Thakhek, Laos: to loop or not to loop?
We took a bus from the Savannakhet bus station to Thakhek for 30,000k/$3.70.
Thakhek Travel Lodge is a good place to stay as it gives travellers an opportunity to speak to people who’ve done “the loop” (or find people who need travel buddies). “The Loop” is a 400km, three- or four-day motorcycle tour of the natural beauty of the area: limestone karsts, lakes, and some caves including the 7.5km long Kong Lor Cave. This cave is traversed by hired motorboat and takes about two to three hours.
We weren’t sure if we were up to the loop. Four days on a small Korean motorbike on the rough back roads of Laos didn’t sound like the most appealing thing; especially since our butts hadn’t quite recovered from being jostled about through the Savannakhet countryside.
The weather made the decision for us. When we woke up the next day it poured and poured and thundered the whole day. After checking the weather reports, and seeing that the weather was going to be touch and go for the next few days, we nixed the loop and decided on a day trip out to the smaller caves just east of Thakhek on Route 12.
The weather had cleared up the next day so we rented a motorcycle (60,000k/$7.50 per day) from Ngi & Pock on the main road in Thakhek just east of the river. It was cheaper than Mr. Ku and the bikes are better quality. We filled up with $2 worth of gas and set off for the caves.
The Caves of Thakhek, Laos
Heading east out of Thakhek along the main road (Route 12) and across Route 13, the first cave we came across was Buddha Cave (6,000k/75 cents including entrance fee, parking, and sarong rental). The cave was tiny and filled with statues of Buddha, neon lighting, and the overpowering stench of incense. It was more like a blinged-out temple than a cave.
Back to the main road and on a short way to a man who flagged us down next to the sign for Xieng Liab Cave. He and his three children showed us how to get through the cave to the other side where it is possible to swim. The little kids were jumping from rock to rock in their flip-flops and bare feet, while I gingerly climbed and heaved myself along the jagged rock formations trying my best not to slip and fall. We were glad that they were there to show us the way, otherwise we probably wouldn’t have gone through on our own. As the cave got darker the kids picked up some gun-shaped sticks and started playing war. They handed Ryan a “gun” and encouraged him to join in. The littlest one decided to wear Ryan’s motorcycle helmet through the cave. At a particularly treacherous climbing point, he took it off and told me to wear it. When we had made it back to the road we decided to eat lunch at the noodle shop across the street (allegedly serving the best pho in town — although I suspect it might have been the only pho in town). We paid our makeshift guides 50,000k/$6.20 for their help; they were pretty happy.
Our next stop along the way was Tha Falang, a lake where the French used to picnic. It is supposed to be a good spot for swimming, but there were way too many mosquitoes to make me want to take my clothes off. I would describe it closer to a swamp than a lake.
Onwards and upwards to the next cave: Tham Pha Ing. It features a Buddhist shrine and a beautiful pool of water with an opening above letting light stream in. We crept in hoping to spot a living fossil called the Laotian rock rat. No such luck, but the cave was beautiful.Our last cave of the day was a big one: Tham Nang Aen (or Tham Nang Ene) (2,000k/25 cents). This is the largest cave of the group and the most well-groomed. There are lights, pathways, and concrete stairways which make getting around it easy, but distract somewhat from its natural beauty. The natural air-conditioning effect that is created by the cave was nice and refreshing after scrambling around in the sun all day.
It was nice being able to take our time and investigate these caves. This wouldn’t have been possible had we been on the loop. We have not forsaken the famous Kong Lor Cave though. Next up we will take a bus to Ban Nahin and rent motorcycles to get to the cave from there.