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.
There are three bus stations in Tha Khaek:
- 1 Interprovincial 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 price of 15,000 kip 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.
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 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 5PM. 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. 10,000 kip (Sep. 2016: 20,000 kip) + 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 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.
Kyoto Restaurant (to be found on google maps) 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 mo-sat, 11 a. m. to 6 p. m. (!)
Le Café Bleu is on google maps and opened 2015. Its an extremely 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.
- 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), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Check-in: Anytime, check-out: 11:30AM. Free breakfast from 6:30AM to 9AM. Wifi. 3 kinds of rooms. Parking lot available against fee. Mini Mart (small shop) within the premises. Extra services possible such as transportation or day tour. standard for 120K Kip, twin 170K Kip, "VIP" 200K Kip.
- 4 Tha Khaek 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, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: anytime, check-out: noon. Offers two bedding options (bungalows & dorms, both with mosquito nets) & locations (500 meters from each other), one right on the lake, and the other one 100m 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, jungle... Possibility to make it a 2 days 1 night tour, camping on a beach. Dorms starting at 20K Kip, bungalows starting at 50K Kip.
- 6 Kong Lo View Hotel & Resort, Ban Konglo, Khounkham District (Very last (and nearest) hotel before the cave, on the left side), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Check-in: 2PM, check-out: 12PM. 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). $55 for double bed, $60 for twin bed.
- 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 (Sep. 2016: The 8.30 bus is no 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