Thakhek Loop, Laos

Nestled on the eastern bank of the Mekong River in Central Laos, Thakhek is the service centre for the renowned Thakhek Loop – a 460 kilometre circuit through karst mountains that stretch to Vietnam.

We were there mid-November 2022.

This area is known for its caves and as soft adventure cave tourism goes, it doesn’t get any better than this. Coupled with magnificent scenery, horrible roads, world class ziplining, maniac truck drivers, and a culture all its own, this is an adventure playground that can be heart pounding, enjoyable, interesting, unique and sometimes testing.

The first test was renting a vehicle.  Thakhek is a former French colonial town nowadays catering for a continuing stream of tourists, mostly starting (or finishing) the Loop.

We found the car/motorcycle hire company in the centre of town. The Chinese made PoC badged as a Wu Ling with stuffed shocks and dodgy steering – but roomy – was US$70/day, take it or leave it. There was nothing else on offer in Thakhek.

It’s ‘Keep Right’ in Laos which, while I have experienced it numerous times previously, is contrary to decades of driving on the left. Ultimately the unfamiliar became usual and the only issues were with idiot truck drivers who had no consideration for rules of the road, other drivers or even human life. The maxim “Might is Right” prevails on the Thakhek Loop.

We chose to do the Loop anti-clockwise which seems to be the most common selection. A detailed map of the Loop is here.

Our first stop was underwhelming – Tha Falang.  Advertised as a blue swimming hole it is a brown, soul less stretch of the Done River, reputedly popular but unpatronised when we arrived.

Nakai Reservoir

Probably the most interesting feature of the first day of travel on the Thakhek Loop is the massive Nakai Reservoir and the string of islands (and Tha Lang Bridge) over which Road 1E crosses the lake.

This massive hydroelectric scheme is not without its detractors – mostly from places where electricity supplies are assured. Without doubt it has had negative environmental impact. It has also improved people’s lives.

Once across the reservoir it is about 39 kilometres to Lak Sao, the north-east terminus of the Loop.

Lak Sao

After a couple of false starts finding a sanitary place for lunch at Lak Sao we eventually noticed a bunch of vehicles and motorbikes parked outside what was a delightful little restaurant.

We were short of time (by about a day) so, out of necessity, our Thakhek Loop trip was a bit rushed. From Lak Sao we headed west on Road 8 to The Rock Viewpoint Ziplining.

Khoune Kam

Past Ban Na Hin the four kilometres between the turnoff to Kong Lor Cave (which we were going to visit tomorrow) and the location of the Ziplining is steep, narrow and winding. In all my years travelling in Asia it was here I experienced the scariest moment driving a motor vehicle. A semi trailer was descending the hill way too fast and extremely recklessly. He cut across a sharp bend and we had nowhere to go. There was a high dropoff to the right. The semi’s rear tyres smoked as it came to an emergency stop only centimetres from our vehicle. The idiot driver was straightlining the bends and nearly drove over the top of us in the process. Luckily we were able squeeze past the trailer after its brainless driver stopped the rig. The worst part was contemplating that I had to drive up this same hill again tomorrow and I would encounter him or one of his cavalier compatriots.

The Rock Viewpoint Ziplining

We reached the The Rock Viewpoint Ziplining without further incident. Surprisingly, we were the only people there and Yuyee got the undivided attention of two guides.

The Rock Viewpoint Ziplining is a very professional operation set among spectacular rugged, jagged limestone peaks. It features the only spider net bridge in Laos.

Being the only patron, Yuyee got extra attention and a longer session.

It was late in the afternoon as we made our back down the steep, narrow winding hill to our overnight accommodation at Ban Na Hin which is a popular accommodation location for visitors to Kong Lor Cave.

The Road to Kor Lam Cave

The drive to the cave was quite tedious in a low slung 2WD vehicle with stuffed shocks.

There are numerous villages (bans) along the road to the cave.

It is 41 kilometres to the cave. After about 14 kilometres the road roughly parallels the Hinboun River – the watercourse that flows through the Kong Lor Cave.

Being early morning there were lots of kids on the road on their way to school.

Kong Lor Cave (Tham Kong Lo)

Reputedly the way through this amazing cave was discovered only in 2004.

There is a village on each side of the mountain and when residents wished to visit the other village they would journey over the top. Although they were aware of the existence of a cave, they had no idea that a navigable, seven kilometre waterway communicated between the two villages.

Very quickly after the connection became known, Kong Lor Cave achieved renown with backpackers worldwide as locals provided longtail boat tours through the darkness from one side of the mountain to the other. It’s a remarkable experience, adventurous yet safe, surreal and satisfying. A highlight of any trip to Laos.

The Way Though The Cave

A short walk along a dirt track on the opposite of the river from where we parked the vehicle led to the entrance of the cave. Small longtail boats were parked on the bank of the river just inside the cave. After a short period of adjustment to the gloom we found our ‘ride’ and off we went into the darkness.

Natane Village

The village is about a kilometre upstream from the cave.

The small Natane Village purportedly shows the traditional way of life in central Laos, however, it is very much set up for tourists.

Return Through Cave

Leaving Kong Lor Cave we had to retrace our journey to Road 8 (the Loop) and make the ascent of the narrow, winding, steep section of road where we were nearly run over yesterday. Contemplation of the drive and possible consequences was unpleasant and a little unnerving. About a quarter of the way up the hill we caught up with a tourist coach and tucked in nicely behind it. Despite numerous attempts by the coach driver to allow us to pass (it was going at walking pace for much of the climb) I maintained my safe position right where I was.

We overtook our protective coach just past the Ziplining, from which point the road is reasonably safe. We then made our way back to Thakhek, dropped off the Chinese PoC and eventually caught the bus back to Nakon Phanom on the Thailand side of the Mekong River.


© Kim Epton 2022-2024
1388 words, 55 photographs, one image.

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