Thakhek Loop

By Nate

      While we were in Phong Nha, Vietnam, we talked to a Dutch couple who told us about the Thakhek loop in Laos. They claimed it was the highlight of their trip and possibly one of the greatest things they’d ever done. We had nearly a month to think on it and it was still lingering in our minds. After Vientiane, we knew we really liked Laos and I think we both felt (I know I did) that if we didn’t take this loop, we’d regret it. Sure it was a four day motorcycle trip through the Laotian highlands in one of the more remote areas of a fairly remote country and neither of us had spent more than a few hours on a moto…. but we gathered as much info as we could on the loop and all of it, though sparse, was very enthusiastic. So we hopped on a bus to Thakhek. 

      The Thakhek Travel Lodge was the place for aspiring motorcycle loopers?… loopists?… loopers. The food and room were cheap and basic but we’d read that these were the guys that would give you maps, ideas and when necessary coach you on a moto in an empty lot in back before sending you on a 450 km (280 miles) loop into the heart of Laos. For us, the lesson was necessary. We were graduating from automatics to semi-autos. Not because we wanted to but because they’d rented out all the autos. We had agreed that if we’re on a moto for four days, we’d each be getting our own. McKayla had a little bit of a shaky start but after a few laps, she was ready to roll. The bikes were very similar to autos, just left toes down to shift up, left heel down to shift down. 

      The first two hours we headed east towards the mountains, getting used to the motos and the occasional passing truck. I don’t think I took my eyes off McKayla for those first two hours. I was more than a little worried but she was doing great and after we started getting into the mountains, she and I were both a little more comfortable and could take a little time to look around. 

      The loop was dotted with caves, waterfalls, springs and high mountain flood zones but by far the highlight was the drive itself. We wanted to focus mostly on the ride the first day because we knew we’d be on the slow end of the average time but we did make one stop a few hours in at, what else, a cave. Our funny little roadside guide took us a short walk to a wide opening. It was a nice, big open cave mouth with a stream running through it. “Well, that was nice, not sure why we paid a guide for it,” I thought.  Then he pointed at our shoes, then at his shoes. “Oh, we’re going in. Now he’s worth the $2.50.” Sure enough, he led us in and wrapped us through the cave along a nearly unseen path over rock and through some tight gaps and brought us out a different cave entrance and looped us back to the original trail. I had had my doubts about our guide at first but I couldn’t have imagined a better guy to follow into a strange cave who would point out stuff with grunts and clicks.  I tried to get a picture of him with McKayla but he was busy grunting at the other couple that had gone in with us. Glad we had exact change. (Just to be clear, he wasn’t speaking Lao, he was using grunts and clicks to get or direct our attention.)   

      The first road out of Thakhek heading east was fairly wide, it was used as a border crossing route between Vietnam and Laos so we occasionally had to “share” the road with some pretty big and erratic trucks. After the road forked, we continued northeast, the traffic settled and the road narrowed a bit. It really started to get interesting after we crossed over a dam. The road began to climb, steep and sharp curves with jungle cliffs on our right and increasingly better valley views to our left. Eventually, we came to a small town resting on the rim of what was clearly now a very steep valley. Our view from the top didn’t last long as we were thrust back into a dense jungle-canopied descent that snaked its way back down to the valley floor. We stayed down awhile weaving our way through a strange mix of marshland/high mountain valley that’d been flooded since the addition of the dam. The dead standing trees jutting out of the lake was a clear and almost comforting indicator that this was not this place’s natural look; otherwise this much water through a mountain jungle would’ve been more concerning. 

     Our first night stay was at the Sabaidee Guesthouse and we hit that mark comfortably around 4 pm. Only a few other motos had arrived before us so there was still a small room available. When I say small, there were 2 mattresses on the floor with room for a third, that area was our bag space and even McKayla and I had to duck to get inside. Thankfully, they had a nice outdoor area with a fire pit and bocce ball court. McKayla and I got the bocce ball going and made friends. In fact, most of the people staying there we’d end up seeing on and off over the next three days – a small moto tourist community, if you will.  The guesthouse put together a nice BBQ for dinner and we went to bed exhausted, full and ready for more. 

      Our map was nothing more than a thin piece of copy paper with a few key points highlighted. It left out several possible turn offs, wrong ways and any idea of topography but it did give distances between main stopping points and at least some idea of where a few good stops would be. Thankfully, the MapsMe app filled us in on any questions of ‘should we have turned there?’ In one case, it may have even saved us from an awkward conversation at the border if we had continued on our way. This app has saved our ass countless times and has kept McKayla and I from bickering about naviagation since it has been installed. It uses GPS satellites rather than precious data to pin point our location and provide us routes better than Google Maps ever has. One more tool in our arsenal to make us feel a little more confident on the open road. 

      Day 2 started off with a long bridge overlooking more flooded forests. If you zoomed in on MapsMe, it looked like we were riding onto a series of wooded islands just above a flood zone. For the first hour or so, thats exactly what it looked like as we cruised through.  We were constantly reminded of our close proximity to water by yield signs that showed cars driving off land and into waves, can’t mistake that visual. 

      We had hit a few bursts of wind the first day but the second day was much more consistent and colder. The sun was out but we were layered in just about everything we had and it was still giving us a bite. On our to-do list was refuel, find an ATM, stop at a cold spring and a waterfall and it now included stop for hot drinks. McKayla spotted our friends, a nice Dutch couple we’d met while playing bocce ball. We stopped and joined them for a cup of instant coffee. Robert and Mikel are pretty much McKayla and me in 30 years,  at least I hope we’re still doing this kind of stuff in 30 years. Either way, they are a very nice couple with a seemingly endless fascination for travel and new experiences. They almost had us convinced to go to Myanmar… almost. 

     After our errands were taken care of, we took a short dirt road to the cold springs. This road was in an open stretch of prairie and a few times I almost lost control of my bike in the wind but we hunkered down and pushed on towards the huge, jutting mountain wall in front of us. at the base of those mountains sat the cold springs. First things first, McKayla needed to warm up her hands again. This time with a hot cup-o-noodles. Though several of our tourist community had stopped, we were clearly some of the only Americans the local workers had ever seen. Their gasps and tisks quickly turned to curiosity as they blatantly stared at us, some from just a few feet away. I had to suppress the voice in my head from asking “can I help you?”  For whatever reason that voice was said in Eddie Murphy’s voice, but instead of going all Beverly Hills Cop, I went for a swim. It was kind of cold but the clear blue water surrounded by boulders was a little too inviting. I did my best to bolster Lao/American relations by diving for trash in a fairly deep spot of the springs. Not sure if anybody noticed but it was a good swim just the same. Meanwhile, McKayla continued to be gawked at but they were nice enough to bring over a bench where they could stare at her while sitting instead of standing. 

      The rest of the ride on day 2 continued to impress. Valley floors had become dry and distant mountains became our new roadway. Again, the drive was filled with climbs and falls and endless fun, curving roads. On the uphills you had to down shift and blast full throttle around nearly blind corners after having to slow down to check for traffic. On the downhills, the views mixed with the adrenaline of dodging occationally really deep pot holes gave us both a pretty wild high. There was a nice pavillion set up on one of the passes with a great overview of the valley we’d be riding through on day 3. Robert and Mikell had told us the name of a guesthouse that was about 40 km from the main attraction on the loop, the Kong Lor Cave. Just before we reached the guesthouse, we stopped at a waterfall. It was almost dark but the sign claimed it was only 300 meters in from the road so we stopped.  We had to drive almost a mile into the park on a narrow dirt path in order to climb a mile and a half up a rocky hillside so they can shove their 300 meters up their ass. The twin falls were down to a light trickle but I suppose they were worth the effort of a nearly nighttime jungle trek. 

      We ended up better than our French friend (we’ll call him JP for Jean-Pierre, though neither of us caught his name). JP was all over the place, a fast talking, excitable Frenchman we’d run into a few times on the loop and now had the ‘privelage’ of getting him down from the waterfall without him getting lost. He’d gotten lost on the way up to the waterfall, again on the way down, and we found out later that after the waterfall, he drove his moto 80 km in the wrong direction and slept on the side of the road. He was a very nice older guy but he was a prime example of sometimes it’s better to listen than to speak.  

      We made it to the Xokxaykam Guesthouse and it turned out to be probably the best value of cost to room quality that we’ve had so far on our entire trip. Another day, another awesome ride. 

      The Kong Lor Cave was 40 km from our guesthouse. It was inside the Thakhek Loop so it was an out and back. There are several guesthouses near the cave but as we only have our motos for 4 days, we only had 2 days left to do 220 km and if we only did 40 km today (day 3), that would have left 180 km for day 4. We’d been warned the road to the cave wasn’t great but it was much better than the pictures we’d seen. Unfortunately, the sections that weren’t great were patched with gravel and sand, a surface not very forgiving for motos as McKayla discovered. Thankfully, she wasn’t going that fast when it happened but when it did, she came down pretty hard on her left side. I nearly went down as well when I slammed on my brakes in the same shitty patch that had just gotten her. Before I could even get to her, she’d already popped up and started dusting herself off. She’d wrecked right next to a convenient shed so we stopped for a coffee, assess her wounds and calm the adrenaline. Her hands hurt from the impact, she had a good scrape on her elbow and the chapstick in her pocket gave her a good bruise, but all in all she and the bike were in relatively good shape.  

Pretty spot to stop for a forced coffee

      Our beautiful valley ride on this nice clear day continued, slowly, until we reached the cave/end of the road. By this point  in our trip, we’d seen lit caves and dark caves, small caves and big caves, we’ve accessed caves by walking,climbing, kayaking, tubing, swimming, paddle boat and rappelling. Now it was time to tour a cave via speedboat. That’s right, how else would you want to access a completely unlit corridor of shallow water? There are rides at Orlando that are less thrilling then this tour, then again… the likelyhood for injury or death also seemed higher. Our captain had a 3 ft wide boat (I just measured that by imagining how far apart my hands were while I was holding on for dear life) with a little engine sporting about an 8 ft prop with a little propeller. Our captain’s floodlight of a headlamp was on a swivel, never ceasing its side to side sweeping as we flew through this cave. We stopped for a short walk to check out some columns and stalactites then it was back in the boat. We exited the far side of the cave into a stream surrounded by staggering peaks. The boat stopped long enough for a restroom break and a cup-o-noodles. Then, we got to do the ride again, another 40 minutes and we were back to the other side.

      Determined to give ourselves a more reasonable distance on our 4th and final day, we made it back to the Xokzaykam guesthouse. Another mostly successful day on the loop, it was time to get McKayla a well deserved beer.

      The last day we had about 45 km of backroads similar to the ones we’d been on, then we turned onto the highway for the last 100 Km. Shortly after starting our day, we got to another mountain pass overlooking a sweeping view of sharp black cliffs as far as the eye could see, Mordor. 

      The route continued winding down mountain roads and through riverside villages. The highway wasn’t as bad as either of us was expecting. The sky threatened rain but we made it back on dry roads. 

      Day four of the loop was New Years Eve. We rung in the new year at the Thakhek Lodge sitting around a bonfire, listening to fireworks. We couldn’t see them because they went off too low, just about eye level, so low that they were setting off car alarms, but the locals kept lighting them off nonetheless. Our past 4 days sent 2016 out with a bang, it’ll be a tough task but we’re going to do our best to make 2017 even better. 


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