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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....continued

20th - 26th November 2014


Day 3:

It was a nice night stop off at Kuon Kham. It's a quiet village and the only real place to grab a beer was a karaoke bar just a few doors down from our guesthouse. Most of the songs were from Laos although the locals did attempt to find an English track. Sadly their best effort was a song none of us had heard by some obscure 90's boy band that probably failed in the Western world but managed to have a single hit in Asia. If anyone out there knows who the hell "Milky Way" are, please let us know.
View from our balcony at Kuon Kham

 Thanks to our early excursion to Na Sanam Falls the day before we were ahead of schedule which meant plenty of time at the main sight of the loop Konglor Cave. Once you swing a left off highway 8A it's a 40km ride along a wonderfully quiet, flat and straight road all the way to the cave. It's hard to ignore the obvious drag strip laid before your eyes and shore enough it wasn't long before the rough riders pushed their bikes to the limit. I believe Will clocked the quickest speed at 120km/h in the end (I'm certain I would have won if the GoPro cam hadn't added extra drag........what do you mean I'm a sore looser). The scenery remained a spectacle throughout the short ride towards the epicentre of a karst mountain bowl.

More karst landscape
The road to Konglor Cave
Photo fight!!!!!!!
It was around 11am by the time we arrived at Konglor Cave. This meant that sadly we weren't the first boat of the day (I hear it's worth attempting to get there first), but that in no ways ruined the experience.
Konglor is a 7km expanse of caves that have been carved straight through the centre of a limestone mountain. Once your grouped up with a ferry your guided on a 1 hour trip through this natural abyss, viewing huge stalagmites that resemble marble columns from Greek temple, experiencing total darkness and helping the boats up small rapids until you finally reach daylight on the other side. A review I read before the trip stated "it's as close to experiencing a journey into the Greek underworld as you can get" and I totally understand the comparison. It's a trip into the unknown, a subterranean maze that causes your imagination to run wild. It's easy to see why many local stories are based around the cave.
Entrance to Konglor Cave 
Nice place to chill out
Konglor has more to offer than the cave. There's a small beach and swimming area close to the cave entrance. Our group took full advantage of this as we had the whole afternoon to look for a local guesthouse. We were in no rush so cooled off and chilled out for a good three hours. Tubing is also on offer although if your expecting the same experience as Vang Vieng your going to be disappointed.

Our ferry up the River Styx 
As the afternoon drifted away the decision was made to search for a guesthouse. In the end we ignored the ones right by Konglor and instead took a small track just off the main road to Sala Konglor. The guesthouse was a small group of wooden bungalows, some dorm some private at a great location on the banks of the river. As this was our last night on the loop and we still had two bottles of "local water" we turned to our favourite travel drinking game "pass the pissed pigs". The game definitely did the trick.

Day 4:

A new dawn brings a new day and after a hearty breakfast a peaceful Sala Konglor morning was abruptly interrupted by the monstrous sound of five fired up engines (actually it sounded like five lawn mowers, but every good tale deserves a bit of bullshit).
The rough riders and I back tracked along the same road we'd ridden the day before back toward Kuon Kham. If anything we had another opportunity to etch the stunning journey into our long term memories that was until the fuel issue.
The efficiency of the Zhongshan waves once again raised its head as Diederik's bike ran empty between villages, forcing the rest of us to head off in search for fuel. Once this was resolved it then dawned on us that Aaron's bike would be in trouble too. He guessed there should be enough until we reach the nearest station near highway 8A and he was almost right. No sooner had the pump station rolled into view Aaron's Zhongshan ran empty, meaning he had to resort to walking the bike along like a modern day "Fred Flintstone".

The majestic water buffalo grazing amongst this years harvest

Finally found some fuel. Is it safe to leave this in direct sunlight?
The petrol station was a good place to plan the second stage of the days travel. It was around 10:30am and there was 41km of highway between us and Vieng Kham, where we would grab lunch.
Despite being a main road, highway 8A was a thoroughly enjoyable ride with ever changing terrain and road quality. Long dissecting straights quickly became winding mountainous passes with large potholes and damage from past landslides. The road was nothing short of amazing.  Sadly this euphoria was to be short lived and as we rolled into Vieng Kham it dawned on us all that the best sections of the loop were behind us. All that remained was Highway 13.

Selfie stop
Highway 13 is the main road that links Vientiane with Cambodia. It follows the course of the Mekong on a path thats so  mind numbingly straight it would make the Romans jealous. Added to this because it passes through the main tourist sights throughout southeastern Laos it's the main route for all the busses and trucks. It's the dullest and most dangerous  section of the trip.
The sheer tedium of the final stretch lulls you into a false sense of security. You want to make progress on a long straight so you start to increase your speed. Then suddenly a huge pothole appears, the road disappears or a speeding truck almost knocks you sideways. There were many instances where my white van man skills of swearing and flipping a V sign were a necessity. It's as internationally understood and recognisable as S.O.S. In many ways it's a shame the loop ends this way but I suppose all journeys have dull and exciting parts.

We arrived back at the Travel lodge hostel at around 5pm thoroughly exhausted, in need of a shower, clean clothes and a large beer but all of us had made it and all had gained something from the experience. The sights had been amazing, we had experienced an authentic side to Laos and we certainly had made new friends. Oh yeah and most surprisingly of all I had made it 400km on a scooter without becoming roadkill.

Seriously though if your looking to visit Laos, the Tha Khaek Loop has to be top of your itinerary. It's without a shadow of doubt our highlight of Asia so far and considering we've been through China, Vietnam and Cambodia it had to beat a lot of good memories to reach top spot.