Motorbike: Thakhek Loop

Southern Laos is not as popular as the north with the tourist gems of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng or Vientiane. However, the south has some great attractions, and the Thakhek Loop is surely one of them. This motorbike trip starts and ends in the southern town of Thakhek located at the Mekong next to the Thai border. This town can be reached by bus from Vientiane or Pakse, or from the Thai town Nakhom Phanom on the other side of the Mekong (with an airport served by a few low cost airlines).

There are plenty of places renting motorbikes. Which seems is a good thing is actually a potential risk as there are quite a few dodgy shops trying to rip off tourists. Some bikes are in terrible shape that makes them unsafe or will cause a break down. Also, some agencies have a section in the contract that if the bike has ANY damage that the person renting the bike has to pay a fee in value of a new bike – and not just the damaged part. Driving an old bike increases the risk to pay a high fee in the end. It is therefore important to check the bike properly.Also there are reprots that some agencies rent bikes without any documents or licence plate, stolen from Thailand. The police is apparently checking more bikes, and if you are caught with a solen bike it could happen that you can walk back to Thakhek as the bikes are confiscated.

So best advise is to stick with two of the agencies with a good reputation.

The first one is Mr Ku, who runs the Travellodge hotel. He is offering bikes and advise for a long time and is well regarded. Apparently he offers both automatic and semi-automatic bikes.

The second agency is Mad Monkey located at the main square in Thakhek. The shop is run by a German called Dirk, a former employee of the German embassy in Vientiane, and his wife. He is a very friendly person offering advise about the loop and the town. He has automatic, semi-automatic and even two manual bikes on offer. The Honda bikes are in very good condition. You also get a good map of the region with some advise where to stay. As an additional help you can leave your big bags behind if required. Just take a smaller backpack with you. The prices are higher than at the other agencies, but the bikes are in good condition and you have not to worry about any contract issues. They also offer dealing with any mechanical problems, and even pick you up if the bike stops working. When I did the loop I met a guy who had an accident after a dog jumped in front of his bike. He called Mad Monkey afterwards and the first question was not about the bike but if he needs any medical help and requires to be picked up. Also, when we returned Dirk took him to a garage to check the bike and order the new parts needed. He was then only charged the spare part. So you can rent a bike here without any worry. If something happens you will only pay for the damage. So I cannot recommend Mad Monkey enough, and I would not hire a bike anywhere else.

I have split the Thakhek loop into three sections – each could be done in a day. This pace would allow time to see a bit of the area, and not just riding the bike. But I would recommend spending an additional day in Kong Lo to have enough tome to enjoy the cave.

 

Part 1: Thakhek to Thalang (140km)

The first part of the loop will take you into the Khammouane Limestone National Park. Getting out of Thakhek is very simple – mainly following the main road from the town square away from the Mekong leading you out of town and you are suddenly at the surroundings of the Khammouane Limestone National Park. From the start the scenenry is breath taking, with the limestone mountains and rice fields. It is just stunning, and you could be tempted to stop a few times to let the scenenry sink in. Besides the clear beauty of this area, the road 12 east of Thakhek towards the Vietnamese border is also famous for the various caves.

One of the first caves is the Buddha cave. A sign will indicate to turn left off the main road onto a dirt road. This road was in a bad shape in November 2013, even though it was just renewed a few month before. So the condition of this road change quite a bit. Follow the road for 19km to get to the cave. The scenery along the road is very nice, and you get a nice feel for rural Laos. When seeing a few stalls with places to park your bike (you have to pay 5.000 Kip and get a ticket – do it to prevent any possible bike theft) you have reached the Buddha cave. From the parking lot it is a little walk past a lake to get to the cave.  The cave itself is rather small with a few Buddha statues inside. Personally I didn’t find it too impressive and considering the detour required (2x 19km) I would give the cave a miss. Though the scenenry along the road was at least nice.

Heading back to the main road continue following it to the east. The scenery is still nice with the mountains, river, villages, rice fields. Travelling through rural Laos is just wonderful. Along the road you find more caves signed out, some of them might be worth a visit. One cave I visited is Tham Nangene cave, a rather well known one. Again you find places to park your bike where someone looks after them. The entrance to the cave is a bit more impressive, and you will realise it is a larger one. It well looked after with stairs and barriers, leading anyone though the cave via a single path. Throughout the cave are plenty of lights, and while some travellers think the lights in the cave makes it look a bit cheesy, I found it rather beautiful. The lights and wooden stairs added some charm to the cave. There is a little river inside the cave with some little boats that could you take you onto the river. I am not sure if it is worth it, but the boats were really small. But overall, the cave is a worthwhile stop, and sitting outisde on a bench having a drink is a nice break as well.

From this cave you continue on Road 12 and after a while wider fields open up, providing a diferent view with some of the hills a bit further away. On this part you will find a number of little food places offering basic food, but the noodle soups on offer here are very tasty. The interesting fact in that region is that every place serves a different kind of soup. Some have little shrimps or octopus inside, others a bit more pepper. And watching the road and people while eating is a nice way to relax.

At some point you come to a turn for Mahaxai, but for that loop stay on the main road until further north you come to another crossing. The Road 12 turns east towards the Vietnamese border. Instead follow the other road north and soon you will reach the hydroelectric dam – which is not as beautiful as it sounds. From here the road climbs up the mountains with quite a few serpentine. It is actually fun but you need to be careful here,, as the road is buys with locals and some of the corners are tight. So use your horn when turning the corners (just like the locals).

When reaching the top you are in a diffferent world. Instead of karst mountains you will see mainly wide fields, rivers, little villages.

But soon the view and atmosphere changes. Instead of good condition the road turns a bit bumpier, in some instances becoming a dirt road – but still ok to drive on. But the whole atmosphere becomes more eerie.  Next to some little hamlets you see more and more little lakes where  leaf-less trees growing out. Some of the places would be the perfect location for a horror movie. It is an interesting ride, I actually found it nice, but others would not use the word beautiful. Due to the road condition make sure you get here not too late – riding here in the dark would not be fun.

Soon you you get to the little village of Thalang. This village became a popular stop for the loop thanks to the petrol station, and more important, two good guesthouses – the Phosy Thalang Guesthouse and Saibaidee guesthouse. I preferred the Phosy one due to the location and the little bungalows and the hammocks – here is my review of the place.

However, the Saibaidee guesthouse has a nice restaurant with some good food on offer, and is a nice place to meet other travellers for a few beer. But as the distance between both places is just a 10 minute walk you can enjoy both

 

Part 2: Thalang to Kong Lo village (150km)

The second part of the journey to Kong Lo is more challenging, as it includes a 60km ride on the ‘road to hell’ – the most difficult part of the whole Thakhek Loop. So here is the first advise, before starting on that road, make sure you have a full tank – there are not too many stops. One of the guys I met run nearly out of petrol until we finally found a shop selling petrol (stayed with them just in case).

Straight after Thalang the dirt road turns into a gravel road – like driving on snow. This can be difficult on times, and you could not ride very fast. However, there are some nice sites on that road, lakes with more trees, some nice forests. After this challenging section the next part comes –  a long stretch driving over a sand road – passing lots of construction side. I would not drive there during the rainy season. After the gravel and sand you are back on an unpaved road. From here the view improves as well, with some nice places to stop and looking down the valley – offering a beautiful site. At some point it is time to head down from the mountains again. Unlike the serpentine road from day one this is not as nicely paved, but still offering some interesting serpentine. Be careful here when riding down.

After the approximate 60 km on the most difficult part of the route you arrive in Lak Xao, a town near the Vietnamese border. Here you can find shops, and more importantly, banks to exchange money. You can either head to some hot springs when heading towards the Vietnamese border, or you can get back to the paved road to get to Kong Lo.There are also some nice places for lunch, offering either noodle soup or noodle or rice dishes. Some might want to stay here for the night, but I would highly recommend turning left to head to Kong Lo.

After the eerie and harsh environment earlier the Road 8 towards Kong Lo once again is more lush, with lots of green from rice fields, trees and limestone hills. Some parts of the journey goes through section where the trees on both sides of the road offer some welcomed shade. You will pass villages and some signs stating that the area is now UXO (unexploded ordinances from the US) thanks to German, UK or Australian NGO. You will struggle to find any US charities to clean up their own mess….

The final stretch of the journey is maybe the most beautiful. Before ascending down a valley you will have a few chances to stop and enjoying the view of a stunningly beautiful valley full of fields. The valley looks like a bowl with the mountains surrounding it.  Follow the road to the bottom, and when seeing a petrol station you can head straight towards Thakhek, or turn left into the valley. From this point it is another 30km to Kong Lo, and it is a great ride. You pass village after village, rice fields on both sides where you can see the locals working during the day, crossing bridges over little streams and seeing little roads turning off the main road, leading to some interesting sites like caves. And all the time you can see the impressive mountain range as a wall on both side. It is a site you might not forget that easily.

At the end of the road is Kong Lo village. Thanks to the famous Kong Lo cave there are plenty of guesthouses along the main street. Unless you arrive after 6 or 7 you have plenty of choices. I stayed at the Xok Xai guesthouse. Here is my review of it.

Most food places back in 2013 were attached to guesthouses, but there was one that was independent, and they serve good food there.

Kong Lo village has some interesting attractions. The most famous one is the Kong Lo cave, where a 7.5km long river flows under a mountain to reach a valley on the other side. You can easily get a boat that will bring you to the other side. There you can either relax over a drink or even walk to a minority village 2km away – they even offer homestays. Due to the length of the journey from Thalang you will most likely visit the cave in the morning, but try to be there as early as possible if you ride back to Thakhek. Here is a description of the cave.

If you have time you can also explore the surrounding area. There are plenty of little dirt roads leaving to cave, or some interesting lakes. So if you have time I would recommend staying here for a full day, and two night before continuing the loop.

 

Part 3 – Kong Lo to Thakhek (180km)

From Kong Lo village the last part of the loop will bring you back to Thakhek. Follow the road out of the valley and at the end turn left onto Road 8. Enjoy the lovely scenery on that road. Half way you will find a viewing point on the left. I would highly recommend to stop here and to enjoy the scenenry from here. At the end of the road you turn left onto Road 13, and here stops the quiet scenic tour. Instead you are on a busy highway connecting Vientiane with the south. Make sure you ride on the far right of the road, as both lorries and buses will pass you with speed. This was my least favourite section of the loop. This was why Mad Monkey suggested to add an additional day and head back to Thakhek the same way to avoid Highway 13.

At some point you will come near the Mekong, where the road from the border joins Highway 13 and you will reach Thakhek after another few km.

Overall the Thakhek Loop is a fantastic journey to enjoy rural Laos and spectacular scenery. Especially the first two days offered some of the most beautiful parts I have seen in Laos. The people here are very friendly, lots of people wave at you when passing them. You also can visit some interesting caves (and one impressive large cave with a river). So if you look for a motorbike adventure then this Loop will not disappoint. And despite the increased popularity, the whole area feels like untouched by tourists as most just pass by, so it has kept its innocence, making it a great way to explore the real Laos.

 

Recommendation

  • For the loop only get a bike from either the Travellodge or Mad Monkey. They are the most reliable agencies with bikes in good conditions – without the risk to be ripped off. Contact Mad Monkey via their website madmonkey-thakek.com
  • The minimum time needed for the 500km loop is 3 days, but I would rather do it in four days to have a full day in Kong Lo
  • Instead of doing the full loop you could ride to Kong Lo, and then head back via Thalong to avoid the busy and uninspiring Highway 13.
  • Do not miss the Kong Lo cave – it really is a must see in southern Laos
  • Take your time and do not rush – the whole area is beautiful and you should enjoy it. Some stops to take in the beauty are worthwhile
  • If you need a refreshing bath between the caves is a little lagoon Tad Falang which apparently offers a nice swim.
  • Try not to leave the places too late – and make sure you arrive at your destinations before it gets dark. Some of the sections are not recommended to ride in darkness.
  • If you have more time, you could easily explore some of the other roads in that area  i am sure you find some not well visited places.
  • And the last recommendation – if you have the time – do the loop. It is a great adventure.

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