On the outskirts of the Laos capital city of Vientiane, riding a bus to Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, I turned to Julia and said “I wish we could rent a car and drive down the south of Laos.” It was a thought I had many times on the endless and unpredictable bus rides of our journey. Though we had intended to head toward Cambodia in two days time, we had both fallen in love with Laos and were reluctant to leave before seeing the most uncharted and beautiful part of the country. Once my simple wishful thought was vocalized, there was no turning back. We hatched a plan that fell into place a little too easily, including the impossible feat of completely refunding our plane tickets to Cambodia and a rush decision for Thai visas. We returned to Vientiane, booked an SUV, packed some baguettes, fruit and pastries from our favorite shop, and headed on our way down south.
We left early morning in our white Ford, a road map and ipod jack in tow. As we came to find, the only consistently reliable road in southern Laos is Route 13, which, though only paved in part, is at least always open to vehicles. Many of the roads detailed on our map were either not yet completed or impassible during the monsoon season. Of course, half of the adventure was veering off the path and seeing where these muddy, dirt roads would take us. A wrong turn is sometimes difficult to avoid, anyway, as there are few or no road signs in many parts.
Southern Laos is filled with natural beauty and ever changing landscape, including uninhabited mountains and valleys, small muddy villages and an abundance of waterfalls. Our first day’s drive took us through winding mountain passes with breathtaking views of the vast valleys below. Throughout our journey, we were alone with nature or locals; many exclaimed, “ooo Falang!”, the Lao word for westerners, as we drove past.
The road conditions landed us at our first destination, Kong Lor Cave, as it was closing. We drove through the small village and waived to the children on their mass exodus from school; the surprised and excited looks on their faces reminded me of how far from home we’d come and put a smile on my face. Kong Lor itself was completely deserted and we were at first turned away. Seeing our disappointment, the Phu Hin Bun National Park caretaker started yelling down the empty river. Our confusion abated when, a few minutes later, two men appeared in a small, motorized long boat.
We approached the cave in their canoe at dusk, looking back as the last glimpses of daylight. It felt like we were entering the river Styx on our way to the underworld, and if I hadn’t come to know the unmatchable kindness of the Lao so well, the eeriness may have overcome me.
The only light available in the 7km underground river came from our guides’ headlamps and my small flashlight. We blinked against the utter darkness, straining to make out the different masses beyond the artificial light. The shadows moved, a reminder that the cave was alive – inhabited by bats and great spiders. The water level was equal to the top of the canoe, the rapids spilling sizable amounts onto our feet and legs. After an hour and a half of exploring the cave, including leaving the boat to trek on foot, we arrived in the valley of the second entrance. The men cut the motor, and we sat among the silence in complete awe.
When we returned to the park and to Ginger, we were speechless at the beauty of the day, and drove on to Thakhek in silence.