The Loop - Konglor cave, Laos

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March 14th 2017
Published: March 11th 2017
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In Tha Khek I had arranged to rent a motorbike for a three day two night journey with a hand drawn map into the Eastern rural countryside of Laos. My champion was a 125c.c. Zhongshen Chinese made motorbike. Not really my American made 2008 Harley Davidson Fatboy with a 96 cubic inch engine (that's 1,584c.c. for those counting) but it would do the trick. My journey would take me on a 405km circular loop of various roads through spectacular countryside ending back in Tha Khek. The destination - Konglor Cave. A massive subterranean system etched in the limestone mountains accessed only by an underground river. But on a trip like this, it is not really about the destination is it?

Day One:

Getting out of town as quick as I could I was headed East. The landscape was arid with dusty farms and thatched homes set off in the distance. Massive grey mountains were all around me, there image blurred with the rising heat ascending from the asphalt. As I rode through the scorched Earth sweat dripped from my brow and into my eyes, giving me the stinging sweetness that only the road can provide. I am in my element here. It is where I belong. Amongst the elements and the acrid taste of the air in my lungs from the slash and burn farming practices. Here with the grit of the dust in my teeth I am at home. I was alive. After about 50km or so I felt a sort knocking on my right foot by the brake pedal and heard the unmistakable clank of metal on metal. Something was wrong. I pulled over to assess the situation. The bracket that holds the exhaust pipe to the frame had broken. Something needed to be done or the pipe would surely break off from the cylinder head. I pointed the problem out to a truck driver on the road and he gave me an insulated piece of copper wire. With this I was able to tie the pipe back to the frame. The road was smooth, I carried on.

As I rose into the hills the landscapes began to change around me. Now I was among the forested hillsides of the interior of the nation. I smiled as the sun shined upon me. Weaving my way up through the hills the road had now changed to dirt and gravel. My thoughts are on the pipe. What if my rig job does not hold? I can't think about these things. Push on, enjoy - this is the goal. On the plateau the basins are flooded from a river or a massive lake system on both sides of the road. I cannot make out why there is water everywhere up here in an otherwise desert of a place. The trees are all dead. It looks like Louisiana swampland and I wait for Remy Lebeaux to come greet me. He does not. Feeling hungry I spot a small guesthouse/restaurant type of place in the distance and stop for some food. Apparently when I showed up here it was International Women's Day - and boy were the villagers here having a go of it. Before I could even ask for a menu I was sat (more like dragged) down at the table and plate upon plate of food and bottle after bottle of BeerLao were put into my face. Their would be no more ride today. I had arrived and I didn't even know it.

I stayed here for the night for $50,000kip for a wonderful bungalow over looking the swampy waters. Exotic foods were gifted upon me - including a soup made from curdled buffalo's blood. It's not as bad as you would think, but not as good as you would hope. Freshly grilled fish, roasted meats, and fresh vegetables were all on order. All of this was free. The people of Laos are so welcoming and friendly. This type of gesture would never happen in Thailand. You have to savor every second in moments like these. Full from the feast I went for a walk in Tha Lang Village. This is a very poor place. Even by Laos standards. Yet everywhere I went smiles and waves were the first order of business. Here I saw a little kid pushing a wheel with a stick. He was the happiest kid in the world. These people don't have much, but they are happy. Kids can be kids and grow up without the distractions of iPads or Xbox. They play outside and are unconcerned with the pressures of modern society. With the sun setting it was time for me to go back to my guesthouse, say thank you and good night and get ready for the day.

Day 2:

Leaving Tha Long Village my path turned North. Escaping the marshy swamplands my ascent continued into the rainforest draped hillsides all around me. The temperature cooled. The road also deteriorated quite fast. Heavy construction was going on and massive holes, ditches, rocks - you name it were all my peril. Again I hear the clanking. My wire had begun to fray due to the bouncing of the bike on the poor road. In the middle of nowhere I had to push on. Nothing I could do now. The ride was challenging. This is a road more deserving of a proper dirt bike rather than a little moto. It was slow going and my hands ached from gripping the bars controlling the bike. Up ahead another small village where I pulled into a garage and to my surprise, in the middle of nowhere this guy had a new bracket for the pipe. Cost $50,000kip or just over $6. Amazing. In five minutes I was on my way with secure thoughts. Another hour of tough roads and I was in the town of Lak Sao. Another red dust sort of place. Looking at all of the people and chaos of this bustling little town and I missed my turn due West. After 40 minutes and sensing something was not right I took my hand drawn map out and showed it to a local. Ten minutes of hand gesturing and pointing I figured out my mistake and he set me back onto the right path. Turning around and going from whence I came I heard a terrible smashing sound. My front wheel locked up and the tail end of the bike lurched and fishtailed to the right; perpendicular to the road. I thought for sure I would high-side at any moment and fly through the air to my demise. I shifted my weight left and with all my power turned the bars to the right and was able to get the bike true to the road again and I came to a screeching halt on the dirt below me. Taking a look, the front caliper had completely fallen apart and the brake pads and part of said caliper were now wedged in the spokes of my front wheel. I had to twist, turn, and bang to get the parts loose. Fortunately the rotor looked sound. The assembly was still in pieces and nothing I could do would keep it out of the wheel. I weighed my options. This is what travel is - looking at a situation and adapting. You need to have your wits and be flexible. Off in the distance another little village. I pushed my bike 3km in the searing heat hoping for a local mechanic. Indeed there was a garage, but he did not have the parts I needed. The guy disassembled the caliper and mounted the now leaking brake line to the fork. Never even asked for a dime. I could ride again, but with no front brake. Bad news on a bike. With no other choice I rode back down the dusty road to Lak Sao with brake fluid flying on my feet and legs. Nasty stuff brake fluid.

In Lak Sao at a proper garage the guys had a new caliper complete with pads. They installed the part, bled the brakes with new fluid and off I went for $70,000kip - $8.75USD and 15 minutes later. Incredible. These little shops can knock any job out in no time for nothing. That being said another 10 minutes into my ride West the brake was spongy, fifteen minutes later it was gone. Their must be air in the line or all the fluid had leaked out. The road being flat and paved, I wasn't to concerned, I would just have to remain sharp. I carried on to Konglor Village. A place of imaginable beauty. Mountains, tobacco fields, oxen driven carts and the ever present smiling faces of the Laotian people. For only traveling about 100 miles, this eight hour leg had taken a serious mental and physical toll. I scored a sweet spot right on the river and prepared to enter the cave the following morning.

Day 3:

Konglor cave stood before me. The river teemed with fish in the emerald waters below. The only way into the cave is by hired longboat - $115,000kip for a maximum of three people. This is when being alone is a disadvantage. Not wanting to foot the entire bill myself I was able to negotiate with an older French couple to let me go on their boat and pay 1/3 of the price. The cave here is enormous. At some points the ceiling is four to five hundred feet high. The river runs a total of 7.5km from one side to another. The air is cool and musty as you would expect. It provided a welcome respite from the days of heat I've been trenching my way through. The boat ride was unforgettable. It's the largest cave I have ever been in. Stalactites and stalagmites abounded and I savored every drip of mineral water that fell on my head through the subterranean network. Caves don't make the best setting for photography, but one section did have some light to view the ancient formations Mother Nature carved out into the limestone. A two hour return trip through the cavern and I was back on my cursed Chinese Zhongshen bike just hoping I would make it back to Tha Khek some 150km away in one piece.

Still only riding with just the rear brake, my next leg of the journey was a mountainous winding - thankfully paved road. Going up the mountains not a problem. The steep grades down were the obvious issue. Mix in the grade with the curves and my ride had now become extremely technical. I was not able to enjoy the beauty of my surroundings as much as I should have been able to. Constant downshifting and taxing of the engine kept me under control. I used my back brake very sparingly. If I lost that, my trip would be over. I cautiously and slowly made my way and eventually came out of the mountains and onto the main - flat - highway headed south for 100km to Tha Khek through the roaring chaos of buses, farm animals, and semi-trucks. Looking back on this mountain segment, it is the most dangerous thing I have done, or ever want to do on a motorbike. My body was rigid with the stress of conquering this section of the road. All I wanted to do was get back to Tha Khek. I raced that 100km in about an hour and a half. I got back to town, dumped the parts on the desk of the woman at the rental office, and handed her a bill. I was due $120,000kip for the parts I bought. Really she should have paid me for not leaving that heap of junk in a ditch where it belonged. Of course negotiations were in order and she only agreed to pay me $100,000kip since I did not call first to "authorize" the repairs. I did manage to get her to agree to take me to the bus terminal which would have otherwise cost me $30,000kip. So I figured I came out $10,000kip ahead.

With all of the trials and tribulations, the stress, things not going to plan - this was a journey I will never forget. Doing things like this on my own without any organized transport or tour is always the best way to travel and the sense of pride I get out of it is a nice bonus. The stories however and the experience, no amount of money can buy.

If my body wasn't tortured enough I left the rental office for the bus terminal and jumped right away on a fifteen hour overnight bus South to Si Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands. Here is a spot right on the banks of the Mekong River just North of the Cambodian border where not much of anything is happening except the swaying of the reeds on the riverbanks, the rolling of the river, and the swinging of my hammock as I plot my next move.

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