Southern Laos

Published on 2 April 2019 at 02:00

After three weeks, Laos is not rid of these two cycling world travelers. Laos South will be the third chapter of our blog about this special country, for which we will have to withdraw the grant to extend our visas.


Vientiane, the capital of Laos, doesn't appeal to us very much, but the cheap hotel with swimming pool is heavenly and we meet a lot of beautiful people. The last evening we eat pizzas with a group of cyclists, who are also in the hotel: Jenne and Annalies from Groningen and Andrew and Alison from Toronto, Canada.


The same group is having breakfast the next morning. Jenne and Annalies leave for Thailand, Andrew and Alison stay in Vientiane and visit friends. We have extended our visa for Laos and can explore the south. We will globally follow the Mekong, the broad, seemingly slow, silent river and make two "extra" loops: the Thakhek Loop and the Bolaven Loop. Just before the border with Cambodia we will visit another tourist hotspot of Laos: the 4000 Islands. All in all, we will cycle through Laos for another week or three.


On the day that we cycle out of Vientiane, the number 13 is central. Today is March 13, we cycle on road number 13 and we get the key to room 13 at the guesthouse. It does not bring us any misfortune and the next day we cycle on the same main road number 13. It is a flat boring route that leads us to the next guesthouse. This time it is a guesthouse with bungalows along the Mekong, a tip from Jenne and Annalies. It is apparently also used as a room for massages "with happy ending". A mirror hangs across and at the height of the bed and there are condoms next to the standard soaps and shampoos. We are (therefore?) quite surprised when we open the door next morning and find a group of ten Jordanian imams in front of the bungalows. They apparently checked in when we were already asleep. Harry is going to get hot water for our Nescafé and is quickly approached by one of the Jordanians: "where do you come from?" "The Netherlands" is the answer. The imam looks thoughtful. "Holland" Harry adds. “Aaah yes, Hollandia! Yes, football! ” The imam immediately mentions a number of names of the successful Dutch national team from 1974 and 1978: Cruyff, Haan, Rensenbrink “and what is the name of those two brothers?” “Van de Kerkhof,”  Harry answers; “Yes Vendenkurkov!” The imams appear on a mission in Laos: the questions about how you view their religion and what you know about it, are soon asked. Harry declines the offer for a long explanation that today's life is dominated by real life in the hereafter. The coffee is getting cold and we have to get back on our bikes early, so to speak. The imam determines by trying, fairly in vain, to teach Harry a sentence in Arabic that would give him an enormous liberation to pronounce.


Just before we reach the village of Vieng Kham, the end point of the third day of cycling on the 13, we see "our" imams again on the lawn at a gas station. They stand in two rows next to each other and one in front. We want to say hello to them enthusiastically, but their heads are oriented to the east, uuhhh west, and of course we will not disturb them during a prayer.


Vieng Kham is a large but not nice and again messy village. Freight traffic and large and small buses rush through the village. We can't find anything we are looking for here: there are "of course" four mobile phone shops but no mini-market with something of a normal range for example, but also not a nice guesthouse, no normal eatery that wants to / can offer us something simple as fried rice. When we are in bed at night, the village is buzzing with noise and karaoke. In retrospect, Vieng Kham only has one plus: for us it is the start of the Thakhek Loop!


The Thakhek Loop is a bike route of 450 kilometers along and through beautiful limestone mountains, reservoirs, waterfalls, springs and especially many caves. It's a popular activity for western tourists to rent a scooter and start in Thakhek, in the southwest corner, and then ride the route anti clockwise in four days. We start as said in Vieng Kham, in the northwest corner, and cycle against the current, or clockwise. The route is immediately beautiful when we leave the 13 in Vieng Kham and cycle the 8 in the east. Despite the fact that this road goes to Vietnam, the freight traffic is not so bad. It will later become apparent that the freight traffic mainly rages over the 12, the southern part of The Loop. It is still early in the morning when we start a fairly tough, but also beautiful climb that brings us some 300 meters higher up. The view on top is overwhelming and offers a beautiful and characteristic view of the limestone mountain formations that you will find in many places in Southeast Asia: erosion of erratic rocks that rise almost upright from the low surrounding country.


After all this beauty, we descend and leave the 8 to visit the Kong Lor Cave, which should be the highlight of The Loop. To reach the village near this cave, you have to cycle up and down 40 kilometers, the village is not accessible for large buses, so no mass tourism. The elevated road to the village leads us through a wet, swampy area that is probably flooded in the rainy season. As said, the rocks rise almost vertically from this low. The road is very quiet and the view is breathtaking.


Quite early in the afternoon we arrive in the village Kong Lor and check in at the Eco Lodge, again a tip from Jenne and Annalies. The rooms are super clean and cheap, the staff (or actually the family) is cheerful and the food delicious. In this relaxed atmosphere we only have one question: do we visit the cave tomorrow morning and then get back on our bikes in the afternoon or do we take a day off. Our neighbors, Micke from Sweden and Suzy from Canada tell us that we could also swim and lie on a beach near the cave and that is the deciding factor: we book an extra night at this nice guest house. Until midnight we play cards  with Mine & Sergei from Germany and Johan & Olve from Norway with lots of laughter and (too) much BeerLao. Normally we are in bed by 9 am, but oh well, tomorrow we don't have to cycle.


A bit dull we walk the next morning to the entrance of the cave. The Kong Lor Cave is on the one hand a cave like many others, with stalagmites and stalactites and such. What makes this one special is that there is an underground river running through and visit the village of Phon Khan on the other side of the ridge. The journey through the cave itself is seven kilometers long and takes almost an hour. We are both not so fond of "cave-visiting" (the only time before on our trip was "Devils Throat" in Bulgaria, coincidentally or not with an underground river), so for us the best part of the cave visit was the boat trip and the exit from the cave. Inside the cave it is mostly dark ...


When we return two hours later, we look forward to a refreshing swim in the clear blue pool at the entree of the cave. We see Micke and Suzy lying on the beach and we join them. It is a nice couple who met only a few weeks earlier on Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand. We often dive into the water, sometimes from the rock and skip lunch due to lack of facilities. If the hunger gets too big the four of us walk back to the eco lodge and agree to have an early dinner together. Micke and Suzy previously walked through the village and saw a nice restaurant by the river. We join them and at the restaurant Suzy brings out Yatzy, a Swedish version of Yahtzee. It is slightly different than the Yahtzee as we know it. Somehow, "Full House" is thrown very often, at least that's what we call the combination of 2 and 3 the same stones. In Swedish it is called "Kak". In Dutch "Kak" means "Shit". In Yathzee Full house is always worth 25 points, but the Swedish Kak counts the points on the dice, so 3x1 and 2x2 hardly yields anything and is therefore simply "shit!!". Oh well, short version, it becomes for the second night in a row, quite cozy, late, etc.


After a short night's rest we get up at six. We want to leave early but the speed is not really there. It is around half past seven when we say goodbye to Micke and Suzy and get on the bike with some sadness. After cycling back the same way for 40 km, we are back on the Loop and immediately start a climb. From the plain we can already see the road on the side of the mountains going up ... Pfff ... we do not feel super fit and do not feel like climbing in the tropical heat. But come on! Continue and then we can swim again. The goal of the day is the Cool Pool, formed by a source where a tent can be set up according to the camping app iOverlander. While sweat drips we conquer this mountain.


The last five kilometers is very quiet dirt road of the main loop. Only a few tourists on scooters driving to or from the Cool Pool and some school children on their way home. When we arrive at the gate of the Cool Pool, we inform (with sign language) once, again and an extra time if we can stay overnight with our tent. The answer (yes nods) is clear in itself, but have they understood us well? In the end, we really have the impression that it is allowed, but that we are not (yet) allowed to use the bicycles on the terrain. We pay the entry price of 20,000 LAK.


The Cool Pool is indeed cool, say cold. Wonderfully refreshing after a crazy, hot and sweaty day. The Laos school children and youth flows in and the pool becomes full of happy enthusiastic young people. It is really a social meeting place. The children climb, often still in their school uniforms, on rocks and in trees and jump into the water from high up. The older youth hangs around the water, drinks, eats and chills. At 6 o'clock, when it starts to get dark, almost everyone has left and we pick up our bikes at the entrance. They ask us to pay an additional 20,000 LAK for the night. We have the pool and surrounding terrain all for us alone, which leads to choice stress: where do we put the tent? Besides the pool? Or there with a beautiful view of the steep mountains? Or where the first rays of sunshine probably dry our tent? It has finally become something in the middle of it all. When we set up the tent a group of school children comes to wash in the pool and later a family for a short picnic. Once again we have the whole area and the pool to ourselves, but then it is already very dark. At night the temperature drops considerably; we just set up the inner tent and left the sleeping bags in the dry-bag on Harry's handlebar: in the end we are even a little cold and need old-fashioned 'spooning'.


In the morning we walk around the pool again with a cup Nescafé. What a beautiful place here! But also / even here we see how carelessly Laotians deal with their waste. We no longer look up at the litter along the road (or better: we try to look past it), but also in this paradise-like pool you see plastic waste floating here and among the many fish in the clear water you see the BeerLao crown corks shine and rust. On our journey we are daily confronted with the painful fact that with our plastic disposable waste we are screwing up this still beautiful earth. In many countries on our route from Austria (in particular in Serbia, Turkey and here in Laos) we would really call that one of the biggest national problems. It gives us an unpleasant feeling: we feel powerless, but we also don't want to let it go, we don't want to accept it. Perhaps a goal for the next world trip or project?


When we leave and turn onto the main road again after the gravel road, we cycle in the middle of the students. A little further away there is a primary and secondary school that attracts quite a few youths in (again dry) uniform. At the entrance of these schools we also see shops and stalls where the school-going children enjoy supplements to breakfast. We also know that from our hometown, where supermarkets are visited in the morning, especially for an energy drink. In Laos the barbecue is turned on early in the morning and skewers, sausages and fish are grilling. We resist the scent and keep on cycling. Today we not only want to get the north side of the Loop behind us but also do half of the east side, which is about 90 kilometers away. The weather forecast indicates that the temperature this afternoon will again reach 40 degrees, so we try to make as many kilometers as possible before noon.


The east side of the Loop is surrounded by a reservoir. The trees were not felled beforehand and stand like rotting and shriveled trunks in the lake where the water level in this season, towards the end of the dry season, is very low. Part of the reservoir is also a reserve and that means that there are no houses, animals and people walking around. And luckily no fields are set on fire, a closing (or is it the start?) of the growing season that is common in Laos. We even pass a barrier which reduces car traffic to zero. Nice cycling this is!


Thalang is a village in the middle of the reservoir. It was probably newly constructed as a replacement place when the reservoir was installed. For example, the village is not on Google Maps and the spacious layout of the village gives a planned and somewhat desolate impression that is not normal in Laos. Thalang is mentioned in just about every description of De Loop as the first place to spend the night for scooter-riding tourists who start this route in Thakhek. So for a hamlet there are above average many guest houses ... That's why we thought that with Thalang we would find a pretty big city: shows a lot of guest houses. On the other hand, it should have said something that Thalang does not exist at all on GoogleMaps.


We are the first arriving guests of today at the guesthouse and that also gives a somewhat abandoned atmosphere. Later many French people first arrive and later quite a few Dutch people, we estimate a total of around 40 people, all in their early 20s and without exception on scooters. Due to our exceptional "position" in terms of means of transport, age and fatigue, we do not feel entirely at home. We do not participate in the communal bbq at 19:30 and get to our room and bed early. We put the fan on the highest level, turn off the lights, open the shutters, in order to lower the temperature a little and remain as still as possible.


From Thalang it is possible to reach Thakhek, the starting point of the Loop. It is more than 100 km but it has a nice descent. We go for it and again start early. The first part we cycle through and along the reservoir. Always 20 meters down and then again 20 meters up, down and up, down and up. In total, we "do" more than 400 altimeters before the descent, pfff. The descent is nice, but actually too short. We would love to cruise down with an average 2 to 4%, but this road crashes into the valley with about 8 to 10%: exciting and fun but, just like an attraction at a fair, it ends too quickly. After that the road is flat and Roelie carefully starts to make a complaint. When we were just on the Loop, the scenery was breathtaking, but that level was not matched after that and now we have arrived in the valley, it seems boring like the main road 13 and even worse because of the heavy traffic that comes from the near border with Vietnam. Unfortunately, the traffic remains, but the landscape changes quickly and again we cycle through beautiful karst mountains almost all the way to Thakhek. Super scenic! The complaint is officially withdrawn and the Thakhek Loop is promoted to a real recommendation. Our tip to all the youngsters: get off your scooter and go cycling!


In Thakhek we check in at the Traveler Lodge about 2 km outside the center. We thought - considering the location afterwards - that it would be a little quiet here, but this cozy guest house is also a scooter rental company, and there are quite a few tourists hanging around. There is a funny atmosphere of information exchange here: tourists who want to start the Loop are full of questions, and tourists who have just 'tufted' the Loop are eager to give as many tips as possible. We chat and drink a nice cool beer at the reception and see a table with all kinds of information about De Loop given by travelers in a number of logs. Some have really sat down for a while and have mapped the Loop with accompanying "do's and don'ts". The most beautiful ones are even framed. We limit ourselves to sticking our sticker to the table, for those who want to cycle De Loop...


On to the next Loop! From Thakhek we cycle to Pakse, about 360 kilometers away. Pakse is the start and end point of that other "detour" through South Laos: the Bolaven Loop. However, the road and the landscape between Thakhek and Pakse are quite boring. In the end, we did not cycle it in 5 days, but in 3 days: a decision that was not taken until halfway through day 2. We think that these days we will only remember later when hot, sweaty and a sore ass.


Because the Bolaven Loop starts and ends in Pakse we come to the ingenious idea of ‚Äč‚Äčleaving a lot of our luggage in the hotel. If you ride or cycle the Bolaven Loop you can opt for the smaller or the larger loop of over 300 kilometers. We opt for the big loop and we plan to cycle it in 5 or 6 days, including a day of rest in Tad Lo that lies in the middle of a number of waterfalls. On the first day we cycle nicely light (er) packed up to the plateau, about 1200 meters higher than Pakse on the Mekong. The climb is super relaxed and definitely not steep. After a while climbing we see a sign that refers to a waterfall 800 meters from the road. For a moment we leave the perfect wide new asphalt and take a dirt road. The waterfall, the Tad Yuang is very beautiful and worth the entrance fee (and detour).


Very gradually we climb further to the village of Paksong, at an altitude of 1300 meters. This is probably about the fifth time in Laos that we cycle into a village with that name. We find a new clean guesthouse for the night and a restaurant where everyone eats from a table barbecue. We also want to try it. On top of the bbq we can grill pieces of meat and around it is a gutter where noodles, vegetables and an egg are cooked. Ingenious thing, and we are wildly enthusiastic, but it would probably not pass the safety test in western countries.


We really enjoy the coolness on top of the Paksong plateau; the temperature at the end of the afternoon is far below 30 degrees and that is absolutely abnormal. The last few days it has been around 40 degrees continuously. Starting early in the morning gives little relief. It stays warm at night and when the sun comes up in the morning you can immediately feel a pressing heat and sweat enters the sandals from your crown. Fortunately, as long as you keep cycling, you often feel a breeze and we even wish for headwind in these regions for that extra bit of cooling.


The second day on the Bolaven Loop we descend from that pleasant temperature to the blistering heat of the valley. We turn to Tad Tayicseua, a waterfall that can be viewed from a guesthouse and restaurant and where a walk starts to about seven more waterfalls. We accidentally walk to the first the best: Tad Jarou Halang. On the Thakhek Loop, a Frenchman had already advices us to visit this waterfall. We see number two in the distance, on the other side of a deep valley.


We leave the other five waterfalls for what they are, we want to cycle another 53 kilometers today to the village of Sekong. On the way down we stop at Tad Katamtok, yes again another waterfall and at PS Garden, a restaurant at another waterfall. PS Garden turns out to be a wonderful and relaxed place and they rent out tents on the waterfront to spend the night. The staff speak good English and are extroverted, quite unique in Laos. The temptation to stay is is looming. But, it does not fit in day-trip planning… We have heard a lot about Tad Lo. It will be the highlight of the Bolaven Loop. We want to reach Tad Lo tomorrow and that is a bit easier to get from Sekong than from PS Garden and so we continue cycling in the heat.


Sekong is not a charming village. Let's say it's a typical Laos village. Honesty, we have barely been able to visit charming villages in Laos. They are just not there. Until this point only Luang Prabang and Kong Lor were charming. Because of the heat, we choose the first air-conditioned place to stay and then lock ourselves up within the hotel doors that has the air conditioning on. We can eat and have breakfast there and we do not have to go outside.


The road to Tad Lo first brings us back to altitude. From the valley we climb to 900 meters and feel some cooling again despite the tail wind. That cooling continues for a while as we cruise down from 900 meters. The slopes on the Bolaven Loop are, with only a few exceptions, very gradual and very pleasant climbing, but also very nice descending.

As often when expectations are high, it is somewhat disappointing. In our case we have put Tad Lo at the end of the Loop because we thought it would be the highlight: a cozy tourist town, popular with backpackers in the midst of natural beauty. It turns out to be a hamlet with only guest houses and nothing else. But for now we will stick to our plan to book two nights in a bungalow. There are three waterfalls and swimming possibilities in the immediate vicinity. At our guest house "Fandee" we meet a German-Italian couple and a Chilean-Spanish couple. Immediately cozy again.


Halfway through the afternoon we walk to Tad Huang, waterfall 1 and it disappoints us after all the beautiful waterfalls that we have seen before. A terribly ugly bamboo sign "adorns" against the low waterfall with "happy new year" on it. What lunatic has thought to "upgrade" the natural beauty with this most ugly sign? We climb via bamboo bridges and ladders up at the waterfall to get to the elephants who are allowed to bathe between 4 and 5 in the afternoon. Quite an adventurous venture because the rocks under water are as slippery. Unfortunately (version Roelie) or as expected (version Harry) Roelie loses one of her new flip flops and sees with horror that it is being carried further and further away from the waterfall. She does, however, pursue it, although from the start it is fairly hopeless. After looking in vain for a while, Roelie finds another lost flip flop and puts it on. We decide to leave the waterfall trail and walk the footpath to the expected bathing place for the elephants. We meet two elephants, but they are still on the chain onnet to a hotel that offers elephant tours (not our thing by the way). We decide to climb up to Tad Lo, waterfall 2 (and most beautiful) of the 3, as we could already see it through the trees. The river between waterfall 1 and 2 is full of children in school uniforms mixed with a bunch of western tourists.


At this second waterfall we realize that we do not see ourselves swimming here for a whole day tomorrow. We also do not see ourselves hiking the “3 waterfalls tour”, a day hike with a guide of which we have already seen two within an hour. The hike to waterfall 3 that would have less grandeur then this Tad Lo and possibly even could be a bit dry. At the end of the afternoon, water from a dam above is released and this waterfall can swell, but then the entrance gate is closed. What are we going to do? We walk back and see the two elephants just walking into the water. We can put check marks behind 2 of the 3 waterfalls and behind the elephants bathing and decide to stay only one night and cycle back to Pakse tomorrow.

In the evening we eat with the Chilean-Spanish couple. They say that they were inspired by the chat with us during lunch and are considering going to Patagonia by bicycle at the end of 2019. Patagonia was already in their planning, but cycling is new. How nice! We hope to see them there, because at the end of 2019, Patagonia - as the start of part 2 of our world trip - is also on our schedule.


When we get back to Pakse we realize that we have not encountered a cyclist on the entire Loop,. There are also seriously fewer tourists on scooters on the Bolaven Loop than on the Thakhek Loop and we understand that. The Loop itself is not particularly beautiful, but more a route along particularly beautiful waterfalls. The jungle is a bit on the dry side at the end of the dry season. We had expected to see a lot of coffee and we saw that on the plateau around Paksong, but further on the Loop, cassava is mainly grown. This crop is not attractive to see, both before and after harvest. The stem of the plant has just been cleared everywhere and has been set aside and everything around it is being burned down. In the villages it is not much better. Waste is placed in small heaps on the roadside to be burned as well. In Pakse we check in the hotel where we left our camping gear. 


South of Pakse are the remains of an ancient city and temple complex. Around noon we cycle past the front of the temple and decide to take a look. The signs in front of the entrance state that walks, possibly combined with canoeing, take at least 3 hours. We don't want to in the heat of the day, but we also doubt whether the sign provides information about a visit to the temple or about its surroundings. When a group of Western tourists walks out we ask. They recommend a visit. It will take about an hour to view the complex and there are a lot of stairs to take with a nice view of the valley as a reward. The city and temple were founded in the 5th or 9th century, our sources do not agree on that. The ruins of the temple are structures in the 11th to 13th centuries. The temple complex is very dilapidated but still impressive and covers a large area with indeed many stairs that ultimately lead to a source where Shri (Lord) Shiva would once have bathed. 


In the afternoon we check in at a very nice guesthouse in Soukhouma where a cyclist shows up not much later. Dave from New York City cycles from Bangkok to Hanoi in about six weeks. We exchange a lot of tips as we cycle in the opposite direction.


Dave cycled in one day from Don Det, the most popular island of the 4000 Islands, and we think that if Dave can do it (although we probably face a headwind), we can do that too and set off early next morning. Dave is still sleeping in the nice guest house. What is striking is that the temperature is almost pleasant. It is much cooler than in recent days. What is also odd is that there is a very dark sky above us which is the cause of the almost pleasant temperature. We cycle a few kilometers to the east til we reach the bank of the Mekong and then take the road that we want to follow for about 60 km. Unfortunately it starts to rain a bit which would not have been a bad thing had it not been that the road is unpaved and the harder it starts to rain the more and more we end up in the mud. After 10 km we slide down the slope to get on a small ferry. The ferryman drags us via a rope to the other side of a tributary of the Mekong. Once across the street, he helps us to rise up the slippery slope. The sequel is very heavy but also uniquely beautiful. We see fat white ducks soaking in the orange-red puddles in the middle of the road and come out colored. The planks on the now-known little Laotian bridges have been rotten to such an extent that it is better to cycle through the middle over the joists. The locals from the concatenation of fishing villages greet us with even more enthusiasm than ever before. Palm trees and bamboo form a avenue plantation between the road and the broad river.


After almost 50 kilometers of struggling we quit. We take a ferry over the Mekong and return again on the paved main road number 13. We continu to cycling firmly until we reach the ferry to the island of Don Det. Immediately after the ferry is Little Eden Guest House, a tip from Sanna and Sammy, the Danish family we met in Vientiane and almost met again. They checked out this morning and we check in in the afternoon. The hotel is a bit above our budget but it looks so great. Then the Belgian manager tells us that the electricity on the island is just off and and that it is unknown how long it will take. Okay, no hot shower, that's no problem. No, the manager says, no water at all! The water pump is electric and therefore does not work. We are covered in mud and stink. Somewhat resigned, we are forced to fall down on the terrace by the water and order a beer that is still quite cold in spite of the fact that the fridge no longer works either. Two hours later we are overjoyed when we hear that various devices are starting again. Yes, on to our bathroom!!!


To see more of the islands, we cycle the next morning around Don Det and Don Khon. The small island paths lead us through fields and villages to waterfalls and beaches. The cool, cloudy start to the morning quickly makes way to the known sunny, moist tropical heat. We bump and bounce for almost 30 kilometers and our wet buttocks submit an official protest that this cannot be the intention of a rest and recovery day !? But at the end we can put a check mark again and in the afternoon we relax by the lovely swimming pool of the hotel. On this picturesque island we view the mighty Mekong, which is miles wide here. Time seems to stand still. Just recover, rest and be lazy and then on to the next country: Cambodia!