We finally bid a sad farewell to Don Det, after dragging our heels for a very lovely 12 days, ready for the next adventure. It took 13 hours in total from getting on a boat at our guesthouse to arriving at Thakhek Travel Lodge. Arriving at 11pm, we were lucky to find someone at the hotel reception to check us into a room, and we fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.
Day 1 - Thakhek - Tha Lang
We sorted out breakfast, and also a packed lunch at the guesthouse, whilst Dave rented a pretty new 110cc Zongshen motorbike for us both, from Mr Ku next door. We prompted christened the bike 'Mortimer', had no champers in hand to make the name official, but selected a rather pink Penelope Pitstop helmet for myself, and a Power Ranger/Darth Vader black stylee one for Dave. Having left the bulk of our luggage at the Travel Lodge, we embarked with a trimmed down small backpack which I wore during whilst on Morty.
At about 10am, we set off for the 5 hour ride to Tha Lang village, via Tha Pha Fa Cave (aka Buddha Cave), Xieng Liab Cave, Tha Fa Lang river, Tham Aen Cave before getting to Sabaidee Guesthouse in Tha Lang just before it got dark. Within an hour of travelling, we felt that travelling by motorbike was worth it to be able to see the gorgeous landscapes of Laos. Funny shaped mountains, the like of which we hadn't seen since we were in Brazil, amazing clear and brightly coloured waters, some emerald green reflecting the jungle palms and the dark red hills, and some turquoise blues. Every corner was another photo opportunity, and we fell in love with the country in the same way as so many people we know who had visited Laos had told us we would.
The various caves were full of strangely shaped rocks and stalactites and stalagmites, almost looking like folded material, and depending on the light hitting them, making the places feel quite eerie. None of the caves felt claustrophobic, the tops of them being so high it felt like we were in a very dark cathedral at times. Tham Aen in particular, has been developed with stairs and banisters cut into the cave in the same colour of the rocks inside, so the end result looking like an Escher painting.
The road had been ok to begin with, the little roads leading to the smaller caves being full of dust and gravel, but the main road was tarmac and in reasonable condition. As we got closer to Tha Lang, the road got pretty steep with potholes to boot, so going up and down required a lot of concentration on Dave's part, as well as mine to be ready for the potholes and rough terrain and grip harder to the seat so I wouldn't fall off. We went past a big dam along the way, which was constructed for the power station we went past. The river there had been dammed, but what it had resulted in was a drowned forest between Nakai and Tha Lang. The photo shown doesn't do justice to the view we had. The strange white tree trunks looked as if they were painted by Dali, and the colours of the water contrasted with the weird turtle shaped green land around it was spectacular. We arrived in Tha Lang tired, but excited by what we'd seen so far and what was to come.
Day 2 - Tha Lang - Lak Sao
Whilst we were having breakfast at Sabaidee guesthouse, we overheard an Aussie who was also doing the loop with another group asking the hostelier the state of the road to Lak Sao. His comment of the road being 'Not too terrible' made us giggle. So just terrible enough then? Pretty much the case. After a few km on good tarmac, suddenly the road divided into a dirt path ahead, and a lovely smooth tarmac to the left. We asked a local which way to Lak Sao, and we were told it was the dirt path. Oh great. That road was the worst road I've ever travelled on. Pot holes, gravel, thick red dust, no shade against the heat, big rocks, Mortimer battled through it all, but not without the suspension or lack of juddering our skulls, spines and saddles along the way. Eventually made the 60km journey in 3 hours but I couldn't take anymore and we made the decision to do the Loop in 4 days rather than 3 and stay overnight in Lak Sao. We stayed at the very lovely and almost luxurious Souriya guesthouse for 90,000 kip ($11), which wasa lot more than the 50,000 kip we had been paying in Don Det and Sabaidee. Totally worth it to have a comfy bed and hot shower, plus wifi!
Day 3 - Lak Sao - Kong Lo Village
We had 100km journey ahead of us, but the road was much better than what we had the day before, we scooted across to Kong Lo in about 4.5 hours. The cool springs and waterfall to see along the way had dried up as a result of the hot weather so weren't worth going to, so we just made it to Saylomyen guesthouse in Kong Lo village by 2pm. Had some lunch and then headed straight for the highlight of our trip - Kong Lo Cave. This is a cave that is 7.5km long and takes 45 minutes to travel through - some of it you can walk, but the majority is a boat trip. We had rented head torches to be able to see the cave properly, which was a great idea as they were much better than our own torches. I can only describe the cave as being almost like the best ghost train you'll ever go on. The shapes and twists and turns of the cave with the torch light on felt so spine tingling, and as we moved under huge stalactites in the motorboat, it was like monsters were leaping out of the dark. Then, we saw (literally!) the light at the end of the tunnel, which was a beautiful view of mountains and idyllic forest. We got out there to visit the village there and have a cold drink, before returning back through the cave again.
We loved it. Made all the tooth loosening bumps on Mortimer so worth it. As we were leaving, the sun was about to set, so we roade on past our guesthouse to see the sunset over the mountains nearby. Dave then said the worst thing he could have said. He said "At least we haven't had a problem with the bike, I've heard of so many people having damaged their bike or had problems with it along the way". A few minutes later, I don't know why, I saw that the ignition switch on the bike had a switch with 'open/close' on it. Because I like buttons, I pressed it. Dave looked at me in horror, as we saw that the ignition switch where you insert the key to start it had closed over and the switch wouldn't return to its original position to open. Oh shit, I was in trouble. Dave was livid. I was contrite. We couldn't work out how to undo my mistake and we couldn't wheel the bike back as the steering was locked. Crap.
Dave walked back to the guesthouse, thankfully, only 10 minutes from where we were, whilst I quietly prayed that we could get the bike working again so Dave wouldn't kill me and stash my body in the cave. Thankfully, the solution was easy, the key had a hexagon shaped protusion which was used as a spanner to unlock the ignition safety lock. I was saved by the amused guesthouse staff and luckily Dave forgave me, after kicking me on the rear end as my punishment for pressing buttons. Phew.
So, after that, we chilled out with another British couple staying at the guesthouse, had a lovely evening. Day 4 was a 200km very boring ride back to Thakhek, on reasonable roads. Took 6 hours and my knees and back were suffering after so long on the bike. So glad to return the bike and be bikeless once again.
We are now in Vientiane, the Laos capital, pottering around for a while. Heading to Luang Prabang tomorrow to enjoy the town whilst waiting for our Vietnam visa, in readiness to leave Laos and go to Hanoi. Loving what we've seen so far and we still have a week before we go so looking forward to that too.