The town of Thakhek is no great coconut shake. It’s got the Mekong so you are guaranteed some gorgeous golden sunsets and a cool evening breeze as you sip Beer Laos by the waterfront but that’s as far as the romance goes. Just a few hours a day.
But drive 10km out of town and wow, you are suddenly in snap happy country. Giant Limestone outcrops covered in emerald green foliage standing guard over the drowning rice paddies below. It makes you feel so small and so big at the same time.
You’ve seen the pictures. You know the greens and blues I speak of. But maybe you haven’t seen the red exposed rock that seems to expose itself just to add another palette to the already pimping painting.
Aah yes, it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road, even when that road promises miles and miles more of this same incredible vista. Luckily I am an amateur biker, which means I hit a top speed of 50km- fast enough to leave the city smog behind me, slow enough to have nature pass me by. Actually everything passed me…even a few trucks with motorbikes on the back. Not a comforting sign for a first time biker who just signed a $2500 waiver to take responsibility for a scooter without insurance. crazy right? Well that’s SE Asia for you. You could limp into a bike shop with fresh motorbike wounds and they would take your passport and money and toss you the keys to one of their bikes. Which is how i got one, for $12 a day.
I had read about “The loop” and what an amazing 400km round trip it was. But there is this one part, about 60kms long that becomes all but impassable for someone with no bike skills and a scooter. It’s like pitching up Glastonbury without wellies. Except that the risk is your life or having to limp through the rest of your trip.
So I decided to cut The Loop, not my life, short and just scooter the 200km section (roundtrip) with smooth, tarred roads. It’s not like there aren’t challenges anyway- cows, goats, dogs, rain, trucks, all of these are just waiting to dislodge you from your comfort zone. I witness a few who had.
I was happy to go it alone but then at the last minute I picked up Betrand, a French actor with the looks of Woody Allen and the comedic sensibilities of Gene Wilder). He proved a humorous addition to the trip and, like me, a biking novice which meant he was only to keen to take it slow and steady. And go slow we did. The towns seem to pass us, as we negotiated the many “harp curves” and “cimint factory” up the hills and through the valleys to our final destination – Tha Lang Village.
The rest of the Loop? To be continued… on another trip.
Not crashing out. (confession: I did over rev on the asphalt hill leaving my guest house and skidded/fell on the gravel. Just a bruise and scrapes. Nothing official to report)
The whole vista en route. From the limestone/rice paddy combo to the stark dead trees in the lakes and sunsets over the lake.
Watching Carolin and Bertand take on the Laos locals in a seriously competitive game of boules at Sabadee guesthouse.
Sabadee style: We arrived in low season, which really means “no season” as in “no we don’t have… most of the menu items or any of the excursions on offer”. Even the much touted Sabadee bakery was not in operation. The guesthouse is much loved and blogged about, and for good reason. The owner is a small jolly guy with a big laugh and an even bigger sound system and music collection to suit his personality. It’s how we came to play evening boules to Pink Floyd and then eat freshly baked pain au chocolat the next morning, especially baked for us. Laos hospitality at its best.
The boat trip along the “Tim Burton” lake (my name not theirs). There used to be a small river that ran flood and dry as the seasons go but then the Laos gov had an idea to create a lake that would generate power and displace 17 villages along its banks. Of course if you visit the power station en route you will hear how these villagers are now better off with great housing etc. that’s the official story and no doubt one that Arundhati Roy would have a field day with. The result of course being electricity on demand…mostly for Thailand, as it happens. The result is a Tim Burton contrast of colours and textures- stark, beautiful and extremely picture friendly at sunset.
Betrand’s good manners: a man of letters and not of jock sweaters, Betrand leapt out of his comfort zone to help carry the engine on a wheelbarrow to the boat about 1km away. He also took up plastic arms and scooped out the water, saving us (or at least our electronics) from a sinking boat. If ever there was a fish out of water on that day, it was him, and bless him for it.
My biker gang: I usually travel/go it alone but it has to be said that sometimes people add value in unexpected ways. Carolin got the award for being the most useful member of the scooter club. It didn’t matter where we were or what the request was, she had it. Plasters, drugs, even a swiss army knife came out of a small pocket to cut fishing line on the lake. As we told her countless times, “what a good German specimen you are!”
Disclaimer: Quite a few butterflies were killed in the taking of this trip, kamikaze style.
Musing on…how the road makes friends of even the most unlikely strangers.
MORE images from the trip…