Laos is perfect for exploring by vehicle, whether that be by bicycle, motorbike, car or bus. After all, half the fun is not necessarily the destination but rather the journey itself! The 5 1/2 hour trip, driving Vientiane to Konglor Cave in Central Laos’ Khammouane province is set to impress, passing through small villages, rugged countryside and spectacular views of the limestone karsts in Phou Hin Boun National Park.
The majority of travellers will visit Konglor Cave as part of a motorbike journey on the “Thakek Loop” (also known as the “Konglor Loop” or simply “the Loop”). The Thakek Loop is a 500 kilometre motorcycle trek through Khammouane province and takes between 3-5 days depending on how much time you spend in each location. Others will opt to travel by bus from Vientiane or perhaps by songtaew (a small shared taxi/bus) from the town of Thakek. This roadtrip I chose to undertake the 5 1/2 hours drive from Vientiane to Konglor Cave in the comfort of my 4×4 – luxury indeed! This is a guide to driving by road from Vientiane to Konglor Cave, via Vieng Kham, on National Route 13 South. These tips will be valid whether you are travelling by car, bicycle, motorcycle or by bus.
Driving in Laos
Driving in Laos is not without its problems – but I’d still recommend it! Lao vehicles drive on the right-hand side of the road, which for many, is challenge enough in itself. Visitors will quickly note that Lao drivers do not adhere to the traffic rules and regulations that you may be used to back home. Don’t worry. There is a system – it’s just probably not a system that makes sense to you!
Lao driving etiquette involves giving way to oncoming traffic that are attempting to overtake. That is, I must get out of the way of anyone driving towards me on my side of the road. This takes some getting used to as even the major roads are barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic. Size also matters! Cars yield to trucks and buses; and motorbikes yield to everyone! Add into the mix, chickens, goats and buffalo wandering across the road, young school children piled on the back of bicycles, iron-horses plodding along, luggage left in the middle of the road (indicating the local bus needs to stop to pick someone up!) and you really do need to have your wits about you.
Road quality in Laos
Lao roads are constantly under construction, especially with the influx of foreign investment at the moment. One minute there is a dirt road, the next it is paved. Only to have it pitted with massive potholes after several big downpours of rain. And many roads heading up into the mountains have several twists and turns which makes travelling by bus often feel akin to travelling on a roller-coaster!
A rookie mistake of mine was once looking at a map and thinking my destination was “only” 50 kilometres away. Easy! The “only” took me one and a half hours as the combination of narrow road, traffic-jams, roadworks and incessant rain reduced the ability to travel significantly. Here’s an insider tip to look out for whilst travelling on Lao roads – a tree branch or big bunch of leaves piled up in the middle of the road is a warning indicator. This usually means there is a vehicle broken down just ahead (or possibly an accident) so slow down and check the road.
On a final note, renting a car or motorbike in Laos requires an international driver’s license. It is also important that you have adequate travellers’ insurance in the case of requiring emergency assistance. Driving at night is not recommended due to poor visibility and the amount of heavy duty trucks barrelling down the roads.
Most of the roads from Vientiane to Konglor Cave are scenic …. and paved
Driving Vientiane to Konglor Cave
Leaving the capital city of Vientiane behind, motorists will glimpse the villages growing smaller and smaller in size. You will also be surrounded by beautiful, hazy views of the Phou Khao Khouay Mountains. My years of driving along long stretches of road in outback Queensland, Australia usually have me worried about finding the next petrol (or gas) station. No need to worry about gas stations here, as Laos seems to have one every couple of hundred metres. Just beware that gas stations may not carry all types of fuel. I pulled into three gas stations before I found the “standard” fuel required by my vehicle.
Directions and maps (in all their forms, including GPS) in Laos are hit-and-miss at the best of times but below is my formula for driving Vientiane to Konglor Cave broken into two sections: driving Vientiane to Vieng Kham and driving Vieng Kham to Konglor.
Vientiane to Vieng Kham
Route 13 looks harmless enough…
Setting out from Vientiane by 4WD the directions are pretty straightforward – just get yourself on Route 13 and head south! That’s pretty much it for about 3 hours (or 243 kilometres)! The driving is fairly straightforward along this stretch of highway. It is particularly easy in the morning as traffic doesn’t tend to build until the late afternoon.
That’s Route 13 following the Mekong River from Vientiane towards the southern provinces of Laos
Route 13 looks harmless enough but it is actually notorious for horrific accidents, as this is a major trucking route. Route 13 literally runs the entire length of the country beginning in Northern Laos at the Chinese border and connecting the major cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane with the southern provinces and then crossing into Cambodia.
Breakfast stop at Tha Bok village (approx. 1 1/2 hours out of Vientiane) for amazing fresh banh mi and strong Lao coffee
Continue on from Tha Bok for approximately 1 1/2 hours to the village of Vieng Kham, 233 km out of Vientiane. Look out for this village as it is your turning off point.
Slight roadworks in Vieng Kham
Vieng Kham to Konglor
After 3 hours of driving on Route 13 from Vientiane, or 233km, you will reach the village of Vieng Kham. Turn left heading towards Vietnam along the trucking route (Route 8).
Follow Route 8 winding up into the mountains, making sure to stop at the Phou Hin Boun Viewpoint for the spectacular, rugged limestone forest views. Look for a sala on the right-hand side overlooking the valley with a small parking space below.
Limestone Forest viewpoint overlooking Phou Hin Boun, Khammouane Province, Laos
Continue on Route 8 for approximately 30 minutes to the Na Hin (Ban Khoun Kham) turnoff. You will see signs advertising accommodation and Konglor Cave. Route 8 will continue to the left towards the Vietnam border and the road to the right (Asia Highway 15) leads to Konglor Cave. From the Route 8 turnoff it is around 45km or one hour driving time to Ban Tiou village, our accommodation at Spring River Resort, just outside of Konglor Cave.
Total driving time from Vientiane to Konglor Cave is around 5 1/2 hours. This includes one breakfast stop of around 20 minutes and one viewpoint stop of around 10 minutes.
Powerlines march over the mountain ridge and into Thailand to provide power for all those Thai shopping malls
Rural farmlands and karst mountain ranges in Khammouane Province
Tobacco farms abound around Konglor Village
Air-curing kiln for drying tobacco in Ban Tiou
And isn’t this what you came for? A dramatic entrance to Konglor Cave in Khammouane Province, Central Laos
Have you hit the road to Konglor Cave? I’d love to hear your comments below.