More Padding Maybe! The Thakhek Loop & Konglor Cave
March 13, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
We had heard that the Thakhek area would be a nice place to break up our travels southward, with beautiful surrounding areas, a taste of Laotian rural life, and remarkable caves. Plus, our friend Arielle from home decided to change her plans and head through Laos instead of staying in Vietnam, and we realized that it would work perfectly to meet up with her for a few days.
To go from Vientiane to Thakhek, there are limited bus options, so we took a 1pm VIP bus that was slated to get in around 6pm, and was only a half hour late. Thakhek (alternately spelled Tha Khaek or about a dozen other variations) is small and doesn’t feel touristy, which is refreshing. It’s right on the Mekong and there is very little to do in town, but it’s known as a jumping-off point for other explorations. We ended up eating most of our meals at Inthira boutique hotel’s restaurant (connected with Green Adventure travel storefront), which was slightly pricey but we felt comfortable eating lettuce and all the good stuff there. Plus, their food is super tasty.
There doesn’t seem to be much useful info online about Thakhek or the loop (but huge appreciation to the other travel bloggers), so we’ll be a bit detailed here.
We stayed in town two nights (one before our moto adventure and one after). When we first arrived, we got a tuk tuk to take us to the Khammuane International Guest House to meet up with Arielle. For $10 USD (80,000 kip), our room was totally sufficient. They didn’t have any matrimonial beds, so we made do with two twin beds, but were pleased there was hot water and wifi in the guesthouse lobby. Aside from that, the guesthouse was relatively clean and our room had something resembling a window. It’s a big green building on the main road leading into town.
Our last night in town, we stayed at the Mekong Hotel, where you can get a room with a fan for $12 (100,000 kip) or with AC for $16 (130,000 kip). It’s a pretty fancy place – actually a legit hotel, with a big balcony, starch white linens, etc. It’s a big white building right on the Mekong River (so the view from the balcony at night is quite beautiful with all the lights from the Thailand side reflected on the water), and just about a block away from the town’s main “plaza” (if you can call it that). Note to self: remember to look at the fancy-looking places because they’re not as expensive as you might think!
Mad Monkey Moto Rentals:
Since Thakhek is known as a jumping-off point for a 3-4 day motorbike loop, we expected there to be a ton of rental places in town. Not so. There are three big ones: Mr. Ku at the Traveller’s Guesthouse, Wang Wang, and Mad Monkey. After a lot of consideration, we decided to rent from Mad Monkey, which is right in the middle of town on the main “plaza.” All the options here are slightly pricey, and Mad Monkey seems slightly extra-pricey, but also super trustworthy and reliable, and we are 100% happy with our decision.
The owners of the company are a German guy who has lived here for many years and his Laotian wife, and they are really helpful and also had the best map of the loop. We rented 2 scooters (contrary to popular belief, you can do the loop on an automatic or semi-automatic) for 4 days each, so they gave us a slight discount to $17.50 USD (140,000 kip) per scooter per day. (In comparison, Wang Wang has automatics for the same price, but their semi-automatics are much cheaper, just 60,000 kip per day for a new one and 45,000 for an old one.) The Mad Monkey bikes seem new and reliable with fresh oil and all that jazz, but they also have an amazing “insurance policy” which I was later super thankful for.
The short story: I thought this would be a fine place for me to learn how to ride a scooter. And, while some people can learn here, I cannot. So I decided to ditch my bike after the first full day of riding and rode on the back of Mitch’s. The Mad Monkey owners charged me an extra $10 USD for gas charges, and they drove out, fetched the scooter, and brought it back so I didn’t have to freak myself out further. All told: It was an $80 USD mistake for me to try to learn to ride there (for the 4 day rental plus the extra gas charge), which is much better than me wrecking my body or the bike.
The Thakhek (or Tha Khaek) Loop
You can do the loop as a three-day or four-day motorbike ride. If you do the full loop, it can take three days and the last day is apparently a few hours of gunning it down a highway with lots of trucks and not much to see, so we were recommended to go as far as Konglor Cave then turn around and go back the same way – so days 1 & 4 cover the same 110 km, and days 2 & 3 cover the same 157 km. Total: 535 km, or about 335 miles.
Here is the Mad Monkey map, which was super handy. Also, we highly recommend taking a photo of the map if/when it gets lost and tattered.
Green dots are gas stations, pink dots are guest houses, the string of pink dots mark the hard part of dirt road. We did the yellow marked route roundtrip.
Our first day, we got a bit of a late start and then picked up a couple of watermelons and bananas on our way out of town. Because of our late start, we just made one stop on the way up, which was the Tha Falang swimming hole. On the dirt road to the swimming hole, there were some super sandy patches and I skidded out and fell – thankfully going super slow with only one little cut that just required a single band-aid. Since we were in the heat of the day at that point, the dip was really refreshing.
The views along the entire loop (or half-loop, done twice) were gorgeous. Rocky mountains with vegetated cliff edges and plateau-ed tops rise through the smoky air. We kept wondering how pretty it must be in other seasons or without as much smoke – between slash & burn farmland being cleared, rice paddies getting an annual refresh, and trash burning, we had a constant veil of haze.
A few years ago, the local power company created a dam – the commercially valuable trees were cleared out before the flooding started, but now you can see dead trees eerily rising up from still lakes in several places. Passing by the flooded areas around sunset was remarkably stunning. Modern new homes are interspersed with traditional bamboo or wood huts, and you see people working in tobacco (we think?) and other fields.
You always hear how friendly Laotians are, but it doesn’t quite hit you until you drive along and just about everyone, but especially the kids, smiles and waves and yells “Sabaidee!” (hello!) at you. It’s remarkable – and you smile and wave and yell Sabaidee! Right back. We saw tons of water buffalo, cows, goats, pigs, and chickens crossing the road. The tiny piglets are so freaking cute!
Just before we got to the first guesthouse, we hit a ton of gravel and I skidded out and fell – again – and am pleased to report no damage to self or bike. Thankfully, I was going super slowly both times I fell. The guesthouse itself, the Phosy Thalang, was better than expected. The rooms were $6 USD per night with a decently comfy bed and bathroom, and the food was tasty and totally sufficient, although didn’t sit quite as well in our bellies as it could have.
The next morning, I attempted to ride again, but a night of thinking about it made me a little freaked out and I decided I should learn to ride somewhere else. After narrowly avoiding throwing a 6-year-old-style-tantrum by the side of the road, we brought my bike back to the guesthouse and left it there, and I hopped on the back of Mitch’s bike.
Usually if I wimp out on something, I later regret it… this time, I am 110% confident that I made the right decision. And, sentimentally, while I understand the desire to be with people who are similar to you, I am so glad that I married someone with such wonderfully complementary skills and strengths to my own. Ask me to speak publicly or handle a complicated dataset, no problem. Ask me to drive any sort of vehicle, and I’m totally out of my element. Thankfully, Mitch takes to that naturally, and what’s more, can understand how they work and figure out how to fix anything that breaks.
Some sections of the road were totally fine, while others were complete shite. Probably the 10km before the first night’s guesthouse and the 40 or so km after were really bad. I would never have expected Laos to be a super efficient country, but the construction efforts were going so fast that the bad parts of the road changed completely within a 48-hour span. Sections that had deep gravel were replaced with packed red dirt, and areas that had seemed decent initially had mounds of dirt that they were going to smooth over. It’s apparently a never-ending cycle of construction and roadwork here. On that note, apparently the military is putting in fiber-optic cables, so sections of roadside are also ripped up, and you occasionally see trucks full of friendly military guys (lots of waving and calling Sabaidee!).
On that note, there were plenty of fabulously translated road signs. We missed the preposition soup of “Watch Out! Slow UpDown!” but snapped a similar one. We also should pay homage to menu translations – one of our favorites has been “Eggs with Bercon,” which was next to Sparkety Eggs on the menu. (Does anyone know what Sparkety is? It turns out that “Star Eggs” are sunny side up, more or less.) In addition to the translations, we have also fallen in love with some of the “recycling efforts” here, and are tempted to try to recreate the ubiquitous trash bins that are made out of old tires of various sizes and quite stunning.
There were also a few really depressing road signs about areas that had not been checked/cleared from UXOs, or unexploded ordinances. Wikipedia reports that “As of 2008, Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. An average of one B-52 bomb-load was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973.” With the caveat that we get our knowledge from hearsay and the internet, some of it seems to have been a focused effort by the U.S. to stamp out communism or to counter North Vietnamese efforts in Laos, and some seems to have been purely out of convenience. During the Vietnam war, the U.S. had a base in Thailand and would fly from there to Vietnam. On the way back, they sometimes needed to clear extra weight to have enough gas to get back to the base, so they dropped extra goodies over Laos. Now, it’s common for people to use metal detectors when they go off well-trodden paths, and for people to have really bad accidents when they trip the UXOs. It’s amazing the Laotian people are as unbelievably friendly as they are to us.
Challenge #2 on day #2: Arielle got sick but pushed through like a total rockstar. We’re not sure if it was a little bug or if something in her food the previous night settled wrong, but she has actually biked while puking and has laid down in all sorts of interesting places along the roadsides, including the parking area of a gas station and on an empty fruit stand. Where she laid down on the fruit stand was a nifty place. They had gas to refill our tanks in what looked like a slushie machine, and Mitch made friends with a group of engineers from the power company, who shared their lunch with him. Oddly, with dust blowing that familiar dust smell, aluminet and tarp shade structures flapping in the wind, and Arielle resting on a fruit stand, it felt kind of like the playa.
On the second night, we stayed at a random mediocre guesthouse about 10km from Konglor Cave. It was starting to get dark and we were tired of riding so we just stopped when we saw someplace. It was $6 US and totally fine, but had we pushed on, there were a handful of places just outside of the cave entrance that looked newer and nicer.
We began the third day with a trip to Konglor Cave (alternately called Kong Lo, or any number of other variations), which was epic. It takes 2 ½ hours and is a 7.5 km motorized canoe boat ride through an amazing cave with rapids, islands, etc. Some of the stalagmites and stalagtites were beautifully lit up too. It’s one of those times that you stand in awe of nature – the size and scope of the cave were magnificent.
At the far end, you can get a drink from a little stand before turning around. Our canoe nearly hit some bathing water buffalo on the far end of the cave, and we managed to get an adorable photo of a kid jumping out of a tree into the river like a little monkey. At one of the points in the cave where you have to jump out and help push the boat over shallow rocks, I accidentally dropped my shirt and the boat driver dude (who actually “surfed” the canoe over rapids while we got out) went back to fetch it. When we tipped him about $2 for being so awesome, he was overjoyed.
On the way back after the cave, we stopped in the town of Lak Sao for lunch at “Only One” restaurant, which was quite tasty, before continuing on to the same guesthouse as the first night. Along the way over the less ideal patches of road, I composed a parody based on the only lyrics of “Call Me Maybe” that I remembered (damned pop music for being so catchy). Here’s what I’ve got:
Since I got onto this bike / My butt hurts so bad / It hurts me so so bad
Surrounded by / All this beauty / Next time I’ll wear / More padding maybe
Thank god Mitch loves me enough to put up with my singing voice from the back of his scooter. And that I love him enough to still think he’s adorable when he looks like a mine worker from all the dirt and dust kicked up from the mid-construction road.
On our last day, it was a much easier drive plus Mitch and Arielle went way faster since they didn’t need to wait for me to slowly make my way along the road. We left the guesthouse in the morning after an early breakfast and stopped by a few caves along the way, and still made it back to Thakhek by around 3pm.
I think Tham must translate to cave. So our amazing vocabulary now includes sabaidee (hello), sabaidee bo (how are you?), kop jai (thank you), kop jai lai lai (thank you very much), falang (foreigner), wat (temple), don (island), and tham (cave). We have also learned that sep-lai means delicious (we have not yet tested this new word or our pronunciation) and la’acon means goodbye (again, untested).
Tham Pha Nya In had some Buddhas and a bunch of prayer flags in a large cavern.
Tham Xienglieb was a pretty badass place to explore and was huge with two openings, so there was a lot of natural light that came in.
Tham Xang (the elephant cave) was about 60 cents to enter and had a bunch of Buddhas, but is “famous” for a pretty nondescript small elephant formation in a rock. A bunch of really friendly people were there worshipping and had burned a plastic plate as an offering. The ladies had crazy red lips and destroyed red teeth from some berry they chew here (seems like the Asian version of coca leaves), and they tried like crazy to talk to us, and settled for shaking our hands and smiling a lot while we just repeated Sabaidee! The old man working at the cave was super friendly and offered us beer and cigarettes, and a group of kids were excited about Mitch’s red hair and took photos with us. And while we couldn’t communicate in words, everyone’s smiles were shining and genuine.