However much I enjoy life in Phana, it is good to get away sometimes and for me Lao PDR is the best place to get away to. This year I had to leave Thailand at the end of my allotted 90 days by 22 December so we decided to stay away over the Christmas period. There is only so much of piped jingle bells that anyone can take.
I prefer round trips if at all possible and so this time we decided to drive up to Thakek and then do the 'Khammouane loop' that so many tourists on motorbikes are encouraged by the guidebooks to experience. We did see a couple on the route but there were also several people we came across who were doing it by public transport -- more gruelling, possibly, but almost certainly safer.
Referring to guidebooks again, I read this loop described as possibly the highlight of a trip to Laos. Without doubt the trip is full of highlights. The scenery is pretty much one continuous highlight, and we also were lucky enough to stay at two resort / guest houses that were particularly welcoming.
The first was on our first day out of Thakek. We headed for a small town called Mahaxai which my guiddebook described as a 'delightful little town' with several guesthouses. I think they were thinking of somewhere else, or perhaps some tourists had written in recommending it as a joke! Mahaxai can never have been delightful and right now it is being 'redeveloped', meaning that it is nothing more or less than a red-dust dust bowl. So we pushed on ... and fortunately saw this sign just a couple of kms further along the road (route 12):
The restaurant and our bungalow:
Other bungalows and the view of the resort from outside:
We stayed two nights here. The resort is owned by a friendly English-speaking, Russian-trained engineer at the Nam Theun 2 power station who said he had built much of the resort himself and put in the water and electricity supply.
We drove north along route 1e, a laterite road that until very recently was full of potholes but has now been upgraded and is very easy and pleasant to drive along. It is metalled as far as the Nam Theun 2 Power Station seen here:
Some people find the huge flooded area caused by the Nam Theun dam depressing and the dead trees spooky. Of course, villages were destroyed by the flooding and the villagers re-located but their new villages offer them better facilities in terms of schools, electricity, easier access to medical treatment and so on. At a police checkpoint just across the dam, the policeman asked us if we could take an old man home who had been up to the dam for some free medical treatment, and we learnt a lot from him in the 30 minutes or so he rode with us.
There is a small stretch of about 5 kms where road works are continuing and we had to wait a short while before we could get past:
The road was so much better than we had expected that we pushed on past windy and dusty Lak Sao the last town on route 8 towards the Vietnam border. We turned west and drove on to Kham Khoun where we found a wonderful resort / guest house with the help of our guide book, which proved completely reliable in this instance. We stayed here, at the Sainamhai Resort, this one owned and designed by an English-speaking Cuban-trained architect who is currently running the Nam Heun Power Station and preparing for his retirement in a few years time.
After 3 nights at Sainamhai Resort we returned to Thakek. We had taken several sightseeing detours on our way round the loop and I will write about them and show more photos in my next post – coming soon.