If you’re more interested in our tips for the Thakek loop, skip straight here.
Getting to Thakek: A bus ride from hell
One evening as we drink beer while watching the sun set over the Mekong in Don Khone we start chatting to a Belgian couple and an American girl. We’re swapping the usual travel stories (horrible bus journeys, useful gear, favourite places etc.) and the Belgians say that the highlight of their whole trip through South East Asia was the Thakek Loop. We listen as they rave about their 3-day motorbike ride through caves and limestone mountains in the south of Laos. Over the next few days, McMiddlin think about doing the loop ourselves, weighing up the likelihood we’ll end up in hospital or in a ditch on the side of a mountain. In the end, we overcome our anxiety about motorbikes, decide we should do something properly adventurous and book a bus ticket to Thakek.
In theory, the journey to Thakek takes around 10 hours. This means we should get on a boat at Don Khone, transition onto a bus, stop briefly in Pakse (3 hours away) and then cruise into Thakek at around 9pm. In reality, the journey is nothing like this. It starts with two hours of hanging around in the port town of Nakasang with a horde of tourists that is clearly bigger than the number of seats on a bus. This is followed by an hour of sitting on a stationary bus in the midday heat while our luggage is unpacked, repacked and thrown onto the roof to accommodate some sacks of sugar. When we do eventually start the bus trip, it takes us over fourteen hours.
For the first part of the ride, the bus is nearly empty but this quickly changes. We not only fill up with passengers, but also with a bizarre assortment of cargo: long, wooden cylinders that could be very short table legs or firewood along with plastic containers of pesticide with their lids reassuringly covered with plastic bags. This cargo doesn’t go in the hold underneath the bus. Oh no. Instead, it gets crammed into the aisles to the point where there’s no way out of the bus other than to lift yourself up using the seats and pick your way forward, trying not to put too much weight on the flimsy containers of chemicals. Dinner is served when four young girls jump on the bus brandishing sticks of grilled chicken and bags of sticky rice. The next six hours are full of frequent stops where the bus is crammed full of more things, luggage is reshuffled, and desperate passengers wee in ditches on the side of the highway.
Exhausted, we arrive into Thakek bus station at 1:30am. We know the town is around 3km away, and after being quoted an obscene 10 USD per person for a seat in a tuk tuk we decide to walk. It’s pitch black, and we hug the side of the highway to avoid the buses and trucks that barrel towards us at high speed. This works fine, until the dogs on the side of the road see us and start up a chorus of barking. We’re forced to walk in the middle of the road, hoping there’s no oncoming traffic. A few dogs bare their teeth and circle maliciously around behind us. This is not good. Luckily, the age-old trick of pretending to pick up a rock works against all dogs, universally, wherever you are in the world. They scatter when we throw a warning rock their way. We wander along the highway, but can’t find the place we had intended to stay, so we pull into a guesthouse whose flashing neon lights suggest there might be someone awake. We go to reception, where the manager and his wife are asleep and ask for a room. Luckily we get one, although it doesn’t look like it’s been cleaned since the previous occupant. We crash out anyway, since there aren’t many other options at 2am.
The next morning, we start the long walk into Thakek town. It’s a hike, but we break it up with one of the best noodle soup breakfasts we’ve had so far. We find a soup we’ve never had before: strips of pork with a strange kind of chewy noodle. Delicious. Fuelled up, we make it into what you could call the ‘centre’ of Thakek. For the first time, we have trouble finding more than one or two guesthouses, and there’s no touts yelling at us about tuk tuks. What is this bizarre universe and where are all the tourists?
Thakek is not a tourist haven. The guesthouses are relatively few and far between, there are only a handful of cafes and restaurants with menus (let along English ones) and much of the main street seems to open late and close early. This is refreshing, but also presents its own challenges. When we try to change money from USD to LAK we’re pointed in several different directions by locals, who also laugh at us, making us think that perhaps there is no money exchange. In the end, we ask the guesthouse manager who gives us a handwritten note in Laotian that says “Hello, I would like to change money. Do you have enough Kip for 100 US dollars?”. He smiles and waves us on our way, telling us to ask at any shop that looks big enough to have that amount of money on them (tomorrow, of course, because everything is shut already at 5pm in the afternoon).
Thakek has its own kind of charm, but really the only reason most people come here is as a starting off point for the Thakek Loop, or to visit the nearby caves. We’ve done some research and have a recommendation from our Belgian friends that Wang Wang’s bike hire is decent so we head there to reserve a few bikes. With that out of the way, we head to bed before setting off on our first day (ever) of motorbiking.
Logistics and tips for the Thakek loop
Accommodation in Thakek: We stayed at Khamoune Inter, which is on the main road on the way into Thakek ( you can’t miss it, it’s fluoro green). Accepted wisdom suggests that the Thakek Travel Lodge is the place to go if you want information about the loop, but we met a lot of other travellers staying at our guesthouse who were also there for the loop and got by just fine without the information provided at the Travel Lodge. Apparently their log books (where visitors post their experiences of the loop) are worth a look, although we were too lazy to walk up and check them out ourselves.
Bike hire: We hired ours from Wang Wang’s, which is located in central Thakek in a square near the river, diagonally opposite the Inthira Thakek hotel. The bikes cost around 7.50 USD a day for a new bike (or 5 USD for an older model) and come with a helmet and a hand drawn map of the loop included. Bikes can also be hired from Mr. Ku near the Thakek Travel Lodge for slightly more (100k LAK versus 60k LAK).
When picking up your bike you’ll be asked to pay the balance of your hire costs, and to hand over your passport. We were told this is a police requirement, and ours were handed back to us with no dramas. You will sign a ‘contract’ that outlines your responsibilities and Mr. Wang’s: he guarantees the bike parts and you promise to pay for any damages. When on the road, you are responsible for fixing tyres at your own cost but can call Mr. Wang for any other issues so he can negotiate a price with a local mechanic.
Helmets: Find helmets with full face visors. Your ride will be more enjoyable without the wind blowing into your eyes, and they can help keep dust and other infection-causing irritants out (so we were told by a French guy who got a horrible eye infection after motorbiking in Thailand).
Loop direction: The conventional advice is to do the loop counter clockwise. We did it clockwise instead and were happy with our decision. It meant we could get around 100km of relatively boring highway riding out of the way on our first day, while being on a motorbike was still a novelty. The highway was straight, the road was good and there wasn’t too much traffic so it was also a good way to get more familiar with the bikes before we took them on any seriously bumpy roads. That left the remaining three days for all the best bits of the loop.
Timing: We took 4 days to do the loop, although you can do it in 3. Having more time definitely makes the trip more relaxing because it means you don’t need to cover too much ground in a day. Even with 4 days, we had some long days of riding. We also met people doing a half loop by driving from Thakek to Thalang and back, which is another option although you’ll need to visit the Konglor Cave separately if you do that.
What to bring: Obviously, pack light because you’ll be carrying everything on the back of a motorbike. Having said that, we were unprepared for how cold it would be on sections of the loop, which are at quite a high altitude. Add in some strong wind and the wind chill factor from riding a motorbike at 50km/h and you’re in for some seriously numb body parts. Our lips were literally blue by the time we pulled into Laksau on our second day. Take whatever warm things you can fit, and if you have something windproof that’s even better.