Thakhek (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.
There are three bus stations in Thakhek:
- 1 Interprovincial bus station - also known as the South Bus Station - about 5 km east of the city centre, so a tuk-tuk ride is almost unavoidable, for which local drivers seem to have fixed a steep price of 20,000 kip (July 2019) per (foreign) person.
- 2 Local bus station - next to the Souksomboun market, songthaews to nearby destinations.
- 3 Morning market bus station - next to the morning market (maybe 100 m east of the round about in the backyard), e.g. minibus to Lak Sao.
Thakhek 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 south bus station can be as low as 20,000 kip per person (2019) 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.
Thakhek itself is a small town on the Mekong with good views of Thailand and a nearby border crossing to Thailand.
Bicycles and mopeds can be rented from the Thakhek Travellers Lodge, from Wang Wang (located at the central plaza across from Ithira Hotel, from a clothes shop on the south side of the main road leading to the Lao Development Bank, or from a few different places near the river.
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 is an almost 500-km-long round trip along Rte 12 to the east and then up north and around returning south to Thakhek on Rte 13. Most do it counter-clockwise and put the long, boring almost 2-hour drive (100 km) on Rte 13 to the end. It is normally done in 3-4 days on a hired moped or using your own transport. It can be done in 2 days but this involves a lot of driving and starting the day early to not have to drive in the dark.
The condition of the roads has improved greatly in the past and only rarely requires a specific skill level (mainly some bridge crossings which you could choose to push over if you really didn't dare driving). However, rain, animals (cows, water buffaloes, dogs!), and the driving standards can make driving challenging to say the least. Do not expect to be able to drive at high speeds. Do expect some heavy truck traffic on the connection roads to Vietnam. 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.
Tham Nong Pafa Cave (often referred to as the Buddha Cave) is a hidden cave that is accessible via an elevated walkway which leads to a flight of concrete steps. No need for the previous canoe trips and the dangerous bamboo ladder is gone as well. Women must wear a sin (traditional Lao skirt), which can be borrowed from the huts located at the beginning of the walkway. The cave is open until 17:00. Photography is not allowed inside the cave.
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. 20,000 kip (2016) + 2,000 kip for the bike. As of Sep 2016, entrance fee to the cave is 20,000 kip. It is possible to take a two hour boat ride through the cave from the east to the west. Prepare for 1,000 meters boat ride and 300 meters walking to reach the west exit of the cave where you can enjoy a beautiful view. The trip costs 50,000 kip per person and officially 100,000 kip if you come alone (you can bargain it to 50,000 though). The boys hanging out next to the entrance of the cave do the tour. They will not approach you so ask.
Thalang is a small town on the loop, worth stopping at to rest for a couple hours taking a swim in the lake (Nam Theun 2, protected area), surrounded by tree trunks which makes it a unique experience; or even for a day, taking a tour with a local company to explore the area, with the lake but as well a jungle and a beach.
Konglor Cave to some is the highlight of this trip. It is a 7-km-long underground river that is navigated by motorized longboat with a powerful but very narrow headlamp (rental is included in ticket) and leads through gigantic caves sometimes higher than the powerful beam can lighten up. To fully appreciate it one would need a huge and wide spreading source of light. In the dry season you will have to get out while the boatmen drag (or drive!) the long boat over the shallows, so bring flip flops (or take those available for free just before you enter the boat).
The river emerges into a valley on the far side which used to be only accessible by foot. Expect 4 or 5 food stalls selling drinks and the usual. If you have plenty of time, you may be able to rent a bicycle and try to explore the valley. Be sure to talk it through with your boat man (who usually waits for you for up to two hours) if you decide to stay for an extended period. There isn't much to do otherwise and you will quickly find yourself riding down the river and back through the cave. The round trip takes about 2 hours (one-way is 1 hour).
The entrance fee for Kong Lor is 110,000 kip/person (November 2022) and includes round trip with the boat through the cave (three tourist plus guide maximum). You can take your motorbike with you on the boat for 250,000 kip (November 2022). Motorbike parking is 5,000 kip.
The road to Konglor leads through a valley with tobacco fields. Try to have some gas in your tank to avoid having to fill up in a very remote area.
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. Do also keep in mind that often gas is sold in bottles of 1 liter at the side of the road (the red stuff), expect to pay a few cents more (maybe 1000 kip) or get a little less, but maybe support a family instead of (rather: and) a big corporation. Filling up the tank once it gets below half is not necessary, but will give you a peace of mind when entering vast areas.
Road #1E, the section between Yommalat and Laksao (some 80 km), is very rewarding and among the most beautiful part of the loop. It no longer (August 2019) constitutes a mere dirt track with lots of deep potholes filled with mud, especially after the local heavy rains. It is a well driveable road. However, rain and dust can make for a very slippery track.
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.
The Loop by bike: 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).
The Loop by car: 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 Thakhek 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 Thakhek, 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).
You should have a valid driver's licence, if not an international one.
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.
If you do want to eat dinner, do so before 21:00. Trying to find something after 21:30 can be tough.
Kyoto Restaurant makes extremely good and authentic Japanese food. Bring some time and prepare for a peculiar experience. The owner has been living in Laos for 21 years and will likely have a drink with you. Open only M-Sa, 11:00-18:00.
Le Café Bleu opened 2015. Its a stylish and friendly place with excellent coffee and Lao, Thai and Western food coming from the shiniest kitchen in Thakhek. Prices are surprisingly low, compared to DD Café in the city center.
Boton d'Or is a hotel and has a riverside restaurant with excellent local food and a great view. They also serve pizza from a woodfire oven. It is decently priced.
789cool is a bar and restaurant. It is popular among young locals. It seems to be the only place selling food even after 22:00. However, the place turns into a bar at night. It does also offer splendid views on the Mekong. Food is decent, drinks are cold and plentiful.
- 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.
- 1 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.
- 2 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 drinking water refill make it an important addition to the limited range of accommodation in town. Offers guidance for 'The Loop', in-house motorbikes for rent for 60,000 kip/day. If you only want to ride it to the rock climbing crag you can get it for 50,000 kip/day. Free luggage storage. Free Wi-Fi. Single fan, 50,000 kip; double fan, 60,000 kip; double air-con, 80,000 kip; triple fan, 70,000 kip.
- 3 Phonepadith Hotel, Nabo Village, Thakhek District (downtown, 0.5 km from the Mekong River and ferry boat to/from Nakhon Phanom), ☏ , email@example.com. Check-in: Anytime, check-out: 11:30. Free breakfast from 06:30 to 09:00. Wifi. 3 kinds of rooms. Parking lot available with a fee. Mini Mart (small shop) within the premises. Extra services possible such as transportation or day tour. standard for 120,000 kip, twin 170,000 kip, "VIP" 200,000 kip.
- 4 Thakhek Travelers Lodge (1 km south of the roundabout, from the market about 400 m further east), ☏ . 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.
- 5 Phosy Thalang Guesthouse, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: anytime, check-out: noon. Offers two bedding options (bungalows & dorms, both with mosquito nets) & locations (500 m from each other), one right on the lake, and the other one 100 m away. Features a restaurant as well (international food, more specialized in Asian food though). Friendly family business; the manager, Amphai, speaks an excellent English. Best sunrise location is at the restaurant, best sunset from the guesthouse. Day tours of the surrounding area, including the lake, local school, and jungle. Possibility to make it a 2 days 1 night tour, camping on a beach. Dorms starting at 20,000 kip, bungalows starting at 50,000 kip.
- 6 Kong Lo View Hotel & Resort, Ban Konglo, Khounkham District (Very last (and nearest) hotel before the cave, on the left side), ☏ , email@example.com. Check-in: 14:00, check-out: 12:00. Eco lodge owned & managed by a friendly Lao couple, with Bounlieng speaking a perfect English.
30 rooms (12 twin beds, 18 double beds). Free wifi in the main area. Possible to take tours for a day or two (camping if so), hiking to the other side of the cave, going on a boat along the river, or trekking in the jungle. On the same premises there's an organic farm where about 85% of the food served at the restaurant is coming from. Food is mainly Lao, some Western one as well. Continental breakfast. Free coffee/tea. Guests are welcome to walk around the area including to the farm, and the small private cave. Pétanque course for free. All in all, rural feeling (in the good way) and yet luxurious. Opened in 2016, still expanding (planned for 2019 is a tree house and cave house as well). US$55 for double bed, US$60 for twin bed.
There may be a police operation/scam in Thakhek in which police wait for motorcyclists at an intersection on the main road heading to and from the river. Simply obeying the road rules may not be enough: the police will invent some kind of transgression like stopping in the wrong part of the road or not stopping when the light is broken, and will take photographic 'evidence' to prove it. A valid (international) licence can help to get out without paying a 'fine'.
- Kong Lor Cave - From the main (south) bus station take a Vientiane or any northbound bus (30,000 kip, 1½ 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 Thakhek, the minibus returns to Ban Nahin at 10:30 although the same minibus will occasionally travel directly to Thakhek (75,000 kip, 5 hr).
- Pakse: local bus, 60,000 kip (July 2019), 7 hr, regularly from 10:30; VIP 70,000 kip, 5 hr, 08:30 (Sep 2016: the 8.30 bus is not a VIP bus, just has A/C)
- 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