7 cavernous kilometres
Trip Start Nov 06, 2009
354Trip End May 28, 2011
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Despite the noise managed to get a decent amount of reading done: finished Blake Morrison's South of the River (quite entertaining - about a bunch of dysfunctional characters whose lives all intertwine in strange ways, set just after Blair came to power); Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (saw half of the film when I had food poisoning in Lijiang - true story about a spoilt brat who burns his college fund and disappears to live alone in the wilds of Alaska without telling his family, thereby ruining their lives forever, and then he can't cope and ends up starving to death in the snow); and made a start on First they killed my father by Luong Ung (true personal account of a survivor of the Pol Pot regime, so far so horrific)
We arrived in Thaekek at around 5.30pm and shared a tuc tuc into town with Julia and Dave (an American couple from Maine who we'd got chatting to at Vientiane station) and Jason (from London, Canada, who was also on our bus). Checked into the comfy Phonaplith Guesthouse, then went out for dinner with Julia, Dave and Jason. Over a tasty meal and a few glasses of wine/beer we agreed to all hire motorbikes together the following day and visit Konglor cave - the 7.5km cave which was our main reason for visiting Khammouane province.
In the morning we were joined by another Canadian guy, Chris, who also wanted to visit the cave, so the 6 of us set off from Thakhet at about 10am, ready to make the 180km trip to Konglor.
The first 90km or so was along a rather boring road with unchanging scenery - pretty much just mile upon mile of rubber and teak tree plantations - but it was a good, smooth road so we made some good time. The second half of the route, however, was a lot more interesting. Once we passed the town of Nanthone, the straight, flat road quickly began to wind sharply up and down around craggy, forested-covered karst peaks
We stopped briefly at the Sala viewpoint to snap a few pics of the dramatic scenery, then passed through several small villages where kids playing games in front of their wood and bamboo stilthouses stopped and giggled and waved Sabaidee and blew kisses at us as we rode past. Apart from a couple of buses and bikes, and the odd dog, cow, buffalo, goat and duck with deathwishes, we had the road virtually to ourselves for the whole 190 kilometre trip.
We arrived in the village of Konglor at abour 3.30pm. The only way to visit the cave is on a 3-person motorised canoe which takes two and half hours to travel through the cave and back again. At several points the water is too shallow for the boat to pass through so you have to get out and walk and push the boat over the sand and gravel. The last boat leaves at 4pm, so we were just in time to catch the last couple of boats of the day.
Konglor Cave is unlike anything we've even seen. Formed by the Hinboun river, the limestone cave is 7.5 kilometres long, and at some points around 100 metres wide and 50 metres high. The most impressive parts of it, with ginormous stalactites and stalagmites (a bit like the ones at the 'Amazing Cave' in Halong Bay only a hundred times bigger and more amazing) are lit up with pretty uplighters in blue, pink and orange. Apart from that, the rest of the cave is totally pitch black.
In the solitary beam of the boat driver's headlamp which dimly lit the way ahead, we caught glimpses of the cave walls and ceiling, and the odd bat flying overhead. I kept expecting Harrison Ford to pop his head out from over a rock as it looked just like an Indiana Jones film set. Eerily otherworldly; underworldy, even.
Awesome though it was (Chris reckons it should be made the 8th Wonder of the World), after an hour or so of being underground in the dark, dank depths of rock, I started to feel a little claustrophobic. My thoughts turned from India Jones to temples of Doom and other things dark: what if the boat driver drops dead, his hnead torch breaks and we're stranded here in this underground watery wilderness with no idea how to get out? Or if we're abducted by cave pirates? Or eaten alive by subterranean freshwater crocodiles? But then there was a light at the end of the tunnel and we were out.
By the time we were done the sun was almost down so we jumped back on the bikes and stopped at the first guesthouse we saw. The Chantha House guesthouse, run by the very affable and eager-to-please Mr Inthavong, only opened a couple of months ago. It's brand spanking new and lovely, so we expected to pay over the odds but it was very reasonably priced too. We chatted happily into the night (and moaned to each other about our saddle-sore buttocks) over some lovely home-cooked food and several Beer Laos.