Everything you need about the Thakhek Loop in Laos. Lonely Planet calls it the Tha Khaek Loop, some call it the Konglor Loop or simply just the Loop. Whatever name you want to go by, it is one of the coolest and more adventurous things you can do in Laos.
It is approximately a 500 kilometre motorcycle journey that most people start and finish in the town of the same name, Thakhek. Usually taking anywhere between 3-5 days, depending on how fast you ride and how much you do.
It is no secret amongst the more adventurous travellers and motorbike enthusiasts these days but it is still reasonably quiet and you are unlikely to run into many other tourists. Certainly not compared to somewhere like Vang Vieng or 4000 Islands.
It is famous for the scenery, riding through beautiful rugged karst mountains and remote authentic villages. Often the big highlight for the Loop is visiting the Konglor cave in Phu Hin Bun National Park, it is a 7.5 kilometre long tunnel cut through the mountain by the Nam Hin Bun River. Many tourists arrive by bus simply to visit the cave. But it is even more rewarding arriving by your own motorbike.
The roads are relatively quiet once you are out of Thakhek and easy to ride however you should note that there is approximately 20km of dirt road which can test your skills. Depending on weather it is either a dusty loose mess or a slippery muddy trap. If you complete the loop in traditional fashion you will also have to ride 110 kilometre of busy Laos Highway, which is mostly boring to look at and used by big buses and trucks. This can be avoided if you opt to do the dirt twice and return the way you came (if you started in an anti clockwise direction). That all said, my mum did it and she was 5o at the time. So you will be right if you take it easy.
The following information is everything you need to know to complete this Loop. You can read my story about the time I rode the loop with my mum or watch the videos to get a better idea about the place.
How to get to Thakhek
Thakhek is located on the Mekong River bordering the West of Laos (south of the capital Vientiane) and the East of Thailand. It is possible to travel here relatively easily for SE Asia standards from either within Laos or Thailand (depending on location obviously).
Coordinates: 17.4030° N, 104.8338° E
You want to head to the border town of Nakhom Phanom. From Bangkok it is roughly a 12 hour bus ride or a 1.5 hour plane ride. Buses from Nakhom Phanom leave from the bus terminal approximately every 30 minutes to take you across the border (crossing the Mekong river) to Thakhek. Laos visas can be purchased on arrival, 30 days for around US$35.
From within Laos
From the capital of Vientiane you can catch a bus from the “Southern Bus Station”, be aware this bus station is actually in the north of the city. Only named as the southern bus station because it is for all connections to south Laos. Regular buses leave every hour and take roughly 7 hours to get to Thakhek, one VIP mini bus leaves at 1pm (below table from wikitravel says otherwise) which will cost you slightly more but get you there quicker.
Thakhek is a good stop over for anyone heading from Vientiane to Pakse or 4000 Islands and vis versa.
Renting a motorbike for the Thakhek Loop
There is 3 main places that specialising in renting out scooters and motorbikes to foreigners solely for riding the loop. We rented off the the German Expat who runs the company called Mad Monkey. His service was excellent and his motorbikes are in top condition. I can not really comment on the other two companies, from what I understand from research online, Mad Monkey certainly is not the cheapest however as I was with my mum we went with reliability and service over saving a couple of dollars.
You won’t require a motorbike license to rent but you will have to hand over your passport for a deposit on the vehicle.
The following are the most popular companies (no links are affiliated or sponsored, they are only provided for you to help decide yourself).
Mad Monkey Motorbike Rental
Run by a German Expat and his native wife. They pride themselves in only having quality bikes (no Chinese knockoffs). With around 22 bikes on offer now ranging from 100 cc to 250 cc in size.
Stocking bikes for any level of skill. Manual, Semi Automatic and Automatic. Popular choices:
Honda Wave Semi Automatic
140.000.kip/day | 120.000 kip/day for 3 or more days
Honda Zoomer Automatic
160.000 kip/day | 140.000 kip/day for 3 or more days
Visit their website for the complete list of bikes on offer. On top of rental they offer a “full service package”. If you brake down anywhere along the loop they will come and pick up your bike and bring you a replacement, for free. Nice to know for piece of mind but honestly with the quality of the bikes I doubt he has ever had a call out.
Location: In the centre of downtown. Across from the fountain plaza (about 10 minutes from the bus station on the highway by tuk tuk)
If you want to reserve and bikes or contact them, do so by clicking here.
Located at the Thakhek Travel Lodge and recommended by Lonely Planet, this guy gets a fair bit of business and I think you pay similar high prices to mad monkey more for his popularity. That said, I can not speak from personal experience only from what I have read. Reviews say he provides good, clean motorbikes and good service. Certainly worth checking out. I would steer clear of the lodge though, unless only using for a night. Over priced for Laos standards and mixed reviews (again not personal experience).
Location: 5 minutes out of town by tuk tuk, closer to the highway. Easier if you don’t want to see the town itself and have a quick escape on the motorbike.
Lodge has free wifi and restaurant.
Wang Wang Rentals
This is your budget option. You get what you pay for, if you get in early you will have a greater selection of bikes to choose from and will have more bargaining power. Semi Automatic for half the price of Mad Monkey. Don’t expect the service though. If you know a bit about bikes and have experience then they probably are a good budget choice. If you are new to this then make sure you get something half decent, the joke can get old pretty quick when you have a shitty bike breaking down all the time (I owned a piece of snot like this in Vietnam).
Location: in the centre of down town, conveniently located just a couple shops down from Mad Monkey.
Renting for the first time – things to consider
At the risk of sounding a bit like my mum, here are some things to think about when renting. Most of it is pretty obvious so if you know what you’re doing then you probably don’t need to read it. But if this is your first time then it could be helpful for you.
It is a relatively easy ride if you take it slow and be smart about it. Pick a bike that suits your experience levels, the point of the loop isn’t to race and complete it. Who cares how long it takes you. If your nervous about doing it, remember my mum survived, you can to. That said, like everything in life, there is risks involved.
Most of this is overkill but whenever renting in SE Asia it’s worth thinking about to minimise some of the risks and/or to potentially save yourself some money:
- Brakes, do they feel right? not too loose or tight. They should squeeze closed about 1/2 the way
- Mirrors, with the craziness of SE Asian roads these are extremely valuable for a safe ride
- Shock test – try this between a few bikes to compare, by squeezing the front brakes (right) and pushing down on the handle bars and releasing it several times. It should feel firm and smooth
- Amount of tread on tires
- Lights, the locals might not always use indicators but doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Make sure they work as well as the brake light and head lights.
- Horn, don’t underestimate the importance of a working horn in SE Asia.
- Engine, look for oil leaks
- Look for rust. More often then not the odometer on an old bike is either not working or taken from another bike. Rust is a good indicator of the real age of the bike. The older the bike the greater chances of a break down.
- Chain. Make sure it is oiled and not to loose (or too tight).
- Listen to the motor for any unusual sounds, especially if you are hiring one of the budget options.
- Fuel. The isn’t the west, check the level of the tank and confirm it with the owner. Most places don’t rent out motorbikes with full tanks but rather empty ones. The more dodgy ‘businessmen’ might try and get one over you this way but mostly it is just how things are done in Asia. You forfeit whatever you return it with in the tank (they siphon it out before the next customer).
- Helmet. Obviously. No one likes a hero, do that reckless shit in your own country where you at least have an adequate emergency service available to save your dumb life
- Mask and Glasses. Needed for the dirt road.
Take the bike for a test ride before you agree, if you can you really want to open it up a bit, not just idle around the block. Try a few so you can see which suits you, automatic vs semi automatic.
Take Photos or a Video of all the damage on the bike. I think most of the guys hiring out bikes in Thakhek are pretty good about this but as a general rule for renting bikes in Southeast Asia you should always do this. Just to cover your own arse if they try to swindle some money for damages out of your pocket afterwards.
If anything does happen (in terms of small break downs) you should be able to find a mechanic in one of the small villages (they are everywhere). Repairs are generally pretty inexpensive. A tire puncture might set you back as little as $2 to $4.
If you are inexperienced you might be thinking of going ‘2 up’ on a motorbike, this is fine if the one driving at least knows what they are doing. If not it will be a lot harder to ride and control for an inexperienced person with the weight of somebody on the back, especially on the dirt. Seriously consider riding yourself, these bikes are easy and if approached properly and sensibly just about anyone can do it. You won’t be encountering the busy streets of Saigon or Bangkok. This is mostly open back country. Plus it is a shit load more fun on your own bike.
Lastly remember to travel light, you can leave your luggage with the owners of the rental shops.
Thakhek Loop Itinerary
When you rent your bike the owner will give you a lot of tips of what is worth seeing plus a map with rough locations on it. This is the best way to build your own itinerary around what sounds good to you.
Most people ride it in a anti clockwise direction. I recommend taking 4 days at least, if you have the time, however a lot of people do it in just 3. The best way is to take it as it comes, depending on your skill, how fast you ride and how many times you stop will determine where you spend each night.
You also need to decide if you complete the Loop in traditional fashion, and ride 110km of busy highway at the end, or as the guy at Mad Monkey suggests, skipping it and returning back the way you came (you have to do the dirt twice though).
There is quite a few random little caves, swimming holes and even small waterfalls to visit along the way. If you choose to return the way you came you can always visit more of these on the way back.
Phosy Thalang Day Boat Trip
There is an optional day long boat ride from the village of Thalang offered by the owner of Phosy Thalang Guesthouse. This takes you up the river through the jungle and into one of the lakes formed from the Hydroelectric dam. You visit small remote ethnic villages.
Cost is 500,000 kip (~50 Euro, 60 US$) per boat split between 5 (maybe 6?) people. Lunch is included.
As mentioned above the Konglor Cave is one of the major highlights. You can take a boat ride through the 7.5km cave and back, at times you will even have to get out and help push the boat across small rapids (depending on season and level of water). It is a really fun experience and not worth missing. It is possible to travel through just one way and stay a night on the other side in a small village in a homestay. This option will cost more money as you will have to pay for another boat ride to get back.
- Entry to the grounds: 2,000k per person
- Motorbike parking: 3,000k per bike
- Boat: 100,000k per boat
- Entrance to the cave: 10,000 per person
Accommodation on the Thakhek Loop
As the Loop has become very popular now there is plenty of options for accommodation along the route. The greatest concentration around Konglor Cave, with homestay options and guest houses.
Most people stay in Thalang Village on the first night, however if you don’t make it that far you can stay in the village of Nakai.
Phosy Thalang Guesthouse
Located on the river near the main road (left when coming from the south). Cabins and cheaper tent options available. Organise the boat tour from here. Hot water bathrooms with western toilets. Restaurant and Wifi. Camp fire.
Price: 50,000 kip
Located before the bridge, after Phosy Guesthouse. On the right (coming from the south). Hot water bathrooms with squat toilets. Restaurant and Wifi.
Price: 50,000 kip
It is possible to make it to Konglor on day 2 depending on how long it takes you to ride the dirt section. Here there is plenty of options to suit any type of budget or desire. If you don’t make this far you can stay in either Lakso or Nahin. Drive off the main road into and around the village and you will find people inviting you in for homestays. If you prefer a bungalow or guesthouse there is plenty of options including some with views across the river. Head west off the main road to find the river. The national park with Konglor Cave is at the end of the road, you can’t miss it.
Price range: 40,000 kip to 100,000 kip a night