I’ve always loved motorcycles, motorbikes, scooters… pretty much any motorized, two-wheeled transport. When we were planning our trip years before we ever left the comfort of our home for the first time, I always imagined what it would be like to ride through the exotic S.E. Asian countryside on a motorcycle halfway around the world. In those days of fevered imagination, I read about the people who rode through southern and central Laos (for one) and couldn’t begin to imagine myself behind the handlebars in such a foreign land.
Several years and 14 Asian countries later I finally found myself staring one of the fabled Laos motorcycle journeys in the face. We were in Thakhek, the epitome of a backwater Laos town and the base for a trip simply known as “The Loop.” For 450km the Loop runs around karsts, past caves and over hills. Thanks to its exceptional scenery, it has gained a fair amount of notoriety amongst the backpacker set; normally we’re contrarians, avoiding things that we think are too popular for their own good, but once a motorcycle is involved our scruples tend to get a bit more flexible. The siren song of the Loop drew us like moths to a flame.
Although the only reason anyone ostensibly visits Thakhek is to ride the Loop, there aren’t all that many motorcycle shops in town. A quick walk around town allowed us to identify a few candidates, and after testing a few bikes, we picked out our super-rad, ultra-badass* scooters and paid our three-day rental fee. Armed with a thoroughly inadequate map, two small backpacks and “export only” helmets (read: not good enough for Thailand — we may as well have been wearing colanders), we were as ready as we would ever be to face the wilds of central Laos.
*Forget your Phantoms and your Nighthawks, we were riding Scoopies!
Setting out the next morning, our little bikes handily zipped around potholes and cows alike, route 12 stretching out in front of us as we entered the outskirts of town. Eventually traffic disappeared, leaving nothing but us and the road. We had decided to run the loop counter-clockwise, starting from the southern end of the route. Almost immediately we were plunged into the midst of giant limestone karsts, the haze of dry season making their countenance slightly mysterious to behold and augmenting their odd beauty.
We rarely topped 50 kph, but the air rushing through my helmet was tremendously loud, thanks mostly to the holes where a visor used to be. It hardly mattered though, because there wasn’t really anything to hear on route 12 beyond the bleat of goats and the occasional click of a bit of rock stuck in the tread of my tire. It felt good to be back on a motorbike for the first time since Vietnam, moving through the open country, savoring a relaxing ride on good roads. I love a big bike, but there is something to be said for the simplicity of an automatic on an easy, scenic ride.
In fact, our little 110cc scooters were more than a match for anything we met on the Loop, and their comfortable seats, snappy handling and strong brakes made the ride easy and meditative. Being able to focus on the road and let my mind empty of everything but the simple mechanics of riding is one of the best things about being on a motorcycle for me, and not having to fight an unwieldy machine made that semi-Zen state possible and enjoyable on the Loop.
But the Loop is not meant for motorcycle-induced meditation alone. It also features some fairly impressive sightseeing of the cave variety.
Our copy of a copy of a map with its blurry lines and indistinct lettering fairly faithfully pointed out the various caves and swimming holes on the southern end of the loop, most of which are less than 20km outside of Thakhek and thankfully (and surprisingly) well-signed. Some were close to the road, and others were… not so close. Tham Pha Pa (The Buddha cave) was a bumpy 9 kilometers of gravel off the main road, whereas Tham Xieng Liap was only a 200-meter jungle “trek” from the pavement, and we were able to ride right up to the stairs leading to Tham Sa Pha In after navigating a tricky downhill entrance through loose stone that could easily be more than a match for a novice rider.
In any case, not far outside of Thakhek we turned off nicely paved route 12 and onto the gravelly, bumpy side road that lead to Buddha Cave. Tham Pha Pa (Buddha Cave) ended up being pretty much exactly as we should have known it would be: a lot of small (and one big-ish) Buddhas in a cave. There was some funky lighting, and the requisite spinning laser-disc thingies, but otherwise if you’ve seen caves in Asia, and if you’ve seen Buddhas in Asia, then this cave didn’t require much of a leap of imagination to picture. When you consider the long drive on poor roads, the 2000LAK fee to park, 5000LAK fee to get in (each) and 5000LAK for Steph to rent a sarong (despite already wearing long pants), AND the fact that photography is technically forbidden inside the cave, well, this was a bit of a dud. Pass. Now we had the long, rough ride back to the main road to look forward to, a ride that took three times longer than we spent in the actual cave itself.
Back on mercifully smooth route 12, Xieng Liap Cave was only a few kilometers past the turn-off for Buddha Cave, its little brown signpost seeming to leap up almost as soon as we got back on the pavement. A man enthusiastically waved us down (shouting the name of the cave and pointing off the road), and showed us where to station our bikes out of the sun. Once we were parked and ready, the man and his three children led us down a small trail through the jungle and along a little river to the mouth of the cave. The children were rambunctious, climbing on the cave walls like mountain goats and generally causing good-natured shenanigans involving shouting, leaping, and dramatic stick-fights. Initially we were displeased with our unsolicited guide, but it soon became apparent that we would never have made it through the cave on our own. Add to that the fact that the man was genuinely nice, and took some legitimately good photos of us and we ended up quite happy with his services. Scrambling up small ledges and down gravelly slopes, crossing wobbly logs over streams, wading through knee-high, ice-cold water and squeezing through tiny gaps in the walls were all required if you wanted to make it all the way through this breezy, cool and generally quite beautiful cave. The trouble was well worth it in the end and we were glad we had our guide; we were only the tiniest bit grudging when it came time to pay the 30,000LAK guide fee he requested. It was a good cave, and certainly an unexpected adventure.
Back on the bikes once again (after fending off an urchin who thought she could extract a 5000LAK “parking fee” PER BIKE for no particular reason, and cruelly denying the small boy who thought I would give him anything he pointed at, including—but not limited to—my luggage locks) we realized that: 1) we were starving, thirsty and hot; 2) it was already 1 p.m.; and 3) there was nothing around that even remotely looked like a restaurant/food stall. We decided to stop at the first place we saw, which turned out to be the Green Climber’s Home, a resort for weirdos who foolishly wanted to ascend the karsts without the help of a helicopter, but which also had a restaurant. The food was fine, if a little pricey, but we were mostly glad for the shade and cheap water bottle refills.
Our last cave of the day, Sa Pha In Cave, was very nearly across the road from the oddly long driveway to the climbing lodge (which was at least a kilometer off the main road and had a “security guard”). Despite being tired of fees and scrambling over loose stones (not fun for someone with short legs), Steph was a trooper and agreed to see the cave, especially since we were already there and had read it was worth the stop. The stairs up to the cave were easy to tackle, there was no admission fee or “guide” in sight and the place was deserted. Inside, there was a little elevated platform off to the left of the entrance with a small shrine and a panoramic overlook of the cave interior. We had also read that the real highlight of the cave was a little pool of water illuminated from above at the very back of the cavern, barely visible from the platform. Getting there involved some more scrambling and steady legs, so Steph opted to let me go check it out on my own. It turned out that the scrambling was rewarded with a nice view of the pool and the rest of the cave from below. As a target of opportunity, this cave was well worth the very slight effort required to get there.
Bursting out into the heat of the afternoon once more, sweaty and tired, we decided that we would ride directly to our stop for the night with no more spelunking along the way. Steph, tired of scrambling, declared she was probably done with caves forever. I reminded her about Kong Lor Cave, the next day’s goal for the loop, to which she replied ominously, “We’ll see,” as she squinted down her nose at the road ahead.
With approximately 70 kilometers ahead of us, the remainder of our ride was eerily quiet, vehicle traffic being the least of the “hazards” we encountered. Mostly, I worried about the myriad dogs that spent their time sleeping, lazing, eating, loitering, barking or looking generally baleful smack in the middle of the road. Or the cows that dotted the landscape, crossing the road as and when they saw fit, neither minding nor acknowledging any traffic that threatened their progress. At one point a very confused baby cow ran into the middle of the road, obviously scared out of its mind for no apparent reason. I did my best to herd him back onto the shoulder, but every time I tried to angle him away from the road he would instead try to dart in front of me. Eventually my creative use of the horn and shouting derogatory remarks about his intelligence won out and he disappeared into the bracken along the shoulder, safe for the time being.
Not long after my heroic cow wrangling, we stopped on a bridge to take some photos of the landscape and watch some local kids clowning around in the water below. Eventually they climbed up to the bridge and made a show of mooning for the camera until I threatened to take an actual photo of them, at which point they scurried off, suddenly shy.
I snapped a few more photos and we got back on our bikes. As we rode past, the boys scampered up onto the parapet and leapt into the air 15 meters above the water. Whoops of excitement were cut short by deep plooshes as they hit the water below, waved on by their friends. I marveled at their courage, stepping off into the unknown, so far from everything, so willing to throw themselves whole-heartedly into the abyss. In a way, it was what Steph and I had been doing on this whole trip, and suddenly it became clear just how far from our former lives we really were at that moment. How taking this seemingly simple motorcycle journey with no preparation, no support and no real idea of where we were going must seem like casual insanity to some people. By this point it seemed almost commonplace for us to do something like this, but in reality, we were just like those kids, effortlessly throwing ourselves into space as though it were nothing. Also, Steph reminded me that the part of the kids’ brains that controls judgment was not fully developed yet, so we were actually even crazier than them in our own way. Yikes.
The landscape after the bridge was an oddly intriguing mix of low brush, scrubby trees drowning in shallow lakes and, of course, more massive karsts. The disparate nature of all the elements somehow served to make the karsts stand out all the more; the lowlands emphasized how little the giant rocks seemed to belong to the world around them.
The sun was getting low in the sky by the time we hit the little village of Tha Long. The road switched from pavement to one-lane construction with a mix of loose gravel and dirt a few kilometers before the village, but it was still very manageable. The guesthouse of choice — Phosy Tha Long — despite being blearily marked on our map, was easy enough to find, being right next to the road. Saddle sore and in need of a cold Beer Lao, we pulled in and tried to find someone who would give us a room. The guesthouse was composed of cheerful little bungalows with a quiet charm, flanked by a strange man-made lake on one side and the sad face of the very displeased proprietress on the other. This poor girl clearly hated her job and everything associated with it, but the bungalows were clean, had hammocks, and went for 50,000LAK so we were all in, despite her stink-eye.
Not only were the bungalows comfortable, cheap and quiet, but the landlady also whipped up a surprisingly delicious and generous dinner. Halfway through our meal the electricity cut off, plunging us into darkness and silencing the throbbing karaoke from across the lake. After finishing our food by flashlight, we made our way to our little hut and turned in for the night (at the not-so-respectable hour of 9 pm), lulled to sleep by the noise of night insects and frogs. We knew the next day’s ride would take us over the worst stretch of road on the Loop and we would need a good night’s sleep to be ready for an early start to a long day.
This is part one of a three-part series. Read part two next. Stay tuned for part three: my tips and tricks regarding finding the right bike, riding safely and happily, and all the information I can fit into one post concerning Loop specifics for your journey and super bonus pictures!