The Thakhek Loop, also called the Kong Lor Loop, is a three- to four-day circuit of glorious wind-in-your-hair driving and sightseeing in central Laos. Most often done via motor bike, the loop features one of the most spectacular caves in Asia, Kong Lor Cave, from which the loop takes its nick name. Rev your engines and check out this three-day itinerary.
After arriving in the border town of Thakhek, rent an automatic or semi-automatic motorbike from Wang Wang Rental at KGB Hostel, Mad Monkey or Thakek Travel Lodge. You’ll need to leave a deposit or your passport for collateral. Check the bike thoroughly before you depart and leave your bulky luggage in favor of a small backpack. Don’t forget gloves, a jacket for chilly mornings, swimwear, water shoes, sun protection and closed-toe shoes.
Head east out of town on Route 12 with a full tank of gas and make your first stop at Xang Cave, or Elephant Cave five minutes down the road.
XANG CAVE/ ELEPHANT CAVE
Xang Cave or Elephant Cave is just outside of Thakhek off Route 12. Pay a small entrance fee and climb the steps into the cave, which is a sacred Buddhist site of worship. Colorful mythological sculptures, including one with an elephant head, lie inside the cave. The views of Khammuane Province from the entrance are great. Visitors can also hike to a panorama viewpoint overlooking the Xienglong River, visit the Phosyla Temple and a weaving center nearby.
GREEN CLIMBERS HOME ROCK CLIMBING
Green Climbers Home in Khammouane Province, just outside of Thakhek, is run by Germans Tanja & Uli and Fia & Flo. Have lunch at Green Climber’s Home and put on your swimwear and water shoes and hike to the back of the property to explore Xieng Liap Cave, which you can swim through to access the hiking trail on the other side. Over 300 routes are mapped on the limestone karst and attract climbers of all abilities from all over the world. Plan a day trip or stay overnight in a bungalow or tent. Climbing classes are available for newbies and rental equipment is available at the on-site restaurant. A haven for vegetarians and carnivores alike, the kitchen serves a combination of Western and Lao food. Try the peanut cake or a cookie shake for dessert.
After lunch, backpack slightly down the dirt road leading to the swimming hole Tha Falang. Ride two km down the dirt road from Route 12 to Tha Falang swimming hole and take a dip. Giant boulders jut out into the river. A tree across the way is perfect for climbing up and jumping in, as you’ll see the local adolescents do. Established by Mr. K.U. Bike in 2011, the sandy bottom and plentiful fish make it a nice place for a cool dip in the dry season.
THAM NANG AEN
Then head along Route 12 to Tham Sa Pha In and Tham Nang Aen, which is a cave 20 km down Route 12 from Thakhek. Highly accessible with cement walkways and ramps, this cave is illuminated with colourful lights and altars. The cave’s name means “sitting and flirting” and as a constant cool breeze blows from the cave’s mouth, it’s a great place to do just that. Tham Nang Aen is 1.5 km-long and contains a lake. Rowboat rides are offered for visitors and an outdoor restaurant is open in the dry season.
NAM THEUN 2 VISITOR CENTER
Continue down Route 12, admiring the Karst scenery until you arrive at the village of Gnommalat just after crossing the Nam Theun 2 Downstream Channel. Turn north on Route 1E and stop when you reach the Visitor Center. A highlight of the loop is driving around Nam Theun 2 Reservoir and seeing the dead trees popping out of the beautiful blue water. The man-made lake was flooded for the hydroelectric plant that opened in 2010 and exports power from the Nakai Plateau to Thailand. Learn about the watershed, the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area, and how and where the local villagers that were displaced were relocated.
TAD SONG SOU
Just across the bridge, past the Nam Theun 2 Visitor Center, is a dirt path with a little sign pointing to one of the most peaceful places to spend an afternoon: Tad Song Sou. This waterfall has cabanas to enjoy a picnic while taking in the mountains and babbling water. An on-site bar and restaurant offers food, drinks, a pétanque pit and hiking. Entrance is free but there is a fee for parking a car or motorbike across the river from the falls.
SABAIDEE GUESTHOUSE IN TALANG VILLAGE
Head out on the Nam Theun 2 Resevoir for a sunrise or sunset cruise and try your luck at fishing, then eat your catch. Check out the local women’s weavings and purchase a hand-made souvenir. Sabaidee Guesthouse has a nightly buffet dinner featuring both Lao and Western dishes and a bonfire where you can swap stories with other travellers over a Beer Lao. Private bungalows, tents and mixed dorms are available. It’s advisable to book ahead in the high season around November to March.
Wake up early and drive strait to Ban Konglor. It’ll be tempting to stop, but resist and know that you’ll have plenty of time to see these sites tomorrow. Weave up and down the hills of the Nakai Plateau, turning west on Route 8 in Lak Sao. Decide if you want to try a homestay at the village on the other side of the cave, or find accommodations in Ban Kong Lor. Silver Spring Resort and Restaurant is a favorite. After lunch hike around the tobacco fields, waterfalls, and smaller caves in the area.
BOAT THROUGH CAVE KONG LOR
Kong Lor Cave is located in Khammouane Province in central Laos. It’s an impressive 4.5 miles long (7.5 km) and was carved by the Hinboun River that runs through it. It’s tucked 41 km inside the main the loop, down a mostly paved road. Take a boat ride through the cave and marvel at the glowing emerald pool and rocky ceilings over 300 feet (91m) tall. Up to three visitors can fit in a motor boat with a driver to explore the water-filled cave. Step out onto dry land to see the spectacular stalagmites and stalactites illuminated with electric lighting. The rest of the journey is in pitch black, so bring a head lamp or rent one from the ticket counter. Wear shoes that can get wet, as you’ll be ankle-deep in water getting in and out of the boat!
Drive back to Route 8 and head west to the Limestone Peaks Lookout, which is brilliant in the early morning light in the mist.
Then slowly retrace your steps toward Thakhek. Rather than drive down the truck-filled highway, go back clockwise around the loop. The highway between Kong Lor and Thakek is the dustiest and least scenic portion of the loop. If you’re really itching to “finish” the circle, there is a blue lagoon and Christian chapel near the “Great Wall” just outside of Thakhek on 13S, but the hard, long day on the motorbike to get there from the north doesn’t justify the sites.
Nasanam Waterfall, sometimes transliterated at Nam Sanam, is accessible off Route 8 near the road that leads to Kong Lor. The waterfall is 3km from the road. The first kilometer can be done on a motorbike but the rest of the path is a challenging hike up boulders and across streams through the jungle. Look and listen for birds and frogs. A natural swimming pool at the lower falls offers a cooling break. Continue to the upper falls or just admire the cascade (more brilliant in the wet season) from afar.
Take in another gorgeous vista at the viewpoint on the way to Ban Thabak. In the village of Thabak, locals have repurposed the fuel tanks from U.S. B-52 bombers used in the Lao Civil war and Vietnam War into boats. Local guides take tourists out for 1.5 to three hours on tours of the Namkading River to see and experience rapids, Nam Kading National Diversity Park and the Nam Nyuang Dam. Each boat can transport up to three people plus a driver. The trip costs between 150,000 and 330,000 Lao Kip ($18-$36 USD), depending on the duration and destination.
MANGKONE "DRAGON" CAVE
Mangkone Cave is right off Route 8 and has a new restaurant and coffee shop, gift shop, and guesthouse. Pay a nominal fee to walk through the cave. Navigate around the lake, under a very low-hanging ceiling, and into a spacious and well-lit cavern with colored spotlights shining on impressive rock formations. A second entrance can be climbed up to and out at the back of the cave. Stop for coffee and a pastry at Lak Xao Coffee before heading south on 1E.
BUDDHA SCULPTURES IN THE ROCK
Along a particularly scenic stretch of Route 1E, just north of the Nam Theun 2 Reservoir, giant buddha sculptures have been carved into the cliffs on the side of the road. People leave offerings of food, drinks and candles at the feet of the statues. Be careful on the curves and park as far to the side of road as possible if you decide to stop for a closer look.
There’s a 30-minute hike up to a panorama of the Nam Theun 2 reservoir that will make for a scenic last stop on your drive back to Thakhek to drop off the bike. Take in the mountains, hills, rice paddies and tropical sun as you get back on Route 12 to finish the Kong Lor Loop.