Burried deep in Phu Hin Bun wilderness of central Laos sits the Kong Lo cave, one of Southeast Asia’s off-the-beaten-path gems. Getting there was half the adventure, but it was so worth it, and easily became the highlight of my time in Laos. From Don Det, Jim and I (along with our new friends Bridget and Zaf) headed to Thakhaek, the first phase of the journey. Like most bus rides in Laos, it was a bumpy one which provided no rest for the weary, especially with the bus driver honking incessantly for four hours at every goat, chicken, motorbike, and human that shared the road!
After a night in Thakhaek, the four of us traveled to Khoun Kham, where we eventually caught a sawngthaew onto Kong Lo (there was a night bus in there somewhere, which stopped at 1 am to pick up an insane amount of 2 x4′s). Indeed, getting to the Kong Lo cave took time….but once there, we had a genuine local experience (in part because many travelers skip over this beautiful area). There are only 2 guesthouses (and some homestays, no internet access) in Kong Lo village. We spent 4 nights at the Ecolodge near the cave, which had simple clean accommodation and a river view. Directly next to the guesthouse is a tiny little restaurant, with the best Laos home cooking one could ask for. I’m hungry just thinking about it! We knocked back some beers, played some cards, all while feeling like we were the only people around for miles.
The spectacular Kong Lor cave is a 7.5 kilometer river cave formed in the Hinboun river under a limestone mountain. Prior to 2004, there were no tours through the cave and no lighting. Now, you can hire a longtail boat (propelled by a lawnmower engine!) led by a local guide for about $6 per person…and it’s so amazing! We glided (or puttered) into the mouth of the cave in bright midday sunlight until suddenly, it swallowed us into complete darkness. The water rushed beneath the boat as we moved, and to simply drag my fingers along in the current while looking up at the massive stalagmites and stalactites, was one of the most incredible and memorable feelings. The ceiling is over 300 feet tall, which evokes quite a different sensation than you imagine from a cave; I was truly in awe of its size. At many points, it just feels spooky and eerie. During the dry seasons, the water level decreases, and at a few points we had to get out and walk in the water (in the dark, I rented a flashlight from a local) while the boatman dragged the boat. At one point, there is a walking path that is now beautifully lit with orange and blue lights (but still very dark!) On the other side of the cave lie villages that also have homestays, but we just ate some water buffalo Laap (local dish), had a beer, and returned to the other side (and yes, going back was just as awesome!).
Lonely Planet sums up the journey to Kong Lo quite well. “Wind your way through a lost world of jungle, bursting with bamboo, eucalyptus and plam. The upsurging rock formations are both dramatic and enchanting, and the streams you pass over are flickering with fluorescent clouds of giant butteries- this is some is some of the country’s most trippy landscape.” At the mouth of the cave is a beautiful, turquoise natural lake, which Jim and I spent two lazy afternoons. Indeed, there were beautiful blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and so many butterflies! The whole place felt surreal, and I remember thinking, similarly to my experience in Phrao, I would love to show someone this place someday.
Hidden behind all the beauty is another side of Laos that is equally important to know. Another traveler told me that while he was picnicking on the other side of the cave, there was an NGO team searching for unexploded bombs. Many people are unaware that during the Vietnam war, there was a secret war happening in Laos, and as a result; Laos is the most bombed country, per capita, on earth. Several nations, including the U.S, signed a U.N. treaty declaring several nations, including Laos, “off limits” to war. Yet, The Secret War became the largest paramilitary operation ever conducted by the CIA (source: CIA official website). Check out the amazing documentary, “The Most Secret Place on Earth,” (and click the links above) to learn more. Unexploded bombs still litter Laos, and as a result, there is a high number of people missing limbs. NGOS continue to work to remove them, but the on-going risk (and untold history of) Laos, a place I still can’t quite find words to describe, hangs in its dusty air.
Next stop, the Elephant Festival… but not before one of the worst transportation experiences of my life! The adventure continues….
met this old lady on the way to the village…she was the best
making a face for the camera
the turquoise lake..picture jim and i laying in the sand for the full effect!
the amazing boatmen
zaf, bridget, jim
first photo inside the cave
shot with my mark ii and 580 exii flash
the lake again
friendly local women!
part of my new long-term series on women laborers
across from the “restaurant” to the left of the man is a tobacco smoke house. behind him, fields of local tobacco.
zaf trying to take some pics of me…
enjoy boy guesthouse haha