If you find yourself in central Laos – the landlocked communist country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam containing a significant portion of Southeast Asia’s mighty Mekong – I suggest you make your way to The Loop. The Loop is nothing more than a few hundred kilometers of what could be called a road, and yet, it’s so much more than that. The Loop is a test—an obstacle. It’s a journey. It’s a whisper on the lips of enlightened backpackers. It’s an item on the best of bucket lists. The Loop is an experience I had the pleasure of knowing the summer of 2013.
I was informed of The Loop by an aforementioned enlightened soul, and after a bumpy flight on a prop plane, and a six-hour bus ride, my traveling buddy and I found ourselves in the dusty town of Tha Khaek. Here we exchanged our passports and 400,000 kip ($50 USD) for our trusty steeds, beat up Chinese made underbones (a baby step up from a scooter). After this exchange, the owner of the scooter rental company, Mr. Ku, gave us a two-minute tutorial and a crucial yet wholly unreliable, out of scale, and overly Xeroxed hand drawn map of the loop.
With that, we were off – The Loop – our Southeast Asian easy rider. Except instead of gas tanks stuffed full drug money, it was backpacks full of crusty changes of clothes. Instead of unfriendly locals in a rural Louisiana diner, it was all smiles and Sabaidee – Greetings – at roadside hot noodle soup stands. Instead of Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper, it was our two new German buddies on their gap year between high school and college. We were a four-person motorcycle crew in our eyes. We were bandits on the Wild West exploring untamed jungle landscape, swimming holes, and caves. We had no rules. In our eyes, we discovered The Loop.
Our eyes weren’t ready to comprehend the beauty of mountainous Laos. The Loop is the manifestation of the mantra, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” How could it be anything else? The entire four-day ride is a circle. There is no destination. The joy of The Loop is to be found in the scenery.
Mountains folded like green quilts dropped from the sky, served as the frame for rice paddies, vast swamplands, and meandering rivers. We had to force ourselves to stop pulling over to take pictures. One, because the frequency of this act was slowing us down significantly, and two because no matter the device, lighting, or angle, we just couldn’t capture the feeling of it all. Instead we just had to ride in roaring silence, lungs full of fresh air, and hearts swollen with awe.
Our hearts weren’t ready to accept the kindness of strangers along the way. Laos only recently opened its doors to tourism in the 90’s, and as a result, the beaten path isn’t so beaten at all. We relied on the kindness of strangers to direct us to food, lodging, and the correct roads. We received love in all forms. Groups of children waving from the side of the road, a grandmas trying to coerce us into sharing shots of questionable liquor, and even a guesthouse owner inviting us to his nieces birthday party, where the Beer Lao flowed freely and the dancing lasted well into the night – thanks in part to James Brown who made his Tha Lang village debut via my I-pod and a remarkably powerful sound system.
If this kind of travel sounds interesting to you, The Loop is there in Laos, ready for you. Just make sure you’re ready for it. Be ready to point and gesture your way through directions and lunch orders. Be ready to throw away your red mud destroyed shoes by the end of the journey. Be ready to drive without a working front brake. Be ready to eat spicy noodle soup, sticky rice, and some things that you probably won’t be able to identify at all. Be ready to be humbled by the mountains, the caves, the rivers, and the people. Most importantly, keep those expectations low, because nothing really every goes according to plan on the loop, after all it’s the Wild West. It’s Easy Rider. Keep your expectations low, and let Laos blow them out of the water.