With five days left on our visa I managed to convince Sarah to get back on a bike for another tour, albeit on a rented bike this time and in no ways a rival to our Vietnamese adventure. The main draws of the Thakhek Loop is the opportunity to drive through yet more stunning Karst scenery, multiple waterfalls and principally, Kong Lo Cave.
The first task upon arrival into Thakhek was to acquire a trusty steed to take us on our adventure. I was left bitterly disappointed at the selection of bikes available to us, due to the poor selection we went with cheap and cheerful. Opting for a Zhongschen wave, a Chinese Honda knockoff but the bigger 125cc bike had impressed me previously in Luang Namtha. That being said I left grumbling that we had a scooter for our tour but Sarah was happy because she would get to practice on gears without it being a “big scary bike.” There isn’t a great deal to do in Thakhek so that night we ate at the food stalls and had an early night ready for the first day’s drive.
Our destination for the day was Lak Sao, but before we could get there we had to drive through about 100kms of national park, weaving our way In between the beautiful karst mountains that seem to sprout up from nowhere. Sheer cliffs rising from flat plains ending as abruptly as they began, as if a huge giant had dropped his building blocks, leaving them to be worn away by time, conquered by vegetation. We lunched at a tiny village called Thalang that nestled in amongst huge lakes sprouting bare trees that had since been burnt away, creating the illusion that a huge explosion had taken place (we’re in Laos so who knows, there is certainly enough UXO lying around) in any case it made for a barren landscape. The woman there cooked up a mighty fine noodle soup and we were back on our way after Sarah had her turn practising on the bike.
Thankfully only a short portion of the loop is unpaved so it was not too much trouble navigating the 30kms or so off dirt track to our final stop for the night, despite our bike lacking for decent tyres, brakes, suspension, torque…. credibility. The town of Lak Sao itself was pretty underwhelming but it did have a good little market where we stocked up on snacks and fresh donuts (a rare treat) before heading back out to visit some hot springs we had learnt about. It was a fair drive away and so close to the Vietnamese border it grew tangibly colder, after a while of searching a polite local directed us to the river and pointed to a small sand bank in the middle and promptly took his leave. Having visited Iceland the previous year I had thrown on swim shorts and was anticipating a nice hot dip, what we found was a hot sulphurous puddle, barely large enough to get our feet wet. We had a good time regardless laughing at the feebleness of the spring while standing bare foot munching on donuts, edging ever closer to the centre as our feet adjusted to the heat.
We ate the next morning on freshly cooked waffles from the market as baffled locals walked past staring at the two Falangs (that’s us) tucking into breakfast. It was a short drive to the town of Kong Lo where we would be based for a couple of nights to explore our surrounds and venture inland for the main attraction, Kong Lo cave. On the way we made a detour to some picturesque cold springs, this time they were more than adequate for a quick dip although the temperature was severe.
We arrived early into town and set off to hunt for a waterfall deep into the jungle. The path took us through some beautiful scenery and dotted along the way were astonishingly large clusters of butterflies, bright orange wings and smaller white ones made for a spectacular sight as they fluttered around in their thousands, we crept past as cautiously as we could trying to avoid disturbing them. One thing that stands out about Laos is it’s incredible wealth of butterflies, wherever you go, especially in the jungle there are vast numbers, some small but mostly large with wings flecked with greens, reds yellows and purples. After a couple of kilometres we found the waterfall that no doubt would have been mesmerising during the wet season, it was still impressive to see the small trickle fall from such a great height (even greater than that in Luang Prabang) ending in a peaceful little pool just in front of us.
The next morning was a very frustrating one for Sarah, she had picked up a bout of food poisoning the previous night from some dodgy noodles and was confined to bed for the day to sleep it off. Promising to take lots of photos I headed off to the cave to see what the fuss was about. We had been on boats in caves before in Vietnam but this was a whole new experience as the cave was completely unlit for its entirety (about an hours ride on long tail boat) it was an amazing experience flying through the cave with just mine and the drivers headlights illuminating the cavernous channel the water had cut through the mountain. He navigated the cave masterfully and at one point accelerated to drive head on up a set of small rapids that reminded me of being on a log flume ride, except it was pitch black and we’re a long way from Alton Towers. With a little help from me pulling the boat over the last set of rapids we had a quick stop at the village at the other end of the cave before heading back through the mountain. It was a brilliant day, the only minus being that Sarah was not present to experience it.
Thankfully she was feeling a little better the next day for our final drive back to Thakhek. The road was mountainous and took us through some stunning scenery, affording us views across surrounding landscape that eclipsed any karst mountains we had seen so far. We decided to stay overnight in Thakhek before returning once more to our adopted home for the time being, Thailand. Back to the comforts of 7 Eleven, Chang beer and crispy pork, I can’t wait.
Photos here: https://www.flickr.com/gp/127744759@N08/R4Q64W