The Thakhek Loop: Exploring Laos
While traveling through Laos, most people go straight from the north to the south. With Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiane at the top, many will take a sleeper bus all the way to the bottom, either Pakse, or directly to the 4000 Islands. And while this might by a great plan for those on a time crunch, you’d be sorely missing out to not take your time. If you seek a cool breeze, friendly locals, and a bit of adventure, then the Thakhek Loop is the destination for you.
The moniker comes from it’s starting point, the village of Thakhek. There, seek out Mr. Ku at the Traveler’s Lodge. Not only is he very knowledgeable about the Loop and the areas you go through, he knows his way around a motorbike. He’ll rent you one for as long as you need, and if you’re not familiar with his semi-automatics, he’ll take the time to show you your way around one. If you’re still not comfortable (and the road ahead can be pretty treacherous, so make sure that you are!) Wang Wang Rentals in town has your pick of the litter of automatics, semis, and manual. The Thakhek Loop is done in a minimum of three days, so make sure you know the ins and outs of your new best friend for the next few days.
Mr. Ku or the staff at rental shop will provide you with a copy casually drawn map, and give you advice on where to stop for the night. The whole Loop is just under 500 kilometers, or about 360 miles. It’s a lot to conquer, though not as tough as it once was. Due to massive construction projects in the area, accommodating for new hydroelectric dams, the stretches of road were reduced to mounds of mud and stacks of rock and rubble. In some areas, the roads can still be a bit tricky, especially in the rainy season.
The Loop can be accomplished in as little as three days, or taken at a leisurely pace at up to a week. There are numerous caves such as Tham Nong Pafa Cave (also known as the Buddha Cave), water falls and swimming spots to stop along the way. The villages you will encounter are small, and English is minimal; this is not the usual tourist track. However, the people here are some of the friendliest you’ll ever meet. The language barrier is blown away by their kindness and helpfulness. Guesthouses along the way, especially the Sala Kong Lor Lodge, are some of the best you’ll experience in all of Laos.
If the friendly people you’ve met along the way and the adventure of the open road weren’t enough, the scenery is sure to steal your heart. Mountains are always just off in the distance, creating an instantly beautiful backdrop. Steep, rocky cliff faces melt into local towns, and fade back out into winding roads through lush jungle terrain. The real star of the show is in the last leg, Konglor Cave.
A seven kilometer long cave, the only way to get through is by chartering a motorized long boat. A maximum of three people can split a boat, and while bringing a torch is a good idea, it may not do you any good. It’s incredible that the drivers are able to maneuver their way. Flip flops are the prefered footwear, because in shallower areas you will be expected to hop out and help push. The caverns, while pitch black in some areas, truly are hauntingly beautiful and serene.