Ah, now, this is the life. I'm writing this whilst lying on a hammock outside my hut on an island as the sun-drenched day turns into evening. However, if you want to know why I came to be on this hammock, you'll have to read the next journal. For now, I'm going to tell you about Kong Lo.
The bus followed route 13 out of Vientiane and south as it never strayed too far from the Mekong river, which in turn marks the boundary between Laos and Thailand for a long stretch. After a hundred and fifty kilometres, it turned east onto route 8. We stopped here for a short while to exchange passengers and whilst some people popped out for a bite to eat. Not much further along we stopped again, this time at the behest of the police. I think they were checking the goods and luggage our bus contained as they waylaid us for ten minutes. I had to be grateful though, another bus that had already stopped there had had all of its boxes removed from the roof to be checked one by one. I'm guessing that those passengers were waiting there for at least an hour while all that took place.
The road became slow and twisty again now as we twice crawled up a hill, taking an hour to ride the remaining forty kilometres to Ba Na Hin. Coming down the second of these hills we saw two buses coming up the other side which had broken down under the combined strain of the heat and the steep slope. I heard later that this is an almost daily occurrence on that road.
Ba Na Hin was a collection of houses along route 8 culminating in a market area at the east-end of the town. I first walked around in vain for an ATM. I realised now how naive it had been to assume I could withdraw cash once I arrived here and funds were low. Finding no success, I marched my heavy backpack back down the road into the scorching post-lunch sun for eight hundred metres until I found my preferred guesthouse option. Once I arrived I found that they did indeed have internet which had lured me here, but the connection was broken.
After securing accommodation and eating some lunch, I retired to my room for the afternoon. I took a shower first, lay unclothed and uncovered on my bed, but when I awoke three hours later I was already soaked in sweat again.
The reason for coming to this small little town was to visit Kong Lo cave, to the south. Here, a river runs underground through the middle of a hill for seven kilometres. Local guides can take you on their boats through this cave and back again.
They only have four rooms at Mi Thuna guesthouse, and their location at the far end of town cannot be entirely conducive to pulling in passing diners, so it seemed a bit optimistic to me that they had chairs and tables for two-dozen people on their restaurant veranda. Over dinner I chatted with an English guy who had that day been to the Kong Lo cave, and a Finnish couple who intended to go the next day. A new road down there has been completed over the past couple of years so it is now easy to get there and back in a day. The Finns and I agreed travel together to save costs for a Sawngthaew carry us.
The plan had been to meet at nine, have breakfast together, make a plan and then head out some time afterwards. "But don't worry if you're late", the guy had said "this is Laos". So, to the surprise of no one except them, I was out and ready at twenty-past nine. By then they had already got fed up waiting, arranged to hire a motorbike and gone off. In fairness, they did knock on my door by I must have been in the shower and didn't hear them.
100,000kip to hire a motorbike for a day was pretty steep, but I was only one person now and it was certainly the most convenient option. Having had one day's practice riding them in Vientiane, I didn't even have to pretend too hard that I knew what I was doing when they brought it out and gave me the keys. Two kilometres down the main road, I found my turning and rode forty kilometres down to the cave, taking about an hour.
I knew that no more than three visitors could be taken in a boat at a time and that costs for a boat were practically the same regardless of the number of passengers, so I needed to find one or two other people to share with, if need be waiting for a while for more people to arrive.
When I got there, I immediately found two girls who had arrived five minutes earlier and were now walking down with their guide to begin their ride. I was just in time to grab them and ask to join, which wasn't difficult as it brought their own costs right down. They were Catherine from Canada and Fiecke from the Netherlands. They were both travelling independently but had met a couple of times in Laos and decided to go along together for a while.
Our two guides led us around the small lake and then where the river ran out from the mouth of a cave. Inside, we followed the wide, stony floor to where long, flat-bottomed wooden boats awaited us. We were issued with life jackets each, although this may not have been entirely necessary. Everything seemed very shallow to me. The five of us then filled a single boat, with the guides riding at the front and the back, and we pushed off and began our journey.
The boat ran from a single outboard motor at the back but required constant intervention from both the guides to pole us away from rises in the river bed we might run aground on or to pole us over rises in the river bed that we did half run aground on. Several times we would have to all get out while the boat was dragged over rocks and stones before re-boarding once we were back in deeper water again.
Fairly early in the ride, we were able to clamber up the edge of the riverbank and walk around a colourfully-lit area where the stony stalagmites and stalactites reached to touch and join with each other. It was a stunning sight and although light enough to photograph, it was still too dark to capture with any great clarity.
Back in the boat after fifteen minutes, we continued our progress. The other four people in the boat all had head torches with them. I do have one with me on my travelling but had left it at the hotel today. It's only a small thing intended for finding my way home in the dark, so I didn't really have much faith that it would reveal spectacular views in the cave. While this may have been a pessimistic assessment, I didn't miss it. Everyone else's torches provided more than enough light when I wanted to see something and I actually rather liked the peacefulness of the dark. I mean, I didn't visit a cave so I could see the light, did I?
It would have been particularly nice to have stopped off and just sat by the side for an hour in the dark to take it all in. Better still would have been to have slept there for the night. The air and the water were relatively warm considering we were deep underground so even at night it cannot have been excessively cold. There was also lots of room by the side for this in places, but they could hardly have had us in there unsupervised and I doubt that the guides will have wanted to spend nights sleeping in there.
Shortly before reaching the top end, we were ushered out again for another shallow patch. This time, as we chatted and waited for our boat to be tugged through a particularly narrow and gushing section, the guides began shouting and jumping around pulling the ropes. Watching, we realised that our boat was actually escaping and they were unable to hold onto it. All five of us jumped into the water and managed to get hold of it, or the ropes, and tug it back upstream to safety. Quickly, this process wedged my leg between a rock and the boat itself, giving me a nasty graze (oh, the ultimate pain when I was a boy!) and bruise. But, there wasn't much I could do about it. I tried to shout to the others to explain but: a) they didn't hear and b) what could I say if they did? "Just let the boat float away please"?
Anyway, once the guides, we passengers and my poor wounded leg were back in the boat, we were quickly emerging from the darkness into the bright sunlight of the day. Around a bend in the river we moored up and got out. I think the guides would have preferred to turn straight around and get back so they might either be able to pick up another fare or at least get the working day over with (a high priority in Laos society). But we wanted to get out, stretch our legs and have something to eat from one of the little stalls. It felt like no time at all but we were there for a full hour.
What also took an hour was each leg of the boat ride, even though we were going downstream on the return journey. It was incredible just how vast it all felt inside. I might have expected to feel a bit claustrophobic before I went, but even when you forced yourself to be aware of just how deeply underground we were, it was still difficult to have much sense of being trapped. You could have dragged a Zeppelin through many parts of it. Or, at least, in the absence of any good knowledge of how big Zeppelins are, this was my impression.
Out at the other end, we had some refreshments with some other foreigners. One of whom, a Frenchman who has lived here for thirty five years, managed to find a big stick insect from somewhere, which he held on the table for our photographic entertainment. He was then able to point the girls towards a suitable homestay at the nearby village, as they had been unable to find a room back in Ba Na Hin as I had. After they dropped off their bags we walked around the village taking some photos, trying not to look or act like poverty tourists. Looking at the children playing, is it correct to envy their freedom and to dismiss our false notions that televisions and air-conditioned cars are some kind of requirement to happiness? Or, is it patronising to smile while they live without basic healthcare and hygiene standards?
By the time I rushed to leave, the sun had already begun to dip behind the hilltops. I didn't fancy riding on unlit roads in the dark, so hammered the bike as fast as it would go to try to eat up the distance before total darkness. Luckily, most of the road was flat, even if it did go through a few villages where people and animals happily wander into the road without much care about whether you're coming their way. Pigs are the worst. Everything else will at least try to move at the last moment. Pigs, although rarer, will walk in front of anything and then just stand there oblivious to what's about to hit them. Cows seem to have a better idea of the rules of the road, although when you meet a whole herd, as I did nearer home, congregating on the asphalt, it is a bit of a nightmare of beeping your horn and flashing your lights to try to crawl through them.
I finally got back to the main road just as total darkness confirmed itself. From there it was only a couple of miles back to the guesthouse and the nearby petrol station to first refill the tank. I had seen the Finnish couple in the cave, as their returning boat passed mine going upstream. We shared dinner and apologised for the morning's mix-up.
In the morning, I flagged down a tuk-tuk to get back to the local bus station (actually, just a drop-off point by the dusty market). Fiecke found me there and we all got in the same sǎwngthǎew (like a bigger tuk-tuk) heading south to Tha Khaek, taking four hours. It dropped everyone off around town and then took us to the bus station, on the outskirts. We wanted to get as far south as possible, with a view to getting to the Four Thousand Islands the next day. Immediately we were booked on a VIP bus to Pakse, another four hours involving a change of vehicles just outside Savannakhet. Initially, it seemed a shame to be back in the homogenised safety of the VIP bus after the open fun of the sǎwngthǎew, but it was actually nice to be able to recline the seat and doze off for some time, listening to music on the iPod to try to drown out the ever-present drone of the karaoke from the TV screens they have.