Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Half Loop: My 400km round trip adventure to Kong Lor Cave

I took an amazing 200km motorbike trip to Kong Lor Village. I slept in the home of a Laos family. I rode a long-tail boat through one of the most amazing caves in the world. I trekked through the mud... and got covered in it. I made an equally amazing 200km return trip.

This was probably the most incredible adventure of my life (at least up 'til now).

On the road.

You already know that I got to Tha Khek way late at night. The next morning I still woke up pretty early because I was just used to it at this point. Everyone else in the dorm room was still asleep so I went down to have breakfast and research the trip to the cave.

I searched for someone to go on the trip with me but was unsuccessful. There was a couple who wanted to go but the guy was sick. When I finally decided I was on my own, I figured it was one of those "shit-or-get-off-the-pot" moments.

I really wanted to do the full loop but after reading through the guest book where people had left their advice, I realized that would be the stupidest, least safe thing to do by myself. Sure with a group of two or three other people, I'd be fine. But going on my own was like asking to get stranded... after dark... on an extremely muddy stretch of road... in the middle of no where.

So instead I opted to do the half-loop which is all paved road and reasonably safer. Since it's also shorter, the whole trip can be done in merely two days.

And it's freakin' beautiful.

Of course, it started drizzling literally the moment I put my helmet on. I had on my rain gear though so I wasn't worried. At least not until it start pouring down and the rain gear just didn't matter anymore. My shoes were soaked and so were the bottoms of my pants. 

But I pushed through and the moment the weather let up it was a great ride. I rode 200km from Tha Khek to King Lor Village all by myself and I was visibly proud of it. You could even tell the locals were impressed (or they thought I was an idiot, whichever).

My wheels for the ride.
I drove passed rice fields and mountains and tiny villages. I stopped for gas three times less out of need and more out of fear of getting stuck with no gas, no cell phone and a serious lack of ability to speak to the locals.

Seriously, there is nothing prettier than this place. It's all so untouched.
By the time I got to Kong Lor Village, it was nearly 5 p.m. I had barely gotten there before the sun started going down. The trip was only supposed to take about four hours, but I drove insanely slow the first 100km because I was scared and nervous. Then I stopped a trillion times for gas. Oh and of course I stopped a hundred million times to take pictures. 

Oh well, I made it.

I didn't arrange accommodation before heading to Kong Lor Village. Everyone said that it's perfectly acceptable to simply show up (before dark) and ask the villagers if someone can put you up for the night. You pay something like $7USD and get a roof over your head, dinner, breakfast and the company of some non-English speaking (or barely English speaking) Laos family.

It's like culture immersion and I think it's an amazing opportunity.

I ended up sharing a home stay with an Italian guy who had just arrived with his two friends about five minutes before me. It was nice to have someone to talk with throughout the experience. 

The family we stayed with was a mom, her sister, her 22-year-old son, 8 year-old daughter and 6-year-old daughter. They were so incredibly welcoming. It helped that the son spoke a bit of English, though at times it was a bit broken.

At first the girls were quite shy but eventually they got very interested in and comfortable with us. The Italian also thought up the idea of playing a drawing game with the family. After all, pictures are sort of universal. It was fun because we were able to teach the kids a few words in English.

There was a lot of miming and mimicking, but by bedtime we were laughing and having a good time.

It's not incredibly genuine but at the same time it's not terribly artificial either. These people actually do live like this and they do treat their guests this way. It's just slightly awkward.

These were our digs.
The Italian guy and I shared a "mattress" with a mosquito net draped over us and the Laos family slept all together on a few other "mattresses" with another mosquito net. It was really funny because they put up a "privacy" sheet between us and them. Somehow I got the impression they though we were together. 

The side of the house behind the camera is actually open air so it got quite cool at night and the sun was vicious the next morning.

These were the beautiful and smart little girls we got to stay with. 
After spending the night with the family we woke up super early, had breakfast and met up with the Italian's friends — another Italian guy and an American girl who lives in Shanghai. 

We headed down to the cave. While I would have done it all by myself, I was so happy to have people to share the experience with.

I don't know if you remember, but this cave was the one thing that I wanted to do in all of Laos. It is incredible and absolutely met all of my expectations. It was huge. I was awestruck. It's honestly difficult to describe.

Basically it's 7.5km long. It's made of limestone. A river runs through it — water is so powerful. There are tons of spots where water drips in from the cave ceiling. Speaking of the ceiling, the highest point is 100m high. The widest part of the cave is 90m wide. You go geared up with a life jacket and a head lamp. It's so dark you can literally only see what's in your beam of light and everything else is complete darkness.

The mouth of the cave on the Kong Lor Village side.
Halfway through the cave, the boat stops. 

Don't worry, it's a scheduled stop. They have a pathway with a lighting system built in so that you can walk around among the massive stalactites and stalagmites. OK so the lighting system is, yet again, a little touristy, but without it you're limited to what your headlamp can see which honestly does not do it justice.

Among the stalactites and stalagmites.

When we emerged from the other side of the cave it seemed like it was a totally different day.

We stopped on the other side and the four of us weren't really sure what was going on. The guys driving the boats didn't speak any English. We thought we were supposed to just get out of the boats and find our way back from there or something. 

So we went trekking down an incredibly muddy "road"  following some kids we saw.

I nearly lost a flip-flop. After digging it out, my legs and hands were covered in mud and my camera had smudges all over the outside. (Thank goodness it's waterproof so I could clean it in the river.) 

However, it was still gorgeous and we saw this interesting bunch:

It was weird because all the butterflies are sitting in the mud in perfect pairs.
After a bit one of the guys from the boats came looking for us. Apparently we were just stopping to stretch our legs and get more fuel for the boats. Whoops.

Unfortunately we took our sweet time getting through the cave and then trekking around on the other side. By the time we got back to the Kong Lor side of the cave — Yes, we went back through, no stopping this time though — it was way past time for me to head back.
By the way, I because obsessed with clouds while in SE Asia.

Luckily I made it back in only four hours — I got my confidence back. By the time I got back I took a shower, have dinner and then passed out.

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