After my first night in Laos it was time for a first for me: exploring Laos on the back of a motorbike. I decided the Thakhek Loop, a popular route around the Kammouane Limestone NBCA, would be a good starting point. And after my 4 days in that area, I can just say – it is an amazing experience. Here is my “little report”. My apologies for the length of it - maybe get a cup of tea first.
Day 1: Thakhek to Thalang
After getting my nearly brand new Honda Scooby (not even 500km on it) from Mad Monkey, equipped with a very good map, I headed off to my first destination Thalong, an approximate 140km ride. First advice here, do not start too late. The earlier the better (10.15 was in my view too late).
Getting out of Thakhek is very simple – mainly following the main road, and you are suddenly at the surroundings of the Khammouane Limestone National Park. It offers constant beautiful scenery, with the limestone mountains and rice fields. Besides the clear beauty of this area, the road east of Thakhek towards the Vietnamese border is also famous for the various caves. I read about a Buddha cave at the start of the ride, and after seeing the sign I decided to leave the well paved road, to use a dirt road for 19 km for that cave. The condition of the road was terrible (I was advised after my trip that the road detoriated badly within the last few weeks – lucky me), and while you got some great views of the national park, the cave itself was just a little cave with Buddha statues. Considering the detour off the main road (and the low speed you can only drive) – I should have saved that detour. To make up some time I passed several other caves and stopped at Tham Nangene cave. While some travellers think the lights in the cave makes it look a bit cheesy, I found it rather beautiful. Yes, I preferred the caves in the north of Laos you required a torch to walk in, but the lights and wooden stairs added some charm to the cave. In addition I kind of enjoyed being out of the sun for a while as well.
After visiting the second cave I had to make up time to get to Thalang before it got dark – so no more cave visits. However, I still had time to eat a delicious noodle soup at a little stall next to the road. It was interesting that every little place I stopped for soup offered a different version of the dish – this one had little octopus in the soup. I loved it....
After lunch I was able to enjoy the beautiful scenery a bit longer – until the hydroelectric dam. After climbing the serpentine road up the mountain – which was fun to drive on – the scenery became more eerie. Instead of mountains you now saw leaf-less trees growing out of the lake. For me it would be the perfect location for a horror movie. After getting slightly nervous about the possibility to drive on the dirt road that got worse in the dark, I finally made it to Thalang.
Following the advice from Mad Monkey I stayed at Phosy Guesthouse with its charming little basic en-suite bungalows next to the lake, with your own hammock – offering a great view of the sunset. One advice – check the mattress, as I got a broken one, and could feel every spring in the middle of the bed (only checked one side of the bed earlier). No one else had that issue though - so was just bad luck.
For dinner I went with some other “bikers” to the nearby Saibaidee guesthouse for dinner. The restaurant there was very good, and you will meet other travellers, enjoying some beer while playing Bowl or sitting at the bonfire. The highlight of the evening however was seeing a red moon raising from the lake, it was something I never seen before, and it was breathtaking.
Day 2: Thalang to Kong Lo village
The second part of the journey to Kong Lo was 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 other guys I met run nearly out of petrol until we finally found a shop selling petrol (stayed with them just in case).
Having enough petrol, the adventure can start. Straight after Thalang the unpaved road turns into a gravel road – like driving on snow. This is followed by a long stretch driving over a sand road – passing lots of construction side. Thankfully it was dry season. I would not drive there during the rainy season. This then turned back to the normal unpaved dirt road, which was a pleasure to drive on after the state of the previous stretch, with some nice view points.
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. The scenery covered mainly limestone mountains again, and you pass several little villages. I stopped twice to watch some football games between schools, and it was interesting to see the cheering of the ‘spectators’ (aka the local students) whenever the ball got close to the opponent goal. Even during holiday I cannot stop watching football...
The final stretch of the journey takes you into a valley that is surrounded by mountains – like a bowl. It is a beautiful ride, and you only get a feeling of the size of that valley when you reach Kong Lo after 30 km. It was just stunning.
I arrived there just before it got dark (I love my good timing for that). Unfortunately I did after two big tourist buses arrived before me – which resulted in limited number of available rooms. I got the last one at the Xok Xai guesthouse, which was the first one in Kong Lo on the right side. While it was a 3 minute walk to the village centre, it had the advantage of having no buildings around it, just plain fields and great view for sunset and sunrise. The owner is very friendly, and will provide some advice what to do in that area. The rooms were nice, the only disadvantage were that the wooden floor in the hallway was quite loud. But overall I thought it was a nice place to stay.
For dinner I would highly recommend the little restaurant on the main road – the only one not attached to a hotel. The food was absolute delicious.
Day 3 – Kong Lo
The main reason to get to Kong Lo is the Kong Lo cave, a 7.5km river going through the mountain. I have to admit, I was quite exciting to get there, and my initial plan for Thakhek was actually just going straight to Kong Lo from Thakhek, and not doing the Loop at all.
So I headed to the cave with one of the ‘biker’ I met during my travel. If you are in a rush, you should go early in the morning (from 8) – we arrived before 10am. Luckily there was no queue for boats, and we got one straight away. Little advice - get one of the torches you can hire there. Brought my own one and it was far too weak for the massive cave.
The journey on the boat was interesting; you have to leave it a few times, which means wet feet. So better wear sandals. Also there will be water inside the boat, so put your bag next to you on the seat. It is very difficult to explain the experience going through the cave – so I better don’t even try it. It was incredible to see the vast size of it – and it is worth the effort to go there.
On the other side of the mountain you can enjoy a beer and the stalls, or go for a stroll to the nearby village (or even stay there overnight). The guys on the boat will tell you, that you only have 15 minutes. Don’t listen to them. You can stay a while there (as stated on the ticket). Obviously they want to get back asap to get new customers. After they saw us getting a beer (and me telling them that we will stay longer), they had a drink themselves and joined the other guides.
The return journey seemed to be much quicker, and we didn’t have to leave the boat at all this time. Back on the entrance side, you can go for a swim in the lagoon, which is very refreshing, or have a nice little walks. While most people seem to rush in and out, I actually enjoyed taking my time there.
After the visit to the cave I explored the valley on my bike, which is worthwhile. I watched locals fishing, done a small detour to a cave, and then requiring help from some kids to get the bike back to the main road from a little path (while the locals were laughing – but I can swear the gap between the paved and unpaved part of the road didn’t look that bad when I drove down...).
I was actually quite happy to spend a full day in Kong Lo village, as this area offers some great activities, and not just the amazing cave.
Day 4 – Kong Lo to Thakhek
At the start of the last day I had to make a decision. I could either head straight to Thakhek, or I could take the route back via Thalang as advised by Mad Monkey. The main reason to do that would be avoiding the boring ride on the road 13. I was quite tempted to add another day to enjoy the great view again, but in the end I thought it would better to use that day somewhere else. In hindsight, it is worth to do the detour and stay one additional day.
The main reason for this is, that despite the nice start of the journey from Kong Lo to Road 13 was quite scenic, driving on the main road was boring, and probably not the safest option, with the amount of lorries, buses and cars on it. I was actually happy when I arrived in Thakhek. If you only have four days, either stay only one night in Kong Lo, go the cave early in the morning, and drive back to Thalang around lunch time. Or just add fourth night. Next time I would add a night.
In the end I made it back to Thakhek in one piece on day 4, finishing my first long way journey on the back of a bike (aka my little angry bird Honda scooter). I absolute loved every single minute, and being away from the main touristy bit was a great experience. I would love doing that route again, as there are still thing I would like to explore there, and because of the beauty of that area.