Lao Thiao Lao Tackles “The Khammouane Loop”
Lao Thiao Lao Tackles “The Khammouane Loop”
It’s tough to find Khoun Kong Lang Lake on Google Maps. You’ll see a skinny gray line heading east off Route 13 just past Houay Aek. It ends at the mountains in Central Laos’ Khammouane Province. In reality, the 20-minute drive on a paved road leads to the Green World @ Khammouane, the latest addition to The Loop.
Vans from Vientiane (4 hours) and nearby Thakhek, along with a Jeep from the Stone Forest, converged at Green World on 9 August. The small caravan unloaded provincial Department of Information, Culture and Tourism (DICT) officials, tour operators and consultants. Our four-day mission: identify products for tour programs in Khammouane for the ongoing Lao Thiao Lao (Lao Travel Lao) domestic tourism campaign.
Green World executives, Ms Shirly and Mr Hospee, led us across the clear lake on a suspension bridge to the resort and activity zones. She explained that Green World had just soft launched, and aims to fully open in early 2022.
“We plan to develop 27 activities in different zones,” Ms Shirly explained. The action menu listed zip-lining, kayaking, swimming in the lake, mountain and jungle trekking, and driving ATVs.
She guided us through the accommodation. Twelve air conditioned glamping tents under bamboo roofs received a thumbs-up. Ms Shirly noted, “We can upgrade to 25 tents.” Next came a row of Lao-style wooden houses for families or small groups. A stretch of 26 sleeping capsules lined the lake’s shore.
Back in the restaurant, the Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LNCCI) Tourism Director, Inthy Deuansavanh, rolled out a vision of the future for Lao Thiao Lao. Funding for marketing is scarce, he said, but UNESCO is showing interest.
Currently, Lao Thiao Lao uses Facebook as its main marketing platform. Participating businesses post their deals and news, while visitors can directly book rooms, transportation, and tours. “We’d really like to develop an App, where people can find information and book direct,” Mr Inthy said, adding the App could be upgraded for global use, once the Covid lockdown ends.
He stressed that the campaign is continually updating information to promote the country’s attractions, activities, accommodation, and eateries. “Marketing content keeps getting better and better,” Mr Inthy said. “This is why Lao Thiao Lao came to Khammouane, to promote the province.”
A 45-minute drive from Green World reached Thakhek’s iconic 29-meter-high, golden-tipped Sikhottabong Stupa. The 1,500-year-old sacred Mekong Riverside shrine stands five km south of the provincial capital.
Dinner was classic Lao. A long table hosted some 15 diners, and overflowed with spicy salads, soup, fish, chicken, pork, sauces, heaps of vegetables, and plenty of sticky and steamed rice. Hands darted to the dishes, while the DICT and Vientiane squads bantered and forged a PPP team.
We spent the night at Mr Inthy’s Inthira Thakhek, a refurbished French colonial hotel at the town square. After breakfast, we boarded our vehicles and headed east on Route 12 through the 20-km Cave Alley. Stop1: Tham Pa Fa (Buddha Cave).
Local villager, Mr Boun Nong, discovered the crevice with 229 ancient Buddha images in 2004. Its popularity led to construction of a walkway over a lagoon. A staircase then scales the mountainside to the crag concealing the Buddha statues. Some historians date Mr Boun’s find to the 6th century. Others point to an earlier Khmer origin.
Next up, a wide, narrow-slit in the mountain opens to Nang Aen (Ene) Cave and a well-lit underground wonderland. Cement foot bridges seamlessly follow the 30-metre-high cavern’s softly lit contour. Below, boats ferry passengers across an underground lake.
Outside, Nam Aen’s parking area had been upgraded since my 2011 visit. Kids can enjoy an adventure playground with rope-and-plank bridges and swinging disks. Tourists can cross the Nam Dom River on a suspension bridge and scale steel stairs to a short zip line. A mini-mart sells snacks and drinks, and Louis Café satisfies your caffeine fix.
About 2 Km further along, Khoun Nam Khamdip has broken ground on a mountain-and-stream retreat. Small picnic huts already line the clear waters, and a temporary dam is creating a small lake and rapids. The owner said the site is already attracting locals, who want to eat, drink, and relax. He plans to build a resort with activities around the forest and cliffs. I wondered, that while Covid has shuttered many Lao travel businesses, do projects like this and Green World reflect Lao tourism’s “New Normal”?
Perhaps. Inthy said visits to nature adventure parks with zip lining and camping were rising among foreigners before Covid, and are among the top attractions during Lao Thiao Lao. “Domestic arrivals to Khammouane have tripled during the campaign. Before the lockdown, Lao people with money traveled to the West. Now they are discovering the natural beauty of their own country, and the growing choice of exciting adventures they can enjoy.”
The caravan continued towards the Nakai Plateau, when we suddenly peeled off at a rickety roadside market, where local delicacies awaited: dried geckos, giant bees, crickets, frogs, ant eggs, and squirming larvae that cost more per kilo than beef. Massive bags of crickets were the team’s top choice.
With the insects tucked away, we headed a couple of km to Gnommalat and veered north onto Route 1E. Some 15 minutes later we reached the Nam Theun 2 Dam and its sprawling manmade lake. Another 10 minutes landed us at the Sunset Resort & Restaurant on one of the reservoir’s inlets for lunch, featuring fish caught that morning.
Sunset’s lodging ranges from glamping and tent camping to classier villas. A beached “Pirate Boat” hosts functions, and the resort added to The Loop’s growing list of activities: ATVs, jet skis, boat rides, and kayaks.
However, we had no time to play as the Phosy Thalang Guesthouse was in our sites, less than 30 km away. Operated by three sisters, the Phosy Thalang presents modest yet comfortable air-con rooms and a restaurant perched over the mountain-backed lake.
Our crew boarded a pair of long boats for an hour-long cruise among the lake’s islands flanked by national protected areas. We landed on a grassy islet to take in the silent scene.
Besides total relaxation, Phosy Thalang also offers an activity menu including trekking, camping, and village visits. However, our dinner menu presented hor d'oeuvres of the fried crickets bought at the market. I munched on fried crickets with Inthy, and chatted about Lao Thiao Lao and the future of tourism in Laos.
Inthy again pointed to the 300% increase in domestic arrivals to Khammouane during the campaign, with nature as the main attraction. Nationwide, we agreed natural adventure parks and activities have great potential, as seen in their proliferation throughout the country. But, we put our discussion on hold, as more thrills awaited.
The next day, we continued to Lak Xao and the downhill run west on Route 8. We stopped at the Nam Theun Bridge, where aluminum boats, made from discarded fuel tanks dropped from US jets during the Indochina War, awaited passengers for a river cruise. However, we would board boats at Konglor Cave.
The journey jerked south at Ban Nahin for a drive through the Phou Hin Poun National Protected Area. The paved road to Konglor runs along rice paddies in a valley between “Stone Forest” cliffs. Guesthouses began popping up as we approached.
When I first visited Konglor Cave 15 years ago, a rough dirt road led to the remote community. Accommodation was mostly village visits and a simple CBT lodge. From there, a 1-km boat ride led to the cave. On this day, we drove to the Kong Lo View Hotel & Resort, and a quick upstream paddle on the Hinboun River to the cave.
A cascade poured from a black mountain void that opened into a wide, tall cavern. We climbed over boulders to long-tail boats to navigate the 7.5 km underground waterway. Our only light now came from miners lamps strapped to our heads. We landed at a sandy cave beach and walked to inspect rock formations named for their shapes: “Buddha”, “frog”, “owl”, and “fish trap”.
From boats to four wheels, we paraded off to the cherry on top of our trip, The Rock Viewpoint at Phou Pha Man, Inthy’s latest creation on Route 8. We pulled into a surreal lodging area. Capsules rolled down the edge of a Stone Forest cliff. The interior resembled a space-age train sleeper for two, with an overhanging balcony offering an above-cloud morning view of the limestone skyscrapers. A pair of more spacious Tree Houses sat just up the driveway. Inthy showed us the under-construction reception and function room building, where an infinity pool will soon jut out from the cliff.
A 100-meter walk took us to the Rock Viewpoint’s Khop Chai Deu restaurant, bar, and zip-line launch pad, the place I most feared. I stared at the cable that disappeared into the forest of a mountain peak 400 meters away. A white canopy platform capped the rock tower, with suspension bridges and more zip lines crisscrossing a cluster of cliffs to get there.
Inthy’s Green Discovery Laos adventure tours operates other zip lines and via ferratas (iron way) across the country. However, zip lines, bungee cords, parachutes, and roller coasters only appear on my “Avoid List”. Then came the long-table dinner with bottomless beer mugs. The conversation turned to the next day’s thrill-seeking event. Who was in? Then, all eyes zoomed in on me. I had to say, “Yes,” and was glad I did.
We geared up the next morning. Some clicked their harnesses on the cable and jumped with delight. Others, like me, sat on the edge and then just dropped. I stared straight ahead – down was out – as speeds approached 65 kph (40 mph) before the brake kicked in at the landing. My heart rate had risen, but the fear vanished. I actually looked around on the following rope suspension bridges, via ferrata cliff climbs, and more zip lines to the pavilion and back. At the end, Inthy informed me that this circuit is the toughest in Laos, and he’s extending it.
After catching my breath, I sat with Inthy and discussed The Rock Viewpoint. “Except the two managers, all our staff are from the area, and we’ve hired agriculture experts to help the locals grow vegetables for the restaurant,” he said. “We contribute 2% of our revenue to the forest rangers, and are getting a handicraft trainer to teach locals so they can sell their goods in our shop.” He also uses solar power for outdoor lighting and biogas from waste.
Following lunch, we waved goodbye to the Khammouane DICT, and left on the 4-hour drive to Vientiane, stopping at a market selling bags of fresh rock crabs. As we continued, I thumbed through my photos and pondered. Perhaps there is a silver lining for Lao tourism during the Covid lockdown.
Lao Thiao Lao has thrown a lifeline to private sector survivors, who have been praising the campaign. The pause has also allowed the destination to focus on defining what unique niche it fills in the domestic, regional, and global market place. It’s a chance to discover its place in the New Normal. Zip lines and natural adventure activities could play a part if balanced by relaxation. As the Lao Thiao Lao team continues to scour the country, the picture will become more refined.
The crabs staged a jailbreak as we opened the van door in Vientiane. Five got away…and launched the Crab Thiao Lao campaign. I wished them luck. Meanwhile, the Lao Thiao Lao team will next head to Vientiane Province to seek what is exciting, relaxing, and new.
The “Survey to identify tourism products along the Loop in Khammouane Province to be included in tour programs” Lao Thiao Lao” 9-12/8/2021 was supported by the GMS Tourism Infrastructure for Inclusive Growth Project, Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism.
To view a video of the team’s Loop adventure (2:52), click here.
Bernie Rosenbloom brings more than 20 years of experience in marketing copywriting and journalism to the Lao travel trade. He has been a senior contributor for PATA Compass Magazine, Lookeast, and visitsoutheastasia.travel (ASEAN site). Bernie has also written copy for Delivering Asia Communication, Best Western, Le Meridian, and THAI Airways, and authored several Lao provincial guide books after moving to Laos in 2006. In 2016, he joined with John Morris Williams to establish WeAreLao.com as an informative destination marketing platform.