Every visitor of Laos should undertake at least one trip on a Lot ják! Lot ják, Lao for motorbike, is the most common way of transport for the locals. You see up to five persons (a whole family) riding on one single motorbike. The most popular ones are sold by Honda, Suzuki (both Japanese) and Kolao (Korean) and have approximately 100 ccm engines and semi-automatic gears so that you switch the gear with a footpedal. Even if you do not have any experience with riding a motorbike, driving a Lot ják is great fun. Also, getting used to it only takes some rounds on the school yard – after school, naturally.
I had the idea to drive from Vientiane to Thakhek, before heading back to Germany. From Thakhek you can do a trip called “Loop”, which a traveller discovered in 1998. Since then, it has become more and more popular among Lao travellers and so I made the plan to take the “Loop”, too. This trip is approximately 450 kilometres long and leads through the province Khammouan and the nature reserves Nakai-Nam Theun and Phou Hin Boun, mostly on tarmac roads. Time-wise, three to four days are recommended, depending on how many stops you make on the way.
I hired a motorbike in Vientiane. Most of the lenders do not want you to go on long trips on their bikes, so it took a while to find one who did not ask too many questions. For this, I can recommend “Vientiane Backpackers´ Hostel”: they did not ask many questions and were satisfied with a copy of my passport and driving license and with 60,000 kip (6.60 €) per day – the prize is quite moderate. Furthermore, the motorbike was in good shape (make sure to always check all the lights, the tyres and especially both breaks!). The Lot ják was my baby and loyal companion for the next four days.
On 31 December I started my journey on the “Loop”. My goal was to reach Thakhek in the evening to celebrate New Year’s Eve there. Due to an important team meeting I was not able to leave Vientiane before 1.30 p.m. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring a proper helmet, so I had to use the one that came with the motorbike – the visor was as dull as the Mekong River and kept flapping down, making it impossible to see. I needed some sunglasses and something to fix the visor. A piece of plastic stuck between visor and helmet did the job, so – let’s go! 355 kilometres lay ahead.
The road was in excellent shape and my baby ran a constant 70 km/h. Quickly moving towards a scenery dominated by a karst mountain range, I only stopped two times to get petrol and to add some layers of clothes against the airstream which got colder and colder. It would not have been me if I had not had to stop to get my daily dose of caffeine in form of the unbelievably delicious, strong Lao ice coffee.
Lao ice coffee is an absolute must for every Lao traveller. Just check the side of the roads for shacks which pile up red-white and blue-yellow tin cans (see photo above). These are the places where you get the stuff (to learn more about the Lao ice coffee check the entry “A Lao lovestory” here).
Just before reaching Thakhek, I had to stop for petrol once more and became witness once more to the great heartiness and hospitality of Lao people: some young guys were sitting at the filling station, drinking Beerlao and Whiskey. They invited me to a glass of the first (a famous Lao saying goes: “Only one glass. But filled maaany times”).
The guys told me that Thakhek was only a stone’s throw away. So after some beer and a funny chat I hit the road again to finally reach my destination. Half an hour later, it was 9.30 p.m. by then, I arrived in Thakhek. For the last two hours, I had been driving in the dark, which really cannot be recommended. One can hardly see the road, making it difficult to see the frequent bump holes. The poor headlights make it even trickier. So make sure to make concentration a top priority when driving in the dark. Luckily, there were only a few nasty little “craters”, which I was able to circuit thanks to the combination of my hawk eyes and cheetah-like reflexes.
After arriving in Thakhek, I quickly tried to find accommodation with a warm shower to wash off the cold. I found the (okay-ish) Thipphachanh guesthouse which met my requirement and included Wifi for 80,000 kip (roughly 8.80 €). Not the cheapest you can get, but I was too tired and frozen stiff, so I decided to stay put. After a refreshing and rehashing session in the bathroom it was time for dinner. At a Thai restaurant, I met some travellers from Germany and Belgium, and joined them for some food, beer and Mexican style lao-lao. Lao-lao is the most famous Lao rice whiskey, in its Mexican version indulged with lime and salt. We clinked our bottles at midnight on the Mekong river bank and watched the fireworks over Thailand just across the river. After a flying visit at a Lao New Year’s Eve party, some more beer and good laughter, I went to bed to get some well-deserved rest after a long and exhausting day.
On the first day of 2016, the early birds were not on my side, waking me up way too soon. I did not complain for too long because it enabled me to hit the road and make some more kilometres. But not before a rich Lao breakfast, Foe and coffee (Foe is a delicious noodle soup with herbs, vegetables and meat, eaten with a spoon and chop sticks).
Refuelled, I jumped on the motorbike and left Thakhek behind, heading towards Lak Xao which was my destination for the day. You will find a lot of different caves just outside of town. One of them is a famous Buddha cave “Tham Pha”, which hosts hundreds of statues. As it was only 9 kilometres off road, I decided to give it a go. The road was quite bumpy, which my back did not appreciate. However, I was rewarded with an insight into Lao rice farming and the spectacular view of random villages and a school in the countryside, lush nature, as well as an old railroad bridge built by French colonists.
The Buddha cave, on the other hand, was a disappointment. I had to crawl through the very small entrance of the cave to find some … you will never guess … Buddha statues. The cave is a Lao pilgrim site and taking pictures there is not allowed. Along the lines of “been there, done that”, I headed back to the main road. The karst mountains piled up on both sides of the road like the back teeth of titans: what an unreal and spectacular scenery! I passed many villages with their wooden shacks and houses painted in the Lao-typical neon colours. Smiling children were waving at me and a herd of buffalos blocked the road. After the NTPC water power plant I ascended various serpentines to enjoy a magnificent view over acres of dense jungle and beautiful mountain lakes, always caressed by wind and sun beams.
On the second stage of the trip, the roads were still in excellent shape, and the motorbike kept running. However, 30 kilometres before Lak Xao it all changed. The road turned into a dust track and my petrol reserves went towards zero, with no petrol station in sight. After running some minutes on “empty”, I asked the next garage for some petrol. He pointed to a small wooden shack next to his shop… ”Great, just in time”, I thought.
A bit further, I noticed that construction workers were busy turning this last piece of uncomfortable gravel road into tarmac, adding bridges over some valleys. I guess this is because Lak Xao is one of the main gateways to Vietnam, only 50 km to the border.
The road got better just before I reached Lak Xao, after 150 km and 6 hours of driving. I quickly booked a room in Souriya Hotel (60,000 kip/6.60 €, hot shower, Wifi), took a shower and went to the local market for some food. Even though there is no problem of getting food along the way because the roads are studded with food stalls of all sorts, I had not eaten for quite a while. Unfortunately, all the entrepreneurs at the market were busy closing their stalls. I managed to find one who offered papaya salad, grilled squid, and boiled eggs – yummy. I ordered one of each, sat down and tried to open the egg by hitting it at a metal pole. Suddenly, some liquid ran over my back hand. Checking the egg, I found that it was not a hard boiled one.
After I finished the food (the egg was not exactly a gourmet highlight), the people from the stall invited me to have more food together with them. They asked me to sit down behind the stall and we enjoyed fish soup, noodle salad, and grilled pork. Authentic and delicious. With the basic Lao I have acquired by now, I was able to tell them how good it tasted and how great their hospitality was. In the end, they only charged me 20,000 kip (2.20 €) for the whole meal. Satisfied and exhausted, I went to my room and fell into bed.
The second morning, second time for Foe and coffee; the right way to start into a Lao day. On today’s list: 180 km, a trip to Tham Kong Lo, a cave a little longer than 6 km, and the final destination Ban Vieng Kham. As I had no time to waste, I checked out and left Lak Xao behind to make it to the cave quickly. This plan changed when I saw a temple at the foot of the karst mountains just outside of town. I literally smelled the opportunity for some nice pictures of the temple with the rock formations in the background. On arrival, I was greeted in broken English by a young monk. Suddenly, another four curious monks gathered around me. I asked them about some flags and a Buddha statue on top of one of the nearby rocks. They told me that they installed them and that you can climb up there within 20 minutes only. Should I go or am I in a hurry? I considered my options and decided to give it a go. After all, I expected a wonderful panoramic view from up there – and how long is 20 minutes, really. The next moment, I was surrounded by paths marked with scraps of monk-orange clothes, giant boulders, trees, vines, deep holes, and razor sharp rocks. Sometimes, I even got a glimpse of the landscape through the bushes.
It soon turned into a free-style climbing session where at some point I had to admit that there was no going further. I attempted a steep rock formation close to the top three times, but it was just too dangerous. Full of adrenaline and some frustration I had to tackle the descent. In total, it took me more than one hour to reach the monks again, my clothes dripping wet. The kind monks supplied me with water, bananas, oranges, and apples. Also, we took some pictures and I got a small insight into their lives.
After my clothes were almost dry again (which took at least another 45 minutes) I was back on track. At 2 p.m., I reached Khoun Kham (see photo), a small town which serves as the starting point for trips to the Tham Kong Lo cave, which is another 40 km south.
On the way, you pass a couple of villages, acres of fields (rice, vegetables), and giant karst mountains on both sides of the road. At the cave, you can buy a ticket for a boat which ships you through the cave. Such a boat holds up to three people (guide not included), and you can share the price of 100,000 kip (11.00 €). The entrance fee is another 10,000 kip (1.10 €) per person. I met a French guy with whom I shared the trip.
The cave is quite spooky and its size is massive. It hosts passages which are more than 50 metres wide and have 100 metres in height. At some stages you have to leave the boat to carry it over rapids or to walk around magnificent stalagmite (standing) and stalactite (hanging) formations. After 6 kilometres the mouth of the cave releases you into lush jungle and gives way to dramatic rock formations. After a short stop to refuel energy, you go back the same way.
Back at the entrance, I gathered my stuff and drove towards Ban Vieng Kham, my destination for the day. It was already getting dark, which made the drive a bit uncomfortable, even difficult, a fact to which the multiple serpentines also contributed. Nevertheless, three hours of hard work later, I reached the village, checked into the cosy Vansana guesthouse, took a hot shower and had a Lao meal next door.
On the fourth day, there was no exception to the daily morning routine: Foe and coffee (see above). The road back to Vientiane was dead straight. I only stopped to refuel petrol and coffee. The drive was rather relaxed so I could enjoy the landscape and the goings-on in the passing villages. I arrived in Vientiane around four o’clock and went straight to the sauna (check out the herbal sauna plus massage next to Wat Sok Pa Luang), a well-deserved reward after four days of exertions. The trip was over and I was very pleased with my motorbike. It kept running and running and luckily I had no breakdown during this tour. Nice! Khop chai lailai (Lao for thank you very much)!
1.100 kilometres within four days, always on the small back of a motorbike, are hard and exhausting. Struggling with dust and exhaust gases is daily routine. You always have to watch out for massive bump holes which could damage the motorbike and in the evenings every muscle aches.
Nevertheless, traveling by motorbike enables you to enjoy Laos in a completely different way. When you drive through a village and slow down, you get a glimpse of the real Laos, of the Lao way of life. Animals cross the road, you see children play or ride their bikes, the adults play Sepak takraw, drink beer and sing karaoke, families walk back from their field work, equipped with their tools and the yield of the day. Others herd their cows or buffalos with – you might have guessed it right – their motorbikes. You breathe in the nature, can stop wherever you want. Overall, a motorbike trip is something I really recommend to Laos travellers. Travel safe and drive carefully. Accidents are always the foreigner’s fault, because Lao people expect them to be wealthier. Still, it is absolutely worthwhile!
Here are all impressions summed up again (plus some extra).
Text and photos by T. Mayer