The sleepy provincial capital of Khammuan province, Tha Khaek lies across the Mekong River from the Thai town of Nakhon Phanom. While Tha Khaek is not the most exciting town in Laos, it's a good deal more interesting than its cross-river neighbour, and it's the biggest, most tourist-friendly town in the province.
Tha Khaek means "guest landing". Originally, this was a reference to the town's stature as a riverine trading outpost, but the name still holds water today. Tha Khaek is a full-on, international border crossing, with Lao visas on arrival available for the foreigners pouring into Laos at this point.
The construction effort to transform Route 12 from a dirt track to a major east-west trade corridor led to a steady influx of Laotians moving into town from outlying areas. A corresponding increase in tourist numbers has also been seen and you'll spot more tourists in this town than in many northern Lao towns. Accommodation options haven't increased in recent years though with Tha Khaek Travel Lodge still the hands-down favourite, primarily due to their cheap dorm beds and wealth of Tha Khaek Loop information.
Route 12 courses along the southern edge of the Phou Hin Boun NBCA, a massive limestone forest with numerous pristine and picturesque rivers and lakes. And where there is limestone, there are caves. Route 12 offers easy access to half a dozen or more, the most remarkable of which is the eerie and amazing Tham Konglor -- a 7.5 kilometre-long cave with a massive river running right through the middle of it. It's inaccessible from the south, but good roads lead north to the village of Na Hin (also known as Khoun Kham) from which the cave can be reached on a daytrip.
Tha Khaek in general, and the Travel Lodge in particular, are increasingly becoming a staging area for the Konglor Cave Loop, as tourists show up here looking to take a three-to-five day motorbike journey from Tha Khaek, through Nakai and Lak Xao, to Na Hin for a trip to Konglor Cave, and then returning from the north via Route 13S.
The Nakai-Nam Theun NBCA along the eastern border with Vietnam is a rarely visited part of the province and in recent years part of the area was affected by a massive hydroelectric project. For those seeking true adventure, a trail bike journey through parts of this area is possible, but it is more a 'make it up as you go' experience.
A road, route 1E, has been cut through the forest along what is essentially the western edge of the reservoir, from Mahaxai in Khammuan Province, to Lak Xao in Bolikhamsai. While the road tracks the edge of the reservoir, at many points it cuts right through spectacular lakes and tributaries filled with dead trees.
A motorcycle journey along this road used to be a dusty, bumpy and demanding trek that tested the patience of even the most experienced rider. Today, route 1E is paved all the way to Nakai and between Nakai and Thalang the unpaved road is smooth, wide and easy to ride on. North of Thalang things get a little more testy and the road deteriorates significantly, but work is underway to pave the entire way and we anticipate that over the next few years the loop will become a much easier journey.
For the more adventurous, travel into the remainder of the province is possible and can be especially rewarding -- rest assured you'll probably be the only foreigner in sight.
By Adam Poskitt.