Emily Freeman rode 500 miles through Indochina on a 100cc scooter. With a sidecar. And a dog.
What do you need to be a hardcore biking adventurer travelling the dirt roads of Indochina? A beard? Knobbly tyres on a giant adventure tourer? What about your pet dog? Plus a 100cc scouter that hates hills, and a sidecar to carry the dog. Not forgetting a bit of make-up and mascara for evenings out.
As a woman biker in Laos, with my collie-cross dog Pip sitting up in the sidecar watching the world go by, I was bound to attract attention. But until 12 months ago I had never ridden a bike and arrived in Laos intending to buy the same sort of car I had just sold in the UK for scrap money. Then I discovered this would cost me £4000, so I began to reconsider.
Enter Delia, a teal-coloured, leaf-patterned 100cc automatic scooter with a homemade sidecar attached at a rather dubious angle, and who knew how many miles on the clock. Bought via a Facebook market for £400 she was battered and uninsurable; it wasn’t love at first sight (for me or the dog). She pulled heavily to the left, was prone to lifting a wheel on anything other than a walking pace right turn, and Pip jumped out of the sidecar the first time I took her out. However, with a bit of practice and a new ‘seatbelt’ for the dog, I began to get a feel for it.
A LITTLE HELP
A year later I was still in Laos and still using Delia every day. So I decided to ride the length of the country. At first I aimed to do about 100 miles a day, but quickly realised that this probably wasn’t going to happen. On a beautifully straight Tarmac road I could reach 25mph before Delia began to whine and rattle. The addition of foot-deep potholes, goats, and children playing badminton in the road forced me to scale that heady pace back even more. And the dirt roads made matters worse still.
Leaving Vientiane in the clear Lao sunshine, we headed for Thabok, a town listed on our ‘roadmap’. Laos is rather casual about documenting the layout of the country, so my map was a fold-out leaflet that also covered Vietnam and Thailand. This turned out to be entirely sufficient, as there is only one road south through western Laos.
I was worried about how hotels would react to me rocking up with a dog in tow, but the first night set the tone for the trip. As a traveller in Laos, the one phrase you quickly become familiar with is `bor pen nyang’ — ‘no problem’. It epitomises the relaxed Lao culture.
Dog? No problem. A clean en suite double room with fan was £6. Next day I headed for a supposedly spectacular waterfall 10 miles off the main road. Seven bone-rattling miles later I came to the ticket office and the Lao guard looked dubiously at my bike and told me in no uncertain terms to abandon it at the bottom of the hill as it would never get to the top.
So I unloaded the dog, told her to get ready to run, and hopped on the back of a passing scooter, an accepted form of travel in Laos. Unfortunately, this one too proved unable to cope with a passenger up hills, and I ended up walking, sweating, to the top of each slope to find a relaxed scooter rider and resting dog waiting for me. Thankfully the waterfall was as spectacular as it was famed to be, so it was all worth it.
Back on Delia I trundled off, marvelling at the natural beauty all around me until I was dragged back to reality by the ‘whop whop whop’ of a puncture. Grumbling, I pushed the outfit in blazing sun to one of the ubiquitous mini garages common in these parts. They’re usually just one guy sat under a lean-to with a water bottle of petrol and some inner tubes outside to advertise his business, but they work – 10 minutes and £4 later I was good to go! But progress was short lived. My scooter has a strong aversion to rain, one that experience had taught me to indulge. When the heavens opened, I sought shelter at a Lao shop. The cackle of the delighted shopkeeper at the sight of a drenched foreigner and her dog told me I had landed on my feet with more wonderful Lao hospitality. Sitting down, I accepted a large bowl of steaming pho (noodle soup) and attempted to decline a Beerlao. Beerlao seems to be more accessible than drinking water at times, and thanks to being a local product (and delicious) it has a near monopoly on the market.
Full of soup (and some beer) I hit the road. Bumping along, feeling every misjudged pothole (great for refocusing the mind), I rolled into Thakhek. Thanks to its languid nature and friendly atmosphere, I accidentally stayed here significantly longer than I meant to and it proved to be the southernmost point on my trip. Dinner and a beverage by the Mekong was the perfect end to a day of visiting temples and delving into local folklore, while watching the sun set behind dragon-boat teams training on the river was quintessentially Lao. I stayed at the Thakhek Travel Lodge, where 12 quid bought me a room that wouldn’t have been out of place in a luxury boutique hotel.
DOING THE LOOP
Thakhek is the start of The Loop, a 300-mile circuit that takes in the beautiful Karst mountains, caves and remote villages of Laos. Bikes are easy to hire, with options to suit most riders – a semi-automatic scooter will set you back £5 a day, while a Honda Baja-type trailie is around £20 a day. Winding through sheer limestone cliffs and over rickety wooden bridges, it’s not the obvious route for a three-wheeled, underpowered scooter with an inexperienced rider. However, I’d got this far, and I hadn’t had a group of children laugh at me for a few hours, so off I went.
Twelve miles in I was ambushed by an excited local. His sales pitch was wasted on me, but his enthusiasm wasn’t. The dog and I hopped off the bike and followed him to his canoe. Alarmingly he then started to bail it out, before instructing us to pile in. Not being blessed with natural grace, I nearly sent us all straight into the river but paddling silently through a cave with the sunlight dappling the water through natural chimneys was sublime.
Feeling inspired, I set off for the famed Buddha Cave. Home to more than 200 Buddha statues, it is a revered spot for locals, though for me it was the view from the top and the drive out there that was truly memorable. It was more muddy trail than road and I had to strike a balance of speed. Too slow, and we’d come to a halt in the mud; too fast, and the first bump would see the sidecar waving in the air, which I’d have to rebalance with a hastily extended flip-flop-clad foot. Exhilarating, but exhausting.
Leaving Thakhek, we headed towards Kong Lor cave. Sat in a basin surrounded by mountains, it’s nearly five miles of underground caverns, giant stalactites and stalagmites and unnerving optical illusions – seen from a canoe. Entry to this wonder is £10 for two, which includes the boat and oarsman. When Pip and I arrived, there was only one other couple getting ready to depart; like so much of Laos, it is largely untouched by modern tourism.
Mind you, I was lucky to have got there. The cave was (of course) high up on a mountain, and Delia overheated and died on the way up, on a blind corner, as Vietnamese trucks whistled past. With a solo scooter, this would have been the cue to throw it in the back of a passing pick-up, but the sidecar made that impossible. Fortunately, a complete gentleman arrived (also on a scooter) and offered to help. Having cooled down, Delia had restarted, but needed some assistance. Astride his bike, my helper put one foot on the backside of Delia and gave us a push up the steeper hills. We made it over the top and went down the other side, to a stunning backdrop of craggy mountains. I was on my way again.
While nursing my bike along with frequent stops and kind words, I realised that I had missed the only cashpoint on this 200-mile stretch of road. Luckily, you can eat in Laos for around a quid, and I found a room for £5, although cockroaches, sheets that held their own shape and the lack of a sink encouraged an early departure next day.
I was now 130 miles from home, and by a supreme effort (12 hours) we made it back that day. This involved overheating twice (I dared to disregard the self-enforced 25mph limit) and another puncture. And I’d been pushed off the road by a tanker. When I got home, dusty and sunburnt, I needed a Beerlao.
That final day sums it up. I didn’t make it to the end of Laos, and only travelled 500 miles, but each mile was an adventure, whether it was accompanied by stray water buffalo, mud or both. I saw amazing sights in a hospitable country that has mostly empty roads and stunning scenery. As a woefully incompetent mechanic, I relied on the honesty and help of local garages, which worked, and as a women traveller, I felt safer in Laos than I have in many other countries. I am sure the place will change as the modern world catches up with it, but right now, it’s perfect for so many reasons – including having some of the best rides in the world.
Words & photography: Emily Freeman