,052 unpaved.

Laos is a poor country, one of the poorest in the world, with 44% of the reported 6,320,000 population living below the international poverty level of the equivalent of $1.25 USD per day. According to the U.S. State Department, the annual estimated per capita income for 2008 was $765. That level of economic well-being did not leave much disposable income for luxury items like BMW or Harley-Davidson motorcycles, so neither company had dealerships in the country. If passing through Laos on some foreign big motorcycle and needing a spare part like a final drive gear or shock absorber, the nearest OEM parts oasis was far back across the Mekong River in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, Thailand, and even there could take weeks to receive.

Also called a jumbo by the locals  these small displacement Chinese motorcycle tuk tuks were an inexpensive way to get around town.
This motorcycle or “tuk tuk” is a local form of taxi cab and is an easy and inexpensive way to move about around town.

The motorcycles that dominated the Laos roads were 125cc and smaller imports from China, seemingly copies of Hondas. These were used for everything, from daily commuters to the delivery truck, bus or taxi. One of their major advantages over having a big, foreign motorcycle, besides cost, was in nearly every village there was some small motorcycle shop that could make repairs or fix a flat.

Eating and sleeping were generally easy and inexpensive. A clean room with air conditioning and hot water was available in major tourist areas for less than $30 USD per night. A guesthouse room with a fan could be had for less than $10 USD. Away from the larger cities quality accommodations were harder to find. I carried a silk sleeping sack for those times when a bed with questionable sheets was all that could be found. Also in my travel kit were a large can of insect killer and one of mosquito spray for myself. In the more remote areas it was not unusual for power to the village to be off at night, so I also carried an often used flashlight.

As for eating, the French had left their mark on the cuisine in major cities throughout Laos. The local Lao food, while noticeably spicier than food in neighboring Thailand, was still tasty. Sadly, with tourism being the fastest growing industry in Laos, I saw a Pizza Hut delivery motorcycle in Vientiane. The demanding palates of Western tourists could be fed by making a phone call across the border to Thailand to order pizza delivered in less than an hour. The pizza was made in Thailand, carried across the Friendship Bridge to the waiting delivery motorcycle and then hustled to the waiting customer on the Laos side. Happily a good local beer, Beer Lao, was plentiful throughout Laos and could wash down the worst or hottest tasting food, even the delivered pizza. I passed on the pizza when offered, but stepped right up when Beer Lao was presented.

A local motorcycle parts shop had what the rider needed for ordinary spares for their local smaller motorcycles  but nothing for my 400 cc model.
A small motorcycle shop. They carried everything the adventure motorcyclist could need – as long as the machine was one sold locally.

Gas was plentiful, although in smaller villages or towns someone would sometimes have to be found to unlock their private supply depot of 50 gallon drums. In other places gas was sold out of used glass or plastic liter bottles. The octane level was good enough everywhere to keep the 400cc Honda from pinging, but I suspected motorcycles requiring higher octane might not have liked some of the local gas.

My destination for this trip was again the mountainous north of Laos versus the hotter and more humid south. One sight I wanted to re-visit was Thong Hay Hin or the Plain of Jars. These three sites near the town of Phonsavan have hundreds of stone urns that to this date have no solid explanation of why they are there. It is known the stone the jars are made of is not native to the area. Some people speculate the large jars are burial urns carried from China, while others suggest they were wine fermenting pots. No one really knows the why or how. What is also amazing is that the jars still existed. The fields where they sat were heavily shelled between 1964 and 1973 by American bombings of Laos. A third theory I heard was they were placed there by aliens who left a protective shroud around them, and that is how they survived the massive US bombing raids.

Throughout Laos there were warning signs of where Unexploded Ordnance still existed. While I was traveling through Laos there were newspaper reports that several children had been killed and maimed from the UXO. Reportedly, of the nearly 3,000,000 tons of explosives dropped on Laos by the Americans, 30% did not explode. Tales of water buffalo exploding while pulling plows through rice paddies were as common as stories of people dying while digging up UXO to sell as scrap metal. These warnings did not go unheeded when I needed to attend to morning ablutions away from hotels or restaurants. I was a biker, not a hiker, so felt little need to wander far from roads or well-trod foot paths during the rest of a day.

Pictured here was a motorcycle and foot bridge only way to cross a river.  Cars and trucks had to use a small ferry boat  as would a large displacement adventure touring motorcycle unless the owner had great faith in their ability to squeeze through and in the strength of the supporting ropes and boards.
This foot and motorcycle bridge is the only direct link to the village on the other side of the river. Cars and trucks must be ferried across.

Driving on the paved and unpaved roads in Laos was rather sedate, first due to the often poor quality of the road surfaces and second to the fact that speed was not something people, goats, pigs, cows and chickens expected when a motorcycle approached. Additionally, around every blind corner could be found the unexpected ranging from a broken down truck to a farmer herding his water buffalo in my lane and direction.

As I was driving up one twisty mountain road, enjoying the scenery and general good condition of the pavement, I could hear a wildly honking horn coming down the mountain towards me. My first thought was it was a wedding party, celebrating their happy day. Thinking they might be driving wildly as well, I slowed and steered to the far right of my lane hoping to give them as much of the road as possible. It was my day of luck because when I slowed, I shifted down one gear rather than braking. This left the engine in higher revolutions than usual, not loping the engine but right on the sweet spot of the power band.

Approaching a curve I had just enough time to see an approaching large truck cross over from his side of the road and take up all of mine, obviously headed into the embankment on my right. I had one of those fastest decisions of life to make, and made it. I twisted the throttle and darted to the left, into the empty left lane. The truck hit the embankment where I would have been, then rolled on to its side.

I was driving up this hill in the lane on the left in this picture as the truck coming down the hill in the right lane lost its brakes  crossed into my lane and tried to climb the embankment on the left side before flopping over.  The driver was unhurt  but I spent many nights reliving the experience in my nightmares.
Part of the Laos adventure was almost being flattened under this truck when its brakes failed, a scenario that would play over and over again in Frazier’s mind over the next few days.

When I turned around and went back to see about the driver and any passengers my thoughts were of how flat I would have been had I stayed on the right side of the road. There would have been no bureaucratic hang-ups about using my medical evacuation insurance back to the USA. The problems would have been for my Personal Representative to deal with upon notice that my ashes needed to be sent somewhere and who was going to pay for the flattened motorcycle.

The truck driver survived, unscathed but well-shaken. The brakes on his heavily loaded truck had overheated coming down the mountain and all he could do was honk his horn as a warning, something that had saved my life. I took some pictures, promised myself to stop at the next Buddhist temple and leave a significant offering of thanks for Buddha, and checked the experience off as another of my declining number of nine lives.

Later that day I met two German tourists who had rented a 125cc Minsk motorcycle to make a day ride into the same mountains. They were lost and had parked on the side of the road to try to figure out where they were, although they had no map. I helped them determine they had missed their turn half an hour back down the mountain. Having used several Minsk’s before, I shook slightly while thinking what would have happened earlier that day had I been on the under powered small motorcycle instead of the more powerful 400cc Honda right on the power band when the truck had come down the mountain road at me.

Pictured here was a copy of a Honda that had enjoyed partial customizing.
Check out this partially customized Honda Scooter. Note the Winnie the Pooh pictured on the pillion seat.

Over the next days I replayed my crashing truck experience numerous times, trying to create a formula for that specific accident avoidance technique that I could write out to offer to others. My conclusion was one element of the equation had to have been from my experiences as a motorcycle racer, wanting to be in the engine power band when approaching an uphill curve. Another element was driving slower versus fast, saving the faster times for the race track. The biggest element had to be either luck or karma. That one I did not conclude. I liked to think it was karma.
It was good karma or luck I again had when I found myself some days later with the slowly deflating tire in the village with my new acquaintance who I had earlier asked whether the road went through to the next town. The villager became my savior for the night.

Between the two of us and our limited English we got the wheel off the motorcycle with the tools I carried in my personal tool kit for rental motorcycles. While a crowd of 10-15 men and children gathered around to watch us, he and I managed a MacGyver repair using my multi-purpose knife, a tool I noted my helper greatly admired. With my bicycle hand pump we pumped enough air into the tire to support the motorcycle, my luggage and me. When we were finished we had bonded well and the observers patted us both on the back. Everyone, including my new friend, expected me to drive off towards the larger town. That did not happen.

The people of the north were often as curious of me and my motorcycle as I was of them and their lifestyle.
A night spent with this local family was one memory that will always be fondly remembered.

One of my personal rules for safety had been for years not to drive a motorcycle in a third world country after dark. If I had left the village when the tire repair was finished I would have found myself driving in the dark with my bad eyesight for at least two hours. I tried to explain to my new tire changing pal that I needed to stay in his barren village, anywhere, for the night. This took some doing because he and the other villagers thought nothing of driving their 100-125cc motorcycles after dark back to the main road an hour away. I finally got the message across by showing him the bifocal lines in my very dark sunglasses, not showing him that I had a second pair of clear glasses in my luggage. When he put on my dark glasses it was nearly sunset, but he could understand my problem with night driving wearing the dark glasses.

He took me to his small elevated house, one made of wood, sticks, some flattened 50-gallon drums and tree leaves and limbs. Inside he offered me a corner in the one room that he shared with his wife and three children. He also showed me his outdoor toilet which was behind his house, as was the all-outdoors, meaning jungles and trees anywhere.

I was a bit dubious about sleeping in the one room with his family, but hating the option of sleeping on the ground with the chickens, piglets and snakes, agreed to accept

If traveling through Phonsavan  it was hard not to see remnants of the American War like the spent ammunition and ordnance pictured here outside a guesthouse.
Evidence of a violent history can be spotted in areas like Phonsavan. These are remnants of the American War.

his offer. When he made eating signs with his hands that implied asking if I was hungry I nodded yes, not having eaten since breakfast that morning. However, I insisted on paying for food and possibly something to drink, water or better yet some kind of soda with sugar. I gave him a stack of kip (the Lao money) and he sent his teenage daughter off on a small motorcycle to buy some food and drink from some unseen source.

Somewhere lost in our communication was the amount of kip needed for the food and water because the girl came back and asked for more kip. I gave her another large stack, maybe $10.00 USD worth and she left again, only to return minutes later wanting more kip. Not desiring to lose face in front of my new found friend and his family, I forked over my final stack of kip, then started to think I was being charged for sleeping and eating, but not really caring because I was at least sleeping above ground and some food or water was coming for less than $20 USD versus my driving in the dark.

Some deity smiled on me that late afternoon. The girl returned with a fat live hen, vegetables, and a package of noodles, four bottles of sealed water, two bottles of warm Beer Lao and one bottle of some hill tribe home brew. To the family it must have seemed like a great holiday celebration, more food than they usually saw in two or three days all for our one meal that night.

The wife hastily chopped the vegetables and chicken, and got all cooking in pots over a pile of coals. While she and the daughter cooked dinner the husband and I sat on the stoop of his house slowing drinking our bottles of beer. As the sun went down I thought the day was not ending too badly.

When the meal was cooked we all sat on the floor in the middle of the room and ate around a lighted candle, the village having no electricity. I tried not to greedily gobble with both hands by using the knife blade on my multi-purpose tool

A typical intersection on a busy street with no stop signs  no stop lights and no policeman directing traffic seemed to work well for the locals and they weaved and dodged each other.  All were courteous and there was no horn-honking as would be found in the neighboring country of Vietnam.
A typical intersection isn’t controlled by stop signs or light. Locals bob and weave with a friendly wave.

as a fork, a utility tool I could see the husband again admiring. I was only eating small portions to make sure everyone got a fair share. In the end everyone, including me, was well fed. Nothing was left but broken chicken bones (with the marrow sucked out) and shells from some fruit. All these remains were tossed out the door by the wife to the waiting pigs and scrawny chickens below.

As the family prepared to sleep for that night I carefully stepped into the jungle behind the house to wash my face and teeth with some bottled water. I used my sleeping sack in my assigned corner of the house for a night of deep sleep likely enhanced by whatever was in the bottle of unnamed brew the husband and I shared after dinner while the wife cleaned the dishes and prepared the two younger children for sleep on the one family mattress on the floor. The teenage girl slept curled on the bare floor in a third corner, the forth corner being occupied by cooking pots, some boxes and sacks of stored coal.

The next morning the chickens woke us before the sun and by daybreak I was back on the motorcycle driving slowly to town. Once there I checked into the hotel, showered, had a full meal in their restaurant, and then drove the motorcycle to a small repair shop where we made a proper repair to the holed tire.

My travels in Laos had been short, but filled with adventure, or maybe misadventure. I had wanted to spend more time exploring the Laos/Vietnam border area and to visit a friend in the far south near Pakxe. Those trips were moved onto my plate for future travel.

Ridge top riding in the mountainous areas of the north and east of Laos offered grand views of this scenic area.
This ridge top road offered unforgettable views.

As I drove back to Vientiane to return the rental motorcycle I reflected again on the near crash with the truck. I also reflected on the many interesting and friendly people I had met, the impoverished but laughing and waving children alongside the village roads as I drove through, the numerous motorcycles I had seen, and how so few were being piloted by foreigners like myself. I concluded Laos was a special place for motorcycling, not one for the average motorcycle tourist used to ATMs, Harley-Davidson T-shirt buying, or weekend motorcycle rallies. An option to a full-on first time solo adventure in Laos could be arranged through www.remoteasia.com, one of the more experienced and professional motorcycle tour operators based in Vientiane.

While I still wondered about the Plain of Jars, the sadness still being caused by the tons of UXO in the country and the difference between luck and karma, my largest remaining curiosity was about my multi-purpose tool/knife, the one my village host so greatly admired. While I was packing my motorcycle at dawn before leaving his house I managed to secretly wrap the tool in a plastic bag, and then seal it with a considerable amount of black electrical tape. It was cold at dawn, so my host was wearing a well-worn jacket. As we shook hands before I got on the motorcycle I managed to fake a slight stumble and fall while slipping the wrapped packet into his jacket pocket. As I drove away I could see in my mirror that he had discovered the bundle and was looking down at it in his hand. I suspect he was as curious about it as I was about his reaction.

My “Road no stop” adventure had been the best stop on the road through Laos.