On ya bike! – Karst Riding

(The family that races together…)

Coming from a family where motorcycles are a part of daily conversation and weekly life, I’ve always been surprisingly cautious about throwing a leg over, particularly when overseas. While most of my family spend many of their weekends off blasting around a racetrack on two wheels, I tend towards neglecting the tangled pile of engine parts that might one day become my latest ride. It’s not that I don’t love bikes in some sort of ‘black sheep of the family’ way – I do, who wouldn’t – but when you’re travelling through a place like Laos where the options for medical care might not be as forthcoming as one might hope, one learns to be a little cautious.

 

THE ROAD AHEAD: Great day for a ride.

It was with this ever so slightly morbid thought in the back of my mind that we forked over our kip to Mr Ku for a Zongshen step-thru which was clearly made in the image of the ubiquitous Honda C90. I was subjected to a quick riding test on the cobbled driveway and quickly acquitted as not completely useless so we were on our way. Mr Ku’s office was attached to a lodge midway between the town of Thakhek and the new bus transfer station on the outskirts of town. Thakhek is a border town on the banks of the Mekong and is known as a launching point for ‘The Loop’, a four day road trip through the impressive limestone karst formations, waterfalls and cave systems of the central Laos highlands. We would have liked to complete the entire loop, but as is so often the case, time was against us. The initial plan that brought us to Thakhek involved a stay at the Green Climber’s Lodge, a rock climbing camp and facility that has blossomed in popularity over the past few years.

PILLION: Helmet regulations are pretty lax in Laos.

 

Unfortunately this plan never came to fruition and we elected instead to take a day tour of the limestone formations. We arrived the night before after midnight and managed to find ourselves at the locked gates of the lodge and secured a bed for a couple of nights, so it was well after 9am when we found ourselves mounted up and secured in our state of the art safety gear ready to get our explore on. This was my first motorcycle hire experience anywhere, and certainly my first in Asia. I immediately found the experience less harrowing than I had expected, although this may have had something to do with the relative size of Thakhek when compared to some of the more established cycle riding centres of Asia. We took to the road and within 15 minutes found ourselves surrounded by towering limestone outcrops. This stretch of country rivals any other I have seen in Asia for grandeur and atmosphere and it is made all the more spectacular by its relative obscurity.

OFF ROAD: Not all roads are sealed.

We spent the morning exploring side tracks, dodging muddy puddles and counting corrugations as we delved deeper into the mountains. The tropical weather was a blessing as we rode through the sun right up until we were overtaken by a rainstorm whipped up by the rapid elevation changes through the mountains. Even a downpour couldn’t dampen the mood (certainly not as much as it dampened our gear), and we found ourselves dry within about 10 minutes. There are plenty of opportunities to pull over and walk into the mountains, although the popular Buddha Cave about three quarters of an hour out of Thakhek is one of the less spectacular stops on the road – more of a Cliffside Buddha statue sales office than a tourist attraction – but it was certainly one of the more scenic gift shops I’ve visited. Instead, I’d recommend following one of the many side roads (signposted or otherwise) and seeing where the day can take you as we did. The challenge of navigating a glorified scooter through a muddy bog is absolutely worth the effort.

We reached Mahaxai, our day trip goal at around 2pm and decided to simply turn around and catch a few spots we missed on the way, eventually stopping for a drink and a snack at one of the roadside cafes that dot the highway. As we sat drinking our sugary concoctions I thought about how roads like this are dreams come true of riders. We played on a surprisingly sound, sealed roads that we (mostly) wide and free of massive potholes. There were some nice curvy sections and a fantastically scenic backdrop. Even the opportunities for refuelling and rest stops was impressive. Most of all, however there were no speed cameras, very few other motorists actively trying to kill us and the only officials we came across were hauling a checkpoint hut (complete with guards on board). Any motorcyclist in Laos should put aside a few days to tackle The Loop because it could easily be one of the great rides you’ve never heard of.

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