Looping the loop - ThaKhek, Laos

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Asia » Laos
February 23rd 2015
Published: February 27th 2015
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I remember it just like when it happened in my youth. One minute everything is hunky dory and the next millisecond you are sliding to a stop on your side with your elbow for a brake. This time it was different: My wife was on the back and we were in the back of beyond in Central Laos.

I felt OK and was more worried about the rented bike which turned out to be unscathed. We had only being doing 10mph after all. Jane had a scraped knee as the pack she was wearing had cushioned most of her fall. On further inspection I had scraped and bruised my chest and hip. A stone had gouged a hole in my elbow. Our first aid kit and the specially purchased baby wipes came into their own. Soon we were on our way again with over 20km of dirt road still to negotiate and a severely dented confidence to repair.

We were on Day 2 of a four day adventure to conquer the 'Tha Khek Loop'. This is a 400km plus circular ride around Central Laos. It has been on the travellers circuit for many years and
Ready to rollReady to rollReady to roll

Note the pack that gave Jane a cushion
is steadily getting more popular and easier as they improve/create roads on the backside section South of LakSao. The scenery in the Phoung Hin Boun National Park is superb. Ian's friends, Fred and Emilie, had done it last year and had sent us an inspiring account of the route.

As 'old folks' we were taking no chances. We booked a 125cc scooter from Mad Monkey Motorbike (wwww.madmonkey-Thakhek.com), the premium agency, at 150,000kip/day ($19). We did not want to risk the hassle of unreliable engines. You can get 100cc bikes for as little as 50,000kip/day and most get you round OK. I am just glad Jane agreed to do the Loop at all.

The route heads due East on Route 12 out of Tha Khek. If you kept going you would soon reach the Vietnamese border. We made an early detour to the so called Buddha cave. This gave us our first taste of dirt road, a section tracing an old rail road started by the French colonists and never completed. The cave 15 metres up a limestone cliff was only discovered in 2004 by an enterprising local villager who got in using a hanging vine (we had the benefit of concrete stairs). Inside the small cave he found over 400 Buddha statues, some tiny and some quite large. They are believed to be around 600 years old. No one knows how they got there. They were possibly put there as a place of safety during the Thai occupation. It is now a point of pilgrimage and source of income for the village who manage its upkeep. It also got them the road built giving them easy access to Tha Khek.

You quickly enter the fantastic karst scenery we have become so familiar with in this region (the Vietnamese caves we visited last month are just over the border). Our next diversion was the Xieng Liab cave. A local showed us around (for a fee of course). Like so many in the region the cave followed a river passage from one side of a hill to the other. As fascinating was watching local villagers fish in a pond with thin nets spread between four bamboo poles. They were not catching much. May be it was a semi-recreational activity happening because it was a Sunday?

At Mahaxai we turned North onto Route 1E. A major hydroelectric power plant was built here five years ago in collaboration with EDF and the Thais, who take most of the output. The visitor centre acted as an excellent introduction to the area. The scheme involved damming the Meekong tributary to the North and then connecting the resulting lake to another tributary at a lower elevation to the South through tunnels in the ridge that separates the two rivers.

One point it highlighted was the still current consequences of indiscriminate bombing of this whole region by the USA for ten years in the late sixties and early seventies. They were using blunderbuss tactics with B52's to try and stem the flow of supplies the North Vietnamese were taking down the Ho Chi Minh Trail within Laos to feed the war in the South. As part of the hydroelectric project 7000 square km were cleared of unexplored ordinance and over 24,000 so called UXO were removed.

Later in the trip we saw the now infamous 'bomb boats'. These are shaped like the traditional boats found throughout the Meekong, the difference being that they are metal and made from old bomb casings left over from the American war. At several villages there were notice boards citing which NGO's had paid to clear UXO in the area.

Our guesthouse that evening, the Sabaidee, was in ThaLang on the shore of the new Nam Theun reservoir. We had had a super ride climbing over the ridge to reach the village, one of thirty resettled. The lake due to the land topography has a huge shore line with many inlets and islands and few true expanses of water. The pre-existing trees still stand in place in the flooded areas like totem poles. They are dead now and presumably will slowly disappear in the coming years.

The owner of the Sabaidee Guesthouse, Mr Phaythoun Boungnalath, was a cheery fellow who apparently had run the workers camp when they were building the dams and turbines. He had learnt his culinary trade in the Novotel in the capital, Ventiane. When the project ended he saw the potential for attracting tourists doing the Loop and his business has gone from strength to strength. He has standard bungalows, very cheap at 40,000kip ($5), and what makes his place special is the quality of the food. He puts on a barbecue at night which runs as an all you can eat buffet with a range of kebabs and salads and desserts. You sit outside next to a huge log fire with the stars glistening above. In the morning there are home made baguettes, croissants and pan au chocolate. That was Jane's choice. I stuck to noodle soup, the standard Lao breakfast, which to be honest was not the best I have had.

We set off in good time because the route North to Lak São is the bit where they are still completing the road. It clearly is improving, judging from previous accounts on the web (and there are many). That said we were lucky to be doing it in the dry season and we still came to grief at one point. In the wet season this section would be far more difficult and treacherous. They are making progress and in a few years if not before it should be all tarmac except for the odd crevasse which are just par for course on Lao roads. For the time being you just have to manage sharing the dry track with giant JCBs and steam rollers.

At LakSao the tarmac re-emerged and we turned West on Route 8. We continued to be surrounded by the stark cliffs of the karst scenery. In Lao it has it own character: the cliffs seem more shear, blacker in colour, and more jagged and fractured. When you wind over a ridge you get some spectacular views of the hills disappearing into the distance around you. We had lunch in NaHin and then drove South to the centre of the National Park and 'the Loop' to the village of KongLor.

Konglor is rapidly developing thanks to the fantastic cave system on its doorstep. In our search for a place to stay we drove through the village by the river. There are several options for home stays and we opted for a guesthouse to guarantee us a hot shower after our 140km drive. On the other hand we missed our chance to get closer to Laos life.

Entering the cave is truly spectacular. In side the entrance you board a narrow flat bottomed boat (which fits a maximum of three tourists) and the driver opens up the outboard. With your eyes not quite adjusted you are hurtling into the blackness the head torches catching the spray of the wake. Where the river goes can not be seen by the untrained eye. After a kilometre or so the boat slowed and beached so we could walk through the best area of formations. The cave chamber is staggeringly big, just like we saw in Vietnam. Now in the dry season we had to get out periodically so the boat could be pulled over shallow areas. The cave is 7km and we eventually came out on the other side of the ridge to buffaloes swimming in the river. With more time you can spend the night at the local village, which only got electricity in 2011. The route through was only penetrated by locals in the 1920's and now is one of Lao's major tourist attractions.

We returned to NaHin for our third night to cut down the driving the next day. In the afternoon after visiting the cave we could have a leisurely drive through the spires bordering the KongLor valley. We stopped for lunch at a signposted lodge, Sala KongLor, overlooking the river. Here we found women
Fish in KongLor riverFish in KongLor riverFish in KongLor river

It said no fishing. This was the fish I had in an excellent stew in KongLor.
and their families processing the local cash crop, tobacco. They were threading the leaves on to sticks and then young lads were hanging them in the rafters of a drying house. Once we had seen one, we spotted the drying houses, square three storey bamboo huts, throughout the KongLor valley like you see Oast houses back in Kent.

We detoured to another large cave entrance below a shear black cliff at the entrance to the KongLor valley. It was easy to see why local villagers used them as shelters from the US bombs hailing down. This cave showed how some of the cave formations in the area are very old. Old stalagmites at the entrance were pointing out like piranha teeth because there had clearly been a rock shift since they were formed.

Who should we meet as we were guesthouse hunting in NaHin but Orest and Marta from Lviv in the Ukraine. We had been crossing paths with them since we had shared a minibus across Northern Cambodia. They are working travellers. Orest trained as a lawyer. He quickly bored of that profession and set up a series of web businesses. The first
Sewing tabacco leaves together for dryingSewing tabacco leaves together for dryingSewing tabacco leaves together for drying

The door of the drying house is in the background
helped foreigners travel in the Ukraine, good when the Euro championships were on and in free fall now with the war in the East. He started others to cover this demise including one site which helps Ukrainian students find scholarships and other opportunities for foreign study. Orest works on his laptop for four to five hours each morning and then they travel and visit sites at other times. The formula seems to work and he and Marta have been travelling for the six winter months returning to the Ukraine for the summer for the last three years. We joined them for dinner along with a collection of other travellers. Soon our paths will diverge because from Luang Purbang they are heading North into China whilst we are going South through Thailand.

We also saw that NaHin is a magnet for twitchers. One told us that a bird, the bald bulbul, was only confirmed as a new species in 2009 so they come to add it to their 'list'.

It was 140km back to Tha Khek. Most of this was on Route 13 which follows the Lao-Thai border East of the Meekong. It was very much a case of eating up the kilometres. We stopped as necessary when our bums could not take anymore.

We were glad to have one diversion to Kong Lung Lake. First we had to negotiate a 21km dirt road with the now familiar JCBs finishing the bits over the small ridge. The lake is at the base of black karst cliffs where a spring emerges from the mountain. It is brilliant clear with a pale blue tint from suspended particles of calcium carbonate. Like many such geographical features it is sacred and swimming is limited to a section down stream. We also found this was the communal area for the village youngsters to wash their hair. On the return journey Jane was glad that a local lady gave her a lift in her pickup over the roughest section of road.

As we drove up a clay dry slope I stopped as a five foot snake slithered its way across the road. It was an amazing if brief sighting and the snake, steely grey in the sunshine, quickly disappeared into the road side ditch. My powers of observations were diminished by the squawks of panic
The cave entrance at the mouth of the KongLor valleyThe cave entrance at the mouth of the KongLor valleyThe cave entrance at the mouth of the KongLor valley

Note the angled stalagmites above my head. Well they looked like piranha teeth to me!
from behind me and my abdomen being jabbed and pinched like I was a recalcitrant horse.

We got back to Tha Khek just before five having had our dose of motor biking for a while. It turned out that the wing mirror on the bike was bent from the fall so we had to buy a new one. A small price for a safe return from a great adventure in a beautiful country.

Additional photos below
Photos: 14, Displayed: 14


On the return from Kong Lung LakeOn the return from Kong Lung Lake
On the return from Kong Lung Lake

Note the JCB's is the background.

29th November 2015

Awesome motorbike loop
I did the motorbike loop as well and wrote some additional information for people who want to do the loop. Including a video :) http://gobackpackgo.com/motorbike-loop-thakhek/
13th November 2016

great work on riding the loop! my mum completed with me in 2015. proof there is no age limit haha. i like that you guys are limiting your travel on planes that really opens the doors to more adventure. I am traveling without using them at all.'keep up the travels http://www.lostaussies.com/thakhek-loop/

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