Imagine the biggest, most impressive cave possible. Then double it. Then double it again. Then stretch it out reaaaallly far and run a river through the middle of it. You might now be somewhere close to understanding just how overwhelmingly huge Kong Lo cave really is.
Karst formations dot the landscape of Laos and parts of Vietnam, the remnants of ancient coral reefs and seabeds eroded by the aeons into spectacularly sharp mountain ranges and hills than can run for dozens of miles. The beautiful hills around Vang Vieng are karst formations, as are the world-famous islands of Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay. Apart from usually being stunning to look at from afar, another common feature of these porous limestone edifices is that they can have deep caves within their bases. However the biggest, baddest and most impressive of all is Kong Lo cave in central Laos. Running for more than seven kilometres beneath a mountain it dwarfs anything your imagination can conceive, and entering its gaping maw is like taking a trip into the Underworld of fantasy and myth…
Getting there is simple enough these days, though few seem to do it on their own, preferring instead day or overnight trips from the bigger tourist centre of Tha Kaek. After being deposited on the highway from the Conservation Centre, I waited for the next passing bus to Lak Sao (near the Vietnam border) and got off at Ban Na Hin. Though there are a number of guesthouses there it’s quite unappealing, and as it was early I decided to go straight to the town near the cave and stay there overnight. I was greatly helped by the french woman I met the other night as she’d told me about a good new guesthouse that was only a short walk from the cave, so I knew I could stay comfortably in the village. I had to wait an hour for the next sawng-thaew to leave, an easy pause, and just before it left a French-Canadian couple joined the ride as well. They had walked around Ban Na Hin and decided they didn’t want to stay there either. Apparently the trip to Ban Kong Lo used to be awful, but late last year a new road opened and it’s a breeze these days. We found the guesthouse without a problem and it was much better than expected: five bamboo and wood bungalows featuring a large hard bed with mosquito net, modern bathroom with hot water and best of all a neat balcony out the back overlooking rice fields to the karst mountains less than a kilometre away. Nestled at the pointy end of a closed valley It’s a very peaceful and beautiful end-of-the-road kind of place, and you can stay there for just A$9 a night. I decided immediately to stay two nights and visit the cave the following day.
Though it’s now a popular tourist attraction the infrastructure around the cave is charmingly simple, with tickets purchased from an old guy sitting under a large canopy. I think the proceeds go directly to the local villages, and the whole operation appears to be run as a semi-collective with an orderly allocation of tourists to boats. Each boat can take just three passengers but you still have two guides, both with a powerful light and knowledge of the cave. This is presumably so that if something goes pear-shaped you won’t be left alone, stranded in the pitch black wondering why you’ve let yourself be led so far into darkness… It’s late and I don’t want to wait for others so I commandeer a boat to myself, and after a short walk past a beautiful lagoon outside the cave’s mouth we enter the maw and board the boat for our journey under the mountain.
The staging point just above some small rapids is like the landing bay of a sci-fi spaceship, a wide, low-domed roof opening to the light of the lagoon on one side and pointing to black on the other. In the boat and we’re away, through chamber after chamber lined with smooth white rock. Some are low with sloping sides that almost brush your head as you pass close to the wall, others are larger than cathedrals, so high that even the beams of the guides’ torches don’t reach the top. It’s utterly entrancing, and you don’t even feel too alone because boats coming back from the other end pass by often. At a few places the water is so shallow that the boat has to be dragged across, and at one point we dismount to wander through a particularly fine collection of stalactites and stalacmites that are artfully illuminated – a surprising touch. Back to the boat and onwards, and it’s easy to lose track of time and space in there. All you know is an endless series of caverns that emerge as the river snakes and winds, the occasional smooth white-sand beach that looks great for a picnic (if you’re into creepy picnics), all to the soundtrack of the two-stroke engine that drives you forward. It’s relentlessly awesome.
We turn a corner and I see what appears to be another illuminated section up ahead. As we close on it I realise it’s actually the end of the cave, and I’m looking at trees and sunlight again! I forego the option of walking to the nearby village so we turn around and head back through again, and it seems more familiar already. This is not just a tourist site: we pass a local boat full of supplies and reclining men on their way to the village which is inaccessible by road.
Now I’m not normally a big fan of caves. The kayaking trip I took in Vang Vieng included visits to three of varying size and difficulty, and at best I found them dull (at worst very uncomfortable). I don’t see the attraction in crawling through a dark, dank space so you can experience emotions ranging from “meh” to claustrophobia; it’s just not my thing. But from now on I don’t think I ever have to see another cave. I’ve seen the biggest and most stunning of them all: Kong Lo.