South Laos - 3 Central Laos

Discussion in 'Laos Road Trip Reports' started by Jurgen, Oct 23, 2011.

  1. Excerpt: I closed my south Laos loop with a stop-over in Savannakhet and Na Hin (visiting Tong Lo caves). The journey, back to Chiangmai through Loei, under permanent showers, was a less fun ending for this, otherwise pleasant, tour.

    South Laos Trip

    Part 3 - Central Laos

    See also:

    First part - Ferry Tales (Champasak province):

    Second part - Around the Bolaven :

    My other posts about North Laos (1)

    Sawan and Tha Khek

    Even after a lazy day, I was unable to escape from another Pakse breakfast. When I left the hotel, with a contented stomach, it was already seven o’clock. My plan for the trip was still loose and I headed north, on “route 13”. “Sunny side up”, mist veiled the morning, before evaporating to a blue sky.


    An ubiquitous French legacy, are the red caped "tomb stone" kilometer markers. Passing "Lak 94", I remembered the peculiar way some villages are named in Laos. The word "lak" refers to a stick, marking a length, a kilometer for that purpose. It is followed by a distance, written in letters or numbers and, sometimes, becomes the name of a place. A hamlet called "Lak 94" is thus located at that distance from an important city. The systems sacrifices poetry for the sake of efficiency, and several places, around the country, have identical names.




    The long 230 kilometers, from Paxe to Savannakhet, run on a straight line, up to the horizon. Few curves, a couple of villages, low traffic, beside cattle and erratic dogs, are moderately entertaining.

    In Savannakhet I checked in to "Nong Soda Guesthouse". Nothing really fancy, apart of the localization, on a promenade, near to the Mekong. Huge VIP rooms are at 80'000 kip.



    It was still early, and I jumped on my bike again, for a visit of the neighborhood. The majestic second "Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge" connects Savannakhet to Mukdahan. It is a possible way back from Laos, but again, closed to Thai registered bikes in the opposite direction.

    A new "route 9", leading traffic toward the east border and Vietnam, also serves as a ring-road for the city.



    Another interesting site is "That Ing Stupa", a sacred temple. According to a legend, Lord Buddha has visited this place during his journey to this region.






    Decrepit buildings testify about the importance of Savannakhet as a colonial trading center and "Talat Yen Plaza", surrounded by many old houses, in front of the Catholic church, is an interesting spot to ramble downtown.




    As I rested on a river boat restaurant, heavy downpour curtained the landscape. The short shower, however, quickly traveled over the Mekong and I was gratified with an extraordinary spectacle; large rain clouds played against the colored light of the dusk, skillfully mixing shades of blue and red.






    After dinner at Anakoit, a Japanese restaurant with a wifi connection, I stumbled upon Jérôme, a French AT biker and a mine of local information.

    "Nong Soda Guesthouse" has no restaurant and I started my journey, at six o'clock, with an empty stomach. In Sawan, early mornings are busy with joggers, cyclists and lines of monks walking for alms, but I did not spot any open restaurant.

    The departure on "route 9" is smooth. After a couple of kilometers it crosses "route 13", and I headed north again, on a pastoral link, passing a couple of villages with cheering kids, happily on their way to school. It is difficult to conceive that this is the main highway, the traffic spine across whole Laos.






    In Thakhek, my stomach noticed a "wifi" sign, an usual marker for coffee and European food. Actually, I had just stopped in front of Inthira, a lovely boutique hotel located in a colonial building. Breaking my journey in that attractive city was tempting, but, after just 130 kilometers, and at eight o'clock in the morning, it was really early.




    After the meal and a quick visit of the neighborhood, I departed again. My mind was made up, I would drive to Ban Khoun Kham, on a road to Vietnam, near Kong Lo caves.

    Thakhek is linked to Nakhon Phanom through a ferry, offering another opportunity to cross back to Thailand. Soon, however, the completion of the third "Lao-Thai Bridge" will replace it; half a blessing for bikers, if Laos keeps its border crossing policy.

    Passing bridges over Mae Nam Pakan and Mae Nam Hinboun, I reached Vieng Kham intersection, were the itinerary bifurcates east, toward the Andaman mountains.








    "Route 8" and Kong Lo caves

    As I left old friend "route 13", I discovered an amazingly smooth trail: "route 8" ("Asian highway 15") leading to Lak Sao and to the Vietnamese border. It crosses Khammouane province, nicely winding and climbing the mountain, often shaded by large canopies and punctuated with rugged limestone cliffs. Children were just heading home from school, giggling and gesticulating toward a weird foreigner traveling outside of a tourist bus.










    At kilometer 36, a well marked "sala viewpoint" offers a glimpse toward Khammouane limestone forest. Karst peaks are displayed against a green background of mountains, covered with pristine forests.

    Thai tourists, traveling by bus, were assiduous taking each others portraiture against this scenic backdrop. They stopped on their way back from Halong Bay, another limestone marvel.





    In Na Hin (Ban Khoun Kham) I choose "Mi Thuna Guesthouse". Located at the entrance of the hamlet, it is an appropriate familial shack (rooms are at 80'000 kips).



    "Route 8" runs for another hundred kilometers, straight to the Anamite Range, toward the Vietnamese border. It passes the village of Lak Sao (twenty kilometers to nowhere) and leaves Laos at Na Phao, continuing to Vinh.











    "The infamous dog road", could be the nickname of "route 8"! Almost every day, a truck loaded with one thousand puppies, collected from nearby Thai provinces, drives his "palatable" cargaison to Vietnamese delicacy restaurants. Luckily, I was spared the sight of such a convoy, as these transportation conditions are depressing (2).

    Another curiosity of Na Hin are the numerous karaoke bars. They cater for more than singing lust, serving Vietnamese travelers and the large community of foreign workers from the hydraulic plants.


    Distance of this day's trip: 270 kilometers

    Heavy rain, drumming on my roof, and loud thunder, echoing through the mountains were wake up calls, announcing bleak weather perspectives. My plan to visit the Kong Lo caves, before driving further to Pakxan, were flooded, just leaving some hope for an acalmy. After a comfortable breakfast, I jumped on my bike, at ten o'clock, keeping the room at Mi Thuna for another night.

    A new 50 kilometers paved road links Ban Khoun Kham to the Kong Lo caves, providing an easy access to that tourist attraction. Huge electricity pylons line up along the straight beginning of the journey, a reminder of the region's importance as a power supplier.

    After passing a couple of hamlets, like Na Sangkham and Ban Muang, the trail ends at Ban Gnang, in the middle of a forest, at the rim of Nam Hinboun.






    Under menacing karst boulders, the river serenely flows out of a large cave. A motorized pirogue and two pilots are needed to navigate the subterranean waters (fix price at 105'000 kip). If completed, the seven kilometers journey would takes about one hour, in each direction. The cave is large, but furious rapids often shake the frail canoes and, in total darkness, there are few thinks to see.




    Somewhere in the middle of the cruise, a dry branchout resembles a temple compound, with natural stalagmite stupas. After visiting that place, I had seen enough darkness and returned to brighter perspectives.









    Reaching the end of the tunnel was a relief; without being particularly claustrophobic, I prefer the vibrancy of life illuminated by daylight.







    Back on the same route, I took time to enjoy the sights at Ban Gnang, a couple of guest houses and the bucolic landscape along the road. As the sky darkened, drizzle moistened the pavement, eventually turning into rain. I took my last shots and sealed my camera in a waterproof bag; she would remain there for most of the next days.









    Back to Thailand

    The next morning, I started a long and wet strory back; just one cloud, all way long. Despite the rain, "route 8", with his "rolling stones" landscape was still amazing. "Route 13", to Pakxan, is again flat and straight, sometimes following the rim of mountains and crossing pristine rivers, like the Nam Kading.

    The south access to the "Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge" is a newly cut cemented road, still closed to the traffic at that time. With some acrobatic maneuvers, it was feasible on a bike, and I passed Thai immigration rapidly, too rapidly, as I would discover a couple of month later.

    From Nong Khai, I rushed to Loei and, after 478 boring kilometers, merrily checked in to "Thuang Sap Guesthouse". It is at a walking distance from "Baan Yai", my beloved Isan restaurant. Indulging in some of my favorite dishes was a happy ending for this Laos loop. I ordered bamboo caterpillars, mushrooms and grilled pork neck, everything sticked together with glutinous rice and washed down with "Bia Singh".




    Six o'clock, Sunday morning; only rain, mist and monks walking under their umbrellas, were on "route 203" up to Phu Rua. Near the summit, an impressive landslide cut two of the 3 road lanes. In addition to the downpour, I was greeted with wind and fog, only missing snow, still a rarity, even in Loei province.

    Longing for my usual coffee stop, I wondered if it would be open. To my surprise, a convenient "Amazon" had be build at the summit's petrol station, providing a warming up americano.

    While gliding down the mountain, toward Dansai, the sky opened and the road became dry. The ride, on the way to Nakhon Thai, Chatrakan and Uttradit was again enjoyable but, abruptly, the shower came back, hanging around till destination.

    Driving the last kilometers to Maerim, and after two week in Laos, I was amazed, that so many vehicles can be together on a road, "fast and furious".

    For this trip, my odometer accumulated 3048 km. Starting in Chiangmai, without "mailing" the bike to Ubon, would add another 1000 km to this itinerary. October is still wet and the last two days, from Khoun Kham to Loei (478 kilometers) and Loei to Maerim/Chiangmai (490 kilometers), were under water. The first sector, from Ubon to Pakse was also extremely rainy. During the rest of the trip, large cumulus usually punctuated the sky, but the trails remained often dry.

    The complete photo story can be found at :

    (1) References to my other Laos trip reports. All suitable for road bikes and "solo" driving:

    North-Central Laos:

    South Laos:

    North-West Laos:

    (2) Reference to Dog trucks :

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    Chapters of the complete trip report:

    1 Ferry tales

    11 Crossing at Chong Mek
    12 Champasak – Wat Phu
    13 Kong Island

    2. Around the Bolevan

    21 The waterfalls
    22 A Bolevan shortcut
    23 Pakse

    3. Central Laos

    31 Savan and Tha Khek
    32 Route 8 and Tong Lo
    33 Back to Thailand
  2. nice trip report brothers thanks for sharing
  3. Sick pictures. What camera are you using? Gonn have to read this later.
  4. Thank you friends for appreciation. As a «Nikonian», my boxes and glases are from that brand (with some exceptions, like Fuji X100). GT-Rider friends, however, take stunning pictures with Canon G12. It all depends how much stuff one likes to hang around the neck for driving. Cheers
  5. Thank you Jurgen. I really enjoyed in your amazing photos, all the time. Please let me know when you are replacing your Nikon so I can take over. LOL
  6. Nice photos and report - its an area I havent been to yet but will try and go over this dry season.

    Thanks again for posting.

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