The ‘loop’ is a 450 km circular route through central Laos that begins and ends in Tha Khaek and generally takes from 3-5 days. I’ve heard of people doing it in two and others, like myself, take a full week. I’d suggest taking as much time as you can afford, because the scenery is spectacular and you’ll want plenty of time to soak it all in; at the same time, some of the roads can get quite rough and you’ll want to leave time for unplanned delays. And there will be delays, some good and some bad…read about my motorbike trip around the loop if you’re curious about some of the unexpected things that might pop up along the way.
Best Time to Go
The best time to do the loop is probably during the dry season from November to March, when temperatures are cooler, but the hot season from March to May is fine too. I did it in April and while it was hot, you don’t notice it too much on the bikes. Really, you just want to avoid the wet season from May to October, as the rains can turn a somewhat dusty motorbike ride into a torturous slog through endless mud.
Getting the Bikes
Most people recommend getting the bikes from the Tha Khaek Travel Lodge in Tha Khaek. They cost a little more than some other places, but apparently their bikes are also more reliable. We got ours from a place near the river for 50,000 Kip per day, but we had a lot of trouble with them and also with the owner of the rental place.
That said, we talked to people who paid twice what we did and had trouble with their bikes as well. Basically, you should go into this adventure expecting at least a few things to go wrong along the way. When it’s all over, those things make for the best stories anyway.
The loop begins and ends in Tha Khaek and this is where you will probably get your bikes. You should also get your hands on a map of the route; most guest houses will have one.
I will begin in Tha Khaek and list the main sites and towns along the loop in a counter-clockwise direction. Many of the sites do not have signs, at least not ones that are in English—or even visible at all—so it would be beneficial to reset your trip odometers (or if you don’t have a trip odometer, just note the number on the odometer) at the point where you cross Route 13. This could help in locating the turnoffs to some of the sights, but most likely you will have to resort to asking locals; the key is to always ask several—as many as possible—since the answers will sometimes vary a great deal.
Tha Khaek: The beginning of the loop
Tham Xang (Elephant Cave): take the right fork about 2.5 km after the Route 13 junction and follow the road toward the cave mouth in the distance; it’s basically a cave with a rock formation that looks like an elephant; skip it if you’re in a hurry
Tham Pha Pa (Buddha Cave): turn left about 4 km after the Route 13 junction (there should be a sign for this one) and follow the road (8-9km total) hanging a left at the fork; this famous cave is full of old Buddha images; can take some time to get to, so skip if in a hurry
Tha Falang: turn left 9 km after Route 13 and follow the trail for 2 km; a nice place for a swim; supposedly only worth it in the wet season, but we went in April and thought it was nice enough, but that was probably because the heat and dust had us ready to jump into any body of water we could find
Tham Xieng Liap: turn right about 10.5 km after the Route 13 junction (near the bridge over the river and the village of Song Khone) and head down the trail for about 400m; you’ll have to walk a bit from there and it might be a little difficult to find, but locals will help; the cave itself is amazing—200m long and you can wade through it in the dry season and swim in the valley on the other side; look for soft-shelled turtles in the cave; I definitely recommend this one
Tham Sa Pha In: turn left 11.5 km after the Route 13 junction (immediately after passing through a narrow pass); few people visit this cave, but it’s probably the most beautiful in this area; make sure to go all the way in and to the right, until you see the underground lake illuminated through a skylight from above; I definitely recommend this cave
Tham Nang Aen: turn south 16 km after the Route 13 junction (look for large signs in Lao just after a curve to the left); the most popular and touristy cave; give it a miss unless you have time and want to see them all
Mahaxay: the first town you’ll come to with a guest house; just look for the sign or ask someone; we stopped here and really liked it, but few people stop so soon into the loop
Nakai: about 16km after Mahaxay, Route 12 turns off to the right and heads toward Vietnam; you want to continue straight on Route 1E and into Nakai; somewhere around here is where the dirt roads begin, although they’re in pretty good shape for now; Nakai has a guesthouse, but many people recommend staying in the next town instead; if staying in Nakai, keep your eyes open for the sign or just ask around
Tha Long: tiny town 17 km after Nakai; has a guest house; as always, look out for the sign or ask someone; the roads generally get worse from here
Lak Sao: turn right onto Route 8 here and say goodbye to the dirt roads; several hotels in town, but most people continue on to Nahin; don’t bother with the hot springs if you happen to see a sign—we either couldn’t find them or did find them and they’re shut down (read about our search for the hot springs in Lak Sao)
Nahin: several guesthouses here; closest town to and base for Kong Lo (Konglor) Cave, although many people will stay in a guest house at the cave itself
Hin Poun Viewpoint: be sure to stop at this viewpoint at the top of the little mountain pass shortly after Nahin on Route 8; spectacular views
Vieng Kham: the junction of Route 8 and Route 13; turn left onto 13; from here it’s a long, straight shot down a good road (with a lot of traffic at times) to Tha Khaek
Tha Khaek: you made it!
- fill a plastic water bottle with gasoline for an emergency
- make sure you get a helmet with a visor or wear sunglasses; bugs and dust will be hitting you in the face
- if you’re not particularly fond of the taste of dirt, I’d recommend bringing something to cover your mouth as well
- check your bike thoroughly before renting it; take pictures to record the condition, just in case
- even if a town doesn’t have any official guesthouses, you can usually ask around and find a local to stay with; they will likely refuse any money you offer, but try to give it to them anyway
- bring plenty of sunscreen
- don’t forget to grab a map of the route from your guesthouse in Tha Khaek
- take plenty of cash; you will not find any ATMs along the way
- while the loop can be done in two or three days, leave yourself more time if you can afford it; it’s definitely better spent here than in Vientiane (or even Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, in my opinion)