Sensational motorbike journey
Published/Last edited or updated: 25th January, 2017
By the time you roll back into Tha Khaek, you’ll have covered 450-kilometres and travelled through some of the most breathtaking, unforgettable scenery in all of Laos. The Tha Khaek Loop: get a motorbike and go.
The Tha Khaek Loop, also known as the Konglor Loop or simply “the Loop”, begins and ends in Tha Khaek and can be done in as little as three days, though more are recommended for a less hurried pace. Four days is more leisurely. Five and up can include side-trips and relaxation.
The majority of travellers tackle the route in an anti-clockwise direction, and this is the way we’ve written the details. There’s no particular reason why, except this way Konglor Cave is the penultimate highlight of the trip and the long stretch of boring highway driving back to Tha Khaek is left to the end.
We’ve given you an overview in the introduction, with details on renting a motorbike and tips for the road in the transport section. Insurance? Check. Helmet? Check, check. Now here’s how to tackle the Tha Khaek Loop.
Tha Khaek to Mahaxay (40 km): “Cave alley”
As you depart Tha Khaek heading east on Route 12—a road that continues all the way to the Vietnam border—it doesn’t take long before you get a taste of what to expect in the coming days. Say goodbye to civilisation, say “sabaidee” to rural flatlands and karst. Route 12 skirts the southern edge of Phou Hin Phoun NPA and the first 20-kilometres is packed with interesting caves.
Time management is key in the first day as you could easily spend all day stopping at each sight. See our guide to cave alley to help you plan. Perhaps cherry pick two caves—we loved Tham Pha Nya Inh at km-12, and Hang Nang Aen at km-16 is considered the big daddy cave. Plus take a cooling dip at the Tha Falang swimming hole or stop for lunch or even stay a night at Green Climbers Home (open dry season only). Another option is to leave cave alley as a day trip after completing the loop.
At 40 km from Tha Khaek, Mahaxay is the first sizeable town you will reach and it is where the journey pivots north. It’s a dusty ol’ town with a MAG office, petrol station, ATM and Mahaxay Mai, a dismal guesthouse that makes a good case for planning the trip so that you don’t have to stay in Mahaxay. The only reason you would need to overnight here is if you set out from Tha Khaek too late, took your time stopping at all the Route 12 sights, or for logistical reasons, like adding the adventurous side loop to remote Xe Bang Fai cave in the Hin Nam No NPA. If you find yourself running out of time, keep in mind that a further 13 km north from Mahaxay is the better Linsomphou Lodge.
Mahaxay to Nakai (35 km): Up to the Nakai Plateau
From Mahaxay, continuing along Route 12 which heads north. Eventually there’s a junction, with Route 12 turning right/east to the Vietnam border. Continue going straight. You are now on 1E. About 20 km from Mahaxay is the small village of Gnommalat, your last chance for petrol before the steep climb up to Nakai.
After Gnommalat is the beginning of the Nam Theun 2 Dam—you can’t miss it. 1E follows along its edges and you can stop at the dam’s visitor centre, which no doubt sheds a glowing light on the project. Cross the bridge and then it’s a long steady climb, with sharp turning switchbacks and a 12% gradient up to the Nakai Plateau, where the air is noticeably cooler, the sun more intense.
The modernising town of Nakai sits at the edge of the enormous manmade Nam Theun reservoir, your first glimpse of a world swallowed by a dammed river. Environmental and social impact aside, it’s undeniably scenic and Nakai is starting to feel like a lakeside town. There is currently no accommodation along the water, and all the places are a bit out of the town centre, however, this has the best quality accommodation travellers will find on 1E. Nakai is a good option for your first night on the loop.
Arriving into town, the main junction has a small tourism office (open Mon-Fri 09:00-12:00 & 14:00-16:00) which, according to their guest book, had a whopping 13 visitors in 2016. There’s a few brochures (the same ones found at the office in Tha Khaek) and some local handicrafts for sale—you can visit these weaving villages in person, more on that later!
On either side of the junction there are signs for Sern Sap Restaurant, highly recommended for a delicious meal. In a pretty spot overlooking an offshoot of the reservoir, and the restaurant serves Lao, Thai and western dishes (cordon bleu anyone?), with dining inside or outside on the waterfront terrace. The curries, phad kraphao and phad thai are a reasonable 25,000-35,000 kip, while some dishes, like the laap, are a dear 85,000 kip. We saw a group of locals feasting on what looked and smelled like an amazing sindad (Lao barbecue/hot pot). The WiFi and clean toilets are also a treat.
Otherwise, as a refuel stop, the town has the usual noodle soup and barbecue shops along the main road. Fill up the tank in Nakai, there is no formal petrol station until Lak Xao, 72 km away.
Nakai to Thalang (21 km): Weaving and wetlands
Nakai has the best quality accommodation, but those doing the loop in three days often choose to push on 21 km to Thalang for their first night, drawn by the legendary Sabaidee Guesthouse.
About 7 km north of Nakai, on the lefthand side (17.754792,105.098601) we spotted a sign for Konglor and very rough looking dirt track leading off into the hills. We haven’t been able verify whether there is a back way to Konglor, approaching it from the southeast, but this intriguing nibble is for adventurous souls on off-road motorcycles.
En route to Thalang are two traditional weaving villages that have started to open up to tourists. 16 km north of Nakai, Ban Nam Nian and Ban Sobia (also written Sophia) are worth a stop to stroll around the village and possibly see weavers at work. Ban Nam Nian is the first village you come across—the easiest way to find it is once you see the temple on the right hand side, back track about 100 metres. The village entrance is situated on a slight rise, look for looms under the houses.
Two kilometres further on, to the lefthand side is Ban Sobia, which added a formal weaving centre in 2016 bringing several of the weavers together under one roof. A project is helping both villages develop their skills. Traditionally, they wove only Lao skirts using poor quality threads. Now they are working with cotton and learning how to create quality products with colours and patterns that would appeal to foreign markets. Stop by and pick up a handcrafted souvenir direct from the village, both are welcoming to visitors.
Sabaidee Guesthouse is one of the most backpacker-friendly spots on the entire loop. It’s less about the accommodation, which are quite basic and rustic, more about the gathering-place atmosphere and convivial Mr Thoun aka “Mr Happy” and his affordable all you can eat barbecue feast. Every night loop-ers can fill their bellies on meat skewers, salad, chips, sticky rice and other dishes while filling up on stories from fellow travellers.
Thalang is a town on the edge of the former Nam Theun river-turned-reservoir, slowly transforming into an ecosystem. The lake and wetlands make a good case for staying more than a day. Phosy Thalang, the only other guesthouse, has rustic bungalows overlooking the water and they also serve tasty food. Sabaidee can arrange for a boat trip on the water, 100,000 kip an hour for one to two persons. Add fishing or a Lao picnic to make it even more memorable.
For Thalang to be your first night and to arrive before dark, you’ll have to make good time, leaving Tha Khaek early and seeing only a few caves. Both guesthouses are generally first come, first serve and Sabaidee does fill up. There are homestays available in the village. Look for the blue tourism sign “Tha Lang Hamlet Homestay” with arrow pointing into the village and signs on homes that indicate homestay. It’s simply a room in a local’s home as well as a meal, a way to experience Lao village life. Expect basic facilities and no English spoken.
Thalang to Lak Xao (51 km): Drowned world
Heading north on 1E, say goodbye to Thalang and Khammuan Province. For 51 km it’s nothing except an eerily beautiful drowned world, nature consumed by water with the bare remains of dead trees reaching out like grief stricken figures. There is no infrastructure, village or petrol along the way, so pray to the road-trip gods that you don’t have motorbike troubles.
The small sections of the loop that runs through Bolikhamsai Province are the most that tourists usually see of it. The province is home to a few towns that are only of interest as transit points and Lak Xao is no exception. It’s formed at the junction of 1E and west-east running Route 8, which goes to the Vietnamese border 34 km away. It’s the last significant town before the border and has all the amenities and charm of a refuel stop with a bus station, petrol stations, mechanics and plenty of Lao or Vietnamese-style accommodation.
A tiny tourism information office lies at the northwest corner of the intersection. English spoken? No. A loo you can use? Yes! Another handy tip, there’s a mechanic specialising in Honda in front of the Honda store on Route 8 just east of the intersection.
Lak Xao is a forgettable place, fine for a night’s stay. If you depart Nakai or Thalang early in the morning, there’s usually enough time to make it to cosier Na Hin—and you’ll want as much time to get there as the way is one of the most stunning parts of the loop and should be savoured at a leisurely speed.Lak Xao to Na Hin - (54 km): cool springs
Visit the base of one of these karst at “cool springs” or “nam yen” (literally “cold water”), a pretty blue lagoon/swimming hole. The signposted turnoff for “cold natural pond” is 33.5 km west of the intersection at Lak Xao. It also says 2 km when in fact it is 3 km, following the dirt path all the way to Mordor—we mean, mountain. It’s 10,000 kip for foreigners.
As you approach Na Hin, the road descends, crossing back into Khammuan Province and there’s a rewarding viewpoint of the town and flatlands below.
Na Hin, sometimes shown on old maps as Khoun Kham, is a small town of some importance, home to the Theun-Hinboun hydropower house. More concerning for travellers, it is the pivot point to leave Route 8 and head south to Konglor. The town is pleasant enough and there is good accommodation. In fact, some choose it as a base to see the cave rather than stay in Konglor village. Two standouts are Sanhak Guesthouse, which has information on a few things to see in the area, rents motorbikes and can arrange for private transport, and Sainamhai Resort, a tranquil out of town place on the Namhai river that also does delicious food.
The entrance to Nasanam waterfall is on Route 8 in the middle of town. To tackle the hike to the falls, set out before noon (it requires half a day), have a hiking buddy and plenty of water. A small tourism office is also on Route 8, west of Nasanam entrance.
Konglor Cave (40 km): Natural thrills
From Na Hin, follow signs to Sainamhai Resort, this road will go south past the hydropower station and canal, or continue along Route 8 to the edge of town and at the junction, turn left (head east). Take either way as they eventually merge into a single road going south to Konglor. The road to Konglor is sealed, but as of November 2016, riddled with potholes as the area is prone to flooding which has caused parts to be washed away.
Bumpy roads aside, enjoy the drive. For 40 km it feels as if you are headed straight into an impenetrable fortress of rock. But there is one way through: Konglor Cave.
The spectacular cave is where the Hinboun river flows for 7.5 km, a passage through the mountain. A thrilling boat ride in the dark takes people to the other side, an hour racing up river as the boatman navigates every sharp corner, rock and rapid with precision. It’s a unique experience, and a highlight of the entire country that shouldn’t be missed. It would take the most cynical of traveller to walk away disappointed.
Boats cost 110,000 kip for one person, 120,000 kip for two, 130,000 kip for three. Allow for at least 2.5 hours for the roundtrip journey. See our Konglor information for full details.
Konglor village itself is a lovely area to linger, whether for exploration or relaxation—Spring River Resort is recommended for the latter. There are ways to fill the days. Photography: the landscape during rice growing season is mesmerising. Guests at Spring River Resort can hire boats for a lazy paddle and river levels permitting, the resort can arrange for boat transport all the way to Ban Nongboua on Route 13.
Do-it-yourself homestays are available in Ban Konglor and on the other side of the mountain, in Ban Natan. And if you’ve had fun going through the cave, it’s also possible to hike over the mountain. The difficult Konglor-Natan hiking trail takes six hours and should only be done dry season and in reasonable temperatures. It’s strongly recommended to hire a local guide, prearranged through the tourism office at Konglor.
Return to Tha Khaek: Best view point
It’s 40 km back to Na Hin, 37 km to Vieng Kham and 105 km of straight highway driving to Tha Khaek.
The 37 km stretch on Route 8 west from Na Hin to Vieng Kham is the last drink of remote, rugged landscape. The final viewpoint is a doozy and a fitting farewell to the loop. Known as the Hin Poun viewpoint, look for the sala perched on the rise on the lefthand side. It’s easier to park on the side of the road rather than drive up to the hut.
Route 8 once again leaves Khammuan Province into Bolikhamsai, where Vieng Kham is the abrupt return to civilisation. Vieng Kham is an important junction and refuel stop, where the road to Vietnam meets Laos’ main highway. If it’s too late to make it to Tha Khaek, there is accommodation here and Khamphone Keokhamphan Guesthouse is a decent one. To return to Tha Khaek, it’s mind-numbing highway driving down Route 13, sharing the road with many buses and transport trucks, a bit of a shock after so many days of peaceful driving. Do take care.
For those with hours to spare, Khun Kong Leng Lake is an idyllic blue lagoon 20 km off of Route 13. The turnoff for it is Ban Houay Aek, 71 km south of Vieng Kham. Manage the challenging dirt road and be rewarded with a refreshing swim.
A stop that may be of interest along the highway, 74 km south of Vieng Kham and 27 km shy of Tha Khaek (on the eastern side of Route 13, at 17.601827, 104.682227) is an eye-opening local market specialising in all things wild: rice paddy rat, bamboo rats, bats, bugs and plenty of floppy, slippery, hippity hoppity river creatures, as well as seasonal jungle plants and nuts. Sadly, there is also illegally hunted wildlife, highlighting an enormous issue the country faces with poaching. The sellers know it is illegal too. No sooner had we pulled out our camera than these particular animals were hidden away.
Back to Tha Khaek, in time for a cool drink on the Mekong, the loop complete.
Sorting out a bike for the Tha Khaek loop
Boasting some of the most stunning scenery in Laos, it’s no surprise that the most popular way to do the Tha Khaek loop is by motorbike.
If you’ve never driven a motorbike, renting one and heading out on the loop is not the place to learn. Laos lacks advanced medical care or infrastructure. Consider that once you’re on the loop, it can be more than a day’s journey to a proper hospital in Thailand. Consider the risks.
Have insurance, wear a helmet and drive at a sensible speed. The loop is now all sealed road, yet every day we saw battered travellers and bikes hobbling into town. Incredibly, we also overheard travellers bragging about driving 100 km/hr, definitely not a sensible speed. Beware of potholes, chickens, children, patches of gravel, random debris, overloaded trucks and water buffalo, who always seem to hangout around every sharp corner. In the countryside it’s best to be off the roads after dark.
The rental shop will provide an extra wheel lock; if the motorbike will be out of your sightline, use it. If paid parking is available at a site, use it. For overnight, guesthouses will show you the secure place to park it inside.
The shop will usually provide a photocopy map of the loop, obviously not to scale but good enough to get you from point A to point B. The Khammuan Province brochure, found at the tourism office in Tha Khaek, Nakai, Lak Xao, Na Hin and Konglor, provides a high level map and some info on the sights. Do not rely on Google Maps; it is largely outdated in this area.
There are long sections where there are no villages or petrol stations. Fill up the tank at major towns. To avoid any possibility of being scammed, show the amount in kip you want added (example, hold up a 20,000 kip note) rather than asking to fill the tank. Ensure the attendant first resets the pump meter.
It goes without saying, the less bike malfunctions the happier you will be. Though all roads on the loop are now paved, the rentals still take an absolute beating. Try to get one with low mileage, don’t rent a Chinese-brand bike and do, to the best of your ability, check that it’s in good working order before departing. Check lights, signals and brakes, photograph any existing damage and your contract.
The two big rental shops are Chinese-owned Wang Wang’s, located in the town square by the river, and Mr Ku’s, in-house at Thakek Travel Lodge. Legendary Mr Ku had a hand in putting the loop on the map, so to speak. He has hand drawn maps, great English and a helpful demeanour. If you stay at the lodge, it makes sense to rent from there.
Wang Wang’s, located at the river across from Inthira Hotel, has an enormous fleet, and it’s not uncommon for most of it to be rented out by the end of the morning. It’s not a bad idea to go to the shop the evening before or earlier in the morning to secure a bike in good condition and with low kilometres. The shop can be absolute chaos, it takes some time to get on your way. It’s the cheapest deal in town: Semi-automatics cost 55,000-70,000 kip per day, depending on cc. Automatics cost 90,000 kip a day.
Automatics are really meant for city driving and some designs have skimped out on a decent cooling system. It’s a good idea to give these bikes a break every hour or so.
Beside Wang Wang’s is German-owned Mad Monkey Motorbike which only have automatics for 100,000 kip a day and serious off-road bikes, 250,000 to 300,000 kip per day.
A passport is usually required as a deposit.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.