In my opinion, third world countries are best explored either by motorbike or hitchhiking. If going by bike, your trip depends on making a good choice.
Previously I’ve written about the best bikes in Cambodia, today I address Laos. I’ll cover the best bikes to use, where to rent them, prices, packing, safety gear, requirements, routes, etc.
Variety of bike in Laos is limited. The bikes I outline in this article are the few models that are both well suited for Laos conditions AND exist in sufficient numbers in-country so that parts and mechanics are available.
01 Honda Wave / Honda Dream (and Chinese Clones)
On my trip, I rented a Honda Wave scooter, the most common form of transport in SE Asia.
I usually opt for full size dirt bikes. This time I went native – for the following reasons:
Field repairability. I knew I would go to some remote places. I wanted a bike that was repairable anywhere. If I rented a less common “big bike” it would be impossible to get repairs in small villages. I wrote an article about this problem and my experience with bigger dirt bikes in Cambodia.
Novelty. I figured I’d finally ride like the locals – get an authentic experience. Why snub my nose at such a practical vehicle. However, this decision proved difficult, especially for my testicles…
Cheap Cost. Renting a scooter is 30% the cost of renting a proper motorcycle. They are also cheaper to repair or replace if you wreck it. There is no insurance in SE Asia.
After spending 10 days on a Honda Wave, I don’t recommend them as my first choice.
Ill-suited for the poor road quality. The picture below is an excellent example of a typical road in Laos – packed dirt with embedded stones. Scooters lack the suspension to drive fast on these roads. Locals use their Wave’s just to putt-putt around town. If you want to cover ground for days on end, these roads will beat the shit out of you and the bike.
They are too small. If you are an average height Westerner, you will be comically too large for these scooters. The handlebars will hit your knees when you try to turn and your legs will be bunched up so they don’t provide shock absorption. This transfers the impacts from the road to your testicles resting helplessly on the seat.
02 Honda Win (and Chinese clones)
These bikes are the quintessential backpacker motorbike and originate in Vietnam. They are constantly being sold off by backpackers at the end of their trips and bought by others starting theirs. Wins are a slight upgrade in comfort and capability to the Wave and usually have luggage racks.
The biggest improvement is you straddle it like a motorcycle rather than the “sitting on the toilet” position of scooters.
All of these bikes are in wretched condition, but don’t sweat it, they are tough. Some will say that the Chinese clones are far inferior to the original Hondas. This used to be true but much less so now. The parts are interchangeable, most are clones, don’t worry about it.
These bikes are abundant enough in Laos that local mechanics can fix them. The low cost means you have minimal worry about the loss of wrecking or theft.
03 “Big Bikes”
In SE Asia, “big bikes” are typically 250cc dirt bikes. Because they are almost never used by locals, mechanics in small villages are incapable of repairing them.
However, a proper dirt bike is by far superior to a scooter or Honda Win. They’re more comfortable, faster, and have greater off-road capability.
I don’t have a specific model to recommend. In Cambodia the supply of “big bikes” was standardized around a few specific models. However, in Laos, it appeared more random.
The key is to source a bike that is either almost new or one that you KNOW has been well maintained.
Southeast Asians have no concept of “preventative maintenance.” Older models cannot be trusted AT ALL unless you know you are getting it from a competent source.
Where to rent and prices
I recommend different places and approaches depending on what kind of bike you want.
Renting a Honda Wave / Dream
I walked all around the downtown area in Vientiane inquiring about rentals. Most places didn’t allow taking bikes out of the city. The best option I found was “TL motor bike for rent.”
Unlike most shops, they were OK with taking the bike outside of Vientiane. The price for a Honda Wave was $10/day. They did keep my passport as collateral (appeared to be a requirement everywhere).
The lady behind the counter had a bitchy disposition. She managed the desk while her battered husband comically hid from her outside. Deal with the husband if you can.
Note: Scooters are cheaper in Vang Vieng
Once I got to Vang Vieng I discovered that the going price for Honda Wave rentals was $5/day. Half the going price in Vientiane!
If you are planning to do a long trip in Laos, I would take a bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng and then rent the bike there and start your travels. You won’t miss much by skipping the ride to Vang Vieng.
Buying a Honda Win
This is the bike that you will buy rather then rent.
Several hostels in downtown Vientiane have used ones for sale out front. They run about $250 – $350.
A better option is to monitor buy-and-sell Facebook groups for Vientiane. Travelers post bikes for sale at the end of their trips. This way there is no middle man. You’ll get a better deal and knowledge of the bike’s recent history.
Ideally you’ll want one that comes with a blue Vietnamese registration card. However, if you will only be driving in Laos you can get by without the card. The place is pretty lax – small bribes solve problems.
When you’re finished, sell them to another backpacker and recoup most of your cost.
Renting Big Bikes
I recommend two options for renting dirt bikes in Vientiane.
The first is an outfit called Fuark M-X Services, they are recommended on a popular SE Asian motorcycle forum called GT-Rider. (Note: as of 2019, they do NOT rent scooters.) I gave the place a look around and it seemed legit. My observations plus the forum’s recommendation make this the only place I would trust renting an older model dirt bike.
The second option is to rent an almost brand new dirt bike. Several hostel in the night market area had them for rent. Considering the stellar reliability of Japanese bikes, I would trust a newer one that clearly hasn’t been monkeyed with by a Laotian “mechanic.”
The rental prices for dirt bikes in the 250cc range were about $30 – $35 per day.
How to pack your motorbike
I’ll do an entire article on this later, but for now here’s the concept.
You want your travel luggage to also be adaptable to motorcycle riding. This rules out rigid suitcase. Even hiking style backpacks are awkward to strap to a bike.
The duffel bag is waterproof and has lots of webbing that aids in using bungee cords to strap the bag to the back of the motorbike. Since the bag can conform around the seat it is stable and slightly lowers the center of gravity. If I need to abandon the bike I can carry the pack on my back with its built in backpack straps.
I wear my day pack on my back while riding (as you can see in the second picture). It sits on the duffel which keeps the load off my shoulders. I keep my most important things in this bag as it will always be with me – even for quick stops.
Other Advice and Info
Do you need a driver’s license?
Nope. Not a single rental place I talked to required or even asked about it. Technically, it’s required, but I was never stopped by the police. (In fact I never even saw police.) Word on the street is a $5 bribe solves the problem if you get stopped.
If you haven’t left your home country yet, I recommend getting an international drive’s license. They are cheap and easy to get and last for one year.
Get off-road tires!
Locals will wear out tires until they are bald. This is dangerous and will render you impotent in muddy or rough terrain. A tire like the picture on the left is essential. These are even available for the scooters.
Wear synthetic underwear!
Cotton underwear doesn’t stretch well and gets wet with sweat. Now I wear the ones below. I can’t recommend them enough!
- Supremely comfortable
- Has a fly opening – essential for true adventurers
- Quick drying, easy to clean while traveling
Between the dust and the exhaust, the air quality was at gas mask level. Luckily I had my trusty bandana to wrap around my face – a very cheap and versatile travel item. Always go 100% cotton for fabrics that will be around your neck and face!
Equally important, it protects your neck. In Asia they have something called a “bee bullet.” Just imaging how fast a large hornet can fly, then imagine the combined speed of it flying in the opposite direction that you are riding. When they hit my helmet it literally kicks my head back. The bandana has saved my neck on several occasions.
Bring your own motorcycle gloves
The rental agencies provide helmets, but its hard to find things like riding gloves. Your hands are the most likely things to get damaged in an accident as your break your fall. Fucked up hands can ruin your travel for a long time. Gloves are cheap and easy to pack. They also help if you get in a fight.
These are the gloves I use and recommend. Very comfortable. Get them before your trip if you can. Finding personal protective equipment in Asia is like trying to find water in the desert.
- Full finger and half-finger available
- Vent holes keep your hands cool
Choosing your routes
The best resource I’ve found for routes (in all countries in SE Asia) is Golden Triangle Riders.
Laos motorcycle video coming soon…
I documented most of my trip in Laos with GoPro cameras. I’ll edit and release it soon on the AP YouTube channel. Subscribe to get notified when it comes out!