From Vientiane, our next destination was Thakhek, a town in central Laos. Thakhek is fairly well known for "The Loop". This is a motorcycle trip which takes people anywhere from two days to a week, exploring some of the wonderful back roads of central Laos and usually starting and ending in Thakhek. Instead of catching a bus to Thakhek and then doing the loop from there, we decided to kick off our own "Unloop" from Vientiane and ending in Thakhek, while still taking in most of the same sights. This adventure turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in Laos and we would highly recommend it to anyone travelling from Vientiane to Thakhek who's considering doing the Loop.
We hired a Honda Baja XR250 from Jules Classic Company which was definitely the best motorcycle rental outfit that we’ve come across in South East Asia so far. The bike came with full insurance and good quality, new helmets. Owner Thierry has even had the pillion foot pegs on his bikes lowered to make the ride more comfortable for passengers. We arranged with Jules Classic to have our luggage shipped to Thakhek for a small fee and agreed to drop the bikes off with their agent when we arrived in Thakhek.
For the first day was a long day’s riding at around 280km and took us to Na Hin. We rode as much as we could off Highway 13, using a good condition dirt road which runs alongside the Mekong for some of the way. Head for Buddha Park and continue straight along this dirt road. Eventually this joins back onto Highway 13, a fairly boring ride until you reach Highway 8. Riding eastwards on Highway 8 was spectacular. We wound up and down steep mountain passes on an excellent quality road, passing amazing mountain views and strange karst limestone clusters.
Once we reached Na Hin, the guesthouse that we planned to stay at was full and they directed us to the excellent Sainamhai Resort where we stayed in a very nice new bungalow. The resort is very new, and is not yet in any of the guidebooks, but we highly recommend staying here. Free coffee, excellent food with fabulous portions and very friendly staff made for a perfect rest stop. Ask a local in Na Hin for directions to Sainamhai, as it’s fairly tricky to find.
Buddha Park, or Xieng Khuan, is located about 25km outside of Vientiane, the capital city (or town, really) of Laos. To get there, we hired a tuk-tuk from the centre of town. The journey took about 45 minutes or so.
The park was built in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a priest-shaman who attempted to integrate Hinduism and Buddhism into a single religion. After the communist revolution he fled to Thailand where he built another sculpture park in Nong Khai.
To put it mildly, Xieng Khuan is one of the most bizarre collections of statues we've ever encountered. Amongst the reclining Buddhas and three headed elephants you'll find all sorts of crazy monsters, some with multiple heads, some multiple tails. Others with abducted maidens in their hands. Everything is made from concrete. Unfortunately we didn't have a guide; it would probably make much more sense if you did. As it was, we didn't have a clue about what it was that we were looking at. It was puzzling but still extremely interesting to visit, and we would highly recommend visiting it.
Vientiane must be one of the most laid back capital cities in the world — like the rest of Laos everything seems to happen slowly there. We spent four nights in Vientiane where we treated ourselves to a fabulous guesthouse called Hotel Khamvongsa. The fast internet connection allowed us to spend some time catching up with the rest of the world and planning the next steps of our trip.
Vientiane does not have a huge number of sights to see, but it does have some great restaurants and the laid back atmosphere makes it a good place to chill out for a few days. One of the highlights for us was a visit to COPE which is an excellent and very moving exhibition on unexploded ordinances (UXOs) - definitely worth a visit if you are passing through. There are two rather strange sights to see around Vientiane. The first is the oriental Arc de Triomphe known as Patuxay (Victory Gate) which was built using cement donated by the Americans to be used to build a new airport. Not quite as impressive as the original, it is still worth a walk up to see the city views. The second is Buddha Park (aka Xieng Khuan) which is about 25km outside of Vientiane. The park was built in 1958 by a priest/shaman who wanted to integrate Hindu and Buddhism and contains of a collection of rather bizarre concrete Hindu and Buddhist statues.
We hired bicycles to get around, which was very easy as it is pretty flat and the traffic is minimal and slow. On these, we could venture a bit further a field to Pha That Luang, a massive golden Buddhist stupa of great importance to the Laos people, which was unfortunately closed, but from what we could see was quite spectacular.
One of the highlights of Vientiane was definitely the food — we had a lot of excellent international food (French and Italian), but also some great Lao food at the stalls along the Mekong. Great for visiting at sunset, these stalls sell a huge variety of food and walking along them you can see all sorts waiting to be eaten - live frogs and fish in buckets and all manner of vegetables.