- 1 - Tha Khaek – Why Are We Here?
- 2 - Still in Tha Khaek – At Least the Mekong Was Beautiful
- 3 - Solving the Mystery of the Disappearing Gas
- 4 - Monkeying Around on the Motorbike Loop
- 5 - On the Dusty Road Again
- 6 - New Year’s Lao Style – Water Fights, Karaoke and Drinking in a River
- 7 - New Year’s Party in a Tiny Laotian Village
- 8 - Another Detour in Search of Another Nonexistent Attraction
- 9 - Exploring Gigantic Kong Lo Cave by Boat
- 10 - Finishing the Loop With a Tour of Lao Bike Repair Shops
Laos is a great country to rent a motorbike and cruise the countryside. With nowhere near the traffic of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, you actually stand a pretty good chance of surviving. And with nowhere near the number of scammers, you might even get a decent bike for a fair price. We didn’t, but we heard stories of people who did.
No, our bikes broke down on a daily basis over the course of our seven-day trip around the infamous ‘motorbike loop’ in Central Laos and on an hourly basis on two or three of those days. There were four of us and we had four bikes. Three of them looked fairly new and in good shape; the fourth was smaller, less powerful and looked it had been in several accidents, all of them earlier in the day.
Naturally, I got the crappy bike. And as the other three bikes suffered from one problem after another, mine kept running. All the way around the loop, it never once had a problem. To me, that clearly indicates that I was far and away to most skilled rider in our group, as comfortable on a bike as a Mongolian on a horse. Everyone else just figured I was lucky. They may have had a point.
We started our trip in Tha Khaek in central Laos, a town on the Mekong, just across the river from Thailand and the beginning and end of the ‘motorcycle loop’. It’s the kind of place that an older version of any typical guidebook probably used to call ‘a sleepy little waterfront village,’ but that’s not true anymore. These days it’s…I don’t know really.
It’s definitely not touristy, as you’ll find only a few hotels and all but one are pretty horrible. It will almost certainly be touristy in a few years, since I got the distinct feeling that it wanted badly to be the Luang Prabang of the south, but Luang Prabang has sights and charm and actual visitors, while Tha Khaek has mean dogs and trucks.
All day long, small ferries carry trucks that are pretty much the same size as the ferries across the Mekong one by one, trucks that are all heading to Vietnam with cargo from Thailand. Apparently, a lot of that cargo is dogs (unfortunately not the ones that roam the streets of Tha Khaek though); it seems stray dogs from Thailand are stuffed alive onto trucks heading for Vietnamese dinner plates and the Tha Khaek ferry is their favored border crossing. Admittedly, Thailand does have a huge problem with stray dogs and I guess they’ve found a solution. I hope that asshole sheriff in Arizona doesn’t read this.
We arrived in Tha Khaek after an eight hour bus ride from Vientiane and finally stumbling off that cramped, steaming death trap and into the cool night air was one of the greatest moments of my life. Remember, this is central Laos, where the ‘cool night air’ is 32°C (90° F), but after sitting on a bus that was 20 degrees hotter than that, because it was moving so slowly that the air didn’t circulate despite the open windows, 32° feels amazing.
Unfortunately, we had to find a ride into town and the second we saw the group of nearby tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) drivers with their greedy little eyes, we knew our relief would be short-lived. We entered negotiations together with two other foreign victims of the bus company and I won’t get into the painful and annoying details, but we managed to talk the driver down from private-jet-level prices to limo-with-a-hot-tub-level. For that, we got to squeeze the six of us and all our bags into a rickshaw that, somewhat uncomfortably, seats four.
We got off at the Tha Khaek Travel Lodge, which we soon learned is the only place anyone wants to stay in Tha Khaek (that doesn’t mean it’s good, mind you, just that no one seems to stay anywhere else), unless someone has opened a new hotel in the city since 2011.
Of course it was booked solid and we ended up having to get another tuk-tuk (yes, we were very happy about that) and going to another hotel. I can’t remember the name and it wasn’t really a horrible place or anything—we were simply the only guests and were wishing we had some people to talk to. So, if you’re going to Tha Khaek and you plan on staying at the Travel Lodge, you should call ahead and make reservations (you can find their number in my travel guide for Tha Khaek).
We were planning on getting some bikes early the next morning and setting out on our trip shortly after, so we just wanted to get some dinner and go to bed. Of course, those plans quickly changed. As we were walking along the waterfront back to our hotel, we heard loud music coming from the river and decided to check it out. It turned out to be a dance club on a boat that was tied to the shore. It was called ‘Smile Pub’ and there was no way we were just walking past.
Once we made it past the bouncers (yes, bouncers!), we headed down some very uneven and somewhat wobbly stairs to the river. I’m sure those stairs have been responsible for their fair share of Sunday morning “why is there a huge bruise on my forehead and where did my front teeth go” discoveries. Once in the club, it was time to leave.
Like every club I’ve ever been to in Southeast Asia, this one was playing incredibly fast music incredibly loudly. I have no idea why they like their club music to be so unbearable, but I know yaba (a drug similar to speed) is very popular in this part of the world and that’s the only explanation I can come up with for why someone might enjoy music that is twice as fast and twice as loud as what most people would consider pleasant.
It didn’t really matter though. Not twenty minutes had gone by before we noticed several guys watching us. Then a cop showed up and talked to the guys, all the while eyeing us too and we knew we should probably get out of there immediately. We did, so we never found out what those guys and the cop were up to, but my best guess is some kind of shakedown. I know for sure it wouldn’t have been good.
At least this meant that we wouldn’t be getting back too late and we would be able to get up the next morning to find some bikes for our ride around the loop. You’ve probably realized by now that this week-long trip could fill a book, so I’ve decided to start another series that I plan on adding posts to bit by bit. I know I’ve got several of these series in the works, but I simply don’t have the attention span to write everything out all at once.
Series continued in part 2: Still in Tha Khaek – At Least the Mekong Was Beautiful
All pictures except the last one (the Smile Pub) courtesy of AX.