Take one motorbike, three freshwater dolphins, seven kilometres of underground river and 4,000 islands, and imagine... one amazing, adventurous week in the south of Laos
Hundreds of thousands of travellers flock to Thailand every year. Only a small percentage cross the border to its next-door neighbour, Laos, and, of those who do, even fewer make the journey past Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, down to the south of the country.
From the moment we headed out of the Laos capital, Vientiane, on the back of a pick-up truck, accompanied by 20 Laotians, 10 bags of rice, a bike and two ducks, we knew that we were in for a less touristy and far more rustic experience. As far as our destination was concerned, the instructions were a little vague: get to a roadside shack by the intersection of highway 8, where we could catch another truck going to Lak Xao via Khoun Kham - which, we helpfully discovered, is more commonly known as Ban Na Hin.
The journey from the intersection to Na Hin was an experience in itself. After driving into somebody's backyard to collect more rice bags, the winding road took us high up into the mountains, where we could see a formation called the Stone Forest below us. It was spectacular and some of the best scenery we've seen in South East Asia.
The reason for going to Na Hin was to visit the magical Tham Kong Lo, where a seven-kilometre-long river runs underneath the mountain. Boats can pass through the cave under the mountain and we just knew that this would be a highlight of Laos. All the guesthouses (all four of them) are able to rent you a motorbike or scooter for around $10 per day, and this is the best way to get around. In fact, the whole area around Na Hin is popular with motorbike fanatics – a route known as 'the loop' through the Khammuan and Bolikhamsai provinces is perfect for zooming freely along dirt roads to barely explored villages, remote caves and forest-enshrouded lagoons. We only completed part of the loop - we're not exactly experienced bikers, and we were sadly short on time - but it was a fantastic experience.
The truck to Na Hin will usually drop travellers off at the well-run Mi Thuna Guesthouse but, as we found, the fact that everyone gets off here means that it can get pretty full. We wandered 500 metres down the road to Sokxay Guesthouse, which provided a lovely ensuite double room for $8.
After a night’s rest, we worked out that it was 45km to Kong Lo, and the owners of the guesthouse gave us a small map to follow. Off we headed on our scooter, getting lost many times before finding the right dirt road, and flying along, avoiding random herds of cows or stray dogs and, cliché as it might sound, being waved at by every Laotian we saw along the way.
On arrival at Kong Lo cave, we hired a boat to take us through the mountain and back - it costs around $20 for a boat of up to three people with two guides. The water was fairly shallow in places, so we had to get out for the boatmen to lift it up small rapids, but it was fantastic driving through this dark tunnel all the way under the mountain. One word of advice: take a decent torch, as it really is pitch black.
At one point, about a third of the way through, we stopped at an area littered with stalagmites and stalactites. Narrow passageways lead to rooms with endless ceilings, full of different rock formations that you are able to wander around. These are lit by multi-coloured lights, which make the cave both beautiful and slightly eerie at the same time.
If we had thought that where we began the journey was remote, it was nothing compared to the lush 'village' on the other side of the mountain. It is possible to organise a homestay here before returning through the cave - and if you don't want to see any fellow travellers for a day or two, it is definitely recommended. After returning through the cave, we headed back to Na Hin on the bike and tackled a steep uphill section of the road to return to the viewpoint overlooking the Stone Forest that we had seen the previous day. We made it up there, avoiding all the holes in the road, and found it to be an ideal spot to watch the sunset.
To the islands
Our next destination was the southernmost point of Laos, where the Mekong fans out to form an area of islets and sand bars known as Si Phan Don: the 4,000 islands. It was quite a distance, so involved stops in sleepy Tha Khaek and low-key Pakse before the final leg to Ban Nakasang, where we would catch a boat to the island of Don Khon (not to be confused with its larger, slightly more commercial neighbour, Don Khong). The 'bus' journey turned out to be another pick-up truck, which was packed even by London tube standards, with people hanging off the back for four hours! But situations like this really are all part of what makes Laos interesting. We finally made it to Don Khon and found a lovely riverside bungalow. There are many, but we stayed at Seng Ahloune for $8, and sat in our hammocks enjoying the peace and quiet for the evening. If your budget can stretch to $30, Sala Phae, downriver of the bridge, is a great option.
The next morning, we hired bikes – non-motorised this time! – to explore the island. The only roads are dirt tracks, and there is generally no electricity or hot water, so everything is pretty basic, but you really do appreciate the simplicity. We cycled to Tat Somphamit waterfalls, which looked like a huge flooded canyon, then followed the wooden signs to a beach where fishing boats departed for 'dolphins' house'. The boatmen took us further out in the 4,000 islands, to a rock where we got out and sat waiting to see if the rare Irrawaddy dolphins would appear.
There are fewer than 100 of these pink freshwater dolphins left in the world, and they are notoriously shy - but within just minutes of perching on the rock, we saw three about 100 metres away from us. It was indescribable just sitting there, in what felt like the middle of nowhere, watching these little dolphins surface every few minutes. With such low numbers and the population still declining, it is very much a case of see them now, or possibly not at all.
Our boat trip back to the island provided views of water buffalo grazing and drinking in the river, and locals fishing for their dinner. And that evening, on our balcony, we were graced with another beautiful sunset.
The road adventures, the friendly people, those lovely rare dolphins and the beautiful, unspoilt landscapes (not to mention Beer Lao) are all part of what makes southern Laos special. In an age where no corner of the world remains untouched, it is this feeling of exploring the less explored and discovering hidden escapes that sets Laos apart from its more popular neighbours.
Mi Thuna Guesthouse, Ban Na Hin
020 224 0182
The most popular place for travellers in Na Hin. Great restaurant, nice rooms and plenty of information available.
Sokxay Guesthouse, Ban Na Hin
054 70 2013 or 020 2429 219; firstname.lastname@example.org
Basic but very comfortable ensuite rooms ($8 for a double); on-site restaurant, but be prepared for typically Laos slow service!
Phoukhanna Guesthouse, Tha Khaek
Huge wooden rooms (the ones in the outbuilding at the back are best) and great value at $4.
Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse, Pakse
031 212 992
Very popular backpackers, with double rooms for $6. Good atmosphere and garden.
Seng Ahloune, Don Khon
030 534 5807
Choose between standard ($6) or riverfront ($8) bungalows. Cold water and no electricity after 10pm, but comfortable beds, beautiful decked balconies with hammocks, a large restaurant and bike hire.
Sala Phae, Don Khon
+856 30 5256390.
Floating raft houses or large bungalows with solar power, hot water, great balconies and a wonderful included breakfast; $30.