Ben and I decided to spend the remaining two weeks of our visa in Southern Laos. Many foreigners traveling in Southeast Asia come to Laos, but few make it south of Vientiane. Those that do are usually headed to the Kong Lo cave. The cave is a 7.5 km tunnel through a limestone mountain, that supposedly resembles a mythological underworld. It can only be seen by boat.
We wanted to see it so we headed South to the town of Thakaek. From Thakaek you could get to the cave two different ways. One way was by van on a group tour that would drive you right to the entrance of the cave, and the other was by motorbike, driving 2 days through mountains and remote villages. The motorbike trip would take 4-5 days round trip through the entire province, covering about 500km.
I’ve never really been attracted to motorcycles. I’m naturally risk adverse when it comes to putting my life in physical danger. But right before this opportunity came up I was considering resolutions for the New Year and had just settled on a good one: not let fear stop me from doing anything I want to do. A really profound and exciting resolution…until tested.
Ben was ready and willing to jump on a bike in that very moment and head into the countryside. I needed some time to question my level of commitment to this promise I had made. After thinking it over, going back and forth for a day, we decided to go for it.
We started off on Christmas Eve. The drive was beautiful with steep limestone cliffs on both sides of our smooth, paved road. Once my nerves subsided I began to really love the ride. I realized how incredibly liberating it is to travel this way. We’d left our big backpacks in Thakaek and were just carrying the bare essentials. We could stop when we wanted and were in total control of our experience.
We stopped to see a cave and cold springs along the way. It took about 4 hours to get to our overnight point, a tiny village in the middle of nowhere called Thalang. The landscape had slowly changed from steep mountains to marshy lakes. In the lakes were hundreds of tall, baren trees that reminded me of Louisiana in the winter. After securing a place to sleep we were starving. We found a place to eat the Sabadee guesthouse. When we stepped on the restaurant’s deck we saw a Christmas tree in the middle of the room and heard ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ on a radio. I’d completely forgotten it was Christmas Eve. We ordered a ton of food and watched a seemingly never-ending sunset. It was an amazing first day.
The second day was more difficult. It was longer and more rugged than the first, covering over 100km. We passed through many roadside villages that provided a glimpse of what rural life was like in Laos. Most people lived in small wood-frame houses raised on stilts. There were kids everywhere. Clusters of kids as young as 5 wandered around independently. They waved to us eagerly and yelled out ‘Sabadee’ when we passed.
Cows and goats wandered by continuously. Some tried to make a run for it across the road causing us to dodge them. Sometimes the entire herd stood aimless and lazy in the middle, staring at us blankly as we honked repeatedly for them to move.
Several villages we recognized to be Hmong, an ethic minority group in Laos. They were having a celebration, dressed in traditional, brightly colored clothes with silver beading. The older kids were lined up, girls on one side and boys on the other. They stood close together but tossed a ball back and forth to one another. It seemed like a formal and traditional method of flirting. We wanted so badly to stop and take photos, but felt it would have been an invasion of privacy. So we continued on.
Suddenly our smooth, paved road was replaced with an uneven dirt path. As we drove, dodging potholes, dust swirled around us. Everything along the road, all the houses, trees, crops were covering in dust. We arrived to our end destination just before sunset with dirty clothes and very sore butts.
We spent the night in Bam Khoun Kham, a village about 40km away from the Kong Lo cave. Our hotel seemed a little deserted except a young girl who couldn’t have been older than 12. Her parents had been called away and the entire place was in her hands. Nonetheless, she negotiated our room rate, checked us in, and cooked our dinner. You see this a lot here, young kids working in their family’s business and handling themselves with the maturity of someone twice their age. I’m always struck by their independence. Before passing out we managed to have a Christmas dinner of noodle soup and Beer Lao.
The next morning we got to speak to our families. We’ve had a hard time finding decent wifi in Laos that would allow us to make a phone call, let alone video chat. I was feeling homesick and it was really great to hear their voices and see their clearly pixelated faces on Christmas Day.
The third day we made the 40km drive to the Kong Lo cave. It was our favorite part of the drive, through a wide valley of rice patties and pastures. Lining the valley on both sides in the distance were gothic-looking, jagged cliffs. Kids had just been let out of school and bikes filled the road. Everyone welcomed us as we rode by.
When we arrived we jumped on a narrow wooden boat and rode inside the cave. It was a clear, sunny day but as soon as we entered we were blanketed in complete darkness. As our eyes adjusted, our headlamps provided glimpses of the cave’s enormity. The underworld is the perfect description for the Kong Lo Cave. It was massive…and equally beautiful and creepy. The boat sped quickly through narrow passes, turning barely lit corners.
The cave was spectacular, but the 2 days we took to get there was worth the trip regardless. We ended up having lunch with an older couple and their friend who were Malaysian. Once we told then we were from the US, the older gentleman was eager to share stories about how he’d hitchhiked across the US in the 70s. He’d been from the California to the Bahamas and knew exactly where Sarasota was. Before we even exchanged names he invited us to stay with him and his wife should we make it down to Malaysia on our trip. The offer was genuine and if we showed up to his home next week he would be thrilled to show us around his hometown. As Americans this is a gesture we aren’t accustomed too but it happens a lot to us on the road.
After lunch we exchanged emails and then headed back to Ban Khoun Kham. On the way I kept thinking what it would have been like to do the group tour by van. We would have taken the main highway up to the cave from Thakaek in one day without stopping. We wouldn’t have seen any of those villages or felt connected to the nature around us.
Many travelers go about this method because it’s simple and easy, but I think they are really missing a lot. It seems like a lot of looking and very little experiencing. For example, we took a local bus instead of a VIP bus to Thakaek. When we got to the bus we saw the roof was stacked with 3 or 4 layers of mattresses. A couple hours into the trip we stopped along the highway where two men filled the inside aisle with huge bags of freshly harvested corn. It made for an interesting sight each time we stopped let me people off and on. Everyone had to balance on the bags the whole way down the aisle. Occasionally when we stopped, women selling food would board. Suddenly the bus would be filled with the pungent mixtures of sweet breads, squid empanadas, whole chickens on a skewer, fried claws (whose origin I’m unsure), and boiled eggs. We also met a guy named Boon who was very well educated and had perfect English. He explained a lot about Laos culture to us throughout the trip. This experience would have been mundane and uneventful in comparison had we taken a small VIP bus.
We spent one more night in Ban Khoun Kham and took the main road back the Thakaek the following morning. Now we are heading to the 4,000 islands in the very south of Laos where we will spend our final week, and New Years, before crossing the border into Cambodia.
I made a short video with all our go-pros…
Click images for slideshow: