The Thakhek Loop is one of those must-do motorbike journeys in Asia. My own motorbike adventures in Southeast Asia have taken me 4,000km across Vietnam from south to north checking out the historical Hue attractions, riding the rural loop to Ban Gioc Waterfall and through the jungle clad Ho Chi Minh Trail. After Vietnam the journey continued through northern Thailand and Laos for 6 months, however southern Laos remains uncharted territory for me, so here writes Pete Vrouvas of TheOnlyPete.com
The Thakhek Loop a Motorbike Journey through Hell and Back!
I recently completed the Thakhek loop by motorbike in Central Laos. Although, completed is too cocky a word, as I barely escaped with my sanity. I can blame bad luck, karma, Murphy’s Law, or whatever other universal power seems most fitting, but I think in this case, sometimes shit just happens.
For some background, the Thakhek motorbike loop is generally a four-day adventure through the Western region of Central Laos. The counterclockwise route starts in Thakhek and goes to Thalang and Kong Lor Cave before returning to Thakhek. It is around 275 miles or 440 kilometers in total. My friends and I chose to do the loop in three days because we were a little tight on time and, of course, we are total badasses.
Click here for a the range of budget accommodation options in town. A place to prepare and revive from the Thakhek Loop.
Day 1: Smooth and Ignorant Sailing
Excited, nervous, and sweating my balls off on the morning of departure in Thakhek, I assumed my excessive dripping was due to the fact I was wearing jeans and a long-sleeve shirt in 100-degree heat. Incorrect. Two cities earlier, I was diagnosed with bacterial bronchitis and thought I had beaten it. Incorrect. This came back to haunt me on the second day of the loop.
After two or three shakey circles in the grass lot of our hostel to learn how to drive a semi-automatic motorbike, we hit the road. A minute into our drive, we stopped to fill up on gas. My friend who had never even driven an automatic scooter before didn’t see us turn for the gas station and just kept going out of sight – seamless start to the trip.
The first day, a journey of only 65 miles, was full of beautiful limestone mountains and nicely paved roads. We stopped once for a short tour of the Xieng Liap Cave and once for lunch before reaching Thalang for the night. The 30-minute cave tour is only 20,000 Kip ($2.50) and it’s a fun little boat ride – definitely worth a pit stop. In Thalang, everyone on the loop stays at Sabaidee Guesthouse. The guesthouse has a huge deck overlooking the surrounding water and landscapes that’s perfect for sucking back a few beers, or in my case, ignoring my resurrected cough.
Day 2: Shit Hits the Fan on the Thakek Loop
Leaving Thalang, we passed through vast swamplands filled with dead trees that looked burnt and rotten. A spooky backdrop compared to the bright green mountains and forests. We made our way north to Ban Nahin in order to meet the road that goes south to Kong Lor Cave. In Ban Nahin, we passed a sign for the Nam Sanam Waterfall. We were making great time and figured we would check it out. HUGE MISTAKE.
To start off the wonderful waterfall trek, the man at the gate motioned that we could ride our bikes, so we drove through huge puddles of mud and made it 100 feet until we hit a stream. Now, I am not quite sure what my friend was thinking, but he plowed right into the water and kept going until his bike shut off. Luckily, his bike still worked. The forces that be were trying to tell us not to go and we were so close to turning around. But we didn’t.
Series of Poor Decisions on the Thakek Loop
Short on time now, I had the bright idea of jogging the 3 kilometers to the waterfall. The trail looked pretty flat and easy, so why not? A half mile into the jog, the path got extremely steep and full of obstacles to climb like boulders, roots, and trees. I started to realize something was wrong. I was out of breath, dizzy, and had intense chills.
Stubborness, idiocy, I am not sure what was driving me, but I felt like I was pot-committed to the trek at this point. Burning up with fever and short on breath, I felt like I was near the peak of Everest. Finally, we made it to a shitty little waterfall with a pool. I jumped in to cool off until my friend said he found the path to the real waterfall. So, in my boxers, I got back on the trail.
Just when I was thinking about how great of a story it will be that I hiked through the Laotian jungle in my underwear, I got stung by the first Asian hornet on the back of my left knee. You have probably been stung by a bee. Let me tell you, that feels like a puppy lick compared to these hornets. After yelling and standing in shock for two minutes, I put my jeans back on and trudged up to the real waterfall. Disappointing.
We turned around and started heading back with me bringing up the rear. At the exact same spot on the trail, when I was thinking about the pain of my jeans rubbing on the fresh, swelling hornet sting, enter Asian hornet two. This time, on my right lat right through my fucking shirt! At this point, despite my breathlessness, I was getting the hell out of there. Back at the trail-head, I nearly passed out from my fever and poor lungs. We did manage to get back on the road and make it to Kong Lor cave two minutes before the tours closed.
Kong Lor Cave
The road to Kong Lor Cave is both dirt and pavement and riddled with giant potholes. Walls of mountains on either side box in the rice farms and villages. The cave tour is around 40,000 Kip per person ($5) and takes 90 minutes. Riding seven kilometers on a tiny boat in the pitch black of the cave is an amazing experience, as long as you trust your boat guide that is. Unfortunately, I was too sore and pissed off to enjoy it to the full extent. In the town, an Australian traveler casually mentioned that if you get stung by eight Asian hornets, you go into shock and die. Quarter of the way there, baby.
Day 3: Icing on the Cake
Barely able to bend my balloon knee to get on my bike and with my backpack conveniently rubbing my other hornet sting, we set out on the 115 mile ride back to Thakhek. The entire ride, I was in the back so my friend who had never ridden before could be in the middle in case anything happened. Delirious with fever, tight-chested, and swollen, I was smashing 65 kph down a hill in the middle of nowhere when my back tire decided to give out.
The only lucky part of the whole trip might have been that I didn’t crash right there. After a few scary side to side swerves, I slowed down and pulled over. As my two friends sped away out of sight, a few young men playing pool came over and confirmed that yes, my tire was popped, and no, they couldn’t help me at all.
15 minutes later, my friends had circled back and found me. Because I was physically useless, they walked my bike to a mechanic one kilometer up the road (also lucky) and I got a new tube installed for $5.
The final 80 miles or so of the loop is a straight ride on a highway. There wasn’t anything to see, so I mainly just braced myself for the new tire to give out or a passing hornet to get me in the jugular. Back in Thakhek, I finally got to a hospital for my illness, but my bad luck somehow continued.
Maintaining the Streak after the Thakek Loop
At the hospital, the doctor diagnosed me with Pneumonia due to the high white blood cell count on my blood test and his stethoscope exam. Of course, the hornet stings were actually causing my immune system to flare up and I was given the wrong antibiotics for what I actually had (bronchitis).
I purchased a thermometer to keep track of my body temperature when I felt feverish and guess what happened? I thought the $1 piece of junk from the 80’s was broken, so I started shaking it down in anger. Hard. I forgot to take it out of the plastic case first and as I shook it, it flew down out of the case and shattered mercury and glass all over my feet. I didn’t put a whole lot of effort into the cleanup and slept in that hotel room. In hindsight, I’d like to add potential mercury poisoning to my list of ailments on the trip.
Do you have any similar experiences or info on the Thakhek loop? Please comment and share! If you need any more information on doing the loop, feel free to contact me. If you are looking to do another motorbike loop, check out the Ha Giang Motorbike Loop in Northern Vietnam.
Surviving the Thakhek Loop by Motorbike was written by Pete Vrouvas of TheOnlyPete.com. Pete is a California-based backpacker, food lover, beer drinker, and adventurer focused on sharing experiences and tips on travel, technology, and food.
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