‘The Loop’ is a journey starting from Thakhek and covering over 500 km of some of the most fantastic scenery in Laos. Our guidebook tells us of terrible road conditions, steep mountain climbs, long hours in the saddle and to expect possible breakdowns and certainly flat tyres. Apparently the road conditions vary, but include sandy tracks, dirt roads full of potholes and steep ascents. This journey has a detour to a spectacular cave, Kong Lor, which we should be able to drive to seeing as it is the dry season. If the road is out then apparently we will need to hire a boat to get to the cave. What kind of vehicle will you use for this treacherous journey you ask? Surely a 4 wheel drive or a couple of dirt bikes? They are both sensible suggestions and certainly suitable for the challenge, but Anke and I decided to do the journey on cheap Chinese mopeds instead; possibly the worst choice of transport for this journey with the possible exception of roller-skates. Why? Because we couldn’t find any other type of vehicle to rent in Thakek and we weren’t going to miss this road-trip.
It seems that everyone who attempts to travel these treacherous roads does so on one of these cheap Honda Dream rip-offs. For some reason these crappy mopeds are all they have on offer in Thakhek, which is strange as the primary reason that travellers come to Thakhek is to do ‘The Loop’. A few travellers who are cleverer than yours truly rent dirt bikes in Vientiane and drive south to take up the challenge. But can they knock back a beer on their return and say that they risked life and limb on a cheap 100 cc semi-automatic piece of crap thrown together in China using the cheapest materials possible with no thought for quality or durability? No! But we can!
Day 1 / Puncture 1: East from Thakhek along Route 12 to Mahaxai
Hey this road isn’t bad at all. Not too many potholes, although a fair amount of water buffalo and cows on the road. But where aren’t there cows on the road in central Laos? The scenery is spectacular and we stop off at every cave and lake possible. After a few caves I began to think they all look like big holes in the ground, but I was soon proved wrong when we stopped at Tham Nan Aen and were charged 10,000 kip each to see a spectacular cave themed with graffiti, multi-coloured fluorescent strips and litter. I took a few photos and have decided that cave photography is not really for me. Feeling a little caved-out, we pulled onto the dirt road to Mahaxai to spend the night in a grubby hotel by the river. It’s the only accommodation in town so they don’t have to worry about competition and it showed. Oh, and I only got one puncture on the dirt road section to Tham Pha (Budda Cave); a cool little cave filled with 450 year-old Buddas that a farmer found one day when he was hunting bats.
Day 2 / North to Lak Sao (Lak Xao)
After a nice breakfast and a look at the local market stalls we headed out. What a shitty day of riding this was. The terrible road conditions our guidebook told us about have changed. We spend the day riding on a road that has been half-built. They had put the material down and made a good attempt at making it flat, but not top surface had been added yet. Big trucks carrying dirt or logged trees hurtled past us, kicking up so much dust I thought I was in a sand-storm every time one went past. Our guidebook mentions a guesthouse to stay in at Ban Tha Long that we like the sound of. The only problem was that all the villages have since been relocated in preparation for flooding the area because of the new hydro-electric dam. We did pass through the (new) village, it does have a guesthouse, but unfortunately all the villages in that area look like open prisons and the scenery is mostly flooded forest with dead trees poking out the water everywhere. It was most unsettling and we decided to open up those cheap Chinese throttles and hopefully make it to Lak Xao before nightfall, which we did. Just.
Day 3 / Punctures 2 & 3: East to Kong Lor Cave
We set off at 6 am to catch a beautiful sunrise over spectacular mountain scenery. The only problem was that we were actually driving in a cloud for around the first hour so we didn’t see a sunrise or much else really. We had to drive quite slowly because of being in a cloud, so it couldn’t have been the speed that made me get my second puncture. Luckily everyone in Laos drives cheap Chinese Honda Dream rip-offs, and so you never have to take your disabled machine very far before you pass a shack on the road where someone can help you out for the price of a packet of crisps.
As the day went on the mists cleared and we drove through some spectacular scenery. And on good roads too! It seems that they’ve been busy building roads since our guidebook was printed.
Later on in the day we made it to Ban and stopped at the local tourist office. They told us that there was a new road to get to Kong Lor cave. They told us to drive 30 km to the T-junction and then turn left and it would be easy to find. It turns out that he meant to say drive 3 km and turn left. Oh i wish we had asked someone who had not been on their first day at work! It was on our little ‘detour’ that i got my third puncture, also on the front tyre. Anke says I get them because I drive too fast or not carefully enough or something like that but i’m not sure exactly because I wasn’t listening 100% when she was talking about it.
It was too late to go to the cave now so we found a cheap little guesthouse and relaxed.
Day 4 / Punctures 4: Kong Lor Cave and back to Thakhek
i will have to write this bit later, but there is definitely a puncture involved.