May 15, 2011 6 Comments
Thakhek, a minor but sprawling town nestled next to the Mekhong river in Laos, is popular as a base for a 400km motorcycle tour of the surrounding pretty countryside and attractions. It’s known as the Thakhek Loop.
We stayed at the Travel Lodge guesthouse in Thakhek, which seems to be the unofficial HQ for travellers doing The Loop. They have a ‘bible’ written by those that have completed the loop, full of enthusiastic advice and tips (‘Do it clockwise! Be careful!’). They have Mr Ku. He hires out newish Korean 110cc semi-automatic scooters, gives you a map (which we discovered to be mostly right…), and speaks good English, advising you on the pitfalls of your upcoming adventure. He prints his mobile number on the map saying let him know if anything bad happens…
We decided to do it across 4 days: others take less or more time….some nutter did it in one day apparently which misses the point somewhat.
Day 1: Thakhek to Kuon Kham (146km, 4 hrs road time)
Type of road: long straight main-road, pretty mountain pass
After meeting Mr Ku and deciding to go for it, we set off at 11am to do the loop clockwise. Most people do it anti-clockwise…..for no particular reason as far as we could tell other than Mr Ku’s map pointing you that way. The first stretch is the ‘boring’ part – an arduous 105km up the main road, Route 13 – which was uneventful other than a wasp hitting Ben’s leg, rebounding onto Carly’s and depositing it’s sting. We emergency stopped, Carly hopped about a bit, applied some cream and expletives before we set off again. Speeding along in shorts and t-shirts with so many insects bouncing off us wasn’t a good combination: we slowed down.
At Vieng Kham we turned right onto Route 8 and stopped for lunch, before heading along a lovely mountain pass – great winding fast roads, with a breath-taking viewpoint.
We arrived in Kuon Kham and found somewhere fairly decent to sleep, drink and eat.
Day 2: Kuon Kham to Kong Lor Cave and back (80km, 1.5 hrs road time)
Type of road: a valley bed through villages, rice paddies and looming karsts
The big attraction of the loop, Kong Lor Cave, is no ordinary cave. It’s a perfect, 7.5km tunnel, through which a river flows. You take a long-tail boat for the 3hr return trip, stopping off to walk through a huge cavernous section illuminated with blue and orange lights – with some areas as high as a cathedral. Hugely impressive.
Proceeding onwards back onboard, the river runs to a depth of only inches in places – meaning the need to jump out into the water and help the driver haul the boat over the pebbles. Sensitivities over getting trainers wet soon washed away.
On the road back another insect sting: this time it skimmed Ben’s forehead and nestled inside his helmet, stinging him on the scalp. A screeching halt later with helmet removed we found half the black and yellow insect…dragging itself about with its remaining front legs: it had been crushed into two. We flicked it away and got back on the bike.
Day 3: Kuon Kham to Nakai (120km, 6 hrs road time)
Type of road: jaw-dropping paddy fields and karsts, nightmare dirt road
If the first road on day one was the ‘boring’ bit, this was the ‘dreaded’. After the first couple of hours of amazing mountain roads and valleys past paddy fields, small villages and magnificent karsts (see above pics), we then had a mere 62 km along the unpaved section of the loop. Rocky and bumpy barely do justice to the challenge. It took 4 hours in the blistering heat, with a puncture or breakdown a terrorising prospect the whole time. The only sign of help was the odd tiny village along the way as we slowly crept deeper into the unknown. We stopped often due to discomfort rather than thirst or hunger.
Further long the route we started seeing spooky dead trees. A Chinese built dam and reservoir has flooded huge swathes of woodland – they stick out of the water at every turn for several k. Strange place.
After the gruelling dirt road and spooky trees we were very much ready to find somewhere to stay for the night. Unfortunately we missed the town we aimed for (Thalang) blaming a lack of road signs and mismatch between our odometer and the kilometre hint on Mr Ku’s trusty map, and settled for the village of Nakai. A dusty main street with not too much to shout about.
We stayed in an odd ‘guest-house’ that strangely was on the same site as a laboratory, with several motel-type blocks spread out across the large site. Our room was basic, which is probably giving it too much credit. There was no sink in the en-suite and an infant cockroach crawled onto Ben’s head! We were the only ones staying there.
However, we headed out for several Beerlao (a wonderful beer that would surely sell by the lorry load in Europe) and after a lovely meal in the first restaurant, we headed to another (run by a Belgium chap) and sat on their balcony sipping a carafe of crisp white wine, grooving to the music and nibbling the free snacks, watching the town buzz about its business. We ordered another carafe. Who would have thought that in Eastern Laos, close to the Vietnamese border, in a small town on an un-made-up road not accustomed to tourists, one could indulge such delights?
Day 4: Nakai to Thakhek (100km, 2 hrs road time)
Type of road: down the mountain, straight roads through karsts, into the town
Our final day – we headed for home, extremely grateful to be on asphalt. Such luxury! Great road and gorgeous scenery – perfect. Along the way there are meant to be 6 caves and 1 swimmable lake according to the map…on the road we saw 2 signposts for caves. We stopped at the first sign and were told it’s ‘that way’ by the helpful shop keeper, as she contorted her hand into a bendy C shape. Right… We walked a bit, found no path and so returned. After one more attempt we gave up. Surely a simple path with some basic sign posts pointing the way to the natural attractions would mean more happy tourists, more drinks sold in her shop, good reports and more people coming in future.
Not for the first time in Laos we desperately wanted the people to show a little industry. It’s such a poor country but they don’t make it easy.
Back at base we tingled our sunburnt bodies as we washed the grime away, and felt fantastic to be in the club of those that have done The Loop, or more to the point, experienced our own Laos.
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