Into the Dark: Kong Lor Cave, Part I

Yesterday was our first day here in Khoun Kham village and we decided to set off for the main attraction, the Kong Lor caves.

We started the day with a quick noodle soup and after asking for some directions we set off. The cave was a 45 km drive away through some beautiful scenery. We zipped through flat rice paddies along dead straight roads, past wild buffalo, cows, chickens and loads of other wildlife crossing in front us.  The scene was quite beautiful. At the end of the paddy fields these massive karst mountains shot out of the ground. Locals were farming rice and tending to animals as we passed them in their conical straw hats.

After just under an hour we arrived at the entrance to the Kong Lor cave. We put our bikes on their kick stands, bought our tickets and met our tour guides, two locals from the Kong Lor village.

It doesn't look like much, but that is the mouth to the most surreal place on earth.

Now before I go on, let me tell you a few things about Kong Lor cave:

The cave is over 7 kilometers long, 30 meters wide and between 20 and 100 meters high. A few years ago the largest species of spider in the world was discovered there. The cave links Kong Lor and Natane villages, and this cave is the only way to get to Natane village, which lies in a hidden valley on the other side of the cave. Natane village only got electricity in 2011 and the tribe that lives there hasn't had much influence from the outside world.

Getting closer!

As our guides were showing us down to our boats, I noticed one of them had a severe scar on his face, as if a large animal had attacked him. I mean seriously, like his cheek was missing on one side and you could see his teeth sticking out. Talia was not happy at my ‘joker’ reference…

The guide with the huge scar on his face, heading to the canoe.
We crossed the river, entered the cave and got into another boat inside the cave, where it became dark almost immediately. The ceiling was low and wide. It felt like we were being swallowed by some giant beast. We put on our headlights (which didn't do much; it was like a candle in a huge cathedral or a stadium) and the guides raced our boat through the cave, through bats, rapid water and god knows what else.

We got out of the boat onto a sandy beach inside the cave and walked along behind the guide in the darkness. We could hear water rushing in the distance and oddly loud drips of water closer by. 

Ready for a ghost story?

We stopped a couple of times along our walk to look at the stalagmites, stalactites and columns along the way, some of which were unbelievable.

In the cave I decided to see the musical applications for these natural rock formations:

After a while we got back into the boat and continued on, speeding through the blackness. Eventually we saw some strong light as we rounded a corner and we realized that we were nearing the end. Just as we got the camera ready the boat started to hit some white water rapids, and I noticed the guide who was sitting behind me driving the boat had gotten out!

I looked around for the guides when I saw them at the front of the boat pulling us through the rapids. Once we had gotten through the rapids the guides got back in and drove us out of the mouth (or arse…) of the cave. The view was exceptional, with jungles, rapid water and towering mountains all around us.

Just then as we were puttering along the river the guide let out a yelp and pointed upwards, and I looked up, just in time  to see an eagle with its wings fully spread gliding right over our heads and land on a tree branch to our left. As I sat there in this little canoe I thought to myself “how could this get any better?!”

But it did! See you in part 2!

The goings-on

Ok, so here’s the DL.

 We’re in a town called Khoun Kham today (tonight), and last night we stayed in a town called…. Something or other. It was next to impossible to find on the map because here in Laos the name of anything depends on how you feel it should be spelt, leading to …some confusion.

 I have to say it’s not hard to see this place was once a French colony with all the ways they hide everything so no-one can understand anything except the locals. Anyway, the town was called either:

Pak Xin






Pak sin

Or Paxxane

Between road maps, street signs and what have you, I don’t know how to spell it.  Our journey here to Khoun Kham was uneventful but very interesting. We stopped off on the road to have a look at the “limestone forest” which was in all honesty, very beautiful.

We found a room for 1 euro a day (about a buck forty to all the ‘mericans) which is an absolute steal, though I get a feeling that a zero may have been omitted somewhere.

 Once we got the room here in town I was doing a quick run over the bikes and discovered that we had next to no oil in the engines so we went to a local mechanic, who spoke oddly great English. The guy ended up checking our bikes all the way over (all brakes, greased the chain, tire pressure and complete oil change) for just 75,000 kip ($9.50) for both bikes, which is very cheap considering he was working for almost a half hour between both the bikes. We were well happy!

 We wanted to blog loads for everyone tonight but a very odd storm passed by town (no rain, just thunder and lightning) and there was no electricity for a few hours, and despite the power coming back, the internet hasn’t. So I am writing to you from the past, as I plan to post this once the internet recovers.

Hello future self.

 Well now that our bikes, Betsy Black and Lady Stark (previously Arya, but her title and surname has a better ring to it) are fit and healthy and well fed, it’s time for us to venture from here to the 7.5km Kong Lor cave.

 Why is that significant, you ask?

 It’s a cave, and I’m claustrophobic. Also, it is home to not Laos’, not Asia’s but the world’s biggest spiders discovered in the last decade.  And I’m arachnophobic.

 See you on the other side future self.

Dusty Roads, Dusty Faces: Getting to the Country

Well, friends, we’re back, after a long and dusty road of…dust. Seriously. That’s about all I can recall from our last couple of drives. We left Vientiane, having done all that city has to offer (like seeing the abandoned water park and trying to find the zoo that mysteriously disappeared at some point), two days ago, apparently a Tuesday. We never really know anymore.
The long road ahead

Getting a drink of water before heading on again.

We drove to a small town called Paxsan, one of those places where if you blink, you miss it. And we pretty much did. When we got close to the town we saw a guesthouse and decided to get a room there, as opposed to driving on and trying to find another one. The room was cheap, which was fine, but I’ll get to the not-so-fine stuff in a minute.

We dropped our things off, and headed back on the road to find a place with internet and food so we could do a little blogging. We drove couple kilometers and the small wooden buildings became ever more sparse so we had to pull over and ask each other if we had passed the whole city. We had, so we turned around and drove through the two or three streets of the actual town. And apparently the whole town is internet-free, so we satisfied ourselves with overpriced drinks at a bar outside of town, not blogging. Meanwhile, a few feet away from us, the ladies that run the place were sitting on the floor watching TV, while pulling wings off of giant bugs that they would later eat.
Ladies hard at work.

The final wingless product
If you want to see them in action, here's a video for you.

We ended up going back to our guesthouse where I debated taking a shower, but I decided against it. To do so would require me to stand against the toilet, over the flush-bucket (a bucket full of water and a scoop to dump water into the toilet when you’re finished. Also doubles as back-side wash water after a healthy number two), and far too close to a huge cockroach carcass being carried away by hundreds of tiny black ants. Instead, I took a nap, covered in red grit from the dusty drive.

 When I woke up, Ricky and I went for dinner at a karaoke place where no one was singing and there were 3 whole tables of people. I ordered “fried fish with basil.” What came to me was undercooked, boiled fish with onions and carrots, whole leaves of basil on stems, and sliced peppers in an unbearably spicy sauce. By the third bite I felt like even my teeth were on fire.

Now, there are a few things I really dislike: snow on my face, overuse of the word random, Crocs. But needlessly spicy food is at the top of the list. Everything from my gums to the back of my throat were tingling with some sort of mutant-power chili spice.  I had to take a break every couple of bites so I could down some more soda, and by the time I was finished (and given away the mushy uncooked bits to the begging dogs around my feet), I was so grumpy and in pain that I demanded we stop to find ice cream on the way home, which we did.

Today we got up and headed out of the guesthouse, once again not bothering to shower. The roach was gone, but when Ricky tried to rinse his hands off in the shower, the shower head fell off.  So we hit the road, not caring how dirty we were, because we knew we’d just get dirtier. And did we ever.

Now, I sweat. A lot. And here in Laos it’s incredible the way my sweatstache reappears just seconds after wiping it away. So when I’m covered in sweat and then driving on sometimes-unpaved roads, I get real dirty real quick. Take a look at this pic. That’s not tan. That’s dirt.

Here's a better view of the karsts behind us.

And an even better one.

We also had to drive through veritable clouds of white butterflies. Now, butterflies may look delicate and sweet, but when you hit them going 80 km an hour, they feel like rocks pelting you.

 When Ricky and I finally got into the village we were to stay at, I was so gritty and dirty that I could scrape off layers of it with my fingernails. We decided to eat before we really got settled, and while we waited for the food, I decided to have look at a nearby market for a loofah or bath scrub of some sort. What I found was a scouring pad, guaranteed to get rid of grease and grime. Well, I was covered in that stuff, so I bought it, and let me tell you, I’ve never felt cleaner.

Of course, the glory of my super clean and shiny skin didn’t last long, because the power shortly went out, so Ricky and I played cards by headlamp in the main building, while small children chased puppies in the dark and somehow did not fall.

So now the lights are back on and I am typing this while we wait for our post-dinner dinner. The Lao boy next to me is playing World of Warcraft and there’s a moth fluttering on the floor. I have to admit that the last couple of days have been pretty strange, but sitting next to this kid that thinks he’s a warlock is pretty cool.


The Day We Became Fugitives in a Foreign Country

Today started off as a normal day. I woke up quite late because I couldn’t sleep. Meanwhile, Ricky was on the bunk below me, giggling to himself while watching Top Gear.  At about noon, we got out of bed, had ourselves some cereal and prepared for the day.

Some of our plans fell through, so we decided to go for a little drive and see a couple of sights.  We headed toward a huge golden stupa in the distance, and as we neared, we saw that what separated it  from us was a massive empty parking lot, the kind you put a traveling carnival in. As soon as we scooted in past a mostly closed gate (which should have been our first sign), Ricky got a devious grin on his face.

“This is going to be fun.”

We drove around the lot for a while until we came to one end and he challenged me.

“Naught to  fifty to naught.”

So we backed up to the curb, counted down and took off. Much to Ricky’s surprise I stayed right with him, and when I looked down I was nearly at 55 kmph and slammed on the brakes.  My tail snaked around me, but I stayed upright, much to my own surprise.

Well, it was so much fun that we decided to go again so we headed back to the start. Right behind us, however, were the coppers.

I smiled at them as they headed toward us, despite my fear that I was about to be arrested, because I heard that was the best defense mechanism for Lao police, and offered a cheerful “Sabaidee!” (hello)

They didn’t speak English, but sign-languaged their way into telling us that we can’t be here and that we have to leave. We apologized profusely, told them we would exit right away, and thanked them with a smile. Before we had put our helmets back on they had driven away.

We were pleasantly surprised, because we had heard some horror stories about foreigners being locked up or forced to pay outrageous amounts of money.

Well, our time would come…

Later in the evening we met a couple from Spain and an American girl they were traveling with. We sat and chatted for a while, then went off for dinner. After dinner, Ricky suggested that we burn some cash. Literally.

See, in China, they sell fake 100 RMB bills for people to burn in huge piles on the street. When they burn, the ashes and smoke go upward, toward the person’s ancestors in the afterlife. There, they will be rich.

Ricky had bought a stack of the money in China but we had never gotten around to burning it. So we got the money and headed down to the shores of the Mekong River to make an offering to our ancestors.

We sat in a circle, taking turns tossing bills into the small fire, as we said who each one was for. Grandmothers, grandfathers, great aunts, everybody. It was actually quite nice to take a moment and think of the ones we had lost.

We had just burned the last bill and begun talking about how we felt (awww!) when trouble came.

The police came to bust up our party. There was one who seemed to be in charge, and a few lackeys.  
The conversation went something like this.

Police: You, no here.

Us: What?

Police: You, no here, after 9. You mistake.

Us: Oh yes, mistake! We made a mistake, we can’t be here after 9! We’ll just be going now!

Police: Stop! You, Thailand *swimming motion*

Us: No sir, we didn’t swim over from Thailand. See? We’re dry

Police: Passports!

Us: Sorry, we don’t have our passports with us.

Police: You, mistake, no here. Follow me, police station.

Us: What? Why? We’ll leave now. We didn’t know. We’re very sorry.

Police: Passports! You smoke?

Us: What?

Police: You smoke (something no one understood)?

Us: No, sir, we don’t smoke that.

Police: Bag! (pointing at Ricky. He then proceeds to go through the contents of our backpack. He was 
very suspicious of one pen.)

Police: You follow me police station. Give mistake money.

Us: Well, how much?

Police: (counts us) Ah,  5. Ah, $200 each.

Us: What? No way! We don’t have that! We’ll just be going now.

We began to walk away, ignoring a weak “Stop!”

We walked faster, feeling like fugitives escaping the law, and when we were brave enough to look behind us, we realized they weren't following us. We walked fast anyway and hurried through the marked and out the other side, back to our guesthouse where we caught our breath and thanked our ancestors for helping us out, which was nice, after all that money we sent them.

So now we’re here, safe in our tiny dorm room, with a cement floor and a window that looks out into the indoor stairwell,  basking in our fugitive glory.

The Lao police probably aren’t hunting for us, and that’s probably for the best, but being a fugitive for those couple of minutes today sure was exciting!

The Top 5 Weirdest Creatures We've Seen in Laos (So Far)

As you can tell from most of our pictures of Laos, it's one big jungle here, and if you ever paid attention in school, or to the Travel Channel, jungles are the home of tons of freaky creatures, and we've seen a few of them. Here's a list of some of the weird stuff we've seen.

5. Massive Black Beetles

This is what greeted us as we got off the bus at our first pit-stop in Laos after leaving China.

Yes, a big bowl of black beetles, all crawling over each other, making a most unsettling scritch-scratching noise.  Also, they were there to eat. Yummy!

4. Very Large Pill Bug

Some call them pill bugs, or potato bugs, or roly polies, but they are technically woodlice.  When I was a kid, I loved playing with these little guys. We'd pick them up and all of a sudden they'd be little gray colored balls rolling around in our hands.

Well, one day Ricky and I went looking for a cave in Vang Vieng and I spotted something that looked quite similar, except that it was huge. It was about an inch and a half long, and maybe half and inch wide, and black. Of course I picked it up, which grossed Ricky out, but I thought it was great.

I didn't think to get a picture of it at the time, but I found these pictures.

  My bug wasn't quite that big, but just about.

3. Huge Geckos

Ok, this isn't so weird. I mean, back home in Texas we have geckos that live all over our house. Here in Laos, they are even more abundant. And aren't they cute?

Oh, wait, I mean--

But what we've seen here in Laos are the huge geckos they sell in pet stores, like this.

We saw a couple at one time, just hanging out above us while we ate at a restaurant. I wanted to take pictures but the light was bad and there was no way to show scale, but they were about 6 inches long.

2. The Star Wars Bug

Ok, I have to apologize for this one. We don't have a picture, and I couldn't find one online because I have no idea what this bug is. As we were climbing some stairs to a cave Ricky let out a shout and started going on about a bug that looked like it came right of out Star Wars. I didn't know what he meant until we came across another one a few days later.

We were standing at a small bridge, watching kids play in some water, when this thing  flew up near us and landed on the railing of the bridge. It had sort of translucent wings and underneath it appeared to be glowing. It had yellow and orange and pinkish kind of spots that were almost neon-like. It was an odd shape, kind of like a squarish oval. We reached for the camera, but as soon as we did it was gone.

1. Large Bamboo Rat

It took a lot of googling and Wiki-ing to find out what this thing is. Remember that bowl of huge beetles? Well, I think that was a side dish for this.

Because yes, you eat these too.

Now, I know these aren't really all that strange, and we hope to see even more weird creatures when we get out of the big cities and into the real jungle! Stay tuned!

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