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Published: January 8th 2009
Taken on a wee walk to one of the caves
We arrived in Tha Kaek with fairly open minds, as we mentioned before the town itself is not picturesque. The reason for visiting is the nearby National Protected Area (NPA) called Phu Hin Bun, having read about this area it promised some great scenery and so we arrived in Tha Kaek, making our way to a lovely guesthouse with a restaurant and pleasant leafy gardens to relax in under shade from the hot sun. A great place to base ourselves in comfort while we decided what to do with ourselves.
There were really two options to explore the NPA, firstly we could book ourselves on a trekking tour for a day or two and while this sounded good it did not really get us excited, as say we had been in anticipation of trekking up north in Luang Nam Tha. Also it was rather expensive for only a couple of days. The second option is to rent motorbikes for about 4 days and travel around and through the NPA independently, this undertaking is known as doing 'The Loop' due to the shape the route makes when plotted on a map. You get a motorbike and a map, and that's it,
The map of the area, you can just about make out the rough circular loop giving the trip its name. Tha Kheak is at the bottom left, so we started North up the road on the left of the map, turning East at the top. You can see day 2's route heading south into the middle of the map. Day three took us around and back south to about half way down the right hand side of the map. Day 4 of course all the way back to the start, phew, hope you can make some of this out. Click on the photo for a bigger view.
off you set. This option really tugged at our adventurous nature and got our taste buds watering with the thought of it!
Renting bikes presented a whole knew set of considerations for us, foremost was the fact Karen had never driven a motorbike in her life! While Tony had some limited experience in Greece a few times. Second and perhaps closely related to the first is that the terrain on which you must ride is for the most part very rugged dirt track. Another factor was that if we committed 4 days to this venture we knew it would be the last thing we did in Laos, there would be no time to visit further south where we had tentatively planned to visit an area called the Four Thousand Islands, a beautiful area filled with islands and wildlife.
However as we let the idea ferment in our minds so the more alluring it became, could we do it? Could we make it all that way in only 4 days? How would we cope with the treacherous roads? All thoughts which only seemed to present themselves as challenges to be overcome rather than reasons to back down. The choice
Day 1: We navigated our first turn off successfully and were welcomed by this lovely sign!
was made, it would be one last tango in Laos, only our dance would be on the two wheels of motorbikes!
Before you think us a bit foolhardy we did have some preparation prior to making any commitment. The afternoon before we were due to set off we sat down for a chat with the friendly Mr Wu. He went over how to use the motorbikes and allowed us to practice as much as we liked in the grounds of the guesthouse. He also ran us through the various routes we could take and provided us with his trusty hand drawn map of the area! One point of note is that we could of course just take one motorbike rather than two, allowing Tony to do all the driving. But Mr Wu strongly advised against this, saying that the terrain was simply too bad, the bike would suffer a great deal with two people riding and consequently we would get far more punctures and break downs. A sobering thought, being stuck in the middle of nowhere with a broken bike!
Probably the most useful preparation for us though, was reading the extensive log book for people who had
completed 'The Loop' to comment in. This contained a treasure trove of information about everything from proper motorbike use to recommendations of great places to visit, eat and sleep. The log book comments also explained in no uncertain terms what to expect from the road conditions, (at best poor, at worst terrible and dangerous!), but more than all this it gave us the strength of will to know we could do it. There were more than a few entries which explained how little experience others had had, yet they completed 'The Loop'. Sure, many of them had problems, but they had dealt with break downs, punctures and the terrible roads and every one enthusiastically endorsed the trip, urging others to follow in their footsteps, even one who had crashed through an old rickety bridge into a river 10ft below!
Anyhoo we get the feeling we are rambling on a bit, but we just wished to put things into context and provide a bit of background for you. In case you were wondering we were just taking our wee back packs with us, only packing the bare essentials for 4 days, our big rucksacks would stay at the guest house
Nice Day for Sunday Driving
Day 1: The lovely flat, tarmac road that eased us in gently.
while we were away. Moving on though... Day 1 : 146km
We rose early in time for a lovely sunrise and over breakfast we read the log books one more time, taking various notes on distances, timings and terrain, as well as directions to the sights we most wanted to see. We were a little wobbly to start, and Karen was full of nerves at the prospect of covering so much ground on a motorbike for the first time. Getting out of town was easier said than done, but we managed and after a short while we were on the open road with the wind in our faces!
We had chosen to do the loop clockwise because this meant the first day was spent on sealed roads rather than dirt track, so it gave us both time to settle into things and gain some experience. The morning passed almost without incident, we sped north along Route 13 getting used to riding with huge lorries sweeping past us buffeting us around. The scenery was a bit bland and flat but to the north east we could see the mountains rising up and this was where we were heading. Shortly
before 12pm both of our odometers broke in quick succession. Not exactly a disaster but they were important because in a land of few signposts and warrens of small side tracks we needed them to keep track of how far we had traveled at any given point. By doing this we could see roughly where we were on our map and navigate. So we pulled up at a wee roadside mechanic for some hasty repairs. The friendly fellow had us back on the road in less than an hour. These mechanics are widespread because here in South East Asia every man woman and even child has a motorbike! And of course they need people to keep them running. We would certainly have need of them again...
We soon turned east onto route 8 and this is where the fun really starts. This stretch of road was blissfully free of the heavy traffic on Route 13, much to our relief. We were now heading up into the mountains around tight twisting roads and through rural settlements. About mid afternoon, Karen's motorbike slowly ground to a halt and try as she may the bike would not start again? With a quick
Layers of Beauty
Day 1 : The scene looking in one direction from the view point.
once over Tony soon proclaimed the problem... no gas left! What fools we felt like and we had a good giggle to ourselves. The problem is the gas meters are fairly inaccurate and from then on we used a visual check looking into the tank itself every now and then. Thankfully Tony still had some juice left and off he set back the way we had come for the last village to purchase some roadside fuel and we were only delayed for perhaps an hour in total. Small vendors sell bottled fuel at knock down prices and they are a lifeline in these remote areas, especially for nincompoops like us!
As we reached the summit of one of the large hills we found a spectacular view point out over the surrounding limestone mountains known as the Khammuan limetsone area, part of the NPA. We could see for miles into the hazy distance over the craggy escarpments. It really was breathtaking and we can safely say that at no time before has the saying "the pictures don't do it justice" been more relevant. We spent some time relaxing here in contemplation before moving on. Before long we arrived in the
Day 2: The scenic drive to Tham Kong Lo cave
small hamlet of Nahin where we easily found lodgings in a delightful little guesthouse. We felt really chuffed at surviving the first day unscathed. After a quick dinner of chicken fried rice we were asleep almost before our heads hit the pillows! Day 2 : 80km
Today we took a detour right into the heart of the NPA, heading south toward the Tham Kong Lo caves (see map!). Much of this stretch of road is still under construction and we therefore had to pick our way, well wobble our way on motorbikes over sand and pot holes, swerving between the construction trucks in places. But for all that the backdrop to this was totally and utterly stunning. We were now riding through those craggy karst mountains we had marveled at the previous day. To each side of us they rose like skyscrapers covered in vegetation. Between us and the ridge lines was some of the most delightfully bucolic scenes we have witnessed to date. Golden rice paddies spread out before us with the locals harvesting, wearing their distinctive conical hats to protect them from the burning sun. Farm animals roamed everywhere, sometimes tended by shepherd, others times not. Either
Tham Kong Lo Cave
Day 2: The sight that greeted us after we emerged from our forest walk, across the green lake you can see the cliff with the cave entrance
way there was a preponderance of animals both on the roads and in the fields. Cows, goats, ducks, dogs, cats, chickens and children, we had to take evasive action many times, weaving from one side of the road to the other dodging in and out of these obstacles frantically beeping our horns to no avail. We wont mention the cow pats... oh too late.
After a morning riding we were starting to get a wee bit saddle sore, but a break was at hand as we arrived at the Tham Kong Lo caves. Walking through some forest the canopy then opened up at a gorgeous green lake. Surrounding us were once again the ever present vertical walls of the mountains, though this time far closer at hand just over the water. In the wall of the sheer face of rock a giant dark maw opened up spilling forth a gushing river into the emerald waters of the lake. It was this cave and this river we had come to see. The Kong Lo cave is 7km long and reaches right underneath the giant rocky mountains with the river flowing through it all the way. It is possible to take
Underground Light Show
Day 2: Tham Kong Lo Cave
a guided trip to the other side so after some brief introductions our grinning guides lead us into the black mouth of the cave. A short way in there was a wee lagoon and here we boarded a rickety wooden boat, setting off into the enveloping darkness...
It was an eerie feeling being surrounded by totally pitch black conditions as the light of the outside world disappeared behind us. But both of our guides had powerful head torches which then lit the way ahead as they searched for a safe passage through the cave. We also had our head torches with us and this allowed us to gaze around the cavernous spaces as the guides concentrated on piloting us safely. The cave was narrow in some places while vast and almost too high to see the ceiling in others. Likewise the river was sometimes deep, calm and flat while in others it swept quickly over rapids, at these points we often had to get out of the tiny boat to help haul it over the rocks while standing in the shallow black water. It was not as cold as one may think or as unpleasant, in fact it was
Day 2: We get a wave from the women working in the rice paddies.
a real adventure! About half way through we got out the boat and our guide led us up some steep slippery flat rock higher into the cave. He then flicked a switch somewhere and WOW, lights appeared all around us illuminating the cave walls. We were surrounded by amazing and bizarre stalagmite and stalactite formations of all shapes and sizes, all lit in various soft hued colours. It was an unexpected and beautiful thing to see here deep under the mountains. After wandering around in a daze surrounded by all this colour, it was then back into the all encompassing darkness as we made our way to the other side of the cave. It took about an hour and a half to get to make it through but finally in the distance a speck of light gradually became bigger and bigger as the exit grew nearer. We emerged into the bright and blinding sunshine onto a gorgeous green river. The banks were lined with verdant foliage drooping over us and beyond the trees and bushes once again rose towering grey limestone cliffs, contrasting with the bright blue sky above us. After some time spent on this side of the caves
we then made the enjoyable journey back the way we had come. The whole experience was quite spellbinding and something we will not easily ever forget.
Of course the fun didn't stop there for the day because we had to retrace our tracks back to Nahin for another night, lucky for us it was just as gorgeous and exciting as it had been in the morning! We rode back through the lovely rustic villages with their wooden homesteads on stilts and the children running out into the road shouting a happy and enthusiastic "Sabaidee" (hello). We dodged yet more moving animals and choked and squinted as yet more dust flew in our faces. It was heaven! There really is something special about traveling this way and we can both see the attraction motorbiking holds now. There is nothing between you and the elements, you are right there, all you have to do is look around you unhindered by the windows and shielding of a car. As we made it back to Nahin the sun set over the peaks and we enjoyed another beautiful sunset. Day 3 : 135km
We rose early because today was going to be the
Day 3: Tha Bak - These boats are made out of drop tanks that carried fuel for jets flying over Laos during the 1960s and '70s.
hardest days travel, taking us further east along route 8 before turning southwards on route 8B. This road is basically non existent and treacherous in places. As the sun had not yet risen fully it was a cold and shivery start to the day. We wound our way down out of the mountains into rolling hilly countryside coming to a small town with the wide Nam Theun river flowing gently by. Here the community have come up with a rather novel and resourceful way of recycling the old fuel tanks jettisoned by American planes which were busy dropping bombs on them back during the Vietnam war. Though they are fuel tanks they have come to be known as bomb boats! Cut in half they make for a nifty little craft and the locals boost about in them on the river.
As the tarmac disappeared under our wheels and we bumped our way south onto route 8B it started to heat up making things that bit easier to cope with. The landscape evolved gradually into flat farmland before changing again into dense jungle as we then started to make our way higher into more hills. It was a long day
with splendid views of the changing scenery around us.
The whole time we struggled along dirty, dusty, pot holed (canyons!), undulating, rutted track which became ever more sandy and difficult to ride on. We could bang on about just how bad the conditions were, but its not all that interesting is it? Just trust us, it was bone jarring and terrible going for the whole day and the dust clouds kicked up by passing lorries were almost intolerable, but we had our 'buffs' handy to cover our faces which kept the worst out. We feel we coped well in what can loosely be termed off road conditions!
During our passage we stopped off at a small school in a wee dusty village. Taking you back a while, in Luang Prabang we had bought some books from a great charity organisation called "Big Brother Mouse". set up by some students to help increase the literacy levels in children and adults in Laos. The books are written in both Laos and English and had lovely colourful illustrations. So we thought what better place to donate them than a small rural village where the children may appreciate them. The bewildered teachers
Day 3: These leaves are green, honest! They are just covered in dust from the road.
we met who could only speak some broken English between them happily accepted our gifts, though they were a bit confused at why two crazy foreigners had turned up at their door. Still we felt good about it and hope the kids like our books.
Not long before the end of the day. As we searched for somewhere to stay in a small village carved out of the jungle, we noticed that Karen's motorbike had a flat tyre, there is a theme developing here isn't their... things keep going wrong with Karen's bike... something to do with driving skills perhaps? We did not have to look far, the village's resident mechanic sorted things out in no time at all and we were on our way, but not before we filled up with petrol! During our brief stop in the village we provided quite a spectacle for the local who gradually came out onto the streets to gawk and stare at us, we felt they had rarely seen western faces before, least of all riding motorbikes in the back of beyond. About an hour later we found the town of Nakai and a place to stay for the night, once
Day 3: This area has been flooded due to the construction of a nearby hydro-electric dam. We passed by miles and miles of flooded forests like this. In the future the route taken by 'The Loop' may not be possible anymore as roads are diverted as water levels increase.
again we were in a deep sleep within seconds, it had been a very tiring day. Day 4 : 129km
The home stretch! Nakai is ugly and bustling with lorries and workers from the nearby Nam Theun hydro-electric dam project. Here a huge dam is being built to provide energy primarily to Thailand at the cost of vast areas of unspoiled natural forest in Laos. During the morning we gradually made our way down and out of the jungle moving closer and closer to the dam itself. And this meant that we were often surrounded by totally flooded land all around the road and road itself was still under construction. The tops of trees peaked out above the water making us wonder at how lovely the area must have been before it was devastated by Thailand's need for power. As we drove further we saw more dying or dead trees, a very sad sight. The previous night as we ate our dinner in a friendly little place the owner had explained how different things were for them now, because there was no woods to protect the villages and towns, only vast expanses of water, it is now far colder
and windy. Also many villages have been displaced by the rising water. Is this progress for Laos? It's a tough one to call, they are trying to drag themselves into the 21st century, the dam will provide jobs but it will mean far more traffic in the area and a very different lifestyle for the locals. We can only hope there are not too many more projects as invasive as this on the horizon.
As we neared the dam things became ever more busy with more and more traffic, not very pleasant for us at all. We were very happy indeed when later we turned west to head back to Tha Khaek and put distance between us and the construction work, the traffic started to ease a bit and the landscape soon changed from dust laden industrial plants and construction areas, back into pleasant limestone karsty gorgeousness and we were back on tarmac, hurrah! We were now at the bottom of the Khammuan limestone area having made our way right around to the other side from where we were during the first two days. The afternoon was spent ambling along enjoying the mountains around us, sometimes near enough to
Tham Sa Pha In Cave
Day 4: This Buddhist holy cave is said to have magical healing powers. It was a lovely tranquil spot.
touch, sometimes further afield with more golden fields laid out before us, people tending to their everyday simple lives, it is a harmonious scene and we felt at peace after the hustle and bustle of the morning.
We turned off the main road 3 times on our merry way back to Tha Kheak, to visit some more caves! The first cave called Tham Sa Pha In, was lovely. We clambered up some stone steps and into the ample entrance to view the almost bright interior of this holy place, light flooding in from above. A Buddhist shrine had been constructed in one corner and it was clearly still in use with prayer flags hung all around and the remains of offerings strewn across the ground. We slipped and slid down into the cave floor where we could see out to the other end through a small tunnel into a wee enclosed lagoon, the green waters were brightly lit by the sunshine. The waters here are said to have magical healing powers, however as it is a holy place swimming is forbidden but it looked very inviting indeed!
Next up was a small detour on foot to a larger
and more extensive cave. We had to take our shoes off and wade through the water several times while we made our way ever deeper into the cave. It was not that dark with light seeping in from the entrances and we had our head torches handy anyway. It was an interesting diversion, on the other side the cave exit revealed, yep, you guessed it, more limestone mountains, covered in green bushes and trees, lovely! You would think you would get bored of all this, but we certainly didn't, not for one second!
The third and final cave we visited was a very holy place indeed, Tham Pha Pa. It was discovered not that long ago really by a man looking for bats, but it was full of ancient sculptures of Buddha instead! Theories vary but the gist of it is that this was a place of pilgrimage, and so it has become again with people visiting from far afield to worship. We were not all that fond of the cave itself because it is a bit of a tourist trap now where they make women wear a 'traditional Laos' skirts before you are allowed to enter, which you
Day 4: Fill her up! This is the small village where Karen got a puncture. A quaint petrol station we are sure you will agree!
pay for. Then you buy a ticket, then a guard accompanies you the whole way, and they also ask you for donations for the upkeep, all a bit too much. But that is not the point of this place, for us it was all worth while because the 16km detour from the main road (back on slippery sand again!) took us through some stupendous country side. AGAIN we were surrounded by ever higher and more impressive vertical rocks which sprung up more and more regularly from the flat golden fields around us. On the horizon was a mountainous vertical wall as far as the eye could see. It goes without saying that we were really enjoying riding our motorbikes now and had been since day one! Now heading back to the main road we felt a tinge of nostalgia, soon we would have to give up our two wheeled chariots and revert back to a life of the wandering nomad, cooped up in stuffy buses. But for now we lived for the moment and reveled in the fresh country air as much as we could, heck, we even grew to like the sandy gorge filled dirt track!
not last forever and about 4pm in the afternoon of our 4th day we pulled back into Tha Kheak, the sound of beeping horns replacing the calm of the rural farmland we had cruised through only minutes before.
So, we made it! Told we could! It was a great feeling of elation to complete "The Loop", particularly for Karen because having never been on a motorbike before to finish such an adventure really is impressive. It has definitely been an experience like no other. Hardly a tourist in sight, just the unbelievably friendly locals with their children and amusing animals, not to mention truely some of the most unique and breathtaking, speech loss inducing, thought provoking, jaw dropping, stunningly gorgeous scenery anywhere in the entire world.
We have fallen in love with the country of Laos. We had done even before we drove off into the sunset like Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman in the motorcycle program "The Long Way Round!" There is something about this place. Compared with the modernity and break neck speed of life in many of the countries here like Thailand and Vietnam, Laos maintains a rustic, sedate and peaceful way of living that
The bikers pose, say cheese!
is contagious, long may it continue. The people we met across the country were consistently among the most friendly we have met, ever helpful, always smiling, and more than this they just seem happy! Though they may be poor, though they may have little and need to work their fingers to the bone to survive, for the most part they accept and endure with a smile. If ever proof was needed that happiness lies not in material possessions the people of Laos are it. As you may have gathered Laos also has a veritable bounty of sublime scenery and landscapes and the backdrop is often stunning sunrises and sunsets. It is a magical and special place we would be oh so happy to re-visit in the future.
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