Konglor - 7 kilometer long cave
Trip Start Oct 16, 2009
15Trip End Nov 15, 2009
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Where I stayed
Today was the start of a two day trip to the Konglor cave and a waterfall, overnighting at a local family (homestay) in Ban Kong Lo.
Click here for a video of the songthaew ride.
Me and another 24 year old Dutch girl Ilse had booked the trip. She is travelling alone for almost a year. Her next destination is Australia, then China. She was a nice girl but there was no huge click. Just as an illustration: she had loved the partying in Vang Vieng, and walked around the streets in bikini... all the things that shocked me and I found so rude (seeing as Lao people find it really offensive to see women swimming in bikini, let alone walking in the street)...
Our guide was a 30 year old guy called Mi. He was sweet if not a bit clumsy when it comes to dealing with tourists... more about that later. And he kept starting conversations about kissing in public (taboo in Laos, but he kept saying kissing was good), and sometimes even about sex, hoping to engage us in the topic but we never responded. But other than that he was quite a sweet and funny guy, making jokes about how short he was and about cultural differences, and asking lots of questions about the Netherlands, and teaching us Lao words.
We had some Vietnamese breakfast at the bus station. The first bit went faster than expected, we were in Ban Khoun Kham at 10.30 a.m., we had an early lunch there and had to wait for onward transport for 2.5 hours! There was a nice small market but it was too hot to spend much time wandering around and we just sat and read books and chatted a bit.
By the way, I really think I want to come back to Laos / South East Asia one day and travel around on a light motorbike. Laos is perfect for that, and I think Thailand and Vietnam and Cambodia can also easily be done on a motorbike. It gives you so much more freedom and it feels like it's safe enough to do that as a solo woman (earlier I came across the travel blog of a girl who did just that). I'm not the type for riding motorbikes in Europe (on highways), but over here it seems like fun. I think I would take lessons first, and maybe a repairment course too. :-) But all that is in a distant future.
Anyway, we finally got to the cave entrance by 3 p.m. and boats can start their tours until 4 p.m. so we were just on time. And the cave made up for all previous frustrations! It was amazing.
Konglor is a 7 kilometer long (!) cave with a river running through it. It takes a motorized boat about half an hour to go through, plus we made some stops along the way. Just after the first bend it's immediately very dark and all you see is what's illuminated by the guides' head lamps and our own torches. It was magical. Sometimes these weird dark images gave the impression of a dark forest. The river went through all kinds of zig-zags and deeper and shallower parts. At some parts we had to get out because it was too shallow. The boatsmen seemed to know every inch, slowing down before difficult bits, so this made us feel very safe. At most parts the ceiling was quite high, I'd say about 10-20 meters, but a few points had lower ceilings of about 2-5 meters. It was only opened to the public in 2001.
Halfway through we came to a point where we got off and viewed all kinds of amazing stalagmites and -tites. This part had electric lights. It was also the part where armies hid during wars. Imagine living in a pitch black, damp, chilly cave! Brrrr.
Click here for a video of the river outside the cave.
At the end of the cave we continued for a bit past dramatic rock formations, and got off. Mi showed us some special trees, including a tree that is used for its oil. People burn a hole in the tree and this makes it seep oil, which is used for lamps or lighting stoves. It smelled very strongly.
We then did the boat ride again the other way around, this time downstream. Apparently this enabled us to cross the shallow bits without getting out of the boat (we just heard the gravel scraping the bottom, and sometimes the front guy gave a little shove). It was a little bit scary, I hate to imagine what happens if the boat tips over or breaks. The water was pretty cold and I don't know how deep at other points. And I do know how long: 7 kilometers! :-) But those guys really seemed like they knew what they were doing and like they knew every bend, rock and shallow part like the back of their hand. This time the lights were already off at that halfway stop, and we were back at the start after 30 minutes or so. It was nice to have gone through a second time and relive that experience with a little less of the initial (distracting) awe, and just let it sink in that you're going through this amazing, 7 kilometer long hollow mountain!
Homestay with family in small village
We went to our homestay in Ban Kong Lo. I think the guy offering his house up for homestay is
We showered and pretty soon dinner was served. First we could watch how the people prepared the food. The men were chopping meat into minced meat (gehakt) and the women were cooking. They had prepared seperate food for us. I think from experience they learned that 'falang' have more delicate tastebuds and don't always like what they eat. So we were invited to eat that omelette, rice and coleslaw first, and then join their table and try some of their food... which was indeed a bit hard to stomach. The minced meat had a bitter flavour, the sauces were also not what we're used to in restaurants, and they ate some sharp spicy leaves for salad, which I quite liked. They were sort of mint / eucalyptus flavoured at first but the more you ate, the spicier they seemed to become. Ilse didn't like the meat and sauce either but we both ate a little bit to be polite.
All this while people had come in, sat down for a while, shared part of the food, left... kids were eating along or playing or leaving or watching tv... it was all very mellow and seemingly without much structure. One of the people who joined for dinner was the village chief, a boy of about 20 years old who had bene elected for the task for 3 years. He was the only one who spoke a few words of English (apart from our guide).
It's quite amazing how the old people are able to sit on the floor for so much time. Ilse and I kept having to resit to take the strain off our knees, backs and whatnot. I suppose it's whatever you're used to.
There was a conversation about someone having stolen small golden buddha statuettes from the local temple, the people simply could not understand how anyone can do such a low thing.
Asking someone how old he / she is, is very normal in Laos. I checked but it was also okay for me to ask the same question to those old ladies (who of course turned out not to be nearly as old as they looked, only 65).
After dinner we underwent a baci ceremony for good luck. The patriarch placed a blotch of sticky rice in our open lefthand palm, and on top of that a boiled egg. We had to keep that hand outstretched, and sort of salute to Buddha with our right hand vertically held up along our cheek. The women first stroked our left wrists with white rope bracelets, chanting out wishes of good luck: "may your travels be safe, may your studies go well, may you find a husband and marry soon, may you have a healthy life". Then they bound the bracelets around our wrists. You are not supposed to cut them (bad luck), but you can untie them. We had to open and eat the eggs, and share its contents with the others.
I had expected it to be more 'fake' but all in all it was quite a sweet ceremony and felt like they meant it.
We were already really full from our 'falang' meal, the local food, the egg, but then we also had cooked corn for desert. After desert the men smoked cigarettes and the women chewed on bark (wood), the stuff that makes red sap in their mouths and turns their teeth black, and their lips bright red. (In Indonesia I often saw this too, at first it looks like they're bleeding from their mouths!). They let us try it too. Ilse found it disgusting but I thought it wasn't too bad. They gave me little splintery pieces of bark, and some calcium rolled into a specific type of green leaf, all of which I had to chew together. It was a bit bitter and tasted of cedarwood. You're not supposed to swallow the red liquid that forms, but just spit it out through the cracks in the floor (house on stilts).
That's also their way of sweeping the floor after dinner: all the leftover food is simply swept into those cracks in the floor.
By that time, about 10 p.m., it was soap opera time. The whole family was suddenly quiet because a Thai soap series had started on tv. Ilse and I were both pretty tired (having been up since 6 a.m. and gone through some impressive experiences) and couldn't follow the Thai anyway, so we soon retired. Apparently Lao people can understand Thai pretty well. The spoken language has many similarities, but they use a different script.
It's interesting to see traditional life and modern life come together... here these people live in ways that people have done for many centuries, except they now have tv and see images from all over the world, and have tourists coming through, also leaving their marks and influencing the kids in what they want to wear and what they want to do in life.
Sleeping in a rural village
I had my own little bamboo room. "Nighty night, don't let the bed bugs bite". Well, they did. I still have ugly marks on my legs and arms from their bites and they don't itch as much as mosquito bites. But I still enjoyed sleeping there, surrounded by the sound of that village and the jungle.
30th October - hike to the Namsanam waterfall
We had breakfast and were offered 'traditional Lao coffee'. And saw the guy preparing Nescafe coffee from little sachets. :-)
The episode with the Israeli girl
We took one of those local sawngthaew (big tuk-tuk) to our starting point. On the little bus was an Israeli girl who got along really well with our guide Mi. I think he fancied her. She was an extraverted funny little thing. But Mi did something weird: he offered her to join us on our hike to the waterfall, for free. Without checking with us.
Later in town when the Israeli girl was gone I talked to him about it. Ilse and I paid quite a lot of money (for Lao standards) to have him as our guide. He cannot just ask other people along for free and have us pay for it all, and their food too. Ilse agreed.
We said he shouldn't say anything to the Israeli girl and it was fine if she wanted to join us, but that next time he shouldn't do things like that.
After this mishap Ilse and I talked with Mi for hours, trying to explain... I think he still doesn't understand that he should not have told the Israeli girl, but I do think that next time he won't ask other people to join a tour (for free) that's already been paid for by others. But he kept saying that the Israeli girl doesn't have a lot of money (yeah duh, that's what she says so that she can travel for longer!) and that Lao people want to be helpful. Yeah but you're not just a Lao person now, you are our guide that we paid for...
We arranged an extra guide at the tourist bureau (I wonder why, because Mi should know the way by now), a girl named Lampoun. We hiked for an hour through the blasting heat and through dense jungle and clambered over big rocks to get to the Namsanam waterfall. Before this hike I still had plans to maybe do some multiple day hikes here and there, but those plans soon evaporated. Walking through streams and continuing the hike with wet, soft feet, caused blisters. On top of that I think I twisted my left knee without noticing it, but on the way back it felt very unstable and a bit sore, and the next few days as well. No more hiking for me! From now on just lazy holiday-stuff.
Anyway, the waterfall itself was nothing special but the pool below it was very refreshing. We went for a rewarding swim after that sweaty, taxing hike. (Boy are we sissies, exhausted after only an hour! But I don't care.) After a long swim and some jumping off rocks in the safe, deeper parts, we continued our walk upstream, clambering over more rocks, and found a nice lunch spot. We ate the food we'd bought earlier at the market. The mood was changing for the better again and Mi started making more conversation and jokes again.
As I am typing this, a local cat has curled up on my lap and is purring away. Just like Lola does at home.