Armed with a fresh visa for another 30 days in Laos, it was time to start moving again and head out of Vientiane to the more quieter spot of Thakhek and to see spectacular Konglor Cave in the Phu Hin Bun National Park! But, you need time on your side…
After a pick-up in a sŏrngtăaou (2-row small truck) from the Bayern Guesthouse in Vientiane, we were dropped off south of the city along the highway…dumped, we thought. However, the sŏrngtăaou driver waited with us and got himself a Baguette until the larger bus arrived, which wasn’t very crammed at all…a first in Laos!
The bus had a problem with the air-conditioning, which stopped a few times until arriving in Thakhek, about 7 hours later. When you arrive at the bus station, you are greeted by many tuk-tuk drivers vying to rip you off.
Politely decline and walk out onto the street. You’ll either have one driver follow you and agree to your original price, or you can pick up another driver going past, at the correct rate for this town.
I might be imagining this, but I think the roads heading south are marginally better than travelling in the north of Laos; perhaps China has something to do with this…
Inthira Thakhek (Anou Road 0001) – stayed here twice in-between travelling (independently) to the Konglor Cave. On the first stay, the room faced the road, which was very noisy but on the second stay, the room was out the back, so very nice and quiet.
A lovely colonial building with high ceilings and wooden original floors; comfortable bed, wonderful hot water, wi-fi works in the room and in the restaurant downstairs. Breakfast came with the room and is delicious with a choice of 4 options but I opted for the scrambled eggs every time. This came with a little bacon, ham, and a fried tomato, baguette, fresh real coffee (or tea), butter, and jam – heaven.
Nice staff at the hotel but not quite as friendly as the Inthira in Vang Vieng, which is cheaper. I believe this is a chain of hotels. The Vang Vieng hotel gave a 10% discount if we ate in the restaurant; although we did get a Lao Lao cocktail on arrival with the Thakhek hotel.
As the room at the Inthira included a wonderful large breakfast, didn’t need food until the evening (always stop for coffee though). Ate dinner here on the first night, which was a little pricier than the Inthira in Vang Vieng but the food was good.
Wander down to the riverside and it won’t be long until you stumble across loads of cafés offering local and western-style dishes. Many outdoor BBQ stalls also dot the riverfront and like a magnet, the aromas beckon you in – no shortage of food in this town!
When staying in Thakhek, you’ll hear loads of other travellers talking about doing “The Loop”, which has become so popular, especially with the guide books. I think this is a good reason not to go on this milk run trip. Apparently, it’s about a 450 kilometres circular tour and typically completed in 3-4 days on a hired motorbike; although travellers with only a little time, try and complete this in one day (or two). However, wanting to see what the hype and raves were about, we decided to hire a motorbike (60,000K/day) and head out along Route 12, sightseeing for part of the way.
Note, if you have some spare cash lying about, you can also hire a SUV (US$120/day) or a minivan (US$80/day); and for those on a budget, a bicycle (15,000K/day), mountain bike, and more.
Tham Xang Cave (Elephant Cave) – about 9kms northeast of Thakhek in the Ban Tham village, this cave offers lovely views across the Mekong. Apparently, during WWII, Japanese soldiers used the cave’s bat droppings to make gun powder. Also, in the 1960-1970’s during the Indochina War, the cave was used for shelter and protection. There’s a 5,000K entrance fee.
Continued onto to Gnommalat, which is a dusty village-like town with loads of timber trucks passing through. Stopped for a drink in a tiny garage, mechanic-type shop that also sold drinks and soups, then rode back to Thakhek. Albeit the sore bottom you’ll experience as the bikes are not the best and roads not much better, the scenery along the way is spectacular. Surreal jagged limestone karsts surround you as you ride along this highway; especially as it’s the wet season and very lush! Be careful though when travelling on Highway 12 as you’ll be dodging and passing many long trucks hauling massive forest logs (‘legal’ of course). This is a gateway from Laos and into Vietnam and China so this is why some of this road is okay.
On the Chinese front, the story goes that China wanted to spend one billion dollars to build a new road from China into the north of Laos and down to Vientiane. However, the Laos government requested an additional US$25,000 for ‘administration costs’, so, the Chinese flatly refused and pulled out of the whole deal.
Visit Konglor Cave independently and for a quarter of the cost!
Having made the mistake of reading the guide-book and not researching this area online more, we took a direct bus from Vientiane to Thakhek, thinking this is the place to start for the Konglor cave. Well it is, if you go with Green Discovery or other tour companies. And let’s not forget that companies pay advertising money to be in Lonely Planet and other guide books. (The reason why some ads are much larger than others and are pushed more.)
Anyway, From Thakhek, there are 2 ways you can see the cave independently and for about a quarter of quoted tour prices:
- Hire a scooter and do “The Loop” – you don’t need a Trails’ bike for this; met many people who did the cave this way and it’s cheaper.
- Local transport – catch the straight through 7:30am bus (60,000K) from Talat Phetmany to Khoun Khan.
Arrive at Khoun Khan at 11.30am and wait an hour for the sŏrngtăaou (25,000K) to Konglor village. As our vehicle was very loaded down with people and items (fridge, 2 water coolers, everyone’s luggage, chicken, live fish in plastic bags) on this leg, the trip took 1.5 hours. From the village, it’s a kilometre walk to the park entrance (2,000K) then about a 300-metre walk in the park and to the river and the boat ticket seller.
This whole area is nothing short of spectacular! The sheer karsts rising high from the bright green rice fields makes for dramatic scenery and you can only keep staring in awe at the 360° vista of these amazing mountains – it helps that it’s the wet season and everything is lush and iridescent.
Chantha House (Konglor Village, Hinboun District) is a small clean homestay, which includes breakfast (toast, eggs, coffee/tea, butter, and jam). The rooms are smallish and without air-conditioning, just a fan and it’s hot at night; think the downstairs rooms may be cooler.
On the first night, the power died and we also ran out of water and given 2 huge bottles of water, a big bucket, and scoop to shower/flush toilet. The owner did offer us a downstairs room, which had power but as we were only there 2 nights, didn’t bother to move. The wi-fi in the room isn’t great; however, it is good in the public area downstairs – think it’s one of the few places in this small town that offers wi-fi. The wild storm that night probably didn’t help either. Owners are lovely, attentive, and helpful.
This village is expanding at a fast pace with several new guest houses being built as I write, so see it before it becomes a top tourist destination!
Lucky the Chantha House included a good home-cooked breakfast and also offers a Lunch/Dinner menu as there are not many good reasonably-priced restaurants in the village. The food at the Chantha House is delicious and fresh, and the drinks are charged at a reasonable price for the location.
The Konglor Cave experience
The incredible Konglor Cave is about 7.5 kilometres long with a river running through it and definitely worth the journey!
From Konglor village, follow the sign (about 1 kilometre) to the park entrance gate (2,000K) walk a few hundred metres through an old wooded forest to arrive at the ticket booth. The boat trip is 130,000k (only 3 paying people allowed) and gives you the boat, driver (and 1 crew), life jacket, and a head torch.
You arrive at the cave’s entrance in a small canoe then swap to a larger motorised canoe to travel up the snakelike river to the other side. The width of the river running through the cave is mostly more than 20 metres and a strong current ensures you don’t nod off but stay awake throughout the journey.
The height of the cave is incredible! The roof towers to in excess of 50 metres above the river and for the most part, in excess of 25 metres. You travel through the darkness of the cave with only head torches lighting the way. After about 10 minutes, stop and walk across some sand, then steps amongst lit Stalagmites, columns, and more. You’re picked up at the other side and continue in darkness through this awe-inspiring mammoth cave until seeing daylight at the end.
Stopping for a cold drink and a 20-minute break, the boat driver summons you for the return trip. It’s an amazing 2-hour return trip! It’s very dark and I’m not sure that everyone would feel comfortable being in a small canoe-like boat on a fast flowing river in pitch black! Would you?
Return journey from Konglor Village to Thathek
Although we stayed 2 nights at the village, you could do this in one very long day, if you’re in a rush.
Catch the sŏrngtăaou (25,000K) anywhere along the road in Konlor village; the driver starts at 08:00 so be a little earlier. This trip only took 1 hour to Khoun Khan. The connecting bus to Thakhek (50,000K) was waiting, which only took 3 hours as during this trip, the driver thought he was driving a Ferrari! Not sure why the bus was cheaper going back either…
Tip: In Thakhek, you should only pay 10,000K for a sŏrngtăaou to anywhere in town (apart from the International Bus Station – not sure what that is yet).
Note: To give you an idea, at the time of writing, prices quoted for a 1-day tour from Thakhek to Konglor Cave were US$141 per person (Green Discovery) and 800,000K (Tourism Info place)! Oh and if you’re travelling from Vientiane, it’s better to stop at Vieng Kham then get a connecting bus to Konglor Village, but not sure of prices and times.
After spending almost 8 days between Thakhek and Konglor (absolutely love this area), sadly it is time to leave this beautiful region and head south again…to Savannakhet.