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“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ernest Hemingway

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11 December 2014

The Tha Khaek Loop: Unforgetable and unbelievably spectacular

20th - 26th November 2014

 Before entering Laos we had never heard about the "Tha Khaek Loop" and it was only due to advice from our dad Tony that we decided to make a stop off. It promised to be an adventure through spectacular scenery and boy did we need an adventure. We were disappointed with Savannakhet and wanted to experience "real Laos" before heading to the capital (Vientiane) and tubing (Vang Vieng) further North.

"The loop" is a 400km bike circuit starting and ending in Tha Khaek. The route passes through Phou Hi Poun National Park home to limestone mountains and impressive caves. Jono, Will and I decided to take out time and hire scooters for four days although many travellers squeeze the trip into three. Jono had ridden scooters as a teenager but for me and Will it was a trip into the unknown (I did give it a go in Vietnam but fell over so many times in a 5 meter stretch my confidence was shot).
We hired the bikes from our hostel the " Tha Khaek Travel lodge". The travel lodge is a great base for the loop with many backpackers passing through after completed or looking to start the trip. Good beds and showers allow for some comforts and a communal fire pit makes it easy to meet fellow "loopers" to arrange a convoy. The guesthouse can also store your main bags so you can travel light on the bikes.

Tha Khaek is worth a short walk around to grab supplies but no real sights. It's has a relaxed atmosphere and a few derelict French colonial buildings by the Mekong but that's about it. If your looking for a local hang out there's a beer garden near the tourist information centre. Many of the local students flock hear in the evening for a meal and beer with friends. A favourite amongst our group mostly due to the cheap prices but also because we were the only tourists, always a nice feeling.

At the end of our first day (evening before our trip) Mr Ku, the hire shop owner kindly gave us a "crash" course in riding the our semi-automatic Honda Wave's 1.1cc, GTi, BNP, YMCA. After a few wobbly starts, near misses and a few attempts at riding along the main road and back we were ready. It's amazing how easy it was to make new friends at the Travel lodge and by the end of the evening our group of three increased to nine. the role call was as follows:-
Our map for the loop
Will (ENG), Aaron (U.S), Diederik (NED), Eleonora (IT), Mika (FR) and two girls from the U.S we never got to know as they didn't want to know us. Oh yes and the Bruvs with Blisters. Even though we hadn't set off on "the loop" yet there was already a sense that the journey was going to be a good one. 9 companions from different countries and cultures joining forces in a region of short folk to complete an epic adventure. It's was like Lord of the Rings but better.

We started with nine "loopers"
Day 1:
We headed out at around 10am and were required to ride 160km East along highway 12 and North on highway 8B to the village of Thalang where our first guesthouse was located. Along the way we could visit five caves Tham Pha Pa, Xieng Liab, Tha Falang, Tham Phainh and Tham Aen.
Tham Pha Pa also known as the "Buddha Cave" is located a few kilometres out of Tha Khaek (first left after the sign to Xang cave) at the end of a 2 km dirt track. This was our first real opportunity to practice some off road riding and we all took it quite tentatively at first. Riding the Tha Khaek loop in November was a stroke of coincidence as I imagine this track would have been very tough during monsoon season. All in all we had great fun avoiding pot holes, undertaking lorries, avoiding bush fires and waving at the locals. The cave itself is surrounded by amazing karst mountains and turquoise lakes. It's not the biggest cave in the world but the discovery of hundred of Buddha statues left for hundreds of years makes it the most peculiar. The mystery of why this cave was chosen to house such sacred figures adds to local superstitions and the place remains a sight of worship and prayer for locals.

The base of the Buddha Cave
Once back on highway twelve it wasn't long until we reached our second stop and cave Xieng Liab (just before the large bridge. Pull into a small lay-by by wooden huts). It's pretty easy to miss this stop as the sign posts are not clear but after stopping by the bridge we were welcomed by a local Laotian who offered to look after the bikes and show us to the cave. As dodgy as this sounds it's
totally legitimate as if your unsure just ring back to Mr Ku and double check. For a small fee the local chap and his two sons enthusiastically gave us a guided tour of Xieng Liab. Much larger than the Buddha cave, Xieng Liab allows visitors to wander through the base of a small limestone outcrop. There are impressive stalagmites and stalagmites and after a warm ride it just pleasant bathing your sweaty feet in the cool stream.
Our guides to Xieng Liab Cave
Entrance to Xieng Liab Cave
1km East of Xieng Liab is the dirt track to Tha Falang cave (first left after the bridge). It's only half a kilometre drive and if you like its a ten minute walk from the previous cave so you can just leave your bikes with the local guy. Tha Falang is a welcome swimming spot as the submerged cave system has formed a beautiful turquoise pool. There's no cave to walk around so a short stop to chill out is all you need. By the time we left the third stop it was 1:00pm which was the time Mr Ku had advised we should start thinking about heading to the guesthouse. This sadly meant that we had to miss the fourth cave at Tham Phainh and head straight for the final stop. It was at this point That the two American girls decided to leave us. It was their first time riding and as they were committed to three days were concerned about making it to the guesthouse in time. So our group of 9 became 7.

The lagoon at Tha Falang Cave
Tham Aen is located around 8km East of the Tha Falang turning and is clearly sign posted for  "loopers". As with the Buddha cave there is a small entrance fee but it's well worth it. This large cave is ideal for walking around with concrete stairways that blend in nicely with the surrounding rock. If you squint it's reminiscent of M.C Escher's lithograph print "Relativity".
It supposedly takes 5-6 hours to ride to Thalang. It's a good 120km, but we absolutely blitzed it, completing the trip in 3 hours. Highway 12 was not too busy and a fun drive through karst foot hills and peaceful rice paddies. The only dodgy thing was the truck convoys transporting cement and other aggregates. They normally have a lead van with warning lights (if they feel like turning them on) which is shortly tailed by three or four lorries. All vehicles hog both sides of the road, drive as fast as they can and don't seem to slow down for anyone or anything. This probably explains why over the course of four days we saw many accidents involving trucks. I personally was just happy to give the guys space and let them pass, which is weird coming from an ex-white van man.

Tham Aen Cave
Once you pass through the small town of Gnommalet you bear left onto highway 8B and possibly one of the best stretches of roads on the trip. The roads in pretty good condition and follows the course of an adjacent river until you cross at a recently constructed hydro electric plant. Immediately after the dam it's an abrupt climb through the karst tundra rising a few hundred meters which allow for an amazing view of the surrounding landscape.
Our group continued to follow the lake formed by the dam until we arrived at Sabaidee Guesthouse in Thalang at around 6pm. It was a long but thoroughly enjoyable day and we were pumped for the second leg.

Sabaidee was a travellers oasis. Wooden huts housed large dorms or private bungalows. The owners provided a wonderful all you can eat BBQ around a communal campfire. They even made their own pain au chocolat. What more do you need. Over the fire and many Beer Laos we talked of travels, experiences and made jokes well into the night. There were other travellers at the lodge some loopers, others doing their own thing. There was a Swiss guy in his mid 60's who had retired and travelled all over the world on a shoestring for 6 years and a funny Russian chap attempting to cycle around Asia. His English was limited so the few Russian phrases we learnt on our travels came in handy although it was hard to escape the fact that he sounded a little bit like Borat. At one stage he made a joke about cannibalism that only he found funny but the way he laughed was infectious enough to have everyone in hysterics.

Sabaidee Guesthouse
Lake view before Thalang
Day 2: Jono, Will and Aaron woke early to check out the sunrise. The landscape created by the dam was pretty unique. The rapid change from woodland to lakeland has produced a solemn but strangely beautiful forest of dead tree trunks. It's something I remember studying in a geography classroom asa teenager but had never experienced first hand until now. The whole landscape emphasises the fact that although new energy projects improve the some living conditions for locals. Environmental and social impacts for the immediate area are often considered but overlooked. It only left me wondering how many villagers have had to relocate to make way for government plans and Chinese developers and how much compensation they received, I'm guessing very little if any.

Heading out for another day on the road
The impact of the dam downriver
 As we left  Thalang there were two noticeable changes. The first being the size of our group which had dropped to six as Mika had to leave early and the second was the road condition. The smooth tarmac abruptly vanished and left only trodden dirt and dust. The rust coloured sediment became a slight irritation especially when the trucks and 4x4's bombed passed. The pot holes got larger and the sand deeper as the trail twisted and turned on its steady incline up to a plateau and back down towards the river again. It was a harder 62km ride that left you with a sore arse but great fun, especially when passing through the villages. It's always amazing how friendly the children are in South-East Asia. Despite relative poverty and hardships they would all be outside their homes shouting "Hello" or "Sabaidee"as soon as our group rolled into view. We'd often stop to offer snacks as a thank you and it only made the experience more enjoyable. I think if you tried that back in the UK you'd be pelted with eggs or put on a dodgy register.

The Rough Riders
I became one with the road or the same colour at least
 After the dirt track was the town of Laksao. This is the junction point between highways 8A and 8B and where we decided to pull over to recalculate our progress.
Most loopers never stop at Laksao and keep pressing on toward Kuon Kham where our second guesthouse would be. Our rest stop was rewarded when Diederik was ushered into a locals house where they were throwing what turned out to be a house warming party. We were immediately all invited to take a seat as a banquet of Laos dishes was presented to our two small tables. We were accompanied by three Laos guys, one who couldn't hardly stand up due to his intake of Laos Laos whiskey, one who spoke good enough English to explain what was going on and a third who apparently was a local police chief. The pissed guy spent the whole time shouting something and forcing whiskey into our hands. Eleonora seemed to bear the brunt of this treatment as the chap seemed intent to get the only female member of our group as drunk as possible. It was a great experience and one we were all thoroughly grateful for. We ate, we drank, we danced until tipsy and then waved goodbye and hopped back on the bikes. Even the police chief didn't mind us drink driving, possibly because he was more drunk than we were and also due to the fact his shift didn't start for another two hours. It was great to be part of an authentic Laos celebration and experience first hand their kind generosity. The guy who owned the house waved away any approach we made to pay him for his kindness, emphasising the countries stance on common curtesy.

Laos house warming party
Our loopy band now merry on food and spirits headed west on highway 8A towards Kuon Kham. The 58km stretch was much smoother than our morning ride and we made good progress through mixed karst terrain. Flat open farmland led onto steeper more treacherous mountain passes. Once again we saw first hand what the Laos driving style of overtaking three vehicles on blind turns leads too when as we passed numerous accident sites. One resulting in a truck flipping upside-down (I still can't figure out how but the driver managed it), however the tighter passes that hinder the larger vehicles only benefitted our choice of vehicle. The Honda Waves Jono, Will and I had hired were well suited for the task at hand and never showed any signs of breaking down. Aaron and Diederik were left with the Zhongshan Waves which were a little less powerful and seemed to run out of fuel twice as quickly as the Honda. A shining example of Chinese efficiency if you ask me.

Aaron enjoying Highway 8A
A detour off Highway 8A 
If you get thirsty or run out of fuel along the loop there are many shacks selling all the basic supplies from even the most remote locations. As a friendly warning though make sure the water is water. I stupidly believed a local and purchased three small bottles of clear fluid thinking it was water which turned out to be whiskey. Hilariously Diedrik unknowingly offered some to Eleonora who was looking for water to wash out a leg burn caused by the bike exhaust. No doubt it cleansed the wound but it must have stung like a bitch.

Na Sanam Falls
Na Sanam Falls
Na Sanam Falls
Despite the house party we made it to our second guesthouse ahead of schedule so decided to take a detour and visit Na Sanam Falls a day early. After a five minute ride off-road and a ten minute hike we reached the falls just as the day was coming to an end. Once again the landscape remained a stunning spectacle. The large twin waterfall plunges from a rock shelf surrounded by jungle. A fitting end to day 2.