The border from Thailand (Nong Khai/Vientiane)
We crossed from Nong Khai in Thailand across the Friendship Bridge I. Getting out of Thailand was more of a faff than getting in. We were directed to park the bikes and go to one of the exit booths marked “D.” We told them we were on bikes and were both given two duplicate forms to fill in (so, 4 forms in total each.) They were mostly concerning vehicle and passenger details, so I do wonder if they thought we meant motorbikes, because the booths face away from the parking area so the guards manning them never saw the bikes. They didn’t look at the forms when we handed them back, and just stamped our passports.
The bridge is narrow with a train track running through the centre. Driving is on the left over the bridge and switches to the right after the Welcome to Laos sign. We got e-visas before arriving, but were directed to the Tourist Visa window and were given a mini entry form to fill in (as well as a departure ticket to be filled in when we leave.) That is handed back to the same place with your passport, and then a short wait before you are called to collect your stamped passport from another window. Then on to a standalone booth next door, where the stamp is checked. A walk passed customs, and another check of the passport before being released into Laos proper.
The ride from the borer to Vientiane is short, flat and paved, but busy with traffic and the sprawl of stalls and building all the way into the city. The central city is pretty small, but a one way system does make it annoying to navigate.
We rode east from Vientiane, and followed Road 13 down to the junction at Vieng Kham. The road surface was okay until about halfway to Ban Hai, when it deteriorates into huge potholes and rough surfaces. Between Ban Hai and Vieng Kham, sections of the road have been dug up. It is a hellhole of cycling, with washboard surfaces, dust, potholes, stones, lack of passing room. The final kilometres to Vieng Kham was not too bad.
The Thakhek Loop
We turned east at Vieng Kahm, onto what on the backpacker circuit is known as the “Thakhek loop,” which is usually done on a moped. The roads were in good condition, especially for a rural route. And there’s not much traffic, so it shouldn’t deteriorate much soon. There are a couple of medium climbs on the route, and a very undulating day between Lak Sao and Thalang.
The first medium climb has a viewpoint, a cafe and an activity centre at the top. The viewing platform is free and it is really spectacular. You don’t get the views from anywhere else – you cannot see much of the scenery on the descent. The activities include rope/plank/mesh bridges amongst the karst peaks, and a zip line. The cafe and viewing platform are raised above the car park so your bike will be out of sight, although there is a bike parking section with posts to chain your steed to. The activity centre has a large area where their harnesses and helmets are kept, and I’m fairly sure they would store panniers – they must do this for the bags of backpackers.
At Nahin is the turnoff for the Kong Lor cave, which is the main draw of this loop. The blog entry for Laos describes this. The road is about 40km each way, is well paved and completely flat. Most guides have you paying separate times for park entrance, cave entrance, boat hire and head torch. I think these are now out of date. The ticket at the park entrance included all of these things for a flat 160,000 kip per person. It’s a short walk from the entrance to some wooden huts where the next pilot in line will give you a life jacket and lead you into the cave where the boats are. It is possible to take your bike through the cave on the boats. We did see someone with a dirt motorbike loading it on. Due to the steps and the walk into the cave it would be an enourmous pain in the arse to do. There are dirt roads the other side and a route out of the valley that way. It’s tough unpaved riding with a couple of very steep sections near the end. The route would take you back to the loop either north of Nakay or at Gnommalat.
The next major sight is the Dragon cave, about halfway between Phontan and Lak Sao. There is a ticket office and a restaurant at the top, and then the walk down steps to the cave. There is nowhere to stay here. If you visit the cave you have to leave your bike and bags at the top, so whether you choose to do this will depend on how you feel about that.
There are some fairly famous Buddha rock sculptures on a descent about 30km outside Lak Sao. On a bicycle it’s pretty easy to stop and have a look at them because it’s such a quiet road.
The Flooded Forest begins about 35km outside of Lak Sao. It’s a phenomenon created by the building of a nearby dam and features dead trees in their hundreds sticking out of the flooded landscape. We did this in the middle of the dry season, so it wasn’t very flooded, but still quite eerie.
The karst landscape between Gnommalat and Thakhek is incredible.
There is little traffic on the whole route, apart from the few kilometres before Lak Sao and Thakhek, plus the industrial area around Ban Sankeo.
After Thakhek you join route 13 again. The roadwork hellscape is down here too, which was the reason we escaped back to Thailand here.
Staying in Vientiane is very expensive and poor value compared to major cities in Thailand. Outside of the capital though, Laos is a very cheap place to travel. A double room with private bathroom runs from 120 to 180,000 kip (around £6-9) with the higher prices for larger towns and smaller for village or small town guesthouses.
There are guesthouses regularly along the road from Vientiane to Vieng Kham. You can pretty much pick your distance and find somewhere to stay before you keel over. On the Thakhek loop there are guesthouses or hotels in Nahin, Lak Sao, Thalang (but don’t,) Nakai, Gnommalat and the turnoff to Mahaxai. The only section that’s a bit barren of good and cheap accommodation is between Nahin and Lak Sao, but there is a kind of resort near Tha Bak. The backpacker trap of Thalang only has two guesthouses which are very overpriced. Ignore the guides which insist this is a great place to stay and are probably being paid to do so. Stay in Lao Sak and/or Nakai, both of which have a variety of good options.
Beds tend to be like concrete.
Rooms are usually large.
Sinks are often not plumbed in (the pipe just empties onto the floor at your feet.)
Even really cheap accommodation provides a toothbrush and toothpaste, even when there is no soap.
Food & Drink
Amazing. Around 30 to 40,000 kip (£1.50 to £2) for a main dish. You’ll often be given a complimentary bottle of water with your food. Beer Lao comes in several iterations. The standard lager is about 20,000 kip.
There aren’t many street food or fruit stalls, but local convenience stores and mini marts sell a range of snacks, particularly nuts in various flavours and coatings and dried fruit and veg crisps/chips.
The border from Laos (Thakhek/Nakhon Phanom)
There is lots written about bribes at the Laos side of borders, but we weren’t asked for one. There is a fixed service charge of 10,000 kip per person to exit Laos at this border, but this was displayed on permanent official signs at the booths. There is also an “overtime” fee printed on these signs of an additional 10,000 kip per person if you cross before 8.30 or after 16.30, and maybe at other times at the weekend but I didn’t have time to read that part.
There is a cash machine before the border, but not one once you go through the gate into no man’s land.
We could not cycle across the border bridge. We asked three separate people and they were all adamant that we had to get the bus. The printed bus times are:
9.30, 11.30, 14.30, 16.30
It’s unlikely the bus will arrive or leave at those times though. The bus ticket cost 40,000 kip each. Thai baht was also accepted. When the bus is due a ticket seller will sit at a table at the rear of the border buildings and write out the bus tickets. You need to show your passport when buying the ticket. We were given an additional fee by the luggage handler of 100 baht per bike to take them on the bus.
The Thai side was very straightforward. We filled out an arrival/departure card and got our stamps with no checks. The only question asked was our destination in Thailand.
For what it’s worth, Laos is the only country so far that Richard and I have really disagreed on. Apart from the hell road that is route 13, I loved it. I thought the Thakhek loop was brilliant, and even without the Kong Lor cave, would have found it challenging but very rewarding and well worth it.
Richard loved visiting the Kong Lor cave and that made it just about worth it for him, but otherwise he didn’t enjoy it, mostly because of the climbing.