20th - 26th November 2014Before 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|
|We started with nine "loopers"|
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|
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|
|The lagoon at Tha Falang Cave|
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|
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.
|Lake view before Thalang|
|Heading out for another day on the road|
|The impact of the dam downriver|
|The Rough Riders|
|I became one with the road or the same colour at least|
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|
|Aaron enjoying Highway 8A|
|A detour off Highway 8A|
|Na Sanam Falls|
|Na Sanam Falls|
|Na Sanam Falls|