In Search of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Updated: Feb 19, 2021
A motorcycle adventure in Southern Laos, PDR
On the morning of November 14, 2016, my travel partner and I set out on a 2,100 km mostly off-road motorcycle adventure in search of the Ho Chi Minh trail. We started and ended the great loop in Tha Kaek, southern Laos, and discovered a countryside full of genuine, generous people. There were literal and figurative ups and downs, the kind that never fail to create eternal memories.
The words rang in the air as we crossed the Friendship Bridge connecting Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, to Tha Khaek, Laos, a sleepy town whose name means “guest landing”. The town lives up to its name, with everybody smiling and singing-out “Sabai dii” (hello!). You feel a sense of welcome immediately.
The few tourists here have either come to ride the “Tha Khaek Loop” or check out the emerging climbing scene. 'The Loop', as hipster backpackers call it, is an easy 3 or 4-day motorcycle circuit framed by a spectacular karst limestone backdrop, highlighting a array of caves and its mostly paved roads are suitable for first timers.
Sleepy Tha Khaek, Laos PDR
But we were not in Tha Khaek to ride 'The Loop' or climb. We were here to rent off-road motorcycles and get lost. My friend Astried Huebner and I planned to explore rural southern Laos, targeting the historic Ho Chi Minh Trail in the eastern section of the country. The first mission was to locate suitable bikes.
The two main rental agencies in town, Mad Monkey and Wangwang Motor Rental offer a similar selection. Both shops had 150cc and 250cc off road options (interestingly, 250cc is the largest displacement permitted in Laos). The 250cc bikes were outside the budget, so we chose the 150cc option.
My attempt to bargain for two bikes over 20 days failed at Mad Monkey but the owner at Wangwang Motor Rental was agreeable. Mr Leu (Lou) was friendly and sorted everything out with an easy manner and pleasant smile. As it turned out, there was only one enduro left, a Kawasaki KLX150, and Astried wanted that. I sat on a Honda MSX125 and in spite of its 14” wheels, it had good clearance. I asked Mr Leu if he could put knobby tires on it.
“No problem,” he said, but they had to come from Pakse, which would take a day and he would need a deposit.
“No problem,” I replied and committed to the rental by handing him over 2 million Kip. Mr. Leu made the call, promising our bikes would be serviced and ready for pickup the following afternoon.
"Little Red" Honda 125 and Kawasaki 150 prepped and ready to roll
Traditional Laos BBQ
We set out north along the Highway 13 to the intersection with Hwy 8 East leading to the Vietnam border. These are asphalt roads, largely devoid of traffic and easy riding. Astried is a new rider, so a relaxed introduction to a strange machine in a foreign land was just what we needed. At least we were riding on the same side of the road that she was used to!
The scenery certainly catches your attention and it intensified to the east. In the village of Khounkham, a popular stop for 'Loop' riders, we found a guest house and went looking for dinner. An open air bbq restaurant filled with several groups of locals eating and drinking beer and Lao Lao (rice whisky) beckoned. Everyone called out “sabai dii” as we approached.
Staring at the grill, we tried to determine the meat. I asked the cook and he responded “maa” - dog. To ensure I understood, he pointed at a dog lying on the other side of the road intoning “woof, woof,” smiling and rubbing his belly to signify its delicious flavour. I took one look at Astried and immediately knew the answer lay next door at the chicken restaurant.
Spectacular Konglor Cave
Konglor Cave is 65km south of Khounkham and is more accurately described as an underground river, flowing more than 7.5km through the mountains. Narrow longtail riverboats take up to three passengers through the impressive cavern. Along the way, we stopped, the boatman pulled a generator to life, and we walked a surreal lighted section to see the limestone formations up close.
With a ceiling often in excess of 50m and widths of up to 75m, this is a staggering system. After a jaw-dropping ride up and back, a crystal-clear pool, and sandy beach at the downriver end beckons swimmers.
Heading back to Khounkham, a perfectly timed pee break led us to a dirt track connecting outlying villages. Continuing east toward the border, I tried repeatedly to get off-road directions. My map indicated potential routes but every time I asked, I was assured it was not possible.
Reaching the junction with Highway 1E in Lak Sao and heading south to Thalang, it became clear why there was no off-road connection. A pair of hydro projects had created a massive reservoir system and there was only one way around it. This was confirmed by employees of the electrical company later that day. But they did give us an off-road route to try just south of Thalang.
The following morning, we exited the highway as directed about 8km S of Thalang. The dirt road, ravaged by rain and tortured by trucks, grew steadily worse. At Boung Thouang village, we accidentally found the turnoff to Tha Thod village. Immediately, the road became a narrow path. The jungle loomed overhead as we crept up and down as series of steep, slippery slopes.
This being Astried's first real off-road experience, there were some low-speed tumbles, but no damage. At Tha Thod, a cluster of a dozen homes, I asked the way to Gnommorath and was pointed down a rough track. Several hundred meters on, the track forked. The path left soon ended and the right option revealed a rough and rocky trail.
We returned to the village to confirm which fork to take and were assured the right was correct. Pressing on, conditions deteriorated rapidly. The track was a few feet wide at best, deeply rutted with rocks jutting out everywhere - no place for an inexperienced rider.
Astried had several tumbles, resolutely picking up her bike and riding on. After yet another fall, she climbed on her bike to discover the gears would not engage. It was the last straw for her and a minor meltdown ensued, followed by a moment of self-doubt.
I gave her space and, in due time, a big hug. We would sort it out, I promised, but we were moving on as I had no intention of spending the night in the jungle. After a tension-filled interlude, Astried gathered herself and climbed on my bike.
I couldn't adjust the cable so I pushed her bike for the next 4km up steep ascents, receiving gravity gifts on the downhills, and eventually making it out of the mountains to the flats. Inching into the nearest village, we found a tire repair shop. They knew nothing of clutch cable adjustment, but had tools, so I performed the operation in a few minutes.
NOTE TO SELF: immediately purchase essential wrenches and tools.
Over dinner, Astried acknowledged that was the most physically and psychologically challenging day she had experienced in a long time. If the Ho Chi Minh Trail was going to be like that, she was uncertain of her ability to handle it, and her desire to carry on.
I assured her that the gnarly day was far and away the most challenging terrain we would experience. Although I knew nothing of the trail, I was certain that since tens of thousands walked it carrying everything on their backs, the terrain would be flat. Serpentine, but largely flat. I went to sleep hoping I was correct.
The next morning, refreshed and re-energized, Astried told me she trusted me and my instincts.
“Let's carry on,” she smiled, “Eastward, to find the trail.”