13th January 2015
There was a collective ‘wow’ as we headed for the chink of light, exiting the cave in our long tail boats. We’ve just spent the last hour in near darkness on an underground river – welcome to central Laos…
Northern Laos' appeal is instant; stunning mountain scenery, dusty villages, mysterious Stone Jars – and the charm of Luang Prabang. In the south the Mekong stretches across 10 miles of heavenly islands, tumbles across rapids and down into channels and falls. Here the river is fringed with coconut palms and hammocks, perfect for viewing those deep orange southern sunsets.
The central areas of Laos, however, often get overlooked – most people fly over it or pass through nocturnally en route to Pakse, the ’4000 Islands’ or Cambodia. But stopping off in the Khammouane and Savannakhet Provinces pays dividends – after all where else could you ride a tiny narrow boat for almost eight kilometres through a cavernous limestone karst?
Khammouane means ‘happy gold’ in Lao; local legends tell of precious metals hidden deep in the ground. Nowadays the province's jewels are the karsts and caves of the Khammouane Mountains that form part of the Annamite Range, a 1000km plus rugged spine that runs through Laos and Vietnam, eventually sweeping south into Cambodia.
Nestled inside these mountains, on a small plateau 50km from the easterly road to Vietnam, lies one of Laos’ hidden gems – Kong Lor cave. The surrounding area encapsulates everything that is wonderful about the country; the morning smell of burning wood, mist rising from a trickling river, craggy flat-topped mountains and rice fields filled with happy, smiling villagers.
A small opening beyond a tranquil crystal lake gives little indication as to the adrenalin rush that lies beyond. Here we took to small motorised boats crewed by local villagers equipped with headlamps. The boatmen skillfully steered us into near darkness with only the crisscrossing of torch beams to guide us upstream along the underground river. The light played tricks with our eyes as the rocks faked an imaginary mountainous night skyline inside the cave.
After a while we stopped, clambered out of the boats to walk around the ‘stalagmite gallery’ before continuing through rapids and whirlpools. The cave ceiling towered 100m above us – at other times we ducked to avoid the overhanging limestone formations. In places the river was 30m across and several deep, but a couple of times we needed get out to wade over rocks before continuing. After an hour we exited the cave into bright sunlight which struck towering rock edifices beside the river, giving them a golden glow.
Thakek is another little gem. The provincial capital was the scene of an infamous massacre of Vietnamese and Lao troops in 1946 at the hands of the French, before seemingly dozing off beside the Mekong. The town woke up again in 2011 when the third ‘Friendship Bridge’ to Thailand opened. Despite its newfound strategic importance we wandered alongside the river past simple beer 'n' barbeque duck stalls to watch the sun set beyond the opposite bank over the seemingly giant buildings, bright lights and communications towers of Thailand.
A bumpy 40 minute ride in a local truck got us out into the countryside to explore the surrounding limestone karts – and another unexpected adrenaline rush... Guided by a local villager, we walked through forests to a spot beside a hidden lake and scrambled over rocks to Pa Soum cave. We swam into the darkness of the cave for a couple of hundred metres accompanied by our trek guide on a kayak, his flashlight illuminating stunning rock formations above us.
Further south, I decided to deviate a little from the itinerary to stop in sleepy Savannakhet to see if anything had changed since my last visit a couple of years ago. Like its riverside sister Thakek, the provincial capital oozes faded charm and yearns for a splash of paint. The guide books say there’s nothing to do, which may be true, but a wander around the old French plaza and cathedral is a walk in the past, something that is becoming increasingly difficult to do these days as restoration projects transform the world's colonial past. After finding an old Chinese merchant house tastefully converted into a gallery, info centre and coffee shop, we gratefully made use of the facilities. Realising that our colonial meanderings had overrun and lunch was still several hours away, I found a smoking wok just off the plaza. Laos' central provinces then threw up a final surprise as we enjoyed the tastiest pad thai I’d eaten in years...
Tour leader Mark Steadman recently led our Laos Unlocked group tour.