Tales of Underground Rivers and Tobacco Boats. Part One: Thakhek
The early morning mist was still gathered on the cliff tops as I made my way along the trail towards the caves’ entrance. As I followed the boat guide around the clear lagoon I reflected on the events, and the journey, that had bought me to Kong Lo; the location of one of the longest caves in South East Asia.
It had all started a few weeks earlier at Luang Prabang airport. I was about to board a Lao airways flight, for my return to Thailand, and picked up a snippet of information from an expat Brit in the departure lounge. I’d been regaling him of my trip through Northern Laos and, in particular, my caving adventures in Veng Vien when he chimed in with something that caught my attention.
“If it’s caves you want then head to Kong Lo.”
“Where, and what, is Kong Lo?” I said.
“Kong Lo is in Central Laos mate. There’s a cave there that is 7.5 kilometers long. It’s got a river running through it and they do it in boats,” he said with an assured smile.
“How do I find my way there?” I said sparking up a bit more.
“Head to Thakhek,” he said as we pushed through the checkpoint and walked across the tarmac to the plane.
“Thakhek, can you spell it?” I said feeling tongue tied trying pronounce the word.
“T-H-A-K-H-E-K, Thakhek,” he said as we walked up the gangway.
“Thanks mate,” I said as we parted company looking for our seats.
A few days later, after being back in Bangkok and feeling boredom beginning to set in again, I started doing some fact gathering on the internet. Thakhek was easy enough to find; it was right on the border of Thailand and directly across the Mekong from Nakhon Phanom. Further searching revealed that getting to Thakhek would be relatively simple; Nok Air ran daily flights to Nakhon Phanom. From there it would be a short Bus trip, across Friendship Bridge #3, and on into Thakhek. Without hesitation I booked a round trip flight to Nakhon Phanom and, a couple of days later, I was on my way. Three hours after landing in Nakhon Phanom, and with a minimum of fuss, I was through the immigration checkpoints, at Friendship Bridge #3, and back in Laos again. For 75 baht there’s an hourly bus service which runs direct from Nakhon Phanom Provincial bus terminal to its equivalent in Thakhek. This also includes waiting while the passengers are being checked through immigration on both sides of the bridge. After arrival at Thakhek provincial bus terminal it’s then a sedate 5 kilometer run, in a tuktuk, to Thakhek town center which is simply a junction of the main road into town and the riverfront road. After paying off the driver I took a moment to get my bearings; 100 meters ahead I could see the Mekong and Nakhon Phanom beyond. One word would describe Thakhek; quiet. You could almost hear the flies buzzing.
Thakhek, Laos with the view across the Mekong to Nakhon Phanom, Thailand.
I didn’t have any accommodation booked. I needed to organise that and then see about gathering some info on getting to Kong Lo. Up ahead, and towards the riverfront, was a noodle shop with a number of travelers gathered around the roadside tables. As I got nearer I recognized a Canadian guy I’d done a waterfall trip with when I was up in Luang Prabang.
“Hey man, how’s things?” he said as I got close enough so he recognized me.
“Not too bad mate. I’ve just arrived,” I said plonking down my bags on the curbside.
“Good to see you again. Do you have any accommodation arranged?”
“Not yet. I was going to have a bowl of noodles and then go for a walk down the riverfront road. You got any recommendations?”
“Yeah there’s a nice hotel, called the Mekong, about 400 meters back along the road there. I’m staying there myself. If you want, I’ll show you where it is after we’ve finished eating?”
“Sounds good mate. What have you been up to since Luang Prabang?”
“An amazing adventure, my friend. I came down here about 12 days ago and did the big loop. I just got back here yesterday afternoon.”
“What’s the big loop?” I said warming to his enthusiasm.
“Well it’s a road trip which starts in Thakhek and goes in a big circle, for 400 kilometers, before ending up back here a few days later. It’s an incredible trip with so much to see and do.”
“Does it include Kong Lo?” I said hoping he’d be able to give me directions on getting there.
“Yes, yes of course. You must make a detour off highway number eight but it’s a short run and the road is good all the way to Kong Lo. Are you going up there?”
“Yeah, I was going to hang around here tomorrow and hopefully go up there the next day. What’s the best way of getting there? On a bus?”
“No, no. Everyone does it on rented motorbikes.”
“Really, 400 clicks seems like a long way to go on one of them small bikes?”
“Ah, it’s not too bad. You can do it in short hops and it’s much better than the bus because you stop whenever you want and also make your own itinerary.”
“How far is it to Kong Lo?”
“One hundred and eighty three kilometers. It will take you about four to five hours.”
“Hmmm, seems like a long time to do 183 clicks. Is the road bad?”
“No, but you will have to include rest stops and also there is thirty kilometers of winding mountain road on highway number eight.”
Noodle soup and cold beer Lao in the Thakhek town center
“Okay, I guess it will be a bike then. Where do I rent one from?”
“Just back down the road there on the right. There’s a guy that rents them for 50,000 Kip per day and he’ll also give you a map of the loop showing distances to all the different locations.”
“Okay, that sounds good. I’ll amble back down there after I’m settled into the hotel.”
After polishing off the noodles, we made our way along to the Mekong Hotel.
The Mekong is a relatively inexpensive, older style Hotel on the riverfront. I paid 140,000 Kip (560 baht) a night for a room which was larger than a lot of studio apartments in Bangkok. Each room faces directly out across the Mekong and there is a wide, external balcony which runs the length of each floor. After getting checked in, and depositing my bags in the room, I made my way back to the motorbike rental shop at the town center. The owner of the shop spoke good English and, as my Canadian friend had mentioned, he provided a rudimentary hand drawn map showing the main sightseeing locations, and distances to each, in the area. I paid four days rental on a 110 cc Korean-made bike and talked about my travel plans for the ensuing days.
“I’m leaving for Kong Lo in two days time. Is there anything worth looking at around Thakhek that I can visit tomorrow?”
“Well, most people go out to visit the Buddha cave. It’s about fifteen Kilometers out of town. Here, you can see it on the map. Just follow this road and you will see the signs on the way.”
“Is it a big cave?”
“No, but it’s got lots of Buddha statues inside for people to look at. If you want to visit a big cave you should go to Pa Chan.”
“Here, on the same road to the Buddha Cave but about twenty kilometers further on. Few tourists go up there though because the road is not so good but it’s got signposts so you will be able to find it, no problem,” he said trying to reassure me.
“Okay, that sounds good. Is there anywhere else you would recommend?”
“Yes, there’s the blue lake at Kong Leng but the road into there is quite rough in some places. You can actually walk to it from Pa Chan Cave. It’s around three kilometers on a track which runs past a nearby village,” he said pointing to it on the map.
“Great, I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for the info. I’ll see you in four days,” I said as I pushed the starter on the bike.
A statue proclaiming Laos’ red past
I drove out onto the road and immediately switched on to the fact that it was the opposite side to Thailand again. There was a plenty of daylight left and I wanted to get a few shots of something I’d seen on the bus trip across from Nakhon Phanom; a couple of clicks back up the main road was a statue from the communist era. Twenty minutes later, after filling the bike up with fuel, I was entering what looked like an abandoned park. There were empty buildings to the flanks of the large cement covered quadrangle and, situated right in the middle, was a brilliant statue commemorating Laos’ communist past. I banged off a few shots and then took off back to the town center; there was a small hotel there which looked as though it served decent coffee and also advertised free wifi. Thirty minutes later I was enjoying a good cappuccino, and checking my emails, at the Inthira Hotel.
The Inthira Hotel in Thakhek. Free wi-fi, good coffee and excellent ahaan farang
I hung about the Inthra until well after sunset and chatted with other travelers to pick up additional bits of info. After a good steak meal I was back at the hotel and looking forward to sitting on the balcony taking in the fine view, of the reflected lights of Nakhom Phanom, across the Mekong. Unfortunately a plague of ephemeral moths put paid to that idea. Every external light in Thakhek had a swarm of what looked like miniature locusts in frenzy around it. Even the flouros, in the hotels’ lobby, were seething with the damn things. Sitting outside was not an option so I got an early night in anticipation of a full days sightseeing ahead of me.
Swarms of ephemeral moths seething around external lights
The following morning revealed the carnage of the ephemeral moths. I was up early and crunched my way across thousands of dead carcasses, lying on the hotels’ external landings and stairways, as I made way to the restaurant for breakfast. I figured the cleaning staff must really look forward to this time of the year; day after day of sweeping up piles of dead moths. It had rained over night and the day dawned cool and overcast. As I sat eating my breakfast I realized that a jacket might be a good idea for the motorbike ride into the interior. An hour later I was on my way up the road leading out of Thakhek and heading east. The guy at the motorbike rental shop had mentioned that I should just keep going straight until I see a turn off, to the left, with a sign indicating the direction to the Buddha cave. Sure enough, a few kilometers out of town, I found the turn off. The sealed road quickly gave way to dirt and I was, once again, happily bouncing along a dusty road in Laos. The going, up to the Buddha Cave turn off, was reasonable but after that I could see there was much less thought given to the maintenance of the road on to Pa Chan Cave. The twenty one kilometers, onwards to Pa Chan, deteriorated into not much more than a sand track. The last two kilometers, from the final signposted turnoff, was little more than criss-crossed ruts across rice fields. Eventually, up ahead, I saw the top of a yawning large hole in the cliff face above the tree line. Directing the bike towards it, I crossed a stream, and drove into the massive amphitheatre of the entry chamber of Pa Chan Cave; the size of it was truly amazing. I parked up and took moment to take it in. The stream I’d crossed was actually running through the cave. Up ahead I could see one of those small tractor trucks, the local farmers use, but there appeared to be no one about; the place was completely silent.
A trip into the wild interior of central Laos
The entrance into Pa Chan Cave
I made my way over to the tractor truck and, as I got nearer to it, I could feel a draft; the cave had a breeze coming through it and, therefore, would be open at the other end. I looked into the black void, of the massive tunnel that veered to the left, and could just make out the faint glow of daylight; I estimated it was roughly about 500 meters on. On my immediate left was a long flight of stairs leading up to a large cement platform; on top of which I could just make out the golden glow of Buddha statues. I walked towards the stairway for a closer look; the size of the platform indicated that the locals had put in considerable effort in building what was quite a sizable construction. I stopped at the bottom of stairs and looked back across to the opposite side of the entrance chamber. There was a rocky slope, on the other side of the creek, leading up into a highpoint of the cave which, I estimated, was at least forty meters above my present position. I looked up at the apex of the entry chamber and figured that the very high point might even be higher than that. I was considering going up to the platform to have a look at the Buddha statues but decided I’d do it on the way back; this turned out to be a fortuitous decision. I could see a small cavern, above and beyond the rocky slope, and decided it might be worth checking out. A couple of minutes later I was scrambling up the incline towards a incredible vantage point which provided spectacular views of the immensity of the cave. A few minutes later the inclined leveled out and I was standing on a broad, flat plateau looking back down at the tractor truck, and the Buddha platform beyond. As I stood there quietly working the camera I could hear the squeaking of bats behind me; no doubt the occupants of the dark cavern further in.
The view, from high up in Pa Chan cave, looking down the tunnel
Looking back towards the main entrance
A shot taken from a cavern way up towards the apex of the cave
As I worked my way into the cavern I had to stoop to avoid banging my head on the low ceiling. A few meters in and it opened up into a large chamber full of congested formations protruding down. I directed my headset light towards the pitch black rear of the cavern and immediately caught the flutter of bats whizzing by. I don’t get spooked too easily but I had to admit that this cavern looked kind of spooky. As I fiddled around with the camera flash I was half expecting to see Dracula to jump out at me. I banged off a few shots then retraced my steps to the entrance and, as I emerged into a point where I could stand fully erect, I got a spectacular view of the top of the cave entrance and the vegetation beyond; it was like looking down a tunnel into wall of green.
I started the climb back down the rocky slope and set my sights on the exit at the far end of the main tunnel. There was a trail which went up, and over, a pile of large rocks and skirted the left side of the cave. In a number of places the locals had placed heavy planks across the inaccessible spans between the rocks. As I continued moving forward the daylight, emanating from the exit at the far end, increased and, in doing so, began to reflect off the stream running along the cave floor. A few minutes later I was clear of the rock pile and dropped down onto a wide, flat sand bank that paralleled the stream. I shone my torch into the still water; it was pristine. Up ahead I could see that the trail diverted to the opposite side of the cave. I found a shallow spot in the stream and waded across to continue on to the exit. As the natural light began to create more colour, around the exit point, I could see that the large pool feeding the stream was strikingly turquoise.
The trail through the cave towards the rear exit/entrance
The view across the turquoise pool and five hundred meters back to the main entrance
The daylight, from the main entrance, highlighting the rocky incline and dark cavern beyond
It was something I’d seen a lot in the bodies of freshwater, in Laos, and it was, according to a well informed source, a sure sign of a high copper content in the terrain. This gave credence to the fact that there were some large Australian mining companies currently active in Laos. I pushed on and, after doing a bit more wading, I was clear of the cave and looking back down the tunnel towards the main entrance five hundred meters beyond. I sat down for a rest and noted, once again, that apart from the twittering of birds the place was totally silent. After getting a few more shots I started the trek back to the main entrance and, as I got to what I estimated was the midway point, I began to pick up the echo of voices up ahead. As I started working my way back over the rock pile those echoes became louder until it became obvious that a reasonably large group had arrived at the cave. As I walked towards the flat area, where the tractor truck was parked, there were a number of people gathered around three SUV’s parked nearby. I glanced up towards the Buddha platform and could make out there was some kind of ceremony going on. I got talking with one of the group, standing near the vehicles, and was told it was a party of locals that had driven up from Savanakhet for the day. Up on the platform a monk, they’d brought with them, began chanting. I looked to the stairs and indicated that I’d like to go up and get a few shot’s. The guy smiled and nodded in approval. As I climbed the stairs the chanting got louder; no doubt some kind of blessing, or ritual, was being performed. I arrived at the platform to find a number of women seated along the edge of another raised platform and a monk, and two men, seated in front of the Buddha’s statues.
A group of visitors up from Savanakhet to make merit
While the monk kept up his uninterrupted chant a couple of the women glanced over as I was working the camera. I didn’t want to hang about too long, as I felt I could be intruding, so after getting a few more shots I was on my way back down the stairs again. Once at the bottom again I bade farewell to the group of locals and clambered back on the bike. I glanced at my watch and noted that it was only just mid afternoon; there was plenty of time for more sightseeing as I gunned the bike across the stream and began weaving my along the rice field trails again.
It has to be said that banging along rough roads on a motorbike can be quite tiring both physically and mentally; even more so if you decide to open up the throttle. Aside from the obvious physical strain of hammering over ruts, and potholes, there’s also the requirement to be constantly alert for the possibility that the bike will go into a slide if you are going too fast over loose aggregate or, even worse, soft sand. For this reason I decided to back it off a bit for the trip back. I was feeling pretty satisfied with how the days outing had gone, so far, and didn’t see the point of losing it by going faster than what would be deemed a safe speed for the road beneath me. I could see the value of having a dirt bike for a trip around Laos; 110 CC street bikes weren’t designed for the type of terrain I’d been banging over. Forty five minutes later I was back at the turn off to the Buddha cave. It was only mid afternoon and a two kilometer run to the site, so I decided to check it out. Shortly after pulling up in a parking area, surrounded by hawkers stalls, I bumped into a couple that had just come back from having a look. They seemed unimpressed and, after the exceptional experience of visiting pa Chan, I decided to can the idea of visiting the Buddha Cave.
The view from the Mekong Hotel in Thakhek; the lights of Nakhom Phanom reflected on the river.
By four PM I was back on the riverfront road and, just as I was about to turn into the hotel, I noticed a small boat crossing the Mekong towards what looked like a small jetty a couple of hundred meters further up the road. Being a nosey type I decided to go and have a look; the possibility that it might be a ferry service, between Nakhom Phanom and Thakhek, being upper most in my thoughts as I continued down the road on the bike. I pulled up in front of what looked very much like an immigration checkpoint. My hopes of avoiding the gouging from the Lao tuk-tuk mafia, for the run to the bus station, were dashed when I noted a hand written sign above one of checkpoint windows proclaiming “For Thai and Lao citizen only. All third party passport holder must use Friendship Bridge #3.” I was wondering what that was all about? A quick glance around the area and I soon had my answer; less than 100 meters from the immigration office was a casino. It looked as though it was, pretty much, a quick route for to Thais, coming over from Nakhom Phanom, to get to the gambling tables of Laos. Next to the door into the casino there was a table with a bunch of ladies in skimpy gear and dyed red hair and I couldn’t help letting out a cynical snigger. Some things just never change; where there’s hot money there’s “ladies of negotiable affection.”
I now understood why there’d been a crowd of surly looking Vietnamese males gathered at the restaurant at breakfast time; they were in town for the gambing. They’d looked a miserable lot, with hardly a smile amongst them, as I’d sat off to one side eating my rice soup. I’d known gamblers before, from an earlier time in my life, and they had the same look about them; distracted. As though they had something going on or they knew something that us non-gamblers didn’t know. Like those guys in that movie “The Goodfellows,” they call themselves wise guys and think they’ve got a fast track to making it big.The fact is, of course, is that they’ve got nothing on inside their heads except the next bet, or con. Gambling, just like any other addiction, is a path to self destruction. I’d seen it years ago with guys I’d once called friends; they’d sold off everything to pay for the next bet which, ninety percent of the time, they never win. As I made my way back to the bike I passed a few guys hanging around some parked vehicles. They all had that same shit eating grin; the wise guys grin. I didn’t even bother meeting their eyes; losers like these probably don’t even know that something like Pa Chan Cave exists. As the sun sank towards the horizon, taking the heat of the day with it, I returned to the hotel and prepared myself for the coming evenings’ onslaught of ephemeral moths.
After rinsing off the dirt from the outing to Pa Chan, and a change of clothes, I was on my way to the Inthira for another decent meal. The sun had set, the street lights were on, and the ephemeral moths were out in full force again. I arrived at the Inthira to find all the tables with reserved signs on them; it looked as though there was a sizable group about to arrive. Luckily, I was able to get a spot along the bar. A I sat there enjoying a beer Lao, and waiting for my food order to arrive, a number of vehicles began pulling up outside the restaurant; all SUV’s with UNCHR written on the sides. The voices, as the group gathered in, were distinctly Aussie and provided further confirmation of what I’d been told a few weeks earlier; the Australian Government was providing a lot of aid to Laos. When I was in Luang Prabang I’d bumped into a bunch of NGO people staying at the same hotel who told me the Aid, mainly being financial, was simply a way of buttering up the powers that be so that multinationals – such as mining companies – could establish themselves in Laos. I got chatting with a couple of the group and they, pretty much, confirmed that they were an advance party for a bunch of mining reps arriving in the area in a few days time.
I got another early night in preparedness for the long trip ahead to Kong Lo. The morning was, once again, relatively cool and after a couple of strong Lao coffees, and a bowl of chicken and rice soup, I was on my North on Highway # 13. Highway # 13 is the main road North to Vientiane and the turn off, to Kong Lo, was 96 clicks on from Thakhek at a town called Baan Na Thone. I’d figured I’d ride for an hour, or so, and then have a short drinks break before pushing on. If I’d stuck with my original plan all would’ve been well and good but, as I’ve been known to do in the past, I decided to throw a spanner in the works and make things more difficult for myself. Thirty three clicks up the road I saw a sign indicating the turn off to Kong Leng Lake. In a moment of madness I decided to detour and check it out. The sign indicated that it was only 21 clicks to the blue lake; a few kilometers on I was beginning to have my doubts. The road, within a short distance of highway # 13, quickly deteriorated into a potholed track. The motorbike rental guys’ assessment of it was an understatement; it wasn’t a track to be running over in a 110 CC street bike. Eventually it became an undulating, rock strewn trail over a stretch of hills and, just as I thought I was past the worst, it then became a road without a road; it was a track piled six inches deep in bulldust from the road works going on. After taking a tumble for the second time, and lying there covered from head to toe in white dust, I began to seriously question the wisdom of making the detour to see Kong Leng Lake. A kid I met further on assured me that it wasn’t far to go; only another five kilometers. More than five kilometers on I started thinking that the Laotian rural estimation of distance might be a bit different to the norm. Further up ahead was remote village and, to compound the difficulty of getting to where I wanted to go, I took the wrong turn.
A few kilometers on I was running along narrow tracks bordered by tunnels of bamboo and, when the trail eventually petered out in front of an isolated hut, I knew I had some back tracking to do. As I rattled on back down the trail towards the village I checked my watch; more than an hour had already elapsed since my detour from the main highway. Twenty minutes later I was pulling up in front of a pristine, spring fed lake. The scene was picturesque enough but, to be honest, hardly worth the extra three hours I’d added to my trip.
Back on the main highway again I knew that I was going to be seriously fatigued by the time I arrived at Kong Lo. I took a thirty minute break at Baan Na Thone and then made the turn, off highway # 13, and began the trip up over the ranges on highway # 8. This part of the ride was quite enjoyable with the road snaking it’s way across thirty kilometers of jungle clad, high peaks. At what was probably the high point of the traverse there was a roadside lookout, giving spectacular views across the ranges to the south, so I pulled in for a well earned drinks break and photo opportunity. I was beginning to feel quite fatigued but knew I needed to push on as it was beginning to get late in the afternoon and I wanted to make Kong Lo village before night fall. Forty five minutes later I was zipping by the turn off to Kong Lo; I needed to make a refuelling stop at Baan Na Hin just a couple of clicks further up highway # 8. I pulled into Na Hin, at about five PM, and, after refuelling, decided to recce the small town as I wanted to do a final email check; there is no internet currently available at Kong Lo. I was hoping to find a bar, or restaurant, with wifi before making the final forty two kilometer run to Kong Lo. As luck would have it I found a rudimentary wooden bar, which advertised wifi, and pulled into for a short break.
Limestone escarpments and jungle on highway # 8
Looking south from the viewpoint on highway # 8
As I drove into the parking bay I saw a rather discouraging sign of the times; at a small bar, next door to where I was parking, there was a bunch of young ladies with that look about them. They had red died hair and were seriously whooping it up on beer Lao. They saw me waved me over. I just shook my head, laughed and noted, once again, that where there’s an inpouring of tourist dollars there’s bound to be “ladies of negotiable affection.”
The final stretch to Kong Lo
I drank a can of Coke for a caffiene charge up, checked my emails, and thirty minutes later was back on the road for the final leg. With the daylight fading I made a sedate run down the flat, smooth road to Kong Lo and pulled in at the caves’ parking area at about six thirty PM. I was saddle sore and wary and as I walked about, to loosen up, I noticed a couple of trucks piled high with what appeared to be blue, tarpaulin covered square blocks. I was intrigued as to what they might be and walked over towards the trucks picking up the distinct aroma of tobacco. It all seemed a bit odd and I wondered why trucks piled high with raw tobbacco would be parked in the area? The following day I’d know why.
Very, very nice.