I’m riding on a local bus through the Laos countryside, heading for the Thom Konglor Cave, an apparently massive cave that can be toured by boat. Currently, I’m travelling with Van, a warm and strong hearted man from New York who I met one night out with a lively bunch of travelers in Vientiane. This is to be my last expedition before leaving this lovely country. I don’t know exactly what it is about the people and the culture here but even some really nasty turns in my travels have done nothing to dampen my appreciation of Laos. As we left the bus station and drove through the outskirts of the city of Vientiane, I felt this sense of calm love for everything I saw slide past my window. I loved the piles of fresh colorful fruit sold by roadside vendors. I loved the shops selling kids hula hoops next to brooms, bikes and motor oil. I loved the cows wandering the city streets, searching for grassy patches by the road. I loved the small children riding with their mother or father on a motorbike, perched standing on their parent’s lap, holding, with tiny hands, onto the stems of the rear-view mirrors. The city gradually fades and soon we are driving through small towns and rice fields, some with farmers bent low over the bright green shoots of the rice plants, arduously working to gather and bundle their harvest. More cows line the roadway, roaming free as the billowing white clouds above.
In about four hours time we arrived in the tiny town of Sien Kam. We stumbled out of the bus a bit dazed and thoroughly confused as to what to do next. A short interview with a kindly elderly gentleman with surprisingly fluent English pointed us in the proper direction in which to find our next ride. Just up the road a tuk tuk taxi was waiting to gather more passengers before beginning the journey into the mountainous countryside. He was leaving in thirty minutes so we passed the time relaxing the shade and, in my case, munching on snacks purchased at the nearby shop. I had found nori, one of my favorite snacks, and as I was happily crunching away like an oversized lizard I noticed an adorable young boy, held by his grandmother, was looking longingly at my treat. I tore him off a piece, fully expecting his guardian to kindly refuse the offer, but to my surprise she let him take it. He grasped the dark green seaweed in his tiny chubby hands and his face lit up into the biggest melt-your-heart baby grin as he took his first taste. I nodded and smiled with him, patting my belly, hoping this was an international gesture for “mmmmm tasty!” I’m not sure if he understood but he smiles bigger than ever, his chubby cheeks opening wide enough to show his first baby teeth, and that’s enough for me.
Soon the driver motioned that it was time to go, so we filed into the tuk tuk and began the drive up into the hills. The flat landscape of Sien Kam quickly gave way to dense mountainous jungle set to a backdrop of stunning shale-colored limestone cliffs. The cliff tops were jagged as shark’s teeth; their faces woven with jungle trees and vines. Some exposed patches were streaked with light beige stone, creating a beautiful contrast to the predominant dark shale color of the cliffs. These cliffs were perched above us like giant stone guardians, towering over us at each bend in the winding road. Sometimes they were quite close but at other times we could see in the distance, through a light mist, an entire expanse of dark stone cliffs woven with jungle and painted with streaks of beige. The landscapes in Laos have been nothing short of mesmerizing in their beauty and this venture into the countryside only served to underline this statement, perhaps even to highlight it and place it in all-caps and bold lettering.
After an hour of gawking, open-mouthed, at the passing scenery, we arrived at our taxi’s final destination, Kan Koun Kam, the first in a series of villages in the valley that lead to the Konglor Cave. After some investigating, we found a fantastic bungalow at a simple resort which looks out over a river. Our resort had the added bonus of being one of the only places around (if not the only place) which rented motor bikes so the following morning we rented ourselves a bike and tore off in search of this legendary cave.
Now most people with a destination in mind might first consult a map, or ask for directions before hitting the road, but Van and I preferred the wanderer’s approach and instead tried every possible route other than the correct one, before finally landing on the road that leads to the cave. In fact the very first turn we made out of the driveway of our hotel was incorrect. That said, we did discover some lovely things on our errant wanderings. First, we meandered into the nearby village, past more serene cows, one of which was lovingly licking its kin, past smiling and giggling village children, past ramshackle huts and shoddy wooden fences enclosing bright green grassy pastures. This place was the most idyllic little peaceful village and it stretched no larger than the interior of a Walmart store.
When the road ended in a pasture we turned around and bumped and jostled our way right back out of the village. We rode past all the smiling children who waved again with just as much enthusiasm as if they hadn’t just seen us moments prior, past the serene cows licking one another, past the dreamy green pastures, and out onto the main dirt road in search of the next possible route. Our next wandering journey took us up into the nearby hills, through beautiful dense jungle and up past a spectacular lookout point. When we had driven for a good twenty minutes with no signs for the cave we began to suspect our error. A short interview with a toll officer confirmed this suspicion, so we turned around and headed back, again. We loped and wound our way through the gorgeous dense jungle, on the tight and winding steep mountain road, back to the spectacular lookout point where we stopped to take in the view of the valley below. This view alone was worth the hour detour into the mountains. Below us stretched the river which wound through the valley, the humble village sitting just up the road from the tiny town of Kan Koun Kam, and the vibrant green rice fields extending into the distance. Running the boarder of all this wonder were ranges of the limestone cliffs, lording over all like omnipresent gods of the valley below.
Finally we gave in and admitted that we had no idea where we were going so we rode into the main village, Kan Koun Kam to ask for directions. In no time we received proper directions and sped off on the last road we hadn’t yet tried. This road was gloriously paved and smooth, unlike many roads one finds in Laos, and stretched straight as an arrow for nearly the entire 40 km journey to the cave. Lining the road on each side were more majestic shale-colored cliffs set behind seemingly endless rice fields. Every now and then we would drive through a little “village”, no more than a modest stretch of ramshackle bamboo houses, and wave at all the happy smiling children who simply burst with friendly calls of “Sabaidee!” and “Hello!”. I marveled at the simplicity of the lives of these humble people, and yet the stunning grandeur of the surrounding landscape spread in their back yards. And they all seemed so happy, despite the hardships of living as poor farmers. A certain peacefulness in their hard worn faces echoed the serene beauty of the land in which they lived. I gave a silent prayer to the Forces That Be that no resort developer finds this hidden gem of a valley and decides to build a golf course over all the beautiful rice fields.
When at last we reached the cave we quickly hired a boat and set off, as the park was closing soon. Unsure of what to expect, we followed our two guides into the wide mouth of the cave and carefully climbed into one of the many long narrow boats which lined the dimly lit river bank just inside the cave. In no time we were speeding deeper into the blackness, slicing easily through the dark waters. The brilliant green patch which was the cave’s mouth quickly shrunk behind us and soon blinked out completely as we rounded a bend in the river. Complete darkness draped heavy around us, broken only by the shafts of light shining from the large headlamps worn by our guides. As they shone their headlights around us we began to get a sense of just how huge the cave really was. As wide as a freeway and tall enough to fit a four storey building, the cave’s enormity and presence were as palatable as the damp yet fresh and cool air that moved in its interior. To behold such a space gives one a feeling of expansion, of being lifted up into the air.
At one point, we pulled to a stop at a sandy bank and followed the younger of our two guides up the steep shore to the beginning of a cement path. Van and I pulled out our phones to light our way but this quickly proved unnecessary as our guide closed an electric circuit and light came flooding into the cave. Somehow these ingenious people had routed an electric cable all this way, deep into a cave filled with water, to create one of the most spectacular lighting displays I have ever seen. The lights ranged from a warm orange color to a shocking cool blue to a brilliant pink. Each light was set to illuminate one of the many massive cave formations scattered along the river bank. As we walked along the cement path these flamboyant cave creatures towered over our heads, their shining color a blinding contrast to the dense darkness from which we just emerged.
Our guide was practically running past this spectacle, ushering us quickly along a rehearsed route of which he had long grown bored. I wouldn’t have it, and stopped often to study the surface, frozen in stone, of what appeared to be gigantic oozing mud monsters in pink, orange and blue. So beautifully strange. The older guide brought the boat around via the river, and at the end of the walking path, we scrambled back inside the narrow boat and continued speeding up the river.
At times we moved past patches of rain, oddly isolated as if a permanent rain cloud perched just above. In a sense this is what was happening. The rain was from other water ways flowing through the stone above us and fell from cracks in the cave’s ceiling. We sped along for some time and I started to wonder if we would ever make it to the end, until at last some light began to filter into the cave. We rounded a bend in the river and a small fire work of vibrant green light burst in the distance. We were looking out the mouth of the beginning of the cave at the lush jungle found just on the other side. When we emerged out into the light it was like moving between two starkly different dimensions; in one moment we were in the cool, dark quiet of the cave and the next we were in a sensory overload among the biting neon green of the jungle, the heavy warmth the air, the incessant orchestra of jungle insects. It was intoxicating. My heart sank when after just a few moments in this sensory bath our guides turned us around and plunged us back into the cold and dark cave.
Back past the patches of rain, back past the formations, back along the entire winding length of this snaking river cave. We arrived back at our origin where we bumbled out of the boat and steered ourselves into the light doing our best to process all the wonder we had just seen.
We were low on fuel so before jetting off into the sunset we stopped at a market outside the park to fill up. As we were buying fuel a gorgeous female dog belonging to the shop came to me to introduce herself and then led me into a shed adjacent to the shop where she kept her just born litter of little baby pups. I lost my knees. They were just gone. It was all I could do to just kneel there, hands over my mouth and bask in their unbearable itty bitty beauty. Each one could easily rest in one hand. Their eyes were still shut and they wriggled around on the floor like little turtles, padding the ground with the sides of their miniscule paws, unable to stand and walk. I couldn’t help myself; I picked one up even though their mama looked at me suspiciously. Its tiny nose moved quickly back and forth and its head bobbed up and down as it tried to make sense of his surroundings. What a little wonder! I was mesmerized. With reluctance, I put the puppy down and saddled up on the bike. Sunset was coming, and quickly.
As the villages and rice fields swept by us, the sun sank lower and lower in directly front of us. To get back before dark was a race against time and, with this in mind, we pressed forward as fast as we could. Up above the sky above blossomed into a flood of orange light, dappled with deep gray purple clouds. Unfolding before us, the final kiss of an epic day: a silencing sunset.
A fiery fairy who has set off to explore Asia and discover new things about the world and herself. The journey is one to fully realize her strength and an unwaivering faith in her personal power.