Sergey and I were sitting on the dock, enjoying a nondescript Southeast Asian beer – probably a Cambodian one, since local brands tend to be cheaper. The lakeshore guesthouse camps in Kampot, Cambodia are a backpacker mecca; travelers come down to relax, party, and swap stories. A fellow backpacker put down a Beer Lao next to my booster pillow. We chatted about the starry night, the warm water, I asked about his drink of choice. “Oh Man, Beer Lao, is the BEST…Have you been to Laos?” Nope, not yet. “OK. You MUST do the Loop!” Ohhhh, interesting, what is this loop you speak of…I spent the next couple of hours making mental notes on all the adventures we would have in Laos, including the Thakhek Loop.
In hindsight, I can’t believe we weren’t aware of the Loop. These days if I speak with anyone about Laos, it seems like everyone knows about Thakhek, and has driven, or plans to drive – The Loop. Probably something about motorbiking the backcountry roads, crisscrossing through sleepy villages, lush countryside, krast mountains, and of course, the surreal flooded plains that gets most travelers’ attention. Then there is the surreal, massive Kong Lor cave at the end of the journey – billed as natural wonder, it’s cavernous insides are only navigable by boat. Despite the Loop’s popularity, the only time we saw other travelers during our three-day adventure was in the evenings, resting up after a day of motorbiking at one of the few guesthouses scattered along the way.
So yea – given the scenic route and the relative deserted roads – the popularity of the three-day, 450-kilometer Thakhek Loop through Central Laos totally makes sense.
So there we were – ready to take on the Loop. We had rented our 110cc automatic scooter the night before, packed light day packs, studied the hand drawn map, and set off on the Route 12 leading us out of town by 8:30 am. Laos doesn’t exactly have heavy traffic, and Route 12 in particular was pretty much empty – save for an occasional motorbike, or – even more rarely – a construction or delivery truck.
We did the loop counter-clockwise, starting on the southern end, so that we could build up our cave sightseeing experiences (and expectations) up to the spectacular Kong Lor cave, which we would visit in the morning of Day 3. Another advantage to starting out counter-clockwise is that the road is quiet and there are plenty of caves and swimming holes on visit on Day 1, meaning that this is the easiest driving day of the 3-day adventure.
Day 1 Itinerary: Thakek– Xan Cave- Xieng Liap Cave – Tha Falang Swimming Hole – Sa Pha In Cave – Nam Theun 2 Visitor’s Center – Tha Lang Village
Within minutes of leaving Thakhek proper we were surrounded by beautiful limestone krast cliffs. And maybe half hour or so into driving Route 12 we began to see signposts for the Loop’s attractions: mostly caves, interspersed with creeks, small waterfalls, and swimming holes.
We had made the decision the night before to skip the Tham Pha Pa or the Buddah cave and the Aen cave. Word on the street is that both are touristy, charge parking fees, admission, and at times a “skirt fee.” Plus, the Buddha cave doesn’t allow photography. Having seen plenty of Buddha / holy caves in Asia, we decided to pass on both.
Our first cave met – but by no means exceeded – our expectations. Xan cave supposedly translates as Elephant Cave, but for the life of us we couldn’t figure out was so “elephanty” about it. We were requested to make a sightseeing “donation,” after which we climbed up stairs to inspect a several “ancient antiquities” — Buddha statues, jars, as well as other newly constructed holy deities of all sizes. Pining for more adventures we made our way through the maze of rocks and small cave rooms that all smelled terribly of bat poop. No additional entertainment to be had — pretty much typical Southeast Asian cave. At least it was down a nice country road not too far off the main route.
Xieng Liap Cave
By comparison Xieng Liap turned out much better. For starters it was much bigger. There were no Buddha or deity statues, but instead an underground lake, and plenty of sun rays streaming through the openings high up top, illuminating the azure water. Xieng Liap required quite a bit of climbing, scrambling, squeezing through openings, and hopping over obstacles. For large stretches inside Xieng Liap we had to walk on sharply inclined vertical rocks, which was rather difficult in flip flops. We ended up going barefoot much of the time, but kind of wished we had our hiking shoes. There were also stretches of the cave where there was no dry land, so we would have had to go sans shoes anyway. Oh and a headlamp or some sort of other flashlight is probably a good idea for this cave.
Tha Falan Swimming Hole
Ok – so we’ve read and heard great things about Tha Falan Swimming Hole (which, by the way, translates as foreigner swimming hole). Unfortunately for us – it was a total dud. I think it’s all about timing – we were visiting at the height of dry season, so the water was rather shallow. Rocks were visibly sticking out of the water, and the bottom of the lake was very clearly visible. Despite being more than ready for a swim, we passed on the foreigner swimming hole — it just didn’t look appealing, and in fact looked kind of dangerous with all of the sharp rocks on the bottom. On top of that, there were clean up crews in the area loading cases upon cases upon cases of empty Beer Lao bottles into trucks. Doing the Loop just a few days after the biggest national holiday – Songrkan – we saw the aftermath everywhere. Tha Falan Swimming Hole must have hosted one massive party.
Sa Pha In Cave
Our last cave for the day – the Sa Pha In – I would rank it somewhere between the Xan and the Xieng Liap caves on the excitement scale. Some neat Buddha statues, festive flags, and signs prohibiting swimming in what at this point in the season looked more like a puddle rather than an underground lake. Oh, and of course, bat poop. Lots of it. But, given that there was very little effort involved in exploring this cave, and no admission fees, I would say it was worth a stop.
Nam Theun 2 Visitor’s Center
We strongly recommend a visit to the Nam Theun 2 Visitor’s Center, right next the Powerhouse at the foot of the Nakai Plateau. In and of itself, the Nam Theun 2 Visitor’s Center itself isn’t super exciting – there is a good exhibition on the hydroelectric dam, including 3D models and photographs, and a guide who is happy to walk you through the exhibits and explain, in English, the history of the electricity generating project. It is worth your time, because of the sheer impact that the Nam Theun dam has had on this region.
A poor, underdeveloped country plagued by unexploded ordinance, there isn’t a whole lot of economic activity or development happening in Laos. In recent years, the government has made a big push to exploit Laos’ natural resources, looking to the Mekong River and contiguous tributaries as one avenue in this quest. Development of hydroelectric power – which is mostly exported to China, Vietnam and Thailand – has drastically impacted the surrounding nature as well as the way of life for the nearby villages. Although the project has brought development – healthcare clinics, schools, bio-conservation– critics also claim contamination of water supply, depleted fish supply, and displacement of local villagers as major drawbacks of Nam Theun . Hydroelectric power is quite a political hot potato in Laos at the moment, so the Nam Theun 2 Visitor’s Center is a perfect opportunity to learn a bit more about the government policy. Plus, you wouldn’t be driving on such a nicely paved road if it wasn’t for the dam. Now think on that, as you speed away to your guesthouse for the night.
Tha Lang village
We got into Tha Lang village pretty early, before 4 pm and checked into Phosy Guesthouse. We were pretty pleased with the spotless private bungalow that comes with a double bed, a bathroom with hot water, and an awesome porch with a hammock for 50,000 LAK. The sunset view and Beer Lao from onsite restaurant are pretty clutch too.
If you have time, check out the village. All of the settlements along the Loop are new, built on high ground areas there weren’t flooded by the Nam Theun dam. Many locals make money on fishing in the artificially created flood plains. The houses are on stilts since the water can rise pretty high when the dam gates are opened. Swimming is highly dangerous in the area since the water can rise pretty fast. Or so we were told. Overall it’s quite a surreal landscape, that reminded me a bit of this movie I saw about nuclear holocaust when I was little (seriously — my early childhood took place during the Cold War, and nuclear deterrents and containment was a thing).
This is first installment of Thakhek Loop adventure. Stay tuned for Thakek Loop Day 2 & 3 and Thakhek Loop Logistics posts.