Kong lo caves, Laos

The valley we follow to the Kong Lo caves reads like a highlight reel of Asia. Again I am perched on a small ledge on the back of the Jumbo photographing. We pass two storey concrete buildings which stand next to woven bamboo huts standing above the rice paddies on their long legs. We pass buffalos, cows, pigs, chickens and naked children jumping off bridges into muddy streams. If you only had one day to ‘see’ Asia I would recommend you spend it hanging off the back ledge of this very Jumbo and go down this valley. The Jumbo driver drops us off in an open area of jungle where a bamboo hut sits next to a river bearing a roughly carved sign that tells us we have reached the “Boat Committee” I watch our Jumbo go hoping we have not confused our driver and that he understands we will need a return lift as well.

The Boat Committee man speaks enough English to take our 115,000 kip and give us a shared, roughly printed ticket for entry into the cave. Numerous canoes line the river bank in various states of disrepair.

One canoe is not sunk, this is the one we choose. One little Lao man in the front steers and a second little Lao man paddles from the back. I eagerly wait for the Oompa-loompa song to begin but am disappointed. We simply cross the river towards the mouth of the cave, tie up the canoe before the rapids and walk beside the river into the cave. The river flows out of the mouth of the cave, a dark hole ceaselessly vomiting brown.

Inside the cave we escape the heat, fifteen long canoes with propellor wielding four stroke Honda motors wait in silence. Being low season, our team of three are the only non-local explorers in the caves. Four local women dip square nets into the cool water at the cave mouth, they are scooping up confused fish that have survived a trip through the 7.5km long cave system.

We gingerly sit in the low lying canoe as it wobbles wildly and tries to throw us out into the black water. The driver starts the engine and takes us into the cave. A very big cave.

Just as my eyes are starting to adjust to the darkness we pull up at a sandy beach with a steep bank. We alight the canoe and walk along a walkway and I discover that the head light I have rented is not working. Our mute guide presses a button causing blue and white spotlights to bring the stalactites, which had been hiding behind shadow, into sharp focus. The curtain is raised on this frozen, silent play, the soundtrack is one of awed silence. The caves were first discovered in 1995 by non-locals and the lights installed in 1998 by ONG Energles Sans Frontiers, which is, I imagine, an engineering version of the French Medicine San Frontiers.

Huge stalactites hang down from the roof, bathed in blue light, they look like enormous cancer specimens in a jar. We wander in silent awe as the river babbles over rocks from somewhere in the pitch dark.

We walk back to the sandy beach which is completely out of place deep in a cave system, settle carefully in the canoe and set off again into the blackness. Headlights occasionally light up nearby rocks grasping at us out of the dark. In some areas the roof is up to one hundred metres high. It would take the drops of water about five whole seconds to travel from the roof of the cave to just behind my neck. The roof is so high that I get the eerie feeling that we are really outside in the canoe. Shadows on the patterned cave wall could easily be trees passing by in the night.

Every sound is sucked into the void above, even the sound of the motor does not return to us. Soon a light signals another mouth in the cave system. We burst down a rapid, water flowing freely into the unpainted wooden canoe and we blink in the light. The river is now rich brown, not oily black, the canoe burps along past lush green jungle. We stop at a rest area where a Lao man who has clearly spent too much time alone in the jungle confuses himself when he doubles the price of our water. Our guides are no longer mute but speaking gleefully rapid Lao with the scraggy bearded bushman.

Back in the canoe we retrace our path through the dark maze. I shiver involuntarily when a strong mental image pops into my mind, we have sunk the canoe and are trying to swim in the dark. I recognise the beach, the dark begins to submit to sunlight and we hear a yell. Three Lao women are on the beach with their square nets jumping up and down and waving us over. The driver of the boat turns quickly and pulls up at the beach. He puffs his little chest out and despite not being able to understand a word we know what is happening; “Hey ladies, check out my boat, I’ll rescue you” I have no idea how the three ladies were got to be there on the beach without lights with their nets but they pour onto the boat and we set off again. Water threatens to overtake the canoe as the driver shows off and revs the engine taking us quickly to the cave mouth where we started.

We finish back at the Boat Committee. We don’t talk much, our minds fail to find words to describe this labyrinth. It is a set directly out of Star Trek or Dr Who. I would never have believed that a cave could possibly be so massive, so black and so vast. This is one detour which was well worth the effort.

Tomorrow we are going to bus again, further this time, right to the bottom of Laos on our way to Cambodia. We get an early, early night in readiness for hells bus part three.

I fall asleep thinking about Gollum from the Hobbit, he would love the Kong Lo cave, all those tasty, pale, slippery fish and dark, moist corners to hide in.

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