Laos is a globally recognized tourist destination. Tourism is a key revenue generating sector for the country. UNESCO World Heritage site Luang Prabang has been named the top tourist destination site in the world for three years in a row by the UK Wanderlust travel magazine. Fifth century, Wat Phou in the southern Lao province of Champasak is a Khmer temple complex is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Then, there are the many Plains of Jars sites in Xieng Khouang Province, which I believe has been submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage committee to secure UNESCO World Heritage site status and should be.
In late February 2012, we visited another very interesting and relatvely new Lao tourist destination called Kong Lor Cave, located in Khammouane Province. Khammouane Province is about five hours from Vientiane (including stopping for lunch, gas and a nature break). While it may never achieve UNESCO World Heritage status (it’s not historical), visiting there was quite an experience.
We took a 4.5 mile boat ride on the Hinboun River underneath a mountain through Kong Lor Cave. The ride gave me a sense of a Disneyworld boat ride, winding through the darkness of a cave that required our active participation, walking through limestone formations, stepping out of our boat to help the boatsmen (if you chose) across shallow waters, peering through the darkness of a cave that reached widths of 100 feet and over 200 feet heights. At the end of the one-hour ride, we exited a narrow opening into a fauna rich landscape of rich greenery, towering mountains, water buffalos jaywalking the river and resting on Sandy shores. We found ourselves under a large canopy of age-old trees in a rest area en reoute to Natan Village.
Traveling from Vientiane to Khammouane
We drove south from Vientiane down Highway 13, the main north-south highway that extends from the Chinese to Cambodia border. At a town Viengkham, we turned east on Highway 8 towards Vietnam. The road transitioned from Highway 13 being relatively straight and flat to becoming very winding (similar to the winding roads of northern Laos) towards Theun-Hinboun dam. The scenery changed. The mountains looked like the familiar limestone karsts, that not only jut up to the skies. Their forests of formations look like jig saw puzzle pieces, reaching out for their matching puzzle piece.
Driving further, we found signs that took us to Kong Lor, a small town that is becoming a tourist town because of the cave. The road was flat, smooth and took us through a beautiful valley surrounded by towering picturesque mountains. We passed many tobacco fields en route to Kong Lor. The road was a blessing. Prior to its construction, one would have to take a boat to Kong Lor from a small village off highway 8. The boat ride would have taken 3 to 3Â½ hours to take us to Kong Lor.
We walked from the parking area through a canopy of very tall old trees with tremendously large hanging vines. Check out the picture of Barbara, Lori and Debbie sitting on one vine. It had to be at least 12 inches thick. Walking further, we saw the edge of the river leading from the mountain and people walking to and from the opening of the cave with their life jackets on. Others were swimming in the cool, clear refreshing water.
Getting Ready to Travel Kong Lor Cave
The ticket area for the boat rides was very basic, wooden platforms with bamboo-thatched roofs. We paid 110,000 kips (roughly $14) to rent a boat with two boatsmen. We also paid 5,000 kips (or 65 cents) for headlights at a table nearby. Our assigned boatsmen (two persons per boat) greeted us and gave us life jackets. (While the water was quite shallow throughout most of the boat ride, but it may be during and shortly after the rainy season.)
We walked across a bamboo bridge down to the river, then along the sandy shores of the river to the cave. Boats and our two boatsmen were waiting for us. Looking forward, we saw nothing by darkness. We boarded the simple wooden, motorized boats.
The cave was cool, damp, pitched black with the only source of light being our headlights. (More lighting in the cave would have been more interesting for us. Perhaps, more lighting will be installed in the future.) The boatsmen’s lights were bigger and brighter, so we could see the caves ceilings and walls. In some areas, there were sandy beaches. The water was a pristine grayish-blue, clear and cold. In most case, we could see the water’s rocky bottom. About traveling for 15 minutes in, we could see a glimmer of lights ahead of us. Our boatsmen steered the boat towards the lights and to a rocky shore with the lights now above us. The boatsman jumped out, moored the boat and waved us to get out. We saw steps and walked up. Where were we going?
We entered a dimly lit part of the cave that was filled with naturally, intricately and artistically designed stalactites and stalagmites. It’s always fascinating how the constant, calcium-rich dripping waters from the ceilings of caves create such beautiful formations. Colored lights accented the more beautiful structures. Nicely paved, cement walkways led us through the maze of structures. After a ten-minute walk, we heard water and motors ahead of us in the dark. We walked towards dimly lit stairs. 30 feet below us was the continuation of the river. Our boats and boatsmen were waiting for us to continue our journey through this 4.5 mile ride of darkness through the Kong Lor Cave. (There were no bats, so you can relax.)
Because of the Hinboun River’s shallow waters, on three occasions, we had to get out of our boats. The boats had to be dragged across the river’s rocky bottoms and, in one case, towed by rope up an incline through the shallow, rushing waters. For us, it was a 10-20 feet walk through the ankle-high, cool waters. In one case, I accidentally walked into a hole in the water thigh-deep. Not a big deal.
After a one-hour journey, we saw the light at the end of the cave. The opening was framed by jagged rocks. As we approach the opening, what we saw was startling. Our eyes found densely green jungle trees and plants. In the distance were towering mountains, that gave a sense that we entered another valley. The Kong Lor River snaked itself through the jungle greenery, just like a Disneyworld Jungle Ride. To the left we saw two dozen buffalo on the sandy shores of the river. The boatsman had to kill the motor, suddenly. Three buffalo had jumped into the water to cross the river to the sandy beach.
Shortly after, we walked up, wooden stairs to the park-like area with tables and benches. Towering trees provided a canopy that shaded the park area. Beyond the benches were refreshment stands, where we purchased drinks and snacks. Enjoying the beautiful jungle like landscape, we jumped back in the boats for our trip back. Going with the river flow, our return trip was much faster. It was in darkness until we arrived at the cave opening, where we started in Kong Lor village.
Our boats hit sand. Twilight was fast approaching. We walked along the river back back to where we purchased our tickets. Along the way, I snapped a couple of pictures of Barbara and Lori. Debbie joined us near the ticket and refreshment stands.
We had a quick dinner in Viengkham. I drove only for a short while. Barbara took over the helm back to Vientiane.
It was a great trip, a great experience. It’s a worthwhile trip. As always, the villagers were very helpful. I highly recommend a visit to Kong Lor Cave in Khammouane Province.