The Rice Paddy Crew
12.06.2012 - 15.06.2012 33 °C
FIVE year old cave guide
TWO flat tyres
ONE AWESOME ADVENTURE
That pretty much sums up a great addition to our travel in Laos. By chance we saw a paragraph in the Lonely Planet which said about a 3 day motorcycle loop that includes visiting a 7.5km long cave that goes through the central Laos mountains. Intrigued by this, we investigated further and then restructured the planned travels to include the stop.
After the chilled couple of days in Vientiane we were excited to be doing something a bit more adventurous again. We were lucky that when we arrived at the bus station in Thakhek, there were some other guys who were planning on doing the loop and wanting to go to the same guesthouse. After the Tuk Tuk drivers initially offered us 70,000 kip ($8) per person to take the 6 of us the kilometre or so into town, they finally settled on 10,000 kip per person after we walked away from such a ridiculous offer.
The Travel Lodge is the place to go in town for those wanting to do the loop motorbike ride. They have a big red logbook where people write their stories and offer tips and advice for future travellers. Over the candlelight of a typical power cut here in Laos, we read the log book and decided that the 7 of us would head out in the morning as a group to tackle what the 3 days could throw at us. The log book offered plenty of good advice and we decided to head clockwise around the loop leaving the ‘treacherous’ roads till the end of the trip.
A planned early departure from Thakhek was delayed with our not so smooth bike hire. The night before, Tan and I read about a place down the road that rented bikes for 50,000 kip per day rather than the 120,000 at Mr Ku’s who is based on the site of the Travel Lodge. We got what seemed like a good bike, so the rest of the guys wanted to get theirs from the same place. I took 2 of the guys down (riding Asian style with 3 to a bike), but apart from 1 other ok bike, the rest of their stock was dodgy to say the least. Given the bloke was having to do repair works on two of the bikes before we even took them out the door, it didn’t bode well for 3 days of punishing dirt roads. So we found another place further down the road called Wang Wang Cafe Internet, and the man there said that the bikes that we had got were fake Honda bikes. Upon closer inspection he was right, they are Chinese brands with Honda body panels thrown on to them. He said that he doesn’t try to con tourists, so his bike stocks are all Shenzen and Korean bikes without fake Honda pannels but he has a warranty on any problems with the engines, electrics and brakes. And he only charged 45,000 kip per day. So we returned the current bikes and replaced our fleet. We were finally rolling out of town at 11:30am.
As soon as we were actually out on the road, we could tell it was going to be a good few days! The wind in your hair (well helmet) and completely down to us as to what we want to do. So our crew consisted of the following
Niels & Ruben from Holland
Me, Paul and James from England
Tan from Australia
Stevie from Ireland
Any good biker group needs a name, and Stevie was trying to work something Irish into it because as he said, ‘Everyone likes the Irish’. After a day on the road we eventually came up with the name Rice Paddy Crew to satisfy Stevie’s request and give it a suitable Asian flavour!!
The ‘not necessarily to scale’ map that we were using
The scenery for the first couple of hours was actually rather boring. After the initial excitement of being on a motorbike, the mundane, long, straight highway road didn’t do much except cramp our hands and numb our butts. We had one variation as we passed a traffic holdup that turned out to be a crash involving 2 trucks. I think it was safe to say that the cab of one truck was destroyed and the driver was unlikely to be around any longer. Great introduction to the high safety standards on Lao roads. The stretch of road was a good way for everyone to get used to their bikes though, and also getting this over and done with now, meant it was all more exciting riding from here. The highway lasted 105km until we hit the junction to turn into the hills. We had gone through a tank of fuel by that point so a quick pit stop and we continued on.
Turning off the main road brought instant improvements, the road was narrower and had nice sweeping curves running along the plains and then climbing up the hillsides until we reached a vantage point overlooking the forest and the black hills. As soon as we got into the forest and started to climb there was a noticeable drop in the temperature which was not unwelcome. After the lookout point we rode down the fun sweeping curves of the hillside and then turned onto a long road that would take us the 40km to Konglor Cave. We stopped at the first place that looked like it served food. Sauce bottles on the table were the giveaway, but there was no menu, just a noodle soup that we were automatically served up. It was a welcome stop though to rest the bums.
The final ride of the day was very scenic as it took us another couple of hours of riding past flooded rice fields filled with people planting shoots of rice and rustic houses stood on stilts under the protection of a lone big tree in each field. All of this was framed by a big row of mountains on either side. When we finally got to the end of the road, it was too late in the day to take the tour through the mountain so we went looking for a place to stay. We saw a sign pointing down a dirt track for a guesthouse and we went to take a look. The dry dirt track soon turned into a muddy, boggy treacherous track along the sides of rice paddies. The exploration finished when Niels ended up in a rice paddy and we turned back to the safer guesthouses on the main road.
The place we chose to stay at ended up being a good choice as we bartered the room to 40,000kip per double room and there were 5 other tourists staying here. This included Chris, Valentina, Claude, Freddie and Corinne who we ended up catching up with after the loop. We had a good night with plenty of beers and chatter as we recounted our days biking and past travel stories.
In the morning we left the guesthouse around 10am but when we got to the river for the boat through the cave, all the boats were already in the cave. The other guys from the guesthouse were already waiting too, so we spent an hour chatting some more before the boats finally came back and we headed off into the cave after a short boat trip across to the other side of the river
The entrance to middle earth...
Flip flop paddles, can do anything!
As we walked into the cave the light faded quickly behind us and we switched to our head torches before hopping into the motorised boats (3 to a boat) that would take us 7.5km under the mountains above us and out the other side. After 10minutes or so we hopped out the boats (as the boatmen had to carry the boats upstream with it not being full wet season yet) and walked a short way upstream and met the boat guides again. The cave was lit up through here and the massive cavern with stalactites and stalagmites was very impressive. Back in the boats we motored upstream for another 50 minutes just taking in the enormity of the cave by dim torchlight.
We saw daylight again as we approached the far side of the cave. We turned the boats around at a small village clearing before doing the reverse 1 hour trip downstream. The only difference on the way back was that we stayed in the boats and white water rafted down the low water sections.
Getting back to our bikes we gave the 5 others a lift back to the guesthouse so that they could get their bus back to Thakhek and then we had a bite to eat for lunch before hitting the road again. We had another 170km of road to pass and we knew that we had the ‘worst’ part of the road to tackle before our next planned guesthouse. It was already 2pm so we retraced the cave road back to the main road for 40km keeping the speeds up to try and make good time. We did squeeze in a stop or two for some shots of us in flying formation :-)
The 58km of main road had some scenic parts, exciting hilly parts, interesting sights and long straight dull parts (and not forgetting a friendly gibbon) so we opened the throttles and clocked 100+kmph out of the little 100cc engines before we got to the town of Laksao.
We made a right turn at Laksao and WOW!!! Talk about chalk and cheese! The smooth bitumen of the last 2 days gave way to a potholed, rocky, crevasse field track that they try to call a road. Riding through the town following trucks and cars you had to pick your lines while having dust blinding you. Leaving town didn’t improve the situation, rather the faint remnants of road that there was in town vanished completely giving way to muddy, rocky tracks showing the signs of recent rains. The track rose up through some hills and we all agreed that if it was raining this part of the road would be almost impossible to pass. We pulled into a little shack to buy some snacks and water. At this point it was near 6pm and we had been on this stretch of road for about an hour. At the stop we figured we were only about 1/3 of the way and night would be on us by 7pm!! We hopped back on the bikes and it was as we rode away that I noticed... We had a flat tyre! Great!! We had some unbelievable luck though, not more than 20meters down the road was a guy who fixed the tyre for us (after this point we didn’t see anyone else who would have been able to fix it for us for the next 2 hours).
Fuel in the countryside
A 30minute tyre change and we were on our way again but darkness was on us not more than 10 minutes later. Some of us made it even harder in the darkness by forgetting that they had sunglasses on (not naming anyone... James). In pitch darkness and a dead headlight on Pauls bike we had to negotiate probably the worst section of road where some logging work was going on. Consequently the track was churned up by the heavy vehicles, massive muddy puddles covered the whole track and I feared another flat tyre on the sharp exposed rocks as our scooters weren’t made for this type of terrain with their thin tyres and limited shock absorbers. After another hour of riding like this we finally hit some flattened gravel roads that actually meant that we could open the throttles again. Although in the darkness the gravel was a bit unnerving once you got some speed up. Another half hour later we crossed a bridge and sighted the signs for Sabadee Guesthouse!! What a day!! We only had a couple of beers with dinner before a relatively early night for us all.
Stevie is wiping away his tears, we were so happy to be here and not sleeping out in the hills :-)
The final day was welcomed with another clear looking day. We had been incredibly lucky to have had not a drop of rain over the last two days. We have not witnessed 2 straight days without rain the whole time we have been in South East Asia. Somehow asking for 3 dry days sounds like we are asking for the next lottery numbers to appear right in front of us. The road away from the guesthouse was the same gravel roads that we had on the last stretch the night before, but in daylight they were far less daunting. We were all at one with our bike by now so we had some fun cruising along the snaking gravel roads mindful of the passing vehicles every now and then.
A few puddles to contend with
We got back to bitumen roads and hit full speed making our first stop for the day in Tham AEN cave. A much smaller cave than Konglor but it was still interesting to explore the cave on foot. A quick shower came and went in minutes not hanging around long enough to soak the ground. Amazingly these were the only drops of rain we ended up seeing while out on the loop.
Next we pulled onto a small track in search for a landmark called Thafalang. Supposedly some rock formations in a river, we didn’t find anything that was overly impressive, however the track there was a blast. More muddy and slippery than anything we had seen on the trip, we just enjoyed biking down it for as far as we could go. It did result in mud going everywhere with the funniest bits being when Stevie slid out into a big puddle and Paul lost his helmet into the same puddle :-)
The wildlife don’t move until they are ready
The last stop of the trip was another cave called Xieng Liab. We rode through some long grass trying to find the cave but turned back around and some locals pointed in the direction that we needed to go. We parked the bikes and a 5 year old boy started indicating to follow him. He kept holding back the prickly tree branches to let us go through and then ran past again to the next obstacle. We wouldn’t have been able to find the cave without him to be fair, we had to cross some rivers and go through some thick forest. We got there and had a look around inside while the little boy was playing around in the trees, hiding behind rocks and calling out to us with no one else there but the 7 of us and the kid.
As we hopped onto the bikes to make our last ride back into Thakhek, the bike felt strange... Not another flat tyre! This time the front wheel. Our amazing luck continued again as the shack at the side of the track to the cave was another bike repair place. In fact this was the family shack of the boy who had shown us the way to the cave! We did consider that maybe they had let the tyre down while we were at the cave, but I think I ran over something in the long grass to be honest. We were soon on our way again and rolled into Thakhek after 3 awesome days with our bikes. We called into the bus station to book our bus tickets further south before going back to the Travel Lodge to shower and eat. While we were there it started to rain, and continued for a while. We tried to wait it out, but we had to return our bikes, so we rode them back to the rental place and got wetter in that short ride than we did on the whole 3 days of The Loop!!! Crazy!
We waited around at the Travel Lodge and filled in the log book with our tales of the 3 days for all future bikers to see. We got a tuk tuk out to the bus station and all continued south still as the Rice Paddy Crew, just without the bikes now.
Below is the video we managed to put together of the trip. It was for us all to have a laugh and remember the fun that we had. Have a watch!!
We also left some tips in the log book, but if you are reading this blog contemplating doing The Loop, i will put them here too:
• Name your crew!!
• Get your bikes the night before – saves a heap of time in the morning
• 2 people per bike = flat tyres. Get one each, they are not that hard to learn how to ride
• Try to find others to go with, as a group makes it safe if you have problems with a bike
• Do the loop clockwise, you end on a high with the fun roads and can practice riding on the long boring road
• Bottles of red fluid on the side of the road are fuel
• Check your helmet especially the visor before hiring – keeps bugs out of the eyes
• Try to leave relatively early every day
• Take sunglasses off after dark :-)
• The place we hired our bikes from was cheapest in town but gave guarantee on the bikes still – he was located down the bottom of the main road near a big square and was called Wang Wang Cafe Internet. He spoke really good English.
Daniel – This definitely goes up there with some of the best things we have done on the whole trip. Getting a great crew assembled just topped it off perfectly. Our bike ran like a dream the whole time except for the flat tyres, but the fact that flat tyres were the worst of the problems we had, we will happily take that! If you are looking for a bit of adventure, lot of fun and an experience different to the norm in South East Asia – The Loop is it!!!
Tanya – Sure, I probably should have had my own bike, but who would have been photographer/videographer? We had planned to stay at the Travel Lodge with the intention of finding some travel companions and everything fell into place all too easily, what a great crew! It was great to do something different to the norm and a real highlight!!