Spelunking our Way to the Hammocks

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January 27th 2012
Published: February 17th 2012
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Ban Kong LorBan Kong LorBan Kong Lor

Surrounded by beautiful mountain-scape and the farmers fields.
At 10am we boarded the bus to Ban Kong Lor. Although off the oft trodden path a little, we decided that it would be well worth a visit so we buckled up and started our 7 hour bus ride to Ban Kong Lor. Even before the bus got rolling we began chatting up the people sitting next to us. A couple from Victoria, BC named Kate and Matt were full of good travel stories (and other stories as well) so we spent the better part of the day getting to know our new friends. Around 5pm we arrived in the town (if you can call a teeny tiny village a town) and set out to find a place to sleep for the night. There was one guesthouse in the entire town, but we felt the need to get a little more adventurous for the evening and so along with Kate and Matt, set out to find a home-stay in the village for the night. As we were led around by a villager, trying to place us for the night, we assumed that it would be the four of us with a hospitable family in a bamboo shack. Our first stop however,

Matt joined in as the kids were coloring nails with magic marker, much to everyone's amusement.
was in a nice concrete, two-storey house where we were told to drop our bags and spend the night. Soon after we met our new friends they were whisked away to another family for their own home-stay. Entirely different from what we were anticipating, we made the most of our experience and got to know the family and children (mainly through pointing and smiling as those were our only forms of communication). We also took our time to walk around the village and observe what life there was like. The best part, by far, was the children. First of all, they were everywhere! We found them under houses, biking along the road, climbing fences, hiding up in trees, and generally enjoying the playground that nature had provided. After a little exploring we went back to our ‘house’ and were served a traditional Lao dinner of sticky rice and some sort of beef with a few different green vegetables. It was delicious! As we ate, the mother of the family approached us with white string, which she tied around our wrists into bracelets and muttered a prayer as she did so. Neither of us have the slightest clue regarding what she
A Starting PointA Starting PointA Starting Point

Hidden in the mountain face, at the far end of the lake, is the entrance to the cave.
said, but we assumed it was good and have since kept the strings tied on. Bedtime was early, as there were no lights and so we said goodnight shortly after the sun went down.

The morning held the anticipation of what we had come to Ban Kong Lor for... the caves! After eating a breakfast that looked an awful lot like our dinner from the previous night, we headed down the road towards the entrance to the caves. We walked the 1 km to the start of the caves and found Matt and Kate standing in line to get their tickets. We briefly exchanged our experiences from the previous night. They certainly had a different evening than we had had. With a dinner and breakfast consisting of giant insect and soup with worms, and rising with the roosters at 5am we were both thankful for our tame meals, but also a little envious of the truly traditional experience that they had. With the stories told, we grabbed our lifejackets, head lamps and followed the guides to the mouth of the caves. Kong Lor Cave is a massive 7.5 km long cave that stretches through a limestone mountain. The guides
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The cave's entrance.
each had a small wooden boat that they could navigate through the caves (or so we hoped), as there was a river running through it. We hopped into our boat and readied ourselves for the 2 hour journey through the cave and back.

The boat was roughly 15 ft long and no more than 3 feet wide. We had a guide at the front of the boat with a head torch to shine the way and another guide driving the boat from the rear – thankfully also with a flashlight. As we sped off into the cave the light from the outside faded until our world was dark. As our eyes adjusted to the enveloping darkness we began to notice the wonder of the cave around us. The ceiling was at least 60 ft high in most areas, significantly higher in others. The walls rarely closed in around the boat, the majority of the time being at least 80 ft across. The boat turned, swerved, and navigated its way upstream as our mouths hung open in awe. At several points we were instructed to get out of the boat and walk, as the water was too shallow (dry season

Matt posing in front of stalactites and stalagmites.
in Laos) and the boat had to be dragged a few metres before we could get back in. One of the times we exited the boat we were led along a path close to one wall of the cave. There had clearly been work done to provide better viewing for the tourists of what the cave had to offer. There were stalactites and stalagmites everywhere, some of massive proportions. The crystallized limestone shimmered as you glanced towards it with a head lamp. The heat inside the cave and the uncertainty of which way was ‘out’ only amplified the feeling of awe. After 10 minutes of wandering through the geological phenomena we hopped back in the boat to head further upstream. As we zipped along upstream, neither of us was aware of what lay ahead. Not knowing if the cave simply ended or if we came out on the other side, we waited in anticipation to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sure enough, there was one. We emerged through the other side and were greeted with a stunning view of limestone bluffs, lush green vegetation, and the ever-winding river that lay ahead. We drove a few minutes

Liza taking in the massive cave formations.
up river before stopping off to grab some gasoline and to purchase some drinks from the ever-so-cleverly placed snack shops catering to the tourists. As we waited for our boat-crew to ready themselves for the return the other boats that had been departing at the same time arrived enabling us to share the “oh my god wasn’t that amazing” stories that everyone seemed to have. After a few minutes we hopped back in the boat to make the return trip. The trip back, much like the way there was pitch black but we knew what lay ahead of us and our lack of sight did not dull the experience.

Getting to Ban Kong Lor to see the caves was definitely an experience worth doing. The ease in which we booked our tickets from Vientiane made it seem as though travelers do this frequently and there would be a similarly simple way of getting back to a major city. We were wrong. After exploring the caves we met up with Kate and Matt again and joined forces with another couple (guy from England and a girl from Estonia) to try to get the best/cheapest possible option out of town. We arranged for a truck to drive us from Ban Kong Lor to a somewhat larger village called Ban Na Hin where we were told we could book a ticket south. Upon arriving in Ban Na Hin we were told “No no, no bus form here. Must go to Vieng Kong.” Also known as ‘The Junction,’ Vieng Kong was where the road into the villages met up with the main North/South highway in Laos and was a well-traveled bus route. Rather than buy a ticket, the idea was to simply stop a bus barrelling down the highway, ask where they were going, and how much. After debating the cost of a bus ride from this point and eventually turning down a ride on an overpacked bus, the couple from England and Estonia hitchhiked their way south, while the 4 of us (Matt, Kate, and the two of us) grabbed yet another truck to drive us to Tha Khaek. Apparently there was a bus station there that would finally enable us to get where we wanted to go. After 3 hours of bumpy roads in the back of the truck we arrived at the bus station, somewhere around 6 pm. Our destination
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We thought they were really cool and worth two pictures.
was Si Phan Don (4,000 islands) for a few days of relaxation, while Kate and Matt were traveling to Pakse before continuing south to the islands. As Pakse was en route to Si Phan Don we searched out a bus traveling that route upon arriving at the station in Tha Khaek. Fortunately for us, there was a bus ready and waiting. The roof-rack of the bus was piled 10 feet high with what we figured was just the passenger’s luggage. We bought tickets for the bus and handed our luggage over to the staff. Each of our packs was then tied with a rope onto the roof of the bus, in front of the tarp covered mass that was already inhabiting the roof. We figured it was okay, because if the bags were to fall off, they would have to fall forwards and at least we would notice. We hopped on the bus to look for seats... yet there were no seats to be found. As per usual in Laos the buses are overbooked by about 10 tickets, and so to accommodate the passengers, small plastic stools are placed in a line down the aisle. Sweet. A 7 hour bus
Light at the EndLight at the EndLight at the End

Reaching the far end of the 7.5 km cave.
ride on plastic stools. The 4 of us nestled into the seats that were clearly made for people half our size and began the bumpy road to Pakse. Luckily for us, we only had to endure 3 hours on our plastic stools. Once we arrived at our first stop, in Savannakhet, a large number of people got off and did not return, allowing us to claim their seats. Not being able to communicate with anyone on the bus, it took us a long time to realize that we were in fact at our dinner stop. It took us so long to clue in, in fact, that by the time we were organizing our dinner purchases the bus was gearing up to hit the road. Liza, being super efficient, had found us some instant noodles and made it safely back to the bus. Our friend Kate, however, was left wondering where her boyfriend Matt had disappeared to as the bus was heading around the back of the bus terminal to get turned around. Panicked, we tried to communicate that there was one person missing as the bus slowly budged along. As we neared the back of the terminal and the bus
The Other SideThe Other SideThe Other Side

Taking in some scenery before returning to the darkness.
gave a honk, we saw Matt running from one of the restaurant stalls with a Lao woman screaming something at him as he disappeared around the bus. Kate, looking out the window, was saying ‘No, Matt, you can’t TAKE the bowl with you. LEAVE the bowl.’ Matt climbed aboard the bus with a ceramic bowl filled with noodle soup, trying to tell us that the lady had told him to take the bowl onto the bus. Not quite sure why she would be screaming at him, he considered the fact that perhaps she hadn’t wanted him to take the bowl. Roads in Laos being bumpy as they are, the bus was no place for an open bowl of soup and Matt and Kate had a difficult time sharing their meal, but entertained us and everyone else each time the bus jolted and we heard their vocal frustrations. We expected the journey to Pakse to take three hours, however we didn’t anticipate the late-night stops in tiny roadside villages along the way. At one stop we were parked for close to an hour as the bus driver and crew man climbed up top, removed the tarp and started unloading cargo. Television
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Matt and Kate and their illicit dinnerware.
sets, boxes filled with nuts and bolts, old metal satellite dishes. From the back of the bus to the front of the bus, nearly all the cargo was passed to the passengers waiting below and transferred into a makeshift warehouse seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We made sure our bags were not included in the transfer of goods and boarded the bus once again. It was 3:30 am by the time we reached downtown Pakse when we said goodbye to Matt and Kate and left them on their own journey to try and find a place to sleep for the night. Reaffirming the rule that you never make assumptions when traveling in southeast Asia, we did not immediately continue south towards Si Pan Don, but traveled another five minutes down the road before stopping in an empty parking lot. As groggy as we were and concerned about arriving in Si Pan Don too early in the morning, we did not care too much about the interruption. We closed our eyes and slept as much as we could, and were awoken at 6:30 am by an employee telling us we had to get off the bus. Tough as it is to make sense of instructions when having been just woken up, imagine the difficulty in communicating with someone not speaking English when you had assumed you would be on the same bus for the entire journey. We grabbed our packs and exited the bus only to be transferred to the back of another truck. Fully embracing the insanity of our travel day, we jumped on board and didn’t ask any questions (other than trying to make sure that we were in fact headed where we intended to go). When the truck was packed and the driver was paid (by the bus driver and not us, thankfully) we started on our final leg. The trip lasted less than 5 minutes, as the driver pulled into a dirt field in between two intersecting highways before we had even exited Pakse. We had no idea what was happening, and never learned, but after fifteen minutes of sitting around seemingly doing nothing, the driver got back in the front seat and we were off. It was quite enjoyable traveling in this manner along the highway. We were surrounded by 8 locals who spoke not a word of English, other than being able to assure us that we were going to Don Det (one of the 4,000 islands). ‘Don Det, Don Det’ was the response we would get when pointing at the driver and saying ‘Don Det’ with an upward inflection. Good enough for us. We stopped at roadside villages to pick people up and drop people off. Every time we stopped, four or five female merchants selling corn on the cob, various fruits, meat on sticks, chicken feet and less recognizable goods would chase after our truck screaming at us to buy something. It was close to noon when we were dropped off in Ban Nakasong, the mainland city where the ferry to Don Det set out from. We said our thanks to the driver and trudged down the road to the pier. Knowing that the final leg would be the easiest, we reflected on our crazy journey as we bought our tickets and boarded the wooden longtail boat. Confident from the start that we would manage to find our way south, we were equally unsure of exactly how it would happen. I don’t think either of us would have figured it would play out the way it did.


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