Falang on Bikes – Tackling the Thakhek Loop

12 Dec
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A view of the river in front of the Sabaidee Guesthouse

The Lao National Day celebrates the day the Communist Government gained control of Laos and took this great nation that I now call home into the 21st Century (debatable). Unfortunately, 8 Aussies and 2 Americans couldn’t hang around for the festivities and set off on a crazy adventure, touring around a 450km loop of the Khammouane province in central Laos…on Chinese mopeds.

I have to say straight off, this has to be in the top 3 trips that I have ever done. I dunno what the other two are but I’ve traveled a fair bit so I’m sure there have been other great trips. The scenery, the locals, the company, the red dust, it all came together into a perfect soup of fun.

We arrived in Thakhek late on Thursday night, tired and a little drained from the van ride south. It took us some time to find the much vaunted Thakhek Travel Lodge (don’t be fooled by the Travel Lodge part of the name, like many things in Laos, it’s a copy). Apparently this place is owned by Mr Ku, the guy who “invented” the loop and has some expensive mopeds to rent out with the guarantee that if anything goes wrong along the trip, he would help. Make of that what you will.

Once we off-loaded our bags and found the reception, our next task was to convince the sleepy/drugged up guy at reception that we had in fact booked enough rooms for all us and that no, it wasn’t a falang scam.

I had booked a single room as I was a last-minute straggler to join this trip (I was a bit hesitant to join a 4-day motorbike trip having absolutely no motorbike riding skills). The website said that it was standard single room with a fan and it was true to its word. I awoke on Friday morning a bit weary and confused. Not really sure if I was in Sydney or in Laos.

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My standard bed and a fan room

We set off in pursuit of our bikes and landed 4 Mr Ku and 4 Wang Wang specials. Fueled up, badly drawn maps memorised and with excessive amounts of Iodine, we set off, excited of the adventure to come.

All bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

All bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

Badly drawn map

Badly drawn map

DAY 1 – THAKEK – BUDDAH CAVE – THA FALANG – MAHAXAI – THALANG

First stop was Buddha cave. The most exciting part of this being the bit of off-road track where I almost stacked it on at least 3 or 4 occasions. The cave itself wasn’t too bad and was full of Buddhas. When we were leaving some monks were having lunch and it was funny to see them looking at us in awe and us looking at them in equal amounts of awe. 

Monks

Monks

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Next stop was Tha Falang swimming hole. It was picturesque and refreshing. It was also around this point that I realised how dusty it is here in Laos. The red dust gets on and in everything.

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We hit a nice patch of highway before and after our lunch stop and I was gaining in confidence quickly. Even managing a few wobbly waves at the local school kids who, as if on cue, would wave and greet each of us as we sped past.

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Gangnam style Lao-style

We even manged a quick stop at a stoned mechanic’s house to fix a wobbly basket and a few other wobbly things. Lunch consisted of Pho and some boiled nuts which I’m now addicted to.

Stoned mechanic

Stoned Mechanic – spot the little girl

Having split up into two groups, the fast and slow (I’m proud to say that I was in the fast group), we powered forward. Having grown accustomed to the heat here in Laos and being a complete noob on the bike, I thought I was being clever by wearing a t-shirt and boardies (commando style). However, as the sun started to set and we hit the mountains, it started to get cold, really cold. By the time we managed to find a local market, I was at the ‘it’s really fucking cold’ stage. The locals watched me put on all but 2 of my t-shirts, 2 pairs of shorts and a newly acquired pair of trackies.

2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of trackies, 4 t-shirts and a shirt

2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of trackies, 4 t-shirts and a shirt

This wasn’t close to enough to keeping me warm but we pressed on. By the time we reached the Sabaidee Guesthouse in Thalang, I was cold and frustrated at having just driven 20km, in the dark and through very gravely/sandy road. We arrived to a welcome fire and the awesome Mr Pontoon. An amazing feed was provided and we got a few hours rest before another tough day on the road.

Oh and Pete and I began our 4-day-long Petong dominance over Tom and Sean.

Len and Pete's court

Len and Pete’s court

DAY 2 – THALANG – LAKSAO – BAN NAHIN

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We mustered the courage to tackle day 2 after hearing many stories that this was going to be a tough ride, potholed roads and construction sites. We managed to easily conquer both the first bumpy section to Laksao and the next highway section with relative ease and minimal problems. I managed to get up to around 70km/h as my confidence continued to rise on the bike.

Tom doing his thing

Tom doing his thing

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My beast

My beast

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Once we arrived in Ban Nahin, Tom and I ventured out to try and find a massage place with no luck. Pete and I once again cleaned up on the Petong pitch.

DAY 3 – BAN NAHIN – KONLOR CAVE – KUON KHAM

The Konglor cave is probably the biggest attraction in this part of Laos, and the reason most people do the Thakhek Loop. It’s a 7.5 km cave under a mountain with a river flowing through it. It takes about an hour to get through it by motorised canoe.

The night before I met a couple of travelers who gave me some tips of how to get to the cave. They told me about a shortcut that would cut a fair chunk of time out of our trip and was also kinda fun if also a little dangerous. It was a creek crossing!

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The Konglor cave is massive and dark (as you’d assume a mountain’s undercarriage would be) and has some pretty impressive stalactites and stalagmites. You can rent headlamps if you want to see anything, but even then it’s pretty dark and kind of peaceful just cruising through the darkness.

Pool just outside Konglor Cave

Pool just outside Konglor Cave

Miner Sean

Miner Sean

The rides on day 2 and day 3 were probably my favourites. The long windy roads in the mountains, cruising through small villages, saying hello to welcoming kids and the awesome lengths of off-road fun. The only not-so-fun bits were when wildlife would decide to end their lives (and potentially mine) by running across the road without any warning or sense, right around  the time I would happen to pass them by. I lost count how many close calls there were but I remember fondly at least two dogs and a piglet who all tried to get a tire tread tattoo. It was all a bit like Mario Kart in real life.

DAY 4 –  KUON KHAM – THAKHEK

The last day was a cruisy 150km ride home. I got some clear road and got to around 85km/h before slowing down when I realised that I had almost completed the whole loop without any problems and it would suck to come off the bike and taste bitumen now.  The dozens of speeding buses, trucks and 4WDs, coming dangerously close to wiping me out on a number of occasions made me swear out loud every time they passed by.

On the way back to Thakhek I passed a sign which said “Great Wall, 200m”. This and a half a tank of fuel was enough encouragement to venture out on my last dirt road. I drove a good 500m or more before I reached the river where there was no Great Wall in site. Luckily I managed to see some cool pictures of the Great Wall when I googled it from home.

Some of us got very, very bad massages in town which was a funny-in-hindsight way to finish off a great trip.

The whole trip was absolutely amazing and I would highly recommend it to anyone considering doing it. The places we stayed at were great and quite cheap. Including the minivan, bike hire and post-trip massages, I spent around $260 over the 4 days.

Much love,

Len

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