After a long, less than ideal 9 hour local bus ride to Thakhek, we arrived late in the evening. We where both super hungry and tried to find food late (around 11 p.m.) and only found a small road side stand with fried bread and a small market with snack foods like crisps and soda. This was the first time I felt truly annoyed in Laos. It must have been the hunger, and after a good night sleep and a good breakfast I was back on track.
This new day was a set up day. We needed to find scooters or hopefully larger touring motorbikes for the big “loop” we planned to do through the center of the country. We also needed to educate ourselves up on the route we planned to take, and figure out how long we wanted to do it in. We needed to figure out a budget, as we had been warned that there where no ATMs along the route and we would need to carry in all the cash we would need.
After about 2 hours of looping the town looking for one particular scooter rental place, we stumbled upon an internet cafe that had 2 red Sinha 150 touring bikes sitting inside. I had read about these in our hostel guest book, and figured this would be our best bet for the tour de Laos. We negotiated a pretty good deal, and after going shoe shopping and buka ball buying, we where ready to pick up the bikes and give them a test run.
We gassed up the bikes, went back to the hostel, did some interneting and we both read up on “the loop” from the guest book at the hostel. We decided to try and drive the entire way in 3 days. We roughly planned to stop at 3-4 caves, get a swim in one of the various swimming holes, and stay at a home stay the 2nd night near a cave that was over 3 miles long and required a boat to pass through.
All the planning worked up an appetite and Scott and I headed back to the heart of Thakhek to eat along the Mekong. We got a great sunset and met a guy from Texas along the way.
We ended up going on a small bar hop through town. We started at the Smile Bar upper, on the main street along the river, and watched a Man U. football match on a big screen on the front deck. After a few beers we headed down to one of the 2 floating barge bars for another beer. I should mention that on this bar hope we where usually the only people in the restaurant/bar. Or if there was someone there, we where for sure the only westerners. This made for an interesting dynamic.
After this place, we went next door to the second more lively river bar barge, The Smile Bar. (see picture at beginning of post) This place was cranking by 9 p.m. and the place was packed with Lao teenagers getting loaded. When we walked in we where the only white people in the place. After almost getting ripped off for the 3 beers we bought,and arguing with the bartender until he gave us a fair price, we found a standing table and rocked out to the Lao DJ. Its funny standing out like a sore thumb in a crowd. Luckily its sticking out in a good way, and a few groups came over and attempted to communicate with us. A simple word to the wise, if a Lao girl decides to dance with you, do not pick her up, as in lift her in the air “dirty dancing” style. Apparently this is culturally insensitive. The more I think about this, its probably a bad idea to do that to any woman anywhere….Whoops!
This whole night we where hanging with an American guy from Texas. So it was 2 Americans and a New Zealnd Kiwi drinking in the heart of Lao with the local teenage kids. And I have to say, they put us to shame. The Lao kids know how to party, all be it a little early for western standards.
The bar shut down around 11 p.m. and all the kids stumbled out and got on there motorbikes and zipped off. Of course, thinking about this is interesting, booze + motorbikes = X? As any person that has been to a few places in the world can tell you, teenagers are idiots, add booze they turn into morons. Its comforting to know that this is something that all humans can share in common. We really are more the same than different.
We motored on our Sinha 150’s back towards the hostel. On the way our new Texan friend suggested that we stop by the local disco tech, not for dancing, but for food. So at 12 p.m (it could have been 4 a.m. for that matter) we sat and had pha (needle soup) with thumping bass seeping through the walls. I would say that this felt weird, but after the night we had just had, it felt quite comfortable, and like a fitting end.
In the morning we ate a quick breakfast and mounted up for the journey. Scotty had the brilliant idea of photographing the map. We bought water, strapped everything down, and mounted up for the haul….kiddie up!
We headed out on the open road. I can not tell you just how much I love the road on a bike. I think I am hooked. This may be the best way to see anyplace. As we rallied out into the country, a sense of anxiousness, freedom, excitement, and pure exhilaration filled me as I road an engine with 2 thin tires across aging asphalt and into sharp karst limestone mountains.
Our first stop was a large cave, about 20 clicks outside of Thekhek. It took us a few passes, and turn a around, but we stumbled across a small roadside shop and a man gesturing us to turn in. The man lead us down a dirt driveway and motioned for us to park the bikes.
He guided us down a path and over a tree bridge to the opening of a huge cave.
After the cave we motored deeper into the country. We where both having so much fun just riding that we passed a lot of the caves and swimming holes along the first leg of the loop.
About 100K into the trip we hit some rough road. The asphalt deteriorated into potted, muddy, rocky ruts. For over 50K (31 miles) we weaved our way through a terrible road. However, the country side that we passed through was amazing. We went through several small farming villages,and green fields. Most of the time it felt like I was back home in upstate New York driving down orchard or farm roads.
We pushed through the bad road and rolled into the town of Lakos right around sundown. We had driven for around 12 hours. We had planned to stop about 60K earlier, but where having so much fun just driving the bikes that we kept on going. We found a nice little guest house, showered all the dust and diesel fumes off ourselves and went into town for dinner.
The next morning we stopped for breakfast at a great little open eatery. We had pha…again, however this was one of the best I had on the trip.
We got on the road early, so we could make it to Kong Lo and the mystical 7K cave. We wanted to make it there by early afternoon to catch one of the last boats in. We drove hard for an hour or so and came across a high bridge over a river. I saw an amazing picture opportunity, Scotty saw a bridge jump. I think I’m getting old.
After Scotty’s jump, we got back on the road leaving a seed planted in the local children’s minds of jumping off a bridge. We headed for Kong Lo and the 7K cave. We needed to get there before 4 p.m. to catch the last boat. So we drove fast and arrived early, around 3.
After paying the boatman at the entrance to the cave, he walked us in. I had my head torch and the pilot and the navigator of the boat wore large head lamps with battery pack attachments. We walked up to the launch area where about 50 boats where docked, and we climbed into one of them. The feeling inside was freakishly eerie. We launched off and started to motor deeper into the cave. The head lamps only light up small sections, and as I looked around I could see the carved walls and ceiling, sometimes 60 ft overhead like a haze in the distance. This was not a place for a claustrophobic.
Since it is the dry season, we kept coming to points in the cave river where it got too shallow to pass. We needed to get out and help pull or push the boat over sand banks, rock piles and rock rapids.
About 20 minutes into the trip we started to see a weird glow ahead and as we got closer we saw the the light color changed from white to yellow to blue. Curious, we pulled up to a lite up underworld. We docked and where led up a path. What I photographed next was one of the coolest things I have ever seen.
After 45 minutes of boating, getting in and out to help pull or push the boat over shallow spots, going through room after room of the cave, some with massive 100 foot ceilings, we emerged on the other side. The river had carved a route through a mountain range. Absolutely amazing. One of the most interesting things that we saw on the boat trip was several other boats carrying goods. This river passage has been used as a trade route for thousands of years.
We stopped at little river side shop, had a coke and a sit, and then turned around and headed back through the cave.
After the cave, we drove to the small town close by to stay at a home stay for a night. We stayed with a family in their house. They cooked us dinner and breakfast. We stayed up trying to communicate with the man and his wife, and had fun trying to charade and think of creative ways to express ourselves using no spoken language.
We showered outside in the communal well pump which was funny since Scotty and I had no idea how, to go naked, to wrap ourselves in towels, to use a large dish to stand in or not, how to use the bucket and all the other little things around. The man we where staying with ended up showing us how to do it. It felt weird having to be shown how to do something as mundane as a shower, like being a small child again.
We woke early, ate breakfast and got back on the bikes to rally back to Thekhek and catch a bus to our next location. We drove through some amazing mountain passes and along sharp topped karst ridges.
About 20K out of Thekhek , we had the only mechanical issue of the trip, but it was a big one. Scotty’s bike just lost all power, and completely shut down. Scotty’s thought was that it over heated. So we waited on the side of the road for about a half hour in the sweltering Lao heat waiting for the engine block to cool off. Scotty got the bike started again, and we got back on the road. But after about another K the bike shut down again.
Our next plan of action was for me to pull Scotty’s bike back in using one of my tie down straps. Once we got the bikes rigged, I started to pull him. It was working great until I began to feel the back of my bike slide out again and again. I looked down, and my back tire was completely flat.
So now we had 2 broken down bikes in the middle of no where. We started to push the bikes and got to a little mechanic shop. He looked at my bike and saw that the stem on the tire was damaged, he then gestured that he had no replacement tires in the size I needed. So once again we pushed the bikes onwards towards town, trying to flag down a truck to help us get back. After about 5 flat bed trucks ignored us on the road, we crept by a house and several of the family members waved us over. This wonderfully generous man came out and pointed to his cart, and offered to take us into town. It took about 40 minutes to go 17K but we made it. We gave the driver a large tip, and thanked him over and over again.
We dropped the bikes off, I gave extra money for the tire, and we headed back to the hostel to collect our bags and wait for our bus to the next stop.