Travel

Hop on a Motorbike in Laos for an Adventure-Fueled Road Trip

Go full-throttle with disco caves, flooded ghost forests, and blue lagoons.

Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock
Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock
Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock

For many, Laos is hardly more than a quick stopover on the well-trodden Southeast Asia circuit. Backpackers might find themselves in Luang Prabang for a night, maybe venturing to Vang Vieng to party or to the capital, Vientiane, to see more temples and monuments. But to leave without following the coffee-coloured Mekong River further down into the depths of Laos for the motorbike loop of a lifetime? Now that would be tragic.

From the central Laotian town of Thakhek, adventurous types mount rented motorbikes and set off on a four-day route known as the Thakhek Loop, which takes drivers to many of the country’s highlights. You don’t have to be Evel Knievel to drive the easily-accessible motorbikes, but believe me: You’ll want two wheels instead of four for this journey. The 275-mile road trip winds through the mist-cloaked forest, past rice fields and terraced paddies, stopping off to explore vast and quirky caves, semi-secret swimming holes, and remote villages along the way.

With a map stowed under your seat, a belly full of fried rice, four days of essentials in your backpack, and a good deal of gusto, you’re ready to burn rubber. Don’t actually burn rubber, though; drive slowly and carefully on these beautiful but sometimes unruly Lao roads. Here’s everything you need to know to road trip the underrated Thakhek Loop-from someone who’s done it and lived to tell the tale.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

How to rent a motorbike in Laos

Motorbikes dominate the streets of Southeast Asia because they’re more affordable than cars, easier for a tourist to get their hands on, and compact enough to weave through traffic and traverse narrow or unpaved roads. At some points on the Thakhek loop-like on delicate wooden bridges and winding mountain roads-driving a motorbike is actually safer than driving a car. Plus, riding with the wind in your hair is just fun.

An International Driving Permit is needed to legally drive in Southeast Asia, which translates your current drivers license into a different language, depending on which country you select in your application. Getting one involves filling out a form and paying a $20 fee. That being said, not all motorbike rental shops ask for proof of an IDP, and many tourists here rent and drive motorbikes without one.

One thing to note is that the roads are chaotic and sometimes even dangerous (I mean, have you seen them?), so get behind the handlebars only if you are a confident driver-of any type of vehicle, that is-with plenty of miles under your belt. Travel insurance that includes medical coverage is also a good idea.

Before embarking on your four-day journey into the wilderness, research the road etiquette, like yielding to larger vehicles and using your horn to communicate, not just to express frustration. Practice driving in tourist-friendly cities like Luang Prabang to get a feel for it. Those used to driving in the U.S. are relieved to find that traffic moves on the right side of the road in Laos, unlike in neighbouring Thailand.

Motorbikes here range from scooters to manual sport bikes, so choose a style and size you’re comfortable with. Check the brakes, lights, and horn, and photograph any flaws before you leave the shop. If the cost of the bike doesn’t include a helmet, then pay the extra and don’t dare go anywhere without it.

Ke.Be/Shutterstock
Ke.Be/Shutterstock
Ke.Be/Shutterstock

Plan the ultimate Thakhek Loop itinerary

Four days is the minimum amount of time you’ll want to spend on the Thakhek Loop if you want to A) drive safely and B) stop to enjoy the sites. There are many guesthouses on the route if you’d like to take it slower, but consider the weight of your pack before casually tacking more days onto the trip.

Speaking of the bag, it’s best to leave the 60-litre hiking pack in a locker at the bike rental shop and bring just a lightweight day backpack with swimwear, pajamas, waterproof layers for you and your pack, basic toiletries, and a change or two of clothes. The motorbike rental shops in Thakhek often give out paper maps of the roughly drawn route, which come in handy when you’re in the middle of the jungle with a dead phone.

As for when to go, know there are only two seasons here: wet and dry. The former has its perks, but the latter (November to April) is better for driving and seeing attractions on the loop. During the monsoon season, exploring the caves can become perilous with the potential of flash flooding. Plus, the heat and humidity are insufferable for the unaccustomed.

kwanchai/Shutterstock
kwanchai/Shutterstock
kwanchai/Shutterstock

Day 1: Discover the subterranean wonders of Cave Alley

To set out on your adventure, drive eastward from Thakhek toward “Cave Alley,” a stretch of Route 12 with multiple hollowed-out geological features filled with Buddhist shrines or disco lights or both.

Many people choose to make the first stop at Elephant (“Xang”) Cave. Pay a few thousand kip to go inside and see the rock vaguely shaped like Southeast Asia’s unofficial mascot and, perhaps more interestingly, the shrines installed in the rock crevices. Although many attractions along the route require an entry fee, most cost less than $1 USD.

Shortly after Elephant Cave on Route 12 is Xieng Liab, a limestone karst containing shallow water. If it’s too early in the day for a dip, just stand at its entrance and marvel for a minute, then continue onto day one’s true highlight: Tham Nang Aen.

Admire the tall ceilings, large chambers, and colourful pageantry of Tham Nang’s rainbow-lit interior. Take a boat tour deeper into the cave system if you have time to spare. Make this your last stop before following Route 12 to Route 1E and parking at the Sabaidee Guesthouse in Thalang for the night. After about 66 miles of driving, you’ll tuck into an all-you-can-eat barbecue feast (cooked nightly) and rehash the day’s events with fellow Thakhek loop-ers.

November27/Shutterstock
November27/Shutterstock
November27/Shutterstock

Day 2: Cool off in a blue lagoon

During the first hour of driving on your second day, you’ll cross a ghost forest flooded by a local hydropower project, traverse mountains, and pass sculptures of Buddha carved into rocks along Route 1E. Stop to refuel in Lak Sao, a small town with restaurants and a gas station, then follow Route 8 west. Skip Dragon Cave if day one left you with subterranean fatigue and especially to conserve your enthusiasm for the holy grail: the Kong Lor cave. Instead, spend the afternoon in the icy-blue waters of the “cool pool,” a stunning lagoon surrounded by lush forest and baskers lounging on the banks.

When you’re ready for a rather adventurous stretch of road, hop back on your bike and head toward Kong Lor. If you have the time to stretch your trip out a day or so, feel free to stop in Na Hin to visit the Nam Sanam waterfall. If you go during the dry season, it’s but a trickle-and because it could take hours to visit, you might find it best to skip it altogether this time of year. A left off the main road will lead you along a less-maintained 26-mile stretch featuring several wooden bridges and bumpy sections. Take your time-hot food, cold Beerlao, and a comfortable bed await on the other side.

When you get to the village, treat yourself to a private bungalow at the Kong Lor Eco-Lodge, a welcome change from guesthouse accommodation.

balajisrinivasan/Shutterstock
balajisrinivasan/Shutterstock
balajisrinivasan/Shutterstock

Day 3: Go deep into one of the longest caves in the world

On the third day, rather than hopping back on the bike, take the day to explore the village and the depths of Kong Lor Cave, only about half a mile from the Eco-Lodge at the end of the main road that cuts through the town. The cave extends four and a half miles into the core of a limestone mountain, and locals guide tours of it by headlamp with a fleet of canoes parked at the cave’s mouth. One of these boat tours could take two to three hours.

The rest of the day should be spent kicking back on the veranda of your bungalow, devouring curry soup and smoothies at the restaurant opposite (aptly called The Best One), and preparing for a long journey back to Thakhek the following day.

To cut down on tomorrow’s miles, you might consider driving 26 miles back to the main road tonight and staying at the Sanhak Guesthouse in Na Hin.

Phoonsab Thevongsa/Moment/Getty Images
Phoonsab Thevongsa/Moment/Getty Images
Phoonsab Thevongsa/Moment/Getty Images

Day 4: Drive through the mountains back to Thakhek

With 115 miles of slow ascents, steep declines, and traffic separating Kong Lor from Thakhek, the last day is guaranteed to be the most exhausting of the trip. Though Route 13 doesn’t have much in the way of tourist attractions, there is a crystal-clear swimming hole to help break up the slog back to Thakhek. Turn left toward Khun Kong Leng Lake for one final plunge before winding up where you started. Otherwise, just keep your hand on the throttle as you inch toward the finish line and, finally, claim your imaginary medal for completing Laos’ most epic road trip.

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Olivia Young is a freelance journalist, slow travel advocate, and vanlife expert. Her favorite travel days usually involve vegan food, wildlife sightings, and an occasional liability waiver.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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