From the North: Buses from Vientiane leave the Southern Bus station every 1-2 hour in the morning, the journey takes around 7 hours, from about 80,000 kip standard or 100,000 kip for a very colorful VIP bus. See the section on the Vientiane Southern Bus station for the non-trivial instructions how to get there on your own. There are hotel pick-up buses that can be booked from the centre of Vientiane but they make quite a mark up charging around a total fare from 100,000 to 130,000 kip per person. The long distance bus station is situated about 5 km east of the city centre along the Mekong, so a tuk tuk ride is almost unavoidable if you do not use the hotel pick-up service , for which local drivers seem to have fixed a price of 50,000 kip per (foreign) person.(update April 2015: price x person from the riverside to the bus station is 20,000 kip, refuse any other more expensive options)
From Pakse it's a 10 hour ride (don't believe the signs saying 5) in the local bus (update April 2015, the ride can vary it depends on whether conditions and how many stops/delivery the driver does along the way so between 5-10 hours). Including pickup it's 90000 kip (jan 2015). Probably cheaper direct at the busstation ( April 2015 60,000 kip at the bus station).
Thakhek town is small enough to walk around but tuk tuks will take you most places for prices from 40,000 kip (less for locals). Bicycles and motorbikes can be hired from a number of places, mostly in the more touristy area near the Mekong.
A tuk tuk to / from the bus station typically costs 20,000 kip per person (more for just 1 or 2 persons) and takes about 15 minutes.
The Town: the old parts of Thakhek near to the Mekong provide good views of Thailand, albeit at quite a distance. Along the road adjacent to the river there are small and large hotels, restaurants, and kerbside food vendors, even a few fun stalls such as air rifle shooting. The restaurants extend back a block or two from the river. Bicycles and motor bikes can be rented from various places so that you can get around more easily. Wifi is available at a number of restaurants and there's an internet cafe for those who need it.
The market hidden behind the shops on the roundabout corner oppositely the Lao Development Bank is well worth a visit. Narrow lanes wind between the shops leading to a large open market selling fresh produce and sometimes unusual meats such as snake, squirrel, frog and bat.
Konglor Cave is likely to be the highlight of this area if not the whole of Laos. There's a 7 km cave through which a navigable river passes. Motorized long boats take visitors through the cave to view the caverns and limestone formations. One section is undertaken on foot and is lit up while the rest is viewed with miners' lamps. The far end emerges into a lush valley where in peak periods locals sell products. In the dry season you might also have to get out while the boatmen drag the long boat over the shallows. In the wet season (and often at other times) there will be water dripping from the roof so you should wear appropriate clothing and be prepared to cover your cameras. The cave is situated in the Phou Hin Bun National Park for which there's a 2,000 kip entrance fee. The fee to visit the cave entrance is 10,000 kip and the return trip through the cave in a longboat costs 120,000 kip for two people (130,000 for three, 110,000 for one) so you might want to consider grouping with other visitors to minimise the cost. The road to Konglor leads is mostly OK but some sections are seriously in need of repair (probably always one section or another will be pot holed) and runs through a valley with rice and tobacco fields. Ban Nahin village on route 8, 42 km from Konglor, has several guest houses and some motor bike rentals. There are about 5 guest houses and a few restaurants near Konglor.
Using scheduled public transport is not easy (but see the section on buses, below) and most people use an organised bus or car to travel to the cave. Even then it is at least a three and a half hour trip each way and you will normally be three hours at the cave, more if you eat out there.
The Loop, as it has become known, is a few hundred kilometres circular tour starting on route 13 to the east and then back up and around returning on route 12 from the south. It is normally done in three to four days on a hired motorbike though a few enthusiasts rent mountain bikes. Either way it is not for the faint hearted, the condition of the roads and the driving standards make driving challenging. Once you have washed all of the thick orange dust out of you hair and clothing it is hard not to feel a great sense of achievement in having completed it. There are guest houses along The Loop: town guest houses and motor bike renters can provide more details.
Carrying a spare bottle of fuel gives a sense of security and might well make your day, as there are long stretches without fuel stations, and ascents increase fuel consumption. Road #1E, the section between Yommalat and Laksao (aroound 80km), while very rewarding, is a dirt track with lots of deep potholes filled with mud, especially after the local heavy rains - enjoy responsibly. Indeed, during rainy season there is a 5km stretch that is all but impassable on motorbikes unless you are very skilled at identifying the least muddy route, or have a local to follow. As a general rule, stick to the deep tyre ruts rather than skirting around the edge where the mud is thick enough to clog up your engine and jam your wheels.
Reasonable places for overnights on an anticlockwise trip could be the Sabaidee Guesthouse in Tha Lang (after 99km without cave watching), and maybe a home stay/guesthouse near Konglor cave (after another 145km), before an early visit there and return to Thakhek (another 185km), making it an enjoyable three-day trip.
There are a number of very informative scrap books filled with tips, maps and others experience on 'The Loop' in the Travellers Lodge in Thakhek
The Budda Cave Tham Nong Pafa Cave is on the southern leg of The Loop or directly from Thakhek. Allow a full day if going all the way to Aen Cave by bicycle and at least half for a visit the the signposted Budda cave which is about 15 km from town, the last nine being a dirt road that winds through some stunning limestone scenery.
Tha Falang is a river swimming spot about 15 km east along route 12, though it can be disappointing in the dry season but the ride and friendly children still make this trip good fun. It is not signed in English so you will need to have clear instructions when to turn off to the north down a sandy track second after the bridge before the road bends around to the right between two cliffs. Immediately south after the bridge there is a shady spot to park and you can follow the river to Tham Xiengliab, a small cave with the river flowing through it. Again a guide or pack of children will probably appear to guide you. Bring a torch if you want to go inside. Its about another 4-5 km to the commercialised Aen Cave which is lit with a rainbow of neon strip lamps and has an amazing network of staircases. It has a river running out of the mouth and a big pool at the back: it is worth a look for the stair cases alone.
The Nam Theun 2 Visitors' Center, welcomes visitors to learn more about this innovative hydro-electric power project at the foot of the escarpment of the Nakai Plateau located 70 km from Thakhek by taking road 12 to Gnommalath. The center consists of an exhibition room and a theatre, and has a commanding view of the power house from the terrace. The exhibition room has panels and physical models that provides a welcoming and educational environment to learn more about the Project and the key role it plays in the economic and social development of Laos PDR.
Visitors can discover more about the project from the development phase to operation through various documentary films screened in the theatre room. Brochures and publications are also available at the center and staff are available to give explanations or answer questions. The center is open from Monday to Saturday 8:30 – 12:00 and 13:00 – 17:00 with free entrance.
A number of cafes and food stalls line the riverfront road serving the usual types of basic food. Elsewhere there are many such places selling similar food as well as hot pork rolls in baguettes at some take away lunch stands. At night just a block from the river, food stalls sell various types of pancakes and pork buns by battery powered lamps.
There are more hotels and guest houses in Thakhet than listed here. They are scattered around the town rather than being close to each other but most are in the Mekong area.
NOTE: the following is 2008 information
Thipphachanh hotel. About 400 meters down the same road as Travel Lodge (further away from the roundabout), and on the same side. Simple but good rooms starting at 60000 kip for twin or double with fan (jan 2015). Water and towel included, good beds.
Rooms at the hotels at riverside start at about 100000 kip.
There are two bus stations: one near the city serving the more local rural communities and a larger one about 5km to the north serving inter province and some international journeys.
The following has not been updated with the main sections (07/2014)