Ever since I’d heard stories about the Konglor Caves in central Laos I’d decided that I really wanted to visit. I love caves, and ones that involve a 7.5km underground longboat ride through the darkness sounded fantastic. So we caught the ‘VIP’ bus (a wonderful multi-coloured affair that looked like a cross between a 70’s disco and your granny’s living room on wheels) to the town of Thakek to work out how to get there.
The guesthouse where we stayed (The Thakek Travel Lodge) turned out to be the place to begin ‘The Loop’ – a 450km circular tour by motorcycle through spectacular unspoilt Laos landscapes, with the Konglor Caves as the central highlight. Our little party of three (Rahel and I were joined by Tim – a solo traveller from the UK who we’d met on a tuktuk) were slightly apprehensive but very excited by the prospect of a new adventure. The giant Visitors’ Book in reception was full of tales, drawings, maps, advice and warnings written by travellers who have already completed the journey. ‘Everyone seemed to be obsessed with one long stretch of road that apparently is in really bad shape (one writer described it as ‘36km of PURE HELL’, so as beginner riders we were a bit scared, but decided to take the plunge anyway. After all, only the minority of people in the book mentioned any hospitalisations!
The following morning we were up early and the first in the queue at Mr.Ku’s scooter hire shop next door. Mr.Ku is THE man to set you up for the Loop and seems to have quite a reputation amongst those in the know. He gave us our first shaky lesson in how to drive a bike with gears, issued us with a map, told us to take it easy and waved us off on our way.
Vroom, vroom, we were off!
The first problem we encountered was that none of our helmets fitted. As soon as we hit 50kph they filled with wind and tipped backwards on our heads so we looked like three strange aliens on motorbikes. We solved this by making turbans from our sarongs and then stuffing the helmets on top, kind-of Sikh-meets-Hells Angels effect. At this point you could have shot us head-first out of a cannon and our skulls would remain intact.
The second problem was avoiding the cattle that roams freely across the road with bored look on their faces. You would have thought that fast-moving traffic would be pretty scary for a slow-moving cow, but apparently not. Memories of India came flooding back, but these caramel-coloured cows seemed much happier and less flea-bitten than their Indian cousins.
The central Laos scenery really is truly spectacular and there is no better way to appreciate it than from the back of a bike. My crappy photos really don’t do it justice (I missed my SLR camera this week!). At times the landscape flattened into vast plains full of grazing water buffalo and we felt like we’d been magically transported to Africa. We’d then suddenly find ourselves weaving up steep hairpin bends of mountain landscapes to rival the Californian national parks, then through cool palm tree-lined roads and paddy fields full of people bent low under their straw hats. The countryside and villages were all completely unspoilt. It was fun to wave at the children as we passed (they would run out from their bamboo huts to the edge of the road to yell ‘Sabaidee’ (hello) and blow kisses.)
The stretch of the road ‘from hell’ was actually pretty bad, but a whole lot of fun. Imagine terrain full of boulders, jagged stones, big holes, loose gravel, sharp bends, steep climbs and sudden drops and you’ve got the idea. Perhaps a MotorX driver would have made it look easy, but our little scooters didn’t really have the steering or suspension for this kind of thing. Still, we had a real laugh tackling it and soon enough the road evened out and became silky-smooth again to give our bruised bottoms a rest. By the end of the trip we all felt like biker pro’s, laughing in the face of sticking gears, dodgy sparkplugs and temperamental dashboards.
The Konglor Caves certainly didn’t disappoint. We were up early to drive the spectacular final 8km towards the caves in the misty morning light, then hired a longboat driver to take us into the mouth of the cave, where we waded though shallow water in the darkness to take our seats on his narrow wooden boat. It was eerily dark as we put-putted along the underground waterway, with just the dim light of our head-torches to allow us to make out shapes around us. At first the roof of the cave was low, but it soon opened out into vast chambers of echoing blackness. At times the water became too shallow to pass, so we had to climb out and help push the boat free (I almost lost another flip flop). It was strange to reach the other side of the mountain and sit blinking in the bright sunshine again.
At night we found lodgings in tiny villages where we could pay a few kip for a bed in a bamboo hut room and some well-earned rice or noodles. Our favourite place was owned by Mr.Paython, a lovely man who gave us a Petanque lesson and rounds of Laos whisky round the campfire. He asked us to recommend his place in the big pink visitors’ book back at Thakhek (and also to send him a Western wife to add to his collection – according to him he’s been divorced five times already!). We had a river view on the second night and decided to take an early evening dip. This was great, except for the brown lumps of unidentified organic matter floating past. We kept our mouths clamped shut and tried not to think of cow shit.
The final day involved 180km of riding on already-sore bums, so it wasn’t for the fainthearted, but we loved every minute and didn’t want to give our bikes back. We returned to Thakhek victorious and so glad we’d decided to loop the loop!
Next stop – down to the south for some lazy Four Thousand Island dreaming….