After a 14th of March steak meal at Inthira Restaurant in Tha Khaek, we set off on another ‘loop’ east away from the Mekong and the main road that runs along the Thai border. This loop is well known and in years gone by has been somewhat notorious, with many travellers on hired motorbikes and scooters having bad accidents. However, the road is now paved pretty much the whole way round, and, although the sight of a falang hobbling around minus a fair bit of skin is still fairly common, it should now be less of a problem. There are some people who will argue that the loop is less special now that it’s paved, but we loved it. It’s a beautiful, stunning road of twists and turns, through gorgeous and varied scenery – one of the best driving roads we’d been on since the Pamirs.
We did the loop anti clockwise and spent the first day waterfall and cave hunting. For us, this mainly consisted of driving off the main Route 12, and heading north on dirt tracks, sometimes following signs (unreliable), and sometimes blindly following maps.me! One such trail got narrower and narrower for about 20km, through villages that had definitely never seen a land rover before, and resulted in us fording rivers, braving jungle and generally using low range/4WD much more than we’d intended! Ultimately, it also resulted in us turning round, but it was great fun. More red-dust laning than green laning 🙂 We also might have misjudged our height in the forest, and ended up with a tree (and accompanying red ants) for a passenger. Oops.
The road then turns north through one of the most bizarre landscapes we’d ever seen. On one side is pristine jungle, thick and green, and on the other is an environmental disaster zone caused by the recent flooding of the Nam Theun 2 dam. Trees are dead and brown – utterly stripped of branches and leaves, and stand alone in patches of water. Life is slowly returning, but the contrast is shocking. The road snakes through the mess of the valley over the causeways and bridges that have been built to join the hundreds of islands together. On one such island sits Sabaidee Guesthouse. This is a real gem – the cheapest rooms we found in Laos, wonderful hospitality, loads of parking, good wifi, and great food – especially the apple pie!
The northern leg of the loop is much more undulating, with some fantastic viewpoints along the way. The cold springs were great fun – a big pool of crystal clear deep water surrounded by rocks. We were the only tourists there, and there must have been 30 locals jumping in. It was bliss!
The highlight of the loop (and possibly of all of Laos – big claim, I know!), is the Tham Kong Lo cave system in the middle. We stayed at the Spring River Resort (they let us camp and use their facilities for free!), which is in a stunning location, and serves excellent (but not cheap) breakfasts. Here we met Henry and Paul, who were both on bikes, and joined up with them for a couple of days. To describe Tham Kong Lo as a ‘cave’ is really not doing it justice. It’s 7km of unground river, linking together huge caverns. Pitch black inside (head torches essential, although they hire them out), apart from one section where it’s been tastefully lit (by the French) in multi colours. It was incredible. Go there if you possibly can – we’ve never experienced anything like it.
The other benefit of meeting new friends (apart from the sparkling conversation of course) was the ability for us to join forces and order a whole piglet for supper. Oh yes. Extravagance and gluttony in the extreme – but oh so worth it! An amazing couple of days, and the jewel in the crown of Central Laos (the cave, not the piglet, I promise…).