As the clouds merged, thunder cracked and lightening lit up the sky; we wondered what the hell had possessed us to be in the middle of nowhere, on a scooter during a wild Laos storm … the reason for our madness – THE LOOP!
We had survived Tubing in Vang Vieng but that was not enough … no, we were seeking a bigger challenge. A challenge of endurance, teamwork and trust, so we headed for a place that could provide such a challenge – Tha Khaek.
Tha Khaek is a city in central Laos that consists of 70,000 people. The roads are dusty, the restaurants (bar 1 that we will mention later in this post) leave a lot to be desired and there are no interesting sights close-by to see. So why is this the place that can deliver on the challenge we are after you ask? Because it is the departure point for ‘The Loop’, a 300+km ride on some of the worst roads in Laos on a scooter. It’s not all bad though; The Loop winds through some of the most amazing scenery Laos has to offer – hence this being the perfect challenge for us, especially to get Kim back on a bike after her fall in Thailand!
First things first we needed to find the best place to stay in Tha Kheak pre-departure to get organised. If you are wanting to undertake this journey there’s only one place in town you should consider – Tha Kheak Travel Lodge. We checked in to a pretty standard room and got straight to finding bike hire. Mr Ku is your man. He has a little office on the Travel Lodge grounds near the reception and his bikes are fantastic. We sat with him and he explained the route, how far we should get each day and the best places to stay along the way. He explained he was waiting on some bikes to return that evening (you have to get in early as his bikes book out quick) and he would look over them in the morning and if all is well we would be on our way by 9am. We handed over our 100,000Kip per day hire fee and signed on the dotted line – 3 days on The Loop – here we come.
We awoke to an overcast morning, perfect, it won’t be too hot. All geared up, we were off….. but not for long. One of the trusty Laos Storms came rolling in and within 10 minutes of being on the road it was poring down. We pulled into a small shop to wait the storm out however it just would not clear. There was a break in the rain so the other 2 girls who were also departing on the same day headed off. We were getting the pack back on the bike when we found something very important – our rom key for the Travel Lodge – we had forgotten to check-out! So, back to the lodge for us to avoid paying 3 nights accommodation for keeping the key.
When we got back the rain had still not eased so we made a decision … today would not be the day we started The Loop. We spent the day relaxing at the Lodge listening to the rain fall on the roof. It was so relaxing and made us happy we had made the decision to stay put and that we weren’t out there. The rain eased by mid-day and another group of guys decided to hit the road – literally. They headed off at 12pm and were back at 4pm, one of them battered and bruised from coming off the scooter at one of the turns. Seeing the guys return after such a short attempt made Kim a little hesitant. However, this was our challenge and nothing was going to stop us.
The following morning we awoke to the sun shining. Today was the day for departure attempt number two. We were completing The Loop anti-clockwise as recommended by many others who had completed the journey before us. There a four huge books filled with handwritten hints and tips (and horror stories) on how best to complete The Loop kept at the Travellers Lodge. The first day there are 6 or so caves you can visit along the way. We have seen a fair few caves in the past 2 months so we didn’t want to stop at them all so we decided to stop at the first one and go from there. As we left the main highway towards Tham Pha Fa Cave the road turned to dirt, then to mud, then to dirt-ice. The road was so slippery and we were sliding from left to right. It was only a small patch before we hit solid dirt again but it was enough to give Kim a bit of a scare.
As we arrived at Tham Pha Fa cave and we discovered it was also known as the Buddha Cave, where many still go to pay their respects. unfortunately you are not allowed to take your camera inside so you just have to take my word for it – it was amazing. Also, Kim had to put on a traditional Lao skirt to be allowed to enter which was a bit of a laugh.
We were back on the road and decided to skip the rest of the caves and just focus of getting to our stop for the first night. The road was great, main highway for the first few hours and then we it the dirt and gravel. It wasn’t too bad as it was dry and the traffic on the road was minimal. There were a few pot holes here and there we had to doge but overall the roads on Day one were fine. As we weaved our way through little villages we were watching the sky. The clouds were moving as we had seen many times before and a storm was forming. Heads down and time to focus as we upped the speed and made it to our first guesthouse in Thalang Village. We had left early and only made one of the 6 planned stops so it was only mid-day when we arrived – and we were very pleased by this and ready to relax.
There were no other guests at Sabaidee Guesthouse so we were a little hesitant. We decided to go in and check it out anyway and we were greeted by the owner Mr Phaythoun who told us he had a friend visiting and for us to come and join them for a drink. This invitation in itself won us over as a friendly host makes the world of difference. For the rest of the afternoon we downed bottle after bottle of Beer Lao. Mr Phaythoun even had the kitchen made us a plate of french fries as a way to thanking us for staying at his place!
Late afternoon another couple arrived who were also completing The Loop. We spent the evening getting to know each other whilst eating fantastic food and drinking more Beer Lao and playing a few games of Petanque.
The following morning it was a quick breakfast, farewell to our fellow Loop riders whom we were hoping to see at the next stop and we were on the road. We had read day two was hell – no truer words have ever been spoken.
For the first 10km the road is a little rough, there are pot holes to dodge and lots of loose gravel. It was bad but we both mentioned to each other how it wasn’t as bad as we expected. How everyone else was weak and it was a piece of cake. Oh how wrong we were. Within 15 minutes of such thoughts it all changed and we discovered the road everyone mentions. All in all there is not too much to write about for day two other than there is a 62km stretch that takes 4 – 5 hours to conquer. We managed it in 4 hours in extremely bad conditions, according to Duane the quick time was simply put down to his pure skill in keeping the bike moving. The road was wet, slippery and of course – a storm formed. We rode for 4 hours whilst thunder made our ears ring, lightening lit up the sky and rain fell. There was no escaping the storm, no escaping the road, and no escaping that this was the ultimate scooter challenge!
It just kept getting worse ….
Near the end of day two the road eased as we came into a small village. It was 11:30am and all the kids were heading home for lunch from school. We had pulled up for some water and watched as hundreds of kids passed us by, smiling, waving and laughing. It was a definite highlight of the trip.
At the next small village we decided a top-up in fuel was required. It was unlike any fuel station we had ever visited.
Whilst riding we came across some amazing sights, there was always something to see. At one point we stopped to check the map and looked to our side to see a water buffalo – just chilling.
As the roads returned to normal bitumen and the towns got bigger the scenery also changed. The final stretch to our next stop showed sky-high peaks disappearing into the clouds, so beautiful.
We arrived at around 3pm at Konglor which was our second night stop-point. At this stop there seemed to be a lot of crazy bugs around. We were exhausted, covered in dust and ready for a hot shower. Needless to say it was a very early night for some very weary travellers.
The next morning we were up bright and early to head to the main attraction – Konglor Cave; where you ride a boat 7.5km underground through the cave. As we entered the cave all went black (hence no photos as our camera just couldn’t manage a good pic!) – it was so dark however we had remembered our headlamps and Duane’s trusty Led Lenser torch. Even with the extremely powerful Led Lenser in some areas of the cave it was so big that you were unable to see the top.
We got to an area after about 10 minutes where we exited the boat (thongs are best as your feet get wet!) and walked along a path that wound around some amazing formations of stalagmites and stalactite. It was absolutely beautiful and awe-inspiring.
Back in the boat for another 15 minutes and then we could see light ahead. As we exited the other end of the cave it was a beautiful sight with mountains towering over us with still aqua water below us – one of the most peaceful moments of our journey.
We pulled up at a small area where you can buy a drink and then it was back in the boat for the return trip. All in all its a one hour tour and totally worth every cent.
After the cave we were back on the bike and heading for home. We weaved our way up the hills through stunning rainforest roads and then snaked back down the other side. By this stage we were more than comfortable both being on the bike so we managed to up the speed and just enjoy the ride. Then the hills ceased and we were back on the main highway for the next 100km – boring! We couldn’t wait to be back, off the bike and to have completed our challenge.
As we rolled into Tha Kheak we headed for the bus stop and purchased a ticket on the overnight bus to the 4000 Islands. Then we headed for a soup shop we had eaten at on our first nights stay, it wasn’t amazing but it was eatable, but the shop was closed – hmmmmm. We went round the corner and decided on another place which turned out to sell the best food we ended up having in our entire time in Laos! The Green Curry was superb.
After the celebration meal and beer we headed back to return our trusty bike and collect our bags (we left our big packs at the Travel Lodge). Packs back on and Wright2Travel were off, grinning from ear to ear knowing we had just completed an awesome adventure and made so many memories to carry with us.