On the great Mekong River, 337 kilometers southeast of Vientiane, is the town of Thakhek. Decently sized by Laotian standards, it still has a fairly relaxed vibe and a riverfront strewn with restaurants and food carts offering a sunset view over Thailand. It is also a convenient starting point for The Kong Lor Loop,
a two to four day journey by motorbike through a dramatic karst landscape in order to take a small longtail boat underneath an immense limestone mountain.
The secret to this trip is revealed in a hand-drawn photo-copied map by Mr. Ku, whose one-room office is conveniently adjacent to the Thakhek Travel Lodge, a reasonably-priced guest house which features hard beds (the norm throughout Laos), excellent laap, and a bonfire every night. Mr. Ku will also rent you a motorbike for 100,000 kip per day, taking your passport as collateral.
The suggested route is counter-clockwise, and it is strongly advised that you always get an early 8a start to the day’s ride. Starting at 1p on our first day, we decided to reverse the directions by taking the main higher-speed road in order to cover the 186km to Ban Kong Lor, the village after which the cave is named, before sunset. Perhaps if we had not stopped to have our breath taken away by the spectacular grandeur of the Phu Hin Bun National Protected Area, we might have succeeded. As it was, we discovered the hard way that my bike did not have working head or tail lights.
Arriving after dark, the serene beauty of Kong Lor wasn’t revealed to us until the next morning when we awoke to water buffalos grazing in rice fields, framed by jagged limestone peaks. After a leisurely breakfast, we rode the 1km to the end of the road, paid the minimal park and parking fees, and happened upon a woman sitting at the gate reading a book. Her name was Katie, from Adelaide, and she was waiting for two other people to share the cost of one of the 3-seater boats through the cave. Finding it fortuitous that we all needed each other, we set off together to rent headlamps and hire a boat for 130,000 kip – about $16.
We walked into the small mouth of a cave which immediately opened up into a big cavern, and made our way over a soft clay floor to a waiting long-tail boat at the water’s edge. 20 feet long and 3 feet wide, with a small engine connected to an 8-foot long propeller, these craft ferry travelers the 7.5km through the pitch black subterranean tunnel and back. Riding just 6 inches above the surface of the water, we skimmed out into the river and headed upstream. The only lights were from our headlamps shining circles on the walls and ceiling like scanning floodlights against a night sky. The only sound was of the water rushing past and the loud engine, without which we would be stranded beneath a mountain like Gollum.
As we wound through the serpentine cave, our mouths were agape in awe. Generally about 200 feet wide, the tunnel’s ceiling varied between 10 and 100 feet above our heads. Then we would turn a corner and enter into a cavern that would reach 300 feet high, and all sense of significance was lost. We were but the smallest creatures in a gargantuan underground cavern. This happened over and over again as we navigated the river. After about 2km, we pulled to the shore in a large section with lights illuminating a particularly impressive series of stalactites and stalagmites. Surrounded by strange shapes in a dusty grey moon-like landscape, we felt as if we had stepped onto the set of a sci if movie.
We returned to the boat and snaked our way upstream, passing through more caverns and occasionally having to get out in order for the boatmen to push the craft through shallows. We finally exited into blinding daylight, finding ourselves in a lush green wilderness, surrounded by majestic peaks. We spent some time on shore walking to a nearby village before returning to the boat for our trip back through the cave. Heading downstream this time, we sped through the twisty tunnel without stopping. At one point we stopped to add more gas to the engine, and I relished the quiet moment, listening to the water echoing in the cave, wishing that we could have turned off our headlamps, just for a minute, to experience the cavern in its lightless natural state.
When we returned to Kong Lor, we shared a quick lunch before saying goodbye to our new friend and heading out again, aiming to make Kuon Kham before sunset, not only racing sunlight but dwindling fuel tanks. Arriving on fumes, we found a gas station and a nearby guest house to crash for the night. The next morning we set out early towards Lak Sao, 58km to the east, knowing that the day’s ride would be a hard one. The wind blew with fierce determination, causing us to stop several times just to gather our nerves. We had intended to hit the ATM to replenish our supply of kip, but neglected to take into consideration that it was a Saturday, and the one bank in town was closed. Thankfully, we had enough for lunch and our guest houses were happy to be paid in Thai Baht. Then we turned south, and that’s when the five hours of stressful riding really began.
The “road” from Lak Sao to Thalang is 62km of harrowing white-knuckled excitement. The first half is rutted uneven dirt and rocks. The second half was more flat and even, but composed of loose gravel. We could not tell you anything about the scenery, for navigating the road on motorbikes in 2nd gear required every iota of concentration that we had. Thankfully, we arrived in Thalang just before sunset. There’s a reason that the suggested route is counter-clockwise – it puts this section of road squarely in the early morning. Had the sun won the day’s race, we would have camped out by the side of the road rather than continue on in darkness. We found a guest house, and as we relaxed by the after-dinner bonfire, sharing bottles of Beer Lao with another couple taking The Loop, who should arrive but Katie, having made her own way by walking and hitchhiking.
Our last day began early again, parting ways shortly after breakfast. The road south of Thalang offered no respite, the gravel finer and only slightly less loose. Stopping in Nakai for lunch, we ran into Katie again by the side of the road on the south side of town, our game of leap-frog providing a moment of levity in the otherwise stressful second day of hard riding. We did not see paved road until many kilometers later, shortly before we turned west towards Thakhek. We relished in being able to use 4th gear again. 30km from the end of our adventure, we stopped to take a short break. That’s when Liz’ motorbike failed to start.
Neither the electric starter nor the kickstart brought the bike to life. We wheeled the bike into the nearest small village looking for a mechanic, but there were no one but children. We stashed the bike off the road, and continued on. The first shop we found was closed, being Sunday. 6km further, we found a mechanic relaxing with his family. With no common language, we played a game of charades, using the working bike to convey that the failing bike had gas, and we’d tried both methods of starting it. He pointed to the spark plug, and we simply shrugged. He grabbed a new one and a couple of tools, then followed us back down the road. Within 2 minutes, he replaced a worn black spark plug with a shiny new one, and the bike purred back to life. For this emergency out-call service, he asked for just 20,000 kip – about $2.50.
Finally on our way, with just an hour before sunset, we were rewarded with the most spectacular scenery yet. These last few kilometers east of Thakhek took us through a range of karsts, a deep orange-red sun playing peekaboo among the vertical cliffs. Tears of joy and sacred awe fell beneath my visor. Sadly, I was too frazzled and worried about the dwindling daylight to stop and capture the magnificent beauty with my camera. We made it into town before dark, and a mere 20 yards from the Travel Lodge that we had left 3 days earlier, we saw a familiar traveler walking down the road. By separate means, we and Katie had managed to travel the same route in the same time, each with our own stories to tell.