The Thakhek Loop

Whilst we were in Vientiane we decided to change our plans and head to a place called Thakhek rather than passing straight down to Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) in the south. Thakhek is the unofficial start point for a motorbike adventure called ‘The Loop’, something that sounded exciting and terrifying in equal measures.

The Loop is a 3-5 day motorbike round-trip of around 450km that people have been making for around the last 10 years, it is growing in popularity but still off the main traveller path through Laos, mainly due to the pretty treacherous roads and lack of quality accommodation on the route. The Thakhek Travel Lodge is the place to stay before you start the trip because it is also the home of Mr. Ku’s office. The famous Mr. Ku is the unofficial founder of The Loop and is the main man to see for maps, travel tips and to rent a bike.

One of the main attractions on The Loop is the Kong Lor cave, a 7.5km cave which you travel though by boat, passing right underneath a mountain and out through the other side. In some places the cave roof is as high as 50 metres above you, there are also breathtaking stalactite woods you can get out and walk through. This was already on our itinerary, so why not Loop it up?

PREPARING TO LOOP

One of the first things we did on arrival in Thakhek was go to see Mr. Ku. He was chatty, charismatic and spoke amazing English. He gave us one of his hand drawn maps and talked us through timings and suggested places to stay on the route. After some discussion we decided that it would be better to spend 4 days on the trip rather than packing it all in to 3.
The map:

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When we looked in to renting a bike from Mr. Ku it transpired that he charged twice as much as the other bike rental places, partly because of his reputation as The Loop Guru, and partly because he promises to come and pick you up at any point should anything go wrong. He also promises to pay for any bike repairs barring tyre issues – we decided that tyre issues were our main concern so decided to go elsewhere and rent a better and newer bike for half the price (you all know how Jack hates being ripped off!). So we found a bike, studied our map and were ready to head off the next morning. Woop!

DAY ONE: THAKHEK – THA LANG VILLAGE VIA SOME BEAUTY SPOTS

We woke up bright and early ready to tackle The Loop at 7am. We put our bigger backpacks in storage and just took our small bags, I found it tough leaving behind most of my wardrobe and toiletries but I got over it… Check out our fetching helmets, anybody reminded of the crazy frog?

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We set off on the No.12 highway towards Tha Lang village. Along the way there are several caves and a lake you can make a stop at. We decided not to stop everywhere to make sure we arrived in Tha Lang before dark but we did stop at a beautiful swimming lake where we had a dip, jumped in a few times and soaked up some sun before carrying on our way. Amusingly this lake is called Falang lake, meaning foreigner lake, we guess the locals don’t use it much! Despite the name, it was pretty beautiful and peaceful.
Jack catching some rays:

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We carried on our way and were pleased to be making good time. Jack is a brilliant driver, nice and steady and able to avoid pot holes and potential hazards, so I started to relax. The weather was great, the roads were pretty flat and clear and we passed though several villages where the locals were so pleased to see us they would stand up and shout Sabai-dee (hello) waving frantically at us. One man who was mid-karaoke performance (they LOVE karaoke over here, every home seems to have a machine and it is not just reserved for evenings, anytime can be karaoke time!) stopped and boomed ‘hello-hello’ across the road on the mic.

On the way to Tha Lang village we drove past some very cool scenery, lots of trees emerging from a flooded lake. It looked a bit spooky:

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Soon enough we pulled in to Tha Lang village and and located the Sabaidee Guesthouse. This is Mr. Ku’s recommended place to stay, there is one other option called Phosy which looked nice but was unfortunately full. Well, we say unfortunately but the owner of Sabaidee and his daughter were so completely lovely and welcoming that we really enjoyed our stay. The huts were pretty old and worn but the bedding was clean and the shower was hot. The sunset was also incredible:

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Jack made friends with a local guy who taught him to play petanque over a few beers and we chatted to some Spanish guys around the bonfire before heading off to bed. Next morning we discovered that the breakfast was AWESOME – homemade pain au chocolat and chocolate pancakes all served with the biggest smile. Day one – tick!

DAY TWO: THA-LANG VILLAGE – LAK SAO – NAHIN

The dreaded day two… We had been warned about the horrendous road between Tha-Lang and Lak Sao. Although a shorter distance than we travelled on the No.12 highway it was expected to take a couple of hours more due to the fact that it is mountainous, too thin for 2 cars to pass and unfinished – full of potholes, sand patches and dangerous twists and turns. We set off again and 7am and braced ourselves for a bumpy ride!

Despite the bad road, the scenery was absolutely incredible going through the mountains and we took photos practically non-stop. We were extremely high up and we looked down on farmland, rice fields, small villages and breathtaking drops to lakes below. At some points we were driving through the clouds.
The dusty road:

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At one point we had to drive through the middle of this construction site:

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Head in the clouds:

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We also passed numerous herds of cows just ambling along the road, they don’t seem keen to get out of the way of the traffic but we eventually found that a long firm BEEP tends to nudge them in the right direction.
Moooo-ve:

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After a steep climb up into the mountain we started to descend back down the other side as we got closer to Lak Sao, a large-ish town we were advised to stay in on the second night. However, we arrived there for 11am so we decided to continue on to Nahin, a place near to the famous Kong Lo cave where some lovely Dutch girls had told us about a beautiful resort of huts in the countryside. We stopped in Lak Sao for a Lao coffee served with bread – this coffee is thick, syrupy and more like a hot chocolate and the bread is to dip in to the coffee. It is also served with a black tea chaser which is a little odd, tea and coffee together! After this we were on our way.
Laos coffee:

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Just as we thought we were home and dry and were feeling rather proud of our smooth journey along the worst road of the trip disaster struck, our front tyre was punctured. We were about 12 km outside of Lak Sao and had only passed some tiny villages since. As we didn’t know what was ahead we decided to walk back to the closest village to see if anybody could help. We were too concerned to ride the bike with a flat in case we damaged the wheel, at best we are quite heavy for these bikes which are designed for Laotians (much smaller and thinner than Westerners) so who knew what damage we would cause. Pushing the bike in the midday heat was tiring and we started to get a bit fed up of people driving past, pointing at our flat tyre and laughing – not funny anymore! Eventually a LOVELY Laotian guy pulled up on his moped alongside us and tried to help, first he pointed us in the direction of a mechanics and drove off, but then he quickly returned and suggested that Jack ride the bike slowly on his own while I hop on the back of his moped as he led us there. He drove really slowly and safely and talked to the mechanic for us – what a legend! A new inner tube cost £1.80 including the work and took around 20 minutes. Soon enough we were on our way again!
Mechanic at work:

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Around 3pm we were nearing Nahin and we saw a sign for the Sainamhai Resort, we turned off the main road and followed signs for around 4km before we pulled up beside some lovely lakeside huts and a pretty restaurant. Luckily they had rooms free and we checked in – for 130Kip per night (bang on £10) they were great value – air-conditioned, beautiful views, hot showers and very clean.
Our hut:

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Later that afternoon we were thrilled to see the lovely Rene and Katja, some friends we met in Thakhek, pull in to the resort before checking in to the room next to us and we had a nice night eating and drinking with them. We had completely forgotten Valentines Day but the restaurant hadn’t, they gave us some free cake and chocolates which went down well! At the end of the day we went off to bed excited about seeing the famous Kong Lor cave the next day.

DAY THREE: KONG LOR CAVE

We had heard that Kong Lor cave was better visited early in the morning to avoid potential crowds of day trippers and to fully experience the eerie silence inside the cave without too much company. We set off around 8AM and were there by 9AM – one nice straight road took us all the way which was great.

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We paid to enter the area and park the bike and set off to find a boat man. We also decided to rent an extra headlamp (very sexy) for the trip. We were allocated two boat drivers and had a boat all to ourselves. One controlled the engine and steering from the back of the boat while the other driver used an oar to locate any rocks or shallow patches and helped pull the boat up stream on the few occasions that we ran aground.
View from the boat:

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The river runs right the way through the cave, connecting the villages either side. As we entered on one side we were soon in pitch darkness, using our head lamps to look around and trying to take in the silence – it was pretty spooky. After around 30 minutes we got out of the boat and walked through some stalactite woods, usually these can be lit up but on this day the lights weren’t working. We walked around for about 10 minutes before hopping back into the boat.

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After an exciting ride down some rapids and mini waterfalls we emerged on the other side of the mountain and stopped for a drink in the other village. While we were there we spotted around 20 local children having an absolute whale of a time playing in the river, they were jumping out of trees, doing kung fu kicks and waving frantically at us.

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We also spotted some almost fully submerged water buffalo on our way back to the cave

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The return journey was just as cool and we took lots of photos and tried to take it all in. Sadly, photos taken in pitch darkness just don’t do justice to the views!

We emerged from the cave and decided to have a swim with some Canadian girls who were showing off doing high dives and somersaults from the top of a tall rock. Jack decided to join in and I managed to get this awesome photo of him mid-dive.
Is it a bird, is it a plane, no, it’s a flying Lemon:

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We drove back to the huts in the afternoon and chilled out for a while before going for a quick run through some of the local villages. They found the sight of me and Jack running in the heat absolutely hilarious, at one point we even had an entourage of around 10 kids who decided to follow us! On the way home we heard some awful screaming noises only to realise a pig was being slaughtered a few feet away, this was definitely rural village life.

After another lovely night with Rene and Katja we went to bed early ahead of the long 150km return trip we had to make the next day to Thakhek.
Rene and Katja:

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DAY FOUR: NAHIN TO THAKHEK VIA SEVERAL MECHANICS…

Jack and I smugly set off around 7.30AM hoping to arrive back in Thakhek around midday. The first part of our journey was quite mountainous and took time but we were soon back on a ‘normal’ highway at around 10am. We calculated another couple of hours and we would be home and dry, Loop done!

A few km past the nearest village something suddenly felt wrong and we realised that this time the back tyre had a flat. This is more difficult than a front flat as the back wheel has to be removed to change it – dammit! We staggered along for a few km until we found a make-shift mechanics inside somebody’s house. He couldn’t replace the inner tube but he did have a kit to fix it, he melted on some rubbery tar until it set and put the tube back in and pumped up the tyre. So far so good. We paid him £1.80 and set off on our way again, albeit a little slower than before. 1 hour wasted so far.

After another 5km the back tyre blew again and we were back to square one. We remembered passing some larger mechanic shops a few km back so we turned around and went in that direction. We found a place that stocked new inner tubes and a guy that could replace it for us, so we sat down to wait while he got to work. He was very young and didn’t seem to know what he was doing, but we didn’t have much choice and let him get on with it. After another hour the wheel was back on with a full tyre and we set off again. 2 hours wasted.

Another 5km or so and the tyre went AGAIN. This time we were seriously worried, what if something bigger was wrong with the actual wheel causing the punctures – how would we get back? There were no mechanics to be seen so we wandered forward pushing the bike and looking for help. After half an hour or so a young guy shouted for us to bring the bike down to his house and he would help. We drove down and tried to explain our predicament using our list of handy Laos phrases. He understood that we had already replaced the inner tube 5km ago but was insistent that he would just do it again. Without many other options we decided to let him go ahead and hope he did a better job than the last guy! He sped off to a nearby shop on his bike to get a tube before returning 10 mins later and he getting to work. His family were lovely, sitting us down in the shade while we waited and giving us water with ice. He didn’t seem too competent removing the wheel or putting it back on (this took 3 people and about 40 minutes) but the inner tube replacement was speedy and he seemed thorough. After paying around £1.50 we crawled off slowly until we passed a mechanics where we had some air blown into the tyre to make sure it was properly filled as our friendly helper only had a foot pump. We decided to take it SERIOUSLY slowly and didn’t go above 25km/h for the rest of the journey. 4 hours wasted.

Eventually we arrived in Thakhek around 5PM – 5 hours late. Beer was an immediate requirement and took the edge off our mood. It wasn’t the time wasted that bothered us, it was just pretty stressful driving on crazy roads with maniac truck drivers on a bike that could get a flat and swerve dangerously at any point! After this we headed back to Villa Thakhek where we had a room booked, although when we got there it turned out they had double booked and we didn’t have a room after all. This was not our day! Anyway, we eventually got a room in the Thakhek Travel Lodge (not part of the well known chain!) and spent the night drinking beer and chatting to friends.

THE EXPERIENCE OVERALL

A day after completing The Loop I already know the experience is something we will remember forever. Driving through beautiful countryside and villages with the freedom of going wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted, was just amazing. I’m very glad I told my inner (or more often outer) wimp to pipe down and just got on with it. Laos is such a wonderful place – the people are lovely, the country is full of natural beauty with animals roaming freely and the pace of life is so relaxed.
Some friendly children:

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We heart Laos.

Debbie
xx

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