Laos is a popular country to tour by motorbike. The most famous ride is called “The Loop” which begins in the city of Tha Khaek and lasts anywhere from 3-5 days. It used to be an “off the beaten track ride” but is now a well trodden route that caters to the young, adventurous backpacker crowd and DIY motorcyclists. The road is now completely paved but quickly becomes dirt track at every turn off. It’s also a main trade route between Vietnam and Thailand and as a result it is a very busy road with lots of big trucks barreling down it.
When we arrived in Tha Khaek we found our way to the largest motorbike rental stand, Wang Wang Motor Rental. It was in the city center about a block up from the Mekong River. The wall was plastered with testimonials about how great Wang Wang is. We filled out the paper work, signed our life away, gave the girl behind the counter one of our passports and we were off. On the way to the gas station, which is always the first stop, I started having second thoughts about quality of Wang Wang’s motorbikes since mine sounded like it was going to rattle apart. “It’s a Honda Wave,” I kept telling myself, “They’re nearly indestructible, we’ll be fine.”
It didn’t take us long to reach the first sight, Xieng Liap Cave. It wasn’t that big of a cave and as soon as it got dark, it got light again on the other side. The only thing that prevented us from going through the whole thing was the stream that ran through it and our unwillingness to take our riding boots off, which we had just put on 20 minutes back in Tha Khaek. The next stop was a little further down highway 12 called Tha Falang. It was nothing more than a swimming hole but it did inspire us to change into our swim suits and jump in. The next cave we toured was Tham Nang Ene, a cave popular with Thai tourists. It cost about 30,000K to get in which deterred almost all of the other backpackers from checking it out. The inside was fairly big and there were multi colored lights shining on some of the stalagmites, stalactites, and obscure Buddhist statues. There was also a concrete path to follow so there was no way to get lost.
We continued weaving our way along the limestone karsts rising out of the rice paddies until we reached the small village of Mahaxai, where we stopped for lunch. We then made the mistake of stopping early for the day in the small village of Gnommalat and getting a room at the Phothavong Guest House. The hotel owner was pleasant enough when dealing with money but had no interest in helping us after we paid. They advertised wifi, and we were certainly connected to the router, but it oddly enough didn’t work until the bus load of Thai tourists showed up at about 8pm. We could have kept riding as there was plenty of daylight left but accidently fell into the trap of following our guide book too closely. Gnommalat is nothing more than a dusty pit stop for the semis that come screaming down the highway from Vietnam. There are Vietnamese signs scattered along the village offering Pho, karaoke, and rice wine (rice whiskey strong enough to run a motorbike). The place shuts down at sunset and we barely got our food order in at the noodle restaurant before the cook started drinking for the night.
The second day of our ride started early since we wanted to get all the way to Nahin (Ban Khoun Kham). We reached Nakai where the reservoir for the Nam Theun 2 Dam starts. Dead trees rise from the lake that was created by the dam on the right side of the road and dense jungle was on our left. We stopped for breakfast in Ban Tha Lang at the Sabaidee Guesthouse, which looked like it catered more to the young party crowd. By the time we arrived the guests were just getting up. The owner at the Sabaidee Guesthouse was friendly enough and certainly knows how to please his demographic. He also offers sunset and fishing tours on the newly created lake but unfortunately we didn’t have the time.
The road continued north on highway 1E and offered some very nice scenic over looks before we descended into Lak Sao. Much like Gnommalat, Lak Sao is another dust bowl with a few guesthouse, noodle shops, and mini marts. It was here we began heading west on highway 8. We crossed a bridge over the Nam Theun in the village of Tha Bak. This village has a small fleet of fishing boats along the river that were originally bombs dropped on them during the Second Indochina War. The bombs have been reused and now make great boats.
We eventually reached Nahin and found a nice, cheap room at the San Hak Guest House. We had some extra daylight left so we walked to the Tat Nam Sanam waterfall. The picture at the gate was clearly taken during the wet season and when we arrived there were only two trickles of water coming down the side of the cliff. It was still a nice hike even though there was no pool to swim in.
The next morning we set set off for Tham Kong Lor, one of the largest caves in Laos. When we arrived we were shuffled onto a small 3 person boat with a captain and then rode into the darkness. The cave itself is 7km long and is experienced primarily by boat. There was one section we walked through that was lit up with colored LED lights but we mainly relied on our headlamps that were provided at the entrance. There were a couple of parts where the water was too low to ride through and we had to help our captain pull the boat up river. At the end of the cave we reached a small village. We took a short rest and rode down stream for a different perspective. A few miles north of Kong Lor is another lesser known cave called Tham Nam Non. This cave was as equally as impressive as Kong Lor and is explored on foot. During the wet season this cave would most likely be flooded but we were able to walk at least a kilometer into it. We only met a few others who bothered to venture into this cave which made it even cooler. We walked through it until we reached the water but the thought of swimming in a dark, dirty, cave didn’t really appeal to us. We met some spelunkers in the cave who swam through part of it and we’re throughly stoked. Tham Nam Non did seem ripe for exploration as there was no tour to sign up for, just some guy asking for 10,000K. Even though the guy didn’t have tickets we paid the fee, thinking it was cheap insurance for our good running Honda Waves.
We spent one more night in Nahim and then rode west on highway 8 until we reached the busy intersection at Vieng Kham. There were a few guesthouses for the road weary motorbike rider, a few gas stations and noodle stands, and the intersection of highway 13 to bring us back to Tha Khaek. This was probably the more dangerous stretch of road we had to ride because it is the main north and south artery in Laos. It connects the south to Vientiane and Vientiane to Cambodia. Buses, semis, and everyone else going north or south in the country rides this road and everyone goes as fast as possible. Buses and semis have the right of way, even if they’re in the on coming lane. Everyone knows this, including the dogs, cats, pigs, and goats. The dogs and cats all have cropped tails to prove it too. There are posted speed limits in this country but no one obeys them. The numbers are all in the Roman script but the Laos people have their own written language and don’t know how to read the Roman. The best I can come up with is that this is not the mandatory speed limit but merely the suggested speed limit. If there is a max speed limit in this country, no Lao person has ever reached it.
Back in Tha Khaek we returned our rickety old Honda Waves to Wang Wang in no better shape than we originally got them in and tried fruitless to get a partial refund for the time not spent using them. “So sorry, no refund” the young girl said at the counter. It seemed to roll off the tongue like nothing despite being her second language. No half days, no refund, no problem, thank you. As we picked up our bags to leave I heard another sorry backpacker also trying to get a partial refund and it suddenly hit me why she was so good at saying it. She probably said it at least once a day but most likely 5 or 6. There certainly are a lot of people doing this ride now, some with experience and some without. Some will undoubtedly gain experience the hard way. But if you pay attention, use good judgment, and dress like you’re on a motorbike ride and not going to the beach, there’s a good chance you’ll walk away from The Loop without any road rash.