Ban Kong Lo, Laos
Adventure travel seems to find me without problem -oftentimes to Ann's dismay. Not that she is one to shy from adventure, but when I say "adventure travel," you should probably read "unbearable ordeal." I don't mean for plans to go awefully awry, but invariably we end up in situations that make even veteran travelers wince. Such was the case when we set off from Vientiane in search of Tham Lot Kong Lo.
Transport is always tricky, so we made an overnight stop in Paksan to get some miles under our belt. Early the next morning (like 6 AM early) we were at the bus station waiting for our săwngthăew to fill. (These are essentially roofed pick up trucks with dual benches running along the sides, people crammed in every available spot, and luggage on the top and underfoot.) The day was going pretty well when we left without a full load. People hopped on and off and a short four hours later we were as far as Ban Na Hin. This is where the paved road ended and we had to change săwngthăews for the next leg. The driver hefted our bags up top and suggested we grab a bite to eat. We sat down with the truck in view, but during our meal, it mysteriously de-materialized -and our bags with it! Ann switched into panic mode, and since no one spoke any English, all of her queries lead only to frustration. After what seemed like an eternity, the săwngthăew came roaring back to the taxi stand full of people and bags -and ready to leave.
I should have been worried when my state-side purchased Nelles map of Laos didn't show the road we were about to take -and with good reason. It wasn't a road by any standard. The Nelles map didn't even give it seasonal track status. An oxcart path is probably the most apt description -and it was rough. From the mountains of Lesotho to the wilderness of Tanzania, I've been on plenty a bad stretch, and when I say it was rough, well, that's one mean dirt track. This path was vying for the worst of them -and doing a standup job. We spent almost no time in our seats, bouncing all over the vehicle as the driver swerved from side to side avoiding the biggest craters -and nailing plenty of small ones. We hit stretches of washboard style rumble strip that carried on for half a kilometer. Every time we came to a stream, we'd slow gently to the bottom until we hit the water, and then gun it like mad through the muddy stream (lest we get stuck half way) and up the steep slope on the other side. A billowy mass of dust followed our every movement, and if ever we stopped it would absolutely engulf the whole săwngthăew in a blinding, choking cloud. The dust would cake to the sweat dripping all over our bodies and clothes -because it was still unbearably hot.
What had been touted as a two hour ride was easily in its fifth hour, when we finally reached the end of the dirt track. This was the village of Ban Kong Lo. Instead of rejoicing however we were a bit baffled -we weren't supposed to come this far. The driver had said that he would drop us at Sala Konglor -a campsite outside of the village. Of course this was the same driver who had promised us a two hour ride. (Part of the problem no doubt is that all these conversations are done mainly with hand gestures and facial expressions.) We plumped ourselves down in the middle of the village and tried in vain to find someone who could help us -or at least speak English. It had been nearly ten hours on the road, and I had to stave off a pending marital meltdown with a soothing carbonated beverage. (Sadly, Pepsi would have to suffice, but at this point even RC Cola would pass muster.) Assured that I had bought another few precious hours of relative calm, I set off to find Sala Konglor, promising to return to Ann and the bags in an hour.
Intuition told me to stick close to the river, but the path was unclear. Through forest thicket and dried rice paddies, my search was fruitless. I returned to Ann and broke the bad news. It was looking like we would be uninvited guests in a villager's hut, when up from the river came two Westerners! Diane and Guenter were a hilarious French-Canadian/German couple, and they had just finished a boat ride to Tham Lot Kong Lo. They were headed back to the paved road on their motorbikes, and taking pity on our sorry selves, they agreed to pack us on the bikes and see if we could find this campsite. Well, traveling the road on the back of a motorbike with a full pack was no bargain, but two kilometers later we found a small sign that directed us another kilometer to the elusive Sala Konglor. With darkness fast approaching, Diane and Gunter decided to stay as well.
Sala Konglor, when we finally found it, was a cozy place with little riverside bamboo bungalos we could call home. (I was right about following the river, but I didn't go far enough.) The staff spoke no English, but soon we all had beers and various steaming hot fish dishes. It seemed that our nightmare was over.
In the morning, Diane and Gunter said their goodbyes -and somehow missed our camera shutter. As they roared back to civilization on their dirtbikes, Ann and I headed back to village on foot. No sooner were we a safe range away from our packs, then the winds picked up and dark storm clouds cascaded over the mountains behind us. A bolt or two of lightening crossed the rice paddies and we were wondering to ourselves how to get lower than the rice. The first few drops of rain waited until we were at the edge of the village, and by the time the deluge hit, we had found the cover of a small house. (All the village huts are built on stilts with the main floor a ladder's climb off the ground.)
The rain hadn't shown any signs of slowing when a woman and her young daughter approached the house startled to see our white faces. Its quite amazing the generosity of people who have essentially nothing, but after a few moments of awkward silence underneath, she motioned to the ladder and invited us up. So up we removed our shoes and went to wait out the storm on the floor of her porch. We must have been the first foreigners the young girl had ever seen up close. As I sat with my feet tucked beneath me, she counted my toes neung, sang, saam, sii..., -touching each in turn. Satisfied that I had ten, she went on to marvel at my beard and hairy arms. Word of our arrival spread as if by magic, and soon friends of our gracious hostess were appearing to have their own gander. Ann was using her rudimentary language skills to have a full blown conversation and soon everyone was in stitches. Leftovers of sticky rice and green bean-beef spicy stew came out for us to eat, and one of the neighbors threw in some coconut rice steamed in banana leaf. I wish I could say that everything was delicious, but this is one time I wish I could have pleaded vegetarian. None-the-less I did my best -lest we offend.
Mercifully, the rain ended after only an hour or so. We said our thanks and our goodbyes and made a break for the river. In no time flat we had organized our own canoe complete with two local guides/boatsmen/porters, and were heading swiftly up river when the skies opened up anew. Gritting our teeth through each drop, it wasn't long before we caught our first glimpse of Tham Lot Kong Lo.
So what is this Tham Lot Kong Lo with a draw so powerful that it would pull us into such a remote corner of Laos? Basically, its a cave -but not just any cave. Its a cave that the river has carved some seven kilometers through a limestone mountain. The only way to see it is by boat, since the cave walls rise sharply from the water on either side. There are a few places to get out and walk around, but they are deep in the cavern -and very far between. The river twists and turns in an underground labrynth emerging in daylight on the far side of the mountain. It is truly one of the natural wonders of Laos -and we were finally there.
It took our motorized canoe nearly two hours to traverse the seven kilometers through the darkness, fighting the current and occassionally having to portage some small waterfalls. We had one decent flashlight, but the guides were equiped with powerful headlamps that danced on the water and gleamed on the rock walls all around. The passage was cavernous at times with a high ceiling -but the darkness made it seem much more confined. When we reached the far side, there was a slow steady rain that made us quickly u-turn for the shelter of the cave.
The trip downstream was much quicker, but no less spectacular. It was no time before we were back at the entrance, where the rain was coming down much harder. We were just shy of soaking when we arrived back at the village, and took shelter under some thatch in the main square. Despite the rain, the atmosphere in the village was festive for the ordination of a monk in the temple, and everyone was in the streets. We took some seats amongst the crowd of children -all thrilled that we were there, and found a few snacks and some hot tea.
When the rain showed signs of slowing, we made a break for our bungalow. The rain had turned the path and the rice paddies into trecherous mud slides, but we sloshed through them. It was late in the day, and the sun was about to set on the Western mountains, and something quite unbelievable happened -it turned cold. Now we had been wet and chilly most of the day with the pounding rain and obscured sun, but when the sun actually disappeared, it was downright cold. Considering the heat we suffered first in Vientiane and then on our ride to the village, this cold was way out of place. It wasn't just unseasonal, it was completely unheard of! After a quick, cold, outdoor shower, we put on every stitch of clothing from our packs. The night would be spent snuggling in a single bed under heaps of blankets trying to keep warm.
We were up long before the sun as the only transport left the village at 6:30AM. We strapped on the packs and were about to make the trek toward the road, when there was a nearby rumble -and the rain started anew. I highly doubted they ran transport in this kind of downpour, but we certainly weren't going to hike one kilometer to the road only to stand there and wait. We fell back into bed, catnapping between thunderclaps. About four hours later, the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun. We poked outside and quickly learned that there would be no transport today -and very unlikely tomorrow. The road was impassable -and we might be stuck here for days!
For once on this journey fate smiled on us. After some harried negotiation we organized a boat down the river. It couldn't get us all the way to the paved road, but it could get us much closer -and out of this desparate situation. The boat was pricey, and the other end uncertain, but we had to try. We dodged a few raindrops on the river, but the threatening skies held off. Its probably a good thing too! Our boat was taking on water nearly as fast as it could be bailed out. Steady rain might have put us under! Along the way, we picked up another passenger. Sharon was a young English girl in need of a lift -and her tale of woe was much worse than ours. She had tried to do this whole cave experience as a day trip from a far away town, and hadn't really come prepared. By the time we found her, she had spent two nights on the floor in soaking wet clothes and had no more money.
The river trip turned out to be good fun. It was much gentler than the road, the views of the mountains dripping with water were excellent, and it only took three hours. The tales essentially ends here as there was suitable transport back to the paved road once the boat dropped us. From there were headed to the main road and hopped a four hour bus to Savannakhet.
So was is worth it? I suppose it depends who you ask. I think that Tham Lot Kong Lo is an uncommon wonder and the entire adventure was a unique experience. I will say though that I have promised Ann an extravagant weekend to celebrate our upcoming one year anniversary. (After enduring the trip to Tham Lot Kong Lo, she deserves it.) No adventure wife on that weekend, just a pampered wife.