Around 7am the sun was shining and the temperature felt just about perfect — which meant, of course, that by noon it was going to be a scorcher.
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The previous evening, we arranged our motorbike rental onsite so that we’d be all set to go the next morning.
Thakhek Travel Lodge just outside of the city center is THE place to get outfitted with a motorbike for the Loop. That isn’t to say that it’s the best or even the cheapest, but certainly the most popular.
The man we were told to see at TTL was Mr. Ku. He got us suited up and on the road in no time. Even if you’ve never ridden anything on two wheels before, he’ll still get you out the door and on the road.
Fortunately, I’ve ridden and owned motorcycles and have my endorsement. I felt comfortable and confident enough with my own experience level to make a go of it, but had never ridden off-road, and not with a passenger behind me.
Yet others renting on the same night had never ridden before, and I cringed watching one young lady have a go of it for the first time on the loose gravel drive to the guesthouse. Mr. Ku, however, was cool as ice. After a few words of encouragement, money and passports were exchanged and the young lady had a bike.
Is Mr. Ku nuts? Most definitely.
He has to be. But this is Laos, baby. The Wild Wild East. And you have to be a little nuts to ride the Loop anyway, so it all works out.
Still, nothing beats the rush of handing over your passport to Mr. Ku the night before heading out — realizing at that moment, after the money’s been handed over and the papers have been signed, that there is no turning back.
But Lori and I weren’t heading into this blindly — we had done our homework.
I passed onto Lori a number of blogs written by couples with far less experience than myself attempting the Loop in the middle of the rainy season (we were entering the dry season now). The accounts were both inspiring and comforting, enough so at least to make us take the plunge.
So why Mr. Ku?
Yes, Mr. Ku’s motorcycles are cheap Korean-made ripoffs of the Honda Wave. Yes, Mr. Ku charges more than the competition. Yes, he’s a bit nuts-o and his helmets suck. Yes, yes, and YES.
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So why did we go with Mr. Ku?
Well, for one, Mr. Ku’s convenient.
Thakhek Travel Lodge isn’t close to the center of Thakhek at all (an aging French stalwart of a provincial capital along the Mekong that is certainly worth a visit).
But, Thakhek Travel Lodge is THE place if you’re planning on doing this trip.
It’s clean and tidy and the price is right. They have a campfire every evening where riders coming off of the Loop share their experience with riders heading out in the morning. There’s also a ledger which riders add their experiences, tips and current conditions to, which is essential reading before setting off.
Another reason for going with Mr. Ku at Thakhek Travel Lodge is that he’ll cover all costs associated with bike repair and maintenance (excluding flat tires) along the length of the route.
As far as we know, no other rental company in Thakhek will agree to this. In our minds, the few extra dollars per day was well worth the peace of mind.
So how much does it cost to rent from Mr. Ku? About $12 USD per day! (100,000 kip as of October 2012)
With all the formalities taken care of the previous evening, now it was go time.
We expected to spend about eight hours on the bike today. By 8am we were packed up and itchin’ to hit the road, but not before grabbing breakfast. We left our large packs in storage at the guesthouse and went to find a table in the restaurant.
Less than a minute after taking our seats, a Malaysian couple came hobbling into the restaurant and sat at the table next to ours. The guy sported a couple of scrapes and bruises on his arms and legs but nothing compared to the half dozen bandages covering the girl’s body, including a large portion of her face.
We had no problem putting the pieces together and certainly could have gone without having witnessed this just minutes before our own departure.
How did it happen? How did they get back? What happened to the bike? We wanted so badly to know but weren’t prepared to ask, not at that point. Ten minutes to departure and we needed inspiration, not a reality check.
Still, we felt confident that if we took things slow and didn’t take any unnecessary risks, we should be fine. Most Loop riders are.
Nevertheless, we thought it couldn’t hurt to make our first stop the Buddha Cave in an effort to win over a little karma and good tidings for the journey ahead.
The road out of Thakhek is absolutely stunning. Karst limestone formations jut up on all sides as you cruise down the lovely sealed highway. Fields and forest line the lonely stretch of highway and the air is clean and clear.
We encountered very little in terms of other motorists on the Loop, which made for an exceedingly pleasant ride on two wheels. And to top it off, we found Lao drivers to be exceptionally courteous and friendly — far from that of their Thai counterparts.
It struck us as very strange that when talking about the Thakhek Loop, most riders fail to mention anything about the amazing scenery. Hot topics seem to include the more challenging stretches of road and stops along the way, but to our amazement, no one states the obvious:
The Thakhek Loop is incredibly stunning, quite unlike anywhere else on the planet.
As mentioned before, our first stop was the Buddha Cave, which can be found at the end of a long (and well-marked) dirt stretch off of Highway 12 not far from Thakhek.
Speaking of things not frequently mentioned, most accounts of the journey failed to say anything about the fact that the road out to the Buddha Cave is, in fact, not at all sealed.
A bit surprising at first, but good practice for what lay ahead. I found the road to be quite well-maintained and a relatively easy ride in dry conditions.
It felt like an accomplishment simply making it this far given that riding on dirt and sand was a first for me, which helped to reaffirm our suspicions that we might actually complete the Loop in one piece.
We didn’t know what to expect with the Buddha Cave (Tham Nong Pafa). We knew it was a regular stop for Loop riders and, in that sense, felt an obligation to stop. We’re glad we did as it was not only historically and geologically interesting, but also helped to mentally prepare us for the journey.
Only discovered in 2004, the cave derives its name from the collection of wooden Buddha images found inside which are believed to be about 500 years old. No one knows where they came from or how they got there, but the Buddha images and space are considered sacred among locals.
If you like, a Buddhist priest inside will offer a blessing while tying a bright orange bracelet. Up until now, Lori and I had been either too timid or skeptical to participate, but, given that no donation was requested and the other pilgrims appeared to be Lao locals, we thought it might be worth trying. Plus, we figured we’d need all of the good karma we could get.
Our next stop was Xieng Liab, another of about half a dozen caves dotted along Highway 12.
We were greeted in the parking area by a gentleman dressed in a Parks uniform who paired us up with two boys who would serve as guides.
We followed them for about 10 minutes to the mouth of the cave before realizing that we were neither properly dressed or outfitted for going any farther, as heading into the cave would have meant getting wet and we weren’t prepared for sitting squishiness for the next 4-6 hours on a bike.
What we saw of the cave was beautiful and only whetted our appetites for Konglor.
We made our way back to Highway 12. A bit farther down the route we stopped at a roadside pho (noodle) joint outside of Mahaxai.
After passing the Nam Theun 2 power station and crossing another bridge, the road unexpectedly climbs, higher and higher into the mountains.
At some point the tarmac ends and the road becomes a well-maintained dirt and gravel road. Perhaps by now as I write this, this stretch is already paved as it looked as if it was being prepared for sealing.
The views from up here are other-worldly.
Nam Theun 2 is the largest hydropower project in Laos to date. Along with generating 1,070 MW of electricity for power-hungry Thailand, the project flooded over 170 square miles of arable land, affecting an estimated 150,000 residents.
NT2 has been touted by the international development community as a kinder, gentler dam project, given the focus on environmental and social impact prior to commencement, and the dam’s alleged contribution to poverty alleviation in the area.
Some projects are morally and ethically dubious at best. Nam Theun 2 has strong arguments on both sides and is a glimpse into the future as the region’s thirst for electricity increases.
Is it ethical for an authoritarian Communist government to forcibly displace 6,300 people from their ancestral land, affect 144,000 others downstream, and lay waste to the habitat of countless plant and animal species?
Is it ethical for that same government to stand by and do very little to raise their country out of the Stone Age while the rest of the world (including neighboring Thailand, Vietnam and China) leaves them behind in a cloud of dust?
One thing I will say is that the Lao government appears to have done a better than average job in resettling the 6,300 displaced persons and their families, constructing a number of custom-built “Healthy Villages” in consultation with the resettled communities.
In addition, the government has committed to livelihoods initiatives for affected communities which is expected to have doubled household incomes in recent years.
We passed by a handful of these villages and they appear to be attractive, well-built and well-planned. Though, due to the language barrier we were unable to get any residents’ thoughts on the matter.
Arriving at our Day One Waypoint :: Tha Lang
We made it!
After a full day of riding the Thakhek Loop, we arrive at our destination for the day, Tha Lang!
We had every intention of staying at Sabaidee Guesthouse, which is where we heard that most riders stay, but came across this little slice of heaven first.
Phosy Guesthouse was exactly what the doctor ordered at the end of a long day on the road in rural Laos. It was like a dream come true. A row of quiet wooden cabanas facing a beautiful inlet amongst incredible beauty. The owners were extremely friendly and the restaurant was surprisingly tasty.
Our digs were simple and rustic, yet sufficiently appointed with mosquito net, ensuite washroom, and porch with hammock. It was exactly what we wanted on a trip like this. Nothing more and nothing less.
We paid 50,000 in October 2012 (about $6 USD). If only places like this existed in the States!
And that’s it for Day One of our Thakhek Loop adventure!
Keep Reading: Thakhek Loop Day Two: Motorbiking from Tha Lang to Na Hin.