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Tha Khaek Loop

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The Tha Khaek Loop, also known as the Konglor Loop or just the Loop, is a 500-kilometre motorcycle journey starting and ending in Tha Khaek in Southern Laos. The loop takes in the stunning limestone scenery of Khammuan province, remote villages and many caves, of which the highlight is Konglor, a seven-kilometre long cave which has a large river running right through the middle of it.

Most people do the loop in three to five days depending on how many of the sights on the loop they want to take in and how many hours per day they want to ride. At a minimum, everyone takes in at least some of the caves between 10 and 20 kilometres to the east of Tha Khaek where you immediately get a feel for the landscape and the people. A good rule of thumb is: three days is a rush, four days is relaxing and five days is for the extended loop.

In years gone by, almost the entire 500-kilometre journey was on dirt roads, but recent road-paving projects have made almost the entire journey rather easy to navigate by motorbike. Some may feel that the loop is not so much of an adventure anymore, but we think it still is an adventure -- just without some of the past hardships.

To extend the loop and take in some really remote areas, take the road to the east from the small town of Mahaxay. This road is a 200-kilometre loop which eventually comes back around to Route 12 and leads back to the main loop route. Along this particular detour, you're almost guaranteed to not see another foreigner. The road is dirt most of the way and it culminates in a river crossing which requires you to sit on your motorbike on a canoe.

As the more popular route has travellers tackling the Loop in an anti-clockwise direction, here's the route leaving from Tha Khaek.

Mahaxay


Mahaxay is the first sizeable town you will reach as you head east along Route 12 from Tha Khaek. It's a convenient stopping point if you've spent all day taking in the sights until this point, particularly if you plan to take the extended Tha Khaek Loop, which turns off here and continues on dirt roads towards Vietnam.

Mahaxay is a dusty old town set out in a grid-like fashion of interconnecting roads lined with wooden houses, a MAG office and one hotel which is located on the northern outskirts of town and also doubles as a restaurant. The town is not a destination in and of itself and most people speed through without even thinking twice, but it will probably be an overnight destination for those undertaking the extended Tha Khaek loop due to the logistics of this route.

If undertaking the extended loop, head along the dirt road past the health clinic and follow it for 20 kilometres until you reach a crossroads where you need to take a left turn. Follow this road for a further 65 kilometres until you reach a petrol station and then turn left again down a road which heads north back to Route 12.

It is possible to head further down the road and into town where you can ask locals to take you to a cave in the region. The Tha Khaek tourist office indicates that it is similar in size and stature to Konglor but is at this time completely undeveloped – a true Indiana Jones experience.

When you are out this far and need directions, just ask locals for directions to Vietnam and they will point you in the correct direction. A further 10 kilometres after turning off at the petrol station you will reach a large river with no bridge. Motorbikes will need to be put on a canoe and paddled across the river – 10,000 kip – a fantastic, if scary, experience.

The entire extended loop takes a day and it's approximately 200 kilometres from Mahaxay until the junction of routes 12 and 1E. Most of the way is dirt and the scenery of rural Laos is lovely – you're unlikely to meet another foreign person on this route. The scooters rented out in Tha Khaek are adequate for these roads.

Nakai


This modernising mountaintop village 500 metres above sea level offers the first glimpse of flooding caused by the damming of a nearby river for the creation of a hydroelectric power plant. Odd bits of land are filled with water and hundreds of dead trees blight the landscape around Nakai.

For most travellers, Nakai represents a great stopover point while doing the Konglor Cave Loop. There are a few good places to stay in town with one newer place on the way out of town a top spot if you're willing to shell out a few extra kip.

While this town is called Nakai, on most of the maps we've seen the town is also referred to as Oudoumsouk. Either way, you'll know you've reached Nakai after riding up the steep mountain past some hydroelectric offices next to a river – it's the only town of any size up this way.

It's always a bit chillier up here than it is down below, and in the cooler months the nights can be cold, so bring along a jumper or two, especially if you plan to ride your motorbike around looking for a bite to eat at night.

Houaphou Restaurant is the place most foreigners will find suitable for their tastes and it's incredible that such a place exists in such a remote location of Laos. On the main road through town just north of the main intersection, it serves tasty Lao, Thai, French and Belgian cuisine as well as pizzas in a very refined environment. The Western influence is clear and the resulting food is just what the doctor ordered if you've been living on rice and noodles in recent times. Prices are high by Lao standards and likely too high for many budget travellers, but it's worth a look anyway.

Other than Houaphou Restaurant, eating in town is a bit hit and miss. Along the main street is where most options are found, with plenty of places serving Vietnamese-style pho and Lao barbecue.

Orientation
It's pretty easy to get a handle on Nakai. Arriving from the south, there's a three-way crossroads. The road to the right leads a kilometre down to the Tolex Guest House, and from there on it's nothing but increasingly remote villages. Continuing past the intersection on the main road, you'll pass the Houa Phou Restaurant and reach the town market on the left.

There are no internet cafes and the nearest banking and postal services are in Gnommalat to the south and Lak Xao to the north. 3G internet is available with a Unitel sim card.

Thalang


Thalang is a town on the edge of the former Nam Theun river which is now simply a large lake.

There are two guesthouses here – one on the edge of the reservoir proper and another on the edge of small pond created by the inundation.

The town is the favourite place for travellers to stop on their first night on the Konglor Cave Loop due to it being recommended by a couple of the motorbike hire shops in town and in particular Mr. Ku. While both accommodation options are good, we think Thalang is only a good first night stop for those making good time. And to make good enough time on the loop, you will have to leave Tha Khaek early, skip some caves or arrive in Tha Khaek in the dark or all three.

The road between Nakai and Thalang is unpaved but in top condition meaning that the going is quite quick should you want to make a quick 45 minute dash up the road. The road onwards from Thalang deteriorates quickly and there are no other accommodation options along route 1E until you reach Lak Xao.

There are no services in town although you can access the internet at Sabaidee Guesthouse if you're desperate. Internet with Unitel sims is also available in Thalang.


Lak Xao


Bolikhamsai Province is home to a number of towns that are only of interest as transit points. Lak Xao is no exception with a bus station, a few guesthouses and some dusty roads are all that it has to offer.

It's a town situated 34km shy of the Vietnamese border under the shadow of a massive limestone mountain, Phou Phaa Phi Hong, in the midst of a vast expanse of forest.

You'll see the odd logging truck barrel through town with logs of incredible size on the back of them. Where they are coming from, we don't know, but it's fair to say that the trees being chopped down are not from plantations.

Few travellers visit Lak Xao as a destination in itself, but it's becoming a regular stop for those doing the loop in 4 or 5 days and it's long served as an overnight stop for tour groups going from Vientiane to Vietnam.

A trip out here via Route 8 is worthwhile in its own right, especially by motorcycle or bicycle, rather than by tour bus, simply for the stunning scenery along the road, traversing spectacular ridges, zooming under huge limestone mountains and criss-crossing countless rivers and streams.

The Nam Phao border
The Nam Phao Border is 34 km east of Lak Xao -- you can catch a bus to from Lak Xao to Trung Tan or Vinh on the Vietnamese eastern coast and from there to your city of choice in Vietnam. You'll need to have your Vietnamese visa in advance, of course. The border is open from 07:00 to 16:30.

Stamping out of Laos is free except on weekends when it costs 10,000 kip. There is an exchange booth on the Laos side open during operating hours where you can pick up some dong at unattractive rates. Best to just pay in dollars on the other side (baht are harder to get rid of).

If entering from Vietnam, a Lao Visa on Arrival is available at this border crossing.

Na Hin


If you're looking for a dusty, nondescript town along Route 8, Na Hin is a good option. But what makes it an even better option is that there's growing activity in Na Hin centred on it acting as a base camp for trips to Konglor Cave and treks within the Phou Hin Boun NBCA.

It's a town with two names in use and knowing both is handy if you're using public transport to get here. Most locals use the name Na Hin, but you will also see and hear it referred to as Khoun Kham.

Na Hin is mostly visited in transit or overnight as part of a two- or three-day trip to Konglor Cave that begins and ends in Tha Khaek and often includes Route 1E to make a complete loop.

The road south from here leads to Konglor Cave, which makes the local bus station the main place to change bus if heading to the cave. If you arrive in town too late – after about 15:00 – you'll have to overnight here. In recent years the road to Konglor Cave has been paved and is now flat and straight for its 45 kilometres.

Orientation
Na Hin has an ATM in the centre of town, but we weren't able to get it to work with our credit card -- you might have more luck, but don't rely on it for now.

WiFi is available in some guesthouses in town and we found it to be stable and fast at Phamaan View Guesthouse.

The tourist information centre on the main road is able to help with guided tours around the area including stays in remote villages and journeys along some of the nearby rivers.

The food situation in Na Hin is not good. Just about your only option should you not wish to eat at one of the noodle shops at the market is Dokkhoun Restaurant (T: (020) 2246 9811), just up from where most of the guesthouses and the bus station are. Set in a large wooden building, Dokkhoun serves up standard Lao fare such as laap and fried meats as well as standard fried rices and noodle soups. The food certainly fills a hole, but it's nothing worth writing home about.

Konglor Cave


The spectacular Konglor Cave is actually a portion of the Hin Boun river that has worked its way, over some vast period of geological time, through 7.5km of solid rock. It's a truly awesome experience, from which almost no one ever walks away disappointed. The river is wide and the ceiling of the cave reaches well over 50m above the floor in some parts creating quite a humbling experience.

Bring a good flashlight with fresh batteries, and prepare to get at least your feet wet -- especially in dry season, there are a couple sections of the cave where you'll have to walk inside the dark cave while the boatman hauls the boat along. Your feet will definitely get wet, so shoes and socks are a mistake. Flip flops are an adequate alternative although it is possible to lose them if the water is rushing particularly fast, so be careful -- some of the limestone formations are razor sharp and you don't want to wind up inside the cave barefoot. A good pair of sandals are your best bet.

It takes about an hour to get through the cave. The entrance on the other side lets out 3km from Ban Natan, where homestays are available if you'd like to spend the night. But, typically, after a break on the other side, you get back in the boat and do the return. Locals going back and forth between Ban Natan and Ban Konglor routinely do it the same way. The only other option is a strenuous four-hour hike over the mountain -- if you're fit and ambitious enough for it, you'll have to hire a local guide to show you the way.

Cave entrance costs 5,000 kip and boat rental (for a maximum of 3 people) costs 100,000 kip. National park entrance is 2,000 kip and parking your motorbike will set you back 3,000 kip.

Once you're done with the cave, Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene is located on the main road heading towards the end of the peninsula and is worth seeking out. It's a beautifully atmospheric cafe especially popular at breakfast time which serves magnificent fresh bread, baked goods and tasty traditional breakfast options such as fruit salad. The menu later in the day turns to Lao/Western food but is equally as delicious as the breakfast menu. This is a top spot for breakfast with free WiFi where you'll feel like you're tucked in a back alley of Paris. This place oozes style.

Phakdee Bakery next to View Khemkong is another great little spot particularly for breakfast. A select of bagels, croissants and baguettes is served along with tasty fresh fruit salads and muesli. The staff are friendly enough and can even manage a bit of English which is a bonus. Prices are good for this quality and the ambience on the river is peaceful.

Vieng Kham


Vieng Kham is located 50 kilometres to the south of Pak Kading and 100 kilometres to the north of Tha Khaek, and is really nothing more than an unimpressive cluster of stalls and shops.

It's an important junction town and transit point for those travelling along Route 8 towards the Vietnamese border at Nam Phao and towns along the way such as Na Hin and Lak Xao. It's also the transit point for those making the journey to Konglor, south of Na Hin.

Buses cruise past this junction town heading north and south all throughout the day and even some in the evening although they are rare indeed. A bus heading to Vientiane should swing through from Na Hin at about 20:00.

If you get stuck here, there are a couple of places to stay on Route 8 about 200 metres east of the junction with a good one being Khamphone Keokhamphan Guesthouse.

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Text and/or map last updated on 3rd May, 2013.

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