Picture riding through the hillside of Laos, the sun on your back, the wind in your hair, a perfect day for riding. When suddenly, a semi trailer comes heading straight towards you, with nowhere to go...
The Thakhek loop is a 450 km loop stretching through the south west of Laos. The ride will take you through picturesque landscapes, rural villages, creepy caves and freshwater cool springs. The journey begins and ends in the small town of Thakhek, where you can rent motorbikes and leave your large travel bags in safe hands, making the 3-4 day ride simple and easy.
Arriving in Thakhek, I stepped off the bus, mentally exhausted from the 11 hour ride from Don Det. I didn’t care how much the Tuk Tuk into town was going to cost me. I just needed a place to breathe clearly and smell something other than rotting durain. Drew, my old mate from Cambodia, was waiting for Cynthia and I in the city centre.
We dropped our bags down, in our little room and headed out for some food. That night we began planning our attack for the Thakhek loop. The hostel owner at Wang Wang had an organised map, with ideas on places to go and see. We combined Wang Wangs ideas with some of our own and conjured up a plan of attack for the next morning.
We were up and packing once the sun hit our room. A small day bag is all you will need for the next 4 days. Take something warm, even if the weather looks beautiful and sunny. The nights can be brutally cold. Pack a first aid kit, because you don’t know what will happen and remember, you have a small storage compartment inside your motorbike. Perfect for an extra few things like a camera or spare jumper.
Wang Wangs has a selection of almost 30 motorbikes to choose from. I selected a Yamaha Spark 125cc, which was going to set me back around 70,000 kip per day. It was brand new, with less than 1000kms on the clock. Drew went for the 250cc dirt bike and Cynthia opted for the white fully automatic Honda. Prices vary according to your bike selection and there is an option to save a few dollars if need be. I preferred the idea of having something new that would probably not break down on me.
With the sun almost at its peak, we set off, making a great early pace as we rode out of the town. Finally making ground, big smiles spread across our faces, everything was looking perfect, when disaster hit us. A semi-trailer began veering onto the wrong side of the road, heading straight for us. With no where to go we had to react quickly, the truck forced us onto a gravel pathway at high speed. Drew, leading the pack, came closest to being smashed by the full force of the truck. As he attempted to control his bike, it slipped out underneath him, throwing him onto the ground. "Fuck! Fuck!" he screamed, pain and shock setting in. I ran over to his side, checking to see how he was. He stood up, visibly in pain. Grazes to the hand, knee and foot, plus an exhaust burn to the right leg left him bleeding and bruised. We took him aside instantly.
With gravel now under his skin, Cynthia and I did our best to clean him up. A few of the local ladies came rushing out to help, offering water and antiseptic cream. Drew was only thinking about continuing on, despite the fall. Unfortunately he was no longer able to shift gears, due to the rolled ankle and now severely grazed foot. I rode his bike back into town, swapping it for a fully automatic. As I pulled up to Wang Wangs, the owner looked at me, his expression said, what the fuck happened to my bike and is everyone ok. I looked him in the eye and coolly said, "my friend came off, he is OK, can I swap this for another one?" He looked at me, laughed and handed me the keys to a different bike.
When I returned, the locals had Drew seated on a blanket, with pillows all around. I don't know how he was still able to move, but he got up and said, "I'm fine, lets keep going." His injuries limited our activities for the first day, but he made the effort to join us the entire way.
We spent the rest of the day adventuring through caves and stopping for photos as the city slipped by. The mountain ranges forming in the distance and before we knew it the landscape had completely transformed.
We continued on, meeting a few local kids, playing around with them and their kites, while enjoying the sites. As the sun began to set on the first day, we pushed our bikes a little harder, Cynthia leading charge on our way to Sa-Ba-Dee guest house.
After 110 km, loads of sun and injuries, we sat back, took in the sunset and finally relaxed.
I cleaned up Drew's wounds once again, trying to clean any leftover dirt and stones left in his hands and knee. His ankle began to swell but after a few beers we had a laugh about the whole situation. In agonising pain, he still managed to keep a smile on his face.
On day two, you will be looking at around 150 plus kilometre ride to Konglor. Almost four hours of great conditions. No people or traffic, plenty of places to stop off for a break and even a swim. The scenery transforms into deep green, with mountains blocking out the horizon on all sides. Once again the sun was out, providing us with sublime riding conditions.
I had Drew cleaned up, disinfected and patched up by 9.30, then off we set. The road out of the guest house instantly begins to turn your head, as you begin crossing dammed forests, winding through some thrilling hairpin turns and up through the mountainside, we were pulling over for shots every ten minutes.
After approximately 50kms the roadswere suddenly surrounded by dense jungle, the temperature dropped quickly, feeling as though it had suddenly become winter. The first destination of the day was the cool springs. After a hard morning ride, we made our way through the open plains, heading straight for the mountain towering over us. Just before the base of the mountains, a small opening gives way to a natural cool spring, rising from under the surface. Its blues and greens were tantalising and I immediately stripped down and jumped straight into the water. I warn you, it is a little too refreshing. Looking around and soaking in my surroundings created a huge smile to my face. The towering mountains all around, the turquoise waters creating an incredible contrast, it was a photographers heaven.
I took one last glance behind me, before we headed away from the cool springs and left the mountainside in my dust.
Our aim was to make it to Konglor cave. Little did we know the last boat tour through the cave, sets out at 4 pm. The way things were looking, we would not make to Konglor cave in time. I had no intention of seeing any caves today. Riding for so many hours does horrible things to your body, especially your butt.
Arriving finally in Konglor village, we spent 15 minutes searching for a guesthouse we had heard good things about, guesthouse number 7. We decided to check it out. A traditional Laos homestay, squat toilet, hard beds and limited wifi. I was thrilled to be staying in this shanty little home, I felt as thought I was truly in rural Laos. We threw our things upstairs, stretched our legs before refreshing with a tall bottle of BeerLao, perfect.
The night passed us by, as we sat around playing Uno and shooting shots of the local whisky. The homestay was now full, with travellers from all over the world coming together in the common area. The more everyone drank, the louder we became. Winner had the rights of delegating shots to whoever they chose. Needless to say, people were getting drunk very quickly and karma always came back around.
Up early, I stumbled downstairs, greeted by fried rice for breakfast, almost the same meal as dinner. Guest house number 7 was a lovely stay, this traditional Laos guest house was quite enjoyable for me, costing only 50,000 kip for breakfast, dinner and accommodation. The owner gave everyone who stayed a bracelet, saying a prayer as he tied it to our wrists.
Today we would finally embark on Konglor cave, the sun was shining, the breeze perfect. A wonderful day for some exploring.
Konglor Cave is a kahst limestone cave, located in Phu Hin Bun National Park, approximately 130 kms from Thakhek. The Nam Hin Bun River flows directly through the cave, meaning the only way through, is on a small tour boat that will cost 100,000 Kip between three people. The cave is approximately 7km long and almost almost 90 meters wide and high in most places.
Unfortunately for us, all the power was off inside, making it impossible to take photos. As much as it sucked, I thought we were having a rare experience. How many people were able to go inside with the lights off? It created a frightening atmosphere. The spots from our head torches was the only thing lighting the inside of the cave. Darkness surrounded us, small torch dots flickered all around as we attempted to catch sight of anything moving inside. The cave floor was impossible to see and with our driver steering like crazy, we almost came out of the boat on a few occasions. He pushed it a little too close to the embankments, hitting them on a few occasions. I was sent out of my seat, crashing back down into the boat.
Being inside this cave was like stepping back in time. It felt as though we were in the perfect setting for a horror movie. With no light, no idea where we were headed, combined with almost falling out of the boat, meant this whole place gave me the creeps. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience though. I'd like to imagine the lights will be on next time, so don't worry too much about experiencing Konglor Cave like I did . Still, it was amazing to cruise through the cave, even in the darkness.
As we came out the other end, we could really appreciate the size of the beast, soaking up some sun and visiting the local village for a quick pit stop.
We set off back home, choosing to return to Sabaidee guesthouse rather then take the freeway back. Leaving at around 1.30 pm, we knew we would be cutting it short on daylight, basically flying back home. The sunset on the way back created the perfect riding conditions. My little 125 was working her socks off to take me home, sitting on 110kms she was screaming and shaking like crazy, getting me back to the hostel in one piece before the sun finally set.
The other alternative to Thakhek, is to take the ride along the freeway, which I heard is incredibly boring and risky, with two police checkpoints pulling people over. A few friends of mine narrowly escaped the clutches of the police, when returning to Thakhek via the highway. The fines can set you back around 100,000 kip.
On day four, we made it back to Thakhek. Thankfully, everyone had survived. Drew headed to the hospital to have his grazes re-dressed. The poor guy required some serious attention when we got back. His hand was in bad shape, requiring a doctor to cut out a chunk of his hand due to infection, poor guy. Remember, my tip from doctor Fadi, keep those grazes dry. It's almost better then medication.
Overall the journey was a marvellous experience. From the kharst mountain landscapes, blue cool springs, wonderful happy locals and the endless open roads made the Thakhek loop a must do for all riding enthusiasts.
Respect the roads or they will leave you in some serious pain.
Choose your bike carefully. It may be worth spending the extra 5-6 dollars to have something that will take care of you.
DO NOT USE YOUR FRONT BREAKS ON GRAVEL SURFACES! This is the most common mistake that throws riders off their bikes. Use your front breaks only when you're headed in a straight line and breaking into corners. If you must use them while turning or on gravel just tap them, never lock on, or you will fly off your bike or suffer under-steer and slide off.
Take warm clothes, even in the summer time. Temperatures were dropping to around 5 degrees Celsius in November.
Be aware of the road conditions. Keep a keen eye out on the road. Most of the roads we covered were in immaculate condition but potholes would appear out of nowhere almost throwing you off your bike at high speeds.
Traffic will always come into your lane if their side of the road is damaged. Drew's accident was all because the truck driver didn't want to drive over some pot holes. Just think everyone is trying to hit you and you will be fine.
Look at all the possible places to stop and plan your journey. Remember if google says 3 hours to get somewhere, it will always take an extra hour or so.
Happy travels guys.