Thakhek, Kong Lo

Getting to Thakhek from thakhek-kong-lo was easy. One bus. Getting to Kong Lo from Thakhek was a total pain in the arse, but completely and utterly worth it.

I'm sure, like me, you often think to yourself "I just wish there was a cave which I could travel through by boat, in complete darkness save for a couple of head torches, for 7 kilometres". Fear not my friends! I've found just the place.

From Thakhek, catch a 7am bus to a random road junction three hours away. Catch a songthaew (a kind of flatbed truck with benches and a roof bolted to the back for carrying passengers) to Ban Nahin, arriving there one hour later. From Nahin, catch another songthaew to Kong Lo, roughy another one hour trip (or at least it should have been). Apparently three days of almost nonstop rain do bad things to the Nahin - Kong Lo road, bad things indeed.

I thought it was game over for sure, but our driver wasn't going to let a piddly little flood stop him, no Sir. He got out and busily started doing something by the side of the songthaew while we all wandered down to the front of the queue to get a better view. One of the trucks didn't fancy his chances, and tried to perform a three point turn to go back the other way. This didn't work out so well for him when the front of the truck went down the ditch he couldn't see underwater, lifting one of the back wheels off the ground and rendering it impossible for him to reverse back into the road. Everybody piled in to help, adding weight to the back, and pulling against the sides to successfully get him back on the tarmac.

We assumed we were next in line to turn around (hopefully less dramatically than the last attempt) when our driver called us all back into the songthaew. Much to our surprise, we were soon driving round the other stopped tractor things and heading straight into the water. Our driver was clearly a mechanical genius (expert bodger) and had done something to somehow let the engine breathe as we drove (sailed) through the water. We made it across the flood and to the other side where there were more vehicles stopped coming the other way, and were soon flying along again towards the cave.

We arrived at the river, and having bought our tickets, boarded a long tail boat to be transported to a small beach by the side of the cave opening. The rough water just outside the cave entrance made it impossible to enter that way. We clambered over roughly carved steps and into the relative darkness of the cave opening. Many boats were waiting in the water, along with outboard motors connected to long propellor shafts. Our boat was prepared, and we boarded once again, ready to make our journey into the unknown.

As the engine noise echoed off the cave walls, the steady "put put" drowned out the sound of streams of water flowing from the cave roof to the water below. We quickly left daylight behind, and soon the only light to be seen was from the dim head torches we were wearing. At the front of the boat was a spotter, illuminating the way for the 'driver' at the rear. The torches were only just bright enough to see by, and it felt like it would be all to easy to miss one of the cave walls with the light and crash into it, but the boatmen are vastly experienced and know exactly what they're doing.

The feeling as you glide through the water in the darkness is unlike anything I've experienced before. It really is astonishing, it seems like its never going to end, and you can sense the cave walls all around you despite not being able to see them. The boat was expertly guided on a very specific path, not only to avoid the cave walls, but the large volumes of water falling from the cave roof which would quite easily have soaked us through in a split second.

Partway through the cave, we stopped once again and carefully stepped onto dry land. The spotter jumped off and led us up some stone steps before flicking a switch to instantly illuminate the area we were now in. A stunning view of stalactites and stalagmites greeted us, with amazing rock formations all around cleverly displayed at their best. This went on, and on, as we walked further along inside the cave, each turn revealing a more impressive formation.

We reached the end of the path, returning back to the water where our boat was waiting. We continued on for what seemed like forever (in reality it took us just over an hour to get from one end to the other) until eventually we literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. As we emerged out the other side a spectacular view of lush green mountains, shrouded in mist greeted us. We continued some way ahead, before turning the boat around to return the way we came. We were running against the clock to get back to the songthaew, where the driver was concerned the water level could rise further making it impossible for us to drive back.

We safely returned to Nahin, once again navigating the flooded road, and I began the second leg of the journey back to the junction I'd visited earlier that day. I was assured I could get on many buses here from various different places when they stopped for a refreshment break, and continue my journey north to the Laos capital, Vientiane.