Exchanging tales of the trade means for backpackers to share secret hints and tips for good and cheap accommodation, great local food – or some fantastic sight off the beaten track. This is where Rene and I heard about the “Loop” near Tha Khaek, which is supposed to be even more natural and raw than the trip we just finished in the Bolaven Plateau. The “Loop” is essentially a 500km motobike ride northeast of Tha Khaek, a city in the south of Laos.
Therefore, we left our guesthouse in Pakse early in the morning and set off for Tha Khaek – about 350km away. Roads in the south of Laos are in good condition – but nevertheless, such a journey will take about 6 to 7 hours.
This is due essentially to the fact, that the drivers have to deal with live stock standing in the middle of the road or narrow stretches, where they have to give way to oncoming traffic. In Laos (as well as other southeast Asian countries), the bus transport is essentially divided into “local” and “VIP” buses.
As you might guess from the name, one is for locals and the other one for tourists. Needless to say, that there’s a difference in price and VIP buses sometimes cost the double of the regular, local tariff. But there’s a subtle, hence important difference: Local buses stop anywhere along the route to pick up and drop off people. They also transport goods and animals. It is not uncommon to stop somewhere for 15 minutes, just to load a couple of rice bags. VIP buses, on the other hand, do not stop often along the route – and they usually only transport people.
Although the advantages of the faster buses are obvious, I prefer the local ones. To be perfectly honest: I hate the term “VIP” which insinuates that I would consider myself important and not being part of the rest of the people.
Since I am neither David Beckham nor the Queen of England, I am not using these fancy, shiny buses at all. The local buses have definitely more character – but the one we took from Pakse to Tha Khaek was painfully slow. The scheduled driving time was six to seven hours. Some locals told us, that we should prepare for an eight hour trip. At the end, our journey lasted more than ten hours. The trip was shaky and I felt like a nut in its shell – bumping my head at each pothole against various things of the bus.
But there was Rene, who makes the best out of the bad. He climbed on the top of the bus – while the bus assistants were busy loading the passengers motos on the roof – from where he started his performance act. The bus crew and the other people watching were smiling and cheering. This broke the ice and we treated like favourite pets by all the other passengers on the bus. Upon arrival in Tha Khaek, everyone wished us good-bye and the driver seemed a bit sad to see us crazy tourists leave.
Unfortunately, we were welcomed by heavy rain which lasted through much of next day. Rene and I figured that our moto trip around “The Loop” would take too long under such weather conditions and we explored other options while strolling along the roads downtown Tha Khaek.
We both agreed on leaving next day by bus to Ban Khoun Kham, a small village further north. This would make some progress moving towards Vientiane (our planned next stop) and give us the opportunity to explore at least parts of the missed tour. We also found out – after a short phone call – that the “Mi Tuna” guesthouse in Ban Khoun Kham would be able to provide us with motos to explore the limestone formations and caves, which are prominent in that region.
Once arrived in the village of Ban Khoun Kham, our host (her name is “Moon”), did collect motorbikes from the locals for renting them out to us. This system was new to us, but it makes everyone happy: The locals earn money. The guesthouse earns money. And the tourists can drive around freely. Next, Rene and I set off on the road number 8 towards the Vietnam border.
On the way, we explored most of the branching mud tracks branching off left and right of the very scenic journey. Sometimes, we arrived in some small settlements of hill tribes who probably never had seen a Western face before. Rene did his usual performance act and we consequently encountered tons of happy people throughout the day.
There are some scenic stops along the road, so we decided to conclude the day with some “Lao-Lao” (a local spirit) and some random food we bought at the local market. We stayed at one of these scenic outlooks near the guesthouse and enjoyed a fabulous sunset (well, it was overcast, but the Lao-Lao did its trick).