Thakek was an interesting place, clearly not a tourist hotspot. Most people stayed at the Thakek lodge in order to rent motorbikes to take on the Thakek loop, a 500km loop which would take us right out to the border of Vietnam and back again to experience mountains and caves, in particular Konglor cave, a 7km stretch of cave.
We rented semi automatic motorbikes from Mr Ku, allegedly the discoverer of the loop and set off. Just outside the town lay the first stretch of caves in the dramatic skyline of limestone mountains. We stopped at Xieng Liab cave and two little boys took us down the path and through the cave which was well hidden and had a river passing through it. The two boys, although only 6 or 7 years old took great care of us and despaired should we seperate. They were good fun and jumped out on us a few times!
We took another dirt track to Tha Falang, a stretch of beautiful river that Mr Ku had suggested. Not wanting to bathe, we set up another cricket match using an abandoned boat paddle until hunger set in and we took off up the road to a roadside shack who sorted us out with noodle soup. Not 20km from the city we had our first problem, the name of this blog really could be "the disasters of the Thakek loop." David's bike ignition stopped working and it was no longer possible to use the kick lever to start the bike. It baffled the local mechanics and Mr Ku had to come to assist us. By 3:30 we were back on the road but with two hours driving to go. The views were lovely as we passed cattle grazing roadside and snaked up mountain paths. Nearing our stop for the night the roads got very dusty and bumpy and the temperature dropped fast.
We couldn't have been more relieved to arrive at Sabaidee guesthouse and find out that not only were the rumours of a BBQ true but they were serving homemade bread, chips, spring rolls and homemade apple pie for desert. A shower, a hot coffee and a plate of food later and we were ready to socialise around the fire with other 'loopers.' It was a really nice group of people from all different walks and adventures and as the evening drew on a hilarious game of fuzzy duck was initiated. The laughs mostly came from the fact the two initiators of the game had had a lot of Lao Lao, notorious Lao whiskey, and kept interupting proceedings as they messed up on the rules they had created.
The day started well with pain au chocolat’s, however we lucked out as the day went on. As we maneuvered the difficult rocky roads in the morning we passed through ghostly surroundings such as rivers of dead trees and roads just beginning to be built due to the hydro power plant opening up nearby. We met friends from the night before, Rona, Karim, Priyani and Helen and began riding with them. The route took us through very primitive villages, poor wooden structures with lots of livestock grazing. The day took along time to warm up which got us thinking about how the people live in these structures with little for warmth or comfort. The baby pigs caught our attention and we moseyed along enjoying being greeted by the locals. When we got to the town we were covered in a film of dust!
The other side of Laksao village the road was a highway and we pressed on to find lunch and the waterfall. The waterfall was a 3km walk from the road, a steep climb up a path over fallen branches and streams of water and we were relieved to find the top. Only David and Jeff, an American who had caught us up, were brave enough to dive in. The local children found us fascinating as they went about their games on the rocks. On the route down we decided to follow the path of the waterfall as the water was very low. This meant jumping and scrambling from rock to rock on a long descent to the bottom. Back on the road we pressed on, quite unaware that the town we were in was the one in which we intended to spend the night. It took us another two hours of fuel mishaps, accidental wheelies, smashed wing mirrors and steep steep hill climbs to figure that out.
When we doubled back to Naihan to spend the night we stopped at the guesthouse and warmed up. As we walked into the 'town' a locals party was in full swing. Welcoming as they are we were invited to join in and upon declining the offer had drinks thrust into our hands. The party was being hosted in a shop front with clothes on the walls and the mood was lively. At the resturant we ordered some food and a beer to relax after the long day. One hour later half of the food arrived and when the rest was absent 20 minutes on I went to ask and was told that I fact they were out of rice. It was a hungry evening but a typical example of Lao restaurants and a window into their culture. The only attention you will get from a host is when they take your order and potentially when they deliver your food. Helping yourself to drinks from the fridge is the norm and when it comes to paying it is down to trust and honesty.
On the morning of Ricky’s birthday we were up very early as we decided to try and complete the loop in three days rather than the four we had planned. Prianie’s bike appeared to be leaking quite a lot so we took it to a garage only to discover sunscreen she was keeping underneath the seat had leaked and was dripping out. It amused us greatly that the boys had both smelt the liquid and concluded it must be oil or brake fluid!
Ricky’s birthday breakfast was chocolate wafers and chocolate milk from a small convenience store, maybe not the birthday feast he was hoping for but as much as this small town could offer in the small hours.
The 40km to Konglor cave was lined with amazing scenery, rural living and fields folded out to the sides until it met mountains. The morning air was very cool and we were relieved to arrive however not so keen to be told we needed to wade through water to get to the boat which would deliver us through the cave. This being said, the cave was astonishing, it’s massive mouth tucked under a great mountain. We rode three to a longboat through the dark along the shallow water passing under rock which was sometimes smooth and shallow and other times like a high vaulted banquet hall. For one part we got out and walked past incredible stalagmites and passageways leading further into the cave. We met the boat and passed further on to daylight the other side. We stopped in a small village on the river and the drivers took the opportunity to drink beer and whiskey despite it being only 10:30. When we encouraged them to get back into the boats it was clear the other boats driver was a little worse for wear and a fast paced collision occurred in the dark of the cave. Rona was hurt as she jumped from the boat and in all the commotion it wasn’t long before I became the second casualty as I fainted in our longboat, one trait I am not so thankful to dad for!
Relieved to be back on dry land, we ate and pressed on with a large portion of the driving still to come. We retraced the 40km back to the main road, up the steep hills of the day before, wound through several mountain villages before joining the highway for the last 100km. Thakek was a welcome site as the loop had proved both physically and mentally challenging but had provided us with a beautiful vision of mountainous Laos, maybe the most naturally beautiful part of south east Asia with its wealth of waterfalls and caves.
In need of a long recovery we commissioned a minibus to drive us to the most southerly point of Loas, four thousand islands where the Mekong passes into Cambodia, and off we went. Next stop, Don Det.