Tha Khaek is a sleepy little town on the Mekong River in central Laos. Mostly ignored by tourists in the past, it has recently seen an increase in visitors looking to enjoy the more adventurous travel options offered in one of the least visited areas of the country. In particular, visitors come to Tha Khaek to set out on the motorbike ‘loop’, a three to five day round trip through spectacular landscapes and over some spectacularly bad roads. The town itself doesn’t really offer much for visitors to do, but the surrounding area is full of caves and waterfalls (read about my visit to Tha Khaek).
Best Time to Go
The best time to visit Tha Khaek is during the dry season from November to March, when temperatures are cooler. March to May is the hot season and the temperatures can reach 40ºC or higher, but if you’re coming to town for the motorbike loop, this is still a good season for it. Basically, you just want to avoid the wet season from May to October, as the rains will wreak havoc on the dirt roads that make up part of the loop.
Getting to Tha Khaek
Most people arrive in Tha Khaek by bus from Vientiane in the north, which costs 60,000 Kip (80,000 for a VIP bus) and takes about 7 hours (VIP takes 5) or from Savannakhet or Pakse in the south. The bus from Savannakhet costs 30,000 Kip and takes 3 hours, while the trip from Pakse costs 60,000 and takes 7 hours (70,000 and 5 hours for a VIP bus). It is also possible to arrive by bus from Vietnam or across the Mekong from Thailand.
The bus station is located a few kilometers from downtown. There’s a guest house at the station, but I would recommend staying pretty much anywhere else. If you do head downtown, you’ll basically be forced to take a tuk tuk and the drivers know this. They will quote some ridiculous prices, but you can get them down to 15,000 Kip per person fairly easily. Unfortunately, this is still extremely expensive for Laos. With some really hard bargaining you might be able to drop the price a few thousand Kip more.
Tuk tuks will take you around town for 5,000 to 10,000 Kip per person. You can rent bicycles from 10,000 Kip and motorbikes from 50,000 Kip per day from several places around town. Most people recommend renting from the Tha Khaek travel lodge, but I’m not sure there’s much difference.
Tha Khaek is getting more and more options when it comes to accommodation, but none of them are especially great. The downtown area by the Mekong is quite nice and the rest of the town isn’t, so you’ll probably want to stay near the riverfront. The best option here is the Inthira Thakhek. It’s located right downtown and offers the best value for your money.
Most backpackers stayed at the Tha Khaek Traveler Lodge when I was there (2011). The staff offer a lot of advice on the motorbike ‘loop’ as well as being one of the better places to rent the bikes themselves. That said, the place is not great. The beds are hard, the food is bad and overpriced and it’s located far from downtown, meaning most people never really leave and end up eating all their meals at the traveler’s lodge. Despite all that, it filled up quickly, so you’d be best off making reservations ahead of time if you want to stay at the lodge.
Eating & Drinking
Having a Beer Lao along the riverfront is a nice way to pass some time. Some nights, mostly weekends, the smile pub will be in full swing. Located on a converted boat just offshore in the Mekong, this place is definitely worth checking out for the experience. Don’t plan on staying too long though, as the atmosphere when I went was somewhat strange and not especially inviting at first, then quickly turned downright threatening. This may have just been that one night, however. I say, check it out if something is going on while you’re there, but feel the place out for a bit before getting too comfortable.
The main square right by the Mekong River fills up with food stalls in the evenings and is probably the best place to eat; it’s certainly the cheapest. The restaurants along the riverfront are generally overpriced, but you’re paying for the prime location, not the food. The streets around the square have numerous restaurants, most of which serve decent meals at decent prices.
A lot of people will eat at the Tha Khaek Traveler’s Lodge, since it’s in a fairly isolated location with no other restaurant options, but it’s quite overpriced and you don’t get much food or much flavor for your money.
Things to Do
There isn’t really much to do in the town of Tha Khaek itself, but the surrounding area has a bunch of caves, waterfalls and temples. I will write about those in the section on the motorbike loop, which is really the main reason most people come to Tha Khaek.
Money Saving Tips
- rent a bicycle if you plan on doing a lot of traveling around town
- eat at Fountain Square by the Mekong River or at local restaurants near the square; avoid eating at the Tha Khaek Traveler’s Lodge or eating any western food in general
Photo courtesy of Ben Beiske.