WARNING: This post takes on a different form. In contrast from my previous weekly recaps, this week I documented each day's journey while motorbiking in Southern Laos. You'll notice from the tiny scroll bar that the resulting effect yields something MUCH longer than my usual posts, so dig in at your own risk (or just scroll through the photos and enjoy the videos).
December 12th, 2014 - Pho Sy Guesthouse, 85KM from Tha Kaek
Yesterday afternoon, I departed Vientiane on another "VIP" bus with my German friend Rico, who I had met while tubing in Vang Vieng, with aspirations to tackle Tha Kaek's legendary 3 day motorbiking loop. While stepping onto the bus, I introduced myself to John, an American from.....wait for it...Bethesda, Maryland(!!), who next year will be working for....wait for it....Capital One(!!). It was shocking and hilarious to encounter someone whom I have so much in common with in such a foreign, isolated locale. To put things in perspective, in the 2+ weeks I’ve spent in Laos so far, I’ve met less than 10 Americans in total.
Throughout Laos, lanes on the roads are much more of a suggestion than a rule, and our bus winded through ridiculous swaths, passing motorbikes while getting passed simultaneously. Along the way, Rico, John, and I made friends with the only other travelers on the bus, 3 Israeli girls named Roseanne, Noa, and Noa (again) who had recently arrived in mainland Southeast Asia after a few weeks in the Philippines. We split a tuk-tuk to the unofficial meeting point for intrepid travelers attempting The Loop, Tha Kaek’ Traveler’s Lodge. With our late arrival, we were able to secure 2 of their last rooms and enjoyed a delicious late dinner of fried noodles and BeerLao, much deserved after surviving another long bus ride through the evening’s darkness.
We agreed to search out more information about The Loop as a group the following day, and this morning we woke up early to go price shopping at the motorbike outfitters in town. After going back and forth between two different shops and comparing bikes, horsepower, insurance policies, and overall trustworthiness of the owners, I finally settled on a smooth, automatic Honda. It’s probably important to mention that only Rico and I had any experience riding motorbikes before this point. The Israeli girls took test drives in the morning and gave it a valiant effort, but ultimately didn’t feel comfortable riding for the first time in their lives on such a long journey across uncharted territory. Meanwhile, John took a bike for a couple of spins around the block and declared himself ready for the 450KM adventure.
After much deliberation, the girls decided it would be infinitely more fun to jet off with us than to try and take bus trips to the surrounding caves and sights, so the six of us set off on the open road by following the shop owner’s directions: “Go straight. Then straight. Then straight again.”
Tha Kaek is a veritably tiny town with just one traffic circle and one legitimate intersection with a traffic light; it wasn’t far before we could open up the throttle on deserted roads surrounded by stunning panoramas of limestone cliffs sticking their sheer vertical faces directly up from the ground. Just 30 minutes out, we came upon the biggest cave of the day, Tha Aen. A great introduction to the landscape of the area, we marveled at the cave’s scraggly stalactite formations hanging from the domed ceiling and speculated about how deep the cave’s eery, icy river went into the massive mountain.
Outside the cave, we encountered out first major roadblock of the trip: Jon accidentally locked his key into the motorbike’s storage compartment. Rico suggested our best course of action would be for one of the other two bikes to return and acquire the spare key. No less than 2 minutes later, I was speeding off alone back in the direction from which we had just come, having set the "over/under" betting line for my return at 52 minutes. It is specifically worth mentioning at this point that on our first day, the winds of the typhoon that had just wreaked havoc on the Phillipines were sweeping across Laos, making John’s parting wisdom to “ride like the wind” particularly pertinent. Although not as formidable when aided by Noa’s grounding weight on the back of my bike, we fought against strong gusts the entire day except for this one solo stretch back, where I was bolstered like a sail in the wind and flew back, making excellent time.
I hit the under with 3 minutes to spare then the 6 of us spend off once more, making up for lost time while taking in awe-inspiring views. Although three days is the minimum recommendation to knock out the loop, the distance one must traverse honestly isn’t that strenuous, particularly on the first day. Sadly, our group got separated in a mix-up during a gas stop, but we were all able to make it to our final destination with an hour to spare before sun down. During the final hours, we enjoyed a stunning climb through a windy mountainside adjacent to a hydroelectric dam, then witnessed an eery man made lake, a result of the dam, dotted by submerged deceased tree trunks. The lake, which is relatively new, was stunningly beautiful but also had some undoubtedly creepy qualities about it, and I couldn’t help but mentally call it “The Tree Cemetery."
Pho Sy Guesthouse is set right on the edge of the water, and once we were all reunited and safe at our final destination, Rico and I set off for a late afternoon ride on some of the dirt roads. Our adventurous spirit was rewarded with a glorious view of the sun’s descent and the wonderful feeling of solitude and clam that can only be triggered by nature’s beautiful wide open spaces.
Upon returning to the guesthouse, having taken in my appreciation for the enormity and accomplishment of the day, it took a solid hour for the massive grin to slowly fade from my face. All in all, it was a spectacular, adventuresome first day and I’m giddy with excitement to continue this journey tomorrow.
December 13th, 2014 - Sala Konglor, 4KM from Konglor Cave
Today was quite A DAY! This morning, I woke to calming yet freezing picturesque views of Tree Cemetery Lake at Pho Sy and enjoyed a devastatingly bitter cup of coffee while huddled in a blanket, waiting desperately for the sun to start warming everything up. After everyone shook the junk out of their eyes, we started to get moving on the second stretch of The Loop, which includes the most dangerous stretches of unpaved roads. In the morning, we took the short ride over to the only other guesthouse in the general vicinity so that Noa could send a quick message using their Wi-Fi, but ended up staying for over an hour to enjoy a delicious breakfast while the Owner/DJ/Waiter/Chief Customer Service Officer blasted karaoke variations of Hotel California from his massive antiquated speaker set. While devouring omelettes and instant coffee, we also absorbed Koko into our biker gang, an Australian of Polish descent who had the challenge of riding solo yesterday.
We gassed up and the 7 of us peeled out, only to immediately be greeted by pothole filled dirt rounds that wound through tiny, dusty villages. It felt exhilarating to hop on the bike again knowing that a full day of riding lay ahead, and after a good night’s sleep and the experience of yesterday under my belt, I felt much more concentrated and connected with the bike despite the increasingly difficult terrain.
Having established ground rules and made-up communication signals, we had a much easier time sticking together as a group on Day 2, and I led the pack through curving, gusty mountain passes and spectacular overlooking vistas. We stopped after a few hours at a dusty roadside village, where I became enthralled with a match of 3 on 3 soccer and then opened every freezer in the tiny town in a desperate search for ice cream, but instead encountered my fair share of whole iced chickens and massive frozen fish.
After another 60 Kilometers, we finally arrived at a city that was actually on the map, and took the second of the three left turns that comprise the loop onto a new road. The next 25KM stretch was by far the most fun I’ve ever had driving a bike. It had everything one could wish for: luscious scenery, perfectly curved roads that angled with our weight on the bike, and for the first time all day, a paved road!
Before long, we reached a sign written only in Lao that denoted a natural cold spring. We took a bumpy path for a few minutes off the main road and although the swimming hole itself was underwhelming, we wound up in the middle of a deserted canyon, miles away from any other humans. It was a spectacular feeling to just be alone out there, taking in the surrounding views and feeling the strong breeze gush across the landscape. Between the deep red soil, the lack of any signs of life, the insanely powerful winds, and the unearthly scenery, I felt like an astronaut exploring another planet in my ridiculous head cover helmet and reflective visor. In fact, all afternoon we were serenaded by beautiful views.
After we got back on the main road, the reality of today’s distance hit me, as we still had almost 100KM left to traverse before reaching our final destination and only a few hours of sunlight left in the day. The final stretch along the main road was particularly treacherous, riddled with sharp mountain turns and 18 wheeler construction trucks passing up and down the steep incline. We got through this portion as best we could as the sunlight began to cascade across the afternoon sky; everyone was anxious to reach our final destination for the possibility of a real meal.
Finally, we turned down the road to Konglor Cave, the main attraction of our entire journey, and raced the sun deep into the middle of nowhere along a perfectly straight road accompanied by mountain cliffs on either side. By the last few kilometers, my butt was getting dangerously sore and my legs started to lock up on the bike’s pedals. But after playing hide and seek with the final rays of sunlight as it started to dip below the cliff formations, we encountered our first sign in English in over 40KMs and thankfully it was for "Kala Songlor: Room and Restaurant."
To say it was a relief when we finally arrived would be a drastic understatement, as everyone was dusty, exhausted, and desperately in need of a hot shower and multiple celebratory BeerLaos. Kala Songlor is set deep into the woods, a few kilometers from the cave, and has a perfect peaceful river view juxtaposed by a singular stunning sheer facade across the water. We quickly settled in for the night and let exhaustion and relaxation take over, having accomplished that awesome feeling that can only be reached by accomplishing all of your goals for the day, of which we had four:
- We made it to our final destination
- We made it before freezing darkness set in
- No one crashed
- No one got separated from the group
And that, my friends, is what I would call a success. After generous dinner portions, copious amounts of BeerLao, and delectable banana sticky rice pudding, the girls even got a few minutes of Wi-Fi and were able to get their WhatsApp and Facebook on. Truly, at least for this moment, all was right in the world.
December 14th, 2014 - The night bus to Pakse
Today was our third and final day of The Loop. Now 11pm and already setting off for another destination, it’s tough for me to recognize how much we accomplished in the last 16 hours. I woke at 7am this morning for a few perfect minutes of peace and solitude as the sun’s rays began to dramatically peak through the river’s overhanging jungle foliage.
Our group of seven soon set off for the legendary, massive Konglor Cave. Located 45KM from any road that doesn’t stop in a dead end, the cave is one of the most remote sights in Laos and even for an attraction it was far removed from the tourist and backpacker trail I have largely been inhabiting thus far. We split up into boats to explore the cave, which was surprisingly accessible due to a 7.5KM river that runs directly through a massive mountain. Once inside, there was a dramatic atmospheric shift, as the humidity rose immediately and we quickly waved goodbye to the last rays of sunlight for the foreseeable future.
The sheer enormity of the cave instantly had me contemplating how many millions of years it took mother nature to craft such a tremendous work of art; it was a truly a natural wonder of the world. We were guided the entire way by Shai, our boat captain who knew every turn, outcropping, and exposed rock better than I know the streets of my old neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. It was extremely entertaining to just watch the intense beam of his headlight dart back and forth across the bow of the boat, evaluating our speed and trajectory in the pitch black. The cave’s sheer size made it unlike anything my eyes have ever encountered, and except for a brief display of illuminated stalactites, we were in complete pitch darkness the entire way.
Just as we first glimpsed the ultimate proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, we had to get out of the boat so that our guides could push it up a rocky set of rapids, but unfortunately I missed the memo (Shai screaming “NO, NO, NO”) and stepped out in a deep and treacherous section, where I instantly rolled my ankle, fell chest deep, and lost both my flip flops. Through a miraculous combination of luck and skill, Shai nonchalantly scooped them right out of the roaring current and ensured I was OK.
Once we arrived on dry land at the other side, we reunited with the girls and enjoyed a particularly nutritious breakfast of knock-off Oreos and peanuts before hopping back into the boat for the spectacular return ride. At this point in our expedition we had a decision to make: we could either take two more days with out bikes and return the same way we came, or we could hightail it back to Tha Kaek and attempt to cover 180KM over the course of the afternoon. Due to the girls needing to get back and our desire to get started on another adventure, we decided to complete the loop that day.
Honestly, the rest of the afternoon was a complete delirious blur, as we gunned it on the homestretch and battled the clock, keeping in mind how cold and dark it gets immediately after sunset. Upon arrival back in Tha Kaek, we all exchanged high-fives and massaged our asses, deeply sore but incredibly proud of accomplishing such an adventurous journey.
Our return to the Tha Kaek Traveler Lodge also meant the unfortunate disbanding of our merry band of travelers, as the 3 Israelis and Koko booked the 1AM bus bound north for Vientiane and after much consternation, John, Rico, and I decided we hadn’t had our fill of ridiculous motorbiking trips yet and boarded the 11PM night bus to Pakse, a jumping off point for another loop around Southern Laos’ Bolaven Plateau.
December 15th, 2014 - Palamei Guesthouse, Tad Lo
After three packed days of riding, we were all tremendously beat. On the local night bus I mercifully found a tiny nook in the back corner and was able to pass out for almost the entire 7 hour journey. Hazy and groggy, we arrived in Pakse at 5:55AM, secured a room with actual mattresses, and got a few more hours of shut eye.
John, Rico, and I left our dirty laundry, rented a new set of bikes, and hightailed it out of Pakse before the sun ascended to it’s noon peak, eager to hit the road once more. Pakse is the capital of Savannahket province and significantly larger than Tha Kaek, but still firmly off the normal traveler trail and we had plenty of difficulty finding reputable, english speaking shop owners and travel guides to get all the necessary information before our departure.
Our new bikes also brought with them a huge learning experience, as it was the first time I was ever going to attempt driving a non-automatic vehicle of any kind. Rico and John were helpful in explaining which gears I should use in certain situations and how to downshift to stop quickly when necessary, but learning a semi-automatic engine was honestly just something that should be explored and experimented with trial and error. The first couple of kilometers out of the crowded, dusty city roads were quite jerky, but an hour into the ride I stopped trying to force it and just started feeling and listening to the engine, which made everything much easier.
Our fourth consecutive day on bikes also meant we were much more comfortable with speed, handling, and communication, and we worked well as a team to stay together and assist with passing massive trucks. Unlike the roads we were accustomed to surrounding Tha Kaek, everything was beautifully paved and completely devoid of potentially disastrous potholes. Once we escaped Pakse’s chaos, the open road was nothing short of spectacular, and we were able to make great time with a smaller squad of three.
Whereas Tha Kaek’s loop is all about the caves, the Bolaven Plateau is all about thundering waterfalls. Before I knew it, we had already reached the first one marked on the map. Although I was skeptical that a major attraction so close in proximity to the city might be overrun with tourists, we must have avoided the tour bus schedule and were lucky enough to have the waterfall's beautiful viewpoint to ourselves as we basked in the cooling misty spray.
After enjoying a brief lunch at the on-site restaurant staffed by local villagers, the road beckoned again.The three of us set off at a breakneck pace, passing each other at increasing speed and testing how far our semi-automatic engines would take us. Driving had a much different feel than the automatic bikes I was used to, and it was awesome to be one with the bike and the road, hugging turns and leaning forward on straightaways to max out the engine’s power.
The entire way, the ride was accompanied by spectacular views of the Bolaven Plateau’s massive mountains and lush landscapes of jungles and fertile coffee plantations. The main road in this stretch was also dotted with plenty of schools and as we road through the afternoon it was a great sight to watch them all playing soccer, volleyball, and schoolyard games outside. With all the wildlife in these rural areas, it’s also important to be cognizant of animals crossing the road as you’re whizzing by, and John and I established a safety rule: If the animal is bigger than your bike, it’s not going to stop regardless of how many times you honk. Dogs and chickens will almost always get out of the way, there are no guarantees for pigs and goats, and cows always have the right of way.
Eventually, we arrived at a small town set on the intersection of two roads and after dissecting the maps and Rico’s GPS location, realized we had gone straight past our proposed final destination, Tad Lo, at least half an hour ago. Tad Lo is not so much a town as it is a one block collection of guesthouses and homestays for weary travelers a few kilometers off the main road surrounded in close proximity by a plethora of waterfalls. Price shopping for accommodation upon arrival yielded a wealth of cheap options, and we settled down in two bungalows just as the setting sun began to illuminate the surrounding sky a spectacular glowing deep orange. Dinner in Tad Lo is decidedly a family affair, as our hosts at Palamei Guesthouse offered an all you can eat family style meal. The atmosphere around the table was reminiscent of Thanksgivings past, as travelers enjoyed Mr. Palamei’s signature Ratatouille concocted from fresh Barilla penne pasta alongside a wealth of fresh Lao foods.
After four days of riding, the three of us are worn out and retreated for a full night’s sleep. Tomorrow we are setting off again, this time for another long stretch of biking as we ascend higher into the surrounding Plateau.
December 16th, 2014 - Thevada Hotel, Paksan
Today, we covered a ridiculous amount of ground, close to 200KMs, as we went around an entire curve of the loop and even approached the homestretch back to Pakse. Breakfast this morning at Palamei guesthouse was accompanied by plentiful amounts of small children and young animals to entertain us with delightful laughter.
Afterwards, we hit two of the waterfalls around town for some morning zen chilling.
As the sun began to rise toward its daily crescendo, we gunned it out onto the open road, made another wrong turn, and then recovered fast enough to have plenty of time to go off-roading through dirt paths and rice fields before even stopping for lunch. The off-roading section was particularly awesome, as we have each progressed a long way when it comes to controlling and maneuvering bikes through rocky and slippery sections. Check out the Youtube video below for some of the highlights!
For lunch, we stopped in Sekong, another tiny town at the intersection of two roads that had just one open restaurant and no other travelers in sight. A market in the center of town yielded some delicious cheap eats, but we also got slapped with $1 parking tickets due to suffering from a severe case of being completely unable to read any signs.
In the afternoon, after climbing a mountain and earning steadily better views all the way up, the road suddenly crumbled into dirt and bumpy moguls as we entered a construction zone with no warning at all. Although it was a slightly dangerous stretch and we had absolutely no idea where we were most of the time, I also had a ton of fun on the rocky, unpaved roads.
In the late afternoon, the weather in the Plateau started to shift suddenly and we were apprehensive about the dark clouds and strong cold winds, but decided that as long as it didn’t start to rain too heavily we could make it to the next town on the map. We arrived in Paksan with a few minutes to spare before sunset, just as my legs started to seize up on the bike from having covered so much ground in one day. We price shopped at three guesthouses around town, but ultimately only found one which was halfway decent, Thevada hotel. When combined with the ominous dark clouds and howling, swirling winds, our sparsely populated hotel set on the top of a deserted hill felt like the set of a horror movie.
December 17th, 2014 - Lankham Hotel, Pakse
On day 6 of 6 of our motorbiking expedition, we reaped the rewards of having covered so much ground on the previous two days and were able to take our time exploring four gorgeous waterfalls on the 50KM final stretch of the loop. My favorite aspect of the day was just sitting, completely devoid of any wants in the world, as we were serenaded by the sound of falling water that contains such a powerful calming and quieting effect on the brain.
I also loved the way that the mist billowed off the waterfalls as the water plunged into the pools below, slowly dissipating into nothingness.
After a wonderfully slow day relaxing at a great self-guided tour of the best waterfall stretch in Laos, we settled in for a decadent and delicious lunch with a perfect view of twin 120M drops, then instantly dropped dead in hammocks for a post-lunch siesta.
In the afternoon, we eventually made our way back into Pakse just as rush hour traffic was hitting its peak and I couldn’t help but be proud of how comfortable the three of us were in streets filled with such commotion. We easily glided in and out of traffic circles and intersections, avoided heaps of bikers and cars on either side, and did it all with style and ease - something that would have been next to impossible just six short days ago.
After six long days on the bike, my body has been mutilated and is in need of a massage, but my brain is oddly completely collected. One thought that permeated through the trip is the distinct similarity between driving a motorbike and mindfulness meditation.
Motorbiking requires a certain combination of awareness, calm, and prolonged concentration that quiets the mind and brings with it a certain sense of peacefulness absent elsewhere. While riding, one must be connected with the bike, feeling the engine and hugging tight turns with the weight of your body. There's no time let the mind wander. There's no time to concern yourself with the past or the future. Just live in the present moment. Just ride.