We had been told about the legendary Laos Motorbiking Loop from friends we had made back in Pai, but for some reason had brushed the idea aside. However when we met a group of like-minded travellers whilst tubing in Vang Vieng, we were very easily persuaded to shake up our original plans and embark on a 5-day detour partaking in ‘the loop’. The famous round trip lasts approximately 500km, and most riders tend to visit many of the sights along the way and stop off at tiny local villages overnight. We were a large group with a couple of less experienced drivers so had decided to spend a leisurely 5 days journeying the loop, although many finish it in 4 or even 3 days.
I wasn’t driving myself and instead was lucky enough to be able to hop on the back of my best friend Sophie’s bike. For that reason, my expertise on how difficult or extreme the actual driving route is quite limited, but I’ll give my thoughts on the ride and will mention some of the lovely sights we saw on our trip. Below I’ve included a copy of the map we were given of our route when renting our bikes.
After packing a small rucksack (a slight struggle for me I must say) and getting settled onto our new bikes, we were all soon ready to depart from Thakhèk, a small town situated in Southern-Central Laos.
Our first day involved checking out some caves. The first one was the rather underwhelming Buddha cave, also known as Tham Pha. It was a small cave literally just filled with Buddha statues so although it was nice to visit we weren’t overly impressed in any way.
The Tham Nang Ene cave, however, was much more interesting. It was pretty big, and stairs and lights had been built in to make exploring more efficient for visitors. I’d heard that many people were against this, feeling that it destroyed the simple nature of the cave. Usually I would feel the same, but in this case, I felt that the stairs and the lights added a kind of warm charm and made the cave different from any I’d visited before. As we climbed up the sprawling stairs, I felt as if we were featuring in a spooky scene out of ‘Harry Potter’. You could also take a boat along the water through the caves which we would have loved to do, but were unfortunately short on time and wanted to arrive at the first village before dark.
We arrived at Tha Lang village slightly late, and what do you know, all the rooms had been taken! Hilariously we ended up renting tents at Sabaidee guesthouse for next to nothing. It ended up being a lot more fun than expected, however, and was definitely an experience. Especially waking up in that heat!
We were up nice and early for our second day, ready for the next adventure ahead of us. There was a slight air of nervousness amongst the group, for this was the day we would be tackling the worst part of the loop, the dreaded ‘Highway to hell’ as it is dubbed. The ‘Highway to hell’ consisted of 62km of dusty, rocky rubble and indeed it was a rather bumpy ride, to say the least! We rode off the worst of the road to cheers and claps from local Laotians who had been watching us curiously and our spirits rose immensely. But as sods law would have it, as we assumed the worst part was over, we were suddenly riding over a load of very wet mud and we slipped as the bike swerved. The pair of us were up again almost immediately with only a few cuts and bruises, but the tiny fall was enough to make us both slightly on edge for the rest of the day.
It was pretty much plain sailing from then on to Ban Khoun Kham however, and we spent the rest of our time stopping off and taking photos of the gorgeous scenery we were driving past and peeking with wonder at the tiny local villages we passed.
Day 3 was a much more relaxed affair, as we had decided to stay an extra night in Ban Khoun Kham so as not to rush the trip. The day focused on taking some time to relax in the cool springs which was very much welcomed after overheating on our bikes from the previous few days. The springs were lovely and reasonably secluded which was nice. I took the opportunity to immerse myself in the cool blue waters pretty much immediately and spent my time swimming around and lounging on the rocks jutting out into the water. It’s a hard life.
After a lunch of pot noodles, crisps and yoghurts (we literally couldn’t communicate with anyone working in the local restaurants) we headed over to the Na Sanam waterfall to spend our afternoon. We rode our bikes down an extremely rickety, stony narrow pathway and we soon had to park and follow some sign posts. They claimed that the falls were only a 20-minute walk away, but it seemed a lot longer, much like a short trek! Nevertheless, I actually really enjoyed the walk, as we clambered through leafy trees and stepped over shed snakeskin and such. You had to climb quite far up to see the waterfall, and although there wasn’t much water (with it being dry season), I was pretty impressed. I could only imagine how much more incredible it would look at its best.
Our last full day was a big one, for it was the day we would be visiting the famous 7.5km long Kong Lor cave. The cave is a huge tourist attraction itself, and many people partake in the loop for the sole purpose of seeing it. The drive from our guesthouse was pleasant and quick and we soon arrived in no time, driving past villages and vast quantities of farmyard wildlife.
The way to explore the cave is to hop into a long tail boat, shared with up to three people. After being handed a headlight each and getting seated, our boat soon plunged into complete eerie darkness as we entered the cave. I was soon utterly impressed, immediately understanding why the cave was such a focus of the loop. It was rather difficult to take photos due to how dark it was, but I’ve put a few up even though they really don’t give the cave justice!
At some points the boat would stop and you would be able to wander around, gawking at the immensity of the cave. You would then be picked up again, and the boat would continue its journey out in the open. This too was rather pleasant as you would journey past water buffalo drinking from the water and looming mountainous green cliffs. Simply lovely!
Our adventure ended with a rather long and straightforward drive back to Thakhèk. Feeling more confident on the bike after our fall, we picked up speed for the last leg of the journey. This made it a lot more fun, as this route back wasn’t particularly scenic at all.
The loop was one of my highlights of Laos, mainly because it’s pretty off the beaten track. It’s not something I would usually do had my friends not wanted to do it, or had we not met the right people but that’s what made it all the more enjoyable. It was quite a random change of decision and it’s always nice to be surprised!
Staying in villages where it was almost impossible to order a meal because the locals literally didn’t know any English really made you feel as if you were seeing the ‘real’ Laos as opposed to places like Vang Vieng, although no doubt it was frustrating at times! The unexpected beautiful sceneries, the glorious caves and the amusement of having to camp all made it a fantastic experience to remember.
The route, however, was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. As well as me and Sophie falling off our bike on the second day, there were quite a few falls spread throughout the trip, though none serious at all. For this reason, I don’t think it’s a drive for complete beginners to participate in. However, we all came away unscathed and well so there was no harm done in the end!