Five minutes after I had rented a motorcycle the police stopped me for cutting a yellow light to closely for their liking. I thought the 200,000 Kip fine was a bit heavy for not actually breaking any law but the police in Vientiane weren’t giving me any breaks. They also weren’t in any hurry and so two and a half hours later when they returned my license I was back on the road knowing that I wouldn’t make my destination that day more than five hours south of the capital. That’s why I spent the first night of my motorcycle tour at a crossroads truck stop instead of the eco-friendly resort I had booked at the confluence of the Hinbon River and a deep natural spring they call the blue lagoon.
My goal was Kong Lor Cave, one of the top intrepid destinations in central Laos and highlight of the Thakhek Loop, a 5 to 600 kilometer route normally accessed from the town of the same name. Tham Kong Lor is a massive cave system which the Hinbon River (literally ‘rock on top’) runs through for over seven kilometers, making it the longest underground river in the country.
The local tale of how the cave was first explored goes back to a pre-modern but still not so long ago morning when after a heavy rain storm a drowned buffalo bobbed out of the cave and down river. The people of Ban Nahin village had lived with the understanding that the cave was the mouth of the river, but there was no buffalo missing from the village nor could one enter the flooding cave during a rainstorm. The conclusion was that someone or something was living deep inside the darkness. Seven men carrying torches paddled the same kind of boat used today into the mouth and disappeared for three days. When they returned they told their friends and families of how the cave opens unto a valley on the other side of the mountain where there were several villages like their own.
When I did arrive to Ban Nahin down a rough but scenic 40 kilometer dirt stretch from the main road where the traffic consisted mostly of livestock and people washed clothes and bathed in the many streams, I found the resort just as it was advertised. Laid out in dense foliage along the Hinbon River – downstream of Kong Lor cave where the cool, clear azure waters of the lagoon mixed with the river’s darker green – their two distinct colors blending in swirls where the currents meet.
After a quick lunch I met with a local guide who introduced himself as Nok, meaning bird in the Laos language, and the two of us paddled kayaks to the cave area. At the check-in center where I paid my entrance and boat fees I was given a life jacket and head lamp. The mouth of the cave was just a black dot at the base of a towering limestone face rimmed with a froth of white water rapids that form when the river level is low.
Ten minutes walk and another quick paddle across the river to where Nok led me into the now gaping mouth of the cave where a few boats were moored to the bank. Their little five horsepower motors strewn among the rocks higher up were wrapped in old clothes to protect them from the elements. Nok launched our wooden sanpan that has such a shallow draw that we sit only inches above the rivers surface which soon disappears along with everything else as we glide into the absolute darkness. It was too late in the afternoon for any other tourists to be around so we had the river to ourselves as we penetrated the cave’s depths.
Nok threaded the boat through the cave’s contours spotting iridescent marks on the cave walls with the weak beam of his head lamp and reading trouble spots in the river by feel and experience. The chug of the motor echoed within the unseen space around us and the feeling of the boat drifting through the current is discombobulating and in some ways thrilling, like an amusement park ride or a flying dream at the limits of control.
Nok explained that for most of his life, before tourists started coming to see the cave, people only went through by necessity. That the invisible currents are unpredictable and the course of the river changes sometimes creating invisible rapids. Now though, he goes through almost everyday and is no longer worried about crashing into the walls or hidden boulders in the water that could topple the boat, and I wonder if that’s meant to reassure me.
About halfway through the hour-long trip we stop at a sandy beach which leads to an island in a massive chamber where a gallery of stalactites and stalagmites are artificially lit with colored lights. The stone forms stand out in the gloom like nature’s answer to the emaciated sculptures of Giacometti or the fantastic spires of Gaudi in the massive chamber whose walls and ceiling remain hidden in the outer darkness
Twenty minutes or so later a hint of natural light opens up into full day as we exit the cave into the hidden valley and the tiny village of Ban Natane. On either side of the river is dense jungle over which limestone cliffs loom. After a short stretch we arrived at a bamboo pier where local women sell refreshments in a makeshift cafe alongside their manual looms on which they hand weave textiles with intricate patterns, each one taking days to complete.
After a short walk through the village where I was greeted by all with a friendly ‘sabaidee’, we made the return trip through the cave. Now after 4pm, the electric light at the stone gallery was off for the day and the darkness was absolute. I asked Nok to cut the engine and turn off his light for a bit, just to see what it felt like to be completely submerged in the inky black and near silence of this underground world. As the boat drifted silently in the current the sound of bats high overhead came down to us, squealing and flapping their wings. As my eyes adjusted I thought I could detect a hint of light playing off the water’s surface but was unsure if perhaps my mind wasn’t playing tricks on itself, it being human nature to stay out of dark places.
I spent the next four days riding the Thakhek Loop and there were plenty more caves to explore, waters to swim in and stone formations to marvel at. Plenty of twists and turns throughout the rest of the 600 kilometer ride: scenic stops, good meals, beautiful scenery. Still, Kong Lor cut off from the rest of the world by towering peaks of craggy limestone will remain in my memory as the quintessential experience of that ride.