Posts Tagged 'kong lo cave'

Hand Tractors and Impending Tourism: Day Two in Ban Natane

My first morning in Ban Natane, I woke up with the sun and the roosters. It isn’t saying much—it could have happened somewhere in the States—but it was still a first for me.

The morning was misty and, as I sat up and peered through my mosquito net, I could see out the open-air common room into the dirt paths of the village, the common room of the next house over, where the TV already blared and the family sat on the floor around a metal table of steaming bowls. The day had begun.

I’d had to sleep with ear plugs. I’d become accustomed in SE Asia to geckos bellowing and incests buzzing, but I wasn’t used to the noise of the village: animals snorting, grunting, squawking, chirping, thunder booming and rain drumming. The houses are all open in the village—no windows or glass to enclose things—so you could also hear the neighbors talking. There were less filters, less divisions, more of a meshing of life, I thought as I crawled off my cot. I poured a cloudy glass of water that had been boiled and purified with local herbs, and swallowed my malaria pills.

I’d had plans to ride a hand tractor, then hike an hour out to a river, possibly visit some caves. “Too much rain,” Pauline’s supervisor—whose name I could never get straight—told me over our breakfast of sticky rice and more frog. It was determined, as we dipped clumps of rice into red chili paste, that I would instead ride a hand tractor around to the check out the neighboring villages.

This is romantic in theory. And it is pretty cool—the hand-crank wrench, the rumble, the foot pedals and gear shift, all the machinery exposed, retching and rumbling through brown puddles, water whooshing into waves beside you. Standing on a vehicle like that without falling over is another matter. I tried squatting, clutching the wooden railing, but the lurching started to make me nauseous. For some reason, I determined that sitting was my best option. (Three days later, I’m still paying for this decision with a bruised tailbone…)

Two guys from the Ban Natane took me around to three other villages. Which gave me more of a feel for life out there. It looks like this:

I suppose what struck me most was how much life there was, how much constant movement. It wasn’t exciting like a city, but there was this constant bustle, animals and people, babies of different species. It was intoxicating—I felt like I could sit for hours and just watch it pass.

Again, there seemed to be less divisions: the pig that snorted around today, for instance, could just as easily be dinner tomorrow. Even the land see more involved, more implicated, more imminently a part of life. We talk a lot about sustainable living in the West, but this was the real deal. It wasn’t ideal—there was plenty of trash strewn about, mostly wrappers for the products transported through the cave, and other trash, people still burned. But it was the closest I’d ever seen.

I met Pauline and her supervisor in one of the villages for lunch—another family’s house, another bare wooden room with modest Lao girly posters on the wall, an exposed shoulder, perhaps. On a cot on the floor lay an impossibly thin woman, skin loose on a coat hanger of an arm she raised to readjust her blanket. “She is sick,” Pauline told me, “with cancer.”

I tried not to watch as her family members brought a glass of the murky, purified water to her lips, as they rolled her over, readjusted her pillows. I stared at my frog lunch. These villages were traditional, isolated—and this was part of that too. It wasn’t just the agrarian ideal, the simple life; people here were also poor, didn’t have access to the arguably good aspects of modern life, like health care. It was all fascinating, intoxicating for me, glimpsing in for a few days—but this was these people’s lives. And this, too, was what it looked like.

Later that afternoon, I walked down to the stream by Ban Natane with Pauline. It was where locals bathe, wash clothes, where boys clutch bows and arrows shoot them into the water, actually managing to catch some fish. Pauline laid down on the shallow rocks—clothed, as they do in Laos—and let the water run over her.

“All the people I interview,” she told me, “they all want the tourism. They think it will be a good thing.” She looked over at the boys fishing. “But I’m not so sure. I think they will lose their way of life.” It had already happened, already begun, with the introduction of TV a few months earlier.

I thought of the sallow skin and boney elbow of the woman at lunch. “But who are we to say how their lives should be? If they support the tourism project—” I shrugged, made that French popping noise I’ve picked up— “maybe it will bring positive changes too.”

We talked for a long time about it—about the preservation and loss of culture, about isolation and poverty, about the role of outsiders and tourism, whether it ever does any good or not. I thought of a story I’d heard once, about some now-famous Greek statue that was discovered by Englishmen or Frenchmen, the locals unaware of how valuable and precious it was. They were going to smash it, until the explorers stopped them. I couldn’t remember the name of the statue, or where I heard the story or if it was even true or not. But I thought of broken-off noses and missing limbs in European museums, and wondered if the sanctity of some things might be seen better by outsiders, who have more of world to compare it to.

But again, I thought of the woman on the cot, barely moving. I thought of the earthy taste of the purified water, imagined that taste in her mouth as well as mine.

“There is not an easy answer, I think,” Pauline said, as the water ran over her clothed limbs.

I nodded.

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Blessing of String and Sticky Rice: Day One in Ban Natane

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.

Emerging

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.

Bananas and Plastic Bows: Sawng Thaew to Kong Lo Cave

Goat on the roof. Friendly driver.

Salt-and-pepper hair beneath a worn military cap, high cheekbones and pursed lips. He squeezes the bananas I’m clutching through their plastic bag, says something in Lao.

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.

Another friendly fellow

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.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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