Tales of Underground Rivers and Tobacco Boats. Part two: Kong Lo
As I continued following the boat guide towards the entrance of the cave I was brimming with excitement about the trip ahead of me. I felt stoked to finally be here but had to admit that I’d turned it into a bit of an unnecessary slog during the ride up from Thakhek. To make matters worse I’d had a lousy night’s sleep at the guesthouse I’d booked into; the bed was one of the hardest I’d slept on and the constant din of dogs, frogs and crickets, in the fields beyond, had me ruing the fact that I’d forgotten my earplugs. After a fitful sleep I’d risen early in anticipation of getting underway early for the trip through the cave. The day dawned cool and clear and, after a stomach full of food to recharge the batteries, I was down at the Cave admin point a bit before eight am; the allotted start time for daily operations. The prices were reasonable for a trip through the cave and boat fees were as follows: single person – 105K kip; two people – 110K Kip; three people (maximum) – 150K kip. I handed over my trip fee and was given an orange life jacket to don; these are a compulsory while you are on the boat. If you don’t have a light one can be hired for an extra 5K kip. I was assigned a two man boat team and we were on our way towards the cave entrance. As we climbed up and over a rocky plateau, and began entering the cave proper, the relatively small entrance gave way to a mammoth chamber beyond. The locals had put in a proper paved walkway, with a handrail, skirting the edge of the internal river and as we left the daylight behind I could see a number of bodies moving about in the glow of a single overhead light up ahead.
When I was standing up at the admin point I’d heard one the guides mention something about turning on the lights. I now understood what he’d meant; it looked as though they’d run electric cables into the cave to provide lighting. Two hundred meters, or so, into the cave there was a staging point for the fleet of boats that do the run through. It seemed incredible to believe but I was standing on an underground beach looking at a line-up of shallow draught long tail boats as the guides made their preparations for the trip. After a few minutes spent checking fuel levels, and warming up the boats’ engine, we were pushing off into the black void ahead. With the boat man perched on the bow, and leading the way, we were gliding over the calm waters of the immense tunnel that is Kong Lo cave. I had a fairly powerful hand held light and, therefore, and got a good impression of what was surrounding me as the boat chugged on into the darkness. The river was amazingly clear and, due to the fact it was the dry season, was quite shallow. In some places with the bottom clearly visible and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before we were all clambering out due to the boat grounding. After a bit of time spent pushing and shoving the boat, and wading around in calf deep water, we were back in the boat and underway again. During the run through, and the return leg, we were to encounter a number of these shallow spots and it had me thinking that a trip through, in the rainy season, would be a completely different proposition.
The boat staging point just inside the cave’s entrance
The boatman leading the way into the black void ahead
The cave terrain mirrored off the calm, clear waters
The boatman getting over the first shallow spot
The driver helping his mate
A few minutes later, and roughly one kilometer in, we were entering the widest part of the cave tunnel and pulling over at another underground beach. The boat guide indicated that we were going for a walk and led the way up a sandy slope onto what looked like a properly constructed trail. A couple of minutes later I was standing on the formations plateau. Up ahead the colourful mix of white, blue and orange lights lit up the most amazing array of cave formations that I’d seen anywhere. It was truly spectacular and as the trail wound its way ahead of me, I could only marvel at the ingenuity, and amount of work, put in to developing the site. Besides the fact that they’d run lighting so far into the cave, they’d also done a truly remarkable job setting up the trail; there were paved walkways with handrails everywhere to ensure safety during the walk through. I could prattle on endlessly about this amazing site but words don’t truly do it justice; I’ll let the pictures tell the story.
The trail up to the formations plateau
Standing up on the plateau; the view back down the tunnel towards the entrance
The start of the formations trail
Spectacular blue lighting in a pre-historic terrain
Massive formations, from floor to ceiling, millions of years old
Formed, one calcified drip at a time, over eons
The rest point before heading back down to the river
Leaving the primordial world
The vast subterranean cavern of Kong Lo
After thirty minutes banging off as many shots as possible, I was back in the long tail and resuming our slow chug through the cave. The blackness, ahead, was interrupted by lights and the echo of a motor moving towards us. I shone my light ahead and picked up the form of another boat getting closer. As it chugged past the full complement of large blue tarpaulin covered blocks, onboard, were plainly obvious. I started to piece things together; the tobacco was being ferried, through the cave, to the waiting trucks I’d seen in the parking area. During my fact gathering, on Kong Lo, I’d come across a travel site which had a story on the cave. Apart from the usual stuff about getting there, and prices, there was an interesting anecdote about a remote village accessed through the cave. Baan Nam Thone was somewhere beyond the other side of the mountain, which the cave ran through, and, for all intents and purposes, its main connection to the rest of the world was via Kong Lo cave. Kong Lo was a large tobacco growing area and, no doubt, Nam Thone was using the river, and cave, as a highway to move its tobacco crop. The sedate ride was interrupted by regular tobacco boat traffic and the occasional stop to get over a shallow spot. As we pushed on the cave widened, and narrowed, with the twists and turns in the rivers’ route with the flanks often alternating between massive rock piles and sandy beaches. Approximately an hour and twenty minutes after we’d first pushed off, I began picking up the glow of daylight ahead. The glow eventually became the large exit and we emerged into a mist and jungle shrouded world.
The first tobacco boat for the day
Calm reflections on the clear surface
After 7.5 kilometers; light at the end of the tunnel
The mist and jungle shrouded world beyond the caves exit
We motored on around a few more bends in the river and, about a kilometer on, arrived at a staging point where there was a constant stream of boats being loaded with tobacco. The driver nosed the boat into the soft earth of the river bank and as I grabbed my camera and scrambled up onto the flat area above to check out the activity. The boat man told me we had a fifteen minute break which afforded a good photo opportunity. As I moved around banging off shots there was plenty of movement with tractor trucks constantly arriving to unload the raw product onto the waiting long tails. I reflected on the fact that there was a real possibility that the cave, and its river, were Baan Nam Thone’s main connection with the outside world. That, in itself, was quite a story. A sign on a tree indicated that the village was two kilometers further on. I would’ve liked to have gone for a look but knew that it would’ve meant extra time. I got the impression that the boat crew weren’t too interested in that idea as they were probably keen to get back for another paying fare through the cave. All too soon our time was up and we were heading back towards the cave again. For most of the trip back we were accompanied by a convoy of tobacco boats and getting over the shallow spots became a bit of a congested exercise with everyone pitching in to help each other get the boats through as quickly as possible. We passed travelers making the run through and before I knew it I was back at the starting point two and a half hours later. It had been a fantastic trip and I’d do it again, given the opportunity, although perhaps when the river was more in flow. If you only go to Laos one time and only do one thing; then go to Kong Lo.
A constant stream of tobacco boats being loaded up
Bales of raw tobacco trucked in from Nam Thone village two kilometers away
Tobacco bales being offloaded and being made ready for the run through the cave
The raw product
More of the raw product
A local farmer enjoying the raw product
On our way back with the tobacco
Back inside again
The last glimpse of daylight for an hour or so
More travelers on the way through
A walk on an underground beach; sun block not required
Getting the tobacco over another shallow spot
Ready to push on
2.5 hours later; back at the start point and the tobacco being carted up to the waiting trucks
Hoped you enjoyed the trip.
Very nice report.