I’m sitting on the “lid” of one of the 150 limestone “jars” at the Plain of Jars (Site 3), awaiting the sunset at this scenic, hilltop location on the outskirts of Phonsavan. The past two weeks have been scenic overload! A coffee plantation tour in Paksong by the humorous Dutchman, Mr. Kofi (I bought a 300g bag of his Arabica beans) was followed by a recommended waterfall and swimming hole, 7km west of Paksong.
After touring the 1200m Bolovan Plateau (Laos’ coffee region), I sped through Savannakhet on the banks of the Mekong to my next destination: the “Loop”. It’s a road circuit that takes you through some of Laos’ most spectacular limestone karst formations, caves, and countryside. I took Rt 12 east from Tha Khek to the border town of Na Pho to access Xe Bang Fai Cave, by far the most remote and impressive of the five caves I’ve explored in SE Asia. To reach the cave from Rt 12, 50kms of dirt road, a river crossing by boat, and a stream crossing must be negotiated (and that’s just in the dry season!). The journey was half the fun. And then there was the cave — one of the largest river cave systems in the world. I had it all to myself, along with a German I befriended during the coffee tour, and our boatman, who paddled us 2km into the cave and back (rapids prevented further progress).
Kong Lor Cave, much more convenient and touristy, had a tough follow-up act so I tempered my expectations. It felt like an amusement park ride. I shared a boat with a French couple and we were motored 7.5km through the cave and back, sandwiched around a tasty lunch of sticky rice and a spicy, mystery meat concoction at a local village by the cave river entrance. Sitting on the floor, without shoes, and eating with locals felt genuine and touching.
After two nights at a guesthouse near the access road to Kong Lor on Rt 8, I headed for Phonsavan. Deciding to bypass Paksan and get off busy Rt 13, I opted for a dirt-road detour. Star was ready, having received a chain adjustment, a new exhaust O-ring (now she has a deep purr!), an oil change, and a full tank of gas. I thought I was ready, having had no problems relying on Google Maps, aside from one incident in Vietnam when the road ended and I had to backtrack 10kms. The initial stretch was favorable. I drove through little villages that were amazed and happy to see a foreigner this far off the beaten path. Once I hit the midpoint 20kms in, the road forked into two paths, both in bad shape. I went with the more traveled of the two. I was wrong. The “correct” way was little more than a logging trail! I had to carefully maneuver sandy patches to avoid wiping out, and I settled for the first guesthouse I saw after a full day of riding. I only covered 130km. I made it to Phonsavan the following evening after waiting out a morning downpour — the first rain since Hue, six weeks ago.