I said in the Gibbon Experience post that my award for the highlight of Laos has probably already been won. Well I may have spoken too soon as the events in and around Kong Lor cave can challenge anything that i have seen (Nepal excluded) or done to date on this trip. Before I get to the cave I’ll make a quick mention of my brief stop in Vientiane.
Vientiane the capital of Laos is nice enough. Its often seen as a bit of a poor mans Luang Prabang and I can understand why. Its very green and has a lovely slow pace feel to it (as does all of Laos in fact). Posh French restaurants are in their abundance and accommodation is considerably more expensive then the rest of Laos.
But it’s lacking the overall charm of Luang Prabang. I never got the same enjoyment in Vientiane of just wondering about. The day I was there, I pretty much covered its main sites. First up Patuxai which is modeled on the Arc de Triompge. Its nice enough. Next the national symbol of Laos…Pha That Luang so famous is it that I have never come across it in my life. It’s quite an impressive stupa with it’s golden appearance. It’s even more impressive because the Lao people got the French to rebuild it in 1931 after they were disappointed with the French architects first efforts! Few things are better than annoying the French! I sat and watched monks carrying out various duties around the temples. One of which was to pay two women to release some birds from the cages they were keeping them in. It’s quite a common money making scheme around Buddhist temples, preying upon peoples devotion. I also helped out with various students questionnaires, most of which were to do with the Pha That Luang which I had yet to enter. They didn’t really understand my moral research reliability concerns, so I distorted their research instead with the everything in Laos is great ticking boxes approach. On the way back I popped into Talat Sao to buy a new memory card. It’s a strange shopping center because from the outside it looks brand new and could grace many cities around the world. A huge tv broadcasts adverbs. And then you enter to a vast number of electrical and jewellery Market stalls all crammed in. It was a fascinating wonder amongst the hustle and bustle looking at what was for sale at the state of the arc shopping centre with no shops. Eventually after a long time searching and even longer haggling I walked away quite pleased, memory card purchased!
In the evening i met up with Ben and Carly again who had traveled down that day. They asked me how i was getting to Kong Lor cave. I shrugged my shoulders. All I could work out was that there was a 5am bus to Lak Sao which might drop me off at a random place (if i could explain it to the conductor) and then somehow from there get to the cave. The only thing i could be sure of was that there was a 5am bus.
It started well. I missed the 5am bus but caught the unexpected 6am bus to Lak Sao. On it where Martin and Allison, lifeguards from New York of all places. We compared our plans to get to the cave and came up with a course of action. And you know what? It worked unbelievably well. By midday we were in Ban Khoun Kham. By one thirty we were joined by Julie from France and an entertaining ex minister and missionary and his wife, in a shared sawngthaew heading towards the cave.
Our cheerful driver took us direct to the cave rather than stopping at the neighboring villages. We dumped our bags in a wooden shelter, chartered two boats (they can only fit three people in) and then blindly followed two guys around a lake and up into the mouth of the cave. The setting was spectacular. When in the cave, there were stationed a number of longtail boats. Julie and I clambered into one, Allison and Mike the other. Bob and Maggie followed a little while later. One guide, perched at the front of the boat acted as a search light and temporary paddler whilst the other was the driver at the back. Headlights on we journeyed into the cave. In all its a 7km journey along the river to the exit. The various caverns are all different, some with gaping holes in their roofs, some small, others huge many with large stalagmites hanging down. The sheer size of the cave and its variety was unbelievable. Traveling along in a rickety boat with barely useful light sources gave an overwhelming feeling that i was visiting newly explored lands.
Half way through the journey we jumped off the boat with one of the guides as the other carried on with the boat. A quick flick of the switch and the cavern we were in came alight. The pictures hopefully give some sort of insight into what it was like, because words alone can do it no justice. After stumbling around in awe at the jaw dropping beauty we got back in the boat and continued through the cold, silent, pitch black cave. Sometimes due to the water level we had to get out of the boat as it was pushed through the shallow water, other times it simply needed bailing out!
Eventually we excited back into the sunlight. We weaved our way past fallen trees and water buffaloes bathing in the water. After a brief stop we went back through the cave again to be reunited with our bags. To say i could have kept going back again and again would have been an understatement! It is a film set waiting for a fantasy adventure. A hidden world in all its natural glory. Truly spectacular. With dusk approaching the superlatives had to wait as accommodation became a priority.
As it turns out finding a bed was no problem at all. We met a random guy at the boat jetty who organised us a homestay in the local village. After a couple of kilometers walk we were shown to our accommodation. A large wooden house built on stilts overlooking the river. On washing feet and shoes off we climbed up the steps to the house. There we met Bumni, the wife of the house. Putting my basic Laos into use i said that it was very hot outside today. A smile on her face, she left and came back carrying soap and a towel to bathe in the river. It did the trick much to some locals amusement. We then met the two children. One girl was very shy whilst the older girl was a little more confident. Upon asking her name she looked unsure and could only manage an um. A quick look in the phrase book and a horribly pronounced Lao sentence later, she was still saying um. Alas communicating in another language is not easy. After meeting the rest of the family I tried to ask them their names in Lao again. The husband was called Vien, the wife Bumni and their two children were Um and Oy. Fantastic! It didn’t take long for the two kids to find confidence as they showed off their language skills using a picture book. I managed to surprise them a little by using the Lao for cat, meow and my personal favourite moo, which is obviously pork! After a few games they were a joy although i will say singing for an hour straight was a little bit to much. Tea was then served and Bumni and Vien carried out a partial Bacci ceremony for us. Meant to keep the spirits in after they have gone wondering it was specifically apt considering it is often done to people visiting strange lands. Come the evening we sat on the wooden floor and watched a three hour long Thai soap with the large extended family. It was funny enough especially as there seemed to be a death every minute. Eventually exhausted after an action packed day i crashed out on a mattress in their living space.
The following day (afrer brushing teeth in the river) we bid them fare well feeling very fortunate to have both visited the cave and stayed in such a lovely and friendly local village. Homestays can sometimes feel like quite an intimidating option and with this we were very lucky considering the family was of a similar age, hence meaning that whilst still very traditional, they were a little more open minded. Upon standing on the road waiting to flag down a shared sawngthaew I was struck by the sheer drama of the scenery. Huge limestone peeks emerged straight from the farm land as women went to pick crops and men to walk their water buffaloes.
The downside to the cave was that it took two and a half days of travlling to get where i wanted go get to next. I don’t think even India managed that one! On leg one to Tha Khaek we were joined with none other than a loose chicken. Credit where credit is due, it didn’t cause half of the problems i expected it to.