Margo McCreary

The Thakhek Loop

So how does any adventure in Thailand or Laos begin? In a tuktuk with a bunch of 20-year-old adventurers. What is wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing, I guess. We (being me and Adel who has come to travel for a couple of weeks) met some real sweethearts, and then got off at the bus station to board our VIP bus. I have read enough reviews to know not to expect too much from these VIP designations, but one young, seasoned traveler, at the end of the ride, said that that bus was the worst he had experienced. It was crowded and hot, with little plastic stools set up in the aisles for extra riders. We were on the bus for over six hours without a pee break, though I would hope a person could beg the driver for one at the side of the road. When we got to the bus station in Thakhek, I was so delighted to run into Stephen, Sophie and George, three of my Gibbon Experience pals! We had a loud and joyful reunion before they headed out for 4000 Islands further south in Laos, and a bunch of us shared a tuktuk into the center (wang wang) of town! I suppose we could have stayed at the KGB hostel, but the hand written sign over the check in counter said “only bad asses” and while Adel could have lived up to that, I didn’t have the inner beastliness worked up!

We were looking for a bed that was not just a box spring, and that is not easy to find in Laos, but this one guesthouse owner suggested the Southida Guesthouse, and the bed was pretty good. The rooms in Laos are basic with the electric wires and fuse boxes mounted on the walls. There are only over head lights, and no such thing as a bedside table or lamp. Adel was wondering whether Laotian people read books as a pastime. Good question. I guess Lao only became a written language in the 70’s, so reading is not a thing yet. The rooms are quite cheap, though there is a range and this room was 150,000 Kip or around $18.00. Later rooms we shared were 60,000 Kip ($9.00). The bathrooms in the quest houses make concessions for Westerners in that they have Western toilets rather than the floor toilet bowls that a person steps on either side to squat over. There is usually no toilet paper unless you bring in your own, and next to every toilet there is a sprayer to rinse yourself. I kind of like the idea, but haven’t figured out how to deal with having a clean but wet crotch.

The bathrooms are completely tiled as they are the wet room, and the shower might be right over the toilet. Every shower is a little on-demand unit and they are all slightly different. I have finally managed to get a warm shower most of the time….less flow means warmer water since there is less water to warm up. It is a bit disconcerting to have electricity right next to the shower, but I guess I have gotten into hoping for the best outcome, and not being so precious about the details. Laos will do that to a person. One of my favorite details was a little roughly carved wooden toilet flusher handle in one of the quest rooms. People make do here, and do not need the particular piece of equipment to make their day go right.

So the Thakhek Loop is a route in central Laos that travels through small villages, farmland, and through some beautiful mountains and ridges with caves, waterfalls, swimming holes, and villages that feature weaving as a livelihood. I don’t know how this loop got started as a thing, but I am glad that it did. People rent motorbikes and ride the 400 plus kilometers around this loop in 3 – 5 days. The high point is Konglor Cave which is a cave with a river that is 7.5 km long inside of it. More about that later. Adel and I checked out the motorbikes our first day in Thakhek, and decided that we would leave the next day on our adventure. Most of what we were both reading about the loop warned about driving on gravel, and when we get to the rental place where do we have to try out the bike? On a gravel road. I had thought we should take the bike a day early to practice, but the traffic in Thakhek is quite heavy, so we figured we would pick it up in the morning and learn as we go! So the bike rental lady stresses that we take the first two rights as we leave, and we did, yes we did, and ended up getting to this most amazing market about 25 km down the road where people seemed to find our presence strange, which I found strange since presumably westerners were always passing by on the loop. But no, we had gone the wrong way, and needed to retrace our steps to the beginning. Adel had bravely taken the first driving shift, and she was an Amazon really. We were both so scared. If you saw how the traffic moves, you might understand our fear….a truck might be passing a motorbike, and a SUV might whip out around that truck as we approach from the other direction….on a curve! It is crazy! We got on the right road after talking to a few helpful Lao people, none of whom spoke English, but hand gestures and place names led to our finding our way. We were three hours already on the road, and we took a break by the side of the road and I tearfully admitted my level of fear which made Adel cry. Generally as it goes shared pain shrinks, so we headed off a little clearer, though I do admit to a grim fantasy of our daughters bonding in grief at our funerals! Cancel, cancel (a trick Peter taught me to neutralize negative thoughts)!

So Adel is still driving and there are cars and pot holes to avoid, and Adel is navigating it all beautifully. We stopped for some lunch at a little roadside cafe of which there are many as a person goes through towns and villages. Often it is just a table and chairs with condiments on the table that indicates food might be served. Sometimes it is a bigger operation with many tables. At the small ones, you can count on noodle soup with whatever meat is available and bean sprouts, tomatoes cooked in, and lettuce, maybe cabbage and basil served on the side to add in. While the broth is hot it seems a safe way to inoculate possible organisms on the fresh stuff we add. I like noodle soup a lot, but it started to get a bit tedious in Laos since many places were small businesses where people lived. One place we ended up at near the end of the loop, was a little market, a place to get a bite to eat, and a gathering spot for local gossip. We had to ask if perhaps we could get something to eat and the 8-year-old girl who was grilling some chicken skewers asked her mom whether she would make us something….noodle soup with a choice of noodles, rice or these fatter ones which we chose for variety! These two women showed up dressed more modern than the more traditional and perhaps poorer mother, and sat at a table by the grill and started eating the skewers with lettuce and noodles and some sauce added. The mother came over and sat with them, and they had full bodied woman talk which included watching someone pass by who went to a store across the street, and a bit of looking and then talking and looking again. Everyone’s face including ours were shining with sweat because the air was very warm, and we felt privy to a very intimate conversation that would not have happened in our presence if we spoke Lao.

So much to tell, so many tiny and sumptuous details of this life and place so different than mine. I have so many questions that will go unanswered because of my language inability. In Laos I truly felt the culture shock. Thailand eases a westerner into it, but Laos immerses me. I am very grateful for the experience. A woman of Russian descent who now lives in New Jersey was talking about how poor the people were at a home stay she stayed at (a home stay offers an opportunity to stay with a family in a village and live their life for a day or so). I may be wrong about this, but with Western standards, maybe a person could say they were poor, but the villages we saw seemed vital and functioning as a community in the midst of natural beauty. There was a disturbing amount of trash tossed about, but there is no real system set up for so many things that we have organized in the West. While our systems function, we have given up simplicity. We got to walk through a village near Konglor Cave where a number of families offer home stays. Life was bustling that morning with children on the backs of motorbikes being taken to school, the egg delivery guy coming through with his truck filled floor to ceiling with those molded cardboard egg squares, people going to work on their motorbikes or walking out to surrounding fields, Farang (Westerners) eating on the deck of a local eatery. It felt like rush hour on the curving dirt road that cut through the village. I wonder how the presence of us Westerners has changed the village. I imagine that it has helped the economy or at least changed it. Some Laotians greeted us with smiles and some with impassive stares. I truly felt I was in another world and so lucky to be there.

But I am ahead of our motorbike journey….. I finally got up the nerve to drive after we stopped at a temple up on the top of a hill, and then we almost immediately start going up a steep and hairpin curve road. It is hair raising, but the road surface has improved and the traffic is sparse, so I feel fortunate sort of! We are closing in on our destination for the first night; the village of Thalang where we will stay at Phosy Thalang Guesthouse. What a sweet place with so many amenities like a deck over looking water, fire rings, a bridge with tables and chairs on it, and a line of bungalows on both sides of the bridge where we will stay. Adel and I share a Beer Lao to celebrate our arrival against all odds! We made it, and we don’t have to think about the motorbike till morning, maybe never! There is BBQ over at the Sabaidee Guesthouse just 50 meters down the road, and we run into some of our tuktuk companions over dinner and hear about 2 motorcycle mishaps with minor injuries. Ouch. May we be spared!!!!! (If we ever ride again). I am fantasizing possibilities that keep us off the bikes forever, but by morning we are ready to go at it again. Ahhhh the restorative powers of sleep!

This day we are traveling through a wild area that I figure has changed drastically because of a dam that has flooded a huge area, and dead tree bodies stand in water mysteriously on either side of the road for long distances. Then we do some climbing in a mountain pass and are traveling through remote villages that are quite intriguing to look at. We stopped at one just outside a little store that is the size of a small shed. The door is open and a window as well that has a rope strung across it that holds plastic bags filled with the various snack foods offered. This turns out to be a standard way of displaying the snacks. I look in the door and see a man lounging on his mat which is on a low platform, and he is watching tv. He comes out to see what we want. There are some children that have taken notice of us, and they come closer but shyly to greet us. I decided to buy one of the bags of chips and open it to share with this little crowd of kids gathered. We have a little meal, and then we say goodbye.

We pass a few more of these dusty villages with mostly bamboo huts up on stilts for housing. As we get closer to a larger town called Lakso, the houses are more substantial and made out of concrete and painted vibrant colors like bright green with pink trim, or pink and lavender. We are still trying to get to Konglor Cave this day, and there are some very steep and winding roads that are pretty hairy. There will be a turn off the main road to go 40 km into the cave area. We have heard that the Konglor Cave road is good. Not so….a lot of it is, but right off it is dirt road with major bumps and holes, then there are wooden bridges to cross that have planks for car wheels to drive on, so the motorbike driver has to be talented at staying on the planks. Adel is the hero yet again, and she aces it. I take over driving and am having a great time on flat straight roads, and then come to another of those bridges. I just do it, and ace it as well. So many challenges, and then the roads get so bad with huge pot holes, gravel, massive bumps and dips, and it goes on forever. Adel is driving, and it takes a level of concentration and instant decisions of the best path. At one point she is riding a ridge, and we fall off it and spill off the bike. We managed to catch the bike before it tipped completely, but we both got scrapes and bumps on our toes, and ankles and shins….minor really, but still traumatic. I figure that it is time to be done for the day, and we come to the first guesthouse in Konglor. It would have to be a total dive for me to say no to it. I just want to lick my wounds, and Adel is willing. So we made day 2! We are feeling relieved and recovering after our fall, sitting out on the porch of our guesthouse when we watch a couple of the younger bikers bounce by with a sense of fun about them over this horrible road. What? Age has to be a factor, inexperience too perhaps, but I figure that many of these young ones haven’t ridden before either. Oh well, it is what it is, and we are where we are!

First installment of the Thakhek Loop! Thanks for reading.