The Great Green North
Ride in one of the last wild and wonderful frontiers of Southeast Asia
In Laos, ride one of the last wild and wonderful frontiers of Southeast Asia
The rice fields and distant rippled mountains of the remotest corner of northern Laos were before me. There was little more than the odd stretched-out tractor to dent the scene. The annual rainy season was in mid-flow, when it could get hard to string together enough dry hours in a day to make riding fun.
My choice of season had, in part, been out of practicality, but more so because it’s by far the best time to see the true colours and beauty of this place. It is often dubbed the “green triangle,” due to its vaguely triangular-shaped borders with the deep eastern fringes of Myanmar and China’s southeastern Yunnan province. Plus, parts of it overlap with the opium-producing Golden Triangle.
Luang Namtha is the major town in the region: a small, charming and sleepy place that sits just a few hours off the main Mekong River slow-boat tourist trail to Luang Prabang. This remote but accessible location means that the area receives just a handful of more adventurous tourists. It’s a wild and down-to-earth place.
I was running on relatively limited time, just a week all in, and had decided to concentrate my riding and exploration to the far north of the area rather than riding the whole hog from the Thai border and then on to Luang Prabang. This focused approach allowed me to move fast and light, and ride off-road a whole lot more, which is the best thing about this area. You can hit the maze of dirt roads that link together the many ethnic tribal communities.
I saw barefoot children with catapults and makeshift fishing poles. There were women clothed in deep blue with banded ankles and babies strapped to their backs. They weaved cloth and carried large bundles of firewood on their heads. There can’t be that many places left in the world where you can find such things and yet be so close to a comfortable bed and Wifi.
Not being at the peak of my condition, I had bounced a psychological tennis ball around in my head for a few days before finally deciding to brave the 60-km ride from Luang Namtha northwest to the small village of Muang Sing. Now, 60 km doesn’t sound like much, but having ridden this rough and twisted road before, I can tell you that it feels more like double that distance, and with your
brakes on – and in both directions. On my previous visit, I’d tackled it in the opposite direction – the slightly easier north-south option – although that still includes around 30 km of continuous climbing.
The scenery is amazing. When you’re grovelling uphill for 30 km you do get plenty of chances to take it all in, too. Your mind tends to wander as you struggle through remote villages where old ladies and small children smoke pipes. Some children jumped from the bushes to try to sell me their freshly trapped squirrels and other rodents.
You should ride the dirt in northern Laos. With the mountains on either side of you, it’s easy to keep a sense of direction. Also, you’ll never be more than a 40-minute ride from town. When to ride The prime season for riding i n northern Laos is from late September to early February – the dry winter season. It can get cold during the nights in January, but it rarely rains.
It’s best to avoid mid-february to mid May, the annual burning season. The air quality is abysmal.
Rainy season is between June and September. At this time the colours are at their most vibrant, but the riding can be hit and miss. Budget on having a couple of days rained out. Still, the riding you will do will be worth it.
Routes and rides This region is just made for lightweight bikepacking adventures. Most overland travellers and cyclists tend to hop the slow boat down the Mekong River from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, and then continue on to Vientiane. As pleasant as this may be, they really do miss out on the best of Laos.
Recently, there have been banditrelated incidents on the road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, so that really is best done by bus, or even avoided all together.
The road from Huay Xai to Luang Namtha is one tough and amazing 175-km ride. The best way to break it up is with an overnight or two in Vieng Phou Kha, 120 km from Huay Xai. There are a couple of basic resorts
here, and some nice dirt roads to explore, too. From Luang Namtha and Muang Sing, there are some interesting road and dirt options, for circular and pointto-point rides. Route 13 from Luang Namtha to Muang Xai is a logical step on a road tour (117 km), followed by a very mountainous and rough ride over to Pak Mong (82 km). where there is basic accommodation. You can take a diversion up to Nong Khiaw (30 km from Pak Mong) for good accommodation and great scenery. From there, it’s a long day ride (142 km) to Luang Prabang.
Logistics There are several direct flights to Vientiane. Also, Lao Airlines has connections to Luang Namtha, which is not the best option when travelling with a bike. It’s expensive and baggage is limited. A wise option is to fly to Chiang Rai in Thailand via Bangkok, and then take a local bus to the Friendship Bridge at the Thai/laotian border at Chiang Khong/huay Xai. If you are travelling fully by bike, simply start riding here. Otherwise take a tuk-tuk to the local bus station and then on to Luang Namtha. If you do not want to carry luggage, it can be sent on mini-vans or local busses between bus stations. In Laos, bus stations are usually about 5 km outside of towns. The same transport system can be applied right through to Luang Prabang. From Luang Prabang, there are reasonable air connections to Bangkok and elsewhere. Alternatively, take the two-day slow-boat trip back up river to Huay Xai to complete the loop.
Visas, money and health care Most nationalities can obtain visas upon arrival in Laos (and in Thailand). In Laos, these cost around us$30–$35. You will need a passport photo. It is wise to carry U.S. dollars to avoid exorbitant exchange charges.
atms are found all over Laos, but not all work with foreign cards. Withdrawals are limited to small amounts, so have some cash to hand.
In the country, costs are comparatively low, but around 20 per cent more than in Thailand. A reasonable but basic ensuite room will cost C$12–$30.
Hospitals and medical facilities are very basic in Laos. Be sure to have travel insurance and carry any prescription medication you may need.
Bikes Roads and surfaces can vary a lot with the seasons. Potholes are regular fare. Road bikes with 25- to 28-mm tires are fine, but if you have a cyclocross or gravel bike, then it would be better for the rough stuff. A mountain bike would also be a good option. Be sure to carry spare tubes, a tire and tools. There are no decent bike shops in the area.
Luang Namtha Chiang Rai Luang Prabang Vientiane