I smile, shake my head. He repeats; I repeat. He nods.
I can’t tell if he approves of the bananas or not.
When I climbed on the sawng thaew in Ban Na Hin, the old man slid over, made room for me between the empty gasoline barrels and bags of cabbage. We rumbled around the market. Old women climbed on with pink bags, still-alive fish flopping inside, while the driver kept climbing on the roof, adding to the goods secured atop: sacks of rice, a goat and my dusty red backpack.
The old man nudged me. “Kong Lo?” I nodded. He nodded. But where else would I have been going?
We headed out down the two-lane highway, lined with construction lots and signs for a Ford Motors Center. The main industry in Ban Na Hin isn’t tourism—as evidenced by the single-room tourism office surrounded by grass-chewing cows—but the nearby hydro-electric plant. The handful of guesthouses that run the length of the town’s main road are an afterthought, and the English spoken is minimal.
Despite this, Ban Na Hin is still the closest town to the Kon Lo Cave, a 7.5km limestone tunnel that’s purported to be creepy as shit and mildly reminiscent of the Greek underworld. But, 40-some winding kilometers from a main highway and serviced only by local buses and sawng thaew (pick-up trucks with two benches in the truckbed), what would be a top tourist attraction in any other country remains fairly off-the-beaten-path in Laos. Which, as much as the cave itself, is what lured me out here—after Vientiane and Luang Prabang, I was tourism-weary and in the mood for adventure.
So I don’t mind as it takes two hours to go the 45km to Kon Lo. Past rock that jutted from the earth like jagged teeth, past slash-and-burn fields were the land looked as though it were gasping—we stop at every village, delivering groceries, dropping off canisters of gasoline. I watch the landscape, the farms, the clouds that ito the rock like scraps of cloth that had been ripped off. And I people-watch.
And now, slyly, I study the old man beside me. He has soft yellow skin the texture of crushed silk. I notice on his sleeve, he has small plastic bows haphazardly safety-pinned on. Beside his army-green cap, I imagine them as military decorations, badges from a make-believe army. I imagine them as gifts from grandchildren, secured to his shirt and forgotten about.
I pull out my notebook, to jot down the image between the bumps that stutter my handwriting across the page. He leans over, looks at the notebook, watches me write. He nods as though he understands.
I can’t tell if he approves or not.
I smile, point to the plastic bow on his sleeve. He laughs. I give a thumbs-up.
He tugs his sleeve, begins to unfasten one of the pins. He takes my sleeve, pins the bow. I touch it, smile. He laughs. I laugh.
(A little later on the ride, I discover what the bows are: a bunch of teenagers lining the road come up to the sawng thaew and, through the poles, pin bows to our shirts. They smile and sing, holding out a collection for something.)
The sawng thaew thins of its passengers and produce as we rumble along. A tank of a woman with a soft, laughing face pushes her way out, waves at me. We stretch our legs in the luxurious space.
The old man waves his arm at the driver, stands to a hunch beneath the truck bed’s dome. I tap him as he begins to shuffle off.
I open my plastic bag and hand him a banana.
He smiles. I laugh, he laughs.
I think he approves.
He steps off the back of the truck, place his hands together and bows his head. I repeat.
Travel Tips: Getting to Kong Lo Cave
While researching Kong Lo Cave, the number one concern I encountered was over transport. The LP doesn’t have much info and it seems as though the lack of direct buses deters a lot of people from visiting.
Here’s the deal: Kong Lo and the nearby Ban Na Hin (nearest town, with guesthouses and an ATM) lie along Highway 8, which moves east from Highway 13. All buses between Vientiane/Paksan and Tha Khaek/Savanaket run down Highway 13, so the route you will often read recommended is to take one of these buses running along the 13, ask to get off at the junction, then take a sawng thaew to Ban Na Hin, where you can then take another sawng thaew to Kon Lo Cave or the nearby town, Ban Kong Lo, where it’s possible to homestay.I think it’s the transfers that deter people. It;s actually a lot less dodgy than it sounds. There’s enough of a trickle of backpackers that the bus drivers know where you’re headed—there’s not much else out here for tourists. Sawng thaew run from the junction to Ban Na Hin every 30-or-so minutes during the daytime, and there are supposedly a few direct sawng thaew to Ban Kong Lo every day, though it probably wouldn’t be worth waiting for those.
From Vientiane, there’s only one VIP bus to Tha Khaek a day at an inconvenient 1pm—journey takes about 6-7 hours, so you’d potentially be looking at doing the transfer after dark. Local buses, though, run every half hour beginning at 6am. They cost 60,000 kip, regardless of whether you get off at the junction or the final destination.
There’s also local buses to Lak Soa, the biggest town along Highway 8. The advantage of this bus is that you negate the feared transfer at the junction. These buses leave Vientiane every 2 hours, beginning also at 6am, and cost 75,000. This is the bus I took, and I recommend it: it was early enough in the day that the lack of AC was bearable, and even with a break-down, I still arrive in Ban Na Hin at 1pm.
I’ve also been told that there’s one daily bus directly from Vientiane to Ban Kong Lo that leaves between 9-10am. However, if there’s not enough people, the bus will be canceled, so it’s probably best not to risk it.
From Ban Na Hin, though, there’s only three official sawng thaew per day to Kong Lo—more evidence of the undeveloped tourist facilities. The first leaves the town bus station at 10-ish, the others at 1 and 3-ish. But in reality, they seem to leave more often than that. Otherwise, you’re looking at arranging private transport, about 100,000 kip versus the 25,000 for the bus.
Coming from the South, it appears as though your best bets would be to take a sawng thaew from Tha Khaek, which is well-connected to Savannakhet and Pakse, or one of the buses coming up the 13 and doing the transfer. I did meet some grumpy Brits who had gotten on the wrong bus and had the journey take a day and a half—”All this for a bloody cave.”
Which brings me to my biggest recommendation: treat the whole thing as journey-is-the-destination adventure. Don’t focus on just Getting To The Cave—everyone I met who did this seemed fairly annoyed, or at least had to qualify it with “worth the trek.” I was armed with snacks and in the mindset of “well, let’s see where this leads,” and I had a grand ole’ time.