The engine of our wooden canoe with long tail echoes in the large room while a cool wind makes me shiver. In total darkness, I vaguely distinguish rocks shaped as faces or animals briefly lit up by the beam of the headlamp of our captain. He is constantly scanning the limestone walls, as the slightest miscalculation on these shallow waters would be fatal to our boat. With great skills, our boatman manoeuvres up the winding subterranean Hinboun River which flows through the geological wonder of South-East Asia, the Kong Lor cave in Laos.
It all started yesterday in the charming town of Thakhek, with its few colonial houses lined up around its main square. Leaving the banks of the Mekong River on a 125cc scooter, we were setting off on an exploration of Central Laos along a 450-kilometre loop, renowned for its dramatic karst formations, caves, traditional villages, rice paddies, lake, islands, flooded forests, and the remote and spectacular Kong Lor cave.
If the road itself is completely sealed (but for the last flat stretch leading to the Kong Lor cave), it still presents some serious hazards: strong side winds and heavy and fast truck traffic to and from close-by Vietnam on main roads, or dogs sleeping on the asphalt, chickens consistently crossing right in front of our wheels, not to forget the deep potholes that would instantly propel us up in the air. One thing is sure: local driving habits never fail to surprise, making riding “the loop” an exhilarating adventure!
Stunning karst formations house many caves along the way, and visiting them is as thrilling as driving it. Scattered along the 40-kilometre stretch of road 12, East of Thakhek, there is a cave for everyone! Probably not for the best reasons, the most memorable may be the Tham Nang Aen cave. Showcased in a typical Southeast Asian way, the delicate rock formations are lit in bright primary colours. One can wonder if walking through an underground funfair, the movie set of Harry Potter with staircases resembling Hogwarts’, or boating through the famous Disneyland ride “It’s a small world” (just missing the lingering tune)! There are more natural caves, such as the peaceful half-immerged Xieng Liap cave, or the serene Sa Phan In cave with its sacred water, Buddha statues and colourful prayer flags dangling in the wind. Many caves serve a religious purpose: it is common to find Buddha sculptures and offerings by their entrances, or even Buddha’s carved out of the rock just along the road.
Riding up to the Nakai plateau on the steep road is taking the loop to the next level. The Nam Theun 2 dam dramatically re-shaped the mountainous landscape, by creating a 450-square-kilometre water reservoir. The roads winds amongst numerous newly created islands with forested banks, and dead tree trunks sticking out of the lake are reflected in its still water. A stop at the NT2 visitor centre provides explanations on Laos’ largest hydro-power project that according to authority took local people out of poverty by selling electricity to neighbouring Thailand. We meet some of the 6300 inhabitants that have been recently resettled as their homes and lands got flooded. In the relocated village of Thalang, Amphai points towards the lake: “Below the surface, there! That’s where I was born. Life has changed. Now, we have electricity and the government gave us a bit of money and helped us build a new home, but we are uncertain of what the future will bring us”, she timidly states in an unexpected excellent English. With her family, they are operating a guesthouse and running boat rides on the artificial lake amongst the surreal landscapes. Locals had to adapt. Overlooking the lake at sunrise from the deck of the Phosy Thalang restaurant, we observe former farmers commuting on wooden boats to go fishing. We wonder if a model similar to the Cheow Lan Lake in Southern Thailand will be successful here and if eco-tourism projects will flourish in a few years, creating a sustainable economy for locals.
Up the Nam Theun River, crossing the peaceful Baan Thabak village, weirdly-shaped boats can be observed. The bomb boats are made of former U.S. aircraft fuel tanks. During the Laos Secret war, the area was heavily bombed by the U.S., as the Ho Chi Minh trail passes close-by. Linking North and South Vietnam and used by the communist Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War as a manpower-and-hardware supply line, it made Laos a target. Hiking through the dense forest, we realize that it must have been impossible to spot the trail from the sky as it was engineered to remain hidden: bamboo branches were tied up with ropes to cover it up, bridges were built a few centimetres below the water to remain invisible, and natural caves were part of the logistics. As a consequence, the whole area was bombed hoping that the trail may be hit, but this never stopped the supply line from operating. Many of the caves that are open to the public today used to be hideouts during the war.
As our sturdy boat passes the last shallow rapids fast, I doubt that the Kong Lor cave was such a hideout. This water cave is narrow at certain parts, sometimes opens on to vast 100-metre high chambers, but it seems to offer only one dry chamber. Today, this vast dry room is tastefully lit for travellers to admire its ancient stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and delicate rock curtains.
I see the sunlight announcing the outlet. Getting out of the cave after a 7.5-kilometre ride, dramatic karst formations are welcoming us as the sun warms out skin after this exhilarating adventure of cave exploring. Our scooter is waiting for us in the shade, more adventures lie ahead of us as we hit the sandy road again towards Thakhek.
Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen (text & photographs)
- If you want to live this adventure, you can rent a reliable scooter or dirt motorbike at Mad Monkey in Thakhek who is a trustworthy outfitter providing good advice on the area. If one has to be cautious as there are some nasty potholes on the road, a scooter is sufficient to complete this modified loop (a dirt motorbike may be a bit overkill).
- Our original plan was to complete a full loop, but the heavy truck traffic on the boring highway 13 made us reconsider. We would recommend the modified loop proposed on the interactive map below to make the most of your time in the area (3 to 4 days are ideal).
- We do not often mention places to sleep, but Phosy Thalang is a great break on the loop, with its cute bungalows on the flooded land run by a very friendly local family speaking good English, and cooking pretty well! The morning breakfast on their restaurant overlooking the lake is a must too! Boat trips on the lake are offered.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!