Vientiane to Ban Kong Lo (village at the 7km cave)
Getting off the beaten track
Today would mark the start of a 3 day bus ride lasting over 17 hours to the most southern point we would visit in Lao. Our plan for today was to get to the village from which we could take a boat trip through the 7 km long cave carved out by a small river thousands of years ago. We got the idea from Amy and Paul, one our favorite fellow San Francisan travelers we came across while hanging out at the organic farm. They told us we would be in for an experience if we were to go and we can easily say their word held true. The challenge however was getting there. In Vientiane we had tried to get as much information as we could about how to get there but most people didn’t even know the place and information about it was unusually sparse. Nevertheless, we learned that we had to take a local bus (versus a VIP bus mostly frequently used by foreigners because it is minus frequent stops, live chickens and sacks of rice) to get there. So we started our day early and made it to the bus station in time for the 8:00AM bus. We got on the bus not being sure where to get off. All we knew is that we needed to get to a town called Ban Na Hin to connect to our final destination called Ban Kang Ko. Well, we soon learned from the bus driver that he would drop us off at an intersection from which we would take a songthaew (converted pick-up truck with covered roof and benches in the bed of the truck) to Ban Na Hin. As we walked back to our seats we saw almost 20 plastic stools stacked together laying side-ways on the floor and wondered why they didn’t store them below like the rest of the cargo? It didn’t take long for us to learn that it wasn’t cargo but that the stools would be used by people to sit in the isle when all other seats were taken. We made the mistake of sittings right below the loudspeaker that was blaring out music so loud (top 10 Thai-Laos love songs) that even with our earplugs in it felt like being in a load karaoke place with bad singers. Nevertheless we made it through the 6 hours on the local bus ride, enjoying the frequent stops and seeing Lao people going about their business. When it was time to get off for us we were wondering how we would get to the next town. As with most of the times during this trip it just happened effortlessly. We walked about 100 meters to a waiting songthaew and climbed on board, with three others travelers, a moped and then a handful of locals. It left a few minutes later with us and 20 other people on it. You have to imagine these trucks as small trucks (not bigger than a Ford f150 or so) with benches on the bed.
We drove through beautiful ragged landscape of central Lao and an hour later arrived in Ban Na Hin, only to find out that the last ride to the 43 Km distant Ban Kang Lo had left 30 min. earlier and that we would need to spend the night in this town and head out tomorrow. Well, we felt that there must be a way to get there still today (there was plenty of time left as it was on around 2:00PM.) It turned out that we could actually rent a scooter for about ~$11 and drive the last 43 km ourselves. However when we told the people that we wanted to take a scooter, they laughed at us for a reason we would learn later. We agreed to the adventure and were given a scooter that was in such poor condition that I would have not been surprise if it had broken down on the few first kilometers. On top of that, we learned that the road we had to take was far from paved. They were working on getting the road ready but it wasn’t done yet which meant 40 km of gravel and potholes for us. Off we went after leaving our main backpacks at the guesthouse we had rented the scooter from, taking only our daypacks with the essentials along. It is amazing how you get to a point where it is easier to trust and assume the best if it means being free from the weight of your belongings.
After a few km we hit the first little village on the way to the end of the road and we instantly saw the difference to any other town in Laos we had visited. All the kids playing on the streets would stop and start waving at us calling out the Lao version of “hello” to us: “Sabaidee, Sabaidee”. We did the same in return and enjoyed countless such encounters on our way through this rural area. And rural it was: one could see by the simple buildings lining the road, the dried up rice paddies we passed and the many tobacco fields accompanied with specially built smoke houses. Finally after about roughly one hour we arrived at the village we were aiming for. The last 5 km were truly the toughest not only because it was so damn bumpy but also because right next to us was the brand new super smooth black tar paved road which we couldn’t take because it was still drying and not opened for business yet. But arrived we did, quite proud of this little accomplishment despite the many obstacles.
So now, like often at the end of a day we were faced with the question about where to sleep and this village had – as we knew- no guesthouse, lodge or hotel. The only option was to stay with a family that offered homestay for visiting guests. Really we were in a very rural village, driving on dirt paths through the houses. So we asked around and kept just saying “homestay” until a friendly Lao woman (who was carrying two buckets of water) was so kind to bring us to a house where the mother of the family greeted us. The moment we entered her yard I knew this would be an experience not easy to forget. She spoke not a word of English and we had to communicate with hands and feet. But she showed us the place we would sleep and helped us set-up the pads on the floor with sheets and blankets. She showed us where to use the facilities (though it was just a hole in the ground in an outside shed) and the well at which we could wash ourselves and brush our teeth. Nevertheless, it was lovely and we somehow managed to agree with her that we would be back for dinner at 7:00PM.
We used the 1.5 hours till then to stroll through the village. The timing was perfect as the sun was going down and the people were relaxing after the day’s work and the kids were playing around the paths and yards. We walked to the river and saw girls and women washing themselves (fully clothed in a sarong of course) and ended up passing a group of younger men who invited us to sip from their lao-lao (sort of rice wine) from bamboo straws. It tasted really good and we were a little sad that we couldn’t communicate with these folks as none of them spoke English and we didn’t speak Lao and the sad dictionary in the back of our guidebook did not help a bit. We passed the school and eventually walked back having greeted almost every person we met with a very friendly “Sabaidee”. At one point I even played with a few rug-rats (kids) the “Monster falang” which entailed me chasing them around the village. It seemed like the older folks enjoyed it, judging from their smiles but it could very well be that they just thought “crazy foreigner”. Who knows? Well, it was seven and time for our dinner, which was prepared and ready when we returned. Mother (were never really too sure of her name) made us sit down and we got fried noodles, sticky rice and some very, very hot sauce served. I thought boy, this is hot but Todd would probably enjoy this. She cut up some cucumber for us as well. The rest of the room was void of any furniture and we found out her and her husband slept on the ground close to where we had just eaten. During dinner the village accountant arrived and collected the cost for the stay and he filled out a very official looking book and actually gave us a receipt. We paid him, he paid her and then she gave him back the village portion. All in all, an organized transaction. After us the family (including her adult sons) got their dinner and the four of them sat on the floor around a small table, eating the sticky rice and cooked dishes with their hands, all taking from the same shared plates. These little snapshots are the precious moments – even the fact that the TV was on and all eyes were glued on the Thai soap opera. We slowly retreated to our sleeping patch. It was after all, a very long and exciting day.
The One for Astro (Cute Dog of Francisco)
While strolling through the little village we came across this curious little fellow that somehow reminded us of a dear dog friend of ours that had to leave SF a few years back to return to his home country of Venezuela. We thought this guy would be a great playmate for Astro.
Kang lo Cave, Ban Kong Lo
7 km on a boat through the mountain
Last night was tough. Sleeping on the hard floor with just a thin yet firm pad wasn’t as easy as I hoped it would be. In addition, the guys drinking lao-lao last night kept their speakers blaring all night long until 6AM and then the roosters began their music. Nevertheless, we got up stiff and tired but excited to go see the cave Amy and Paul had told us about. Our village host told us we would get breakfast when we returned around 11:00 AM. We went to the river bank and got into a small Lao-style canoe that was powered by a small (lawn mower type) engine in a long tail fashion. It came along with two local boys who would guide the boat and us through the cave. Before boarding the boat, the same village accountant appeared and collected the fee for the boat and filled in the same book as the night before, with date, activity, fee and our nationality. This was statistic collection at its best.
We entrusted our lives to our two guides, one of whom had covered his face with one of those woven full face ski masks that just show the eyes – the kind that seem to be the latest fashion accessory for rebels and terrorist groups as seen on CNN. You just keep trusting, that is all you can do. We came here in the middle of the dry season, which meant that the river was very low, which we felt when regularly hitting a log or the riverbed gravel with the bottom of the boat. Ten minutes later we reached the basin in front of the entrance to the cave and ski mask boy (the experienced guide while the other was the novice in training) motioned us to walk. We left the boat so the guides could haul the canoe up some significant rapids that were flowing out of the cave. Once navigated, we boarded again to venture via canoe towards the 7 km ahead of us. Regularly we needed to get out of the boat due to steps, rapids and most frequently shallowness. We arrived in a huge dome where we took a little hike up to a part of the cave that had many stalagmites and mineral formations. The sad thing was that it was apparent how little the locals knew about how sensitive such rock formations are as they touched everything and we could see many broken off rock formations.
Our journey continued further and we ended up at the other side of the cave after about 1 hour in the cave. The boat stopped at a picnic area where we had a short break before we returned the same way we came in. This time it was actually faster since we had the current of the river assisting us many times. We must say we got really lucky with our timing (our early morning start) because we had the entire cave to ourselves. How this could be different became evident upon arrival at our starting point at the entrance of the cave. Here we saw at least 6-8 boats and about 22 tourists waiting to board their boats. The sounds of all those motors alone would have changed our experience completely. It seemed arriving at the village and spending the night, with an early morning boat ride is a good strategy. We had to walk back to the village (the guides had left the boat in the cave for another group to use) and enjoyed a lunch/breakfast at our hostess place. Before we were allowed to eat the Mother performed a ritual with us by putting an egg and a ball of sticky rice into our right hand. Then – while chanting – she tied a white band around the arm. It’s the called a baci, which represents the 32 guardian spirits that reside in the body. And it is done so that those spirits are with us when you go on a journey or other big things are happening. Once she completed this task for both of us she ordered us to eat, including the ball of sticky rice and the hardboiled egg that was still in Alex’s hand. We tried to communicate as best we could, but we can only hope that she understood thank you for letting us into her home. Her culturally unusual hug as we left made us think she had.
After lunch we grabbed our packs and mounted our scooter for the ride home. It didn’t start! And after several attempts to get it started via kick start I gave up. We rolled the scooter to the fresh tarmac of the new road and pushed it in second gear until it started. That was really good news, the last thing we wanted was to be stuck there as we had some distance to cover this day. As we drove away from the village (again next to the brand new road and on gravel) we both thought the same thoughts: How nice it was to see a village so unspoiled by the rise of tourism. The people were still interested in falangs, had genuine smiles for us and most of the time greeted us before we did. People were living their life in this place, not disturbed or influenced by the few tourists like us that made it there for an overnight stay. We looked at the new road next to us and realized that this all would about change dramatically for the worse. Once that road is finished, hoards of tourist busses will be able to drive straight up to the village and its people and pour their hordes of tourists onto them. The villages will change their lifestyle; build guest houses and restaurants that serve Western food and souvenir stands (offering mostly imported goods that look local). They then start being less friendly and separate their lives more from the visiting guests, as is the case in Thailand and as we experienced in so many other places. To us these were sobering thoughts and somehow we were thankful for being allowed to ride on the rough and rumbly road next to the unfinished new one, glad for the untouched experience we had in Ban Kang Lo.
With those thoughts in our mind we rumbled on hoping to make it in time back to continue our trip south to Savannakhet where we preferred to spent the night, cutting the next day’s trip down by a 5 or 6 hours. Well, we were soon to learn that not all things go according to plan. We were just 15 min on the road when both of us felt that the scooter became wobbly and we discovered to our dismay that the back tired was flat. So we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road with little traffic. It was at least 5km back to the last village we had passed and we had no idea how far away the next one was. We didn’t have much choice and decided to push the scooter until we would either get to the next village to ask for help or stop a car passing by. Of course it was close to 1:00 PM and everyone would be at home having lunch or staying out of the midday sun. However, after about 20-30 minutes a truck came up from behind, we waved hard and strong and the driver pulled over just ahead of us. He was very friendly and was willing to take us to the next village. We loaded the scooter onto the truck and he instructed me to sit on the scooter to hold it stable, while Alex got a ride in the front cabin. As he started driving on, I discovered my favorite way of driving a scooter, as I was able to sit on it, move forward but could look around at the landscape from my high position on the bed of the truck. It was great. After 5 min or 4 km we arrived at the next village and he dropped us at the mechanic…well maybe it should be called a tire repair shop. Actually its existence at that spot in this next village was really quite a miracle – there were several traditional thatched houses and this one little shack that was full of tools, tires, oil and all the others things needed to keep motorbikes and tractors going. There in the middle of nothing, a young Lao was straight on fixing our tire. He pulled out the tube looked at it and laughed. It was clear that this was something he could not fix. Our hope for a quick fix and a continued journey were shattered. Of course, English was a non-starter, but we had to ask him if he could still fix the tire. Somehow we managed to get that he needed to put a new tube in the tire and it would cost money. We asked how much and by writing it onto a piece of paper we learned that he wanted 20,000 KIP (or roughly $2). Our hopes were renewed, and we told him to go ahead. I guess he felt bad having to charge us so much, not knowing that to us this was a very cost effective way of solving our problem. It took less than 5 min and again we were on our way.
Luckily, the rest of the trip passed with no surprises. We dropped the scooter off, got our luggage from the guesthouse (yes, they were still in the same state we left them at), cross4ed the road and flagged down the next songthaew back to the intersection where we planned to catch the next bus south to Savanahket. Even this bus showed up only after 15 min of waiting and all we had to do was sit for 5 hours and enjoy the trip as the sun slowly went down on us. I even finished reading the book “Dune” by Frank Herbert..I highly recommend it by the way.