The man held my open palm in his. In it, he placed a small clump of sticky rice and pork. He raised his right hand to his face, murmured blessings in a language I didn’t understand. He waved a piece of string, then tied it around my wrist.
“He wishes you good health, good luck,” Pauline translated.
I smiled, bowed. Outside the open-air room, lightning stuttered the night sky white.
Sometimes you end up some weird-ass places traveling. Not that they’re weird, so much as it’s weird that you’re there, that you ended up there—that the gods of circumstance conspired, whispering in their thunderous perch above grey rock, to bring you there. And it was like that in Ban Natane.
To say Ban Natane is off the beaten path is an understatement. Cut off from the rest of world by impassable roads, the only way to reach it and its neighboring four villages is through the Kong Lo Cave. Which is how I got there.
I met Pauline trolling the town of Ban Na Hin for travel companions. The boat ride through the cave costs 100,000 kip, so I was on the lookout for people to split the ride with. Pauline sat on the computer in front of her guesthouse. As it turned out, she was a French anthropology student doing her Masters research on Ban Natane and its neighbors; she was meeting her local supervisor and translator the next day and headed back to the village for another 10-day stay. “If you’d like to come with us,” she made that characteristic French popping noise, “it’s no problem.”
On the sawng thaew ride to the cave’s entrance, she filled me in the details. A French NGO was sponsoring the development of eco-tourism in the Ban Natane area. To date, all homestays and eco-tourism in the area have focused on the Ban Kong Lo side of the cave—you take a boat ride through, come back and sleep on the more developed side of the cave.
“No one stays on this side,” she told me, “because tourists don’t know the villages are there.” Since the only viable way to reach the villages is through the cave, Ban Natane and its neighbors have remained quite isolated, not reaping the rewards/wealth of tourism. “In all of last year,” Pauline told me, “only 20 tourists came to Ban Natane.”
The eco-tourism project was focused on developing facilities for homestays and training locals to act as guides into the caves and waterfalls that surround the region. Pauline’s project focused on documenting the traditional agricultural way of life, interviewing locals about the history and their feelings about tourism, and then studying the impact.So the Kon Lo cave became, not my destination, but the passageway into another world. Which actually what it felt like—a limestone cavern like a mouth, dripping with stalagmites, the squeal and swoop of bats, where mist floated off the cool water like thin ghosts. It felt like moving through some deeply internal part of the earth, through its innards or petrified organs.
We emerged on the other side. Where most people turn around, we began walking down a dirt road. My cheap flip flops had finally busted, so I walked the 2km barefoot. In the distance, the sky grumbled. We arrived in Ban Natane just as the afternoon storm erupted.
My homestay was with one of the wealthier families in town. They owned the town’s only shop (and thus had packets of Nescafe in abundance), goods that had all been transported on skinny wooden boats through the cave, as they had been for generations. Even the TV. “TV only arrived here three months ago,” Pauline told me. “So the children,” she gestured towards the little ones gathered rapt around the glowing screen, “they are like this.”
The storm cleared and she showed me around the village. Everything enthralled me—I am, as previously admitted, a total city kid, so the presence alone of ducks, pigs, chickens and goats was thrilling, let alone the sarongs and hoes and looms beneath the stilted houses.
We shared dinner with the family that night, as we would for all our meals during my 2-day stay. As isolated as it is, the food was all local, not by trend as it is in the Bay Area, but by necessity—foraged snails, fish, frogs. “Frog season has just started,” Pauline translated from her Lao supervisor, “so we will eat a lot of frog.” (Sure enough, I had it 4 meals in a row.)
Walking that night, we three were called over to a large house. I could tell it was a wealthy person’s home because it had a ground floor, constructed of brick—like the TVs, this was new, Pauline told me, as traditional homes were all stilted and wooden. “It means you need more space, and have the money to build it.” She paused. “So modernity is already coming.”
Men sat on the floor around a type of altar, banana-leaf adorned in white flowers. It wasn’t a mystical vibe—they sat in polo shirts and slacks, chatting casually. A large silver bowl of pig parts, a leg and half a head, lay beside baskets of sticky rice.
We were motioned to sit, a village-made scarf thrown over our left shoulders. The man in charge began talking—“a blessing,” Pauline whispered. He held another man’s open palm, put a clump of food and a plastic cup of lao lao in it, chanted, tied the string. Then everyone commenced to bless each other.
“It’s a ceremony called baci,” Pauline translated. “They’re having it for special visitors—the district chief came today.” People took photos with digital cameras; I assumed those to be the wealthy and important visitors.
We were soon called into the mix. I wound up with a bangle of string around my right wrist and an even fuller tummy. The storms continued in the sky outside. Old men smiled as they blessed me, as they blessed each other.
And I had one of those moments when your life feels like a dream, some foreign place you don’t quite understand how you ended up in. Yes, I rode an old wooden boat through a cave and walked down a dirt road—but how I really got to Ban Natane or that ceremony, I suspected, had little to do with that. It didn’t make sense, to my Western mind, why I’d be so welcomed, so embraced here.
And so blessed.
Travel Tips: Getting to Ban Natane
It’s actually pretty simple, even if you don’t have an anthropologist as your guide. Take your day bag, sturdy plastic sandals, a good flashlight and some snacks with you on your boat ride. It’ll still cost 100,000 kip, even if you only take it one way. So it goes.
Get off at the snack stands. Only buy the snacks if you’re desperate; since they have to be transported through the cave, they’re fuck-all expensive. Anyway, there’ll be a blue sign that haphazardly explains the homestays:
From the snack stands, there’s two dirt roads. Facing the sign, Ban Natane is down the road to your left. Straight ahead, across the bridge, is another closer village, though from what I understand, there’s less facilities for homestays. If you arrive in Ban Natane and say “homestay,” you’ll get hooked up. Or just show up and look like a Westerner, and they’ll know what to do with you.
Bringing a Lao phrasebook would be goddamn useful. There may be some people floating around who speak a few scraps of English; there’s rumored to be an English teacher at the school in the village, though she was out of town when I was there. If you can manage to communicate, there’s bikes you can rent or a couple good treks to go on, if it’s the dry season. Next month, an NGO will be holding a tour guide training course for locals, so I imagine there will be much more in the way of communication and tour options shortly.