This was one of our absolute highlights of travelling the world thus far. When we moved from London to Australia in 2009 we sold everything and put our remaining belongings on our backs and headed into South East Asia. We had no date of arrival in Australia so we had the true luxury of taking as much time as we wanted to get there. This meant we had more than a month each in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – which was the perfect way to do it – getting more and more off the beaten track and less and less tourists.
As we were living in Kuala Lumpur and my best mate and head chef is living in Singapore we have been trying to meet around Asia as much as possible. He recently needed a reason to throw his job in and embark on a new role – so I said “throw it all in and meet me in Laos”. He did just that and that’s how we both showed up in Vientiane (Best Food, Best Drinks, Best Things to Do). But we didn’t come to Laos to wander the world’s most sleepy capital city – we came to do what is now known as the Thakhek Loop.
It used to be something that could only do by scooter (this was 4 years ago) but now a few operators have cottoned on that people may want to travel in luxury to see one of Asia’s most amazing natural wonders. I warn you – don’t do this.
You will need to travel to Thakhek from Vientiane. That means booking a bus that leaves from the Southern Bus Station and cost 100,000 Kip (AU$12) that leaves at 1pm everyday which includes a pick up . Or should include a pick up – as we found out when the guesthouse told us at 12.50pm.
Side note: everything in Loas is relaxed so you’re not sure when to start panicking that your pick up hasn’t arrived and you’re told not to worry that the guesthouse is the last stop before heading to the station. Well We got the to ring up to find out where it was – to then be let with blank stares and being told that they had forgotten us.
After some fist slamming on the reception desk they got their arses into gear and LUCKILY found out there was another bus to leave at 5pm. We were livid but as we had the trip planned perfectly we needed to be in Thakhek on the same day. We headed off to the waterfront to drink one buck Beer Lao and arrived back to the guesthouse at 4pm and told them to ring the bus guy to ensure he was coming otherwise we were commandeering our own tuk tuk (which we should have done originally). About to kick off again the taxi bus to the station turned up at 4.45 and got us to the station by 5pm. Asking what time the bus left – we found out it wasn’t 5pm but actually 6pm – smart move by the guesthouse guys to get us out of their hair.
It’s a 6 hour journey so stock up on banh mi and water as there’s only one stop on the way down and it’s about 4 hours in. The VIP Bus is pretty gangster – the one we travelled with has a karaoke booth downstairs and a blasting sound system upstairs that constantly played Laos hits (which revolve around couples who are apart trying to make contact by phone or dancing in sweatshops or rice paddy fields).
Arriving in Thakhek you will need to stay overnight. I suggest staying at the Thakhek Travellodge for ease of access to Mr Ku’s Scooter hire the next morning.
We arrived at 1am and reception was still awake so we were able to score a room for 70,000 kip (AU$7) and were awake bright and early to get a scooter and be on our way.
You can’t get lost as Laos is in reality a one horse highway with little to no cars. Your jaw will drop once you get out of town and find yourself surrounded by karst mountains, rice paddies and fisherfolk. It’s worth taking the time to visit the caves that are on this leg of the journey.
Of the 5 caves we suggest visiting Xiang Liab Cave where a local guide and his kid named Bum will take you into the cave. Best utilise them as you wouldn’t have any idea where to find the cave if you tried doing it yourself. All up it takes about an hour and will only cost you a dollar. This is where you now push onto the next town for lunch.
Stock up on pho, beer, water – all up it cost us less than AU$3. Next comes the mountain stage where you should take the time to stop and sop up the scenery and once you get to Nakai stop for a well earnt Beer Lao break as if you left by around 9am you still have plenty of time. Head to the information centre at the intesection of town as they have local scarves and dresses for purchase and you know the money will go straight back to the community – and a scarf is well worth having once you get to the really dusty parts of the journey.
Fill up with petrol in this town too as you now have a head on journey to Tha Lang Village. Realise you may accidentally pass straight through the village if you don’t have your wits about you – so if you come to a dam crossing you need to go back a few minutes and pick a lodging for the night. There’s only 2 options to stay in – we chose Phosy Thalang Guesthouse, very basic but super cheap to just lay your head down and be ready for an early start time or you could stay at Saibadee Guesthouse, but is much more costly. Dinner is to be had in the only place in town but her pho is great and it’s a real locals only experience.
Up early – we suggest 7am, and head back to where you had dinner for another dose of pho for breakfast (AU$3) because you’re going to hind a little apprehension on this first part of the ride especially after being told that the guys travelling the opposite way on motorbikes spent most of the day in ditches or toppled over.
Even though we had no rain the mud was horrendous and we waited until la local drove through on their bike so we could follow their line through the 40cm deep water covering the slipperiest mud you have ever encountered. One false move or pulling the plug half way though would mean disaster with us, our bike and our precariously balanced backpacks going straight in the mud.
The ride opens up after this into an amazing valley. People search all over the world for journeys like this one but never find it. This was easily the best days riding we ever had – limestone cliffs, more rice paddies broken up by new roads.
Stop at the daily market in Laksao to grab some photos and nibbles for the journey. This is where Mr Ku suggests you stop here for the night but once you get here you will see why you would want to push through this noisy border town.
At the top of the hill before you descend into the final leg to Kong Lor you will see Lookout Point and just behind it on the other side of the road there’s a small waterfall where you can wash the orange dirt that will no doubt find it’s way into every crevice.
Lunch is at Sianamhai Resort – turn at the guard tower and just follow the road for about 4km and you can’t miss it. This place is owned by a UK guy who runs his own motorbike tours. Order up and I suggest not missing out on the amazing spring rolls.
Back on the main road, you take a right at the service station and you have 20 km of powerlines which then turn off and you are left with the final 20km stretch of silence, kids waving, workers in rice paddies all sandwiched into a tight little valley into Kong Lor.
Lucky for us we have arrived the night before a full moon which aligned itself to the final day of Buddha’s Lent. We were one of the only white boys in the village to be able to partake in this massive party at the local temple. Locals invited us onto their tables and plied us with food, drink and dancing before the town lit an effigy and the local boys started flinging cherry bombs into the crowd. It will be the closest I will ever get to a war zone and not knowing where the enemy are firing from.
Arrving in town I noticed that Kong Lor has changed. Previously there were only 3-4 guesthouses but in the few years since our last visit 10-15 more have sprung up. We chose to stay at Phounsouk Guesthouse as it was only halfway built. Once this officially opens it will alter the look of the village completely as the owner is installing a Japanese style restaurant and bar.
This is finally a chance to sleep in, get up for a noodle breakfast and head down to the fabled Kong Lor Cave. It’s at the end of the road and it 3000 kip for scooter access, 2000 kip per person plus 120 000 kip for the boat journey – so about $18 all up but if you can convince another 2 people into your boat then the price will halve.
Konglor Cave, a nearly eight kilometre long cave with a river running through it, is no ordinary cave and no ordinary river. This will be one of the highlights of your life. I’m not going to spoil it there but I suggest borrowing one of the minor torches as no matter how strong you think your torch or headlamp is – it really isn’t once you get inside.
As local celebrations were still in full swing we were able to watch the local longboat races with the village from the other side of the cave. Again – a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Depending if you spend a few nights in Kong Lor (which I strongly suggest you do as it’s one of the most serene places you’ll ever find yourself in. Otherwise it’s a steady ride back to Thakhek on the mainly straight an boring highway.
You might also be interested in our other Vientiane + Laos features:
- The Great Food Escape Series: 8 Essential Places to Eat in Vientiane, Laos.
- The Great Food Escape Series: 8 Best Places to Drink in Vientiane, Laos.
- The Great Food Escape Series: Best Things to Do in Vientiane, Laos.
- The Great Food Escape Series: Scootering the Thakhek Loop in Laos.