This is a second installment of a 3-part series about Thakhek Loop in Laos. If you are curious about how our first Day of the Loop went down, have a look here. And stay tuned for the last part in the series explaining logistics of doing the Loop!~
The neat thing about guesthouses on the Thakhek Loop is that they all come with in-house restaurants. The downside is that the food is only so so, but the prices reflect the scarcity of other options around rather than the tastiness quotient. But at least there is lots and lots of condensed milk to go with your breakfast of choice. Oh and fish sugar cubes? Can’t forget those!
Filled up on French toast, sugar, and Nescafe we were ready for another day of adventure.
Itinerary: Tha Lang –Laksao – cool springs – Nahin – Cong Lor village
Gravel and dust greeted us as we set out from Tha Lang village at 8 am. Our goal was to cover the 62 kilometers to the border town of Laksao before lunch – we’ve heard that road conditions would be atrocious, but given the wildly different perceptions among travelers, amplified by the fact that the minute new information hits the internet it becomes outdated, we calibrated our expectations – of just how awful this stretch of Highway 8B would be – to pretty much 50/50.
First going was rather smooth, if dusty, and we almost thought that perhaps the road construction was finished and we were in the clear. Almost. About 30 kilometers in, as soon as we started to relax, roadwork crews appeared. Ah! Since we saw them so soon after leaving Tha Lang, I assumed construction must be nearing the finish line…turns out that thought was also too good to be true – roadwork was happening in haphazard stretches for the next few hours.
Choking back dust and avoiding potholes, Sergey was navigating our little scooter through the vast amounts of mud, sand, loose rocks, and washouts. There wasn’t much choice but to slow down to crawling speed, marvel at how the locals drive on roads like this for years, and just ride it out.
Even with frequent stops – we make it a regular practice to break every half hour to 45 minutes to give ourselves a good stretch and a breather from straddling the bike – the road was painful. Poor Sergey must have had vibration shakes in his hands long after we were done driving for the day. To add insult to injury, the weird post-apocalyptic scenery of the flooded plains of Tha Lang had ended and the scenic limestone karsts were nowhere to be seen. We were left with red mud and a few green trees here and there – a rather poor substitute for jaw dropping landscape from the day before.
Now, if I am perfectly truthful, I am kind of glad we hit this terrible excuse of a highway (I am also NOT the driver, so take my excitement with a BIG grain of
salt sand). But as a pillion, I can tell you that Thakhek Loop probably wouldn’t be the same adventure without this awful, rough stretch. AND – whether you take the same masochistic approach to driving or not – entering Laksao will seem comparable to making it to paradise; Rainbows will appear, Unicorns will gallop across the clouds, and birds will chirrup your triumphant entrance into this wild wild west border town.
Two and a half hours after embarking on our drive we made it to Laksao, right on the border with Vietnam. There was lots and lots of hustle and bustle, and I swear I saw a cowboy or two walking through the swinging doors of the local saloon (full disclaimer, I have very good imagination.) Huge upside of Laksao is the abundance of Vietnamese food businesses in town – and specifically the Vietnamese coffee shops. After a few laps around town we spotted a Vietnamese café, pulled in and were greeted with tin filters of real, steaming hot coffee – a much welcome break from the usual Nescafe we’ve been having in Laos.
Much better! Highway 8A after Laksao, Laos.
Highway 8A was mercifully a vastly improvement on Highway 8B, and in fact it could actually be called a Highway with no sarcastic undertones. We had full intention of finding a “cool spring” designated on our map, but despite a few tries down some dirt tracks we never managed to locate it. Would have been nice given the hot, dusty mess we were after that stretch between Tha Lang and Laksao. We did come across a field with a bunch of cow dung strewn around and kids playing on their bikes, which I suppose is a good enough runner up prize.
Nahin & Kong Lor villages
With the exception of the few detours on the dirt tracks we followed a smooth Highway 8A, which snaked its way up and down peaks and valleys to the villages of Nahin and Kong Lor.We rode on to the tiny village of Nahin, which according to the internet reports had an awesome resort: Sainamhai. We had made the reservation, and were fully prepared to pay the big bucks: $28 per night. However, when we showed up there was a bunch of construction, little in the way of pleasing scenery, and the room didn’t seem all that comfortable. We passed.
We ended up driving the rest of the way to Kong Lor village, which was cute as a button – literary this is what I have written in my travel notebook. There are many homestays in the village, and more than enough guesthouses to host overnight visitors. You can pretty much have your pick. We ended up at XokXay, which had incredible views – I can only imagine how unreal and lush the rice paddies look after the wet season (rather than what we saw at the peak of dry season).
We highly recommend walking through the village itself, you can find plenty of homestays off the main road as well as a few restaurants. We took one of many dirt paths and ended up meandering our way over to the Enjoy Boy guesthouse, which boasts a restaurant right on the water.
Day 3: Kong Lor Village – Kong Lor Cave – Blue Lagoon – Tha Khaek
Kong lor Cave
The Kong Lor cave is probably the biggest attraction in this part of Laos, and it’s definitely a huge reason for doing the Loop. Despite it’s remote location, Kong Lor is quite popular – not only with those who complete the full Loop, but also with many visitors who arrive via a tour bus from Vientianne and Thakhek. For that reason, it is advisable to get to the Kong Lor Cave early – it opens at 8 am, and that’s when we were there waiting at the gate. The guards ambled in surprisingly almost on time, and we were off on the park’s first tour of the morning just a few minutes after that.
There are several different windows collecting fees, which doesn’t seem the most efficient, but then again efficiency is not exactly the name of the game in Laos. There is a “parking fee” window, then a ticket booth, which issues three different receipts – one for admission to the park, another one for admission to the cave, and a ticket for the boat ride. We’ve read elsewhere that the park also charges for head lamps, but in our case the flashlight were included in the boat ride fee. A bit confusing for our sleep addled brains, but we managed.
Kong Lor is often referred to as a natural wonder – which probably has something to do with the fact that over the millennia the Hin Boun River etched it way through 7.5 kilometers of solid limestone, forming the wondrous, cavernous opening.
Kong Lor is pretty awe inspiring, and much, much more impressive than any of the caves that we saw on the first day. There were points when we just stared hard, following the light of our personal projectors and just couldn’t tell how tall the Kong Lor walls were. Our headlamps just couldn’t illuminate it all.
And then there were points when our small wooden canoe rushed past an opening that was just a meter or so above our heads. We wheezed past rock bends, down small rapids, scraped our way across the bottom on a few occasions. The ride through the cave seemed to go on for ages, which could be a little disconcerting and exhilarating at the same time.
The majority of the 7.5-kilometer journey inside Kong Lor is covered by a motorized canoe, and takes about 1.5 hours, most of that time spent in complete darkness. There is one stretch where the guide instructs you to get out to walk through a neon floodlit section of stalactites and stalagmites. And since we were visiting during the dry season, there was also a small portion of the journey where we traversed the cave on foot, helping to push the boat forward in the mud.
I loved our time in the cave, Sergey said that he felt a bit trapped by the time we neared the finish line. Either way, that first sight of the wide opening of the cave out into the dazzling sunlight combined with the rush of fresh air was quite heady. We emerged out of the cave just as locals were ferried to the other side — this journey is just a matter of fact for them.
We docked the boat, and our captain / guide indicated that we would have 15 minutes to visit the village on the other side of the cave. We’ve read reports of some visitors spending a couple of hours ashore. Now, of course there is no way that our boatman would have left us stranded. We briefly entertained the idea of taking our time to explore the environs, but after a short, hot, and sweaty walk through what seemed like a settlement set up for tourist sightseeing we didn’t really feel like pushing the issue.
The reverse trip was much the same – sans the walk through of staglamites and stalcites – and perhaps just a bit faster. The total Kong Lor caving extravaganza took us about 3 hrs.
Day 3 of driving is pretty boring — save for a few scenic overviews Highway 13 offers little in the way of scenery or even obstacles — just a flat, semi-busy road stretching on and on until Thakhek. The total distance between Kong Lor Village and Thakhek is over 200 kilometers, which equates to about 5-6 hours of driving with a few requisite breaks. I wish I could say something positive here, but really, we were just about ready for Highway 13 to be over within an hour of driving, and we only pulled into Thakhek around 5 pm.
Highway 13 was totally the reason we decided to check out the Blue Lagoon. We were SO BORED by the time we got to the signpost for the Lagoon, that it wasn’t a hard decision to make.
Now — there are two cautions we’ve heard about the Lagoon.
One is that the road leading to the magical place is a total sh*t show. Can confirm that as a fact – the Highway 8B stretch after Tha Lang is nothing compared to what we experienced on 18-km, hour hour long drive to the Lagoon. We have no documentary evidence, because it was impossible to take pictures. We fell off the bike twice. Don’t worry, no one was hurt — kind of hard to do that since we were literary driving slower than at walking pace. Also, there are a many twists, turns, and divergent paths – the road to the Lagoon is by no means a straight shot. We stopped whenever we saw locals and asked if we were going the right way. Everyone was friendly, knew what we were talking about, and were totally happy to help with directions.
4 o’clock video we shot at the Blue Lagoon — where are the pictures?! Thakhek Loop, Laos.
Second – I’ve read that you are supposed to ask a village chief permission to swim in the Blue Lagoon. We didn’t find a chief, and when we approached the Lagoon, there were a bunch of locals partying in the part where it’s permitted to swim. They invited us to join them, which we did. Now…I do have to say, we either did not take any pictures here because we were completely overwhelmed by the drive, OR we must have angered the Blue Lagoon spirits by failing to seek permission for jumping into the water and they have erased our memory cards from this point on. Either way, we have no pictures from this pristine and insanely beautiful spot. So, just watch the video, which gives at least some insight into how clear the water is, and how beautiful the surroundings are.
From the Blue Lagoon, once you make it back to the highway (only took us about 45 minutes in reverse since we didn’t need to stop to ask for directions) it’s relatively short time back to Thakhek. Easy peasy at this point. Just keep thinking of that nice hot shower…
Read Day 1 of our Thakhek Loop adventure here, and stay tuned for the last installment in the series where we cover the logistics of doing the Loop!