Most Laos travel guides will begin with a list of top-five, must-see, life-affirming experiences, and a trip to the caves of Kong Lor will undoubtedly feature – and highly. Hyperbole abounds, to the point you might reasonably expect to asphyxiate from awe (awesphyxiation, you might call it).
It sounds wonderful, but to get there is a little tricky. We picked the town of Thakhek to the south-east of Kong Lor to base ourselves, because it sounded pretty and we had been presently surprised by Savannakhet.
As with the rest of Laos, we took the local buses, which meant being reacquainted with the chicken ladies. If the bus makes a stop, a dozen young and old women will pile on board waving barbecued butterfly chicken in everyone’s faces, or sticks of boiled eggs that have been drained, mixed with herbs and then reinserted into the shell.
After 10 minutes of this frenzied sales push, they’ll plod back out to their stalls and leave the chicken out on tables, clouds of dust wafting over them kicked up by departing vehicles, their black exhaust fumes pumping over poultry while swarms of flies buzz and spew over the luke-warm meat festering in the sun. “No, no thank you, I’ll pass on the chicken this time. Looks terrific, honest! But, I’ve just eaten, and I’m a vegan. I’m also allergic to skewers, sorry.”
Our bus also had some peculiar cargo. On the roof were several crates full of tweeting chicks, each group dyed a neon hue, pink, green, red and “original”. Not sure why – perhaps something to do with Laos new year?
When we arrived, we found the town not nearly as charming as Savannakhet. Still, the river affords lovely views over the Mekong of neighbouring Thailand, which gets lit up at night like a distant fair ground. Meanwhile, we watched flying worms get eaten by ants, and a group of French lads attempt to score amphetamines from a transvestite bar owner.
It’s hot in town, with not an awful lot to see, truth be told. We took a walk and noticed everyone shading themselves with umbrellas – even while riding a scooter – so we duly followed suit. It became clear the distant caves were the only things of interest for the town.
There are a number of ways to get to Kong Lor. You can book a tour, but that’s prohibitively expensive. Or you can hire a bike and ride out yourself, but we’d decided against it due to the heat and the distance (probably a five-hour ride, each way). Alternatively, you can take public transport.
However, we’d bumped into one of the girls from our border crossing, a friendly bright-smiled French-Canadian called Veronique, who told us you could take a tuk-tuk out to the caves. Different caves, mind. We got mixed up, thinking we could do the same to Kong Lor.
So when we attempted to negotiate with tuk-tuk drivers over an itinerary, with the keypad of an old Nokia mobile phone serving as our only language bridge, we were doomed from the start. We thought we’d got a great price for a day’s drive, but the tuk-tuk dropped us off at the bus station and pointed at the local buses.
So, we ended up taking public transport by accident, really.
Our first bus was hot and rammed full of cargo, including a new household generator, a dozen battery packs and several massive bags of rice, all stacked in the aisle between passengers.
About five miles up the road we stopped to pick up two modern-dressed local girls (who Swarana noticed were wearing CK One) and then stopped intermittently after that to allow the girls to buy beer, or borrow restaurant mugs, or ask a shop for ice, or buy more beer, or get some breakfast, or just a couple more beers.
This was about nine in the morning, mind. But they generously gave a mug of beer each to the young bus conductors and flirted with them, giggling at jokes and enjoying the ride. It was like a boozy morning road trip on the N29 to Trafalgar Square.
An hour or so later, we turned off the north-south highway and swept west into the country, rising higher and higher up mountain roads. The bus was clearly having trouble with the ascension, wafts of smoke billowing from the rear. The driver even stopped several times to inspect the engine. However, they reached it from a panel by the driver’s seat, revving the engine to see what the matter was, and thereby filling the vehicle with noxious gases. It was a little unpleasant.
To confound matters, I began to lapse into a heat-driven panic, my fingers clamping with adrenaline, my body sweating profusely and my head spinning. Swarana, now trained to deal with my repeating affliction, fed me bananas and water.
Thankfully (sort of), further up the mountain the inevitable finally came to pass. As with most drivers in south-east Asia, ours was using the wrong gear to get up a hill and the whole thing shuddered to a spluttering halt. I shuffled off, breathed deeply, chugged on our warm water and tried to calm myself down.
It was now maybe 11am and the sun was turning our bus into a transport tandoor. Most people got off, stood in what little shade they could find at the side of the road and waved impotently over their heads at the swarms of flies that descended upon them.
A pickup stopped nearby and gave the boozy girls a lift, while the rest of us looked enviously on. Our driver was on his back under the bus, his legs precariously dangling out into the road. It appeared hopeless for this particular vehicle.
Phone calls were made, and maybe half an hour later a second bus pulled over next to ours. This one, which was already almost full, would take us the rest of the way, but first they had to transfer all the cargo from one to the other, including a motorbike I had not known was on the roof the whole time.
We were soon back on the road – if you can call it that. Several sections were nothing more than gravel ditches, while a newer track was being built alongside.
When we finally arrived in the satellite town near Kong Lor caves, Ban Nahin, it was around 1pm. That’s five hours on the bus(es). Getting back to Thakhek was going to be tight, and Swarana – lovingly worried about my health – was of the opinion we cut our losses and head straight back.
I insisted we continued, not wanting to admit defeat in what should have been a lovely day out. We found a songthaew (a big tuk-tuk with two benches facing each other) that would take us and three other Europeans the rest of the way, so we relieved ourselves in the outhouse (ushered in by a herd of cows) bought some sugar-based consumables and carried on trucking.
Kong Lor unto itself
The songthaew took us over dusty roads betwixt bright-green rice paddies into a flat valley surrounded on all sides by majestic mountains. The driver would stop every now and then to pick up villagers, one of whom was a mother cradling her child in her right arm, while holding a glinting kitchen knife with the same hand. Every bump in the road made each tourist bounce and grimace as one.
An hour later we were heading into the Kong Lor park. Almost there… just look at the caves and start the journey home.
Kong Lor is actually an underground river that runs under the limestone mountains overhead. For a fee, a guide will ride you upstream on a small longtail, in the dark, via a lit beach and stalagmite forest – which, to be honest, wasn’t as grand as those we’d seen in Ipoh.
Kong Lor is spectacular instead for its enormity. The river cuts through caves of cathedral-like grandeur, their ceilings too high for most flashlights to illuminate, and runs for several kilometres.
It’s an astonishing boat ride, especially when you approach small waterfalls and the boatman asks you to help him push the vessel up them to continue.
For 45 minutes you gawp at the beauty of this dream-like subterranean waterway, stunned by the darkness and the glimpses of its sheer scale, forged by unimaginable aeons of erosion. If it weren’t for the boatman’s laughter in the dark, you might mistake the river for the Styx and an altogether more troubling destination.
Invest in a powerful torch, if you can. Mine was so ineffective at piercing the gloom I resigned to following the boatman’s headlamp, which swung to and fro, searching for rocky obstacles protruding from the surface of the oil-black water. Swarana held two torches to the gloom, but could only brighten the walls of the cave as we neared bends in the tunnel.
Life at the end of the tunnel
Emerging from the mountain on the other side is breath-taking: rock recedes to foliage, which soon reveals blue skies pocked with fluffy white clouds and karst mountains all around.
The longtail passes local women wading in the water, who smile and wave as they fish with nets or wash the family’s clothes, before you’re dropped at a small village, where drinks and snacks can be bought.
Like the bamboo train in Battambang, this tourist trap at the end of the line is not aggressively so. You feel under no obligation to buy anything, but you’re heartily thanked if you do. In truth, it’s just a nice, shaded place to have a refreshment before the return trip.
Ah, the return trip. Even there, surrounded by such natural beauty, we found ourselves dreading the impending return trip – not through the cave, but to Thakhek. We had no idea how many buses went the opposite way, nor how late they ran, and time seemed desperate to rush away.
It was around 5pm when we finally returned to Ban Nahin. The tourist information office – a wooden shed with a hand-painted sign on it – was empty, so we asked the guesthouse owners on the street how we might return to Thakhek.
The situation appeared bleak: we had to hope a songthaew would pass through the town and take us to Vieng Kham, where we’d have to hope we got picked up on the side of the road to get back to Thakhek.
Please, please, please, please…
The sun was ominously low when our first hopes were granted: a songthaew was passing through. We climbed aboard and trundled over the mountains to the east, sat on hard wooden benches, watching dusk turn to twilight. The road was only lit by the moon when we weren’t passing enormous trucks struggling uphill at a snail’s pace.
It was perhaps 8.30pm when we arrived in Vieng Kham. It was night time and we were at least 70km from home, in a foreign town with no hotels or guesthouses to speak of. We took a seat in the one place that was open, a sort of rudimentary rest stop kitchen, and waited again – hoping.
I dragged a plastic chair out to the road to ensure no bus could fail to see me, and there I sat, trying to take pictures of the full moon creeping through the clouds like we were in a B-Movie, until half an hour later, we were once again blessed. “Thakhek! Thakhek!” came the cry. Buddha be praised!
I was so relieved, I did not mind the fact there were no seats left, so we had to sit on tiny plastic stools in the aisle for an hour or so. I did not mind that the man to my right fell asleep on my shoulder, or that the woman on my left tutted and scowled at me for being too broad for the aisle. I did not mind the back-breaking thumps the suspension would inflict on us as we rumbled over potholes.
I did not mind that my legs went numb, or that the bus driver’s cigarette smoke was seeping into my nostrils, or that the man next to me awoke to look at porn posted by his friends on Facebook. I did not mind, because we’d made it. We were home free.
So that was our Kong Lor story. Eleven hours of bum-numbing travel for two hours of cave. I’m not saying it wasn’t worth seeing. I’m saying if you’re going to go see it, be less rubbish at travelling than we are.
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