The wind is blowing in your neck, your favorite road trip tunes are blasting in your ear and you pass one rice paddy after the other. You’re in the midst of a motorbike loop somewhere in the countryside of Laos. Giving your bike that extra bit of speed, you realize these Asian bikes do not have any speed limitations so you have a little fun with it. 70, 80, 90 km’s an hour, oops that might have been a bit too much. Every now and again a beaten old truck passes you, honking because you’re one of the few tourists coming this way. Same goes for the kids living in the local villages, running to the side of the road and waving wildly. Waving back at them, you try to keep the bike straight. Why did they put the throttle on the right side of the steering wheel? That doesn’t matter though because you’re on one of the greatest motorbike loops in Laos.
By far the best way to discover most Asian countries is by renting or buying a motorbike. I spent quite a few miles on a motorcycle in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. It is one of the easiest things to do and it is a blast! I even promised myself that if I ever go back to Vietnam or the north of Laos I want to buy a motorcycle and see the countries that way. Today I wanted to show you the reason why Laos is the best place to start driving around on a motorbike or a scooter.
There are two well-known motorbike loops in Laos, located in the middle and the south of the country. One around Thakhek and one around Pakse. Both just as beautiful with long and windy roads, but with very different sceneries. If you want vast landscapes, mountains and eerie looking trees growing in the water, Thakhek is going to be your take-off point. Depending on your motorcycle driving skills, you can turn back after night one and the drive will consist out of only paved roads (this is the trip we ended up doing). This will take you out to 23km long the lake of Thalang. This used to be dry land, but was flooded due to the lower down dam and is why you can still find all these trees standing and growing in the water. Another option is to adventure onto gravel roads which will keep you going for another (few) day(s) and will allow you to do the full three or four-day loop. On this long track you can visit the famous Kong Lor Caves, which we decided to skip. As we were short on time and because most of us had seen plenty of caves, we decided we would rather spend our time elsewhere.
Taking off on this loop, you will be driving between 200 to 500km depending on how far you are going to go. As there is usually only one way you can take, getting lost is quite difficult on this track, however do use the map that is given to you upon your departure. Driving out of a city like Thakhek can be a little bit challenging, so there are a couple of safety lessons I learnt over my time in Asia that I would like to share. When driving around try to keep calm and steady, the traffic might seem hectic but it will drive around you. That is how it works in Asia since most drivers do not have a license. Traffic rules are ignored (or they just don’t know them) and drivers see what happens and navigate around it. If you hear someone honking, look around and make sure they are not just about to flatten you. Most of the time, they are just saying “hello”. You see, honking replaces most of our traffic rules we have in western countries, honking works for it all. Passing someone on the street, going left or right, seeing someone you know, crossing intersections, it is just so versatile! Needless to say, these motorbike loops are well worth it, even though you should expect to do a lot of mileage while driving. Eat in the local places and pay next to nothing, have fun with the local kids (and make sure to show them your photo after, they’ll go wild) and be charmed by mama dog feeding her babies on the road.
If you are interested in doing the Thakhek motorbike loop, I can recommend Mad Monkey Motorbike. This local shop is run by a German who knows plenty about the area and bikes. Prices are a little bit higher than what you expect to spend in Laos or what you can find in other stores, but a safe bike that is well taken care of is worth paying a little extra. Always be aware of the dangers when renting bikes in Asia and check your bike thoroughly before you take it out. Take photos and note down all scratches. We decided to go with Mad Monkey Motorbikes to avoid any of the insurance scams and are still happy we did!
A traditional funeral of a big wig in the army
The other motorbike loop in Laos of which I was talking about earlier in the article is the loop around Pakse. Here you will be driving around the Bolaven Plateau which is focused around waterfalls, waterfalls and more waterfalls. The most famous waterfall of them all is Tad Lo and therefore this loop is also often referred to as the Tad Lo loop. Several hours by bus to the south of Thakhek, you can expect a slightly different landscape than Thakhek. Less dramatic mountains on the main road and more villages alongside the road. Just as much waiving kids though. Much more than Thakhek, the villages between Pakse and Tad Lo play a central role in your biking experience. This area is also a big coffee production area for the lovers of this drink so have a closer look at how the locals dry their bean in the sun next to the roads. You will even drive past an amazing coffee shop along the road, JHAI coffee shop. More about that in the bottom of this post. The principle of this motorbike loop is the same as in Thakhek, find yourself a good bike to rent and go out for one or two nights. Accommodation can be found alongside the road as you are driving. The major points of the loops are located there for a reason with accommodation to match.
– Coffee drying next to the side of the road-
If you’re after practical information because your ready to go on this adventure, here you go:
The Loop in Thakhek
Thakhek: We stayed at the Xailuedy Hotel but there are plenty of options in the center of the city. Rock up or book in advance, it all works in Laos.
During the loop: We stayed at the Phosy Thalang Guesthouse which was recommended by Mad Monkey Motorbikes and we were quite happy to be staying there. It is very tranquil and the views are amazing. Do check the temperatures before you go as the nights here can get pretty cold. There is also other accommodation a little bit further down the road if you want a more sociable rather than peaceful location.
Mad Monkey Motorbike
If you are looking for a massage, Thakhek does not have any to offer at the time we were there. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, go to the massage/sauna/karaoke spot on the strip next to the water. Trust me on this one. If you want to hear the story about my first and only visit to a brothel, feel free to send me an e-mail 😉
The Loop in Pakse around Tad Lo
Pakse: We stayed in Sabaidi 2 Guesthouse, which was basic with a good location and clean. It’s also a pretty sociable hostel to meet people. We were however pretty annoyed by the wifi that did not work at all due to a reception worker who was using it to download music on his own account.
Find other hotels in Pakse here
During the loop: In Tat Lo we stayed in the most lovely guesthouse, Sailom Yen Guesthouse, which is basic bamboo with an awesome view over the river. I can’t give you a link, because, Asia, but it’s on your right side before you cross the bridge in Tat Lo.
We rented ours with the only Belgian in the village, a guy names Yves. We asked around and ended up in a little store attached to a hotel on the main drag. Go right from Daolin and you’ll find it on your left. In all honesty, the bikes were not as good as our bikes in Thakhek and therefore I’m not sending you there. Ask around and don’t forget to negotiate!
Daolin Restaurant and coffeeshop on the corner of Thanon 24 and No. 13 S Road
By far the best food that we tried in Pakse. Try the passionfruit juice, Oh boy how do I miss that drink!
JHAI Coffee House, somewhere on the road in Pakxong.
An organic coffeeshop with bohemian flair that only works with local products and sold me completely. Could have hung out much longer if we didn’t have to keep driving. Have a rest on their rooftop terras as well!