Note to Reader: This travel dispatch was posted from Washington, DC (USA) covering travel in Laos 25-30 October, 2012.
So, how crazy do you have to be to attempt the Khammouane Loop in central Laos? I suppose that depends on your definition of crazy.
Looking back now, it seems quite astonishing that I was able to get my physical therapist wife to climb onto the back of a plasticy little motorcycle and ride 300 miles through some of the most challenging and remote roads in Laos, or anywhere for that matter. But she did agree (with very little convincing I might add) to alter our flexible itinerary and give it a go.
I'm not sure if Lori would have felt quite so comfortable if we hadn't ridden a scooter around the hills outside of Chiang Mai a few weeks prior, but that trip went off without a hitch — in the midst of busy Thai traffic and steep, winding mountain roads. Perhaps, then it was an easy mental jump from scootering for the day in a fairly industrialized country to zipping through the jungle on a motorbike in one of the poorest and under-industrialized places on Earth? All I knew was that I was itching for the chance to get on the back of a bike in a country like Laos and do something a bit more challenging, adventurous, and rewarding than meandering through yet another Buddhist wat (temple) or doing another self-guided walking tour of a mildly interesting modern Asian city.
The Khammouane (or Konglor) Loop of central Laos is a route popular with independent travelers. It is most often done in a counter-clockwise direction around the Phou Hin Poun National Bio Diversity Conservation Area, following Highway 12 east out of Thakhek (Tha Khaek), heading north on Highway 8B after Mahaxai, turning onto 8A westbound at Laksao and finally returning to Thakhek via Highway 13 and Vieng Kham. Most riders incorporate stops along the way at a number of caves and other points of interest. A 50 mile (80km RT) detour to the village of Kong-Lo (Konglor) is often added for taking a motorboat on the amazing 4.5 mile (7.5km) subterranean river through Konglor cave.
Due to the very poor condition of the "highway" in some areas (I put highway in quotes because in some sections it bears a closer resemblance to a washed out hiking trail or footpath at best), the loop is best completed on motorbike. Public transport can only be hired for about 75% of the journey with no known regular service between the rugged area between Tha Lang and Laksao. We actually met a woman who tried to complete the loop via hired transport and ultimately had to turn back. We've also heard of some completing the loop on bicycle, but this method would be extremely challenging and take much longer than the usual 3-4 days.
Thakhek Travel Lodge in Thakhek is THE place to get outfitted with a motorbike for the Loop. That isn't to say that it's the best or even the cheapest, but certainly the most popular. The man to see at TTL is Mr. Ku — you can't miss him, just look for the motorbikes. He'll get you suited up and on the road in no time, even if you've never ridden anything on two wheels before. Is Mr. Ku nuts? Most definitely. He has to be. But this is Laos, baby. The Wild Wild East. And you have to be a little nuts to ride the Loop anyway, so it all works out.
Still, nothing beats the rush of handing over your passport to Mr. Ku the night before heading out — realizing at that moment, after the money's been handed over and the papers have been signed, that there is no turning back. I've ridden and owned motorcycles and have my endorsement. I felt comfortable and confident enough with my own experience level to make a go of it, but had never ridden off-road, and most certainly not with a passenger. But Lori and I had done our homework. I passed on a number of blogs written by couples with far less experience than myself attempting the Loop in the middle of the rainy season (we were entering the dry season now). The accounts were both inspiring and comforting, enough so at least to make us take the plunge. It was important to us to use this six months not simply to sightsee but to do things we might not be able to do as easily when we're old and grey. In that respect, riding the Loop fit the bill perfectly.
So why Mr. Ku? Yes, Mr. Ku's motorcycles are cheap Korean-made ripoffs of the Honda Wave. Yes, Mr. Ku charges more than the competition. Yes, he's a bit nuts-o and his helmets suck. Yes, yes, and YES. So why did we go with Mr. Ku? Well, for one, he's convenient. Thakhek Travel Lodge isn't close to the center of Thakhek at all (an aging French stalwart along the Mekong that is certainly worth a visit). But, it is THE place if you're planning on doing this trip. It's clean and tidy and the price is right. They have a campfire every evening where riders coming off of the Loop share their experience with riders heading out in the morning. There's also a ledger which riders add their experiences, tips and current conditions to which is essential reading before setting off.
Another reason for going with Mr. Ku is that he'll cover all costs associated with bike repair and maintenance (excluding flat tires) along the length of the route. As far as we know, no other rental company in Thakhek will agree to this. In our minds, the few extra dollars per day was well worth the peace of mind. So how much does it cost to rent from Mr. Ku? About $12 USD per day (100,000 kip as of October 2012).
At 7am the sun was shining and the temperature felt just about perfect. That meant of course that by noon it was going to be a scorcher. We expected to spend about 8 hours on the bike today. Due to the level of sun exposure anticipated, we wore long sleeved shirts and long pants, despite the heat. We regularly applied sunscreen to our hands and face and as a result saved ourselves from the painful fate many other fellow riders met. I found my Columbia Silver Ridge shirt to fit the bill perfectly, though I wouldn't necessarily recommend white for riding over lots of dry (and wet) red clay surfaces.
We packed one backpack and one drybag for four days — mostly just three changes of underwear and socks, basic toiletries, bike chain and lock, flipflops, sunscreen, mosquito repellant, bathing suit for Konglor, two paperbacks, and of course, my trusty Nikon D300s (which accounted for the bulk of the weight). We also brought snacks and two large bottles of water which we were able to refill or replace at regular intervals along the way.
By 8am we were packed and itchin' to get on the road. We left our large packs in storage at the guesthouse and went to find a table in the restaurant. Less than a minute later, an Asian couple came hobbling into the restaurant and sat at the table next to ours. The guy sported a couple of scrapes and bruises on his arms and legs but nothing compared with the half dozen bandages covering the girl's body, including a large portion of her face. We had no problem putting the pieces together and certainly could have gone without having witnessed this just minutes before our departure. How did it happen? How did they get back? What happened to the bike? We wanted so badly to know but weren't prepared to ask, not at that point. Ten minutes to departure and we needed inspiration, not a reality check. Still, we felt confident that if we took things slow and didn't take any unnecessary risks, we should be fine. Most Loop riders are.
Nevertheless, we thought it couldn't hurt to make our first stop the Buddha Cave in an effort to win over a little karma and good tidings for the journey ahead.
The road out of Thakhek is absolutely stunning. Karst limestone formations jut up on all sides as you cruise down the lovely sealed highway. Fields and forest line the lonely stretch of highway and the air is clean and clear. We encountered very little in terms of other motorists on the Loop, which made for an exceedingly pleasant ride on two wheels. And to top it off, we found Lao drivers to be exceptionally courteous and friendly — far from that of their Thai counterparts.
It struck us as very strange that when talking about the Loop, most riders fail to mention anything about the amazing scenery. Hot topics seem to include the more challenging stretches of road and stops along the way, but to our amazement, no one states the obvious: That the Loop is incredibly beautiful and perhaps like nowhere else on the planet.
As mentioned before, our first stop was the Buddha Cave, which can be found at the end of a long (and well-marked) dirt stretch off of Highway 12 not far from Thakhek. Speaking of things not frequently mentioned, most accounts of the journey failed to say anything about the fact that the road out to the Buddha Cave is, in fact, not at all sealed. A bit surprising at first, but good practice for what lay ahead. I found the road to be quite well-maintained and a relatively easy ride in dry conditions.
It felt like an accomplishment simply making it this far given that riding on dirt and sand was a first for me, which helped to reaffirm our suspicions that we might actually complete the Loop in one piece.
We didn't know what to expect with the Buddha Cave (Tham Nong Pafa). We knew it was a regular stop for Loop riders and, in that sense, felt an obligation to stop. We're glad we did as it was not only historically and geologically interesting, but also helped to mentally prepare us for the journey.
Only discovered in 2004, the cave derives its name from the collection of wooden Buddhas found inside which are believed to be about 500 years old. No one knows where they came from or how they got there, but the Buddha images and space are considered sacred among locals. If you like, a Buddhist priest inside will offer a blessing while tying a bright orange bracelet. Up until now, Lori and I had been either too timid or skeptical to participate, but, given that no donation was requested and the other pilgrims appeared to be Lao locals, we thought it might be worth trying. Plus, we figured we'd need all of the good karma we could get.
Our next stop was Xieng Liab, another of about half a dozen caves dotted along Highway 12. We were greeted in the parking area by a gentleman dressed in a Parks uniform who paired us up with two boys who would serve as guides. We followed them for about 10 minutes to the mouth of the cave before realizing that we were neither properly dressed or outfitted for going any farther, as heading into the cave would have meant getting wet and we weren't prepared for sitting squishiness for the next 4-6 hours on a bike. What we saw of the cave was beautiful and only whetted our appetites for Konglor.
We made our way back to Highway 12 and farther down the route, stopping at a roadside Pho joint outside of Mahaxai.
After passing the Nam Theun 2 power station and crossing another bridge, the road unexpectedly climbs, higher and higher into the mountains. At some point the tarmac ends and the road becomes a well-maintained dirt and gravel road. Perhaps by now, this stretch is already paved as it looked as if it was being prepared for sealing.
The views from up here are other-worldly. Nam Theun 2 is the largest hydropower project in Laos to date. Along with generating 1,070 MW of electricity for power-hungry Thailand, the project flooded over 170 square miles of arable land, affecting an estimated 150,000 residents. NT2 has been touted by the international development community as a kinder, gentler dam project, given the focus on environmental and social impact prior to commencement, and the dam's alleged contribution to poverty alleviation in the area.
Some projects are morally and ethically dubious at best. Nam Theun 2 has strong arguments on both sides and is a glimpse into the future as the world's thirst for water and electricity increase. Is it ethical for an authoritarian Communist government to forcibly displace 6,300 people from their ancestral land, affect 144,000 others downstream, and lay waste to the habitat of countless plant and animal species? Is it ethical for that same government to stand by and do nothing to raise their country out of the Stone Age while the rest of the world (including neighboring Thailand, Vietnam and China) leaves them behind in a cloud of dust?
One thing I can say is that the Lao government appeared to do a far better than average job in resettlement for the 6,300 displaced persons and their families, constructing a number of custom-built "Healthy Villages" in consultation with the resettled communities. In addition, the government has committed to livelihoods initiatives for affected communities which is expected to have doubled household incomes by 2012. We passed by a handful of these villages and they appear to be attractive, well-built and well-planned. Though, due to the language barrier we were unable to get any residents' thoughts on the matter.
Arriving at our Day #1 Waypoint :: Tha Lang
We made it!
After a full day of riding, we arrive at our destination for the day, Tha Lang! We had every intention of staying at Sabaidee Guesthouse, which is where we heard that most riders stay, but came across the little slice of heaven first. Phosy Guesthouse was exactly what the doctor ordered at the end of a long day on the road in rural Laos. It was like a dream come true. A row of quiet wooden cabanas facing a beautiful inlet amongst incredible beauty. The owners were extremely friendly and the restaurant was surprisingly tasty.
Our digs were simple and rustic, yet sufficiently appointed with mosquito net, ensuite washroom and porch with hammock. It was exactly what we wanted on a trip like this. Nothing more and nothing less. We paid 50,000 in October 2012 (about $6 USD). If only places like this existed in the States!