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ABOUT THIS BLOG

In the summer of 2009, Nicolas Rapp decided to take a break from his Art Director job at The Associated Press to attempt a one-year overland travel around the world in a 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser. He was back in New York in February 2011 after traveling 15 months and 37,000 miles.

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  • The last dirt road

    Posted on December 6th, 2010 Nicolas 34 comments
    The last dirt road of my trip brings me to amazing places.

    The last dirt road of my trip brings me to amazing places.

    Now that Kathryn s gone, it is time for me to go explore another Asian country I am looking forward to. Laos is still underdeveloped and the north part of the country should be the last great adventure of the trip.

    Temple in Chiang Rai.

    Temple in Chiang Rai.

    From Chiang Mai I drive to Chiang Rai where I spend the night. Before I left, I made sure to buy enough food for one week, as it will be more difficult to get edible goods in Laos. With only two millions tourists a year, people are a lot less used to westerners roaming around, and the infrastructure is not here yet. And this is great, because Thailand was decidedly too touristy and the experience with locals tainted as a result. On my way I stop in an abandoned gas station where I do some work on the car. I was finally able to find the right type of oil for the transmission, and I change the fluids on the front and rear differential as well as in the transfer case.

    The Mekong River. From the place I spend the night, I can hear music coming from Laos on the other side.

    The Mekong River. From the place I spend the night, I can hear music coming from Laos on the other side.

    From Chiang Rai, it is only two hours of driving to get to Chiang Khong where I hope to get a boat to cross the Mekong and get into Laos. I arrive there at lunch time in December 2nd and learn that it is the National Day on the other side; therefore the ferry boat is not working. I am still glad to learn that if I wish, I can charter my own boat for US$170 instead of the usual cost of US$33 for passage on a regular day. Of course I choose to wait, but enjoy the fact that such things are still possible in Asia at the opposite of the western world.

    The ferry to cross the Mekong in the early morning.

    The ferry to cross the Mekong in the early morning.

    The following morning I am at 8 a.m. at the boat landing. Paperwork is easy on the Thai side, and I meet a fellow overlander, Philip, a Swiss guy who is driving is bike from Singapore around Southeast Asia. We board the ferry and ten minutes later we are on the other side.

    Crossing the Mekong River.

    Crossing the Mekong River.

    It is time to go through immigration, and get the Laos visa. By now, I am using an old passport with no free page available in it. I know I may not be able to get by like that, but I try my luck. It takes few minutes to convince the officer to just place the sticker on top of a page already covered with stamps. I pay the US$30 for the visa, and I am on my way. Philip, as me, is trying to get to Phongsali, in the extreme north of Laos, close to the border with China. We decide to stick together in the next few days so we can share some expenses.

    Warm welcoming on the road of Laos.

    Warm welcoming on the road of Laos.

    We spend the first night in Luang Namtha after a stop on the way to get lunch. Laos is dirt cheap and you can eat anywhere for US$2 including beer. In the evening I cook, more to get a balanced diet than to save money. From now on, we will never be under 500 meters altitude and we are presently at similar latitude with Mexico City. That means nights are getting quite cold, and when the sun disappear, one need to wear a jacket, an experience I forgot about.

    People at work in rice fields.

    People at work in rice fields.

    As soon as I passed the border, I found the landscape a lot more interesting than in Thailand. I am driving among mountains and forests on small and sinuous roads. On the roadside, I can spot people working in the fields, a vision reminiscent of Cambodia.

    Planting rice on the road from Oudom Xai to Phongsali.

    Planting rice on the road from Oudom Xai to Phongsali.

    In Boun Tai as everywhere else, life depends of the water. Here we can see women bathing and washing clothes. On the artisanal dam, you can spot small power generators delivering electricity to the town.

    In Boun Tai as everywhere else, life depends of the water. Here we can see women bathing and washing clothes. On the artisanal dam, you can spot small power generators delivering electricity to the town.

    In the morning we leave Luang Namtha for the first day of intricate driving. In the next two days, we will have to put behind 125 miles (200 km) of dirt roads. For me, this final unpaved portion has a special signification. I didn’t drive such road in a while, but more important, it will probably be the last one of my trip. Soon enough, I feel I am in Africa again, the truck filling with dust as I advance in the mountain, gaining altitude toward unreachable Phongsali among the tea plantations, 1,500 meters high in the mountains. We stop to rest for the night in Boun Tai, a small town where people still live in a traditional way. As in Cambodia, people seem to subsist well, despite the poverty shown in statistics. In the morning, after 30 minutes driving I have another puncture, rapidly taking care of. My two front tires are not in top shape after riding them through 30,000 miles, mostly on dreadful tracks.

    The dirt road follows the river, and from there it is possible to spot fishermen.

    The dirt road follows the river, and from there it is possible to spot fishermen.

    The road reminds me of Africa, but the landscape and villages we cross are closer to the ones in the Andes. There are coffee plants and tea plantations everywhere. With only one bus going up to Phongsali daily, there’s almost no traffic on the way up.

    Typical village nested in the hills.

    Typical village nested in the hills.

    Bringing back some wood.

    Bringing back some wood.

    People are very nice and wave hands when I go through the villages. I can see that they are not too used to much travelers getting by. Kids are very excited and run after the car. People dry crops in the sun along the road and I see wheat, coffee and spices. All houses are made of wood; teak but more often bamboo.
    It looks like there are fewer schools in Laos than in Cambodia, but it is difficult to say as I am in a remote area.
    Laos was very isolated during its 30 years under communism regime, and it is now slowly changing.

    R_KIDS – Kids are everywhere.

    Kids are everywhere.

    This dirt road preserving Phongsali from too much activity is scheduled to be paved in the next two years, and then everything will be different.

    Watching the foreigner going by.

    Watching the foreigner going by.

    People are very beautiful in this country. Always smiling to you, and not automatically seeing you as a source of income.
    Soon enough we come to the end of the dirt road. Before arriving to our goal, there’s still a segment of 20 miles (35 km) of paved surface.

    The end of the dirt road. Philip is leading the way.

    The end of the dirt road. Philip is leading the way.

    It is easy now to continue. The constant change between rocks dirt, sand and mud is very energy consuming, and you need to be alert all the time. Now I can relax and enjoy the ride through the mountain.

    Taking a break on the road close to Phongsali.

    Taking a break on the road close to Phongsali.

    And finally I arrive in the 25,000 population town. On the way up we were as close as 15 miles with the Chinese border. The weather is cool up there, and I enjoy stopping in the dormant town for a while. In addition it is Sunday, and the town seems asleep. We decide to stay two nights up there before backtracking all the way down south.

    In the forest on the way up.

    In the forest on the way up.

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34 Responses to “The last dirt road”

  1. Nick, I love the photos of the remote village. Looks like you are making wonderful progress. This has been a part of the world I have always been interested in. Thanks for the blog, and great reading.

  2. Charlie A (Santa Clara, Ca.)

    Hi Nick,
    Thanks for more great pictures. It is amazing to find such unspoiled beauty in any country in this day and age.
    It is also too bad that this part of the world will soon be over run by “so called” progress and I hope that this entry will not help to contribute to it’s early demise because of all of the people following your adventures. You and your new friend Philip are very lucky to see and experience this special little corner of this great big world before it is lost forever.
    As always travel safe, but more importantly, savor every moment of this final leg of your momentous journey. I really do envy you.

    Cheers Mate,
    Charlie A

  3. Nicolas, the man with the perfect coffee! That’s funny – it’s kinda cool seeing another overlander’s pics of the same stops as you, and also to see you in his pics! Hope you’re enjoying this last hurrah before heading back to the states. Incidentally, I’m sure you could find a fair number of dirt roads here if you really wanted to that would also take you to some pretty incredible places! Stay safe and have fun!

  4. Hello

    I have been follwing you since day one, and I confess thay I was a bit worried about the weight on the truck and thought you may not be able to do it. But you proved me wrong. Myself do motorcycle touring here in the US, Europe and North Africa and follow a few overlanders. But I am glad everything is going well and the truck is holding, I am going to miss this daily morning routine of checking you website it is a real “reality show”. I am in Newak, NJ so maybe when you come this we can talk.

  5. Love the pictures. Thank you!

  6. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for the post – everything looks very beautiful – especially since Laos is a country that you really dont’ read or see much about in the media.

    Now that you are entering the home stretch of the big adventures, what are the rest of your plans for Asia? When the truck is en route to the US, are you planning on visiting any other countries?

    Enjoy yourself and be thankful you are not in NY right now-it’s freezing cold!!!

  7. Nick,

    Thank you for the update and the beautiful pictures. It warms my heart to know that as you say there are still “beautiful people” in this world almost worth traveling all that way to find them, where the lack of money does not get in the way of happiness, kindness and caring as it should be. I have found very few places like that, once in Mexico.

    Be careful my friend stay well and as always Godspeed.

  8. i’m so glad you’re safe and sound and having such a great time on the last leg of the trip. your pictures are absolutely beautiful; i can only imagine what it must be like to be there. breathe deep and soak it all in.

    there’s so much negativity in the world, nick; it’s almost overwhelming sometimes. so i must say that your travels shed a bright light in the midst of such constant darkness.

    thank you and happy trails! :-)

    suzanne

  9. Nick, I am fascinated by your pictures and your stories. You have a very clever mind and a wonderful way of writing.

    Relish these days, always!

    Kathleen from North Dakota

  10. Hi Nick!

    Love the pictures. What beautiful kids and country. I want to go!

    Be Blessed, Be safe and enjoy the journey!
    Beth

  11. NIcolas;
    Nice to see you overcoming barriers of different types, keep strong, and come back safe.

    C.

  12. hey nick,
    this sucks, who am I gona check up on every day when your back at home? D:
    im not even joking every day i check your site and I hope you enjoy your last bit of trip, I’ve been following you sence the start and I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

    cheers, Steven

  13. Hey Nic,
    yet another great entry with pictures that tell the whole story. As they say , keep them coming. Its a real treat.
    thanks man,
    Wim.

  14. I seem to recall some delicous milkshakes and quasi-French cuisine in Luang Prabang, if you make it there. Of course, my “field intelligence” is about eight years old now. I would love to know what the place is like — if it managed to retain it’s quaint charm, or is it just another backpacker beehive now?

    Suzanne A. — Atlanta

  15. Nick!

    This is one of my favorite posts yet! I love the pictures and the way you describe the place! Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I was one of those fishermen! It may be much easier!? Keep on truckin and as always I’m looking forward to your next post!

    Safe travels!

    Dave

  16. Laos looks very beautiful as I have imagined. Speaking of locals trying to take advantage of tourists, the Chinese are pretty bad about it. Everything and anything can be haggled if you cared to even pay for the tourist junk. I avoided buying many things when I was in China. I’m sure you’re used to these people by now, so I’m just letting you know so that you’re mentally prepared when you go to China soon. :)

  17. I must say I feel so conflicted with this last post. Laos sounds amazing! It was so happy and it made me smile but the sorrow of knowing that this is “the last dirt road” is also overwhelming. I can’t believe this trip has already gone on for over a year. What an amazing experience it has been for you and for all of us. To think that you have traveled around the world in the same amount of time that I have been routinely sitting in the same desk day after day is quite a tough dose of reality to take. I have so many wonderful things to be thankful for but I can’t help but wish for that road less traveled and I am glad you have given that to me even through your posts. It will be sad when this trip is over! I have enjoyed every part of your story and can’t thank you enough! Continue to enjoy yourself and relish the freedom for you will once again be among the masses of monotony soon enough!

    Also, a side note, can anyone tell me what that sign says in the picture? Just curious!

  18. Can you drive through China?

  19. @Jaime V.
    “All the way cheer, to the 9th summit meeting of the Communist Party at Phongsaly’s province”

    Hi Nick,
    Following you from the beginning and secretly praying for your safety!
    keep smiling, you are in the land of the million smiler…

    Lao fellow.

  20. Interesting! Thank you very much Sean!

  21. As always the pics are awesome. I, too, am feeling the end closing in. What are we to do? But, there are still some adventures ahead and I will continue to check in every day. Stay safe.

  22. Thank yoku so much for the photo of the Temple in Chiang Rai … so beautiful! I’m sure your mind can barely hold all the images you have captured and experiences you have had. Safe travels.

  23. @Sylvain: Driving into China is difficult and very costly. They do not accept foreign registered vehicles nor foreign licenses/international permits. You need to hire a local guide (must accompany you at all times till you leave the country), pay to have temporary number plates, and pay to have a temporary driving license. All of this can easily set you back $10000!

  24. Donna in cold Fort Lauderdale burrr

    Hi Nick, from reading the comments, guess we’ll all feeling like a wonderful part of our day/week is coming to an end. As with everyone else, I’ve enjoyed seeing the different countries, cultures and beautiful pictures. I especially loved last week’s dining experience! All that food….., wow, I’d love to try it.., sounded and looked delicious. Will look forward to your last postings and wish you a safe last leg of your trip … hugs from the good ole USA..

  25. I could find you another dirt road in South Dakota!

    Great post – as always.

    Mary

  26. It may be comming to a end but your having a grea time 4 sure

  27. Amanda in Houston

    I have been in awe, held my breath, laughed, wished and wondered every leg of your journey that you shared. You and your adventure are constantly in my mind. God protect you and keep you. Thank you for sharing and have the time of your life, Nick.

  28. Hey Nick, it has been a while since I have posted on your site, but wanted to tell you good luck on the last part of your journey. I have followed this site at least every other day since your beginnings and want to say thank you for sharing your journey with every one. Your pictures have been amazing and it gives me insight to the rest of the world keeping me humble in my own life with what seems now like lavish surroundings.

    All the best,
    RB

  29. Dear Nick:

    Glad to hear that you are in Laos, and I look forward to reading all about and seeing the photos when you are up to it and feeling better from the cold you are fighting. I am not sure if it is appropriate to recommend that you drink plenty of liquids in that country. But, surely once you find the right or safest liquid (water, juice..etc., ) do consume to keep yourself hydrated. We will keep checking on you. My best and lots of hugs,

    -joyMaria

  30. Hi Nick!

    I haven’t kept up with your blog for couple of months so I especially enjoyed catching up on your last several postings!!! Your Thanksgiving Feast looked amazing, and I might have been drooling a little looking at the pictures. I am so happy that you seem to be enjoying the Asian leg of your trip and very jealous at the same time (and little bummed you won’t be stopping by Korea–I was born there).

    I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, wherever you end up. If you ever need anything in LA (I’m guessing you will have plenty of contacts once you are back in the States, but just in case) don’t hesitate to email. :-) Good luck and God Speed!!!!

    nari

  31. I am enjoying every step, every word, every photo….Even though we do not know you, our family is so excited for you and your journey….Praying always for your safety and travel mercies while you see God’s beautiful creation….Proud and excited for you. Your friends in Nashville, Tn…Donna Lowry and family

  32. I’m planning to travel around the world in March 2011,
    My question is.. During all your trip so far.. how often did you need to use the car in 4×4 mode ?

    thanks

  33. Did u see that the swiss guy you meet up with when crossing into Laos was able to pass thru Egypt (his GPS page on his website shows this)…did u ask him how he did it. I remember u didnt go that way…

    Seth

  34. Hi Nick,

    I stumbled across your web site after reading about your trip in the travel section of the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon). I had to look it up. Your trip is a dream I have been planning ever since I saw a couple Land Cruisers with westerners crossing the remote border from Zaire to Uganda in 1993 (we were crossing into Zaire to see mountain gorillas). I plan to take a similar trip around the world after I retire in a few years. I will be interested in reading about your trip.

    My wife and I were in the same places in Laos two years ago (from Ching Mai to Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang). We loved the people and the landscapes. One of our experiences was helping a young British lad who had a motorbike accident. It was quite an experience giving first aid then helping him to a small hospital/clinic in Muang Sing on the border with China. Despite the modest facilities, I could tell he was in good hands with the nurse at the hospital (although I would not let me wife see the hospital). He recovered fine.

    I am looking forward to going back through your posts and reading of your adventures. Best of luck on the rest of your trip.

    Brad St.Clair
    Philomath, Oregon