The early morning mist was still gathered on the cliff tops as I made my way along the trail towards the caves’ entrance. As I followed the boat guide around the clear lagoon I reflected on the events, and the journey, that had bought me to Konglor; the location of one of the longest river caves in South East Asia.
It had all started a couple of weeks earlier at Luang Prabang airport. I was about to board a Lao airways flight, for my return to Thailand, and picked up a snippet of information from an expat Brit in the departure lounge. I’d been regaling him of my trip through Northern Laos and, in particular, my caving adventures in Veng Vieng when he chimed in with something that caught my attention.
“If it’s caves you want then head to Konglor.”
“Where, and what, is Konglor?” I said.
“Konglor is in Central Laos mate. There’s a cave there that is 7.5 kilometers long. It’s got a river running through it and they do it in boats,” he said with an assured smile.
“How do I find my way there?” I said sparking up a bit more.
“Head to Thakhek,” he said as we pushed through the checkpoint and walked across the tarmac to board our flight.
“Thakhek, can you spell it?” I said feeling tongue tied pronouncing the word.
“T-H-A-K-H-E-K, Thakhek,” he said as we walked up the gangway.
“Thanks mate,” I said as we parted company looking for our seats.
A few days later, after being back in Bangkok and feeling boredom beginning to set in again, I started doing some fact gathering on the internet. Thakhek was easy enough to find; it was right on the border of Thailand and directly across the Mekong from Nakhom Phanom. Further searching revealed that getting to Thakhek would be relatively simple exercise. Nok Air ran daily flights to Nakhom Phanom. From there it would be a short Bus trip, across Friendship Bridge # 2, and on into Thakhek. Without hesitation I booked a round trip flight to Nakhom Phanom and, a couple of days later, I was on my way. Three hours after landing in Nakhom Phanom, and with a minimum of fuss, I was through the immigration checkpoints, at Friendship Bridge # 2, and back in Laos again. For seventy five Baht there’s an hourly bus service which runs direct from Nakhom Phanom Provincial bus terminal to its’ equivalent in Thakhek. This also includes waiting while the passengers are being checked through immigration on both sides of the bridge. After arrival at Thakhek provincial bus terminal it’s then a sedate five kilometer run, in a tuk-tuk, to the Thakhek town center which intersects main road into town and the riverfront.
Thakhek is actually the provincial capital of Khammouane Province and it’s increasingly becoming known as the caving hot spot of Laos. The town is also starting point for the highly regarded “loop” trip of Central Laos. The loop is roughly a 400 kilometer circuit (beginning and ending in Thakhek and normally completed on locally rented motorbikes) which takes in a number of attractions including the renowned “Konglor Cave.” The circuit, regardless of which way one decides to go, will need a 42 kilometer detour off highway # 8 (at the top of the loop) to get to Konglor. The turn off to Konglor is approximately 2 kilometers to the East of a small provincial town named Ban Na Hin.
Note: There are a number of guesthouses in Ban Na Hin and, if you’re doing the full “Loop” trip, it makes perfectly good sense to stay there and make a day trip to Konglor. However if you want to be one of the first to do the trip through the cave, for the day you’re at Konglor, the better option is to do an overnight in one of the guesthouses at Konglor village and be at the cave departure point a few minutes before it opens for business at 0800.
According to other “Loopers” I spoke with, the quickest route to Konglor is straight up Highway # 13 then right onto Highway # 8. Highway # 13 is the main artery to Vientiane and the turn off to Konglor is 96 clicks North at a town on the T-Junction of Highways 8 and 13 called Vieng Kham. Run time, allowing for coffee breaks and a conservative speed, is roughly 5 hours. Distance from Thakhek central to Konglor village is approx. 186 kilometers. The stretch between Vieng Kham and Ban Na Hin, along highway # 8, is probably the most interesting part of the ride as the road snakes its way around thirty kilometers of jungle clad, high peaks. At what was probably the high point of the traverse there’s a roadside lookout, giving spectacular views across the ranges to the south; a great spot for a drinks break and a photo opportunity.
The story continued:
As I continued following the boat guide towards the entrance of the cave I was brimming with excitement about the trip ahead of me. I felt stoked to finally be here but had to admit that I’d turned it into a bit of an unnecessary slog during the ride up from Thakhek. To make matters worse I’d had a lousy night’s sleep at the guesthouse I’d booked into; the bed was one of the hardest I’d slept on and the constant din of dogs, frogs and crickets, in the fields beyond, had me ruing the fact that I’d forgotten my earplugs. After a fitful sleep I’d risen early in anticipation of getting underway early for the trip through the cave. The day dawned cool and clear and, after a stomach full of food to recharge the batteries, I was down at the Cave admin point a bit before eight am; the allotted start time for daily operations. The prices were reasonable for a trip through the cave and boat fees were as follows: single person – 105K kip; two people – 110K Kip; three people (maximum) – 150K kip. I handed over my trip fee and was given an orange life jacket to don; these are a compulsory while you are on the boat. If you don’t have a light one can be hired for an extra 5K kip. I was assigned a two man boat team and we were on our way towards the cave entrance.
As we climbed up and over a rocky plateau, and began entering the cave proper, the relatively small entrance gave way to a mammoth chamber beyond. The locals had put in a proper paved walkway, with a handrail, skirting the edge of the internal river and as we left the daylight behind I could see a number of bodies moving about in the glow of a single overhead light up ahead. While I was waiting up at the admin point I’d heard one the guides mention something about turning on the lights. I now understood what he’d meant; it looked as though they’d run electric cables into the cave to provide lighting. Two hundred meters, or so, into the cave there was a staging point for the fleet of boats that do the run through. It seemed incredible to believe but I was standing on an underground beach looking at a line-up of shallow draught long tail boats as the guides made their preparations for the trip. After a few minutes spent checking fuel levels, and warming up the boats’ engine, we were pushing off into the black void ahead.
With the boat man perched on the bow, and leading the way, we were gliding over the calm waters of the immense tunnel that is Konglor cave. I had a fairly powerful hand held light and, therefore, and got a good impression of what was surrounding me as the boat chugged on into the darkness. The river was amazingly clear and, due to the fact it was the dry season, was quite shallow. In some places the bottom was clearly visible and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before we were all clambering out due to the boat grounding. After a bit of time spent pushing and shoving, and wading around in calf deep water, we were back in the boat and underway again. During the run through, and the return leg, we were to encounter a number of these shallow spots and it had me thinking that a trip, in the rainy season, would be a completely different proposition.
A few minutes later, and roughly one kilometer in, we were entering the widest part of the cave tunnel and pulling over at another underground beach. The boat guide indicated that we were going for a walk and led the way up a sandy slope onto what looked like a properly constructed trail. A couple of minutes later I was standing on the formations plateau. Up ahead the colourful mix of white, blue and orange lights lit up the most amazing array of cave formations that I’d seen anywhere. It was truly spectacular and as the trail wound its way ahead of me, I could only marvel at the ingenuity, and amount of work, put in to developing the site. Besides the fact that they’d run lighting so far into the cave, they’d also done a truly remarkable job setting up the trail; there were paved walkways with handrails everywhere to ensure safety during the walk through. I could prattle on endlessly about this amazing site but words don’t truly do it justice; I’ll let the pictures tell the story.
After thirty minutes banging off as many shots as possible, I was back in the long tail and resuming our slow chug through the cave. The blackness ahead was interrupted by lights and the echo of a motor. I shone my light ahead and picked up the form of another boat getting closer. As it chugged past the full complement of large blue tarpaulin covered blocks, onboard, were plainly obvious. I started to piece things together; the tobacco was being ferried, through the cave, to the waiting trucks I’d seen in the parking area. During my fact gathering, on Konglor, I’d come across a travel site which had a story on the cave. Apart from the usual stuff about getting there, and prices, there was an interesting anecdote about a remote village accessed through the cave. Ban Nam Thone was somewhere beyond the other side of the mountain, which the cave ran through, and, for all intents and purposes, it’s main connection to the rest of the world was via Konglor cave. Konglor was a large tobacco growing area and, no doubt, Ban Nam Thone was using the river and cave as a highway to move its tobacco crop. The sedate ride was interrupted by regular tobacco boat traffic and the occasional stop to get over a shallow spot. As we pushed on the cave widened, and narrowed, with the twists and turns in the rivers’ route with the flanks often alternating between massive rock piles and sandy beaches. Approximately an hour and twenty minutes after we’d first pushed off, I began picking up the glow of daylight ahead. The glow eventually became the large exit and we emerged into a mist and jungle shrouded world.
We motored on around a few more bends in the river and, about a kilometer on, arrived at a staging point where there was a constant stream of boats being loaded with tobacco. The driver nosed the boat into the soft earth of the river bank and as I grabbed my camera and scrambled up onto the flat area above to check out the activity. The boat man told me we had a fifteen minute break which afforded a good photo opportunity. As I moved around banging off shots there was plenty of movement with tractor trucks constantly arriving to unload the raw product onto the waiting long tails. I reflected on the fact that there was a real possibility that the cave, and its river, were Ban Nam Thone’s main connection with the outside world. That, in itself, was quite a story. A sign on a tree indicated that the village was two kilometers further on. I would’ve liked to have gone for a look but knew that it would’ve meant extra time. I got the impression that the boat crew weren’t too interested in that idea as they were probably keen to get back for another paying fare through the cave. All too soon our time was up and we were heading back towards the cave again. For most of the trip back we were accompanied by a convoy of tobacco boats and getting over the shallow spots became a bit of a congested exercise with everyone pitching in to help each other get the boats through as quickly as possible. We passed other travelers making the run through and before I knew it I was back at the starting point two and a half hours later. It had been a fantastic trip and I’d do it again, given the opportunity, although perhaps when the river was more in flow. If you only go to Laos one time and only do one thing; then go to Konglor.
Hoped you enjoyed the trip.
Attraction: Konglor River Cave
Location: Khammouane Province, Central Laos
Nearest accommodation: Konglor village – approximately 1 kilometer from the cave entrance
Accommodation type: guesthouses – basic amenities including hot water showers Laotian meals
Accommodation prices (as of 2012): 30,000 – 60,000 Kip per night
Nearest ATM, gasoline station and internet café: Ban Na Hin Village – on Highway # 8 and 42 kilometers from Konglor
Staging point for the loop and Konglor visitation: Thakhek Township
Shortest distance from Thakhek to Konglor: 186 kilometers – by way of Highway # 8 and # 13
Best accommodation, food and WIFI in Thakhek: the Inthira Hotel
Thakhek motorbike rental day rates: anything between 50,000 – 80,000 kip (depending on your negotiating skills)
Other worthwhile attractions around Thakhek: Pa Chan Cave, Aen Cave, Buddha Cave and Kong Leng Lake.
Note: The months between December – February can be cool to cold at night in the Laotian interior. If you’re planning a trip to Konglor at this time, take a jacket.