The bus looked perfectly normal, it even had the appearance on the outside of the typical VIP buses travellers take, which include air con and even, the joy of joys, an actual sit-down toilet. The driver beeped his horn signalling that it was time for the bus to leave the station and we climbed aboard and found our spot at the back where Gareth could stretch out his 6ft 3inch frame. Within minutes we realised we had made a grave mistake choosing this local bus. Not only did the bus not have a working fan, let alone air conditioning, it also had no windows that could be opened. Add to that the increase of passengers every few miles (some had to sit on plastic stools in the gangway, and others even had to sit underneath where the baggage was kept) and it was sheer hell. Even the Laos on the bus seemed to be appalled by the conditions. Oh, and also add to that two little girls, bless them, sitting opposite us on their parents’ laps, vomiting the fruit they had just eaten for breakfast for the first two hours of our journey. After what felt like five hours in a stinky sauna, and only one toilet break, we arrived in the town of Thakhek.
|Awful, awful journey|
Thakhek is in south-central Laos on the Mekong River, very close to the border with Thailand, and well known by travellers for the 450km motorbike route called The Thakhek Loop. We came across this route, which was mentioned in our Lonely Planet guide, only a day before we departed from Vientiane. Gareth is quite the motorbike enthusiast so we decided to see what all the fuss was about and stretch our legs after six days of indulgence in the capital.
We checked ourselves into the Travel Lodge, a quiet backpacker’s base set back just outside of the main part of town. The food was just plain awful; Gareth chose French toast for breakfast, which was deep-fried and dripping in oil. The noodle soup was water and cheap packet noodles and a baguette was more air than bread. Although the cuisine was lacking the rooms themselves were just right for the $10 we were paying per night; a working fan, a large four-poster bed and a bathroom you could swing two cats in.
The next morning we walked towards a hut at the entrance of the Travel Lodge containing a Mr Ku who gave us a hand-drawn map, a 110cc scooter and some really great advice. He explained the route to us and where best to stay the night. We were to travel anti-clockwise around the loop covering 100km the first day, stopping at caves and swimming spots along the way. Our aim for day one was to arrive at a mountaintop village called Thalang and stay for the night. Day two would involve travelling 160km to a town called Konglor and day three was a visit to a 7.5km long cave, created by a river running through the belly of the limestone mountain, suitably called Konglor Cave, followed by a 186km return journey to Thakhek. It was 9:30am and we were ready to hit the road.
As we pulled away it was considered a good opportunity to test the bike’s mechanics and it turned out that the front brakes were practically nonexistent. Nevermind, Gareth thought, we can always compensate it with the back brake and the engine brake, with it being a geared bike. In hindsight it was probably a bad decision, but nevertheless, here we are to tell the tale.
|Check out my scoot-ay!!|
|View along Route 12|
We drove along Route 12 and stopped at a handful of caves and one swim spot as directed by Mr Ku. We visited Tha Fa Lang where we stripped off and skinny-dipped to our hearts content. Actually, what really happened was Gareth jumped in and swam freely, wearing swimming trunks may I add, and then I followed suit, saw a dead fish and virtually leapt out of the water. When we were drying off a German couple, whose names we never found out, arrived on their bikes and exclaimed that they too were doing ‘The Loop’. After a brief chat we sped off on our scooter to our next point.
|Tha Fa Lang|
We didn’t visit all of the caves on Mr Ku’s map, partly due to our ‘you’ve seen one cave you’ve seen them all’ mentality but mainly because we missed the turnings and to do a U-turn would be too disheartening. We carried on to Tham Phainh which was a small cave inhabited by a number of carved Buddhas. This cave is a place of worship and it is really frowned upon to swim in the water there. As we were walking out we noticed a couple had just arrived and were walking down towards the water, I explained that there was nothing to see there and suggested they go where we had just come from. An old Lao lady was stood by the sign saying ‘No Swimming’ and looked furious. She began to mimic washing and was clearly telling us we weren’t allowed in the water and subsequently frog marched us out of the cave.
|Inside Tham Phainh|
|An alter for worship inside the cave|
Next was the slightly larger cave of Tham Aem. We had to pay a small entrance fee to visit this cave, which we weren’t made aware of beforehand. It was a pleasant enough cave and a cool treat to be out of the baking midday sun. Outside of the cave there was litter everywhere and it really spoilt the experience. As it had been Lao New Year we assumed that this was the aftermath. Still, its something we really take for granted in Britain; our care for the local environment is taught to us from a young age.
|Outside the entrance to Tham Aem|
For the next three hours we continued on to our days resting place of Thalang. We stayed at the lovely Sabaidee Guesthouse ran by a very sweet man called Mr Phaythoun Boungnalath. Our accommodation was basic; a bed, a toilet and a fan, all for around $8, but the service provided was exceptional. Unfortunately the power cut just as we were ordering dinner and we were worried that the chicken kebab and pork ribs we’d ordered wouldn’t be all that great. We were so wrong. They had cooked us a wonderful meal in their pitch-black kitchen. To top it off they set up a bonfire for us to sit around (the German couple were also staying). The four of us spent the next few hours getting to know one another as we watched the bonfire embers slowly go out.
|Sunset view from Sabaidee Guesthouse|
By 8am the following morning we had set off and began a 62km journey over the worst road I have ever experienced, called Route 8B. Mr Ku, Mr Phaythoun, and most of the people who had left comments in the Travel Lodge’s Log Book, had all described this stretch of road as ‘fun’ due to its bumps and spectacular views. For the first hour or two it really was, and it tested Gareth’s skills on more than one occasion, but for the last hour the suspension was knackered and every bump sent searing pain into my bum. Gareth was also mentally exhausted having to dodge potholes every 2ft. Although it was only 62km it took us about 4 hours to reach the start of the tarmac of Route 8A.
|This is nothing compared to some sections of Route 8B|
Once on 8A it was time to open the throttle and make our way to a cool spring that was at the halfway point to Konglor. Luckily enough we had stopped for lunch in a town that had the only restaurant for miles and asked where this cool spring (or bo nam yen in Lao) was. We were told to go down the road then turn right and keep going for 3km. I don’t know how we found the turn off, but we did. There were times along this 3km dirt track that we really thought we should head back, it wasn’t going to be here and we were wasting our time. But sure enough the cool spring was there and it was stunning. As had occurred at the caves we’d visited the day before, we knew we had arrived based on the orange-clad monks sat around the entrance. We spent a good hour swimming around fully clothed and jumping off rocks into the clear cool blue water. Our bottoms were well pleased.
|Cool Spring – Just stunning|
After a few photo opportunities we decided that we really needed to move on and make our way to Konglor. You might think that sitting down for a few hours while a bike does all the hard work is straightforward, but with being fully exposed to the sun and the dust sticking to your face, not to mention the insects flying into your eyes when you forget to put on your sunglasses, it can become quite unpleasant. In the end I decided to cover myself by wearing Gareth’s jacket because the stinging became too painful.
We arrived in Konglor just after 4pm and after a short tour of the town trying to find a place to stay we went for Chantha Guesthouse. At $10 a night, surrounded by fields of the most unusual, but pretty crops, it was spot on. They also had four fluffy dogs and anywhere with a pet, or four, is our kind of place. We slept like logs and didn’t get bitten by mosquitoes once.
|Chantha Guesthouse, Konglor|
|View from the balcony at Chantha Guesthouse|
As we were checking out, Gareth asked the owner what was planted in the fields. It turned out to be tobacco! I was amazed. Show me a picture of a ganja leaf and I will tell you what it is but I didn’t have the first clue that these tall, elegant crops topped with small pink flowers would have been tobacco.
We drove the short distance to the entrance of Konglor Cave, paid a fee to drive in, parked up and walked towards what we believed to be the ticket office. It was all a little confusing but we realised that even though we had paid to come in that we still needed to pay for a boat to take us through the 7.5km long cave. It was also extra for headlamps and rubber flip-flops. We already had the flip-flops but we decided to opt out of the headlamps.
|Although rather an unattractive shot – the entrance to Konglor Cave|
After being given our lifejackets we didn’t really know what to do next, but we were soon ushered along and shown which way to go towards the cave. It got really dark really quickly inside the mouth of Konglor and I began to realise that this wasn’t like any other cave I’d visited, I also really wanted a headlamp by this point. We were shown to our boat and were soon tugging along with one guide at the back steering and another at the front spotting.
|Bringing in our boat|
Konglor Cave is unequivocally breathtaking. There are times when the top of the cave reaches cathedral proportions with mammoth stalagmites and stalactites creating an eerie otherworld feel. Our camera was rubbish inside the cave and we weren’t able to capture one particular spot where we were able to walk along a carefully constructed path that wound around these ancient limestone pillars.
Occasionally, when the water depth was too low, we would have to get out of the boat and push it along to deeper waters – in the pitch black darkness. In the end the pilot would speed up and hope that the momentum would keep us going. At times, there were also rocky sections that meant the boat had to be manually dragged through fairly heavy rapids. Total respect has to go to the men who do this for a living.
After a 30-minute break on the other side; a chance for us to buy a coke and for the guides to experience natural daylight, we got back onto the boat, and although a little terrified, the adrenaline was keeping us pumped. We learnt to brace ourselves when the boat would speed up, as we now knew what to expect; a sudden jolt, a few jerks and we would be on our way.
|Going back inside – scared much?!|
The whole journey from start to finish, including the break, lasted about two and a half hours but it felt like no time at all, and once we saw daylight forcing its way in we knew our Konglor Cave encounter was now over.
We were soon back on our scooter and found ourselves travelling the final leg of our journey with a feeling of awe and fulfilment. We had spent the last three days experiencing a part of the world that is still yet to be spoilt by fat cat developers and eager tourists. What a wonderful opportunity we have been given to tell you this story, but really, we wanted to keep it to ourselves because the Thakhek Loop is truly a masterpiece of nature.