Starting in Thakhek, the Thakhek Motorbike Loop (Also called Tha Khaek Loop, The Loop, and Kong Lor Loop) is one of the more adventures attractions of Laos. Towering karst peaks, the 7.5‑kilometer Konglor Cave, indigenous villages, lush forests, waterfalls and countless caves and swimming holes. All taken in at your own pace from a motorbike. With multiple motorcycle and scooter rental options, guesthouses and places to eat throughout the 450 km loop it is a well established and highly recommended part of a more adventurous trip to Laos. It might just be the highlight of your whole trip!
Thakhek — Khammouane Province, Laos
Overlooking the Mekong River in Central Laos Thakhek is a former French Colonial town with it’s current claim to fame being the Thakhek Moto Loop. For the adventurous traveler looking for something different it just might be one of the best places in Laos. It’s not about the laid-back island vibe of Don Det further South or the temples of Luang Prabang or the party spirit of Vang Vieng. Here it’s about the Laos Caves and the motorbike adventure to explore them.
A band of karst (terrain with caves) that starts in Thakhek stretches through to Vietnam and on its Eastern end includes the largest cave in the world Hang Son Doong. That’s right, if you head East from Thakhek and kept going, you’d arrive at the largest cave in the world Hang Son Doong, as well as a host of other fantastic caves. The Caves, that’s what this area is best for. Some of the best caves in Southeast Asia and perhaps the world, and it all starts in Thakhek. To me, this region is one of the best places in Laos. It’s certainly one of the best places in Laos for an adventure.
Logistics and the Latest Information
The Thakhek Loop in Four Parts
I’ve broken the Thakhek Loop into 4 parts (ideally each part is a day) as this is probably the most common way it is done. I would devote at least 3 days, but 4 days is what I’d recommend, while 5 or 6 days, even better and will give you more time swimming, exploring caves, relaxing, and checking outside roads.
There are separate articles for most of the caves on The Loop so if something interests you check out the linked article on it. I’ve now driven The Loop twice, well 2.5 times, both in the wet and dry seasons and spent an extra few weeks exploring the surrounding area. I’ve written the guides I wish I had.
Part 1: Thakhek to Tha Lang (Nakai Plateau)
Part 2: Tha Lang to Nahin
Part 3: Kong Lor Cave (Tham Kong Lo)
Part 4: Nahin to Thakhek
Part 1: Thakhek to Tha Lang — The Caves
1. Elephant Cave (Tham Xang)
The first possible stop on The Loop. It’s a holy Buddhist cave with a large opening. One of the rocks near the top of the cave looks like an elephant head. It was used by locals as a shelter during the Secret War/Vietnam War.
A few kilometers outside of Thakhek on Route 12, look for a sign on your right. It’s 1.5 km down the dirt road. There was a short stream crossing when I went. 5,000 kip entrance fee.
2. Buddha Cave
This Buddha Cave is filled with 229 bronze Buddhist statues up to 500 years old which can be seen inside behind a short gate. It wasn’t until 2004 that the cave was discovered or “re-discovered”. The cave itself isn’t spectacular but more of a religious/historic site. Photography is not allowed inside the cave. More information and pictures can be found here.
Heading East from Thakhek on Route 12, around 4 kilometers turn left down a dirt road when you see the sign for “Buddha Cave and Pa Seuam Cave”. It’s 6 km on a dirt road. During the rainy season, the road has been known to get rough but was quite well graded in the dry season. After about 4 km take another left at the sign for the cave. It’s about 1 km further down the road from Elephant Cave.
3. Pa Seuam Cave — River cave near Buddha Cave
Tham Pa Seuam (Pa Seuam Cave) is a beautiful 3‑kilometer long river cave which can be fully appreciated by renting kayaks as part of a 3‑hour tour inside or swimming through the cave. Otherwise, you can walk to the entrance of the cave but cannot go very far inside (free) without swimming.
It shares the same parking area as the Buddha Cave and is an 800-meter walk through the forest and next to a beautiful lake.
4. Xieng Liap Cave
A short river cave with a large opening. You can swim inside in both the wet and the dry seasons. I definitely recommend stopping here. It’s a short walk through the jungle after parking. If you have a headlamp you can use it to enter the side (left entrance) before going into the main part of the cave. During the wet season, you will need to hire a boat to take you up the river and through the cave. It’s worth it.
On Route 12, about 13–14 KM East of Thakhek, you will see a sign for the cave, just after the bridge, pull off on a dirt road (South. Right-hand side of the road if you’re coming from Thakhek). The cave is marked on Maps.me as “Entrance to Xieng Liap Cave”. If you see the sign for “The Falang” or “Green Climbers Home” then you’ve gone too far. There might be a man there charging 5,000 per bike for parking. He might try to charge you 10,000. See this post for more information and pictures.
5. Tha Falang — Swimming Hole
6. Tham Pha Nya Inh Cave
7. Tham Nang Aen Cave
The largest cave on the list for day 1 is Tham Nang Aen. The first part of the cave is light up with all kinds of garish colors (I personally prefer neutral colored lights). If you’ve never been inside a big cave before you will enjoy this one. The highlight of the cave, however, is on the boat ride through the underground river. I kept imagining this was something like the river Styx, into Hades. In contrast to Kong Lor Cave, this river cave is light up and the boat ride is a lot more peaceful without an outboard motor (keep an eye out for the various figures throughout the cave). The formations here are also much larger and more varied than Kong Lor.
I HIGHLY recommend the boat ride through the river cave. For the cave entrance with the boat ride, it’s 50,000 kip (without the boat ride it’s 30,000). It takes about 2 hours for the boat ride there and back, which includes seeing the other cave entrance and walking through various caverns with some cool formations, drinking from a pool of holy water dripping from the ceiling and a huge pile of guano. (It’s about 45 min ‑1 hr of walking).
There’s a big sign for the cave on the right side of the road. There is an onsite restaurant. Open from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM
8. Nam Theun 2 Visitor Center
9. Song Sou Waterfall
Phosy Thalang is another good choice for the first night and usually takes the overflow of people if Saibadee Guesthouse is full. It’s on the left side of the road as you drive into Thalang (Before Saibadee). Has a good on-site restaurant and nice views of the lake. Prices are usually the same as Saibadee 75,000 kip for a private room, 2 people.
Part 2: Tha Lang (Nakai Plateau) to Nahin
The Nakai Plateau is definitely an interesting and unique place. Dead trees and water dominate the landscape here. If you have a spare day it’s possible to hang out up here and do a boat trip on the many waterways. If you’re interested, inquire at your guesthouse and they can arrange this for you. It’s a good quiet place to relax if that’s what you’re looking for.
Dead trees will dominate the start of your drive today as you weave through the Nam Theun 2 Reservoir and a few small villages. There’s a stark beauty to the trees and their reflections in the water.
1. Buddha Statues
As you reach the end of the Nakai Plateau, leaving the world of lakes and dead trees behind you, keep an eye out for some statues of Buddha carved into the rock along a winding section of road. Just be careful as there are a few blind corners here.
It’s possible to stop at one of the pull-outs to get a view of the valley below and Lak Sao in the distance. In the wet season, this is a beautiful area with vibrant rice fields.
Lak Sao is nothing special, but it’s a bigger town where you can fill up on gas, use the ATM if needed, see a mechanic or just get something to eat before the next leg of the trip to Nahin. There are Guesthouses in Lak Sao but I wouldn’t recommend staying here unless you have to.
through some beautiful mountains covered in lush jungle and rice fields. It’s a great drive and some call this the most beautiful section on The Loop
2. Dragon Cave (Mangkone Cave)
3. Cool Springs “Cool Pool”
A pleasant area to hang out and refresh in the cold turquoise spring water.
You’ll see a big sign on the right side of the road “Cool Pool 4.5 km” It’s a dirt road and can be quite a muddy mess in the wet season. 10,000 kip per person.
Some beautiful scenery on the drive out to the Cool Springs.
Don’t forget to stop at the viewpoint overlooking Nahin as you descend into town (Watch out for rough patches and boulders on the road here). I just pulled over to what looked like a clearing in the trees and was greeted by some very friendly locals, one of whom gave me the cake he was eating. These people are so kind.
Sanhak Guest House
A great place to stay, clean, friendly staff and a good on-site restaurant. Lots of information is available here on the local attractions as well as motorcycle rentals and tours.
Dorm Bed: 30,000 kip
Private Room: 50k to 60k kip (fan only. Price goes up if you need A/C)
Turn left off Route 8 at the first road in Nahin. Sanhak Guesthouse is just a few minutes down the road on the right.
Part 3: Kong Lor Cave (Tham Kong Lo)
Distance: 80 km
1. Kong Lor Cave (Tham Kong Lo)
Boat Tour: 110,000 for the first person and 10,000 for each additional person up to 3 people (maybe 4, if you have small people)
2. Ban Natane — The other side of Kong Lor
For the full write-up on Kong Lor Cave check out my other guide (Too much information/pictures to do it justice here)
Part 4: Nahin to Thakhek
1. Nasanam Waterfall
Leaving Nahin on the right-hand side of the road you’ll see a sign for Nasanam Waterfall. If you decide to visit here set aside at least 3 hours. It’s about 3 kilometers to the waterfall, half of which can be driven. A steep trail through the jungle. During the dry season, the waterfall will likely just be a trickle or mist of water.
In 2008 an Australian man went hiking alone and got caught in a storm, attacked by flesh-eating lizards and almost died. After 11 days in the jungle and on the brink of death, he was finally rescued and flown out by helicopter. Read more about it here.
2. Limestone Forest Viewpoint
A viewing spot of the “Limestone Forest” right next to the road at the end of an uphill section not long after leaving Nahin. A beautiful view and definitely worth a stop.
From here you can continue on completing the “Full” Loop driving back on the long 100km stretch of highway 13.
Your other option is to drive the 210 km back to Thakhek the way you came. It will be a much longer day as these roads aren’t as straight as the last 100km on Highway 13 and in my experience, there are just as many semi-trucks on Highway 12 (Cave Alley) going to and from the Vietnamese border, compared to highway 13. But it is an option and will definitely be a more beautiful drive.
Otherwise, continue West on Highway 8 to Vieng Kham and the junction of Highway 13 and Hwy 8. A good place to refuel and eat.
Take a left here, heading South on Hwy 13 to Thakhek. It’s a mostly straight 100 km on the highway back to Thakhek.
3. Khun Kong Leng Lake
Kong Leng Lake is a pleasant swimming hole and depending on when you could be filled with locals, beer drinking Loopers or a mix of both (or perhaps if you get lucky you’ll have the place to yourself). Beautiful crystal clear blue water for a refreshing swim on your drive back to Thakhek.
Heading South on Highway 13 about 70 km from the junction where you turned left, you will see a sign for Kong Leng Lake. It’s 21 km on a fairly well-maintained dirt road (though conditions can vary, especially after the rainy season). There are inner tubes for rent as well as refreshments near the pool. 5,000 kip entry fee.
Back on Hwy 13, it’s another 30 km to Thakhek. There’s a confusing split of the road not far from Thakhek, near the border crossing to Thailand. The road splits into two with confusing signs. Both roads meet up a few minutes later, so don’t worry, you can go either left or right.
Thakhek Loop Logistical Information
I have a few other guides for The Loop in the works including an FAQ page. For the time being, this should help you with the logistical side of things like renting a motorcycle.
Renting a Motorcycle or Scooter for the Thakhek Loop
There are a few places in Thakhek to rent Motorbikes and Scooters. With any motorbike rental take pictures and/or video of any damage before you rent the bike. Also, check the bike to make sure everything is working properly, brakes, horn, gear shifting, headlight etc. Give it a test drive before you commit.
Located in the town center at the bottom of the KGB Hostel. It’s the cheapest option and can get quite busy in the morning. Get there early (or the evening before) to secure your scooter and for more motorbike options.
I rented from Wang Wang the first time I did The Loop and my friend rented one the second time (I had my own motorbike) and everything was fine. I’ve heard some bad reviews about the scooters not being maintained as well as they are at Mad Monkey but I’ve never had an issue with the motorbikes. If you want to spend a bit more than you can go with Mad Monkey. Better reputation, more solid bikes, (based on reviews) higher price.
Owned by a German these bikes are said to be of better quality (no fake Chinese copies) and better maintained. They are a bit more expensive, however. If money isn’t an issue you can rent your bike here. Just down the street from Wang Wang in the center of town by the Mekong River.
Mr. Ku’s is located at the Thakhek Travel Lodge and if you’re staying there you can rent from him. Mr. Ku is credited with helping to establish and popularize the loop, so if he’s around he might be able to answer questions. More expensive than Wang Wang.
The Most Up-To-Date Information:
Thakhek Loop Map
A few maps of the Thakhek Loop including some hand-drawn maps courtesy of the Trip Report Book at the Thakhek Travel Lodge And the wonderful artists.
Click the pictures to enlarge the map. Feel free to save them to your phone.
Just The Pictures
In closing, I leave you with this message from a “Looper” I don’t know the name of but whos sketch and trip report I thoroughly enjoyed in the Thakhek Travel Lodge Trip Book.
Safe Ride and have fun! Come back here and let me know how your trip went.