One of the World’s Greatest Natural Wonders, the 7km Cave in Laos!
The more I travel, the more desire I have to get off the beaten track. Tourism in South East Asia has certainly done a lot of good for the local economy, but at the same time it has depleted the atmosphere of once-magical places. Amongst the hordes of sweaty Euro teenagers and older dreadlocked hippies I sometimes forgot where we really were.
At the same time, staying on the beaten track had its advantages; wider variety of food, easy transport and guesthouses with good facilities. However, atmosphere and soul are what I was really seeking.
I was travelling without a guidebook in Laos. I let fellow travellers’ advice and inspiration guide my steps, and I ended up in some amazing places. A similar combination of chance encounters was what led me towards the village of Ban Na Hin in central Laos. I had this destination in mind, as it is the ‘base’ for visiting the 7 km long Kong Lo cave, formed by a river going through limestone rocks. With a new road just built linking Ban Na Hin and Kong Lo, the cave will probably reach the backpacker radar quite soon. When we visited, it was still quiet. I remembered hearing about this cave like it was some sort of backpacker myth. A 7km cave, with a river flowing through it? Sounded like something out of Lord of the Rings.
First things first, though. I knew there was a direct bus from Vientiane, departing at the ungodly hour of 6am. Naturally, I missed it, so I opted for a bus-songthaew combination. I didn’t have much of a clue as where and when I was supposed to find my connections, but things ended up working themselves out, as usual in South East Asia.
We reached our destination after a total of 5 hours on the back of the ubiquitous pick-up trucks. Ban Na Hin was a curious little village. It looked like straight out of a David Lynch film; a town forgotten by time, which was just awaking from a long dream to discover things had changed, and hurried to catch up. For example, guesthouses were mushrooming, but there was no one to attend to them. Two 6-year-old girls handed us our keys, and on our departure there was no one to take our payment, so we had to hurl the key and the 40.000 kip through a hole in the owners’ window. Let me tell you, a good percentage of penny-pinchers roaming around these parts would’ve just left without paying.
The same went for restaurants. A couple of places had no staff; others were closed altogether. We did find Moonlight though, run by the lovely Say, where we had the honour of being the first customers ever. After a warm Beerlao (courtesy of Ban Na Hin’s power cuts) and a pretty decent pizza (trust me, I’m Italian), we called it a night.
The following day I took another bumpy ride to the cave itself. The cave was absolutely amazing. Even the entrance was nothing short of spectacular. The boat landing sat by the edge of a turquoise pool, from where I could see the river snaking through the emptiness of the cave. Once settled in a narrow wooden canoe, I took off. It was one of the spookiest experiences I have ever had. The cave was ample, with the ceiling about 10 meters high. It was like walking into a fantasy book. In 5 or 10 years time it will probably be lit, with motorboats whizzing to and fro. I was alone, gliding through the blackness, with only the boatman’s torches to give me an idea of where we were going. The water was shallow at points, where I had to get out and wade. In some points the rapids formed little waterfalls, with sharp limestone rocks appearing out of the deep blue of the river. We stopped to observe the stupa, a series of stalactites and stalagmites, the only area in the cave that can be lit up. After a couple of hours in a subterranean world, we reappeared by a water hole, where children from neighbouring villages played and swam.
Thinking back to Kong Lo cave, I can’t quite say why I loved it so much. Most of the time, I couldn’t see much. The pictures are nothing special, given that it was pitch black. I guess the experience, for me, was just sitting on the boat, cruising along the river, just able to make out where water ends and stone begins.