Laos Travellog Part III: The Loop


Motorbiking in Laos

Laos Countryside

Laos Countryside

One of our most fun adventures to date, in my opinion, was this 4-day motorbike loop that we undertook outside of Tha Khaek, Laos. A popular and well-know circuit, the adventure starts in the small city of Tha Khaek, and circles a few hundred kilometers around, passing through numerous villages, rice paddies, and an endless amount of stunning scenery. We went on this little adventure accompanied by Sandra, a German girl traveling on her own, and the three of us had a great little adventure on our rented, fully automatic, real-Honda 100cc bikes – this distinction is important, in light of the fact that most bikes you can rent are low-quality Chinese bikes that are as likely as not to break down, and for inexperienced bikers like myself, the fully-automatic feature was helpful (although I have managed a semi-automatic successfully).

The first day of the loop was pretty easy riding, on nice paved roads that wound through some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen. Dramatic, rocky mountains rose up around us, covered in lush greenery, and we had a surprisingly clear day, having mostly dealt with a haze created by the constant burning in the countryside (slash and burn farming). It was tough not to stop every 5 minutes to take more pictures.

Laos the Energy Provider

By late morning, we arrived at an area where the Nam Theun 2 hydropower dam had drastically altered the countryside. We stopped at the visitor’s centre to learn more, and certainly it is an interesting project, providing carbon-cleaner energy primarily to Thailand. But you could also see the destruction it had imposed on the landscape – on one side of the road, beautiful, untouched jungle, and on the other, a massive lake filled with dead trees where the damming of the river had flooded the valley. With growing energy demands in Asia, Laos has taken on quite a number of damming projects to provide this electricity to it’s hungry neighbours, and though I do think it’s better in the long run than burning fossil fuels, one can only imagine the long term effects of this kind of disruption to fish and other wildlife.


Our first night's stop - lovely in the evening, less nice in the morning of rain

Our first night’s stop – lovely in the evening, less nice in the morning of rain

When we had been sitting in Tha Khaek planning our loop trip and reading the book of other traveler’s experiences, we had shunned the idea that we needed warm clothes – when you haven’t experienced temperatures below 25 degrees celsius in nearly a month, it’s very difficult to believe that you will ever be cold again. And certainly, being at the end of the dry season, we did not expect rain, at least not more than the short 20 min showers we’d had a couple of times.

So we were shocked when, after spending a lovely evening (in a power outage, by a campfire) in Thalang village, the rain started coming down in the morning, accompanied by strong winds, and didn’t let up until 2pm. We were completely taken by surprise, and sat with 3 other stranded travellers playing cards, feeling cold and annoyed at being unable to leave. When the rain finally did let up, our little scooter gang of 3 took off, trying to make it as far as we could before dark.

Mud, mud and more mud…

The rain, of course, turned what we had expected to be a very dusty stretch of road into – surprise surprise – a muddy one. We had been prepared to have a stretch of bad roads, a part of the loop that is under construction and is really only red dirt. While others had warned us of deep dust holes, we were faced with deep mud, no traction, and a lot of cursing.

Marcy struggles with her bike on a muddy turn

Marcy struggles with her bike on a muddy turn

Sandra, experienced with riding scooters in Germany, sailed through the stretch of road, and we didn’t see her again until the end. Marcy was the first to go down, losing her grip on her bike and sliding sideways. I went down a little while later. Luckily, we were travelling at less than 1km/hour, so injury was never a concern, just extreme frustration and very muddy shoes as we repeatedly spun our wheels trying to get up hills, and slid sideways going down. If it hadn’t been for a friendly older local man (with few teeth, zero English, and wearing flip-flops), who took turns pushing Marcy’s bike then pushing mine to get us through the deeper spots, Marcy and I may have just given up and slept by the side of the road.

But the Lao man did get us through, we we happily bought him and his friends a couple beers at the village at the end of the terrible road, where we used sign language to have minimal conversation and lots of laughter. We didn’t linger long, because we still had a lot of kilometers to cover before dark, so we left them to their beer and road a cold, bumpy and tiring hour or two to the very uninspiring town of Lak Sao, arriving grumpy and exhausted.

Unfound Spring

Where's the spring, huh?

Where’s the spring, huh?

The weather was in our favour the rest of the trip, and we left the next morning on nicer roads. Our morning destination was a place called Cool Springs. I had directions: travel 34km past Lak Sao, look for a sign pointing to a village 3km away, drive all the way to the river at the base of the mountains, then follow the path to the springs. Sounds easy, right? We got as far as the river OK, where we parked our bikes and waded across the muddy river. But at the other side, we couldn’t find a sign of a path. We wacked our way through low, sparse brush for about 20 min, looking for the path, and were about to give up when I found it – pretty obvious path, but we’d crossed the river at the wrong point. OK, so now we were on the path, walking through dry, cracked farm fields, along the side of the mountain, but we could not find the stupid springs! Not a sign of water anywhere around the mountains. An hour and a half after starting out, we returned to our bikes. It was a lovely walk, but no springs!

Konglor Cave

Konglor Cave

Konglor Cave

One of the loop’s highlights, besides the stunning scenery, is the Konglor Cave. It is 7.5km long, and you travel through it in a boat, with 2 guides and flashlights. Knowing our camera would never do it justice, I have borrowed this image from Itchy Feet on the Cheap, who also has some other great pictures of the area.

We arrived in the village by the cave in late afternoon, too late for a boat, but the perfect time for a swim in the lake at the mouth of the cave, full of clear water and striped fish. We had a lovely stay in the village of Kong Lor, at the Enjoy Boy Guesthouse (yes, interesting name), and we found the village friendly with eager, smiling children.

Our boat trip through the cave in the morning was fascinating, with beautiful formations that have been lit up, and otherwise passing through darkness in the vast cave for nearly an hour. Going against the current in dry season, with the river low, there were a few small rocky rapids when we had to step out of the boat while the driver and assistant dragged the boat over the rocks, and once we had to join in to help pull the boat over rocks. We arrived at a small refreshment area under dramatic mountains on the other side of the cave, where we rested for 15 min before jumping back in the long wooden boat for the trip back. It was a great little adventure, and not at all scary! I say that because caves make me nervous…

Last Leg

Our final day was a long day of driving as we traveled the 200km back to Tha Khaek, half of that along the main road. While traffic in Laos is generally much less than places like Vietnam and Canada, and there were long stretches where we were the only ones on the road, there were still big trucks that made us nervous as they passed by us and each other. But we made it back completely unscathed, high-fiving our great and injury-free adventure.

Traffic jam in Laos

Traffic jam in Laos

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