I am sitting here, looking out over fields of lettuce, tobacco, and other crops. In the distance is a village at the edge of the fields. A water buffalo is grazing while local kids play a game of tag around him. In the field farmers are picking the lettuce, pouring bits of something on each plant they inspect, and then carrying bundles out to a waiting “chariot” tractor that they only have out here. It’s a bit like where they used to have horses on a chariot, they put an engine, and the driver still sits on the back above a plough, all connected by two harnesses. All around me the sound of laughing children echoes up to my balcony, and crickets sing in the distance. In the background are some of the most amazing karst formations around, jagged cliffs jutting out of the valley like crocodiles teeth. Plants cling in the strangest crevasses, growing into deformed but mighty trees. As night falls, you here the clanging of the cow bells, as the water buffalo and cows are lead home for the evening. As the sun sets, the colors go from blues and greens, to shades of purples, oranges, and reds so brilliant that no camera could possible catch them. I have a cold beer in my hand, my pen and paper in front of me for my daily sketch, and the sounds of nature around me. Truly, what more could I want from life.
All this after a four-hour scooter ride through some gorgeous mountains. We have traveled 200 Kilometers to get to a cave that goes seven miles under the mountains. But hell, I would have done it just for this experience. We are on the last leg of a famous Loop trail, that is a four day circuit through this country side, with numerous caves along the way. We did the beginning to the Buddha cave, and now the last part. We missed the central part, opting to relax in Thakhek.
Next morning we decided to walk to the cave entrance, it was only a few kilometers away and it was a gorgeous morning. We paid the park fees at the entrance and headed in. That’s where we ran into problems. Turns out the fees for the park were separate from the boat fees, helmet and light rental, and guide rental, all of which you could not do with out. Damn. So I decided to jog back to get more money. I got to the main gate and saw a guy driving his scooter in. He must not have noticed that the gate was down at the guards shack, because he practically skidded off the road as he ducked under barely avoiding getting knocked off.
I waved him down and asked if he would drive me to the hotel to get more cash. Still quite shaken from his near accident, he graciously agreed. He was from France and traveling through Asia on his own. He bought the bike for two hundred bucks in Vietnam, and had been riding it for many months. He was hoping to continue up to Myanmar on it. An adventure of a lifetime. Turned out he did not have enough for everything either, so we all shared a boat and guide together. To save money he was sleeping on the floor of a building that was under construction, living with the carpenter whom he had just met. I love these stories; you just can’t make it up.
I was expecting another Underground River like we had in the Philippines, which they touted as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. That cave was not that impressive, more like a cheesy staged Disney Land experience than a real natural wonder. So I am happy to put on record how wrong I was. The mouth of the cave soars up thirty feet above your head with a gorgeous lagoon teeming with fish under it. The sound of rushing water echoes out of the entrance like the gurgling of mouthwash. We climbed up a set of stairs inside the cave besides a series of rapids and boarded a little wooden boat that wobbled like mad. It’s quite thin, barely fitting my large American butt. Our new French friend topped out at about six foot three, so he was noticeably awkward on the boat. Our two Laotian guides hopped on and pushed us off. With a long stem motor, we drove through the dark, with only the faint beams of our little helmet lights to illuminate the way. The cave was wide, going forty feet across, and the sound echoed back and forth. At points you could touch the ceiling, then at other times it seemed so far above your head that light would not even touch the dark recesses. The weight of the mountain was bearing down on us the whole time. This was the dry season so the river was really low, forcing us at times to climb out of the boat and portage it. We came to a series of waterfalls, cascading through the dark, and further on was an illuminated staircase along the rivers edge. We left the boat, which needed to be portaged around the falls. The cave had some brilliant designers who brought lighting in to illuminate various stalagmite features. Some of the stalagmites were bigger than ten feet in diameter. We hiked for a hundred yards, admiring the beautiful formations. At the top of the incline our boat was waiting, the guides had carried it up the slope.
The rest of the trip took a half hour to complete. It went from pitch black to being able to make out shapes in the dark. There was a slight brightening to a blinding glare. The cave ceiling was low above us and we maneuvered between some of the stalagmites to a tropical paradise. It was as exciting as watching the Robinson family go down the waterfall on the Land of the Lost TV show. (Not the Will Ferrel movie which was horrible). I was expecting there to be dinosaurs and weird little lizards called Sleestaks to jump out. Instead we found a lovely village with children playing with dogs and farm animals. For years the only access to this village was through the cave, and supplies are still ferried back and forth to it. Of course now there is a lucrative business of ferrying tourists too, but it’s just far enough away that it’s not huge business, but just you wait.
It’s necessary to return the same way that you came, but this can be rather exciting because the series of falls that you had to portage around now can be ridden down. A little white water in the dark, what could be more fun. Plus, going with the current is twice as quick.
Once out of the cave I highly recommend a swim in the lagoon. The rocks are perfect for jumping off, and you are surrounded by beautiful fish. A great way to refresh yourself. We spent about a half day hanging out here, before returning to our hotel. A lot of people rush back out, but the valley is so peaceful around here, I literally would have been happy to stay a week.
That night we went down a side road with water buffalo on both sides and just drove through the farm fields on the scooter. We ended up going down a wooded path under the karst to a small group of bungalows. Each bungalow overlooked the river and a large karst on the other side. It was so idyllic. Fisherman were down the river, fishing how they have for 1000’s of years, a long flexible stick with a triangle net on the river bed. They pull the net up and the tension springs it together, trapping any fish in it. Further down the river an old bull was cooling down.
We met a family there who win the prize for going the furthest. They were traveling overland, with some ferries included; from Australia all the way back to the Netherlands. They were homeschooling their three kids as they went, and were taking six months to do it. How amazing is that. People thought we were adventurers for taking 9 months to travel, but that’s nothing to driving with your kids. They had to get a passport for the car in every country, and pretty much make it legal every cross over. No easy thing. The paper trail alone is probably miles long. They told us they had been planning it for two years now. I honestly could not think of anything more amazing, and for the children, what could be more educational, than a trip like this. This is something that actually becomes the building blocks of their lives.
That night we went out to dinner to a local spot with the French guy, a Canadian girl, and a couple from Switzerland. It was a lovely evening, having a couple of drinks, decent food, and learning a bit about their travels. There was an odd looking square tower across from us, with an opening on the bottom with a decent fire in it. It turns out that they were drying tobacco leaves in the tower for shipment. All across the valley there were similar towers like this. The Canadian girl was finishing the last leg of the Loop trail, and loved every minute of it. Next she was hoping to head down to 4,000 islands for some rest and relaxation. The Swiss couple, Mathias and Stanija, were heading to Vientiane to get Visas for China. They were heading out early the next morning on a bus. We had to head back to Thakhet, then onward bound for Vientiane. So sad to leave our new little paradise, but the trip must go on.
The ride back was just a beautiful as going, and we stopped at Great Wall, near Thakhek. It is still unknown if this huge wall is a natural geographic formation, or an ancient man made a barricade. The wall goes for about 10 miles, and is believed that it was built in the 19th century. There is really not too much info on it at all. One section we stopped at was used as a church, which really was not taken care of too well. There was trash everywhere, and graffiti on the wall. It’s a shame, because the blocks were all bigger than I, and pieced together beautifully. From my non-expert opinion I would say that it seems more like a natural cliff than manmade, but this could be one of histories mysteries. We also drove past the Friendship Bridge, a bridge spanning the Mekong that goes in to Thailand.