Our journey to Tha Khaek wasn’t a lucky one. Our first bus ride took three hours longer than advertised and the second day was an hour longer than expected. This while being cramped into a minivan with our long western legs, and the bus breaking down along the way. The only positive note these two days was Noa. He has so much patience, singing songs endlessly, sleeping and putting up with everybody being curious about him and wanting to touch him. We are all beat when we arrive in Tha Khaek. On a map we figure out that our guesthouse is within walking distance of the busstation, which means we don’t have to haggle about Tuk-Tuk prices with the drivers but we can simply walk, which is a blessing because we don’t have the energy to go through a haggling process. We walk a couple of hundred meters alongside a wide road when it suddenly begins to rain. Michiel thinks it’s just another 150 meters and wants to continue walking but I see the roof of a shop and want to hide. We haven’t been under the roof for more than thirty seconds when the skies open up and it pours. It’s so loud and impressive that Noa gets scared and starts crying. After fifteen minutes it stops raining and we get to check in at the Travel Lodge.
Preparing for the loop
The Travel Lodge sounds luxurious, but unfortunately it isn’t. It’s a bare cement floor with a fan and bed. We have to share the bathrooms, which wouldn’t be too bad if the bathrooms had been clean. The following days we find out the (bath)rooms aren’t the only thing being minimalistic. The men running the guesthouse only seem to be interested in money and not in service, their English is so basic that communication is difficult. Every time we order food, either they don’t have the entire order available but they don’t tell us that until we’ve waited for hours and repeatedly asked about our food. Or if all the food is available they forget part of the order, so we spend hours waiting, with sometimes a sad, and a very hungry Noa. We wanted to catch our breath here, rest, but we we feel agitated and decide to start on the loop the next day and make sure we have good accommodation along the way. We rent a motorbike from Mr. Ku, “the guy” with knowledge about the loop and the best kept motorbikes in town. The motorbike we get has just been ridden for 5000 kilometers and is kept in tip top shape. We take it out for a testride before taking it on the four day loop. We go to a river just outside of town, which has emerald coloured water and lots of spots to swim. It’s gorgeous; we sit on a tree trunk at the edge of the river with our feet in the water while lots of fish swim around and start nibbling our feet when we’ve sat there for a while. The water is nice and cool, it’s a great escape from the mess at the Travel Lodge.
Detour to the buddha cave
We get up early to explore the surrounding region. We drive towards Karst mountains and take the first turn outside the village to the buddha cave. A cave which has recently been discovered by a man from a nearby village who climbed up 200 meter to an opening in the mountain. What he found in the cave was so amazing that he didn’t tell anyone for a week because he thought he had lost his mind. A cave full of hundreds of buddha statues; the cave was forgotten and no one had been there for hundreds of years. We park near some food stalls and walk past them and follow the signs to the buddha cave, where we walk through dense jungle and come at a forked road. Because there are no signs telling us which way to go, while in the heat, we decide to walk back to the jungle to see if we missed any signs. As we are walking back, We come across a car with people from the village and follow their tracks. We walk across a bridge and hear a man sing further along, further down we come across a lake where the villagers are fishing. There is mist across the lake and the lake is surrounded by Karst mountains, it’s surreal!
But still no cave. The path leads around the lake but Michiel’s GPS coordinates tell us that we should be not on this side of the Karst mountains and so we decide to walk back to the first sign near the food stalls where we discover that there is another cave displayed on the sign. Whoops, we’ve simple not looked at the sign. It’s only a five minute walk to the right cave, I brought a sarong to dress properly and Michiel has brought extensions on his pants. It’s a very impressive cave full of buddha statues and two villagers who keep watch night and day.
Our end destination for today is Nakai, a small village in the mountains and the last village where we can refuel to start day two, which should be a tough day according to people having done the loop before. We drive along the beautiful Karst mountains and around every bend the view seems to get prettier. When it’s lunchtime we drive through a village and see a restaurant with lots of people in it and stop for lunch. A big family is having Sunday lunch and all come to Noa as we enter the restaurant. He doesn’t feel like it and moves to the front of the restaurant to play with gravel. The female owner of the restaurant tells us in English what our lunch options are: fried noodles or fried rice. We take one of both combined with a can of coca cola and an ice-coffee, hmmmm we keep being amazed how good the food is while it exists of just a few basic ingredients.
When we have finished our kilometers for the day and drive through Nakai we can’t find the guesthouse that we have found in the travel guides. After having driven through ever street we find one with two guesthouses, one of them has modern, American looking houses around a small courtyard with trees and a picknicktable. The room is big, clean and has a good bed and we get to sit in the garden with a beer while Noa plays with the children of the owner.
Day two of the loop
The following day we start full of hope on the journey to Na Hin, and expect to have really bad roads on the way. The first twenty kilometers we drive through a quiet but frightening environment. A new build dam has put hectares of land under water, which caused thousands and thousands of trees to be submerged as well and they are dying because of it. We wouldn’t live there for million bucks, what a waste. So much nature is destroyed.
The asphalted road should have stopped by now, but we continue driving on a great road until 31 kilometers before Lak Sao, the next village where we can refuel and have lunch. Suddenly we see steamrollers and bulldozers and the paved road abruptly stops. Luckily for us a huge part of the dusty, and sandy road has been steamrolled and sprayed with water, making it ok to drive. We wonder what all the fuss is about? When we arrive in Lak Sao we come to the conclusion that it really wasn’t so bad and try to find a good lunch. In the travel guides one restaurant is praised. When we arrive, we are the only ones in the restaurant and the girls on duty are sleeping on tables and chairs. They seem annoyed that we sit down for lunch. The food is bland and we have to wake up the girls a second time to pay the bill, they make up the prices as we stand there and they are far higher than on the menu. Maybe payback for waking them up twice? We don’t give in and pay the exact amount that is on the menuss and quickly leave. We want to continue and reach Na Hin before dark, the road winds through the mountains and although it’s asphalted it’s in very bad shape. We drive past a sign which says Cool Springs 1 kilometer, which could mean any distance by our experience of Lao signs, but we take the turn anyway. We drive a lot farther than one kilometer over unpaved, sandy roads before we come across a gate with two Lao men asking a hefty 50 cent entrance fee for the cool springs. It’s takes a lot of courage to enter the freezing water that emerges in between the rocks. The place is gorgeous and we are all alone at the lagoon.
The views on the road to Nahin are beautifull and in Na Hin we find another spotless room in a guesthouse. We eat at the guesthouse opposite our room, it’s run by an older Lao couple who can’t believe their eyes when Noa walks in. The lady can’t keep her hands off of Noa and he gets spoiled with goodies, get’s to hold the pet rooster and watch cartoons on the television. The food is great and we come back for breakfast.
Day three of the loop
Day three promises to be the highlight of the loop. I drive fifty kilometers over a road surrounded by Karst mountains and small Lao villages. At the end of the road is Konglar Cae, a six and half kilometer cave through the Karst mountains and it’s the main destination for many travellers to Laos. We find a guesthouse with, once again, super clean rooms and have a great Lao lunch of curry rice and fried noodles. Did I already tell you that Noa gets excited over every plate of rice that is served and steals the hearts of all waiters by yelling “jippie, jippie, jippie” when he sees his plate of rice? If he could, he would eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and lucky him we often eat rice twice a day here. We walk from our guesthouse to the konglar cave and book a canoe with boatmen. We all get a safteyvest and a headlight, and leave in the motorised canoe. We sail for one and a half hours through the cave, but it feels like fifteen minutes, the cave is huge and beautifull. The caverns are up to 50 meters high and gigantic. Once in a while we have to get out of the canoe because the water isn’t high enough and our boatman has to push the canoe . In one part of the cave we are allowed to get out and walk in the pitch black so see some stalagmites and stalactites close up. At the end of the cave we get dropped off for fifteen minutes before taking the same ride back. What an experience, the cave exceeded all of our expectations.
The last day of the loop
On the last day we drive about 200 kilometers back to Tha Khaek, first fifty kilometers back to the main route and than another 148 to the village. When we have about twenty kilometers left we are driving on an easy two lane road. We have crossed paths with many herds of cows, goats, chickens, dogs and ducks on the road and have discovered that many animals are not impressed when you honk your horn. So whenever we come across animals on the road we slow down and drive around them, but we hadn’t expected what happens next. A herd of goats was being chases by a dog, one of the goats wants to cross the road but sees us coming and decides to go back, almost runs into the dog and gets chases onto the road for a second time. Michiel has almost managed to stop the motor but still hits the goat that runs in front of the motor, it bounces of the wheel and gets my leg. We stop to see if everyboday, including the goat, is ok. The goat is completely in shock at the other side of the road. The dogs go and sees if everything is ok with the goat, and slowly the goat comes back to live. Everybody seems to have gotten away with a scare, so we continue our way to Tha Khaek.
The guesthouse we wanted to spend the night at is full, so we are back at the Traveler’s lodge. We listen to a couple of American and French guys telling tall stories about the loop. We keep quit and don’t tell them we just did the loop with a toddler, their stories would have suddenly not been so tough. But we look back on a loop with even prettier views and nature than the Bolaeven loop (also see our blog about the Bolaeven). If you want to see some more pictures than please take a look at our photoalbum of central Laos.