The Thakhek Loop
(Emily) True to our word, we awoke in the air-conditioned luxury in Vientiane and made it down to join Juan for breakfast at 7am (until now he has been shocked at how late we get up!) to enjoy the hotel’s complimentary warm baguettes, croissants, omelette and fruit – quite the feast, especially considering we usually skip breakfast! Looking at the map, we estimated where we might end up that evening based on a 250 – 300km day and, although the map showed that it was possible to do the whole route on a major road (James: in developing countries like Laos, ‘major’ doesn’t always mean what you think it does!), we decided to do the first part on a smaller road that ran alongside the Mekong for about 70km before re-joining the main route. The hope was that it would be as pretty as the road we’d ridden in Thailand on the other side of the river a couple of months earlier when we’d done our visa run with Darren. Turns out that wasn’t quite the case! It was little more than a dirt track (well, it was a dirt track, just quite a wide one) and, now that the dry season was in full swing, it was a complete dust-fest! We bumped and bounced along, only catching occasional glimpses of the Mekong through the trees, wondering why on earth we hadn’t just taken the main road. Well, I guess if you don’t try, you’ll never know! After about an hour and a half, we finally emerged to join the main road south, with sore butts and faces that looked like we’d overdone it on the fake tan. James was laughing to see the orange streaks across my cheeks but I cracked up when he took his own helmet and goggles off – riding at the rear, he’d got the full brunt of the dust clouds kicked up by me and Juan and looked like he’d been tangoed!
Once on the main road, we were soon making pretty good progress. Thankfully, the weather had cooled considerably after heavy rain in the night which was such a relief as the previous day’s ride to Vientiane had been unbearably hot and humid and we’d worried that that was our lot now all the way to Malaysia. It was a pretty boring ride; straight, fast roads through parched landscape, especially after the lush paddy fields and awesome rock formations that we’d ridden through in the north. We were amused that in several of the small villages we passed, loud music could be heard blaring from disproportionately large speakers then, when passing the actual source of the sound, we would see a group of maybe eight to ten people gathered under an awning dancing! We even saw a truck passing with amplifying speakers piled up at the front which then revealed a full band sitting behind them in the back playing live music to no-one in particular while the truck drove along! Laos people seem to like to party!! When we stopped for a late lunch of noodle soup (James: our standard ‘on the road’ lunch – cheap and filling but light enough so we don’t get groggy in the afternoon!), we’d already comfortably passed the 250km mark but there were still a good couple hours of daylight left so we consulted the map and decided to push on as far as Thakhek, the first major town in southern Laos. We were actually starting to get a bit chilly (bizarrely it had gone from the hottest day in a long time to the coldest in 24 hours) and the sky ahead was looking increasingly grey. With about 80km to go, we saw the unmistakeable shapes of two big, loaded motorbikes coming towards us and sure enough, we were passed by two Honda Transalps, clearly packed for overlanding. We pulled over to say hi and they introduced themselves as Elke and Ralf, a couple from Germany who are overlanding from Australia all the way home. They confirmed that there was rain to the south where they’d come from (oh great!) and recommended some caves to the east (James: to visit, not for shelter!). We hadn’t even got as far as consulting a guide book about the region where we were headed (it’s got to the point where we do it once we’ve arrived!) so it was good to get a heads up. Before we set off again, the cold was getting a bit much so for the first time since, I don’t know, maybe the mountains in China, we got out our waterproof jacket liners. Hard times!
It wasn’t long before we felt the first spots of moisture and soon enough we were riding along in driving rain which showed no signs of abating. Bleurgh! At least the road was pretty empty of other traffic and it continued to be generally straight which negated negotiating dangerous corners in the wet. It was a bit of a shock to the system to be riding in rain; up until now we’d been incredibly lucky with the weather (apart from the three weeks of monsoon-like downpours we’d experienced in Italy and the Balkans) and even when it had rained (eastern Turkey comes to mind), we’d usually managed to find shelter and wait it out. Admittedly, it’s not like we had to get to Thakhek, and there were plenty of guesthouses along the way (bizarrely, in Laos they occur at regular intervals even in the most random, unpopulated of places) but there’s a part of you that gets stubborn once you’ve set your mind on a target! Our single-mindedness was rewarded when we pulled into the guesthouse in Thakek and saw, of all the things we never expected to find in this part of the world, a blazing fire in the garden! Result! We parked up and spent the next fifteen minutes basking in the blissful heat of the roaring flames (especially James who rides along with his visor up even in the stinging rain, crazy fool!) Very surreal, especially after the previous day when the thought of a fire on top of the oppressive heat would have been torturous!
The guesthouse (called ‘Travel Lodge’ – no relation!) was a great place to stop for the night; quiet and cheap (for the dorm room at least) and with other like-minded travellers to chat to around the fire. In the morning, we woke early and refreshed (the dorm of ten had been full but was the quietest communal room we’d ever slept in) and over breakfast discussed where we might go from here. There was a lot of indecision going on. In a way, I think because we’d got back into the habit of riding everyday and feeling the sense of achievement from the resulting quick progress, we were keen to crack on and continue south towards Cambodia. However, several people had mentioned something about ‘the loop’, a circuit to the east that left from Thakhek taking in caves and waterfalls and good scenery… but also a section of ‘very bad road’. It would also entail repeating the boring 100km stretch back to the north of Thakhek – ideally we should have stopped for the night further north and done the circuit clockwise. The guesthouse had a scrap book where previous guests had written accounts of their experiences of ‘the loop’ (usually on hired mopeds), citing beautiful vistas along the way but also referring to the unpaved section as ‘the road from hell’! We dawdled and deliberated but in the end it was me, despite my aversion to voluntarily putting myself in the position where I have to go off-road, who said that we should go for it. After all, we’d been saying that Laos hadn’t quite blown us away so far but who were we to judge if we ignored recommendations like this? Decision made, we packed up in quick order, keen not to waste any more time after all our procrastinating; Juan was pretty sure we could make it half way round the loop in one day (despite several people in the book writing that it would be ‘crazy and dangerous’ to attempt to complete the whole thing in less than four days) so we needed to get a move on.
The first stretch east on route 12 was great – already more lush than the arid landscape we’d been riding through the past couple of days and with jagged walls of limestone karst up ahead in the direction we were headed in. We’d read that the whole area had experienced development in the last few years with the construction of a massive new dam but apart from evidence in the, at times, flooded sections to the side of the road, we passed through the same simple, dusty villages as always. It was only as we turned north onto route 8B for the second leg of the loop that we found ourselves on a brand new stretch of road that took us past the dam site. Almost immediately after passing the dam however, the road deteriorated completely and we were soon jarring our way through potholes and gravel. There was a bit of confusion when Juan’s satnav indicated that we should in fact be on a road a couple of hundred metres to the east, and indeed the occasional markers by the side of the road cited ‘route 13’ rather than the expected ‘8B’ but a couple of locals confirmed that we were definitely headed for Lak Sao at the north-east ‘corner’ of the loop so we stayed the course. In all likelihood the original road had been flooded as part of the dam construction. In any case, even with all the potholes, the track we were on was nowhere near as bad as we had been expecting from the accounts in the Travel Lodge scrapbook. Wusses! We’d assumed that we’d be passing backpackers on hired mopeds throughout the day but we only came upon one group, a merry band of English and Americans who’d pulled in to sort a flat tyre. For most of them it was their first time on a scooter (and manual ones at that) and the bone-jarring off-road section was to them a pretty wild experience. We realised then that our perspective of a ‘road from hell’ compared with the average tourist on a hire bike was likely to be quite different so no wonder the track was proving not to be as bad as expected.
Right? Wrong! No sooner did we say goodbye to the enthusiastic scooter clan than we turned a corner to find the road narrow dramatically to little more than a path, and the broken but generally smooth terrain become full of jagged rocks. How can this be called a road?! Luckily, my off-roading abilities have vastly improved (or rather my confidence has, which is half the battle) so I managed to negotiate my way through pretty deftly and, although we had to reduce speed considerably, we were able to continue quite comfortably (or ‘uncomfortably’ in the literal sense – I certainly wouldn’t want to be experiencing it with a scooter’s suspension!) That is, until we came to the mud (James: thick wet clay to be precise – the worst kind as it retains the water, has no stones in it for grip and cakes the tyres completely!). To be fair, we were half expecting it after the heavy rain of the previous day but there’s still nothing that prepares you for that sinking feeling when you turn a corner to be confronted with thick, red gloop blocking your path. I baulked at the sight of James’ rear tyre sliding sideways as he rode through the first bit in front of me and with my bike fully loaded, including the backpack holding the laptop, it just wasn’t worth the risk of a drop so I handed over to him to do it for me (lucky James!) However, when rounding the next turn revealed yet more wet clay, I realised that it was time to bite the bullet – who knows how long this would continue for and we couldn’t go through the palaver of James walking back to relieve me every single time (though he would have if I’d asked him, hero that he is). We ploughed on as best we could, making our way gingerly through the worst patches (though not too gingerly – you have to keep the throttle on constant or you have even bigger problems) and were thankful that the day’s bright sunshine was at least airing the road sufficiently to give us dry stretches for the wheels to get unclogged. It didn’t help to see Juan up ahead struggling even more than we were – his loaded BMW GS 1200 weighs in at over 350kg and there were many moments when we had to watch helpless as he fought to control his sliding bike. At one point he was caught coming out of a particularly deep dip in the muddy track without enough momentum. Not wanting to give it too much beans for risk of sliding out of control, he revved in vain with his back tyre wheel-spinning for a good two minutes and James was just about to trudge over to help when at last he gained traction and was able to move forward again. Huge puddles lingered where the pot holes were particularly deep and although we tried to ride around them, sometimes there was no room for evasion and you had to take the plunge, hoping that a) it wasn’t so deep you’d get stuck or damage the bike and b) the submerged track was stony rather than a slick of clay. Nerve-wracking stuff! Still, I have to say, for the first time in the whole trip, I managed to relax and enjoy the bad road for the challenge it was rather than practically hyperventilating inside my helmet (which is what normally happens), even when Juan’s bike went down right in front of me, a reminder that we hate mud for a reason, it’s not just in our heads!
So, the ‘road from hell’? I wouldn’t go that far. But it was quite knackering riding through this kind of terrain for 40km, on top of the 30km of potholes we’d already done and when we finally emerged onto tarmac near Lak Sao (after several false dawns of ‘Phew, it’s over… no, here’s some more mud’) our aching bodies were thankful for the reprieve. A late lunch of, you guessed it, noodle soup (started with chopsticks, finished with a spoon Joanna!) revived us further and we started to make our way west for the third leg of the loop. This was by far the best stretch of the day – 80km of smooth, winding curves that one guidebook describe as ‘like stepping into a video game’. We were now riding in the midst of the rocky limestone hills that we’d seen in the distance earlier on, first enjoying valleys of impossibly green paddy fields before climbing into hills of deep forest all in the warm glow of the evening sun. It was about half an hour before sunset when we reached Khoun Kham from where a road led south to the Kong Lo caves (as recommended by the German overlanding couple we’d passed the previous day). We decided to call it a day and leave the 40km down to the caves until the morning so found a guesthouse and devoured huge piles of fried rice before retiring to bed at the crazy hour of 9pm! Hard core bikers, us!
Luckily, thanks to a second new dam in the area, a proper road down to the caves had been constructed in 2009 making it a quick run to Kong Lo (this was a detour and not part of the actual loop). After parking up in a wooded glade, a parting in the trees revealed what looked to be a beautiful, crystal clear lagoon nestled at the foot of a rocky cliff. This was in fact the Nam Hin Bun river which, contrary to appearances, actually continues to flow into the rock face forging a tunnel through a system of caves over 7km long. Awesome! Boat hire wasn’t cheap but shared between Juan and ourselves it wasn’t too bad and by the end we agreed we’d got more than our money’s worth. Two guides accompanied us, one to operate the motor and the other to sit at the front with an industrial sized head torch that he had wired to a battery pack round his waist: inside the caves it was black, pitch black! We’d brought our own camping head torches but they barely penetrated a few feet in front of us so we pleased that James had also brought his powerful Lenser; that way we were able to direct light at the surrounding walls and ceiling and appreciate the vast size of the caves we were moving through, in places 100m wide and almost as high. At one point, we disembarked on a shingle bank and followed the guide up a rocky path to find some incredible stalactites and stalagmites, looking quite magical in the subtle blue green up-lighting. An awe-inspiring example of nature at its finest. Being the dry season, the river ran very low in places so we were sometimes required to get out into the knee deep water while the two boat pilots pulled the boat clear of the rocky bed; quite unnerving when you can’t really see what you are doing! Just as it was starting to get a bit freaky being in the dark for so long, we saw light at the end of the tunnel (as it were!) and we brought out into the dazzling sunshine. We had been inside the caves for over an hour and everything seemed somehow brighter and more colourful. Our guides (who incidentally spoke no English whatsoever!) deposited us on the riverbank for a short break and then it was once more into the gaping hole in the rock…
We all agreed that it had been well worth the trip. It’s not every day you get to experience a natural phenomenon like that, plus it had been surprisingly tourist free, much like the whole of the loop, which added to the sense of getting away from it all. We retraced the 40km back up to Khoun Kham and made our way west to join the main road south back to Thakhek. Having already done the 100km south and knowing it to be straight and boring, we thought our adventures on the loop were over. However, just before the junction at the northwest ‘corner’ of the loop, we were passing through a quiet village when a moped emerged suddenly from a dwelling on the left had side. Juan, in the lead, had already passed but I was just coming up to the point where the moped was joining the road, with James not far behind. The guy definitely saw us, but to my dismay he continued to pull out into the road and instead of straightening up to go forward (which would have been stupid enough – he should have just waited for us to pass), I realised he was coming directly across my path to cross to the other side of the village. I beeped and beeped but to no avail and the timing was such that we were headed for certain collision. I was being forced into a corner and, at 60kph+, there was no time to break hard without coming off for sure. There was nothing for it but to veer off the road into the grass verge, which also happened to be a trench. (James: There really was nothing Em could do. Certain we were looking at a serious accident, I watched helplessly as Em took the only option and ploughed off the road into a ditch filled with a tree and other obstacles, all whilst never backing off the throttle and never touching the brakes. She then launched off a large drainpipe 60cm off the ground, landing a long way further down the ditch before powering out and coming to stop back at the side of the road. By the time Juan and I got to her she was laughing hysterically while we just contemplated, open-mouthed, how the hell she’d survived totally unscathed and where the hell she’d learnt to ride like that!) Well, how I managed to stay upright, I have no idea!! The adrenalin was pumping like mad but all in all I was pretty calm (er, save the hysterical laughter!). James, meanwhile, was off the bike in a jiffy and striding back to the village to find the perpetrator who had, quite wisely, gone into hiding! A close call to be sure, and a reminder that all it takes is one stupid idiot to ruin your day. Luckily, this time we’d adverted disaster. Needless to say, the boring 100km back to Thakhek was a welcome relief after all that excitement!
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