Having left Luang Prabang, I was looking forward to meet Chris and Dolph again. Our plan was to meet in Thakhek where we would base ourselves to go on a 3 day motorbike tour – the renowned Thakek Loop. Before getting there, I first had to take a horrible bus ride though… probably the worst one so far. The bus completely overloaded, me being stuck in one of the worst seats of the bus, oven like temperatures, no aircon and two bus breakdowns including the odd pushing to get the engine started again. Completely exhausted, I made it to Thakhek where the guys had fortunately already arranged accommodation. It felt great to see the guys again. We went out for some drinks and dinner and discussed how to best do the loop. Our itinerary set, I rented the bike for the next day, this time a Chinese Model – a Zongshen 125cc. We were set and stoked to go and I was happy to be on the road again soon.
Leg 1: Thakhek to Nakai (100 Km)
We set off early to get out of Thakhek quickly. On the way to our planned overnight stop Ban Thalang there were supposed to be a few very interesting caves which we wanted to explore. At that point we didn’t know that we wouldn’t make it to Ban Thalang that day. We left the road 12 for our first cave Tham Pha Canh. Chris has a Go Pro camera which shoots excellent action films having it mounted onto his helmet. He started to film as we were going down a very dusty dirt road lined by impressive karst formations. It was sunny outside, the wind blowing into our faces and we were happy to ride together. The ride to the cave was about 20km and we passed only a few little villages on the way and even less cars and fellow bike riders.
I was a little ahead when I turned around and saw Chris lying on the ground with his bike beside him. I instantly turned around to see if he was ok and find out what happened. Apparently he tried to avoid a deep pothole and braked a little too hard. The rest was just skidding and falling. Fortunately he only got a few rashes on his legs and arms which looked worse than they actually were. The bike was alright too and after a bit of recovery time for Chris we continued our journey. We were warned though and kept it easy, going more slowly and driving carefully.
We finally arrived at the Tham Pha Canh Cave and were greeted by an enormous entrance to the huge cave. The cave was cathedral like with a small pool of water inside. The cave didn’t go deep into the rock but impressed by its sheer height. We took off again to make some kilometers before our lunch stop. After only about 5 minutes the next tragedy happened. Dolf’s bike broke down in the middle of nowhere. We tried everything but couldn’t get it to work again. The heat was unbearable and just when we were thinking about what to do, a pickup truck with other tourists came by. We asked the driver if he would load the bike and drop us off at the nearest repair shop. We were so relieved when he agreed to drop us off about 3km further. The repair was luckily done quickly but the whole intermezzo cost us quite a bit of time. We rushed to the next road stop which was situated to the next cave we wanted to visit, Tham Xieng Liap. This one was difficult to find and before giving up on it, some local kids happily agreed to guide us. This cave was even more impressive than the first, reaching deep into the karst and a good sized stream flowing through it. We climbed over rocks and boulders to make it to the other end. The exit looked like a gate to another world and we took the chance to rest for a bit. I took a quick dip in the pool inside the cave before we had the kids lead us out of the cave again. Giving them a small tip we said good bye and hit the road again.
On the way from another attraction on the way, a big and crystal blue lake in the middle of nowhere, Dolf realized that smoke was coming out of his exhaust. To be on the safe side, we pulled over by the next repair shop to have it checked. After a good half an hour, me and Chris decided to start ahead and take some pictures of the now already setting sun. The plan was to meet Dolf at the gas station in the next town. Plans don’t always work out the way you want and we actually waited for a whole hour before Dolf finally arrived. He had to get a brand new Muffler and some other parts exchanged. So we were stuck about 40 km from our overnight stop and it was pitch dark out. You don’t want to drive at that time of the day in Laos with people driving around drunk a lot but we had to make some kilometers in order to make the loop as planned. The next hour was driving convoy along a very windy and steep road with us honking before every bend, hoping not to get run over. It was a definite rush and we safely made it to Nakai where we spent our first night on the Thakhek Loop.
Leg 2: Nakai to Ban Konglor (184 km)
We knew the next day would be a lot of driving and a big stretch of that would be sand and dirt road. We got up early, got a hearty breakfast at a Belgian restaurant and hit the road again. The first 15-20 km were still nice, with a sealed road going along a big reservoir which belongs to the local hydropower plant. The change of scenery was dramatic coming from huge and pointy karst hills to green jungle and the reservoir nearby. The reservoir was created not long ago with a lot of villages getting flooded during the process. Standing by the water, looking at the flooded forest and thinking about this left us with a gloomy feeling. Shortly after we approached the notorious dirt road. The first part was still ok to drive but that changed very quickly. The road was in the process of being reconstructed and heavy construction machinery was used along parts of the way. The surface changed from being muddy and slippery to being dusty, rocky and covered with deep potholes. Some parts were actually so bad, that we could only drive in second gear and were still having problems. Especially the dust was taking its toll on us. Every time a car or truck passed by, we got covered in a big cloud of dust making it hard to breathe and see. By the end of this stretch, we were almost completely covered in yellow dust. After those 70 km we were already exhausted but wanted to make it to Ban Konglor, our overnight stop. Luckily the second stretch was much better with a properly paved road leading through mountains and up steep hills. It actually reminded me a little bit of the Mae Hong Song Loop in Thailand. We pulled into Ban Konglor in the evening with the sun setting behind us and our shadows in front of us. It was a nice ride which made for the earlier efforts. We checked into a nice guesthouse which was run by a very friendly family. We spent the evening watching tv with their two kids, laughing a lot and just having a good time. It had a touch of normal life which we appreciated after having travelled for a long time already.
Leg 3: Ban Konglor to Thakhek (180 km)
Chris and I got up early that day to walk around the village and take some pictures. Everyone around was already up and busy and the first kids rode their bicycles to school. The sun was just rising above the surrounding karst mountains, dipping the village and rice paddies along the way in light blue tones getting brighter and brighter. Back at our place we got the family’s kids to wake up Dolf which made for a good laugh. After breakfast we played some more with them, giving them rides on our motorbikes, brushing teeth together and taking funny pictures. It was good fun but the reason we came for was to explore Tham Konglor, a huge cave with a big river flowing through it located near the village. We left the guesthouse and got to the cave to arrange a boat driver. The river running through the cave is so big, that you have to take small motorized longboats to go through it. That boat ride alone takes up to 30 minutes which gives an impression of how big that cave is. Inside we went from one hall bigger than the other and going along the river passing partly illuminated formations of stalactites and stalagmites. It was absolutely impressive. Most parts were pitch dark though only being illuminated by the shine of our headlights. The entrance and exit were amazing with the jungle on the outside and the natural light shining deep into the cave. Until that point the Konglor Cave was the most impressive cave for me – that alone was already worth the trip.
We got back to our homestay, said goodbye to our new friends and left for Thakhek. The first stretch was still scenic and interesting to drive. The following and longest stretch of that day was mostly straight and pretty boring without much to see. It makes the riding very tiring and we had to stop a few times to recover. We made it to Thakhek in the late evening and it was dark already again. We were tired but happy and ended the day with a round of beer lao and some western food which were craving for long.
The loop was very eventful and actually lots of bad things happened on the way. Chris crashed his bike, Dolf’s bike broke down and I lost my iphone on the way. We all had our share but it was still a great trip. The scenery and our time with the family in Ban Konglor definitely made up for everything. I can also say that riding in a group is more fun than riding alone as I did on the Mae Hong Song Loop. It was more of an easy rider feeling and even if bad things happened, we always were able to cheer each other up again. I really enjoyed it a lot and it made me think about the concept of traveling alone.
In terms of riding, those 3 days were more exhausting for me than the 7 day loop in Thailand. The roads were worse which just costs you a lot of energy. We also had to cover fairly big distances which added to this. Nevertheless it was a great experience and we decided to do another bike loop afterwards – in and around the Bolaven Plateau.
PS: We did the Bolaven Plateau by motorbike afterwards starting from Paxe. I won’t cover this on the blog but if you want some info on it, just drop me a line.