The Thakhek Loop (or how I rode 460 km through Laos on a small Honda MSX)
Laos. The poorest of all the four countries in the region and the only one that doesn’t border the sea. In my opinion, it’s also the most authentic and the most beautiful of these four countries, with lots of things to explore on your own. One of those things is the so called Thakhek loop, a 460 km round trip through an amazingly beautiful area, starting in the small town Thakhek. It was by far one of the best things I’ve done since I started traveling, and in this blog post I am going to tell you about my experience.
Getting to the Thakhek Loop
My adventure starts with the bus ride from Vientiane to Thakhek. The cheap local bus leaves every day at 7:00 am. Continuous readers of my blog may have noticed that this is way too early for me, so I decide to take the only other option: a so called “VIP bus” that leaves at 12:00 am.
The fact that the driver of the mini-van that is supposed to take me to the bus station drives to his house instead so he can take a 20-minute nap no longer surprises me. After sitting around for 20 minutes, waiting for him to finish his nap, he drives me to a big road, where I am supposed to be picked up – in the middle of nowhere.
Not even one minute later, a freakishly big bus stops right in front of me and I finally learn the difference between a local and a VIP bus: the sound system would have made the 18 year old me with his pimped out Mercedes jealous as hell, the AC is cranked up to a level at which you can cut glass with your nipples, there are only tourists on the bus and the freakishly big TV hanging in the front of the bus plays a horrible Asian Karaoke-singalong DVD.
After hours of driving next to the Mekong river that separates Laos and Thailand, I finally arrive in Thakhek. I check in at Wang Wang motor rentals, a hostel recommended to me earlier by four swiss girls I met in Luang Prabang, where you can also rent a motorbike to do the loop.
As I unpack my things for the night, I hear loud music coming from outside. According to the girl from the reception, the town is celebrating the lantern festival. I go for dinner and decide to stroll through the streets afterwards. Thakhek is a small town that rarely attracts tourists or backpackers, simply because there is nothing you can do here. Tourists mostly only use it as the starting point for the Thakhek loop. Tonight, thousands of locals from all of the surrounding villages came to town to celebrate the lantern festival. As I walk, I realize that nearly everyone is looking at me. While older people only look at me once, the reaction of younger people when they see me can be categorized according to their age:
- 1-2 year old children are looking at me in utter disbelief, their mouths wide agape.
- 2-4 year old children are also looking at me like I am from another planet, but they also look down to check whether I wearing high heels or cheating in any other way.
- 4-12 year old children are giggling while they are running past me, only to turn around and start giggling again when I recognize them. Some of them also walk next to me und jump up and down to see whether they can jump as high as I am tall.
- Older adolescents are also laughing and pointing at me, and some of them even ask me to take a selfie with them.
I am greeted by old and young, and at times I have an entourage following me. I can’t stop smiling all night. The people here clearly don’t often see tourists.
As I lost one of my shoes the days before, I try to find a new pair. This proves to be quite difficult: no shop has anything above size 44. The vendors only look at my feet and start laughing and shake their head. A little disappointed by my unsuccessful shopping trip I walk back to the hostel, but when I lie down in bed I am still smiling thanks to all these wonderful people.
Day 1 – Thakhek to Thalang
In the morning I get up early to rent a bike. As I withdrew a lot of cash a couple of days ago with the intention of buying a motorbike (only to find out the seller was trying to cheat me right before I was about to hand over the money), I decide to rent a small motorbike instead of a scooter. The only manual bike they have in stock is a Honda MSX with a 125ccm engine – not much but still a lot more than my old Simson S51 (on which I managed to ride 900km back in Germany).
Luckily, I only lost my right shoe and still have the left one, so shifting gears is no problem. I leave my big backpack at Wang Wang and only take my toothbrush, my GoPro, my other camera and a new pair of underpants with me.
The small Honda proves to be a wild little thing, even with its small engine. I top off the tank at the first gas station I see and start to ride west out of town. After a couple of kilometers, a sign points in the direction of Xhang Cave and I take the next exit, only to find myself on a dirt road with big mudholes from the rain of the previous night. I wind myself through them as well as I can and enter a small local village. Cows and chickens cross my way and at some point I see a sign telling me to turn left. Right after the turn I see a river, the water running knee deep. This can’t be the right street. I turn around and continue to drive through the village. As I pass a local school, children come running to the street and wave at me. I drive on for 5 minutes without any further sign. I realize that I’m going in the wrong direction and drive back to the river. I park the bike at the water, take off my shoe and my flipflop and cross the river. 5 minutes later I finally arrive at the bottom of the cave. I pay a small entrance fee and climb up an improvised stairway. My eyes need a couple of seconds to adjust to the darkness.
The cave is filled with statues of fighting soldiers. I climb up another stairway and realize that the whole floor is covered in small, black and crunchy dots. From the blackness above me I suddenly hear familiar sounds. There must be thousands of bats hanging from the ceiling of the cave and I am walking through their poop – barefoot. Well, I have to cross that river to get back to my bike anyway, so – literally – I don’t give a sh**.
Exploring the rest of the cave feels like playing FarCry 4: small rooms, filled with shrines and Buddha statue. The air is filled with the typical scent of incense sticks.
After the Xhang Cave, I decide to visit the Buddha cave. However, as I take a turn into the next dirt road, I quickly overthrow my plans: there are no more mudholes, the whole road simply consists of mud, and I don’t feel like I am able get through that with my little motorbike. I drive back to the main road and continue for a couple of kilometers until a sign announces the next cave.
A small girl tells me to leave my motorcycle next to the road and to follow her. Besides the “stop moto here” she doesn’t speak English, but we are able to communicate with hand and feet. As I try to fight my way through the jungle leading to the cave, she is running in front of me, singing and jumping. At some point she stops to wait for me and uses the time to dig into the ground with her little shovel. Seeing her do this gives me an uneasy feeling, as I am reminded of all the remaining cluster bomb fragments that still can be found all over Laos and that are responsible for several deaths each year.
After the cave, I feel that I have spent enough time exploring and that it is time for some driving in order to get to Thalang by daylight. I push the little Honda to its maximum. The road is good and allows me to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. At first, it is lined by rice fields as far as I can see. Later, the scenery changes as I leave the plateau to climb up the mountains. At the very beginning of a mountain, I spot a hydro power plant, one of the many the government is building in order to sell the produced electricity to the neighboring states. While I am gaining altitude, the temperature drops and I am happy that I brought my sweater. Shortly before sunset I arrive in Thalang. I play multiple rounds of Uno with other guests while enjoying a very delicious BBQ.
Day 2 – Thalang to Konglor
On the second day, I get up early to catch some breakfast. My goal for today is Konglor, a little village named after the cave that can be found right next to it (or the other way around, I don’t know). Except for some Buddha carvings in rock formations lining the road, there is nothing to see. I stop for a cool drink in Lak Sao and encounter Ciarán and Ingride, a couple I’d met the night before at the guesthouse. We decide to visit the cool springs together, but after driving and searching for some time we give up and I continue by myself. Again, I push the little Honda. The condition of the road is no longer as good as it was the day before and I have to pay a lot of attention not to drive through one of the many potholes. At times I stop by the road, simply to take in the beautiful scenery.
At one point, I pass a small sign for the Na Sanam Waterfalls. After paying the guy at the gate a small entrance fee, he tells me to continue riding my motorbike for about 1.5 kilometers and then park it and continue on foot for another 1.5 kilometers. I follow his advice and drive through the forest. There are butterflies everywhere and I have to drive through a small river twice.
As I reach the outskirt of the jungle, a sign tells me to park my motorbike. I continue on foot and am immediately chewed up by mosquitos. Luckily, I brought mosquito spray. After nearly an hour of climbing over rocks, overturned trees and everything else the jungle has to offer, I finally arrive at the waterfalls. I keep on climbing over big rocks and enjoy the cooling effect of the beautiful waterfalls. I’m the only visitor here, no one else has dared to hike through the jungle.
While climbing on a very steep ascent on my way back, my flip flop snaps. Damn, now I have nothing to put on my right foot. I wanted an adventure, here it is: hiking through the jungle with only one shoe.
As I get back to my motorcycle, I test whether I can still use the rear brake with my right foot: not really. After fighting my way back through the jungle – this time with a lot of cows blocking my way (stupid animals, they don’t even react to me honking at them) – I immediately drive to the next village in order to search for some shoes. As I’ve been searching for new shoes the entire time I’ve been in South East Asia, I don’t get my hopes up, but I do find some flip flops that are only a little bit too small, but still enable me to use the rear brake. Happy with my purchase (4 Euro for a pair of flip flops), I continue in the direction of Konglor. As I accelerate on my way out of the village, I am greeted by a gang of four eight-year old boys riding on a motorbike.
On the road to Konglor, I meet Ciarán and Ingride again. Together, we search for a guesthouse and in the evening, we decide to visit the Konglor Cave together the next morning. After a couple of beers and an astonishing sunset, I go to bed.
Day 3 – Konglor to Thakhek
On the third day, I also get up early, as today’s trip is going to be the longest of my three-day tour. We drive to the entrance of the Konglor Cave, buy a ticket and each of us gets a headlamp from the guy at the counter. As we walk into the huge opening of the cave, my eyes need a minute to adjust to the massive blackness and I nearly trip and fall on the muddy pathway leading to the boat landing.
The small canoe takes us deeper into the cave. After about 10 minutes, the section of the cave we’re passing through is suddenly illuminated. We get off the boat and are taken through an underground park of impressive stalactites and stalagmites. At the end, we get into another canoe and continue through very shallow waters. At one point, the boat even touches the ground and we have to get off and push it by hand in order to proceed – a very scary experience considering that you can see absolutely nothing except where the small cone of your headlamp is shining. The way through the cave is approximately 7 kilometers long and consists of multiple, connected small caves. I try taking photos, but because of the massive darkness there’s nothing you can see. This cave really is the highlight of the Thakhek loop, I’ve never seen anything like it before.
The way back to Thakhek continues with the same amazing landscape lining the road. The serpentines leading up and down the little hills are fun to ride and the view from them is spectacular. At times, I stop to take some pictures, but I continue quickly for there’s a long way ahead of me. At noon, I stop at a little restaurant to have some lunch. Looking at the map, I realize that I’ve been making good progress and will be in Thakhek way too early if I continue in the same manner. I decide to squeeze in a visit to the Blue Lagoon.
After one more hour of riding, I spot the brown sign pointing to the Blue Lagoon and take the exit. The road conditions immediately change, and I’m facing a dusty gravel road that stretches as far as I can see. Oh what fun! The massive amount of potholes combined with the ever present danger of slipping on the gravel requires my full attention. The cows, chickens and little children that are roaming the streets don’t make it easier. At one point, the road continues in a steep ascent and the conditions get even worse. I stop and examine the road ahead: deep tracks of 4-wheel drives lined by big rocks with sandy patches and tree bark everywhere. I take out my phone to search for an alternative route, but maps.me tells me that this is the only way to the Blue Lagoon. Well, they wouldn’t have put up a sign for a tourist attraction if it wasn’t possible to get there. I switch to first gear and continue slowly, both feet on the ground. The thought of how I’ll manage to get down here on the way back crosses my mind. I’ll deal with that later.
After 20 minutes of nothing but dirt roads, I arrive at the Blue Lagoon. The water really is blue, but other than that it really isn’t anything special. A couple of local kids come running – as always waving at me and giving me high-fives. While they jump into the water to take a swim (I would have never gone for a swim there), I realize that I’m losing daylight. The thought of riding that road in the dark has me running back to my bike and I head out again. As I reach the point with the steep descent, I get an uneasy feeling in my stomach: I have no idea how to get down there in one piece. I realize that worrying won’t solve my problem, so I switch to first gear again and keep my flip flop tight on the rear break. I don’t know how, but I manage to get down there with only one scare (my front wheel suddenly slid away). Compared to that, the rest of the road is a piece of cake.
With the sun setting behind the horizon, I arrive in Thakhek. 460 km in three days, multiple caves, waterfalls and beautiful landscapes are lying behind me. My ass hurts, but it was totally worth it. I give back the little Honda, grab some food and immediately fall asleep afterwards.