01.03.2012 33 °C
We’ve just had a relook at our travel plans and given the four day wait for our Myanmar visas we are now running very short on time before we need to be back in Bangkok. So, we have decided not to go to Northern Thailand. Instead we’ll stay a few extra days in laid-back Laos.
We decide to spend three days travelling south to Kong Lo, where we’ve heard rumors of an amazing cave only accessible by longboat. The bus journey is meant to be five hours long, but seven hours later and we are still going strong. The scenery changes from dusty fields into the most beautiful limestone mountains.
We wind our way up a couple of steep mountains, passing small villages and broken down lorries belching out smoke from their engines. Occasionally a group of ladies will get on the bus for a few miles to sell random meat on a stick and sticky rice cooked in bamboo. Every now and then we’ll stop in the middle of nowhere and a local jumps off the bus or a bag of baguettes / vegetables is passed out to a guy waiting on a motorcycle. I wonder what would happen if I asked National Express to stop at a layby on the M6 and hand a loaf of Hovis to a guy on a motorbike…
There is a serious amount of plastic strewn down all the major roads and villages. There is a very limited rubbish service in the main cities. Although most shops seem to collect the plastic and glass bottles and recycle paper there is a serious issue with anything else that is non-reusable or biodegradable. People are burning huge piles of plastic rubbish outside their homes and villages. I don’t want to think about what they’re breathing in.
We arrive in tiny village of Kong Lo, which is literally at the end of a brand new road. We walk the 1k to the cave entrance and Justin goes for a swim in the clear water at the entrance. The scenery is so beautiful. We check into a guesthouse and settle down to a traditional Laos game of Monopoly...which everyone knows is a complete game of luck!
The next morning we are up early and head back to the cave. We hire a longboat to take us the seven and half kilometres through the cave to the other side. The cave has been used for centuries, but a navigable route all the way through was only found in 1998. Our boatman takes us down to a boat that is half submerged and starts to bail out…things aren’t looked great and I start to tighten by substandard lifejacket. However, a new boat appears which looks relatively watertight and we head off.
As the cave entrance disappears we are plunged into absolute darkness apart from our two little torches and the head torches of our driver and spotter who sits on the front signalling when he spots a rock or another boat. The cave gets bigger and bigger and we start to enter massive caverns filled with stalagmites and stalactites (ten geography points for anyone who can remember which way round they go). It is a little surreal hurtling into the cool darkness whilst sitting cross-legged in the bottom of a wooden boat no wider than a rowing eight. The water is so clear you can see the eerie upside down reflection of the walls and ceiling.
We have to occasionally jump out and walk through the water to help the boat through some shallows. At the half way mark we jump out and our spotter takes us for a walk through the most amazing stalagmite and stalactite formations I’ve ever seen. The most amusing part was our spotter flicking a small switch set into the rock. The whole cavern lit up like a Christmas tree! The pictures don’t do it justice at all.
After an hour and a half we literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel and emerged into a beautiful forested area. Evidently there was a shop to buy Beer Laos and Coca Cola. We have a chat with a guy who is cycling from Phnom Phen in Cambodia to Changi Rai in Thailand – good effort! Justin also manages to find what must be the only other Tottenham Hotspur supporter in the whole of Asia and on the day of the Tottenham / Arsenal derby. He spends the next half hour talking Tottenham. Luckily we couldn't find a TV to watch it or Justin would have sat through a 5-2 defeat.
We head back and spend a lovely afternoon swimming in the pool at the front of the cave, sunbathing and helping some of the local children practice their English. I try to learn a little Laos but I have the distinct impression from the hysterical giggling that I may have been taught a good array of Laos swear words. The children are all obsessed with my book and at one point I find myself surrounded by about seven children pushing to have a closer look and taking it in turns to flick through the pages (books are in short supply across Laos).
We head back to Vientiane early next morning before catching another bus (woop!) to Vang Vieng.