New Dates Set

This post is to announce new dates for the “Great Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride.” I’ll also answer some questions I have been receiving.

Sound the trumpets – We will head out for the trail on 9 Nov. 2020. It will be 14 days, and the itinerary will be as before. We are going to LS20A (AKA “Alternate” or Long Chieng + others), the Plain of Jars (PDJ), and riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the Mu Gia & Ban Karai passes to almost the Cambodian border. We will end with a day riding through the Bolaven Plateau. (CLICK HERE FOR THE ITINERARY.)

I don’t think November is too optimistic. All indications are that things will get back to some kind of “normal” in the next couple of months. Businesses will be opening up again soon, and people will get into their new routines. Yes, COVID-19 will still be with us, but most aspects of life will resume. With appropriate care, we will be out & about… resuming our lives.

Over time, I have received some questions but never answered them here. So, I’ll try to answer the most often asked:

Question: What dirt-bike/riding skill level do I need?
Answer: Keep in mind that this is not going to be a race. You will be riding at your own pace. If you owned a trail bike any time in your life, then that’s probably fine… even 50 years ago. Time on a street bike is probably okay too. Lots of the riding will be on dirt and “country” roads. We will build-up to the off-road stuff anyway. Don Duval is a pro at this. He will select roads and trails according to ability. We are not going to ride long distances nor spend too many hours in the saddle. Our goal is to see stuff along the way. As it stands, the longest distance on any day will be about 150 miles (4th day out). Keep in mind; we won’t be going at interstate speeds, so you can expect five or six hours in the saddle on that day. Again, the ride will be tailored to skill level, and we will build up as we go.

I should also note that if at least 5 people are going, we will have a support vehicle – crew-cab going with us. The support vehicle can take at least two non-riders.

Part of Don Duval’s fleet of “bikes.” Shown are Honda CRF250L and XR400 bikes. Don also has KTMs available. The XR400 and KTMs are an additional cost.

Question: What will it cost?
Answer: There are two parts to this answer; 1) the HCMTrail Ride itself and 2) Getting there:

  • 1. The HCMTrail Ride is all-inclusive (almost). Don Duval will pick us up at the Wattay airport when we get there. Throughout our time with him, he will provide all the food, water, and places to stay. The motorcycles (Honda CRF250L, most likely), gas, oil, etc. are 100% included. The cost will be $200 per day… or $2800 for the 14 days.

    The reason I said “almost” is it doesn’t include alcohol, souvenirs, or other stuff you might buy along the way. Beer Lao is really cheap. Also, you will likely discover some stuff made from war scrap… old bombs, CBUs, and such. Somehow, having a set of spoons possibly made from CBUs I helped deliver seems like the right thing to do. Other than that, I’m not much for Beer Lao or souvenirs, so I probably won’t spend a hundred bucks. However, I suspect most folks should figure $200.
Spoons from recycled war scrap. We will be going to the area where these are being made.
  • 2. Getting there is the biggest variable for everyone. There are almost endless possibilities… extra days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos or even Vietnam, for example. The other thing, of course, is the airline cost, and that depends on where you are flying from. The tables below show the round-trip costs from various places to either Bangkok or Vientiane. I used Expedia for this. You can figure this for yourselves, depending on where you will depart.

    If you fly to Bangkok, it will cost up to about $170 to fly to/from Laos. Flights to VTE (one way) are about $80. There are three logical ways to get back to Bangkok. The first (which is what I am doing) is to fly from Pakse to Bangkok ($90). For those that want to go back to their old stomping grounds; Ubon, Udorn, or NKP, you can cross over the Mekong and fly back to Bangkok from one of those airports. In all three cases, the flights back to Bangkok Don Mueang cost about $40. (I’m not sure of the cost for a mini-van, bus, or boat to cross into Thailand. For Udorn, you would need to return to Vientiane and then cross over.)

I’m flying to Bangkok and spending an extra two days there at the beginning and one day in the end. How many days you spend will be up to you. Thailand is still really cheap. A hotel with air conditioning is ~$35 per day; “Western” breakfast (eggs, toast, hash browns) ~$3.50; A big plate of chicken “Cow Pot” and soda ~$6.00; Singha Beer ~$3.75 – Thai Massage Parlors – priceless.

For my 3 days, I’m allowing for $200 total and that’s probably high. With a little hocus-pocus on the math, here’s the bottom line for me:
HCMTRide = $2800
Souvenirs & Beer Lao = $100
Flights To/From Laos = $170
3 Days in Thailand = $200
Grand total ~ $3300 + airfare.

So there you have it. The tables below show the airfare prices to Bangkok and straight into Vientiane. Keep in mind that these prices are changing almost daily. As of right now, most airlines allow will allow you to make changes without change fees as long as you book by 31 May.

Round-trip cost of Flights to Bangkok (BKK)

Los Angeles (LAX)$575-$600American, Delta, Korean Air
Atlanta (ATL)$950 – $1150Delta, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific + others
Chicago (ORD)$625Delta, Korean Air
New York (JFK)$570 -$600Delta, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines (?)
Boston (BOS)$650Delta, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific + others
Dallas (DFW)$625Delta, United, Korean Air + others
San Francisco (SFO)$572 – $612Eva Airways (?), Delta, + others slightly more $
Miami (MIA)$625 – $650Qatar Airways, Delta, American, United, Korean Air
Fort Walton Bch (VPS)$921 – $973Puddle Jumpers R Us + American or Delta

Round-trip Cost of Flights to Vientiane (VTE)

LAX$575-$600American, Delta, Korean Air
ATL$950 – $1150Delta, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific + others
ORD$625Delta, Korean Air
JFK$570 -$600Delta, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines (?)
BOS$650Delta, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific + others
DFW$625Delta, United, Korean Air + others
SFO$572 – $612Eva Airways (?), Delta, + others slightly more $
MIA$625 – $650Qatar Airways, Delta, American, United, Korean Air
VPS$921 – $973Puddle Jumpers R Us + American or Delta

As always… questions or comments are welcome. Keep in mind that this is moderated, and your postings may not appear for up to 24 hours.

No Bangkok Massage Parlors

Today’s post was supposed to be a “wrap-up” of the Great Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride. I intended to use the last day in Laos & Thailand to reflect on everything. There were to be glorious stories of “places to go, things to do, and people to see”… and of Bangkok massage parlors. As we know, the world has changed, at least temporarily, and I never made it anywhere.

As the COVID-19 virus started spreading, I figured I would make it to Laos in the nick of time to complete the trip. I mean, as long as I got there healthy, the jungles of the HCMT were probably going to be the safest place to be. I had a whole plan for getting there healthy: a bag full disinfectant wipes and sprays to sanitize a cocoon around me; a 3/4 face mask with N99 rated filters. I also obtained some MREs so I wouldn’t have to touch or eat anything brought to me by others.

I even considered the consequence of getting stuck there for a while. As you will see in a minute, I hadn’t considered all the implications. But I figured if I got stuck there, I would just ride it out. At the time, Laos didn’t have any cases of COVID – 19. So, if I got stuck in Laos, I thought it would just be a chance to go more places that had been deleted from the itinerary.

That even sounded like a good idea. You know… see all the stuff I was going to miss. And if some government or airline wouldn’t let me come home, then I wouldn’t have to justify it to my wife… I wouldn’t end up talking in a high-squeaky voice after I got back. Yeah… that’s the ticket.

Or perhaps I would get stuck in Thailand because our government closed down any incoming. Ok… that wouldn’t be so bad either. I would just rent a “street” motorcycle in Bangkok and tour Thailand. At the time, I thought another trip to Chiang Mai would be in order. Even if travel became somewhat restricted, I would just find a Bangkok massage parlor to stay in… not such a bad way to “hunker-down.” And once again, nothing to explain to my wife. Ummmm… I wouldn’t tell about the massage parlor part.

As things started to unfold, I even considered going a week earlier to avoid possible requirements to “self-quarantine.” My thinking was, “Just get there.”

All of this “schemin’” was only a bit more than three weeks ago. About the time I started packing my gear (I always wait till the last days to pack), I began receiving emails from the Thai and Laotian embassies. When traveling abroad, I always sign up for the “Smart Traveler Enrolment Program” (STEP) to receive travel updates and warnings. All the warnings were to “reconsider travel.” Ok… I reconsidered… and I’m still going.

Then the warnings became a little more concerning; “…airlines may cancel at any time, and countries may close their borders at any time… be prepared to stay for a prolonged period.” No sweat. I had considered that. A prolonged period in a Thai massage parlor seemed pretty good to me.

Within a couple of days came the messages from Laos border crossings were closed, but Wattay airport would remain open. Each day the warnings became more dire. Finally, the warning included “no travel from Thailand to Laos soon.” I could no longer deny the obvious. I “pulled the plug.” I realized that the measures governments around the world were implementing would mean no riding the HCMT… no Thai massage parlors. None of what I planned and hoped for was going to happen.

Since then, I continue to get updates from the embassies. Laos is “closed down” with no travel within the provinces or between the provinces. All airports are closed. I even tried to send a package to Don Duval in Vientiane, but no carrier can get there. The Embassy in Vientiane chartered a “last chance” flight out of Laos, and it departed on 12 Apr… at a cost of $1900 per-person to San Francisco.

Now about that Bangkok massager parlor. Here an update from the Thai Embassy:

“On 25 Mar, the Royal Thai Government declared a national state of emergency, effective 26 Mar, in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Thailand.  Most restaurants, stores, and entertainment venues are closed… Several provinces have closed their borders…”

It appears that all hotels in Thailand have been directed to close and that all airports are either shut down or soon will be. As I continue to get daily updates from the embassies, I’m just glad I “pulled the plug” when I did. If I had made it to Thailand or Laos, I would have never have made it to the HCMT. I would likely have just turned around and come home, or be stuck there… and no massage parlor.

Today’s notice from the Laotian Embassy was:

Departure of Special Chartered Flight on April 12

A special chartered flight arranged by the U.S. Department of State departed Vientiane on April 12. The Embassy is not aware of any remaining option available to U.S. Citizens for leaving Laos via commercial means. The Embassy will not be arranging for another chartered flight.

I was scheduled to fly out of Southern Laos to Bangkok on the 13th. By then all flight out of Laos had been canceled. The following paraphrases a very long email from the Embassy, but this is the essence of what it said.

“If you can, get out now. Flights into Thailand are being suspended. Thus, there will be no airplanes to take you out. If you don’t get out immediately, then plan on remaining in Thailand indefinitely.”

Pewwwww! It’s a good thing I didn’t make it there. It would have been one thing to spend a few extra weeks in either Laos or Thailand… but that “indefinitely” part wouldn’t be fun. Everything in both Laos and Thailand is in lockdown. Only it is much more stringent than it is here. There would have been no exploring or travel of any kind. I’m not sure where I would even stay… indefinitely.

Fortunately, all of my airline travel expenses have been refunded. I canceled the hotel reservations early enough, so I didn’t have to pay any penalty.

If you read my last post, you already know the Great Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride is NOT canceled… only postponed. The current planning is to make the trip in mid-November. The way things are looking, I think the world will be mostly “opened-up” again by then. It seems to be the best time to go.

In the meantime, I’m going to resume posting stuff about Laos and the HCMT. There’s a lot more to tell about now that I have time to post it. Upcoming topics may include:

  • The Kong Lor Cave
  • Pathet-Lao Caves
  • Southern segments of the HCMT (sometimes called “Tiger Hound”)
  • The Bolaven Plateau
  • Operation Black Lion
  • Commando Hunt I – VII
  • And more as time allows.

Stay tuned.

As always, comments are encouraged. Keep in mind that comments are moderated and may not appear to the general public for a little while. While almost any “on topic” and “civil” comments are welcome, keep in mind that this is not the place partisan political or venomous debates.

Silver Linings and Plan Update

Somewhere back in the beginning of my dreamin’-n-schemin’ for the Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride, I quoted General Dwight D. Eisenhower saying, “Plans are worthless, planning is everything.” Later, as President, Ike said, “In an emergency, the first thing to do is take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window.”

Well… we have found ourselves in the middle of an emergency and the HCMTrial Ride plan is certainly out the window. So I begin to plan again. My current “planning” is for this coming November.

I’m the kind of guy that can find a silver lining in almost everything. So it is in this case:

Silver Lining #1 – I checked today’s weather and it will be near 100 degrees(F) out on the HCMT. (102 in Vientiane). It would have been “toasty” in the days we would have been there this month. If the new plan takes us there in… say the middle of November, the highs will be in the mid 80s and lows in the mid 60s. November will be a much better time to ride.

April is the hottest time in Laos… especially this year.

Silver Lining #2 –  If we are there in November, it will be before the “slash & burn” season has begun. During slash & burn, most of the region is smokey and otherwise great photo-opps are just hazy grey. One of my goals is to get drone pics of all the areas of significance. November will be a much better time for that rather than this April. April is in the worst of the slash & burn season.

Silver Lining #3 –  There were a few guys wanting to go, but couldn’t go in April. Now, they may have a chance to go.

Silver Lining #4 –  My schedule for April limited how much time I could spend in Laos. I was required to be back home by 15 April. That meant only 14 days of exploration. With November as the new target, the schedule can be extended and we may be able to go a few places that were omitted.

So… with all that said, here’s the new planning. Since November is the beginning of the “Dry Season” it makes sense to wait till then to go. Any attempt to go earlier would likely result in impassable places. Even late October might be ok, but for the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Second Indochina War, not much started moving in October. Then, right at the first of November it was like the “Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain. But on the HCMT, it was the “Running of the Trucks.” Therefore, for the new plan, I’m picking mid-November for the “Running of the Great HCMTrail Ride.” (Yeah, yeah, I hear ya… it’s corny.)

Running of the bulls Great HCMTrail Ride begins in November.

Ummmm… actually, except for date changes, there’s not much to changing the plan. The itinerary will remain essentially the same. I may add in a few days. I really wanted to see and go through the Kong Lor Cave. That takes an full extra day but I think the experience will be worth it.

I also want to be able to go “off script” a bit. With a couple extra days we could make side trips and even venture into some unexplored areas. With that said, for now,  I’m adding 3 extra days to the “plan;” plus another day for the Kong Lor Cave. I’ve now picked November 16 as the day the HCMTrail Ride will begin.

I still plan to fly to Bangkok first. For me, November 10 is the new date to depart the US. With all the travel and jet-lag, I’ll spend through  the 13th in Bangkok to recover. Then I’ll fly to Vientiane on the 14th. Allowing a day in Vientiane, we head out on the 16th.

None of this is cast in blood yet. Don Duval may want to suggest changes. But I’m not going to wait long to make new airline reservations. Tickets are as cheap now as they are ever going to be. The chart below shows examples of costs to Bangkok (BKK) from various airports in the US. Note that all prices shown are round-trip.

  • Los Angeles (LAX)– $589 (American Airlines)
  • Atlanta (ATL) – $1007 (Delta & Korean Air)
  • Chicago(ORD) – $607 (Delta & Korean Air)
  • New York (JFK) – $552 (Asiana Airlines)
  • New York (JFK) – $657 (Delta & Korean Air)
  • Boston(BOS) – $723 (Cathay Pacific)
  • Dallas – $760 (Delta & Korean Air)
  • San Francisco(SFO) – $606 (EVA Airways)
  • Miami (MIA) – $746 (Qatar Airways)
  • Fort Walton Beach (VPS) – $1067 (Puddle Jumpers-R-Us)

Of course you can fly straight into Vientiane for around $200 to $500 more. As one example, you can fly Chicago to Vientiane for $908. My price checks came from Expedia. You can check for yourself on your favorite site.

As always, your comments are welcome, but remember they are moderated and may not appear to the public for a few hours. If you are interested in going, then contact me directly.