Saturday, March 3, 2012

Kong Lor Cave

Tobacco fields
Another haiku:
Green tobacco leaves
flutter gently in light wind
cause an ugly death. 

The next morning was delightfully breezy, sunny, and much, much cooler. We strolled into town to find some breakfast (fried noodles with egg and Lao coffee with milk-it's super strong, sweetened with condensed milk, and will keep you zipping all morning if you don't slip into a diabetic coma first. We love it). After a lazy meal and wander back to the guesthouse, we hopped on the bikes to ride to Kong Lor Cave, our raison d'etre in Ban Na Hin in the first place. Kong Lor is a 4.5 mile long tunnel through a limestone mountain through which a river runs, and you can take a boat trip to see it.

Krong Kor Cave entrance
We left Ban Na Hin, following the GPS route along a waterway by the power station, on a gravel road, through another small village, and across a “bridge,” which was actually just a continuous pile of large stones traversing the stream. The water level was very low, and we duck walked the bikes dryly and safely across. This road led to another, smooth, flat, paved road, which took us the rest of the way to the cave. 

Are you laughing at my headgear?
The scenery in this stretch was different again, with massive, limestone karsts rising behind fields of tobacco. As we rode and I glanced over at the fields, I saw people harvesting the tobacco leaves by hand. The workers cut the lower leaves off the stalks by hand and carry them in bundles to carts. At the edges of the fields were many of the drying barns, which were the same shape as the ones you see in the southern US, but these were made out of what appeared to be bamboo or wood lattice filled in with mud.

After about 25 miles, we reached the entrance to the park, paid our parking fees and parked the bikes. We stripped out of our riding gear and changed into our sandals, and then a man motioned us to the “reservation desk.” We paid our 110,000 kip (14 USD) for the ride, grabbed the required life jackets, and followed our captain up the path and into the mouth of the cave, where our boat was docked. We had been forewarned that this trip would involve getting wet, and the first thing we did was wade through knee-high water to get into the boat. 

Ooooh scary
Our ride for today was an approximately 20 ft long, wooden canoe, with a Honda GX270 industrial engine which had a straight shaft leading to a two blade prop. Re and I each brought our own flashlight, and our captain had a headlamp powered by a belt-mounted battery pack. He fired up the engine, and we were soon streaking into the darkness. The light from the mouth of the cave quickly receded, and we were soon cruising in total darkness, except for the light from the captain's headlamp.

 A short way inside the cave, our boat pulled up to the shore and we were motioned to hop out. Another boat also pulled up and its passengers followed us. Their captain ran ahead and switched on the lights, revealing a huge garden of stalactites and stalagmites that were “artfully” illuminated (with multicolored bulbs. It was trippy). We walked through the garden, stopping to take a few pictures and then made our way back down a set of steps that must have been designed by MC Escher. At the bottom of the steps was our boat, which we reboarded. The ride continued through the cave, and what a ride it was. I would estimate that the cave varied in width from 150 to 400 ft, and the roof height was between 25 and 150 ft. Since this is the dry season, we had to stop a few times, hop out of the boat, and drag it through the shallows to deeper water.  

Our boat captain had obviously been through here once or twice and knew his way through the passage. As he drove, he turned his head left and right, shining his headlamp on the walls of the cave and on jutting rocks and tree limbs that must have gotten lodged during the rainy season. I did notice tiny, reflective “helper” spots on the odd rock, here and there. Before we got into that cave, I thought my headlamp made strong work of the dark, but I was wrong. Whereas, our captain's light beam carried all the way to the ceiling and to the far walls of the cavern, mine made more of a dim, ghostly shadow on the nearer rocks and walls. With none of the lamps illuminated, it was as black as pitch, the darkest darkness I've ever experienced.  

Reaching the other end
After about 45 minutes in the cave, we could see light in the distance. We had to stop and get out for one more shallow section, and then we rode out of the cave and back into the sun. Here, the river was surrounded by dense greenery, and we traveled about another mile upriver to a small landing and “shopping opportunity.” Our captain said it would be about 30 minutes before we headed back, so we had plenty of time to enjoy the refreshments the vendors were selling. Instead, we chatted with a young, American man who is also traveling through southeast Asia. After a nice chat, we hopped back in the boat and headed back toward the cave. It was interesting to see that there are other boats besides tourist boats plying these waters. There are no roads that service the villages in this area, so the villagers who live here have to ride boats through the cave to get virtually anywhere. The ride back was as enjoyable as the ride in, and 45 minutes or so later, we were back at the boat dock. 

 A 'bridge'
The return ride was uneventful, and it turns out, we could have taken paved roads all the way back into town, but Re wanted to ride the gravel section again so she could get her picture taken. We got to our guesthouse sometime after 3:00 pm, and spent another lazy afternoon hiding from the heat. Re did walk into the market to get another delicious watermelon and to scout out some possible dinner options. Later in the evening, we walked back to the market area for dinner at a Thai restaurant that Re spied. I had some yummy pork with ginger and sticky rice, while Re opted for the Panang curry chicken and steamed rice. Yum! We also took the opportunity to try a Namkhong beer, which is heavily advertised everywhere in Laos, and it was okay. But it was no Beer Lao.

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