Tha Khek (ທ່າແຂກ) is the main town in Khammouane Province, in Central Laos.
From the north: buses from Vientiane leave the Southern Bus station there every 1-2 hours in the morning, the journey takes around 7 hours, 60,000 kip standard or 80,000 kip for a very colourful VIP bus. See the section on the Vientiane Southern Bus station for the non-trivial instructions how to get there on your own. There are VIP hotel pick-up buses that can be booked from the centre of Vientiane but they make quite a mark-up charging around 130,000 kip per person.
The bus station is about 5 km east of the city centre along the Mekong, so a tuk-tuk ride is almost unavoidable, for which local drivers seem to have fixed a price of 15,000 kip per (foreign) person.
Tha Khaek town is small enough to walk around, but tuk-tuks will take you most places for 5,000-10,000 kip if you are feeling lazy. One speed bicycles can be hired from the Travellers Lodge.
A tuk-tuk to/from the bus station will probably cost 10,000 kip per person and takes about 15 minutes.
The market hidden behind the shops on the roundabout corner opposite the Lao Development Bank is well worth a visit. Narrow lanes wind between the shops leading to a large open market selling fresh produce and sometimes unusual meats such as snake, squirrel, frog, and bat.
Tha Khaek itself is a small town on the Mekong, with good views of Thailand.
Bicycles and mopeds can be rented from the Tha Khaek Travellers Lodge or from a clothes shop on the south side of the main road leading to the Lao Development Bank. An Internet cafe on the other side of the road is open until about 22:00 and charges 120 kip/minute. (Half the price of the dial up connection in the Travellers Lodge), there are also a couple of Internet cafes near the fountain square, charging around 5,000 kip/hour.
The Loop as it has become known is a few hundred kilometres round trip along Rte 13 to the east and then back up and around returning to Tha Khaek on Rte 12. It is normally done in 3-4 days on a hired moped or using your own transport. It is not for the faint hearted. The condition of the roads and the driving standards make driving challenging to say the least. But once you have washed all of the thick orange dust out of your hair and clothing it is hard not to feel a great sense of achievement in having completed it.
Don't attempt to do the whole loop on the bicycles you can rent, unless you are very determined. It is possible to reach the Tham Nong Pafa Cave and some of the southern leg this way if you don't mind the heat and are reasonably fit, but the lack of gears and suspension would make it very uncomfortable to go further. Allow a full day if going all the way to Aen Cave by bicycle and at least half for a visit to the signposted Buddha Cave (approximately 15 km from town, the last nine of which is a dusty dirt road that winds through some stunning limestone scenery).
Tham Nong Pafa Cave (often referred to as the Buddha Cave) is a hidden cave that is accessible via a 2-4 minute canoe ride. Canoes hold 6-9 people, and women must wear a sin (traditional lao skirt), which can be borrowed from the huts located where the canoes are. The cave is open until 5PM.
Tha Falang a swimming spot in the river about 15 km east along Rte 12, is somewhat disappointing in the dry season, but the ride and friendly children still make this trip good fun. It is not signposted in English, so you will need to turn off to the north, down a sandy track after the bridge before the road bends around to the right between two cliffs. Immediately south after the bridge there is a shady spot to park and you can follow the river to Tham Xiengliab, a small cave with river flowing through it. Again a guide or pack of children will probably appear to guide you. Bring a torch and some gifts for the children if you want to go inside. It's about another 4-5 km to the commercialized Aen Cave which is lit with a rainbow of neon strip lamps and has an amazing network of Escher-like staircases. It has a river running out of mouth and a big pool at the back and is worth a look for the staircases alone. 10,000 kip + 2,000 kip for the bike.
Konglor Cave is likely to be the highlight of this trip, if not the whole of Laos. A 7 km long underground river that can be navigated by motorized longboat with a torch. It emerges into a lush valley on the far side which previously was only accessible by foot. In the dry season you will have to get out while the boatmen drag the long boat over the shallows, so bring flip flops. The cave is in the Phou Hin Bun National Park, 2,000 kip entrance fee, 3,000 kip/motorbike. The entrance fee for the cave itself is 10,000 kip/person, the return trip with a longboat costs 100,000 kip/2 boat (120,000 kip in total for two persons on a boat, 130,000 for three people). The road to Konglor leads through a valley with tobacco fields. Ban Nahin village at Rte 8, 42 km from Kong Lor, has many guest houses and motorbike rentals. There are various guest houses near Kong Lor as well and some good home stays in the village about 1 km from the cave itself (50,000 kip per person with breakfast and dinner, maximum of three people in the same house).
Check your bikes thoroughly before starting this trip, make sure the brakes and lights work and check the odometer as turnings are not necessarily signed and you want to measure the distance between junctions. If your helmet does not have a visor, sunglasses are essential as dust and insects will blind you.
Carrying a spare bottle of fuel gives a sense of security and might well make your day, as there are long stretches without gas stations, and ascents might spoil average consumption. Road #1E, the section between Yommalat and Laksao (some 80 km), while very rewarding, constitutes a mere dirt track with lots of deep potholes filled with mud, especially after the local heavy rains.
Reasonable places for overnights on a counterclockwise roundtrip could be the Sabaidee Guesthouse in Tha Lang (after 99 km without cave watching), and maybe a homestay/guesthouse near Konglor Cave (after another 145 km), before an early visit there and return to Thakhek (another 185 km), making it an enjoyable three-day trip.
There are a number of very informative scrapbooks filled with tips, maps and other experiences on The Loop at Travellers Lodge.
If riding a moped or bicycle isn't your style, you can still do the loop, or a portion of it, via a hired air conditioned minivan (with guide and driver) from the Tha Khaek tourist office. Through InterLao travel it is possible to book this tour beforehand, but they charge a premium for the service. The guide will bring water, assist in food purchases and show you the local sights including the waterfall above Ban Nahim. The tour can also include the Lao 'Baci' (welcome to village) ceremony. The minivan can drop you back at Tha Khaek, leave you at the intersection of Hwy 8 for a trip up to Vientiane via VIP bus or (perhaps) take you up to Vientiane (about 240 km and 1 million kip).
A number of cafes line the riverfront road serving the usual types of basic food. In the market good noodle soup can be eaten under the sheltered section towards the middle. Pork rolls in hot baguettes can be bought as a takeaway lunch from stands near the new fountain square at the end of the main road. Towards the other end, night food stalls sell pancakes and pork buns by battery-powered lamps. It makes a good stop on the way back from Rendez-Vous and is good way to spend some money outside the monopolising Travellers Lodge.
- Rendez-Vous (On the main road leading to the riverfront). A lively bar in the evenings. It's popular with locals and good fun in a group. Beerlao, 9,000 kip. Snooker table at the back.
- Inthira Hotel, 79, Unit 4 - Anou Rd (in the city centre, close to the Mekong), ☎ . The Inthira Hotel is part of a chain. Excellent restaurant with international and Lao cuisine. Good place to meet other travelers. Wi-Fi in public area. Bicycle and motorbike rental.
- Khammouane Inter Guesthouse (on the main road, about 200 m southwest of the post office), ☎ . Check-out: 11:00. With the charm of an administration building from another era, it is not going to win any style competition, but fairly priced basic rooms, a spacious lobby with free coffee and fruit make it an important addition to the limited range of accommodation in town. Offers guidance for 'The Loop', in-house motorbikes for rent for 50,000 kip/day. Free luggage storage. No Wi-Fi. Single fan, 50,000 kip; double fan, 60,000 kip; double air-con, 80,000 kip; triple fan, 70,000 kip.
- Tha Khaek Travelers Lodge (1 km south of the roundabout, from the market about 400 m further east, coordinates: 17.397565, 104.824950 the google maps marker for this guest house is in the wrong place so follow the coordinates or directions above.), ☎ . A popular place in an undeveloped part of town, but with a friendly campfire garden layout. The inside rooms are very basic and the beds hard. It could do with some renovation but the outside seating just about makes up for this. It's a good place to meet people and arrange trips but easy to let it become the (pricy) source of all your meals as the centre of town with more options is about 2.5 km away. Stop by for some experienced reports on the Loop. Dorm 30,000 kip; fan double 60,000/90,000 kip without/with bathroom; deluxe 110,000 kip.
- Kong Lor Cave - From the main bus station take a Pakse or any northbound bus (30,000 kip/1.5 hr) and get off at Vieng Kham (the intersection of Rte 13 and Hwy 8) where buses and tuk-tuks are available to Ban Nahin. Take a bus (20,000 kip/1 hr/departs at 14:00) or tuk-tuk (they asked 75,000 kip per person, but this is probably negotiable) to Ban Nahin where a minibus (25,000 kip/1 hr departs at 15:00 for Kong Lor). Alternatively, for the return trip to Tha Khaek, the minibus returns to Ban Nahin at 10:30 although the same minibus will occasionally travel directly to Tha Khaek (75,000 kip/5 hr).
- Pakse: local bus, 60,000 kip, 7 hr, regularly from 10:30; VIP 70,000 kip, 5 hr, 08:30
- Savannakhet: local bus, 30,000 kip, 2-3 hr, regularly from 10:30
- Vientiane: local bus, 60,000 kip, 7 hr, regularly from 05:30; VIP 80,000 kip, 5 hr, 09:15