A quick catch up: After the New Year we intended to head all the way from Mae Hong Son to the Cambodian islands to enjoy some snorkeling and sunshine. The travel gods had something else in store for us as the buses to Bangkok were booked for days and the buses up north were stuffed to the gills. So we made a quick decision to get the heck out of Thailand by flipping our 2 month south to north tour from Cambodia to Laos upside down. We started by catching a bus from Chiang Mai to Vientiane, Laos and then headed south to Tha Khek to start the Tha Khek Loop.
The Tha Khek Loop is a 500 km or so motorbike loop through southern central Laos. The highlights include impressive limestone cliffs, numerous caves and a chance to get away from the bigger cities that dot the Mekong River.
Day 1: We were so busy exclaiming over the rapidly changing landscape that we blew past the half dozen caves that are within 15 km of Tha Khek. We weren’t too concerned though because we planned to double back this way in a few days. We poked along at our usual slooooow pace and after checking out a local market near Gnommalath we stayed in Tha Lang around the 100 km mark for the night.
|Milkweed in Ban Tha Lang- a relocation village.|
|Tee calls this the cotton tree and it produces large pods that look like cotton pods. I haven’t seen a dry seed pod yet.|
|The beginning of the COLD weather in Tha Lang.|
Day 2: So, so, so bitterly cold, windy, and overcast and we, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, were so under dressed for the weather that we only rode the 60 km from Tha Lang to Lak Sao. Fearing that the cold weather would continue we stocked up on cold weather gear at the local market, this proved to be a very wise investment and I am happy to say I am the proud owner of a pair of flip flop socks (think mittens for your feet). I have wanted a pair for years and they are just as awesome as I thought they would be.
|These men were preparing wood for a furniture shop in town.|
|A reminder that children and especially farmers are exposed to UXO’s daily in many regions of eastern Laos. Knowing there can be UXO’s in the ground, though they likely were all cleared during road construction, makes taking a pee on the side of the road just a bit scary, I stuck to the livestock paths.|
Day 3: Another cold start to the day as we came down off the plateau, but though it continued to be windy, the sunshine and extra layers made for a pleasant 100 km ride. We rode out to Konglor cave and took a boat ride through the 7 km long cave in the late afternoon. In the end Tee and I had very different opinions when it came to the tour. I felt that our guide rushed us through the most interesting area filled with huge stalactites so that we could sit around a beer and noodle shop. Tee, though he was a bit apprehensive about riding a boat upriver through a mountain, thought it was a great tour. A highlight: as we exited the cave, I looked up and spotted a gibbon!
|Sliced sweet potatoes drying in the sun. These are then made into flour.|
|Fresh tobacco leaves on their way into the dryer for 24 hours|
|The road to Konglor Cave.|
|All ready for a 7 km boat ride through the mountain.|
|Stalagmites and stalactites in Konglor Cave|
Day 4: From Konglor Cave we wanted to avoid the boring stretch along the highway back to Tha Khek so instead of making a loop we headed back the way we came. This was a good decision because everything looked very different in the sunshine. We joined the counter clockwise motor bike crew and drove 160 km back to Tha Lang.
|Dry rice fields and towering limestone cliffs.|
|Honking and waving at the fleets of school children sailing down the road on their bicycles mades the miles, or kilometers, fly by.|
|Bright green tobacco fields break up the dry landscape near Ban Konglor.|
|Herds of water buffalo, cows, goats and pigs flowed across the roadways and through the villages.|
|Harvested straw laid out to dry, this straw is used to make brooms. Tee said when he and his sister were in primary school they would spend all day collecting straw and get about 30 cents for it.|
|The flooded forest was created when a large dam was built.|
|The center of the milkweed flower is used to decorate mak beng or banana leaf decorations for the temple.|
Day 5: After seeing the forests that were flooded when the reservoir was filled Tee was interested in learning more about the dam project so we stopped at Nam Theun Visitor Centre. Interestingly, 95% of the power produced here is sold to Thailand. We also stopped at Pha Inh Cave just outside Tha Khek and I was much more impressed with this tiny cave than with Konglor Cave, Tee had the opposite impression. After driving 100 km we finished the day back in Tha Khek.
|We had noticed many new schools along the loop and Tee had correctly guessed that they were paid for by the power company.|
|Checking out the bushmeat at a market near Gnommalath.|
|The landscape that distracted us from the caves on the first day.|
|Visiting Pha Inh Cave on near Tha Khek.|
|Upside down coral reef?|
|This section reminded me of huge chandeliers dangling from the ceiling.|
The Tha Khek Loop was a great way to get out into the countryside to see how the majority of the population in Laos lives. We would love to come do this loop again during the wet season when the rice fields are bright green and brimming with water.
Next stop: The Bolaven Plateau