After spending some time chatting to the very well informed Vientiane tourist office we found out there was in fact a direct bus from Vientiane to the little town of Kong Lor and hence the Konglor Cave. The bus leaves the Southern Terminal in Vientiane at 10am everyday.
Our bus made a few informal stops along the way sometimes to pick up passengers, other times let some ladies on the bus selling boiled sweetcorn or green papaya sticks with dipping spices. Or simply just to let everyone out (ladies included) to pee in the bushes next to the road. As you do on long bus journeys in Laos.
We arrived in Kong Lor just as the sun was setting behind the limestone mountains that cut across the landscape in which we found ourselves between 2 of these un-scalable fortress walls. The bus drops you off outside a clean cheap guest-house in town (which is tiny by the way). We’d read that there are local families that offer homestays in the town of Kong Lor but with all the new looking guest-houses along the road we weren’t too sure of finding one nearby and after the long journey we decided to take the easy route and check in to the guest-house.
There was just enough daylight to enjoy a quick stroll around town and play a bit of football with some kids in a dried out rice paddy.
We made an early start and by 8am we were outside the entrance to the park wherein the cave lies. It’s an easy 10 minute walk from the town and another 5 minutes to where arrange the boats for the cave. A 3 seater boat costs KIP 120,000 (£9) regardless of how many people are on it so if you’re travelling alone then you might want to join up with another traveller or couple to split the costs.
We arrived even before the boatmen so as the first few guys arrived we set off. A short walk around a tranquil lagoon takes you into the mouth of the cave where the darkness slowly creeps in and takes over your senses.
The Konglor Cave was formed by a river slowly eroding its way through a limestone karst over the years which has resulted in an underground river over 7kms long. In parts it is some 20 metres across with some ceilings rising over 50 metres high! And apparently in some places the river is just as deep too. The sheer scale is immense and breath-taking.
Our little longtail boat set off into the pitch black caverns with a driver at the back controlling the engine and a little kid lookout at the front, each with just a headlamp to see where to go. We both had headlamps too but the little lights don’t do the subterranean architecture any justice.
After a short while the boat stopped in a massive lit up cavern where we were allowed to walk in and amongst some massive stalagmites and stalactites. The boat then goes further around and picks you up where you then continue further into the darkness.
After what feels like an age you can finally make out some natural lights fighting its way into the cave and quite suddenly you come out the other end into a lush jungle. A few more minutes up river and you end up at a little rest area on the side of the river so beautifully isolated from the rest of the world. There is a nearby village you can you can home-stay the night in but after a quick pitstop we hopped back in the boat and made our way back into the cave.
Sitting in utter darkness with only the constant drone of the boat’s motor for the 45 minutes it took to get back to the entrance gives ample time for your mind to race over all the frightening scenarios that could so easily go wrong. Cave collapse, flash flood, engine dies, get lost…*shudder*
This last possibility seemed the least likely as I thought it was a singular river that had cut its way through the rock and we’d just be going back the way we came. That was until we arrived back at the entrance without seeing the massive lit-up cavern that we had stopped in when heading in the other direction but in fact taken another route to get back. Overall it was a 2 and a half our trip but well worth the extra effort it takes to get to Kong lor.
Seeing as we made it out before midday and there’s not much else to do in the area we decided to try make our way down to Thakaek that afternoon. The first part of the journey was easy, catching a songtheaw (taxi) from Kong Lor to the next village of Ban Na Hin. This is where it got a little interesting. Another couple travelling with us from Kong Lor felt it would be better to catch another songtheaw to the town of Vieng Kham and then flag down a bus heading towards Thakaek.
The other option was to rough it a bit a sit in the songtheaw all the way to Thakaek as the driver was heading in that direction anyway. It seemed like it would work out to be more or less the same price so we sat in the back of the taxi all the way down to Thakaek. The journey was way more comfortable than expected and we arrived in pretty good time too.