miles / 40,000kms into Laos
-- Story by Chris --
We just arrived in Vientiane, Laos.
It's dark, the roads are bumpy, its been a long day, but we've completed just over 25,000
miles / 40,000kms.
When we arrived (back) in Chiang Mai on
March 16th, we thought we would do a quick service, get our Laos visas, run a few errands,
and be gone by the 22nd. Well, 10 days later we finally left. Apparently,
Chiang Mai has this affect on people. Our mornings were spent taking care of the
bikes or running errands, our afternoons cooling off in the pool, and our nights watching
rugby our hanging out with friends (David, Lek, Jimmy, Bob, and An).
I did a service on both bikes -- changed
fluids, tightened/straightened parts, replaced Erin's rear tyre (used), and gave the bikes
a good "once over". We will get proper tyres for both bikes again when
we reach Bangkok or Malaysia. Before we departed on this trip, I had taken a
course at a local community college on Basic Motorcycle Maintenance. Prior to this
trip, whenever I had problems or needed service, I always took the bike(s) to the
shop. I told my mechanic (Phil @ Lindners) that I was nervous about my limited
abilities. He replied, "you will know so much when you get back". I
countered, "yeah, but how painful will the learning experience be?!?"
I've gotten pretty good at fixing flats, as
we've gotten more in the past 3 months then the previous 3 years! We used to only
address problems when we got stuck, but since the riding conditions have become more
demanding, we decided to be a bit more pro-active. On the 1st and 15th of every
month, we do a "mini-service" (I do my bike, Erin does hers) -- check the fluid
levels, battery, tyres, brake pads, and attend to any other nagging issues.
Electrical problems still baffle me, and when they occur I email "others" for
help. But the bikes are still running well, and so that makes our job easier.
While in Chiang Mai we got to know David
Unkovich really well, and became friends. Sure, he's well known for his book, A
Motorcycle Guide to the Golden Triangle, but he really is an unusual and terrific
guy. He constantly was checking on us, taking us to various shops, and inviting us
out with his friends -- I think I'm still hung-over. Among other things, David is
also a cartographer. He drew the B&B Thailand North map (a must for
anyone traveling in the north) and is currently working on a map of Laos. He knows
every road and path in the area.
If you want to go riding in N.
Thailand/Laos, David is an incredible wealth of information. If you come on your
own, he's happy to sit with you and offer suggestions (routes, accommodations, bike
rentals). If you want a guided tour, his fee is 2,500 baht/day (~$70) +
his expenses (gas, food, and lodging), regardless of group size. He recommends 4-6
people. The trip can be all asphalt, light off-road, or full off-road (experienced
riders). Bike rentals are about $15/day, and you can eat/sleep for about $8 and up,
depending on your budget. If you have questions or need any information, email
and/or see his website: http://www.geocities.com/MotorCity/5354/ad.html
If this sounds like a big plug for David --
yup, it sure is. But only because his information/service is worth it!
Anyway, Sunday the 26th greeted us with a
hazy day. We were up at 7:00am and out by 8:30 -- This was a challenge as the entire
week before we were lazy and not waking up until at least 10:00am! Our destination
for the day was a short ride (3 hours) over to Sukhothai, and by lunchtime we were checked
into our bungalow at a great little guesthouse.
Sukhothai was the first capital of Thailand
and it lasted just over 100 years. In 1379, the capital was moved to Ayuthaya, just
north of Bangkok. In 1782, the capital was again moved to its present location,
Bangkok. Sukhothai was renowned for it's remarkable achievements in art, law,
literature, and its architecture. Sukhothai is literally littered with ruins of wats
(temples), monuments, and moats spread out over an area of several square
kilometers. It took us the better part of the afternoon just to see half of it.
Monday, March 27th,
9:00am: Our destination was the Laos border and it's capital city of Vientiane, some
550kms away. The bikes were packed, our bill was settled, we were in full battle
gear, and finally started to wheel the bikes into the street. The morning
temperature was rapidly rising towards triple digits, we had a 7 hour ride ahead of us
(not including food & petrol stops) and expected the border crossing to take several
hours, so we wanted to get on the road. Can you see it coming? Yup, we
discovered Erin had a flat tyre -- Ughhh! Already sweating, I peeled off my helmet,
gloves, and jacket, then we rolled the bike into a bit of shade.
I am getting good at removing the wheel, so
a few minutes later I was rolling the half-empty tyre down the road 250 yards to a
puncture repair shop -- The great thing about India and SE Asia is the frequency of these
little shops. I brought along our tyre-irons and a spare tube, but I was willing to
pay the guy the $1 to fix it for me. Well, we spent over a half hour checking the
tube for leaks (and tyre for sharp culprits) and found none. My head was spinning in
the heat, and eventually we gave up and put the other (patched) tube in -- No air leaked
out. Scratching my head in confusion, I rolled the wheel back and reinstalled it on
the bike. The women at the guesthouse insisted I drink some water, then hosed me
down with a garden hose and cleaned the grease off my hands and face.
At 10:30am, we hit the road. The ride
was uneventful, as we were pushing to make the Thai crossing point of Nong Khai by dark.
For lunch we had Cup-O-Noodles while petrol attendants topped off the tanks.
In the end, we arrived at 5:30, having taken advantage of highway speeds (and leniency
towards foreigners) where possible.
We pulled up to the Thai customs officer
(under a shaded overhang), stripped off our gear, and pulled out our necessary
documents. To make a long story short, our visa expired on March 14th so we crossed
into Myanmar and returned a few hours later for a new 30-day visa. We left the bikes
with the border officials and were told we didn't need to do any paperwork for the
bikes. OK, see where this is going? Yup, our documents for the bikes had
expired and we were in the penalty zone. Either we were misinformed, or we hadn't
spoken to the customs officials. After a long discussion (and after realizing if we
didn't pay we couldn't exit), we paid a fine of 1000 baht/bike ($27). We don't
believe this was a scam, we signed documents saying the bikes would leave by March 14th
and they didn't -- I could argue until I was blue in the face, and Erin finally stopped me
at a nice shade of purple. Once new paperwork was created, our exit stamps were
quick and efficient -- I think they really wanted to get rid of me (and dinner was getting
cold). The truth is, the whole process would have only taken about 15 minutes if
only. . .
OK, now we were ready to cross the newly
constructed Thai-Laos "Friendship Bridge" - Hah!! By some bizarre twist of
regulations, reportedly connected to the Laos Mafia, motorcycles are not allowed to be
ridden across this 500 meter span, but can only cross in the back of a pickup. The
cost is 600 baht per trip (so try to fit 2 bikes on), but it was obvious we needed to make
2 trips at a total cost of 1000 baht ($27). It was an interesting trip across the
bridge, at night, in the back of an under-powered pickup, with my motorbike on top,
crossing a river border.
The Lao officials were friendly and helpful
in unloading the bikes. Immigration was swift, and importing the bikes was easier
with the carnet, although I had to explain how they should process it. Since we
already had our visas -- 30 days for 1,500 baht/person ($41), we breezed through
immigration. At customs, we were charged an entry fee and overtime fee (after
4:00pm) of 40 baht ($1). By 7:00pm, we were exiting the border post, in the dark.
We normally don't ride at night, but Vientiane was only 15kms away. About 100
meters away from the border post, we came to a "T" junction. With no
visible signage, we looked down at our GPS units and decided we needed to take a right.
Just prior to entering the dark roadway,
Erin (thankfully) avoided a potential accident by questioning which side of the road we
should ride on. After nearly 4 months of riding on the left, and knowing we would do
the same in Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and NZ, I simply assumed it would be the same
in Laos. We waited a few minutes until a car drove across our path, in the middle of
the road -- no help! A bit later a motorbike pulled up next to us, waved, and drove
off in the right lane. So, we followed him, and it turned out to be the
correct decision. It took us about 20 minutes to reach the capital. It was a
scary ride over terrible roads that sometimes unexpectedly turned to dirt, while trying to
avoid the throngs of stealth bicycles and pedestrians in the dark. When we found the
colonial style city center, we hunted for 45 minutes for a $8-10/night guesthouse that had
secure parking for the bikes, and eventually gave up.
It was late, we were tired, and it had been
a long day. Last year, as going away gifts, some family members gave us Travelers
Checks to be used for "a nice hotel with a good bed and shower". We
decided it was time to splurge and cash in. At around 9:00pm we found a nice hotel
with a HUGE ROOM and gorgeous bathroom for $30/night, but got them to reduce it to
$20. We each took a long relaxing shower, had a superb meal ($6) in the dining room,
and planned to stay a few nights.
And so, after 25,000 miles/40,000kms, our
journey has brought us to our 28th country. We're still having fun and still going
strong. Financially, we're doing better than expected, but we've also lowered our
living standards and curtailed a lot of old spending habits.