When we heard about Konglor Cave – a 7.5km long giant karst limestone cave with a river running through it – we knew we couldn’t miss it on our trip through Laos. Konglor Cave is located in Phu Hin Bun National Park, far off any main bus route or bigger city. While you can still get there by public transport or on a (expensive) guided day trip – it sounded more appealing to us to visit Konglor Cave while driving the popular Thakhek Loop.
The Thakhek Loop is a 450km long route along paved roads, leading through incredible karst landscapes, rural villages, and beautiful wetlands. There are many great spots to stop on the loop for amazing views, to explore caves, and to cool off in freshwater lagoons. The Loop starts and ends in Thakhek, a small town where you can rent a motorbike and leave your bags. It can easily be done in three days and is a great way to visit Konglor Cave, while taking in some of Laos’ beautiful landscapes.
Day One on the Thakhek Loop
After an early breakfast at Thakhek Travel Lodge, we headed over to their motorbike rental shop, which is oddly named”Pokemon Go”. We ended up renting a Honda automatic scooter for and expensive 100,000 kip per day (US$12). We rented one bike for the two of us, and we wouldn’t be taking our big bags on the Thakhek Loop. The rental shop wasn’t able to hold our bags, so we had to pay another 5,000 kip per bag at Thakhek Travel Lodge for storage. After storing the bags, we hopped on the motorbike and excitedly started the first day of our three day Thakhek Loop trip. We rode the loop counter clockwise, but it really doesn’t matter which way you go. It took about 10 minutes to drive through Thakhek and then onward to an area called Cave Alley. There are 12 different caves in the area, some of which are free to enter and explore, while others charge an entry fee (usually 10,000 kip).
From the flat landscape, suddenly a wall of karst mountains rose up in front of us. The road led us past signs for caves on either side, and through the amazing mountains for the next 15 kilometers. We had heard that if you want to finish the Thakhek Loop in just three days, you shouldn’t spend too much time in cave alley, so we visited two of the caves that sounded most appealing. Our first stop was Tham Sa Pha In Cave. A short dirt road leads to the cave, where we found one other motorbike parked and no one in sight to charge an entry fee. The cave was a lot smaller than we expected, about 50 meters deep and not entirely walkable, but still beautiful. There’s a small Buddhist shrine to the left and then a drop-off to a river running through the cave. Someone had hung up a line of colorful flags over the river, giving it a festive look.
Four kilometers further down the road we saw the turnoff for Tham Nang Ene Cave, the biggest cave in the area, on our right. We were charged 30,000 kip each before they let us drive down a one kilometer dirt road to the cave. There were plenty of shops and a restaurant in front of the cave, but no other visitors in sight. We entered the cave through a stairway and followed a path that led us about 50 meters into the cave.
We saw a few nice stalactites and stalagmites, some of which were illuminated in neon colors, which made the place look a bit artificial. Further into the cave was a stairway that led down to a river, with a few small boats tied up. We looked around but couldn’t find anyone to paddle the boats, and no oars were anywhere to be found. A bit disappointed by the scale of the cave, as it was supposed to be the biggest, we headed back outside. We stopped at the ticket checkpoint to ask about the boats and they told us it would be another 20,000 kip pp if we wanted to go further. We wanted to know if there was more to Tham Nang Ene Cave, so we paid the fee and followed a young man with an oar back into the cave. We hopped into one of the tiny plastic boats and he paddled us along the underground river for around 20 minutes. The cave was a lot more impressive than we had first thought when we entered, and reminded us a little of Phong Nha Cave in Vietnam.
The boat stopped at what seemed to be the end of the river and the guide motioned for us to get out and follow him. To our surprise he led us on a 30 minute hike through the cave, up and downhill through different chambers, past a few beautiful rock formations, and through narrow passages. Tham Nang Ene Cave had much more to it than it first seemed, so make sure you pay the little extra money for the boat ride.
After this first great part of the Thakhek Loop, we left cave alley and the mountains behind and drove on toward Thalang, where we would spend the night. From cave alley it was just over 100 km to Thalang. We passed a few smaller villages and a dam before a winding and steep road led us 12km uphill to the town of Nakay. From here, the road leads past a vast area of forest that has been flooded due to the dam. For kilometers on end there are dead trees rising out of the flooded lands, making the landscape looking very surreal.
We passed through Thalang and headed on a little further to Sabaidee Guesthouse, just outside of town. Sabaidee Guesthouse is very popular with travelers on the Thakhek Loop, as it has cheap basic rooms and an amazing BBQ buffet. When we arrived around 3pm we were lucky to get one of the last few rooms for 50,000 kip ($6) as we didn’t have a reservation. Shortly after, more people arrived and had to either rent tents or move on to find other accommodation. We watched a beautiful sunset over the wetlands next to the guesthouse and then signed up for the all-you-eat BBQ. At 50,000 kip per person, the BBQ was certainly not cheap, but most of the others guests were joining in and it included salad and desserts. The BBQ was really delicious and nobody had to go hungry as they kept bringing out more food. The atmosphere was great and it was easy to meet fellow travelers.
Although it was nice to spend the afternoon at the guesthouse and relax, we didn’t expect to finish the first day of driving so early. We could have definitely taken the time to explore more caves at cave alley, or stopped at Tha Falang Lake for a swim and still made it to Thalang to spend the night without a problem if we had booked in advance.
Day Two on the Thakhek Loop
We had another early wake-up and were back on the road by 8am to make it on time to the highlight of the Thakhek Loop: Konglor Cave. It’s a 50km drive to the next major town, Lak Sao. About half of the way we drove on a winding road through the same type of wetlands as the day prior. Huge flooded areas with ghostly looking dead trees sticking out of the water lined the road. We stopped more than once to take in the strangely beautiful scenery.
After a long stretch of not seeing anyone, we passed through quite a few small villages before reaching Lak Sao. The town is set at the base of a row of huge karst mountains, but the hazy air at this time of the year somewhat diminished our view of them. A little over half way to the turnoff to Konglor Cave is a short detour to a swimming spot in some cool springs. The road closely follows the mountain range for a while and then leads through a stretch of dense forest.
Using our offline GPS app, we turned down a four kilometer long dirt road leading to the cool springs. Even though its a dirt road, it is in pretty good condition aside from a few spots. We were charged a 10,000 kip entry fee for the two of us to visit. There were quite a few local ladies with food stalls and small restaurants next to the lagoon, but otherwise not many people around. We parked our motorbike and found the small, beautiful lagoon, surrounded by rocks and forest, with incredibly clear water. There were some wooden boards in the water that we had to cross, which were mossy and incredibly slippery. Once we made it across, we jumped into the freezing, but refreshing water. It was obvious now why they had named the springs “Cool Springs.”
After the refreshing swim, we drove back to the main road and onward toward Konglor Cave. At a village called Nahin we turned left on the road toward Konglor Cave. It was also paved, and aside from quite a few potholes along a short stretch, in a good state. The views from the road were pretty incredible, first driving toward an impressive wall of karst mountains, and then alongside them. Roughly 45 minutes after we had turned from the main road in Nahin, we arrived at the famous Konglor Cave.
Parking our scooter set us back 5,000 kip, and the entry fee to Konglor Cave is another 10,000 kip per person plus the fee for the boat. They charge 100,000 kip per boat which seats up to three people, so the more you are, the merrier. After paying for entry, a boat driver took us along the Nam Hin Bun River, which runs through Konglor Cave. We crossed the river and followed a small path toward the entrance of the cave.
Entering the cave, everything inside is pitch black minus a single light that shows where the boats are. The cave mouth looks much larger from inside looking out, and soon it’s time to hop into the small, motorized boat.
We hopped into the boat and started our drive through the pitch black Konglor Cave, which was only illuminated by the driver’s headlamp from time to time. We were going relatively fast, especially considering there wasn’t any other light to guide our driver through the bends and past obstacles in the river. About ten minutes into our ride through the dark cave, the boat stopped and the driver motioned for us to get out and walk along an illuminated path. The path led us to some beautiful rock formations.
After ten minutes we reached the riverbank again and hopped back into the boat. For another half hour or so, we continued our boat ride through the pitch black, massive Konglor Cave. The cave was huge in some spots, and the feeling of jetting along the river in darkness got our adrenaline going as was a bit unnerving. At one point our driver shined his headlamp at a short wall of limestone that blocked the entire river. He sped up and aimed for a small, half meter high waterfall, which we ran into and somehow slid up and continued on our way. Just before we reached the exit of the cave, we had to get out of the boat as there was another small waterfall in our way. The driver hopped out and pushed the boat with the help of a few other boatmen that had the same problem.
We exited the cave through a huge opening opposite from where we entered, and came out into a lush, green jungle surrounded by the high peaks of karst mountains. We followed the river for another few minutes before stopping for a short break at a few food stalls. The ride back through the cave was just as exciting as the way there had been.
We left Konglor Cave very impressed and drove a few minutes back along the only road in Konglor Village to our guesthouse. There are plenty of guesthouses in the village, so making a reservation beforehand is probably not necessary. Konglor Village is beautifully set between mountain ranges and green fields.
Day Three on the Thakhek Loop
On day three of the Thakhek Loop we made our way back toward our starting point. From Konglor, we drove back the same road we came on, once more enjoying the mountains surrounding us. Arriving in Nahin village, we turned left and had another 40 kilometers ahead of us before getting to the highway that leads to Thakhek. The road winded up a mountain through jungle and sharp rock formations. An hour or so into the drive, at the top of a mountain we saw a sign for a lookout on our left. We decided to stop and were rewarded with amazing views over the limestone mountains and the dense jungle below.
The rest of the 40 kilometer drive until we reached the highway was just as scenic as it had started. Large mountains and green forest were never far out of sight. Just under an hour later, we reached the turnoff to the highway. We had another 105 kilometers of monotonous highway ahead of us, and our butts started to really hurt from sitting on the motorbike for hours on end. The highway has two lanes and is basically a straight line leading to Thakhek. Luckily the road is in a good state, and aside from watching out for other traffic, it was dull but easy driving.
Even though we were more than ready to get off the motorbike, we decided to take the 20km (one way) detour to the Blue Lagoon, another small freshwater lagoon, to cool off. The turnoff is 30km before Thakhek, and is marked on the offline GPS app, Maps.Me. Some fellow travelers had told us about a sketchy, sandy part, but we weren’t too worried at the time. The first 10km of the road was paved and led us through a few small villages. Suddenly the paved road stopped and gave way to a gravel road. It didn’t seem too bad until we reached a small hill were the gravel first became concrete covered with sand, and then changed to deep patches of sand and dirt. We made it up the hill, hoping that the road would improve, but the way down didn’t look much more appealing and we noticed we were low on gas. We decided to turn around and skip the Blue Lagoon since we weren’t sure we’d have enough fuel to get back.
On the way back we made it safely down the sandy hill, but then on a rocky downhill covered with a layer of sand, one of the wheels slipped and we fell pretty hard. We landed on some pretty big rocks, David split his lip open and I tore off a layer of skin on my foot and knee. Luckily we didn’t break any bones and the motorbike was scraped up but okay. We drove back to the highway pretty beaten up and bleeding as we went. At a gas station a very friendly local came running to help us once he saw the blood and our torn clothes. He gave us some painkillers and water and offered for us to sit down and rest for a bit. The man didn’t much speak English, but motioned to the road we were just on, acted out us going down the rocky hill and sliding, and said, “Many crashes.” His kindness was very appreciated and he made our visit seem somewhat common, which means anyone going down the road to the Blue Spring should proceed with caution until it’s paved.
The rest of the drive to Thakhek luckily was uneventful and we were happy to return the motorbike. Overall, despite our crash at the end, driving the Thakhek Loop had been a great experience. We got to see beautiful landscapes and explore the amazing Konglor Cave, which ended up being one of our highlights in Laos.
- Always watch out for cows and other animals on the road, they can come out of nowhere.
- The main route for the Thakhek Loop is paved, if you head on some of the side trips you may encounter dirt/gravel roads. Be really careful when driving to the Blue Lagoon off the highway, it’s a tough road with lots of stories of crashes.
- If you have time, consider taking longer to do the Loop. It’s definitely not a problem to drive it in three days and still see as many caves as you like, but so many hours a day on a motorbike can end up being very uncomfortable.
- Consider downloading an offline navigation app – like Maps.Me. It makes it easier to find some of the turnoffs to caves or other sights.
- If you’re planning on staying at Sabaidee Guesthouse near Thalang, either make a reservation or make sure you don’t arrive too late, as it is very popular.
- There are plenty of gas stations everywhere, so you don’t need to worry about bringing spare gas. The only long stretch without a gas station is between Thalang and Lao Sak (roughly 50 kilometers).