Discovering the Thakhek Loop!
In the North of Laos, there’s the pleasant, touristy, entry and exit junction of Luang Prabang, with it’s sandwich vendors, chocolate and banana roti stands, chilled bars and bowling alley to keep you drinking past the 11pm curfew. In the South, there’s the relaxing Four Thousand Islands where you’ll be reading in a hammock, spotting Irrawaddy dolphins and generally lazying about for days on end… But what about all the Laos that’s in-between?
During a recent trip to the country, my pals and I were determined to try and find something adventurous to do, to try to see some of the ‘real Laos’ – I know, what a cliché!
It took a while, but eventually, we found something that sounded mysteriously appealing… “The Thakhek Loop” – a 475-kilometre, four-day motorbike ride across the Central Laotian countryside. So, if you’re thinking of tackling this incredible off the beaten track road trip, read on for tips on where to stay, where to stop and what to see along the way!
Psst! This road trip features in our recommended 30-day Laos Itinerary which we recommend reading!
Where to stay in Thakhek
Tip – We were advised by fellow backpackers in our Facebook Community that it’s wise to book accommodation in advance in Thakhek. Unlike some of the bigger tourist destinations, there is not so much choice in Thakhek (for now) and places can often get booked up. As the loop gets more popular, no doubt there will be more and more guesthouses sprouting up to meet demand. For now, the most recommended places to stay in Thakhek are…
1. Thakhek Travel Lodge – Dorm bed from $6 US
We stayed at the Thakhek Travel Lodge which has mixed reviews online, but suited us just fine. It’s close to the bus station located a kilometre or two outside town. A bed in a mixed dorm costs $6 US and a budget double or twin room costs $10 US. There are good quality motorbikes for rent right next door to the lodge and they offer luggage storage for bikers. Rooms are spacious and clean and there is a pleasant garden surrounding the property.
2. Bike&Bed – Dorm bed from $6 US (Book in advance)
As you can tell from the name, this hostel has become a popular place for traveller’s to stay before embarking on the loop! It’s a cute, clean and sociable hostel with beds from just $6 US per night. The owner speaks English and will give you a lot of advice about doing the loop as well as rent you the bike for several days and let you store your luggage free of charge. Even if you’re not staying at the hostel when you finish the loop, they will allow you to shower and wash off that road dust! Dorm beds are comfortable and there’s a free hearty breakfast, perfect for riders!
3. La Casa Thakhek – Dorm bed from $6 US
A brand new hostel with dorm beds from $6 US, this place has yet to be reviewed! However, the photos look great and there’s an attached café, motorbike rental and luggage storage. Everything you may need before setting off on the loop! Give it a try!
4. Villa Thakhek – Private room from $23 US
If you’re looking for a private room, the Villa Thakhek provides them from $23 US per night. There’s a lovely garden to relax in, large spacious rooms and motorbike rental available. A great place to get a good nights’ sleep in a decent bed before embarking upon a two-wheeled adventure!
Renting motorbikes in Thakhek
Motorbike hire in Thakhek will cost around 120,000 – 160,000 KIP per day, which is around $12-$15 USD per day. Most people do the loop on a Honda Wave 125cc, but you can get up to 250cc if you’re an experienced rider and you want something more powerful. Some recommended places to hire a motorbike in Thakhek are:
- Mad Monkey Motorbike Rental – This German-Lao owned motorbike rental shop is the most popular place for backpackers to pick up their wheels for the Thakhek Loop. They claim to have the top quality bikes (no fake brands). In addition, they promise that if you break down anywhere along the loop they will drive out and pick up your bike and bring you another one – totally free! Not a bad service. They are located in the centre of town opposite the fountain plaza.
- Mixay Motorbike Rental – A good alternative to Mad Monkey (sometimes Mad Monkey is completely sold out of bikes!) that has good quality new motorbikes. Trustworthy English speaking owner that will give you a good deal on a bike for the four-day loop.
- Mr Ku – Conveniently located right next door to the Thakhek Travel Lodge (a little out of town), Mr Ku has been offering his rental bikes for over 10 years. As we stayed at the lodge, we rented our bikes for the loop from here and were happy with the price, quality of the bikes and his service.
Motorbike Licenses and Travel Insurance
While many backpackers ‘wing it’ so to speak and ride motorbikes in Southeast Asia illegally, it really isn’t wise. The main reason being that if you drive a motorbike without the proper licenses, you will not be covered by your travel insurance in the event of an accident. In order to be legal to ride a bike in Laos you should have a license to ride that same bike in your home country (i.e. passed your motorbike driving license or CBT as it is called in the UK) and have an International Driving Permit, which translates your existing license into an internationally recognised certification. Motorbike accidents are the most common cause of injury and death in Southeast Asia amongst travellers and so we strongly advise that you don’t take any risks where travel insurance and motorbikes are concerned!
The Thakhek Loop Logbook and Map
After renting our bikes with Mr Ku, we found an old copy of the the infamous ‘Loop Logbook’, a sort of backpacker’s Bible spanning back many years. The several scruffy volumes had been written by other psychotic backpackers seeking adventure with a 125cc between their legs.
The book, complete with numerous hand drawn maps, recommendations and tips, was a real nostalgic relic and we enjoyed leafing through the well-thumbed pages with a bottle of Beer Lao close by. The verdict from other backpackers who had gone before us? Despite tales of breakdowns, punctures and the odd scrape, pretty much everyone seemed to love the experience!
Day 1: Starting ‘The Loop!’ (Thakaek to Thalang)
Please note, the route and stops can vary, depending on how fast you drive and how long you want to spend in each place along the way.
The next day, copied, hand-drawn maps and notes in tow, ‘helmet’ clipped in and daypacks over our shoulders we went for a test drive! It started well. One of us fell off twice, once right in front of Mr Ku – who looked sick with worry for our accident prone girl friend and probably his precious scooter, politely asking “Are you sure she understand how to use bike, I think she not very good?”
Nevertheless, with the oversized backpacks ditched at the lodge, we rode off onto the heat-blurred tarmac, sun on our faces, hair fluttering in the wind, fingers clinging for our lives onto the handle bars, helmets choking us as the wind fired them back onto our shoulders and faces deformed like we were on a rollercoaster.
Despite our less than good look, there’s no other way to describe the scenery than spectacular. On the first day, we covered jungle paths, dust tracks and tarmac roads lined by impressive mountains, rivers, valleys and picturesque villages. There were some other dubious stretches, known as ‘roads’ in Laos, which looked like something created from exploded bombs or landmines. No surprise then that the same girl friend ended up with a few extra grazes on her arms at this point!
Along the way there were plenty of things to see including various caves, one of which is believed to heal your ailments – though surprisingly, it seemed to do nothing for her grazes. At the very least, the occasional fuel stop, from one of the many stalls by the side of the road with their bizarre contraptions containing a red fluid will always provide some entertainment.
Where to stay on the Night 1? = Thalang
For the first night, there are a few really nice little guesthouses in the little village of ‘Tha Lang’, which is the next stop after the town of Nakai. (You can choose to stay in either Nakai or Thalang on night one, but if you have enough daylight, we’d recommend pushing on until you reach Thalang because it makes the long stretch on day two more manageable and the guesthouses are much better.) We heard great reviews from fellow bikers about the following places…
- Phosy Thalang Guesthouse – Phosy Thalang has a lovely friendly atmosphere where bikers sit around a campfire and share stories from the road… They offer a good free breakfast of pancakes and fruits, perfect to line the stomach for a day’s riding. The rooms are clean and comfortable and the setting overlooking a small lake is great. A budget double room costs just $9 US, but be sure to book in advance as this little gem is popular, for good reason!
- Saibadee Guesthouse (Tha Lang) – A sociable and friendly place to stay for your first night on the loop located very close to Phosy Thalang. It is dubbed the “meeting place for the loop” on account of its popularity with riders. There’s a restaurant with good food, as well as a campfire and a bar with plenty of Beer Lao! If you arrive early enough you can take part in the BBQ which is all you can eat for 50,000 KIP – well worth it. Rooms are basic, but nice (hot shower) and the WIFI is a bit dodgy, but what do you expect for a place out in the middle of nowhere! There’s also a French Bakery where you can pick up homemade pastries for the route!
Day 2: Tyre blow out! (Thalang to Na Hin)
Surprisingly, riding like a lunatic on pretty terrible roads had caused no sign of any mechanical problems. But, right on cue came a tyre blowout at about 2kph, caused by an innocuous looking twig and resulting in an unscheduled trip into the nearest village about 30 minutes away.
Acting as a taxi service I entered the village with my mate and his wheel on the back. If you’ve ever wanted to know what an alien might feel like if he walked into your town then I think I might know. Adults with looks of bewilderment and excited kids appeared from everywhere and in minutes most of the village crowded round trying to help as we attempted to speak a clearly unknown dialect of Laos from our limited word list (kindly provided by Mr Ku).
Eventually they worked out it wasn’t food we were after and the village mechanic left his game of football to spend more than an hour riding around with us fixing the tyre. By the time we’d finished the sun was almost down. Although we’d missed out on some riding time that day, our other friends had checked us into a cute, little homestay complete with it’s own small beach and some random, inquisitive kids sat up trees.
Where to stay on Night 2? = Na Hin
Na Hin is the gateway to the Khonglor Cave and has a variety of decent accommodation. We would recommend the following:
- Sanhak Guesthouse – Cosy and friendly guesthouse with a nice owner who is happy to help you with anything you may need. The restaurant is cheap and the food is tasty! Spacious and clean rooms from just $5 US for a dorm bed or $13 US for a standard double room. (Book in advance)
- Phamarnview Guesthouse – A decent alternative if Sanhak Guesthouse is fully booked, this place is located just up the road. Standard double rooms from $15 US per night. Clean, comfortable and safe.
Day 3: The Khong Lor Caves (Na Hin to Ban O)
The Holy Grail of the trip is, without doubt, the Khong Lor Caves. The two-hour boat trip through the 7 kilometre of underground caves is truly mind-blowing and is not to be missed!
Everyone seemed awestruck as we floated down the river, meandering along through the darkness as the flashlights revealed the vast scale of the caves and the strange, silent, empty, underground world we found ourselves in. The trip up to that point had been a great laugh and a great experience but this rounded it off perfectly.
And for all the health and safety conscious among you, don’t worry. Helmets were provided free of charge for the bike and whilst on the boat in Khong Lor everyone is given their own ‘bathing suit for water funny’- which in most countries is called a lifejacket!
Where to stay on Night 3? = Ban O
We highly recommend taking your time to explore Khong Lor Caves and spending a night in the surrounding village of Ban O, even if this adds a day onto your tour of the loop. Take a guesthouse next to the cave and walk to it early morning on the third day. This way you can get early to the cave and you’ll have it all to yourself! The following guesthouses come highly recommended:
- Konglor Eco-Lodge Guesthouse – The most recommended place to stay in Ban O is just 1km from the cave. Like many places on the loop, there’s a bonfire where travellers sit around at night with a beer and share stories. The restaurant food is good and they will refill your water bottle for free. From just $8 US per night for a clean, comfortable double room, you can’t beat it!
- Kong Klor Cave Guesthouse – Another family-run guesthouse that gets great reviews located just in front of the cave entrance. Rooms from $9 US per night. Good food at the restaurant and cold beer!
Day 4 Back to Thakhek!
All that was left was to head back to Thakhek, sit round a fire, grab a yellow curry and a few bottles of Beer Lao and feel proud that we all survived the epic four day road trip! So, what else can I say? Yeah, the usual backpacker haunts are a great laugh and great places but Laos has a whole lot more to offer than just those!
On road trips likes these you do spend a hell of a lot of time on the bike but it’s definitely worth it for loads of reasons. You get to hurtle round on a scooter for one. There’s a real sense of adventure, of being out there ‘travelling’ properly and having some really unique experiences to come home with. But perhaps most importantly, you get to see and experience the beauty of a country which it appears a lot of people have never seen properly, both in its scenery and the friendliness of it’s people. I wouldn’t dare say I’ve seen the real Laos but I definitely got a peek of it.
5 Thakhek Loop Tips!
By Amber Rhodes
- TIP 1 – Don’t cross your bike through Khonglor Cave in an attempt to come out the other side, unless you have a dirt bike. On 125cc Honda Waves it took us four hours to probably get our bikes loaded in and damages occurred in the river crossings. The road on the other side is extreme gravel with river crossings or tiny plank bridges and nowhere to stay!
- TIP 2 – Use maps.me to find those off the beaten track destinations – they show up on there.
- TIP 3 – Book all accommodation on the loop a few days in advance, including your Thakhek overnight stay. Due to lack of options in this untouristy part of Laos, everything gets booked up quickly, especially during high season in Laos (November to February).
- TIP 4 – Bring cash. ATMs can be sparse on the way and there can be some unexpected expenses such as repairing a flat tire, paying a police fine (watch for cops at the light in Thakhek on your way out of the city to start the loop – they pulled us over for stopping next to the cars at the light instead of one behind the other ?). Even between the four of us there were times when we fell short of cash.
- TIP 5 – Get early starts. We always left a little later and ended up driving in the dark almost every day. To stop at sights on the way and avoid night driving (which I don’t recommend), leave as early as you can.
By Michael Alty