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May 4, 2012

The Scooter Diaries – Doing the Thakhek Loop

Loop day 1

The Thakhek Loop is a 450km loop around central Laos. It takes 4 days on motorbike. You can rent bikes from Mr Ku’s office, next to the Thakhek Travel Lodge for 100,000 kip per day with insurance. He’ll also give you helmets, a vague hand-drawn map, a quick lesson and a pat on the back before sending you on your way.

Getting Started on the Thakhek Loop

We reported bright and early on Day 1 to Mr Ku’s office for our first and only lesson before setting off on 4 full days of riding. We rode up and down the rocky side street of our guesthouse, fumbling around with the sticky gears, brakes and throttle.  After just 5 minutes of practice, one crash and a minor altercation with a pot plant, Mr Ku said ” I’ve seen worse. You are ready”.

Mr Ku’s confidence in our abilities to complete the Thakhek Loop was somewhat reassuring but I’m not going to lie, I had my doubts- and lots of them at that. Never having ridden a motorbike before and having had my fair share of disagreements even with the humble bicycle, the whole idea of being let loose on these rickety machines was pretty daunting. I’ve driven a car for nearly 10 years but that’s a car- it’s different. In a car you’re safe and sound inside a nice strong metal box with comfy seats and belts to hold you in and protect your head and soft bits. Bikes are a completely different story. I had images of falling off my bike and sliding across a road in the middle of nowhere, leaving most of my skin on the bitumen behind me. I think we’ve all heard enough motorbike horror stories that “happened to a friend of a friend” to know that this is a very real possibility.  Plus, as a constant reminder, SE Asia is teeming with tourists sporting bandages and various casts from falling off scooters and motorbikes.

However, this is an adventure and on adventures you take risks. Big, silly, potentially skin losing risks. So, Ryan talked me down from the ledge and convinced me to shut off the gruesome “what if” slideshow playing on repeat in my head. We strapped on our dorky helmets (which, by the way, never saved me in any of my “what if” scenarios…) and hopped on our hogs and sped off into the Laos countryside (Actually we wobbled slowly down the street and then pretty much crawled around rocks and potholes up the next street because they were doing road works BUT THEN we sped off… probably at about 5km p/h).

Day 1 – Thakek – Buddah Cave – Tha Falang Swimming Hole – Mahaxai – Thalang

The first day of riding was tough. It was a stinker of a day and the roads out of town were dusty and busy with local traffic.

After leaving the city and riding into the countryside, we quickly found out that the best part of riding around Laos would be the locals. As we passed through tiny villages and towns, everyone from toddlers to sweaty construction workers waved madly and shouted “SAIBADEE!” as we drove by.

Day 1

Day 1

First up we rode out of town to a hidden cave in the foothills just outside Thakek (Buddah Cave) and then stopped at a cool swimming hole (Tha Falang) to escape the blistering heat.As the day wore on, our confidence grew and we picked up the pace a bit. By about 2pm we were sweaty and tired so stopped for lunch- steaming noodle soup. Appropriate? No. Delicious? Yes.

Later that day I got a punctured tyre in what seemed to be a town that specialised in fixing tyres. Mechanics and motorbike supply stores lined the main street and every corner, so of all the places to get a flat tyre this would be the best place- or so you’d think. The petrol station guys sent us next door to a shop who then sent us across the road, who then sent us back across the road to another shop and so on and so on until we had wheeled my bike around to no less than 6 mechanics/tyre shops before convincing someone to fix my tyre. After all that and a few minutes of negotiating using mainly wild hand gestures and pointing, it took about 5 minutes to fix my inner tube and cost 30,000kip (about $4 AUD).

Thumbs up for staying alive

Thumbs up for staying alive

 

We pushed on through the afternoon sun and along some roads that were getting pretty ragged, before arriving at Sabaidee Guesthouse, just past Thalang on the Nam Theun river. We were dirty, sweaty, VERY sunburnt and exhausted. After what seemed like the biggest day ever, we sat back to savour a well deserved Beer Lao while watching the sun go down and the mosquitoes come up.

Weather: HOT & SUNNY
Road Quality: FAIR
Hours Riding: 8.5
Fuel stops: 1
Noodle Soups: 2
Tantrums: 0.5
Sunburn: EXTREME

Day 2 – Thalang – Laksao – Kuon Kham

After riding through the heat the day before, and getting some pretty intense sunburn, we were determined to set off early and beat the heat- at least for a little bit.

The next part of our journey up to Laksao was only 62km but was estimated to take 4-5 hours. This is because of the incredibly poor condition of the road- if you can call it a road. The road is so bad it has been nicknamed “the highway to hell” as it’s made up of dodgy dirt hills, slippery rocks and massive pot holes ready to gobble you up.

Highway to Hell

Highway to Hell

Funnily enough we actually really enjoyed this part of the trip. We felt a bit more comfortable on the bikes by now, so bumping up and down across the ridiculous excuse for “roads” was actually pretty fun. We staggered up and down some serious hills, through the impressive Jurassic Park-esque jungle. All in all there was only one slight issue when I ran into an unfortunately placed rock, but apart from that it was smooth sailing for what we thought would be the toughest stage of the trip. Take THAT Thahkek Loop!

Speed Racer

No Comment.

View from the top(ish)

View from the top(ish)

After having some more noodle soup in Laksao and filling up our hogs with gas, we burnt on up over the mountains to Kuon Kham where we would spend the night before heading down to the Konlor Cave the next day.

Weather: HOT & SUNNY
Road Quality: HORRID
Hours Riding: 8
Fuel stops: 1
Noodle Soups: 2
Sore bums: 2

Day 3 – Kuon Kham – Konlor Cave – Kuon Kham – Vieng Kham

It absolutely bucketed down overnight so we were worried the roads would have turned to slush and we’d get stuck and be absorbed by some sort of swamp monster on the way down to the Konlor cave.  Last seen: doing the Thakhek Loop.  But surprisingly the road was fully paved and in pretty good condition. The only problem was that it continued to rain pretty consistently the whole day.

The good news is that the rain gave us a chance to sport our wet-weather gear. Ryan, generally being the sensible member of our little team and also a lover of all out-door gear, wore his responsibly stylish Kathmandu rain jacket. While I, on the other hand, wore a massive purple plastic poncho I bought for $2 in Vientiane- not such a sensible choice. I swear this thing was conspiring against me. Not only did it flap in the wind like a wild angry purple bird, it secretly gathered all the rain it could and created hidden pools in my lap, eventually spilling them at inopportune moments onto my once-dry clothes. By the time we got down to the cave I was soaked, but so was Ryan, so we were even.

Straight off the runways in Milan…

The Konglor cave is probably the biggest attraction for this part of Laos, and the reason most people do the Thakhek Loop. It’s a 7.5 km cave under a mountain with a river flowing through it. It takes about 1.5 hours to get through it by motorized canoe.

Cave from the outside (which it seems just makes it a mountain)

Cave from the outside (which it seems just makes it a mountain)

The cave is massive and dark (as you’d assume a mountain’s undercarriage would be) and has some pretty impressive stalactites and stalagmites. You can rent headlamps if you want to see anything, but even then it’s pretty dark and kind of peaceful just cruising through the darkness.

Inside the cave...

Inside the cave…

The river gets quite shallow at points and you have to get out and wade for a bit. You can also go for a little walk and see a few stalactites and stalagmites that have been lit up.

Out the other side

Out the other side

Post cave.

Post cave.

After the cave (and the obligatory noodle soup for lunch) we sped off back through the mighty mountains to Vieng Kham, our last non-descript town stay before heading back to Thakhek and completing the Thakhek Loop.

Weather: PISSING DOWN
Road Quality: VERY GOOD
Hours Riding: 8ish
Fuel Stops: 1
Noodle Soups: 2
Mega Caves Visited: 1

Day 4 – Vieng Kham – Thakhek

We’d planned it so our last day would be an easy ride down the highway from Vieng Kham back to Thakhek. The highway was pretty standard but we still rode through plenty of little villages with waving children and cows and dogs scattered across the road (the kids waved- not the animals). We left early to beat the heat and arrived back in Thakhek before lunch for a chilled brewski in the shade next to our old friend the mighty Mekong.  Thakhek Loop, tick!

Weather: HOT & SUNNY
Road Quality: FAIR
Hours Riding: 3
Fuel stops: 0
Noodle Soups: 0
Tired Riders: 2

-Asha