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  • Writer's pictureTim Morch

Rural Rambling: Dirt Tracks and Dusty Days

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Working northward toward Savannakhet, we wound along another dirt track on the banks of the Mekong River for the final 50km into town. I needed to get a visa for Thailand at the consulate, so we were in for two night minimum. Waiting for the consulate to open, we stumbled upon the Sooksavan Cafe, dating back to 1966. Today, the rustic French colonial brick building sports WiFi and cappuccino surrounded by nostalgia from a bygone era.

Cappuccino and wifi at the Sooksavan Cafe, Savannakhet

I dropped off my passport and visa application and we took a completely blind shot into the dirt roads, tracks and farms east of town. Rural life is diverse and colourful. The farmer knee deep in the rice paddy, the flowers in front of homes and the street side market in a village. Bungva Lake is rimmed with restaurants perched over the water surrounded by bright lotus flowers. Sometimes, the paths would simply end; other times it narrowed to single track and magically opened into a cluster of homes. People were surprised to see foreigners pop out of the endless sugar cane fields. They never failed to greet us with smiles and ask all the usual questions. Another dirt track lead back to the Mekong River in the Xaibouly District, and we worked our way slowly south to town.

A day trip into the sugar cane fields east of Savannakhet.
School kids in rural Xaibouli district
Schoolgirl in Xaibouli District.

Passport in hand, we left Savannakhet on a paved surface cruising east to the junction town of Xeno. The following day would be completely dirt and an early start was key. People rise early in Laos and the Pho soup was on the table as soon as we sat down. The plate of vegetables that accompanies this dish in the south is sizable. I my opinion, mint is the highlight to this dish, the fresh herbs, beansprouts and cabbage a bonus.

Just north of Xeno, we turned east on a dirt track. The track became a path and indications of civilization grew increasingly infrequent. Our mantra: “follow the power lines” kept us assured there was something beyond ... until they stopped. Riding on, we eventually discovered the return of poles and the electrical lines eventually appeared. Kengboum village rose from the dust and we stopped at a home. The family spanned four generations and the arrival of to foreigners came as a surprise. The youngest had never seen a white person and screamed in terror, running into the sarongs of the laughing parents. We were treated to sun dried beef, instant coffee, sticky rice and peels of laughter.

The kids cried and ran away at the site of foreigners.
Kengboum Village

Bouncing along the red dirt track, we eventually reach Villabouly and the most welcome hot shower of the trip.

Another dusty day.
Empty dusty roads of rural Laos.

The coffee shop is next to the ATM. While we waited for the coffee to arrive I noticed a westerner at the ATM. I asked if he knew the best track to Xai Bua Thong.

“Sorry,” he said, “I came in a helicopter and have no knowledge of the roads.”

“Do you work for the mine?” I asked.

“No, I work for the US military. We have two teams in Laos looking for MIAs,” was the response.

I was amazed to learn that after all this time, the US military continues to search for fallen servicemen.

After multiple consultations with assorted locals, we divined that the best way forward was to go backward 35km and cross the Xeno River River. This would get us to a series of paths that would eventually connect to a wider dirt road to our target. So, off we went. At every opportunity, I asked directions and each time, we were told it was not possible to cross the river. I was starting to worry we might not be able to get across when I stopped and asked a group of old men sitting under a tree. They smiled and pointed at a very narrow, soft sand track. “Really?” I asked. “Yes,” was the unified response. We crept through the tall grass and trees and arrived at the river bank. Forty feet below was a raft tied to a line across the river and a group of smiling kids beckoning. We descended the steep embankment and rolled onto the raft. The kids were thrilled to have westerners on board and were eager to demonstrate their English skills.

Kids pull a ferry across the Xeno River
Nam Xeno River ferry

“hellohowareyouwhatisyourname” is the first question and it comes out as a single word. I always respond in the same manner. “Hello” pause “My name is Tim” pause “How are you?” pause “What is your name?”

Wrestling our bikes up the steep bank on the opposite, we waved goodbye and made our along a narrow path. Eventually, it widened to ox-cart width and in due course a dirt road. Long before Xai Bua Thong, Astried got a flat. I went ahead and found a shop but it was too far to push. Luckily, a friendly family appeared, loaded her bike onto their tuk-tuk and drove to the shop.

Laotian towing service
Astried catches a lift to the nearest tire repair

Notwithstanding the initial clutch incident, Astried had incredible luck when it came to breakdowns. Flat tires occurred close to a repair shop and mechanical issues happened in larger centers where we could find parts. The boys in this shop knew what they were doing. The tire was off and new tube installed in minutes. Astried hopped on to test and could not get it into gear. The mechanic tried and failed, as did I. He ripped off the right side of the transmission and discovered a small spring bouncing inside. It took us a while puzzling the different directions, but we eventually figured the correct orientation and reinstalled the spring. If this had happened in the wilderness, we were doomed.

We were past Xai Bua Thong before we even knew it and arrived at a junction. The six rooms here were full so we continued to Mahaxai and found the only place in town. The first two restaurants we tried were out of food, but we eventually found an amazing laab dinner and the ubiquitous cold Beer Lao.

Astried chose the final route to Tha Khek, selecting as much off road as she could find. Doubling back a few km to Ban Kava and headed west to our track. A small ferry took us across the river to Ban Kengpe and we cruised the red dirt to the junction of Highway 13, twenty-five km south of Tha Khaek.

Back at Wang Wang Motor Rental, we were greeted like heroes. Mr. Leu had the VIP room on the third floor overlooking the market ready for us and was busily telling everyone about our adventure.

Map, GPS, and online maps rarely coincided.
Route Map

We covered over 2,180 km, mostly off road, and had an amazing experience.

Check out some more photos and video here.

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