This has safely been one of my South East Asian highlights, and the crazy thing is I wasn’t going to do it. It meant deviating from my ‘only ride a scooter on an island’ rule, to riding one for 500kms around Central Laos. Spending 4 days riding through beautiful scenery – sign me up any day!
Getting to Tha Khaek meant we had to get from the 4000 islands roughly 500kms north. Easy enough, right? The first leg was a boat – easy. The second leg was a bus to a transit hub called Pakse. This bus, which should be condemned to a scrap heap, broke down in the middle of nowhere but the driver doubles up as a mechanic and got us back on the road in no time. Upon arrival in Pakse, we hopped onto a local bus to Tha Khek. What was meant to be a 9 hour journey became a 12 hour one, squeezed into a bus with 100 tonnes of cucumbers and spinach. Our bags were stored in the on board toilet, along with someones stock of lettuce. Quite an experience.
When we eventually arrived in Tha Khaek, we walked the 3 kms to the hostel at 11:30pm. I was hoping for an oasis that was comfortable and clean but sadly, I got neither of these 2 things. We stayed in the Tha Khaek Travellers Lodge. It’s basic as hell and the staff are colder than war time morticians. Nonetheless, it’s a convenient place to start the loop, which at this point in my life, I wasn’t convinced I’d be doing yet.
Roll on the next day, and some over-analysing and over-thinking (which I’m notorious for), I knew I’d regret not doing the loop. At this point, my new mate Dean and I had sourced 3 other travellers with which to do the loop and off we went to the local scooter hire shop and rented some bikes. We rented our bikes from Wang Wang in the centre of town for 80,000 Kip a day plus an additional 20,000 Kip per day for insurance. Although, calling it insurance is a farce as it doesn’t cover theft and you have to pay 30% of whatever the damage is anyway. More self-insurance I guess and paranoia is a real thing so we signed up for it. It must be said that none of us had any issues with our bikes though.
Day one of the loop entails a roughly 100km journey past some caves which we skipped as we only left after mid day and didn’t want to be riding at night. Frankly speaking, the Konglor Cave is the only cave I was really interested in seeing so missing some of the smaller caves on day one wasn’t a biggie for me. The roads are in great condition 95% of the time. The only real obstacles you’ll encounter are some potholes and the odd cow and dog on the road (which do not give way).
We started the loop in a counter clockwise direction, which I’d encourage you to do as well if you are keen to do it. Our first night was spent at a brilliant guesthouse called Sabadee. It’s really cheap at 25,000 Kip a night (just over $3) and they do a barbecue every night which was great considering I was self-digesting at that point. The last hour of the ride there is stunning as the sun was slowly setting and the scenery really came alive in that golden hour. What added to the experience were the windy roads and cool breeze after a hot day on the road. It’s really, really beautiful.
Roll on the next day, we had another 100 or so kilometres in front of us, which began with some pretty windy, steep roads but nothing a little bit of patience and caution can’t handle. You wouldn’t want to go fast anyway as you’ll miss out on some incredible scenery.
Our plan was to stop at the ‘Dragon Cave’ but for love or money, we couldn’t find the blasted thing. After giving up on that, we made our way to the Cool Springs – a natural swimming pool of sorts with really cold, fresh clear water and had a well-needed swim to cool down. The pool isn’t the easiest to find so I’d encourage you to ask your guesthouse exactly how to get to it.
On your way there, you’ll pass many local monks – makes for a good photo opportunity although I was relying on my iPhone as I’d left my big camera back in Tha Khaek thanks to space constraints. We stayed in a guesthouse called Sanhak that evening and I’d also recommend it. It’s really well-run and affordable. It’s location is perfect to begin the next day when you head to the Konglor Cave.
The cave itself is a 45 odd kilometre journey from the guesthouse on some good roads (98% sealed; 2% dirt). The cave is massive – we hired a boat and passed through the 7km long cave in mostly pitch black. It was an incredible experience and I’m amazed at how the boat driver navigated around the interior. I could hardly see a thing with my little head lamp! If you’re not keen on doing the loop, I’d really encourage you to get to the cave nonetheless as it’s remarkable. The sheer scale of it will boggle your mind. We spent our third night back at the Sanhak Guesthouse in an attempt to reduce our return journey by 40kms the next day.
Day 4 is a commute day – it entailed a 145km trip back to Tha Khaek to return the bikes. The road back is unremarkable. By Laos standards, it’s a highway but in South African standards, I’d call it a really good country road.
Southern and Central Laos are unfairly overlooked. I understand why given time constraints and the excitement that the north holds but I can honestly say that my experience in the south and central bits have been amazing! If you have the time, make sure to head there!