Adventures on a Motorbike: The Thakhek Loop, Laos

When I was younger, I was fascinated by Motorbikes. My mum would take me to the North-West 200; a popular bike race, very close to my home, each year. I’d watch as the bikes sped round the track incredibly quickly.

I never had the desire to drive one however. I was happy enough in the safety of a car (were I am known to drive fast at times!)

I have since been on a bike, on the back of someone driving, and it was fun, but still, I didn’t trust myself to drive.

When I first got to Asia, I swore I’d never get on the back of a Motorbike, they drive like crazy here. They transport an entire family, their chickens and other household items. Dodge traffic at high speeds, and don’t ever stop for pedestrians! It was a big no-no.

However, after less than one week in Bali, I had to get on the back on a Motorbike, with a Police Officer, after most of my clothes went missing from a laundry service. 

After that, I got on the back of one in Malaysia, when I was Couch surfing, and again in Chiang Mai, to go to Tiger Kingdom. After that I thought, hey they’re not all that bad!

Still, my desire to drive one myself, wasn’t that high on the agenda. I had come across many other tourists, looking like bandaged bears, after various Motorbike accidents (I have since become a bandaged bear myself, after an accident in Vietnam, but that is another story!). I wanted to remain as accident-free as possible (despite being very accident prone – seriously, I trip over my own feet!)

So how did I end up driving a Motorbike in Laos – what changed my mind?

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A few days before I travelled to Laos, I was sat in a Coffee Shop, reading my Guidebook, and thinking about the next few weeks. I knew that my first few days would be spent in Luang Prabang, but hadn’t got much more further in planning what else I would do, as is usually the case. I looked at the long Map of Laos, and I knew I’d be making my way South to Cambodia, so was picking out places I wanted to spend some periods of time in.

I came across a small section in the book entitled Thakhek, which said “many people come here to tackle the Thakhek Loop”, then there were words such as Adventure, Caves, and Waterfalls. I was sold already.

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I looked up online to see if any other travel bloggers had dared to make this venture, and they had. The pictures looked AWESOME. Now all I needed was a bike, and someone silly enough to do this three day trip with.

It just so happened that the Dutch guy Kevin, whom I had met on the slow boat, was hoping to do this loop too, so we travelled from Vientiane to Thakhek together, with the hope of renting a bike the next day.

The next day, along with a French couple, we went in search of a bike, but ended up walking around for about an hour, before deciding to settle on renting from Wang Wang Rentals. Mr Wang Wang (note: I am not sure if that was his actual name), was a sweet guy, and assured us that if anything happened along the way, he’d come and rescue us. He gave us a map, and allowed us to store our luggage at the back of his shop. The only problem was, he only had semi-automatic scooters left. I was hoping for an automatic, as I had heard they were easier to drive.

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However, after one quick lesson up and down the road – Mr Wang Wang declared that I was “very good” and that he thought I’d be OK to drive. I thought about it for a while, and the phrase YOLO came into my head (do the youth still say that?), and I thought “lets do it”.

So we paid the 50,000 Lao Kip per day (US $6.80 or 3.80 British Pounds), handed over our passports (which I was told is a very bad idea when renting bikes, but it was that or give $250 in cash, which I didn’t have). We signed the contract and agreed to return the bikes by 3pm, three days later.

Tip when hiring bikes: Take a photo of the entire bike, point out any damages, and take a copy of the rental agreement. 

We packed what we needed for three days (it is probably the least amount I have carried in my life), and we were off. I let Kevin lead, as he has been on a Motorbike before, and he was used to driving on the right (going around a roundabout a different way, is officially the scariest thing I’ve had to do in my life).

After navigating through the busy town of Thakhek, we made it to the open road. It was beautiful, and there was hardly another person around.

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Various cows would cross the road, and lay in it, refusing to move. Goats, dogs and chickens got in our way, but it was mostly hassle free.

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The one great thing about travelling in the rainy season, is how green everything is. On the way, we saw beautiful limestone caves, rice fields, and plenty of friendly locals, who all wave and shout ‘Sabaidee’ (Hello).

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Access to food along the way was basically in the form of eating noodle soup at roadside ‘cafes’, nothing fancy, but cheap and it kept us going.

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There were caves and waterfall areas to stop in, along the way, but we kept going, to save ourselves to get to the big and most impressive Cave – Konglor.

After 100km, we had made it to our first stopping point. Sabiadee GuestHouse. Tucked away on a quiet farm road, there were various bungalows, each with a little hammock outside, a small lake was within view. It looked ideal. How much for a one night stay in a twin room? 50,000 Lao Kip (US$6.80 or 3.80 Pounds), so just over US$3 or under 2 British pounds per night – a clean room, with bathroom, and mosquito net – bargain.

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The restaraunt at the Guesthouse was were we choose to hang out for the evening, and met other travellers. They do the best food I’ve tasted on my trip. I tried the Lao Lapp, which is like a minced meat dish, with various spices, served with rice – delicious. Also, their Hot Chocolate was the best I’ve had in my life, no joke.

We retired to bed at a fairly decent time, as we wanted to be on the road, to tackle the next 100 or so kilometres, to make it to view the cave, so we could drive the rest of the way back the next day (note – 4 days is better on the loop, if you don’t want to rush it!) 

Day one summary

Km covered – 100km

Weather – good, some rain at times, but not heavy

Food eaten – mostly noodle soup, Lao Lapp, and the best hot chocolate ever!

Top speed – 70km per hour

Accidents/injuries/issues with the bike – Zero!

Day two didn’t start off well. We woke at 7am, as planned to the heaviest rainfall I have seen in a long time (what was that I was saying about the rainy season making things pretty?)

We waited for a while to see if it calmed down a bit, but after advice from the Guesthouse owner, we decided that continuing North was not the best plan, as the second day (if you do the loop anti-clockwise), is a dirt track road, so we knew it would mean it would be a mud bath.

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Our plan had then changed to going back to Thakhek, another 100km, and riding it the other way, so it total we would be driving over 250km in one day. Not ideal, so we got a wiggle on, and were on our way.

I still had half a tank of fuel left in my bike, enough to get me to the next major town. However, Kevin’s bike was a real fuel monster, and we had to get to a makeshift fuel stop for him.

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The next 100km seemed to go past pretty quickly. We barely stopped, as we had on the way up. On getting to Thakhek, we had lunch, and left by 2pm, hoping to make it to the top of the loop by dark, so we could see the cave the next day and return back south. This seemed like an achieveable goal.

The road was in good condition, and although it rained, we made it to the next 105km, before problems occurred. My bike suddenly slowed down, very gradually. Flat tire I thought? No. The chain had broken.

Thankfully, I had broken down outside a fuel station, and they told us that the nearest mechianc was 0.25km away; a small push down the road, and sure enough, there was a small shack, with a tyre outside, with words written in Lao, which I can only assume said ‘mechanic’. Perfect.

We relieved our sore bottoms from the bike, had a drink, and a lad, who looked about 15 set about fixing my bike. It was done in less than 30 minutes. The chain was rusted and ‘very old’ (according to the mechanic). He charged us 150,000 Lao Kip (US$18), but we figured Mr Wang Wang would give us this back.

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We had attempted to ring Mr Wang Wang, as he asked us to, but it wouldn’t connect. So we figured that with it being nearly 5pm, it was useless to call him out. Instead we kept going to the top of the loop, were we found a small Guesthouse to sleep for the night. We stayed at Xokxayhah, costing 100,000 Lao Kip this time, so US$6.80 each, but it was clean, and comfortable and there was a restaurant on site. We showered, and got fed and watered, and that was it for the night.

Day two summary:

km covered: Over 250km

Weather: A lot of rain

Food eaten: Noodle soup, pineapple and because I was craving it, french fries

Top Speed: 80km per hour

Accidents/injuries/issues with the bike: Broken Chain

Day three:

We woke up to more rain, though it was less heavy, we knew with the amount that it had rained on the previous day, we wouldn’t get to see the Konglor Cave. The owner of the Guesthouse, rang through to ‘someone she knew’ and confirmed that it was closed.

However, we decided to go a little further along the top, to spot some waterfalls, and smaller caves.

The views on this road were amazing, and I am glad we had a look.

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We attempted to find the Cool Springs, which apparently is an impressive site. However, no matter how far along the road we went, we could not spot a sign. The locals, who barely spoke English, let along read it, could not help us either.

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So, by 11am, having had no breakfast and needing to make it back to Thakhek by 3pm, we decided we needed to eat and head back. Hello Noodle Soup! This was prepared for us by a lovely lady in her home, after we asked if she could make us food (this was done via Charades method of course).

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The drive back south seemed to take forever on our last day. It rained a lot, but I felt safe on the bike. I kept seeing small signs with the number of km to go. My bum was sore, and I needed a good lie down. Still I was enjoyed all the locals we passed and the scenery along the way.

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When we made it back to Thakhek. Mr Wang Wang was nowhere to be seen. Instead, in his shop was a young girl, who spoke little English. We returned the bikes, and attempted to explain what had happened. The mechanic had written a note in Lao, with details of the repair. She got on her phone (to Mr Wang Wang), and explained. He then spoke to Kevin. He told us that the chain problem was ours, and that I had obviously been doing some bad driving (thanks! After he told me I was very good on day one). He said the chain was brand new one week ago (lies, it looked as rusty as anything), and refused to pay. After a heated debate with Kevin, in which he called us ‘liars’ as we said we would have the bikes back by 9am. He also refused to let us see the rental agreement.

In the end, he gave us back 100,000 Lao Kip, and our passports. Our luggage was safe, and nothing stolen. A bit of a sour end to a lovely trip, and whilst we didn’t see a lot of caves, I am glad I did it. It gave me confidence to ride a bike, and I was keen on doing it again.

Day three summary

Km covered: 250km

Weather: Rain

Food eaten: Noodle Soup and Cakes

Top Speed: 90 km per hour

Issues with the bike: Zero – only with Mr Wang Wang 

Have you done any epic motorbike tours? Or even done the Thakhek Loop? I’d love to hear your stories. 

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