Vientiane to Thakek: Heading South and prepping for the Loop

From Luang Prabang we went to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. That story is uninteresting, so here’s the post from Vientiane to Thakek in the South-Central Laos.

Abbie, Sinead and I (whom you may see me reference as “The English Girls” bought the bus ticket through our hostel and as is common across Asia they arranged for a pick up from the hostel to the bus station. The pick up was at 9am and surprisingly for Laos it was on time. We were the first pick up after which there were about 6-7 more. After the second or third pick up Camille saw a slightly concentrated look on my face (I can’t remember what I was thinking), she asked “Going through your checklist?”. I responded “Passport, phone, wallet…[as I double checked I could feel my passport against my body under my t-shirt in my passport pouch, feeling the passport I knew I had my pouch and therefore my money, finally I could feel my phone pressing against my left leg where it’s always kept]…check!”

Just as I finished saying check, somebody on the wagon exclaimed “Passport!” he reached into his pocket and took out a plastic token which he had in exchange for his passport. He shot up and leapt towards the back of the slow moving wagon. He caught himself from jumping out using the roof rails, he grabbed the side of the wagon leaping forward and swinging around the outside, with enough speed to run towards the driver.

The driver reassured him we would go back for his passport as soon as we pick everyone up; it’d be easier that way as we’ll be doing a loop around anyway. When he got back he explained that he had handed over his passport to his hostel who were arranging his Vietnam Visa. He had got the Visa but left his passport there for safe keeping and had forgotten about it. We picked up everyone else squeezing ourselves and our luggage into a the increasingly cramped wagon. We rearranged ourselves so that Passport could run out and grab his passport as soon we stopped.

We pulled up and the driver pointed in the direction where the hotel was. I looked towards the back of the wagon; I hadn’t even seen him jump out but Passport was already in the street running faster than Usain Bolt towards the hotel. He reappeared 30 seconds later, out of breath, passport held firmly high above his head with both hands greeted by the wagon with applause, whoops and cheers. For the rest of the journey he was known as Passport. Later he would introduce himself to people saying “I’m Asif but you can call me Passport”.

When we arrived at the bus station we were told we had missed the 10am bus (it was only 0959 meaning if true this was the first bus to depart early in Laos). Looking at the schedule information it didn’t look like there was a 10am bus to Thakek. The poor man breaking the news to us didn’t speak very much English and was faced with an angry mob of a dozen people speaking at the same time demanding to know what happened to the bus and when the next one is. He said the next bus is at 1130 and pointed to the red bus. The more reasoned of us headed to the ticket office to ask for the next bus, they said 1030. The poor man who broke the news to us came over, he explained the 1030 bus was a local bus which we may find uncomfortable. We said we’ll be fine on it, and he negotiated for us to use our tickets on the local bus. With that we piled our bags on and took our seats.

As more and more people boarded the bus, the driver’s assistant started to give people who boarded a small plastic stool and they took their seats in the aisle. We completed the 6 hour journey in an impressive 7 hours.

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We would have completed the journey closer to the 6 hours but we stopped for 30 minutes whilst the driver and some other passengers loaded some bikes onto the roof of the bus. I’m sure the extra drag slowed the bus down.

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The bus hadn’t stopped anywhere for lunch. At about 2pm we had stopped where some old ladies sold everyone on a bus two pieces of steamed corn on the cob each. It was a quick fix to keep the hunger away, but we were aware that the corn wouldn’t last long and didn’t provide much variety of nutrient and sustenance.

We arrived into Thakek shortly before dusk pretty hungry. We had to very quickly find somewhere to stay. Thakek is a small town historically used as a stop off point for rich Chinese, Laotian and Thai merchants sailing down the Mekong River. As a result it has only a few hotels and guesthouses, none particularly aimed at the budget backpacker.

Things began to look grim. All the places that we tried were full. With so few places in town we had a handful of options left all quite sparsely spaced meaning if we didn’t find rooms in the city centre we would have to start walking about 2km to each place. We desperately wanted to avoid that. Using ‘Maps.Me’ we navigated ourselves to the next hotel. Success. They had loads of rooms, reasonably priced, really clean bed linen, and the bathrooms were decent.

With accommodation sorted we had two more things to check off the list before we can retire to bed. We needed to find bikes to rent for the next 3-4 days so we can do “The Loop” and of course we needed dinner. We wanted to sort out the bikes in the evening so there’s one less thing to do the following morning when everyone would be looking for the bikes.

We did some quick research online and through the lonely planet; both suggested the best place to rent the bikes was from Wang Wang. It was only a 10 minute walk and was close to restaurants. Wang Wang had plenty of bikes. Camille, Celine and I got the cheapest manual bikes (semi-automatics) each at 50,000kip/day (£4). Sinead and Abbie would share an automatic at 100,000kip/day. The family that runs Wang Wang were extremely friendly and helpful. Anyone thinking about doing the loop should get the bikes from them.
With that done we ate some Patthai followed by some street Crêpes.

Getting back to the hotel, we quickly planned the following morning. We wanted an early start to get our bikes, then head to the Travel Lodge to read the ‘Tip Book’ and get breakfast before heading out on the 3-4 day tour of beautiful landscape.

We packed our respective day bags trying to work out the minimum viable clothing required. I took my shorts with zip on trouser legs, a sports t-shirt which dries quickly, a shirt, my Vibram Five Finger shoes, some flip flops in the side of my bag; and I always keep a raincoat and small towel in my bag. I saw the Sinead and Abbie had a First Aid kit. I suggested that we take and said I’ll keep it in my bag if they don’t have enough space. It wasn’t much and whatever happens over the next four days these things will just have to last me; things will probably get grimy.

We set alarms for 0730am and we were all out within minutes.

[I consider this a success, Laura on the bus from Thakek to the 4000 Islands felt physically sick and wanted to throw up as she proof read this post].

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