We continued heading south through Laos on a mini bus from Vientiane to Kong Lor. There were not enough seats, and I was fortunate to get a lovely seat on the wheel well. We stopped around 100 times en route, and like all buses in Laos it took awhile. We met a nice couple onboard (they referred to themselves as “the oldies”), whom we befriended and later enjoyed beers with. For sustenance, we dined on delicious rice cakes.
We arrived in a “bus station” (remote shack) and were ferried onto a tuk tuk for the final hour of our journey. The scenery was breathtaking: Small wooden platform homes typical of rural Laos, bright green rice paddies, people working the fields in triangular hats, roaming water buffalo coated in mud and…water, and frolicking goats. Our amazing private bungalow was set in this backdrop, and we spent much time on the wooden deck and hammock relaxing. At 5am, we watched the sun rise behind the tall karst mountains as the villagers began their daily farm work in the fields.
Kong Lor Cave
We’d come to Kong Lor to see the cave, a huge mass of karst limestone with a river cutting 7km through the dark stone. One of the pools in Kong Lor is said to have sacred powers, and is described by Atlas Obscura as one of South Asia’s “geological wonders.” Apparently it’s still used by locals to transport goods, although we didn’t see this. To arrive we walked about 15 minutes, the otherworldly metallic sound of cicadas from nearby trees piercing our ears. We donned the life vests our guide offered, boarded the small wooden blue boat, and headed into the cave.
Kong Lor cave is completely pitch black inside lest for the headlamp of our guide. We crossed much of it in silence slicing through the cool cave air, water rushing around us, drops dripping from the tall ceiling onto our heads. It was both exhilarating and quite terrifying in a way, especially since we saw no other boats most of our ride. Eventually it opened back up on the other side and we were bathed in hot sun once more. Fun Fact: Before the cave was ever explored, the village on the downstream side of the river surmised there was a village on the other side because they saw logs with the unmistakable cut of a machete in them. Smart!
Budget Tip | As of 2018 there is a fixed price to enter the park and tour the cave. It will cost $65,000kip, with no negotiation possible.
From Kong Lor To Thakhek
We waited on the side of the road at 6:30am as instructed,then piled into the prompt tuk tuk to take us 3+ hours to Thakheck. We forgot our masks and choked on dust the entire ride as more and more people got on, dragging their sacks of agricultural products. One lady had huge baskets of mushrooms, which other rides excitedly examined, touched and smelled. A few hours later, we struggled into the small Thakhek with our bags and the heat and set out to explore.
Situated on the Mekong (as so many towns are), Thakhek is a stop for travelers only because it’s the beginning of the popular Thakhek Loop. The loop is a 60+ km circle drive which takes you through numerous caves and small villages with a single caveat — you have to drive a motorbike. Not feeling this was a good idea as we do not know how to drive motorcycles and the roads are not in prime condition (plus it varies from risky to illegal to pricey if you’re stopped, largely dependent on your insurance situation and the police who stops you). It looks amazing, but alas we skipped it.
What we did not skip were the small night market with really really cheap prices, delicious juices, a beautiful temple with dragon-lined stairs into the water, and the few surprisingly good restaurants situated riverfront (of these, we ate at Sabidee).
Budget Tip | Head a few blocks away from the Mekong for cheaper meals and juices as low as $5,000kip. Also check out the local market a few blocks down on the right from the night market for groceries.
From Thakhek to Pakse
Our next move was Pakse, so we could go overland to Cambodia. Dreading another all day bus journey we waited for our pickup. Nearly an hour later, they acted confused when we followed up – “oh you want to go now?” We rushed to the station. Expecting a local bus without air con or amenities, we were pleasantly surprised to see comfy seats and feel air blowing. The ride was relatively pleasant, but long. It feel somewhere in the middle of the highly-variable estimated time of 5-12 hours. We stopped upwards of 50 times (I lost count), and at intervals, women came on the bus swinging wooden sticks with dead chicken bodies flayed on them. The chicken was charred and warm from the daytime heat, smelling strong. Sometimes, they hit the ceiling with the meat sticks. We did not purchase unknown meat sticks, but instead ate the delicious rice cakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner (again). So, basically, we starved.
Pakse is a city situated in southern Laos, known for little more than it’s convenience in accessing surrounding countries and for being a transit hub. Our Pakse arrival started and ending badly. From our overpriced tuk tuk, to a horrific hostel with mats on the floor (we actually paid to leave), to the worst meal of our trip, to a falling-apart hotel where i tripped on the cement stairs, it was not fun. A quick morning walk confirmed what we already assessed; the city is gross, dreary and lacks charm of any sorts. We couldn’t’ get out of there fast enough — even though it meant another bus journey.
Budget Tip | Book your ticket to Pakse at an agency in Thakhek this time. Tuk tuks aren’t cheap, so in the end it’s better value to have pickup included. The local bus actually does have aircon, so do not pay the extra $10,000kip for the aircon bus.
Laos to Cambodia
Keep reading to learn about crossing overland from Laos to Cambodia.