Photo: Lush in wet season.

Introduction

The Tha Khaek Loop, also known as the Konglor Loop or simply “the Loop”, is a 450-kilometre motorcycle journey through some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Laos.


Imagine traversing vast flat valleys bursting with emerald rice paddies and limestone peaks that jut up from the earth like jagged prehistoric fangs. At the base of these karst you’ll find blue lagoons, remote rural villages and caves galore, the highlight being Konglor Cave. Imagine zipping on a boat through pitch darkness for 7.5-kilometres, clear to the other side of the mountain.

The loop can be done in as little as three days, but more are recommended depending on how many sights you want to take in and how many kilometres per day you want to ride. The journey should really be savoured. Three days is a rush, four days is more leisurely, five plus includes relaxation and side-trips.

The loop starts and ends in Tha Khaek, taking you through Khammuan and Bolikhamsai Province, two national protected areas, an enormous reservoir, a karst “forest” and to within 30 km of the Vietnam border. Most do the journey anti-clockwise, passing through the towns/villages in this order: Mahaxay, Nakai, Thalang, Lak Xao, Na Hin, Konglor and Vieng Kham.

Over the years, the Tha Khaek Loop has steadily risen in popularity on backpacker bucket lists—and gained notoriety due to the challenging unpaved roads. Completing it felt like a badge of honour, especially during rainy season when the roads disintegrated into a brutal Tough Mudder obstacle course. At times the 50 kilometre stretch from Thalang to Lak Xao could take four hours. However, as of June 2016, the entire route is sealed. Some may feel that the loop is not an adventure anymore; trust us, it still is, and the paved roads save both locals and travellers from hardships, bumps and scrapes.

For those lamenting the loss of terrible roads, hey, there’s still plenty of risk to make things interesting. Motorbiking in Laos comes with a laundry list of dangers, including but not limited to potholes, slippery patches, chickens, overloaded trucks, impaired drivers, buses and water buffalo, so very many water buffalo. They always seem to hang out just around the blind corner. Insurance, wearing a helmet and experience riding a motorbike are things we recommend.

The loop is a highlight reel, from memorable accommodation, to waterfall treks, swims in cool springs and breathtaking viewpoints—enjoy every kilometre. And do watch out for those water buffalo.


Orientation
The majority of travellers tackle the route in an anti-clockwise direction. There’s no particular reason why, except this way Konglor Cave is the penultimate highlight of the trip. After the cave, there is one final stunning stretch with a viewpoint. A long chunk of boring highway is left to the end, driving back to Tha Khaek.

The main provincial tourist information centre is located in Tha Khaek. There are tiny branches in Nakai, Lak Xao, Na Hin and Konglor, which will have bits of info but there is no guarantee that the staff speak English. It’s best to arrange treks/tours at the Tha Khaek office.

A good time to do the loop is during dry season (approximately November to May), particularly the cool months of November to February. During rainy season (June to October), the rice paddies are absolutely stunning. However, ensure you have rain protection for both you and your pack as there is often a daily downpour and have some extra days in your schedule in case of delays. The road to Konglor village occasionally experiences flooding.

At least one ATM can be found in the larger villages such as Mahaxay, Nakai, Na Hin, Lak Xao and Vieng Kham. As of November 2017, there is no ATM in Konglor. Carry a supply of kip as ATMs in remote areas are not reliable.

Many places to stay on the loop don’t have reliable WiFi. If staying connected is important, get an inexpensive Lao Telecom (M-Phone) sim card in Tha Khaek. Most towns have at least 3G service.

See the transport section for details on motorbike rentals and tips for the road.


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