Our next stop as we continued south through Laos would be the Khong Lor Cave. This was another spot on the “must see list” of places to visit in Laos. As usual, it wasn’t exactly easy to get to, and there were not any direct buses between Phonsavan and the towns that border the cave. After doing lots (and lots) of research and inquiring at the bus station, we came to the conclusion that the town of Ban Nahin would be the best town to target for our destination near the cave. To get there we would have to take at least two buses. In fact it wasn’t all that clear exactly how many buses we would be taking. The man selling the tickets at the bus station understood where we wanted to go. There were two options of buses we could take, both which would connect with another bus. We looked at our map and tried to guess the intended routes and which one would possibly go closer to the final destination. In the end we got tickets on the bus going to Paksan (not to be confused with Pakse).
With a little time to spare before the bus ride we went in search of a place to buy some snacks for the bus. When we walked across the lot to a tiny store we saw that another couple of local guys were sitting down at a table and sharing some rice, fried greens, and eggs. Thinking it would be best to fill up on a large breakfast in case we didn’t make a stop for a while, we sat down at the only other table and then motioned to the woman who seemed to be running the shop that we would have the same as the two guys. Unfortunately we didn’t get the greens but she did provide us with a huge amount of rice and three fried eggs – enough to fill us up for the voyage ahead.
Ban Nahin or Bust, says the Birthday Girl!
The journey was the same as most of the others we had experienced in Laos: all the seats full and barf bags were handed out before we left the station, primarily for the locals. We drove along the barely-paved narrow roads with windy assents into the hills. The more frequent drier rustic brown landscape was a change that we noticed, and something we would be seeing much more of as we continued to travel out of the mountainous regions into the southern parts of the country. As we continued along the roads and tried to follow with our map we soon learned that the bus was taking a completely different route than we had predicted when choosing our bus options. We traveled for over an hour on a road that was not even on our map and did not look suitable for a 50-seater bus. The road seemed very out of place amidst a dusty jungle terrain which required us to drive about 20km/hr. When we did get dropped off in Paksan we were surprised to see it wasn’t really a bus station (or even much of a town) and we had pretty much been dropped off on the side of the road on Highway 13. Luckily we weren’t the only person on the bus hoping to get to Ban Nahin. As we stood there on the side of the road with our bags, studied the map, and assessed our situation, a British woman named Kelly expressed interest in teaming up with us in figuring out how to get to where we all wanted to go. With no bus station, there was no way to purchase a bus ticket or even know for sure that a bus would be passing by anytime soon. Amanda decided to cross the road and start trying to hitch a ride south, which was the general direction we needed to go. At first a couple of songthaew drivers stopped, but their prices were much too high (this was after all their business much like a taxi). Amanda figured there must be someone who was actually driving south anyway that could give us a ride rather than hire a songthaew. She was right. About five minutes later a kind man and his family driving by in their pick-up truck pulled off the road. Of course they didn’t speak English but we managed in our broken words of Lao and sign language to communicate with him what we needed. We understood from him that he could take us to the junction we needed to get to for about $2/person. This seemed fair and the man seemed genuinely nice so the three of us jumped into the back of the pick-up truck, and before we knew it we were on our way.
There is always something exhilarating about hitch-hiking. When hitching, you get a combined awareness of not really having a plan and completely throwing your faith into the universe and into the generosity of other people. The growing feeling of expansion and love inside yourself when the generosity of a complete stranger comes your way is something that just can’t be described. Completely letting go and trusting in the good nature of others around us is something we do so infrequently (if at all) in our society. To readers of our blog, we may come across as risk-takers or hyper adventurous, but this is nothing compared to the hazards involved in millions of people’s everyday lives around the world, and in the case of hitchhiking, in some places it is not adventurous at all, as the government does not offer an alternative (being good options for transportation). And, once again, the road and it’s adventures led us true.
The main paved ‘highway’ soon ran parallel to the banks of our good ol’ friend, the Mekong River and the scenery once again filled your heart with splendour. With the wind whipping through our hair, the sun setting over the river, and a new traveler to share stories with, we were in a place of happiness, love, and freedom. Our ride dropped us off in the minuscule village of Vieng Kham, the junction hamlet between Highway 8 which runs east toward our goal of Ban Nahin, and Highway 13 which goes north/south along the Thai-Laos border. We thanked him for driving us for about 45 minutes to an hour and paid our $2 fare. As it turned out, there was a small shuttle bus right there on the corner, the last one for the day, which would be leaving in roughly twenty minutes. After what was quickly building into a long travel day, at this point we couldn’t have planned it any better if we’d wanted to. Once again we took a moment to realize that things happen for a reason, to be grateful for ease of the situation at this stage, and reaffirm that sometimes letting go and trusting in the present can be the best thing – as hard as that can be.
The shuttle bus pulled into Ban Nahin around 7pm. It was already dark but the town was small and the guesthouse owners with vacancies were there and ready to take in the new business. We first approached a very friendly local who had a few bungalows and restaurant that smelled really good. He only had one room, though, and we opted to stay nearby so we could be in the same place as our day’s travel buddy, Kelly. For our typical $5 we got a decent room with en suite bathroom. After checking out the room we went back to have dinner at the nice guy’s restaurant, and by that time he was closing up shop. But, wanting to help, he insisted on showing us another good place nearby. He made a phone call, and all of a sudden we were in his wife’s brand new Nissan Altima getting a ride to what was probably the restaurant of a family member about 600 meters down the road. We ate there, and at that hour were the only guests. At this point Ben let the cat out of the bag: it was Amanda’s 28th birthday dinner! Kelly was excited and insisted we get a drink. As she did not drink beer herself, we were pleased to see that the $1 whiskey on the menu was for a half-liter bottle, not one shot! So we celebrated with a little whiskey-cola, and after a nice walk back, enjoyed the company of a bed to melt into.
Ban Khoun Kham/Ban Nahin
Most people come to Ban Nahin specifically to visit the Khong Lor Cave which is approximately 50 km from the town. This is usually the last stop on the now well-known and traveled Khammouane/Tha Khaek Loop, which starts and ends in Tha Khaek and is often just referred to as “The Loop.” The entire loop usually takes 3-4 days to complete on a motorbike. Not really inspired by the idea of riding a motorbike for four full days, we instead headed directly to the town. We would end up spending a couple of days here, taking some downtime between our daily outings. The town itself is really nothing to see. It’s location (nearby the cave and at the end of the ‘loop’) is what makes it key. Most of the locals earn their income from either the tourist industry or working at the new hydro-electric dam just outside of town. Without these two elements (which were relatively new, only several years old) we aren’t sure this town would have ever really came to exist at all. With the increasing popularity and number of travelers visiting the Khong Lor Cave the neighboring village, Ban Kong Lo, has now began to accommodate the cave visitors. This has left Ban Nahin feeling a bit more deserted than it used to be with the decline of visitors using it as their stop-over.
Jungle trek to Tad Nam Samam
After a good night of rest we decided to take the first day in the area to do a hike, fuel up on good local food, read books in nature, and cuddle in bed. This slower-paced kind of day usually follows a day of long travel involving multiple legs. We chose to do a hike to the nearby Tad Nam Samam (‘tad’ is Laotian for waterfall) which was estimated to be approximately 3km of hiking through the Phou Hin Pon National Biodiversity Conservation Area. Finding the path that turned off the main Highway 8 (another one of these ‘Laos highways’) wasn’t too difficult a task, as there was a small sign with an arrow which reassured us we were on the right trail. As we walked toward the jungle we were called back to a small hut which we soon learned was the ‘information booth’ where visitors were supposed to check-in and pay a fee to enter the park. We explained in a calm manner to the guy we didn’t want a guide and we were just out to explore the area. He understood and offered a reduced rate informing us it was a protected area. The fee was reasonable and we paid, happy to be able to explore the jungly area guide-free.
It was only about 100 meters down the trail until we were engulfed in the lush foliage of the jungle. The trail was very well marked for most of the way and signs had been posted with arrows to reassure those without a guide they were on the right trail. Impressed with the beautiful natural path and the indications on where to go when we weren’t sure made us feel our money was being put to good use. We later learned that not long ago there had been a couple incidents of foreigners getting lost in the jungle while trying to hike alone. When we heard this we were more than happy that our money contributed to keeping a safe, clean, and natural trail for those who wished to experience the beauty on their own as we had.
At one point we fell behind a group of village woman who were gathering some kind of flora in the forest and now on their way back toward their village which apparently lay somewhere in the jungle. We passed by signs indicating elephant crossings. Usually we would think this would mean that perhaps we were near an elephant camp or they placed the sign to excite tourists. But here, the jungle was thick and it was pretty removed from tourist crowds, and both of us could imagine the possibility of wild elephants living here. At one point Amanda heard a noise off toward the stream which flowed below the waterfall. We both scurried slowly down a smaller trail toward the stream in hopes of seeing an elephant but eventually chickened out on barging through the forest on the unknown noise maker. The last thing either of us wanted was to be charged at unexpectedly by an elephant. Instead we found a stream-side spot that seemed to be overrun with exotic-looking butterflies. We decided that playing with the gentile butterflies was a good alternative to an angry elephant. Amanda put her hands out as more than twenty butterflies flapped softly around her. It was like being in a scene from a fairytale.
When we finally did reach the waterfall we weren’t surprised to be the only one’s there. Other than the village women, we hadn’t seen anyone on the trail. The head of the two falls was still spectacular even without the massive flow of water that comes in the high season. Looking back down stream was just as magical. On either side of the rocky stream path there was lush green jungle and trees that reached high into the sky. The wind blew tiny leafs off the trees that made the entire scene look like it was in a giant shimmering snow globe. Everything around us oozed nature and springtime. Another slice of heaven found in Laos.
The hike to the head of the falls had taken a bit over an hour and we were surprised to have actually worked up a bit of a sweat. We took full advantage of the peace, isolation, and scenery. After some stretching and dipping our feet in the chilly waters we did a meditation and read our books while lying out on the large stones listening to the sound of the water and breezes. If it hadn’t been for our growing hunger we could have stayed in our jungle hideaway all day long.
Eventually we headed back down the same trail that had led us up to the falls. Going the opposite direction was actually a bit trickier, but we managed to find the way without getting lost. About half way out we passed another group of four headed to the falls. We couldn’t believe how few people we had run into– the fame of Kong Lor Cave had obviously diverted the attention of most travelers. This was completely fine with us, as we enjoyed our peaceful nature walk back to town.
Discovered only within the last 10 years, the Kong Lor Cave (locally known as Tam Kong Lo) is a limestone cave in the middle of the Phu Hin Bun National Protected Area. What makes this cave so special from any others in Southeast Asia is the Nam Hin Bun River which actually runs right through the cave for about 7 kilometers. Today the cave is known as one of Southeast Asia’s geological wonders, and traveler’s awareness of it and its popularity is growing fast. As we mentioned above, it used to be that the only guesthouses and lodging nearby were located in the town of Ban Nahin. This is changing quickly though as the nearby villages and locals are realizing the potential for business.
For those without their own transportation–like us–there were two or three songthaews that would run between the hamlet at the edge of the cave, Ban Khong Lo, and Ban Nahin each day. We departed mid-morning at about 10am with both of our large backpacks in tow. Our plan was to make the most of our time at the cave, spending a good portion of the day there, thus we expected we may miss the last songthaew returning to Ban Nahin. We had heard there were homestay options available, which was something we were interested in should the situation work out. Once again we found ourselves awaking to a day where at 10am and we really had no idea where we would be sleeping that night or what awaited us at the other end of the ride. But we had faith (and felt we had done our part of our homework as much as we could) that everything would work out just fine. The ride to the cave was one long road that disected the dried rice and maize fields. Before our departure our songtow had been loaded with extra supplies such as tires, tanks of gasoline, items to be sold at the market, etc. We stopped in some of the small villages along the ride where locals would de-board and the driver dropped off these supplies to families who were apparently waiting on the side of the road for the delivery or shop owners. There were a couple wooden bridges that caused us to question the wisdom of crossing them with a heavily loaded truck, but seemed to hold up just fine as our weighed down songthaew flew over them at the same speed it had bumped along any other part of the road.
About an hour after our departure we arrived at the gate and entrance to the National Protected Area. We paid the entrance fee and with our professional sign-language and pointing skills communicated with the guy manning the little booth at the gate that we were going to leave our large backpacks there. His nod was our signal that he was okay with this, even if he didn’t fully understand.
The river and entrance to the cave is only about 500m from the gate. As you approach the riverside an emerald pool and the entrance to the cave become. The scene is gorgeous and you begin to realize why this place is so special and continues to be listed as a ‘must-see’ location in Laos. Once again we found ourselves enjoying the limestone formed karst as it met the turquoise water of the Nam Hin Bun river. The limestone cave entrance is enchanting in itself with the dark passage way forming at the intersection of the limestone mountain and emerald pool. To have the added on treat of being able to take a boat through the cave on the river made the experience even more wondrous. Not far from the banks of the lagoon there is another small hut where you can arrange and pay a boatsman to take you through the cave. Next to the hut are some wooden signs with information about the cave and surrounding villages. Boats can only hold a maximum of three people plus the two boatsman, and you pay per boat and not by person. We thought about waiting around for an extra person but since the cost of the boat was only $10 round-trip we decided just to go ahead as two and have a ‘private’ boat through the cave. The price included lifejackets, flip-flops, and head lamps. Soon we were crossing the river via a nearby bridge and walking toward the mouth of the cave. Just after the entrance as you begin to head into the dark cave, there is a very sandy bank with multiple boats all ready to carry passengers to the other end. The long motorized boat was fairly sturdy as we all climbed in and pushed off the sandy bank. The two boatsmen took position – one at the front as a sort of directional lookout and another at the back as the driver. Neither of them spoke any English but it wasn’t really necessary. In a matter of seconds, our boat was off and swallowed by complete darkness as we headed up the river, under the mountain.
A couple of minutes into the ride we stopped along another sandy bank (still inside the mountain cave) where one of the boatsmen motioned for us to get out and then led us along a path. We soon saw lights and realized this portion of the cave was lit up and the path led through some of the natural rock formations within the cave. There were all kinds of different shaped sparkling stalactites and stalagmites and large pillar formations from the dripping water over hundreds of years. As we have had the chance to visit quite a few caves up to this point, they weren’t the most impressive formations we’ve seen in a cave, but it was still pretty and a nice, unexpected add-on to the adventure. After about fifteen minutes of walking along the path we came back to a bank of the river where the other boatsman had driven to boat ahead to meet us. We climbed in and slowly departed the well-lit area of the cave and re-entered the darkness.
Not long after being in the darkness we noticed from the light of our headlamps that we were downstream from some mini-rapids. It was at about this moment we further realized that our boat driver was ramping up the speed and going full-on toward the rapid, with the intention of going directly into–and hopefully over– it. We were amazed that this worked pretty well for the first rapid. These boatmen obviously knew what they were doing. Yet on the second rapid we tried to barge up with the boat we ended up getting stuck just before we breached it. They got out of the boat first pushing and pulling and trying to get the boat to budge before they motioned for us to get out too.
Then the real excitement came when Ben lost his flip flop and we scrambled to chase after it in the rushing water–still in complete darkness with only our headlamps, of course. One of our awesome boatsman actually managed to find the sandal for us. The next time it came for us to exit the boat due to scraping the bottom (yes, this happened a couple times) we were sure to go barefoot into the flowing waters. We had only expected a casual boat ride, but this was turning into a full on interactive experience. We loved it!
It was about an forty minutes after entering the cave (with the walk through the rock formations included) that we saw ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ as they say. The tiny little glowing light that looked like a large star off in the distance began to grow as we approached, and soon we we could make out the overgrown foliage and limestone cliffs on the other side. The black water below us slowly turned back to a dark brown and then crystal clear turquoise once again.
It was only a couple minutes from exiting the cave before we came to our stopping point. Where we debarked the boat there were some little cafe like shops set-up specifically for the visitors. The walk to the village was about twenty minutes. We decided to not do the walk and instead just grab some lunch (our trusty feu noodle soup) and relax. A very eager and bright eyed little girl lured us into her mother’s shop for some soup. She was so excited to talk to us even when we didn’t understand a word. It was almost like the roles were reversed and we were the children who didn’t understand anything that was being spoken to us. As always here in Laos, life seemed peaceful, simple, and happy. An old woman worked on her loom weaving. The boatmen smoked some hand-rolled cigarettes while sitting at one of the nearby tables or peeing behind the trees. Kids were playing on the banks of the river, jumping into the water with excitement. We relaxed and enjoyed our lunch for about thirty minutes or so before loading back up in the boat to head back through the cave.
For a long time the villages nearby and more generally this area of the Khammouane province on the other side of the mountain were only accessible via boat. In more recent years they have built some roads (bumpy dirt roads but still roads) to connect to the villages. Locals still use the boats though for their primary transport from the villages to other areas. Later in the day we even saw a couple of boats loading up with huge sacks of grain, and even a motorcycle strapped onboard to make the same journey we had just completed. The cargo boat runs in the evening after all the boats taking travelers are no longer running. Even without the worry of other boat traffic we don’t know how on earth those cargo boats go up the same rapids we were getting stuck on, but they must somehow manage it.
On our boat ride back we were going in the direction of the water flow so we managed to make the entire trip without grounding-out in the boat. We do have reiterate though that these boatsmen knew what they were doing. They knew exactly what spot to go in with the most water pressure and flow when we went over the rapids and small rock wall drop-offs. And being that the only light they had was from a lamp on their heads, we were quite impressed by the feat. After our cave escapade which ended up being about three hours, we parked ourselves at the banks of the lagoon for a nice afternoon of swimming and soaking up the serene environs. We had been pretty lucky that a Thailand ex-pat we had met in Phonsavan (who was a frequent visitor in Laos) had tipped us off on going early to the caves and bringing some bathing suits to go swimming afterwards. Taking his advice we had come prepared with snacks in our daypack along with towels and swimsuits. It was a perfect place to swim and even had a designated ‘swimming’ area and a small little shack built you could change your clothes in. It was absolutely stunning how crystal clear the water was and the vibrant green-blue colors it turned when the water deepened. There were large fish that you could see everywhere skimming the surface and if you remained still in the water long enough they would come take a nibble at you and see if you are tasty, then leave you alone.
We swam, soaked up the sun, read books, and then changed into our dry clothes again and headed back toward the hut where you bought boat tickets. Like so many other places in Laos there happened to be a bocce ball court (here called patong or pétanque) with the balls right next to the hut. We found it funny yet appropriate that this game was found in every corner of the country. We often thought of bocce ball as an Italian game, and for good reason. The Romans were the first known bocce players, and the game spread with the influence of the Roman Empire. In Laos, it was part of the french legacy in the region, although the French refer to the game as boule lyonnaise. But as a game it is very simple and slow-paced, so it made sense to have it here in Laos. We played a few rounds and we were just about to gather our things and head out of the park when we spotted a songthaew dropping off cargo at the cargo boat that would make the journey through the cave for the evening. Seeing the name ‘Ban Nahin’ painted on the side (along with some other village names) we ran quickly over the the driver to see if he would be returning to the town. Even though it was 4:30pm he nodded in affirmation that he was headed back to town.
Unexpected Return for a final night in Ban Nahin
Knowing we had another long day of travel ahead of us tomorrow we decided to take the songthaew and our large packs back to the main town where we were at least familiar with a place to stay and good spots for food. In Laos all schedules are ‘loose’ schedules. Meaning this is usually what happens around this time, but really it can vary every day. We picked up another handful of travelers on the way back to town that had been waiting for this ‘3:30 pm’ songthaew and were back to our now familiar stomping grounds. This time we opted to stay in a bungalow owned by the nice local man that had invited us to stay the night we arrived. At $4 a night it was the best option and we wanted to support this very friendly and outgoing old man that continued to invite us to come eat at his local guesthouse. That night his wife had cooked an abundance for both the guests for the evening and other travelers who had come for dinner. We spend the evening snacking on some of the food and playing a British trivia game with the two other couples in our neighboring bungalows. At the 11pm curfew we all retired for the evening, happy to get some sleep before each of us journeyed to our next town the following morning.