The Thakhek Loop Trip
The following in-depth report on the Thakhek Loop (aka the Khong Lor Loop) was on a trip I completed in October 2017. NOTE: key information on distances, attractions and accommodation is at the bottom of this page.
The Thakhek Loop is an off the beaten track travel experience and is gaining notoriety as one of the best motor bike touring trips in S.E. Asia. In years gone by it was considered an arduous undertaking, due to some long stretches of dirt road along route # 1E. That is no longer the case. As of 2016, all roads on route # 1E are tarmac. It is now possible to do the trip comfortably during the wet (monsoon) season. Having recently completed it in October 2017, it’s my considered opinion the wet season is actually the best time to do the loop due to the amazingly scenic rice fields along the karst corridor between Na Hin and Lak Sao.
The full distance, including a side trip to Khong Lor Cave, is 470 km. With that in mind I would recommend 5 full days to complete the trip to enable a more satisfying, unrushed sightseeing experience. If you have more time, all well and good. Some information sources on the web will say that the Thakhek Loop can be completed in 3 days. While that is true, you will definitely feel rushed and not have much time to enjoy the attractions on the way. For example, a trip to Khong Lor Cave should be considered a full day’s undertaking, particularly if you are staying in Na Hin. Additionally, most information sources on the web will recommend doing the Thakhek Loop in an anti-clockwise direction. In my experience that is incorrect. Travel blogs, such as Travelfish.org, will recommend this so people can stop in at the caves along “cave alley,” on route # 12 (which runs due east from Thakhek). There are a number of caves along this stretch of road between Thakhek and Mahaxay but the reality is that only two of them are what I would consider “impressive.” They are Tham Pa Chan and Tham Aen. While Tham Aen is only a short distance off route # 12, Tham Pa Chan is some 23 km down a dirt road. I would highly recommend visiting the caves along “cave alley” as a 1 day tour from Thakhek, before or after the loop trip. A visit to Tham Pa Chan and Tham Aen will absorb almost a full day. For more info on “cave alley” go to this link: http://www.megaworldasia.com/laos/thakhek/
Going against the grain, I would say the preferred direction for doing the Thakhek Loop is CLOCKWISE. Let me explain: the stretch of road directly north of Thakhek is route # 13. It is a 100 km ride to the point (Vieng Kham Township) where you need to turn right onto route # 8 and go east across to Na Hin Village, and further on to Khong Lor. This stretch of road (route # 13) is flat and rather boring for its entirety. There is an attraction on the way; Kong Leng Lake. The turn off is to the right and approx. 30 km north of Thakhek. However, the lake is at the end of an arduous 20 km dirt track and as I found out a few years ago, wastes considerable time on the journey to Na Hin or Khong Lor. My point is that it’s a much better option to do this long, boring stretch of road (Thakhek to Vieng Kham) at the beginning of your trip (when you are still relatively fresh and alert) rather than making it the final leg of your journey, when fatigue could be an issue, on an anti-clockwise direction. By doing it this way you’ll have the best part of the trip – Na Hin to Nakai – at the end of your loop. You can also use Na Hin as a base to do Khong Lor Cave, Nasanam waterfall, and Tad Mouang Waterfall.
Thakhek is a laid back town, on the edge of the Mekong River, in Central Laos. It is the capital of Khammouane Province and also the start and finish point for the loop trip. For more in-depth info on Thakhek and its surrounding attractions, follow this link: http://www.megaworldasia.com/laos/thakhek/
Due to the fact it’s actually 2 – 3 km off route # 13 most travelers tend to bypass it, either on their way south to Pakse or north to Vientiane. Having done 6 trips to Laos, I would say that those who bypass it are definitely missing out on one of the best areas in the country. Khammouane province is caving central in Laos and has two of the biggest river caves in the region: Khong Lor Cave and Xe Bang Fai River Cave. For those coming to Thakhek you will need to take a tuk-tuk (samlor) from the main bus station to the traveler’s central area, near the river. The approx. cost of a tuk-tuk for the 5 km ride is 30,000 LAK (US 3.75).
Accommodation: The best choice for accommodation in Thakhek is the MEKONG HOTEL. For contact info for the Mekong Hotel, follow this link: http://www.megaworldasia.com/hotels-and-accomodation/laos/mekong-hotel-thakhek/
The Mekong Hotel sits on the river front road and gives nice views across the river at night. The prices are very reasonable – approx. USD 15 – 20 per night – and the rooms are a good size. The showers have a good supply of hot water and the WIFI is free and of a reasonable speed.
ATM’s: There are a couple of ATM’s across the road from the Inthira Hotel. NOTE: a lot of ATM’s in Laos do not link to international banks so it is highly recommended you carry cash in small denomination notes – USD or THB is the best option.
Motor bike rental: There are two shops at the town center area offering motorbikes for rent. Most bikes (scooters) are in the 100 – 150 CC range, are well maintained and cost approx. 100,000 LAK per day. There are also larger capacity dirt bikes, such as a 250 CC motor cross, available if you want to get off road. The longest operating motorbike rental shop in Thakhek is Wang Wang Rental. They also have cheap guesthouse accommodation above the shop. The staff are very Knowledgeable about the loop trip and can provide a nice map with all the key points of interest and good accommodation choices on the trip. Their contact number is: +856 2056978535.
NOTE: Any motor bike rental requires payment for the entire duration up front and also leaving your passport with the shop. You should make some copies of your main passport page just in case you need it to book into guesthouses along the way. Most of the bikes will have only a small amount of fuel in them when you drive out of the shop so your first priority is to fill up the gasoline tank before heading off on your adventures. This can be done at the gasoline station up near the corner of route # 13. You can also leave your back pack at the motorbike shop while you are doing the loop. Most “Loopers” take a small back pack with them to reduce the load on the trip. In the rainy season, a rain coat or poncho is highly recommended to avoid getting drenched.
NOTE: Laos is a right hand drive country. If it’s your first visit, and you are from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, or Japan, keep this in mind at all times. If you switch off for a moment it could be fatal, especially at ring roads. Wear a motor bike helmet at all times and travel insurance is highly recommended.
Doing the Thakhek Loop trip (clockwise direction):
Stage one: Thakhek to Na Hin.
- Distance = 145km.
- Travel time including food and toilet stops = 5 hours.
- Suggested departure time from Thakhek = 11 AM
Head north on route # 13 from Thakhek. The road is in good condition and relatively straight and flat. NOTE: if you are planning on visiting Kong Leng Lake on the way, you should allow an extra 3 – 4 hours. The turn off to Kong Leng Lake is approx. 30 km north of Thakhek (to the right).
If you need to stop for a drink or a toilet break there are road side restaurants at villages along route # 13. At approx. 100 km north of Thakhek, there’s the junction of route # 13 and route # 8. This is also the location of a small village called Vieng Kham. Turn right onto route # 8 and stop at one of the restaurants on the corner for a coffee break before pushing on to Baan Na Hin. From Vieng Kham follow route # 8 in an easterly direction and you will soon begin to ascend into a range of jungle covered, limestone peaks. It is quite spectacular and covers a distance of almost 30 km. Take care when riding, particularly if it’s wet, as the road twists and turns, and has some steep ascents and descents also. Before making the final descent onto the flat plain on the other side, there is a viewpoint which gives spectacular views across the landscape towards the east. If you depart from Thakhek at 11 AM you should arrive at the viewpoint at around 3.30 – 4.00 PM, which is an ideal time to get photos as the sun will be in the western hemisphere. After a few minutes at the viewpoint it’s a short run to Ban Na Hin. NOTE: the turn off to Khong Lor cave is approx. 2 km before Ban Na Hin (on the right). Don’t make the mistake of taking that turn if you plan to stay in Ban Na Hin.
BAN NA HIN:
Na Hin Village is nestled in against an impressive wall of jungle covered, limestone peaks. It is a popular spot for loopers to spend a couple of days and visit Khong Lor cave and Na Sanam Waterfall. Khong Lor Cave is another 43 km down a dead end road from Na Hin and is normally done as a daytrip by those staying at Na Hin. For an in-depth report on Khong Lor Cave, follow this link: http://www.megaworldasia.com/laos/khong-lor-cave/
Recommended accommodation in Na Hin is the Sanhak Guesthouse: http://www.megaworldasia.com/hotels-and-accomodation/laos/sanhak-guesthouse-and-restaurant-na-hin-village/
An Attraction much closer to Na Hin Village is the very interesting Na Sanam Waterfall. The entrance to the trail is right next to a Buddhist Temple. During the rainy season there is no one in attendance at the ticket office so the waterfall can be visited for free. However, care should be taken as the trail is slippery and in the eventuality of heavy rain fall there’s a possibility of getting lost. This occurred in 2008 when a lone hiker, left too late in the day and got caught in torrential rain. He got lost in the jungle and spent eleven days wandering around aimlessly before being rescued. The trail has some signposting along the way, but some of it isn’t so clear to see. The trek is moderately difficult and is approximately 2 km from the parking area to the first waterfall level. The trail has thick jungle along the way with some large old growth trees being quite impressive. The round trip is approx. two hours of walking time and an hour or so spent viewing the falls.
Stage two: Na Hin to Thalang or Nakhai
This part of the loop is the most scenic of the trip and aside from the brilliant scenery along the way, includes a couple of interesting attractions. The next major town from Na Hin is Lak Sao (approx. 65 km from Na Hin) and has these attractions in the following order:
- The viewpoint above Na Hin
- The cold springs
- The Dragon Cave
The major reason why I recommend doing the loop in a clockwise direction is to be able to do this section in the morning when the light and colours are the most vibrant. It’s less of an issue in the dry season but in the wet it’s almost a given that you’ll get overcast skies and rain in the afternoon. Most people doing the loop in the traditional anti-clockwise direction will normally overnight in Thalang which is almost 50 km from Lak Sao. If you leave from Na Hin Village at 8 am you will be able to do the COLD SPRINGS and the DRAGON CAVE in the morning and be in Lak Sao by lunch time.
The viewpoint above Na Hin is only a couple of km up the road and is worth a few minutes of your time for some photos of the panorama stretching away to the west. NOTE: in the morning the sun will be behind you (in the east) so your shots will be much clearer than shots taken in the afternoon.
The Cold Springs: At just on 22 km from Na Hin is the turn off to the COLD SPRINGS. There is a 3.5 km dirt road down to springs. The entry fee is 10k LAK person. NOTE: in the rainy season the track to the springs is extremely difficult to negotiate and many sections are flooded with large pools of water. The surrounding terrain to the sides of the track is also a muddy bog. If you want to do the cold springs in the rainy season it’s highly recommended to rent a motor cross bike as a normal road bike will get bogged in the mud or pools of water.
The Dragon Cave: At approx. 36 km from Na Hin is the DRAGON CAVE. This is easy to access as the parking area is just off the highway. The entrance fee is 10k LAK and once you pay the site caretaker he will turn on the cave lights. NOTE: although the cave is well lit there’s always the possibility, in this part of the world, of a power outage. As a precaution take a back-up flashlight (torch). There is a cement trail to the cave entrance. After squeezing through the narrow entrance the cave path runs along the side of the stream to eventually come to a low hanging flat roof. This runs for approx. 50 meters and you will need to duck your head as you make your way across to the other side. The cave then opens up spectacularly to reveal a large room full of impressive formations, highlighted by an array of coulorful lamps. The maximum distance into the cave is only about 200 meters. However, if you want to climb up into the most distant room care should be taken as there isn’t any dedicated pathway, just a mass of jumbled rocks to negotiate. The time taken inside the cave should take no more than 1.5 hours.
The 65 km drive between Na Hin and Lak Sao is arguably the most scenic of the entire loop, especially so towards the end of the rainy season when the vibrant green vegetation topping the karst geography forms a nice backdrop to the green and yellow of the rice fields. By the time you reach Lak Sao the jagged karst peaks tend to flatten out a bit as you enter a watery world of drowned forests created by the Nam Thuen dam. The small town of Thalang is approx. 46 km south of Lak Sao and features many water tributaries and small lakes with the dead remnants of forests which were inundated when the dam was built and water levels rose significantly. There are two guesthouses in the small township of Thalang which seem to be popular with most looper’s. The Sabaidee Thalang and Posey Thalang are both bungalow style accommodation with fan only rooms and no hot water. Prices are approx. USD 12 per night for both and seem a bit expensive for some of the rooms on offer. After checking out the standard of the rooms at both guesthouses I decided to push on for another 22 km to Nakhai where I could get a room with a/c and hot water. The drive from Thalang to Nakhai takes you up onto the most elevated and remote part of the loop – the Nakhai Plateau – where sharp corners, steep inclines, and wandering cattle on the road need to be negotiated with care.
Nakhai is a reasonable size town and appears to be the government headquarters for the Nam Thuen dam project. There are a few guesthouses along the road which runs east from the main junction in town (the one where the road veers right to Thakhek). If you want a nice standard of hotel with a/c, hot showers, and good size rooms, then the Sabaidee Nakai Resort is a good choice for just USD 15 per night. There is directional signage from route # 1E (on the left if coming from the North) which will take you down some back streets and before arriving at the hotel entrance. The property is a government run operation and has just recently reopened to the public. I just happened to be the first customer to check in after the reopening and was given a warm welcome by the four French volunteers who were putting in a month of work to help get the place operating smoothly again. The food was only local fare but was well cooked and there was plenty of it. This place is definitely worth checking out if you want a comfortable room for the night before continuing your trip.
Stage three: Thalang or Nakhai to Thakhek.
Distance from Nakhai to Thakhek = 77 km
This final stage of the loop is also a very scenic drive but care should be taken as you will be dropping from the Nakhai Plateau down to the plains. There are steep descents and sharp corners to negotiate as you wind your way through more spectacular karst scenery. The main feature of this section of the loop is the Nam Thuen Dam and a number of structures associated with the dam can be seen on the way to Mahaxay Township. There is also some bright yellow fields to be seen during the rice harvest in early October.
During my trip I saw a good number of Looper’s going in the opposite direction (going anti-clockwise) but I seemed to be the only one going against the grain. It seems people just read things in on-line travel blogs and take it for granted that is the way to go. However, I stand by what I say in that if you want the best conditions for photography then the best direction is clockwise. The proof is in the shots taken. All in all the Thakhek Loop is a very enjoyable trip and I would say that if you include the side trip to Khong Lor Cave then five days is a good amount of time to allow to do it without feeling rushed.
Attraction: The Thakhek Loop Trip
Start and finish point: Thakhek Township, Khammouane Province, Laos
Recommended Thakek accommodation: The Mekong Hotel
Recommended motorbike rental: Wang Wang Rental +856 2056978535.
Total distance (including trip to Khong Lor): 442 km
Stage 1: Thakhek to Ban Na Hin
Distance: 146 km – Go north from Thakhek on route # 13, then go right at T-Junction at Vieng Kham onto route # 8.
Recommended accommodation: Sanhak Guesthouse + 856 2022334691
Ban Na Hin attractions:
Limestone forest viewpoint – 8 km back along route # 8
Na Sanam Waterfall – entrance is 1 km from Sanhak Guesthouse
Khong Lor Cave – 43 km from Ban Na Hin
Stage 2: Ban Na Hin to Nakhai
Distance: 133 km – follow route # 8 east until Lak Sao, then turn right at intersection onto route # 1E. Follow route # 1E until arriving at Nakhai (or Thalang).
Recommended accommodation: Sabaidee Nakhai Hotel
Attractions on route:
Viewpoint above Ban Na Hin
Cold springs – 22 km from Ban Na Hin
Dragon Cave – 36 km from Ban Na Hin
The drowned world – on route between Lak Sao and Thalang
Stage 3: Nakhai to Thakhek
Distance: 77 km – take the right turn at the Nakhai intersection and follow route # 1E until it joins with route # 12
Attractions on route:
Nang Aen Cave – approx. 16 km from Thakhek
Pa Chan Cave – turn off 9 km from Thakhek, then 23 km along a dirt track