Some people can just throw on a furry hat, get on their horse and go conquer the world. Well sorry, but if you’re not Genghis Khan, there’s gear to pack and paperwork to do. Especially if you’re headed overland for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, one of the last frontiers of Southeast Asia.
To start with:
1) Decide on your route
Or not. You can always make big-picture plans and change your mind later. Here’s an example of a route through Thailand, Cambodia and some of my favourite waypoints in Laos. You could manage it all in just under 4 weeks and 9,000km, starting from Singapore.
2) Get your letter of invitation from the Laos embassy
Singaporeans and Malaysians are allowed 30 visa-free days in Laos, but border officials, especially those at Friendship Bridge 1 (Vientiane / Nong Khai), will often request foreign moto-travelers to produce a letter of invitation from the Laos embassy. It is possible to enter the country without this letter, but having one usually helps to ease the border process. It’s not much hassle to obtain, in any case.
You’ll find the embassy of Laos in Singapore at 51 GoldHill Plaza, #13-04/05. They don’t answer phone calls, so just turn up during their office hours: 9am to 12pm and 2pm to 5pm, Mondays to Fridays.
The embassy is very specific about the format of request submission. Download the request letter template below and replace the dummy text (in blue italics) with the information relevant to your planned Laos trip. You will need to refer to your vehicle log card. Submit your completed request letter at the Laos embassy, along with photocopies of your passport, International Driving Permit and vehicle log card, as well as a S$20 fee. Try to ask for a letter of invite that is in both English and Lao. They should have your completed letter ready for collection within a few days.
3) Update yourself on the border situations
Lao-side, border rules are more capricious than the weather. Of late, the Nan / Huai Kon border has been denying entry and exit to foreign motorcyclists. The “Tourist Police” has also begun insisting that moto-travelers pay for a local tour escort, especially if they turn up in groups of 3 or more. Early this year, even solo-travelers were being pressed to pay 2000 Baht each for an extra “tourist paperwork fee”. Here is our recent account:
8 Jan 2019: We 3 riders cross into Laos at Chiang Khong’s Friendship Bridge 4 with a 100 Baht Lao customs fee, and purchasing two-week Lao compulsory insurance for 300 Baht each. After our passports and motorcycle papers are stamped, the Tourist Police accost us, demanding an unspecified fee for “tourist invites”, since we are not accompanied by a local tour agency. We are “invited” to an upper room, where they take hold of our passports. We present our official letters of invite from the Lao embassy, which clearly state our passports and motorcycle license numbers. This stumbles them a little. They show us copies of Malaysian motorcyclist papers, saying that these riders all paid up for their tourist invites. They have no documented examples from Singaporean motorcyclists. I insist that our letters from the embassy are sufficient, and that they should call their embassy to verify this. After a 2 hour stalemate, they throw up their hands in frustration and allow us to leave.
Other moto-travelers entering Laos at the same time from Vientiane’s Friendship Bridge 1 had a much smoother transit. Our tip: Prepare your embassy letter, cross the border in pairs or solo, and refuse politely, but firmly, if asked to pay extra fees after you have already completed your immigration and customs process. Get the latest border crossing accounts from overlander forums or stop by Riders Corner bar in Chiang Mai for an informative beer with other moto-travelers!
4) Dualsport tyres and puncture repair kits
Lao roads can really chew through those rubbers – more about this in our previous article. 50-50 tyres like the Mitas E07 or the Metzeler Sahara Enduro 3 are perfect for this schizophrenic mix of tarmac and dirt. Throw in heavy duty inner tubes for good measure.
Pack an air compressor and a proper tyre repair kit, including inner tubes, if your motorcycle doesn’t run on tubeless wheels. With a quality set of semi-knobbies, I’ve never needed to use them though.
5) Air filter cleaning solution and oil
Just a couple of Laotian days, and your lungs and your motorcycle will feel like they’ve inhaled a desert. With the sheer volume of dry season dust here, paper air filters won’t fare as well as foam. If, like me, you are running an exposed, reusable air filter, a simple wash-and-oil job will keep your ride enjoyable. If your motor’s really choking up and there’s no proper air filter cleaner and oil on hand, a quick fix of regular soap and chain lubricant or WD40 has worked for me.
6) Optional: octane boosters and fuel filters
There are proper petrol stations along the major transportation veins of Laos, but the vast majority of them offer an unspecified octane, which we assume to be 91 gasohol. There’s the occasional “super premium” 95, and then in the really rural back roads you’ll get stuff out of jerry cans, which I’ve always suspected to be a flammable mix of fish sauce. Some moto-travellers on KTMs or Ducatis swear by octane boosters in Laos, but you could honestly manage without.
What I do swear by are fuel filters, both inline and as a sock over the mouth of the tank. Consider me alarmist, but after the last episode with a clogged carburetor in Bosnia, I’m never taking any chances on EFI engines in less developed countries.
Generally, you’ll be alright with a tank range of 200km in Laos. Go forth and go light!
It goes without saying that the usual moto-travel essentials also apply. These, in particular:
– Decoy wallet with minimal cash, for when you are waylaid by greedy local police.
– A pen, for filling up border paperwork, so you don’t have to wait in line.
– Quick-dry microfibre towel, for when you waterfall-dive, wild camp or bunk in a hostel (pretty much the same thing as the former).
– Pre-downloaded Google offline maps, or the maps.me app on your smartphone. Internet connectivity in the back roads of Laos is pretty sketchy.
Know that what you don’t bring along is just as crucial to a good time. When you’re facing down an unknown road, or a six-legged roasted delicacy from a Lao market, remember that you left your inhibitions at home.
Cherie went to school with overachievers. She grew up to fully embrace her wicked, underachieving ways and made art, rode motorcycles, wore dinosaur costumes to inappropriate places, and was generally awesome. She has recently discovered that the optimal number of underpants to pack for world domination on your motorcycle is 2.5.