08/14/2014 - 08/17/2014
"The Loop" is a three to four-day motorbike journey outside of Tha Khek, Laos. Getting into town, we wasted no time trying to find information about the conditions of the road in the wet season, motorbike prices, and hopefully a couple good souls to share the adventure with. Our first stop, like so many others before us, was the Tha Khek Travel Lodge, where they have the best source of information - a big book full of other travelers' experiences. Turns out they also have bad food, are way outside of town, and boast the worst mattress we've had in 18 months of travel, so we only stayed one night.
After some inevitable delays the morning before leaving, we set off on our overpriced, tiny 110cc scooter, crossing our fingers that it would be able to make the trip. The first day was filled with beautiful scenery - limestone karsts covered in lush green, hiding all sorts of interesting caves. The rainy season, however, means that many of them are inaccessible. We checked out one called Tham Aen, which was really nice, even though we are seeming to get a little cave jaded. Filled with lighted caverns and Escher-like staircases, it's easy to lose yourself amidst the stalactites and the peaceful river flowing beneath you.
A nice local lunch, trying Laap for the first time, a Lao dish they describe as "meat salad." Chopped beef (cooked or raw) and herbs served with broth, raw green veggies, and sticky rice. A cold Beerlao helped cool off the cloudy but hot day, as it always does. Along the way north, we took a short detour through a small village where the roads are rough but the people are smiling, the stilted houses made of dark wooden boards and galvanized steel roofs. We reached Sabaidee Guesthouse in Thalang Village by mid-afternoon, where we immediately joined forces with Andrea and Michael from Norway, and Alex from Canada. We spent the evening drinking beers, chatting, and oddly enough, eating fresh cicadas that the owner's family caught and threw into a hot pot of boiling broth. They were surprisingly delicious, until there was nothing left but exoskeleton...we spit them out at that point. Phaithoun, the owner, loved the fact that we were eating giant bugs with him, shared his Lao Lao, the local moonshine-like rice liquor, and taught us how to play Petang, a French game similar to bacci that is popular in Laos.
Starting off the following day, we were happy to have companions for the rest of the trip, especially because day two includes the infamously muddy road that is often impassable during the wet season and leaves many travelers stuck in the mud or requiring bike maintenance. We drove past forests of trees flooded by the creation of a hydroelectric plant and got delayed for a bit by a broken bridge, where we waited in line to wade our bikes across one at a time. The mud wasn't nearly as bad as expected, since there has been very little rain lately, and they are working on paving the road (which looks like a huge project). We slipped around quite a bit, and I had to get off to walk a few times, but no one crashed or fell in the mud!
Beers and delicious noodle soup with squid, beef, and liver to celebrate our small victories (it's a lot of work going through mud and puddles!), then a short detour toward the Vietnam border, just to check it out. Mike decided he wanted some ice cream, so we stopped at a place that apparently served spontaneous fun experiences with locals alongside its ice cream. While ordering, Alex was handed a small glass of beer on ice by one of four friendly women who were sitting around drinking some Beerlao after work. He thanked her, drank it down, then we all sat around the table and drank beer Lao-style, passing around a single glass that you chug before handing back. The women were wonderful and we were grateful for their generosity. Mike and I learned some Lao, and he taught some English to the one woman who could speak a little. We sat there for a couple of hours before deciding we had better say "kawp jai" and continue on.
The drive from there was gorgeous, with dramatic karsts to the north, impossibly green rice fields to the south, and a road that was significantly better than we expected, though still full of potholes, puddles and gravel. Finding a place in Kuon Kham, Abby took a little drive by herself through the village and stopped to watch a couple of women working at an impressively complicated loom. After a disappointing dinner, we all crashed.
Day three began with some rain, so we waited it out eating breakfast at the local market. Dried jerky strips of bbq pork with sesame seeds hanging on bamboo loops, soup with liver and pork and handmade noodles, hard boiled eggs in pork belly sauce, sticky rice, unidentified "fish" in banana leaves, and our new favorite, eggs that are punctured, dumped out and scrambled, then mixed with salt, pepper, chives, msg, sugar, and fish sauce and put back in the shell and steamed. Delicious.
45km later, we arrived at Konglor Cave, a 7.5km cave navigable by boat via a quick brown river. The ride was fun, the cave long and cool to look around in the dark with headlamps. In some places, water was pouring out of holes in the ceiling, and I especially liked when the air changed as we entered into a large chamber. In the middle, we got out to walk around some nice formations and learn some Lao vocabulary we've been missing from our boat driver. The trip takes you all the way through the cave and out the other side, then back through to where you began. Maybe don't order the fried noodles from the place right outside the entrance though.
Climbed a winding hill to a nice viewpoint, then cruised back down (grateful for dry roads) to Vieng Kham, where with sore butts, we found ourselves a guesthouse and some laap and fried rice for dinner. Our next mission was to find some more Lao Lao and play cards. Mission accomplished, and even more new local friends made. Mike is so inviting with his approachable face and eagerness to learn the local language. We shared some beers, karma for the lovely ladies who shared with us yesterday, and had a very enjoyable evening.
On the road again the next day, it was an easy 80km back to Tha Khek. Well, it should have been. Pulling into a gravel driveway, Alex took a spill and needed some slightly serious medical attention from Dr. Abby. Luckily, our first aid kit was well supplied to deal with it (those butterfly bandages we've been carrying around for two years finally came in handy). Alex went home while the rest of us attempted to reach Kong Leng Lake. A beautiful drive down a bright red-orange road, green on either side, was aborted when the road became a network of deep caverns, impossible for our little scooter. Plus with the beating midday sun, this is not a place you want a flat tire. So we turned back, made it back to Tha Khek, returned bikes, caught a riverside sunset, dinner, showers, and the horribly springy mattress once more at the Travel Lodge. I knew we were carrying around these camping mattresses for a reason. Good loop, everyone.