Along the Mekong River near the middle of Lao lay the dusty town Thakaek, a launch pad for wild-eyed adventure seekers. My friends and I stayed at Thakaek Travel Lodge, where a cool Mr. Ku, the proprietor, serves adrenaline one motorbike after another. The Lodge is also a guesthouse/preparation pad for “The Loop” — a 450km half-dodgedly-paved, half-dirt, pot-hole infested square of local roads (obstacle course?) that is notorious for leaving backpackers stranded with flats, skinned asses, and the occasional unconscious flight to a Bangkok Hospital.
We weren’t exactly sure what we were in for until we glanced through the Lodge’s Log Books, a grisly collection of past Loop-takers’ experiences, some including detailed (a few in color) maps. Accounts of slide-outs, flats, engine trouble, infected road rash, hitchhiking, and broken bones from all over the world filled the pages. Yet nearly everyone, including the broken bones, claimed it was one of their most unforgettable travel experiences.
My desire to ride grew with every turn of the page. I felt like the guys in Goonies when they discovered the map to One-Eyed Willy’s treasure, only the reward here was traveling back in time to see the untouched Lao landscape. After taking down my own notes and advice, we decided to make the journey in two nights and three days, counter-clockwise. According to Mr. Ku, three days minimum is good to see most of the scenic spots along the way. He gave us a map and told us some tips on where to stay, checkpoints for time, what to see, warnings, etc. Some writers suggested four days was better and two dudes claimed they did it in two, which in hindsight, is a ridiculous feat.
The bikes we rented at 100,000kip a day were almost new 100cc KoLaos (Korean design). They are the basic 4-speed, no clutch bikes swerving all over SE Asia. Mr. Ku assured us they would make it with no serious problems, unless we were the cause. He holds your passport as a deposit and if you total one of his bikes, you foot the $850 bill for a new joyride. I guess you could just skip town back to Vientiane, hop over to your embassy and claim a lost passport, but with Mr. Ku’s easy-going character, you’d be sure to suffer a heavy dose of karma.
- Mr. Ku’s Map
After a quick check and test drive of the bikes, we set off at 9:30am for our first day riding. As we were all strapped in and ready to go, a tall older Australian guy came up and sent us off with a careful anecdote.
“You can never go too slow,” he said. “I just came back from visiting my mate at an ICU in Bangkok. He was side-swiped by a truck a couple days ago.”
“Are you serious?” was all I could reply.
“I thought he was long gone when I first saw him…he was in terrible shape,” he continued. “It’s a wild ride out there. You guys take care of yourselves.”
We slowly drove out the gate, trying to think positive after our little pep-talk.
- Outside the Buddhist cave Tham Pha Pa
With our tanks below E, we filled up at a gas station(30,000kip for three liters) and took off smiling in the morning sun. The first stop on the itinerary was a cave called Tham Pha Pa, which is off the highway down a beaten dirt road. Tham Pha Pa is a Buddhist cave, shoes off and no photos, with many old stone Buddhas sitting between stalagmite formations — a great place for tranquil meditation.
We trudged on and back out to the main road to head to our next stop, Falang Lake, a place where you could swim. Riding along the paved road, we were surrounded by steep karst limestone mountains jutting up from harvested rice fields. They loomed above us like stone giants as we sped along, keeping a steady 55 kph. We took a left on the dusty road to the lake and our tires received their first battering as they bounced over jagged rocks embedded in the path. I imagined my first flat happening at any moment, yet we arrived unscathed at the mostly still and quiet lake for a little stretch and rest. I had read in the log book about some travelers getting their bags stolen here while going for a dip, so we passed on swimming.
Next on down the road was another cave, this one named Tham Pha Inh. We knew it wasn’t too far from the lake, so I kept a keen eye out for a turn off sign. We came around a mountain and the sign suddenly appeared for a quick left turn. I hit the brakes and checked my side-mirror for traffic behind. There was a truck edging up behind Blake and Tara’s bike, who were about 15 meters behind me, so I made a sharp left onto the road and looked back to make sure they saw the truck too. Blake started to veer left as the truck was speeding up to pass. I yelled, “Watch out!” while looking back, but when I looked ahead, my bike slid-out on some large gravel. I crashed down on my right side, scraping up my palm and forearm. I pulled myself out from under the bike and lifted it back up, hoping it would start up again. With a couple tries, it turned over and I breathed a sigh of relief. It could have been worse, but the wreck did bend the right-side mirror and even threw out the steering alignment about 15 degrees to the right. I was tempted to try to straighten it out, but it wasn’t too bad and I didn’t want to run the risk of loosening it even more.
- The first of four sides
We parked the bikes and headed up some stairs into the cave. There were some Lao masons laying some new bricks who were excited to practice their best ‘Hello!’ Upon entering, you’re surrounded by calcite formations all around and even some tacky streamers running across the middle. Walking down to the right, we found a mirror pool of water reflecting the walls and a sun-drenched opening outside. No one else was present besides us and I couldn’t believe how quiet and still it was. We found out later that the locals believe the cave has healing powers, and after chilling out for about 25 minutes near the water, I definitely felt a sense of natural comfort. We thought about taking a swim, but it’s a good thing we didn’t since the water is regarded as sacred. With the unknown awaiting ahead, we didn’t need any bad luck.
- Tham Pha Inh
- Tempting Waters
We were on schedule when we arrived at the next cave (Tham Nang Aen) around noon for lunch. After eating some tasty minced buffalo and fried rice, we paid 10,000kip each for a ticket and headed inside. This was the largest cave yet, but also decorated with the most cheese. The lighting was either long fluorescents with no shame showing their cords or long plastic rope-lights strung up all over the place. Nonetheless, it was still spectacular. One of the stalagmites was even lit up like a stiff Christmas tree. There was also a pool of water down below, but because of a strong wind that seemed to come out of the dark interior, the surface was a little rougher. We found two plastic boats docked near the entrance and decided to check them out. With no one in sight we hopped in both only to find no paddles. There was a small wooden bench seat in mine, so I improvised and slowly paddled with it out while pushing Blake and Tara’s boat further into the darkness. We definitely got our money’s worth.
- Tham Pha Aen
- Happy Stalagmite
We hit the road a little after 2pm, giving us a few hours before our planned arrival to the village of Tha Lang, where we would stay overnight. The roads were still pretty good, mostly paved with a few rocks and pot-holes here and there, but when we reached the village of Nyommalat, our average speed dropped from about 45kph to 15kph. The asphalt ended and we began a 40km sandy slip-and-slide through some small mountains. This was the road parallel and not far from the Vietnam border. We had to lurch foward through road-packed stones, buffalo-sized pot holes, and fine red sands that swallowed our skinny tires with ease. My eyes were constantly scanning the road a few meters ahead to decide which obstacle was least dangerous to conquer. More than a few times the bike fish-tailed and I almost lost it, saved only by a quick reflex of throwing a foot down to keep the bike horizontal. I’ve had experience riding motorcycles, but this was a whole new level of cautious skill. And to think, for some people, this is their first lesson on a bike, which would be terrifying and even masochistic in nature.
- Dust Bandits
- 1st Day Sunset
After a couple hours of riding treachery, our fuel needles were buried in E with no stations in sight. We knew we had to be getting close to Tha Lang, but the sun was sinking lower with every fire of the piston. I didn’t want to ride at night because the headlamp was part of the steering, and with my crooked alignment, I knew all I’d see in the dark would be the gravel shoulder. At the end of a small village was a tiny hut with old barrel-style fuel pumps and we pulled in to quench our bikes’ thirst.
I was filthy. My jeans and shirt were caked with a fine red dust from my shoulders to my Converse and a dirty stencil of my sunglasses was sprayed around my eyes. An elderly woman dressed in a colorful sarong came out of the hut and handed us a rubber hose to put in the tank. Above the 55-gallon drum sat fuel in a glass tube with red marks on the side measuring each liter and gravity does the rest. You wouldn’t want to light one up here. The woman seemed mostly pleased of our presence and we paid about 12,000kip a liter, which seemed a little high, but I just see it as giving to the local economy.
- Get Pumped
With the sun just over the horizon, we carried on. 15 minutes later we finally made it to Tha Lang. We knew of two guesthouses there, Saibadee and Tha Lang, and we stopped at Saibadee first, but decided to check out Tha Lang too, which was at the end of town on the right before a bridge. About 5 other riders, who also rented from Mr. Ku yet we hadn’t met them since they had an earlier start, were already there. We were the tail of the dustblazers. Blake and Tara checked into the last of four bungalows available, so I was left thinking where I would sleep. I didn’t really mind, I’d sleep by the fire if I had to, but the owner, a quick-talking jolly guy named Paitoon, said I could sleep in his tent for free, no worries. Little did I know he meant free spiders and the early dawn sounds of him and his young little misses rocking the wild in his bungalow next door.
- Tha Lang Bungalows and Tent
No flats, a little road rash, no flights-for-life — the first day was already worth the trip.
The next morning I woke up around 7:30 and was feeling anxious to saddle up on the bike. I was having coffee and an English-style breakfast with the other riders when Paitoon walked into the dining area.
“Hey!” he said while patting me on the back. “This guy make so much noise last night. I sleep very little!”
I laughed. “Me?! I was the one making noise?”
“I forgot to tell you a girl comes to the tent in the early morning. Was she nice?”
The other riders, a young German couple, an Aussie guy, and another couple from England and Romania but live in Sweden, were cracking up yet also curiously studying my reaction.
I didn’t know what to say. He’d completely put the joke on me about his more than just audible marathon. I just smiled and was thinking This guy! What a trip! It was like a passive-aggressive apology for waking me up with the sound of love.
We finished up packing and paid our bill, saying our goodbyes to Paitoon and his friendly staff. “The next 50 kilometers are the worst!” he laughed and sent us on our way.
He wasn’t kidding. We didn’t think it could get any worse but the road turned into a winding safari through the jungle. Pot-holes doesn’t do it justice; more like a washed out ditch that only years of weather and the elements could dig. I lost Blake and Tara after about 10 km because I couldn’t even keep a quick eye on them in my mirrors. I stopped about 30 minutes in and waited, hoping they were just taking it slow and nothing else. There was no sign of civilization anywhere, just thick foliage and huge boulders necking out from the sides of the hills. Silence.
Finally they came around the corner and pulled up beside me. “I’m getting pretty low,” said Blake looking at his fuel gauge. We thought there would be another barrel pump on the way, but we now had a feeling the jungle was empty of petrol. We moved on with the hope that we’d see a clearing or a sign of human life soon. I still had about a quarter tank, so I was tempted to switch bikes to ease up on the weight, just in case. We definitely didn’t want to be stranded out here as we hadn’t seen a car or another motorbike for over an hour. At every turn around a corner, we looked ahead, anxious and weary about our chances to make it out of the jungle ditch on two wheels.
An hour later we came upon a clearing and in the distance I could see the brown tops of grass-roof housing. Throes of bare-foot children played across the road as we rolled into the village. Slowly, we drove along searching for any form of fuel dispensary and as we neared the end of the village with nothing in sight, we pulled into a kind of center where a huge group of men were standing around. I figured one of them would be able to help us out. On the back of Mr. Ku’s map is a list of useful Lao phrases, most of them designed just for the trip, and I pulled it out to see what kind of language barriers I could chip away.
“Paumnamun?” I asked in my best accent as they all looked us over in a curious glare. A few of them chuckled at my attempt and pointed back to the other side of the village where we came in. We hadn’t seen any sign of fuel there, but we hopped back on our bikes and headed back. The last wooden hut on the right side had the most potential so I shouted “Paumnamun!” again from the road to a lady inside. “Mee!” (have) she yelled back while holding up a two-liter water bottle filled with a magenta liquid. We paid her 23,000kip a bottle and poured the fluid carefully into the tanks. There were children covered in dust everywhere: some sitting on a dirt pile throwing rocks, others on a tree stump eating some yellow gelatin out of a plastic cup, and a few who seemed to be playing a game of who could get closest to us without running away. There was also a huge black hog dragging around its piglets on the ground through its sagging pot-belly. Lao pigs have it so much better off than the soon-to-be-deli swine locked up back home.
Can I kick it?
We took a stroll through the village to absorb the cultural curiosity. The majority of homes had no electricity or running water, mostly just a large living room built with wooden walls and a thatch-roof held up off the ground by thick wooden stilts. Underneath the houses were each of the families’ hogs snorting through food scraps and small chickens pecking everywhere. A family was sitting outside on the ground, waiting for a large rectangle of rice spread out to dry in the afternoon sun. One of the women was breastfeeding her two-year old boy while looking at us, not a drop of shame.
The children at the bottled gas hut waved their goodbyes to us as we set off for more bone-rattling roads. The plan for the day was to get through the worst riding around noon, then cruise on the 3rd leg (paved) all the way to the valley village of Konglor, where we would spend our second night. But first we had to get through the last of the treachery. We were still riding north along the Vietnam border at this point, crawling to the town of Laksao where we would take a left onto road 8A.
About half-way to Laksao we were running low on fuel and we came upon a long stretch of houses, where crossing the road seemed to be a hobby for everyone. We played a kind of live slalom through the chickens, sleeping dogs, goats, running children, and pretty much anything that moves. Add that onto still maneuvering through large sinkholes and sudden upheavals of asphalt and you have a new motorcycle arcade game. We pulled over to the first set of barrel pumps we saw, where two guys were sitting at a table. We motioned to the pumps, which were clearly full, but they told us they didn’t have any and pointed us down the road. Maybe they didn’t know what to do with us.
At the next set of pumps or what could be called the ‘Gas & Daycare’, we were met by two smiling young boys. One was standing on a tree stump, all ready to go, as we pointed to how many lines we wanted. Nearby was a small store selling various snacks and general goods, where a mother sat holding her baby. A group of boys in front were keeping their distance, some staring at us with wonder as they hid behind one another. I walked up to them and said “Sabaidee!” They laughed and grabbed onto each other, as if preparing for another surprise…It speaks Lao! I held up my hand to one in an attempt to high-five, but he just stood there confused, clutching his hands at his waist. I high-fived Blake to demonstrate the form of camaraderie and then tried again. He laughed and swung his arm back and landed a hard one and then his friends caught on and started high-fiveing all over the place. Globalization is not always serious.
- Work & Play
The sun was high, so we rode on and finally reached Laksao around two-o’clock. We weren’t sure where the left turn was for road 8A, so we pulled off at a main intersection and Blake showed a couple guys at a restaurant our map. They pointed down to the next intersection at the end of town and we headed off and took a left onto our west-ward 3rd leg. The road here was smoothly paved, and we opened up the bikes back up to a steady 60kph. We glided beside green crop fields that stretched out to a long, rugged mountain-ridge that seemed to parallel the road forever. I cruised along with a feeling of exhilarating liveliness and I couldn’t help but hoot and holler like a mad-man who’d just stolen a motorcycle.
On the map I’d marked a waterfall I’d read about in the log book, but we saw no sign or turnoff that seemed to lead to one. We were getting hungry so we peeled our eyes for a place to eat. There wasn’t much on the side of the road except for small houses and little snack shops, so we kept on until we reached a winding road heading through the mountains. It was now time to pull some gravity around sharp turns and breath in the fresh mountain air. We finally came upon a restaurant perched up a hill and stopped for a meal. All the tables were set-up for dining, yet they were also completely empty. There was a woman and a man there and Blake gave them the universal sign of eating: a hand picking out of the other to the mouth. They said something and we, for some reason, assumed they didn’t have any food to serve. We awkwardly said thanks and wondered where we stumbled over the language barrier.
Outside the restaurant was a row of stairs leading down into a thick river ravine in front of a steep rock wall. We needed a stretch, so we wandered on down. We crossed a bridge to what looked like an old Buddhist worship site that also led into a cave. The cave entrance was barely visible, and you had to climb and duck down through a small crevice to get in. It was completely dark, save for a little sunshine slanting through an opening where a stream flowed. We turned on a flashlight to peek into the darkness. There were various fluorescent lights strung about, yet none of them were on. Our light wasn’t bright enough to stab past the back of the deep blackness. With the stream leading out of it, it probably went on and under the mountain. It was a little sad, even eerie, thinking about the place: an old couple with a big empty restaurant and what seemed to be a small roadside attraction that died over years of neglect.
With our bellies growling, we took off down the road. Coming out of the winding mountains, we reached a huge valley with more mountains hugging it on all sides. We drove through a village and on the right side of the road there were huge loudspeakers blaring Lao dance music at enormous decibels. Hundreds of empty chairs were set up in front of a stage. It was like the awkward start of a party, where you have to make it look lively, yet at the same time, no one wants to be the first ones there. A little ways beyond the music, Blake spotted a potential spot for food. I had to turn around and go back because I didn’t see them stop. It wasn’t a meal, just an old lady selling deep-fried slices of sweet potatoes in front of her house. We bought six at 1,000kip each and ate them while watching her toddler grandson hit his brother on the head with a big stick.
- There I was…
Up the road were people dressed in colorful costumes waving flags, singing and dancing, and beating drums in the middle of the street. They all waved and smiled at us as we slowly made our way around them. We kept on through the valley, passing roadside children waving and yelling hello. Even with our helmets, sunglasses and masks, it seemed these kids could spot a foreigner a mile away. It must be the backpacks that give it away or the fact the locals rarely wear helmets, sunglasses, or even shoes while riding. When you grew up with danger, it seems to become complacent.
After a couple more hours riding, we made it to the town Kuomkham, one of the larger populaces in the area surrounded by patchwork hues of green landscape and karst limestone formations scattered throughout. It’s almost like the Halong Bay of Lao, except the water is replaced with flat colorful earth and has motorbikes instead of tourist junk boats. We were starving and riding around looking for any sign of a hot meal, and after a being turned away a couple of times at what looked like restaurants but must have just been someone’s house, we found one. There were only three tables, a shelf selling whiskey, beer, cigarettes and an old television showing a low-budget western rip-off of Anaconda dubbed in Lao. This was my kind of place. The woman there was happy to seat us and she just said, “Soup?” Without waiting for our reply she was busy back in the kitchen chopping and dicing away. I didn’t care what she served, just as long as I could stuff it in my face.
We were beat. After our meal, Blake and Tara slept heads down on the table for awhile while I just sat back relaxed and amused by the snake thriller and the woman, who didn’t mind my friends’ nap, was enjoying every minute of the on-screen cheese. We had one last 40km stretch of road left to Konglor where we could check into a guesthouse and take a cold shower. After about an hour of restaurant R&R, we perked up and pushed on.
The stretch of road to the valley of Konglor was one of the most breathtaking. More limestone moutains paralled the road on either side and wooden huts stood on the farm fields like outposts in a forgotten land. Livestock roamed freely, droves of families relaxed on porches, bent over silhouettes picked through rows of green, and even more wild dogs and children played. Seeing the Lao countryside, especially Konglor valley, is truly like traveling back in time a couple hundred years. There were hardly any signs of industry or its products anywhere, only the self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle of the increasingly distant past. I’ve read that around 80% of Lao households are completely sustainable. Most may be lacking wealth in the financial aspect, yet there’s literally not an inch of arable land that isn’t plotted for agriculture. Munch on that Monsanto.
- Road to Konglor
We were waved down by one of the other riders at a guesthouse and realized as we pulled in at around 6pm, that once again ours were the last of Mr. Ku’s bikes to arrive…the easy-going turtles of The Loop. Two days down and we couldn’t imagine that the trip could top itself anymore. We had no idea what our next morning would be like when we would visit Lao’s biggest and best cave, Konglor.