There are road trips and then there are road trips… this the latter. Although merely a 3 – 4 day loop, the majestic views and the multitude of caves and villages to be explored make it a must for anyone traveling through Laos.
We at The Tipsy Gypsies have a great appreciation for temples, museums and guided tours but after so many months on the road, what really tickles our pickle, are trips that involve adventure and allows for the amazingness that is known as, The Unexpected.
Although we have embarked on far more adventurous journeys such as driving a rickshaw across India, or exploring remote villages in the Himalayas, we were thoroughly excited when we arrived in the town of Thakhek and picked out our rides for this journey. Marta had never ridden a motorcycle before yet she already knew her favorite of the two wheel family, is the dirt bike. Therefor it was natural that we rent a Kawasaki 150cc for her to get her feet wet. Since this was a learning experience, we decided our second bike would be an easy, cruising, fully auto, Honda scooter. That way we could take turns on the more rugged, not designed for road trips Kawasaki, and after a few hours of ass sore, find relief on the cushony Honda cruiser.
We arrived in Thakhek late the first evening so little was to be done. But our next day we rented the dirt bike and stayed in town so Marta could get her bearings on riding the (for her petite size), beast of a two wheeler. Thakhek as a town doesn’t have much to offer but they do have a cute tiny night market at the city center square where you can sit at children size tables and nibble street goods, while watching some projected Lao soap operas.
The next day we set out early. Within minutes of leaving Thakhek you see yourself surrounded by those beautiful steep cliffs iconic to South East Asia. There are a slew of caves you can visit within the first half of your day but after our first, we decided to skip the rest.
There are a slew of caves you can visit within the first half of your day but after our first, we decided to skip the rest. They are pretty, but honestly it felt like (understandably) they were built just to attract tourists to these villages that otherwise, have nothing else. The locals we met were friendly and inviting but the cave we visited left a lot to be desired. Preferring the view from the road, we decided to just continue towards our first days end destination at the town of Thalang.
The drive was spectacular and ascending to a higher altitude, we made some steep winding climbs. Eventually you see the terrain drastically change as you pass the Nakai-Tai Damn. The landscape suddenly takes on a surreal, beautiful and yet post apocalyptic feel as you’re suddenly driving between unnatural islands formed by once-upon-a-time hilltops and surrounded by unnatural lakes filled with barren and dying trees.
The town of Thalang itself is tiny and situated on one of the hilltop-turned-islands. There are two companies operating bungalow guesthouses and although Mad Monkeys recommended the first called Phosy Thalang, we decided on the second, which is right before you cross the bridge and is called Saibadee Guesthouse. We still walked to Phosy to compare and we were very happy with our decision. We got a great but modest bungalow for 50,000 kip ($7 dollars) and the family who runs the place is awesome. Really friendly, welcoming and they do an all you can eat BBQ every night which was worth every penny of our higher than normal dinner expense of 50,000 kip/person. Everyone sits at a long communal table and it’s like having a big family cookout.
The next day we took our time and we were on the road by 9:30am. The drive out of the lake area is spectacular and eventually the terrain will change as you reach the junction town of Lak Xao. Not much to see here but a good stop for lunch if you had a light breakfast.
Beyond Lak Xao the terrain again becomes more mountainous and jungly, sprinkled with little villages and picturesque rice paddies.
About an hour out of Lak Xao, just past the town of Phontan, you will see a sign that says Pool Spring, or something to like that. This is a must stop. After hours on the dusty hot road it’s a gorgeous natural swimming hole with a vibrant blue and cool refreshing water. When we first arrived things were quiet and peaceful, but within an hour of getting there, scooter after scooter of local teens from the local school began arriving and the atmosphere turned into a spring break party. We weren’t sure if this was a normal, every day occurrence or school was out for holiday or summer… but regardless, we were happy we got there before the music started blasting. No stress to us though because it was time to hit the road again as we still had another 150km and a hike ahead of us before the day was done.
Eventually you make another climb and then finally a descent into a massive valley. The viewpoint you’ll pass as you descend is totally worth a stop. After you finish your decent you’ll reach the town of Nahim, which mainly exists for the large hydro plant in town. But just past the turn you’ll later make to head to Konglor, is a trailhead and a hike to a waterfall (also clearly marked). There is an entrance fee of 10,000 kip and it’s a beautiful 1.5-3km hike depending on where you park, but we were so bummed when we reached the waterfall.
We did this hike in April, which is not the rainy season so the waterfall was merely a trickle. Nonetheless we were still grateful to find a swimming pool large enough for us to cool off before heading back.
After the hike we hit the road fast and furious to make our final stop for the day before the sun went down. This was honestly my favorite part of the day’s trip. The road into Konglor is spectacular as you pass through farming village after farming village. And as the walls of the valley grew narrower and narrower, it only became more spectacular. If you can time this part of the ride during dusk you won’t regret it. I was smiling from ear to ear at the scenery, back dropped by the pastel colors of the famous Laos setting sun.
We arrived at the end of the road and the town of Konglor, right as it got dark. And we scoped out every guesthouse in town. We can say with certainty, stay in the very first one! The rooms again are only 50,000 kip, which is cheaper than most, and spotlessly clean. Their menu left a little to be desired but you can easily walk to any of the other guesthouses, or the one restaurant in town for dinner.
The next morning we were out by 8:30 and heading to the ferry dock for the main attraction on this trip: the Konglor Cave. Although we had grown less than enthusiastic about the previous caves, this one is worth every penny. And if you share the boat with the max passenger capacity of three, that’s pretty much what this awesome experience will cost you (2,000 kip into the park and 130,000 kip for the boat, which you can divide by the three passengers).
The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: Caution, you will get a little wet and have to walk in some water so bring flip-flops if you have them. If not, you can rent them.
The boat ride is amazing and takes you through the massive 7km long cave, out the other side and then back again. Aside from one small Disneyland, gimmicky section where they’ve lit the cave with colorful lights, your only light source is your headlamp. As you emerge from the other side you’re greeted by lush green jungles and even if only for a moment, you and your two companions feel like real explorers. After a quick break and a cold Laobeer at the other ferry dock, you head back and experience it for a second time. After saying goodbye to our awesome guide and momentary fellow explorer, it was time to hit the road again.
From this point you have two options. Head back the way you came, which takes most people an additional two days, or do what we did because of time, continue the last section of the loop, which connects to the main highway and speeds you back to Thakhek.
Our recommendation, if you have the time, head back the way you came. Although we hit a couple amazing and quite memorable viewpoints before reaching the main highway, once you get to the busy road, the ride sucks. It’s dangerous and nothing to see. Buses, trucks and cars will fly past you and you’ll be bound to have a few heart attacks along the way.
Needless to say, we were all smiles when we got back to Thakhek. After two weeks of “sight seeing”, it gave us at least a little adrenaline boost and reinvigorated our travel spirits. And on top of that, Marta is now a motorcycle rider! I must say I’m extremely proud of my wife for yet again, wanting to do something ambitious, and kicking ass at it. At a height of 5’1”, a 150cc bike is the MAXIMUM size she can fit on. Her feet barely touched the ground, yet she took it on fearlessly and with determination. I can’t wait to see her ride a bike more her size as I know she will love it even more.
In Thakhek, we were thoroughly pleased with our experience renting from Mad Monkey who had great customer service and good prices. We were also happy with our stay at the Thakhek Travel Lodge, offering dorm rooms, affordable simple doubles as well as some more upscale rooms if you want something a bit nicer after the long ride.
Two important notes. First, if you are trying to decide between this loop and the Pakse, choose this one! Although we have not done both our selves, we talked to multiple long term riders who have done both and they say the Thakhek Loop wins hands down. Second, if you read some of the other popular blog posts on this loop, most are completely outdated in pictures and details. For example, the loop is now completely paved! We were expecting major sections of road to be dirt and muddy but aside from small side roads to reach caves and swimming holes, the main route is as smooth as butter.
We can’t wait for our next two-wheeler road trip, maybe South America??? Maybe sooner??? Who knows, so stay tuned!
If you have any questions or think we missed something awesome from your trip, please share in the comments below!