Laos is the last true wild frontier of Indochina. Steve Thomas takes a return ride to the “land of a million elephants”.
Steve Thomas

Cycling Central
13 Jun 2017 - 1:47 PM 

Two long and very lazy days slumped on a slow boat heading up the mighty Mekong River affords plenty of time to ponder over things.

Homeward bound, it’s something I rarely look forward to after a visit to Laos, a country that is truly one of the most fascinating and grounding in all of Asia. This time around my resistance to the inevitable return to reality was no different, but with every one of my numerous trips to this last bastion of Communism, I come away with a heavy heart as well as a lust for more of its near unparalleled and untouched adventure.

I’ve written before about riding in the extreme northern tribal lands of Laos, and this time around had my sights set a little further, around the ancient capital city of Luang Prabang, which although a few clicks south are still very much in the deeply forested and mountainous north of the landlocked country.

Laos has changed some in the past few years and has opened up to the outside world, with Luang Prabang the jewel in the crown of its tourist attractions, which has become the cultured and fermented dressing on the Laotian “fried rice trail”.

This rise in tourism, of course, has its benefits in economic terms, but it's rapidly changing the once natural face of Laos, with neighbouring foreign interests now holding the reins of prime tourist income sources.

The growing economic power and influence of China are having an impact on the locals, landscape, and ecology, notably the damming of numerous rivers and chemically fuelled mass cash crop farming. If you want to experience the true beauty of Laos then you’d best not slumber around for too long, it’s fading fast.

With largely unmapped dirt road networks, impenetrable mountains and rough roads, navigating Laos can be arduous. That difficulty does help in keeping the less obvious reaches of the country as pristine and intact as they have been for centuries, which is great for adventurous riding.

The arrival of budget flights (mostly Air Asia) has made Luang Prabang and the north more reachable that it was just five years ago, and the ever growing number of small guesthouses in the outer reaches and off the main tourist trail have well and truly laid out a great infrastructure for bike packing and touring in the region.

This time around I only had a week to play with, which was about how long the overland in and out journey to LPG would have taken a few years ago. The city its self is quite unlike any in Asia and is worth at least two or three days in-depth exploration. Ancient temples are found on the corner of every old colonial block, and the heart of the old town is encircled by the Mekong and Nam Ou Rivers. By city standards it’s tiny, and would struggle to reach town status in Australia, but as the cultural and spiritual home of Laos, it rightly earns the city tag.

Tourists from the world over flock here to see the hundreds of Buddhist monks who take alms (tak bak) on the streets each morning, and apart from organised treks very few venture outside of the city limits, which means that the roads and trails soon quieten down for riding.

There are excellent road climbs directly south of the city, and some really sweet mountainous riding due north too. This time around I hopped and pedalled my way towards the town of Nong Khiaw, which is surrounded by towering limestone mountains and has some challenging (but limited) road riding and lots of great dirt roads to go at.

It’s feasible to ride here from LPG in one long and hot day, or better still over two shorter days with some side trips thrown in. The scenery is lush and imposing for most of the way, although dam projects blot the landscape in places.

Head off along just about any of the mountain dirt roads and you’ll find yourself riding into remote hill tribe villages that have seen very few foreigners, makings the riding adventurous and experiences prized.

Rainy season runs through until September. During this time the air is at its clearest, colours their most vibrant and of course there are fewer tourists around. Off-roading can be hit and miss, with the mountain roads potholed and rough. The “green season” and its vibrant fringe periods are definitely a favourite time to travel, even if you do have to sometimes work around the weather.

There are few places left in the world that can match Northern Laos for sheer rough cut and untamed adventure, so be sure to hook up a ride here before it faces significant change.