Today, we’re attempting to retrace our 2012 ‘Laos Loop’ motorbiking adventure. This time, we’re doing it in reverse with a baby! Oh, and did I mention we’re doing it in a 4×4 pickup this time? Tiny details…
We hear the road is much improved, but to what extent, we don’t exactly know. We find it hard to believe that too much has changed in so little time. This is after all, Laos. But this is also 2017 and a lot can happen in a very short time period.
Here’s our original route from 2012:
To recap, in 2012, we traveled from Vientiane to Thakhek (the capital of Khammouane province) by public bus. On Day One of our ‘Laos Loop’ motorbike trip, we rode east from Thakhek to Thalang. Day Two was the most difficult day of the entire loop, taking several hours to cover a very short, but rugged, distance from Thalang to Laksao, before stopping in Nahin for the night. Day Three was an easy and scenic ride from Nahin to Konglor, where we traveled through Konglor Cave and spent the night. Finally, we covered the most distance of any day of our ride on Day Four from Konglor back to Thakhek via Vieng Kham.
For our Pi Mai holiday weekend trip in 2017, we didn’t originally plan on retracing the entire loop. This time, we were equipped with a Toyota Hilux 4×4 pickup, a significant improvement over our Kolao Wave motorbike four years prior, but not quite as much fun to do the loop in! It hadn’t crossed our minds that the entire length of The Loop might now be paved. Dozens of miles of our route over the eastern mountains between Tha Lang and Laksao were nothing more than gulches or well-worn footpaths in 2012. At the time, I was certain that The Loop would remain incomplete, untamed and wild for many years to come. Even as recently as a month prior to our Pi Mai road trip — in the face of rumors and accounts from others who had driven The Loop recently — I was still in denial. I’d have to see it myself.
Vieng Kham to Konglor Village
(via Nahin/ Road 8A)
We’ve already covered this stretch on our way down to Konglor Village for the long holiday weekend. A gorgeous drive that certainly didn’t disappoint the second time around, even in the rain! And, we even got to take the boat through 7km Konglor Cave with Noe.
Konglor to Nahin
Today, we are leaving Konglor on a beautiful, sun-filled day. It also happens to be the ‘Day of No Day,’ the day between the previous year on the Buddhist calendar and the first day of the new year. We expect to see a handful of flatbed trucks carrying people to parties, but not a lot of other traffic on the road. Overall, it looks like perfect conditions for a road trip!
We did encounter quite a bit of livestock on the roads. Apparently, they weren’t invited to the festivities…which is probably a lucky thing for them. Maybe next festival, Porky.
Village after village, there was evidence of last night’s festivities, or tonight’s. Even in the smallest villages, Pi Mai is impossible to escape.
The Loop is dotted with otherworldly limestone formations jutted up from the lush jungle all around us.
Nahin to Laksao
(via Road 8A)
A short while later, we pulled up to Xokxay (Sok-Sai) Kham Guesthouse in Nahin.
This is what we pulled into at the end of our hardest day of riding in 2012:
We thought the place was great. It was clean and had a lot of character. It was easily the nicest place we stayed on the entire motorbike journey.
So imagine our surprise when we pulled up to this in 2017:
And yes! That is the same place. Same ground floor, even. Just a minor facelift. Certainly looks nice, but not really our style.
Back on the road to see what else has changed.
Our next stop is Thabak and the ‘Bomb Boats.’
The Bomb Boats were not indicated on the handwritten map we were going off of in 2012. We knew about these only from what we had read in the then-indispensable ledgers at Thakhek Travel Lodge, and even then, it wasn’t based on GPS coordinates or mileage, but rather a written description of where to look and what to look for — more like a scavenger hunt.
At that time, the Travel Lodge was THE place where anyone who wanted to attempt the Loop went to get the latest information from other riders. It’s how this sort of thing used to be done before Google Maps and OpenStreetMap.org got so freakin’ detailed, and popular guidebooks like Lonely Planet crowdsourced their research and caught wind of the Loop. Heck, the Laos Loop even has its own box in LP Laos now.
Sadly, life in 2017 doesn’t allow for too many real scavenger hunts. It seems crazy reading this section to myself four years on. You’d think that we had done the Loop twenty years ago. You really have to make an effort to find adventures these days, and its getting harder. Things are changing so fast right now. My hope for Noe is that we can expose him to some of that magic that I grew up with as a kid, before devices did everything for us. Living in places like Laos is part of that. The world is changing fast enough. It’s nice to live somewhere that is behind the curve, in that respect. For how long, though, who knows.
So yeah, these are the Bomb Boats. I devoted a whole post to them our first time through here. Apparently, they offer rides down the river if you ask around. Being that it’s midday and Noe is a fragile flower in his ability to tolerate a full-day road trip, I think we’ll pass this time around.
If you’re interested in finding them yourself, no need for me to give you a detailed account. Just type ‘Thabak, Laos’ into Google Maps and look for the bridge. OpenStreetMap.org even has them marked on their map. Doesn’t get much easier than that. Sheesh.
Somebody’s ready for a nap (thankfully, it’s not our driver). Time to move on!
Laksao to Thalang
(via Road 8B)
Pulling into Laksao, we were greeted by Pi Mai revelers getting the party started, and…some surprising infrastructure improvements.
Dusty and bustling ol’ Laksao in 2012:
And Laksao today:
Appears this busy transit hub went and got itself some sidewalks and addressed their dust issue. You can actually see the pavement on the street through town now! Which is a good thing, because I can’t imagine what the Water Festival would be like in a town full of red dust.
This being the ‘Day of No Day’ it seemed that all the restaurants in town were closed, including the aptly named ‘Only One’ which we thought might indeed be our only chance at grabbing lunch.
Thank goodness for bus stations.
It was clear the bus station wasn’t doing much business either on this day of sleepy days. But one lonely Vietnamese stall was open in the off chance that some bus from Vietnam (where they celebrated news years months ago) might be rolling through.
The pho wasn’t anything to write home about, mostly noodle and broth with a side of chicken gristle, but it brought back memories of the last time we grabbed lunch in this town, and fortunately hit the spot, even if it was starting to get bloody hot outside.
This shop is either geared up for Pi Mai or the Apocalypse. In Laos, it’s becoming harder and harder to tell.
A short while later (too short, actually!) we came upon this small crossroads, which I instantly recognized from our motorbike trip, though could hardly believe it!
Rolling into the small cluster of shops, we confirmed our suspicions. We had arrived at the infamous split where the pavement turned sharply away from the main route. Yet, our map indicated that we continue straight up one rough looking dirt path. This time around, it’s fairly obvious. But in 2012, not so obvious:
Again, 2017, from the other direction. I’m starting to look at all those Loop riders we’ve been seeing on this trip in a very different light. So far, it seems I could do this thing riding backwards on a Big Wheel, drunk, and probably with both of my hands tied behind my back — or holding a couple of beers, which is more practical, after all.
And now, on to the most heinous, most nut-crunching, stomach-wrenching section of the infamous Laos Loop — the stretch that gave the Loop its legendary status…
All of it. Seriously. All of it.
So it appears they brought in some very heavy equipment and blew through the mountain pass, Chinese-style. Oh well. I guess there’s always Myanmar…
All is not lost. There are still more goats roaming this highway than cars, so that’s nice to see.
And still some element of danger…
We were also heartened to see these bad boys still dotting the highway. Fill-er-up!
Thalang to Thakhek
(via Road 8B & Road 12)
Mid-afternoon, we arrived at our final major stop on our trip down Memory Lane before rolling into Thakhek — Thalang village and Phosy Thalang Guesthouse.
This was where we stayed on our first night of the Loop. We had traveled a hundred kilometers that day (about 60 miles), which felt more like 500 on the back of our 110cc motorbike. Rolling up dusty and tired, Phosy felt like paradise at sunset, with its hammocks and wooden bungalows overlooking a picturesque inlet of the Nam Theun river. Little has changed since that evening, save for a couple of improvements including the arch over the entry way (above) and this wooden bridge across the inlet (below).
We grabbed a couple of sodas and took a break from the road for a while. After perusing our blog post covering the place in 2012, Lori decided she wanted to try and recreate one of the pictures with Noe.
On our way out of the village, we greeted by another group of Pi Mai’ers.
A short while on, we came across the sprawling Nam Theun reservoir created about a decade ago by damming the Nam Theun and flooding a fertile and expansive valley, displacing thousands of people and forever altering the natural habitat of numerous native species. The controversial project is either a devastating ecological and sociological disaster or a developmental leap depending on who you ask. It was like driving through a moonlike wasteland in 2012. Four years on, the banks have greened up, but the hundreds of ghostlike dead tree trunks still remain.
On the home stretch now before reaching our destination for the night (and next couple of days) — Thakhek. This last stretch along Road 12 is certainly the most dramatic stretch of the entire loop. In 2012, we encountered this stunning stretch just minutes out of Thakhek going the opposite direction, and weren’t able to fully appreciate it due to the flat mid-morning lighting, our preoccupation with adjusting to riding on the bike, and the limited peripheral vision our helmets afforded us. Sitting up in a Hilux 4×4, it’s a completely different story. Best of all, I had both hands free to take photos while Lori drove!
On the way in we passed a cluster of caves, including the Buddha cave we stopped at on our way out of town in 2012. We’ll return tomorrow to check up on the caves. But now, it’s time to party!
Well, as much as one can party driving through the party in a car. Coming into Thakhek we wondered if we were in Laos or had crossed over into some parallel universe. Generally modest, conservative and reserved, the Laotians we encountered along the main strip were anything but. It was as if everybody over 50 ran off to Vietnam for the weekend, and everyone left behind stumbled upon a huge warehouse full of alcohol, hallucinogens and even more copious amounts of water…not to mention a warehouse full of swimming pools and super soakers for the kids.
For nearly thirty minutes we crawled down the main drag at a snails pace, looking on as the various open-bed vehicles in front of us got worked by group after group of revelers lining the street with seemingly endless amounts of water. Do these people not pay for their water, I thought? I realize this town is right on the Mekong, but that stuff can’t be free, right? But this is Laos, not California, and such things don’t seem to matter so much here. This weekend, a lot of the usual stuff doesn’t seem to matter.
We did eventually make it to our hotel. And yes, Noe made it too. In honor of Pi Mai, Father and Son sippy bottle bonding time…