Konglor - 7 kilometer long cave

Trip Start Oct 16, 2009
Trip End Nov 15, 2009

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Khammouan,
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

29th October - 7 km long Konglor Cave

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.

Looking back there may have been easier ways to arrange this trip in a more independent way. I thought that booking a tour was going to save time and hassle... but not in this case, But it was a cool trip! But if you're reading this in preparation for your own trip to the Konglor cave, then I recommend you travel directly to Ban Kong Lo by public transport, get a homestay or guesthouse there, and walk to the cave in the morning and arrange a boat (US$50) there. As for the Namsanam waterfall, you can arrange a guide at the local tourist office.

In my case the tour involved a bit more time and hassle. The area of the cave is somewhere between Vientiane and Thakhek. So from Thakhek we had to take public transport all the way back up north, then into the interior. I was picked up at my guesthouse in Thakhek at 7 a.m. and we only got to the cave by 3 p.m.! In theory I think this stretch could be done in about 4 hours with private transport, but we used public transport. We tried to explain to our guide that tourists might be willing to pay extra for private transport and thus be able to see and do more in one day, but I don't think we got our point across. Thakhek only has one tour operator: the official tourist bureau. So there is no competition that forces them to run things more efficiently.

Click here for a video of the songthaew ride.

Other Dutch girl Ilse
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 Mi
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.

Getting on our way
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.

The last leg was not many kilometers but took extremely long because first we waited for someone to finish eating, then people were transporting roof parts, engine parts, then we had to go back to pick up someone else, then buy petrol, and drop off tonnes of stuff and people and collect more people as we went. It was frustrating because now we had no time left to go swimming before or after the cave visit, and it made both of us think we should have just travelled to Ban Kong Lo by ourselves and arranged stuff from there. And I also saw the Dutch couple who stayed in the same lodge in Thakhek, and had rented motorbikes and driven over by themselves.

Laos by motorbike
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.

The 7 kilometer long cave!
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.

Same way back
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!

The sun was setting by the time we got out and we had gotten a little chilly from the cave so we did not feel like going swimming anymore. We talked a bit with the Dutch (motorbike) couple who'd also just done the cave, they seemed like really nice people but I never saw them after that.

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 the richest guy in the village! He now has two houses, one of which especially for guests. The family also had quite a fancy tv + surround sound system, although the point of a cinema sound system in an open, bamboo house is beyond me. On the one hand it felt like this particular homestay had been going for awhile and people in the village were very used to 'falang' (foreigners) walking around, but on the other hand there are aspects that simply cannot be fake or contrived. For instance that bloody rooster that started crowing at 4 in the morning (night!)!  And the way the neighbours live, starting up their electric saw at 5.30 a.m., and kids playing in the river, and the way people eat, and walk into each others' houses unannounced, and more cultural things like that. It was a great experience and I'm glad that Ilse insisted on the homestay - as we had booked - instead of the guesthouse that Mi wanted to put us in. That was only of his clumsy actions: apparently he really doesn't understand why any tourist would want to stay in a not-so-comfortable homestay if they could stay in a more luxurious guesthouse!

Food and other Lao experiences
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).

Baci ceremony
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.

Lao 'chewing gum'
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.

Thai soap opera
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 got up at 6 a.m. (I've never gotten up so early so often in my life!). I had some time to walk around the village before breakfast and take photos. I felt very touristy doing it but it was my one chance of coming this close to the actual rural life.

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.

He didn't REALLY seem to get it so we explained over and over in different words and ways. But then he talked to the Isreali girl and told her we didn't want her to come to the waterfall. SIGH....!!!! The girl was really disappointed, obviously. He had asked her to come (it's not like she had asked for it), and missed her bus for it, and now all of a sudden he told her the opposite. We tried to explain everything to her and told her we still wanted her to come, but that it was just a matter of principle we wanted our guide to understand. But she no longer felt like it, understandably. (I think in the end she was able to grab a faster bus to her initial destination so I don't feel too bad about her missing that earlier, slow bus.)

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...

Hike to the waterfall
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.

We lazed about on the rocks for a while, joking and chatting. Then had to go all the way back, mostly downhill which somehow is more difficult and taxing, especially with my busted knee and blistered feet. But we made it, and were lucky about transport back, it connected smoothly and not too many people to slow things down.

As I am typing this, a local cat has curled up on my lap and is purring away. Just like Lola does at home.
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Sharon & Andy Darwin Australia on

did the same trip in may 2010 and loved it. stayed in a great hotel in thakek
cant remember its name but in the centre of town one street back from the river its painted red on the outside and looks flash. great hotel food and the nicest guide works out of this hotel. he has a little office (table ) in the front .
we rode bikes he organized -but could have gone in a car. did waterfall with 3 little local kids they were like goats jumping from rock to rock and go there all the time (gave them each a little tip which our guide said was not necessary as they enjoyed going with us) then went to local market then on to beautiful local homestay about a 1 kilometer walk from the cave. walked to cave early next morning did cave trip one way . Before returning back through thecave walked to a little village on other side> These people are secluded definately of the beaten track then back through cave (the biggest spiders in the world live here but because the cave is so high you dont get to see them which is lucky dont let this put you of i hate spiders and this cave is FANTASTIC) then headed back to Thakek stopping for lunch.Cant remember the guides name but he had spent several years in a monastry and was great to talk to and ask questions.Search him out as you will be happy and enjoy.

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