The Thakhek Loop – Khammouane Province
The Thakhek Loop, also known as the Kong Lor Loop, is a spectacular 3-4 day trip around the karst limestone peaks of Khammouane Province in central Laos. Extremely popular with bikers and moped-riders, one of the many sites includes one of the most spectacular cave in Asia, Kong Lor Cave, from which the loop gets its name. Covering a distance of approximately 450 kilometers, the loop offers an unforgettable exploration of rural Laos.
The Thakhek Loop is one of Lao’s most popular trips for independent travellers and is an incredible trip with plenty of options for side trips and adventures. Roads are in great condition, locations are well signposted and the route is easy to navigate. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful and offers a fantastic showcase of what so many people find so special about Laos. For the more active, the trip also makes for a great cycling adventure.
Most people begin the adventure in Thakhek, where there is a decent range of accommodation options. Unless you’ve already got a bike you’ll need to rent one. Motorbikes are available to rent from a number of locations in town. Make sure to choose a reliable rental service and check the condition of the bike before setting off.
As the roads are mostly paved, this trip is doable all year round. However the best time of year is just at the end of rainy season before the rice is harvested. Generally mid-October to late November is an excellent time as the countryside is lush and green and the temperature is relatively cool. But whenever you are in Laos, that’s the best time to go.
The following is a suggested itinerary, but if you have more time to explore then go slower and enjoy.
Day 1 on the Thakhek Loop
Head out of Thakhek going east along Route 12 towards Nakai. After a short drive you’ll soon be in the countryside riding past rice paddies and limestone karsts. You’ll be cruising along ‘cave alley’, named after the multitude of caves carved out of the karsts by millions of years of erosion. There are too many caves to name, and more being opened up to tourists every day.
Tham Nang Aen Cave
One of the most dramatic caves is Tham Nang Aen Cave, just 18km from town. Despite not having ridden very far this is a good place to take a first stop. The cave itself has some huge chambers and dramatic limestone formations, lit by brightly coloured lights.
Continue along Route 12 as it winds its way along the valley floor, sweeping past karsts and limestone mountains. There are more caves along this section of road if you feel the need for a break but none are particular standouts.
Nam Theun 2 Visitor Centre
About 40km from Thakhek the road swings north and starts to follow the run-off stream from the large hydropower project further ahead. You will soon cross a bridge where there is small intersection and Route 12 branches of to the east on your right. The road straight ahead is now Route 1E and this is the road you will follow for some time until you head into a smaller valley. At the base of the hill you will discover the Nam Theun 2 Visitor Centre, which provides a great place for a quick break as well as some interesting information about the huge dam you will soon encounter.
After the visitor centre the road starts climbing sharply, twisting and turning its way up the mountain. At the top of the climb the road comes into the town of Nakai. The town itself is not particularly interesting but there are a few spots worth checking out. The Nakai Tourist Information Centre has a bit of information about the local area. Next to the information centre you can find a weaving centre which has good collection of local handicrafts for sale.
There are a number of restaurants in town and along the edge of the lake. The most interesting of these is the Restaurant Ghost Boat, an old boat which has been transformed into a restaurant and bar. There are a few places to stay in town, but being only short drive from Thakhek most people choose to push on to the next town.
From Nakai continue following Route 1E to the northwest. The road skirts the edge of the mountain range on your left and sits just above the vast reservoir to your right. After a short drive from Nakai you will reach the Orchid Viewpoint (https://goo.gl/maps/MiuKsm8ioZZ3wZoZ7). Here there is a small parking area for bikes and narrow track leading up to a viewpoint. In the right season you can spot orchids growing along the side of the path as you make your way up to the top of the hill. At the top of the track there is a viewing platform that offers panoramic views of the reservoir.
Continuing on the from the Orchid Viewpoint the road winds its way through sweeping turns along the edge of the reservoir towards the town of Thalang. It is a beautiful section of road, with very little traffic and even fewer potholes. It’s a short drive to Thalang and you will soon arrive in this small town.
There are two decent options for accommodation in Thalang. Sabaidee Guesthouse (https://goo.gl/maps/yujRFcgLWWiwm1jQ8) and Phosy Thalang Guesthouse (https://goo.gl/maps/K6oZpK7J1USpfEyZ6) both offer basic but clean bungalows just off the main road. Both guesthouses have onsite restaurants offering a selection of Lao and western food. During busy periods Sabaidee offers a barbeque buffet at night that is popular with travellers.
On the edge of the lake is Phosy Restaurant, offering a good selection of Lao and western food. Here you can arrange to hire kayaks or book one, two, or three day trips into the national park. The kayak hire is an excellent way to explore the lake and discover this other-worldly landscape, while the guided tours are the only way to get into the national park.
The guided tours offer a selection of camping, hiking, and kayaking, or a mixture of all three. The tours are not cheap as the certified guides must pay large entrance fees to take people into the park, but are a fantastic way to experience Lao’s incredible natural scenery. If you choose to spend a day here you won’t regret it.
Day 2 on the Thakhek Loop
For your second day of riding, continue following Route 1E by crossing the bridge heading north out of town. This next section of road is spectacular, running low along the edge of the lake with wide, sweeping turns offering incredible views as the road weaves its way through the otherworldly landscape. The road is quite new and in excellent condition, with very little traffic.
It continues like this for about 40 minutes, depending on your speed, before reaching a small army checkpoint. Proceed past the guard post and start weaving your way up some gentle hills. In the middle of this protected area (https://goo.gl/maps/K6oZpK7J1USpfEyZ6) you will find some stone Buddha statues carved into the rocks on the side of the road. The carvings are on a sharp turn and there isn’t really a good place to pull over but it is a good place to take a short break for a quick look.
The road descends then starts climbing again into rolling green hills covered in cassava plantations. The views along this section aren’t as expansive as the vast vistas of the reservoir but offer their own charm. The road is in very good condition with gentle curves before a series of switchbacks and hairpin turns take you down onto the valley floor. Along the valley floor the road is flat and straight as it makes its way through some small villages leading towards the town of Lak Sao (https://goo.gl/maps/6wKXr3eNFgXq9DFX8).
Lak Sao is the first big town on the road from the Vietnam border and is a major trading hub. There are a few guesthouses here and some local restaurants, as well as some temples, but nothing worth going out of your way to experience. A good place to fill the tank before continuing on.
From Route 1E, turn left onto Route 8 to continue on the loop. This road connects Vietnam to Laos and onwards to Thailand so there are some more trucks along this road. The road is generally in good condition but be on the lookout for the occasional pothole. Despite the few potholes this is another beautiful section of road, making its way along a valley floor between two imposing limestone mountain ranges.
Ride for around 20km through rural Laos complete with rice paddies and small farms before reaching a small sign for the parking area for the Dragon Cave (https://goo.gl/maps/6wKXr3eNFgXq9DFX8). Another limestone cave with some impressive formations of stalactites and stalagmites, as well as a small restaurant this is an excellent place for a break if you chose not to stop in Lak Sao.
Continue following Route 8 from the Dragon Cave towards the town of Phontan. Just before the town itself there is a dirt road (https://goo.gl/maps/Tcm5KN9aw6MSMhXdA) coming off to the right leading towards ‘Cool Spring’ (https://goo.gl/maps/Jvys9e9XiVUVeaUSA). The dirt road is in excellent condition and the short drive leads to a secluded oasis of tranquil blue water emerging from a spring at the base of a limestone cliff. There are a few small restaurants and changing rooms here, making it an excellent place to stop and have a swim. The water is said to contain magical properties that will grant swimmers a good life, and the cold water is certainly invigorating.
Tha Bak and the Bomb Boats
Continue along Route 8 to the town of Phontan where the road makes a sharp turn to the left and starts making its way down the hill to the town of Tha Bak (https://goo.gl/maps/2uh45SysgFhuh8Si8). This town is relatively small but has a unique attraction – the famed ‘Bomb Boats’.
The boats are not actually bombs, but rather the external fuel tanks of US Air Force bombers used to rain down destruction along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Indochina War. When the fuel tanks were empty, they were dropped by the pilots and scavenged by the ever resourceful locals. They cut the tanks open and have turned them into boats similar to the traditional long tail canoes. Now tourists can experience these boats for themselves with tours lasting between one to three hours. If you have the time it is a unique experience and worth the asking price.
Continue on from the Tha Bak towards the town of Na Hin (https://goo.gl/maps/xJvZbwXfuLsStG9a9) for about 10 minutes along mostly flat straight road before a series of switchbacks take you up and over a mountain pass before gently descending down into the town of Na Hin. The town itself is not the most exciting place but there are a few guesthouses here that make it an attractive place to spend the night and act as a base for exploring the local area. On the edge of town, down a poorly maintained dirt road there are some bungalows by the river in a basic resort. (https://goo.gl/maps/pdFyvNHo5Mw8RQXW7) The accommodation at the resort is comfortable and the food in the onsite restaurant is a good representation of Lao food.
Phamarnview Guesthouse (https://goo.gl/maps/xNnD8GcCNEoqG9kX9) offers the best option in town, being clean and comfortable, with has hot showers, air conditioning, and comfortable beds. As its name suggests there is a view of Phou Phamarn from the upstairs balcony, which is a nice place to watch the sun set behind the mountains. The guesthouse is located across the road from a small restaurant, one of only a few choices including some basic noodle stalls. On the same street you can also find Khounthavy Guest House (https://goo.gl/maps/mMCYX1Zj24ciiJda9) which offers a few simple bungalows in a quiet garden.
If you have time to continue on for another hour you can push on through Na Hin and turn off Route 8 and on to the town Ban O, built near the entrance to Kong Lor Cave (https://g.page/Konglorcave?share). This road has a few more potholes and significantly more livestock so take it slow along this stretch.
Ban O is a very small and rustic town with a few options for accommodation that offer great views of the rice paddies and surrounding limestone cliff. For something more upmarket there is Spring River Resort (https://goo.gl/maps/8PQVoDWXRxznCgA38), offering quiet bungalows and the option for kayak rental on the Hinboun River. For a clean but simple stay you can try Thongdam Guesthouse (https://goo.gl/maps/rJV9XJNbP3wUdA1A7), offering private bungalows overlooking the rice paddies. Both options offer an onsite restaurant and a quiet retreat after a long day of riding.
Day 3 on the Thakhek Loop
Kong Lor Cave
If you want to make it back to Thakhek today then we recommend an early start. Start by exploring Kong Lor Cave by hiring a longtail boat to take you along the 7km underground river flowing through the cave. It’s a great adventure floating through the darkness, lit only by the torches of you and your boat captain. On the other side of the cave there is a small village selling some refreshments and locally made handicrafts. By boat it takes around 20 minutes to travel through the cave each way, depending on the river level and flow so expect to spend at least an hour exploring.
The Rock Viewpoint
From the cave entrance travel back towards Route 8, turning left to start the 15 minute climb up to The Rock Viewpoint. This section of road is narrow with a few potholes and more than a few trucks. Follow the road as it winds its way up to the top of the hill until you reach the viewpoint (https://goo.gl/maps/nSEVM2SCexUB2vJu5).
Here you will find a world-class adventure playground, with a series of ziplines, via ferratta, and rope bridges that allow intrepid adventurers to explore this beautiful landscape. Maybe even the chance to spot the endangered Laotian Langur, found only in this area. The ziplines are an unforgettable experience and well worth setting aside the roughly two hours it takes to complete the circuit. Alternatively, add in a full day here to take full advantage of all the activities on offer and make use of their spectacular overnight accommodation.
Finishing off The Loop
From the viewpoint continue down the hill along Route 8, towards the junction with Route 13. The road winds its way down the hill until reaching the bottom where it straightens out to pass between two karsts before swinging around to the right and winding its way further down to the Mekong Plain. Then its straight and flat with only a few corners until you reach the junction with Route 13. At the junction turn left to make your way south to complete the Thakhek Loop.
Route 13 to Thakhek is probably the least exciting section of the Thakhek Loop. It will take around 90 minutes to complete roughly 100km before reaching the town centre. Along the way you can expect more traffic, but slightly better road conditions. Along the way there is little of interest to explore, so most people choose to push on. If you do need a break there are several local restaurants in the small town built up around the Hinboun River (https://goo.gl/maps/6SXCAqbo5pwgHmH77) but nothing special. Continue following Route 13 south until Thakhek, return your bike, and grab a cold Beer Lao.