A lot has changed at the ol’ cave over the past few years, but we could already see the writing on the wall four years ago.
On our 2012 motorbiking adventure, I talked a lot about having the road to ourselves most of the time, with the big exception of the stretch between Nahin and Konglor, in which there was a steady stream of fast-moving dump trucks running up and down the narrow road — not fun to dodge in a tiny motorbike. At that point, it appeared they were massively developing both sides of the river around the mouth of the cave. We wondered at the time what the eventual plan was — a resort or hotels perhaps? Restaurants? Regardless, we were sure that the entire area was poised for big changes in the coming years. 4.5 years on, changes have come, but thankfully not the kind we envisioned…yet.
What not too long ago was an informal trek for adventure seekers and motorbike enthusiasts — tackling insane terrain under ridiculous conditions in an obscure part of the world based on a handwritten map — is officially now a “thing.”
Lori and I were shocked to see these signs, bearing the Department of Tourism slogan “Laos Simply Beautiful” and even a ‘Loop’ logo posted right outside the cave. Seems the Lao government has caught on to the potential of this amazing area, particularly now that the entire loop is [supposedly] much improved.
These sorts of things often make me feel like a traitor to my profession — as a development professional I should feel happy about such changes, but I rarely do. In a world where the wild and the real are in increasingly short supply, it’s heartbreaking to see one of the last true adventures lost to the ages.
Oh, and “No Motorbike Parking for 50 meters.”
…in the jungle… Sheesh.
But enough of that. On to the wild and mysterious Konglor Cave!
…after we run the gauntlet of parked cars in the jungle…wha…?
Is that a market? Or more like a…carnival???
As we approached the cave, the crowds increased and the music from the soundstage became deafening. There must have been several hundred people here, but the atmosphere was relaxed and it was apparent the crowds here (largely consisting of children) were either not drinking or (in the case of parents) nursing hangovers.
The differences seemed stark at first. When we pulled up on our motorbike in 2012, we had the run of the place, save for a handful of workers milling about. At the time, this was a quiet grove, with only the constant din of cicadas and a backhoe operating in the distance cutting through the silence.
We were happy to see the same old wooden sign in three languages with the map of the cave still standing. And the same shelter. And the same ticket booth. And the same set of bathrooms. Wait a second…
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So what’s actually changed? What was the deal with all the heavy machinery? Where are the restaurants and hotels?
We walked to the edge of the reinforced river bank and peered down. The opposite bank was packed with people and event tents, and there was a recently constructed bamboo bridge connecting the two sides — all startling in their own way, but take away the temporary structures and the Pi Mai revelers and Konglor hadn’t really changed at all. The roundtrip ticket price hadn’t even really changed — 110,000 Kip in 2012, now 120,000 Kip! That’s an increase of US$1.20 on a US$13.00 ticket in four years!
With the place packed, we were fully prepared to have to wait for a while for the next available guide and boat, but instead walked right up to the ticket booth (no line), bought our tickets, were handed two life jackets and immediately ushered away by our boat guide.
Lori attempted to recreate the photo of me in 2012 following our guide to impending doom, but it was a bit of a challenge with the Mister vying for attention.
The opposite bank of the river was packed with holiday wares, paddle boats, and of course, flower-encrusted heart-shaped sets in the river for getting a professional photo taken. Doesn’t get more Lao than that on a holiday weekend.
Yep, that’s Noe, stone-faced and completely aware that something’s going down.
You’re probably used to seeing happy, playful, fun-loving Noe, but there’s a side of Noe you don’t often see in photos. The Mister seems to have an intuition and intensity about him when it comes to certain things. You can tell that he can almost sense when he’s going to be asked to step out of his comfort zone, trust mommy and daddy, and experience something new and different. He gets very quiet and expressionless but doesn’t ever cry — just very stoic. He’s an eerily tough little guy for all of his nine months.
Always doing our best to blend in with the locals. Where is Lori? I don’t even see her.
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We initially toyed with the idea of taking turns through the cave while the other watched Noe, but in the end decided that the boat trip wasn’t inherently any less safe than a lot of other things we subject the Mister to, in general (i.e. life, etc.). Still, we thought it best for Lori to wear him in the Ergo carrier under her life jacket, cause stuff happens.
We also knew that there’s a remote village on the other side of the cave and locals take their babies back and forth through the cave all the time to buy provisions and visit family in Konglor. We even ran into a woman and her baby on the way in to the cave.
Prior to leaving for our trip, Lori had floated the idea of taking Noe through the cave with some of her co-workers. At first, they all seemed very concerned for Noe.
“No Lori, The darkness will allow evil spirits of the underworld to enter your baby!”
Lori: “Um…but, besides the evil spirits…?”
“Oh, well, that would be our main concern.”
Needless to say, we were relieved to find that both the baby and mother exiting the cave (above) did not appear to be possessed — at least in any noticeable way. Heck, if the Konglor regulars weren’t shouting at us to turn around and run the other way to save our baby’s soul then something tell’s me we might walk away from this with Noe’s soul intact, which is nice considering we’d like Noe to have career options available to him other than being a politician or cable news commentator.
You might have noticed that I haven’t yet talked much about the fact that we are preparing to get on a small motorboat with a driver and transit 4.3 miles up a narrow subterranean river. That’s roughly the length of 75 football fields in near-darkness. Awesome OpenStreetMap.org has actually mapped Konglor cave, along with the village of Konglor (Konglor Village doesn’t even exist in google maps!)
I wouldn’t say the journey was terrifying the first time around, but anticipating the unknown got the heart racing a bit. I don’t know if it’s that we’ve become accustomed to this sort of thing or that we’ve spent a lot of time underground in numerous caves since our first journey through, or simply due to the fact that it’s the second time around — but wading through the water and climbing into the little wooden boat [with a baby] felt eerily comfortable and not completely foreign. Should it? Should it not? Is that normal? I don’t know anymore.
Off we go! Hold on to your soul, Noe!
A short distance into our journey, we approached a sandy beach and steps leading to a lit stretch of dry cave above. We had forgotten about this section, where passengers are ushered out of the boat and taken on a walkway, meeting the boat a short ways up the river. Four years ago, there were two guides to a boat — one on the front and one on the boat. The guide on the front led us through this section while the driver continued up river meeting us on the other side. This time around, it seems the second guide has been replaced by an extremely powerful headlamp for the driver, and a government guide who stays in the cave and leads passengers along the walkway.
Underground island family photo!
Back on the boat!
Just shy of the upstream mouth of the cave, there’s a section where we had to get off while two boat drivers work to push and pull the boat up and over a small set of rapids. The same is repeated downstream on the return trip.
Noe was silent the entire 45-minute journey up river and 30 minute journey back down, with the exception of the two times Lori initially sat down on the boat, in which he let out a little whimper. Tough to say what that was about, but he seemed to take the rest in stride, though he maintained his solemnity for a while. If he hadn’t looked like that before going into the cave, I might’ve started to wonder if the evil spirits had indeed snatched his soul. But nah, he looked like that well before, so it’s all good. Lots to ponder, I guess…
To be fair to the Mister, it was also quite hot, and well, he just kind of gets like this on hot days. Which is most days around here. He also had a little bit of a cold, and was a bit tired. So you have that too.
And before we get angry comments about not protecting the kid from the sun in the photo above, the stretch in the sun from cave to shore was about 60 seconds, at which point Noe promptly got his hat and was moved into the shade. In addition to the obvious health benefits of protecting the Mister’s skin from sun exposure, we’d rather not incur the ire of locals who at times seem even more concerned about keeping the falang baby, falang.
Four years ago, we emerged from the cave into a lush jungle, traveling a short distance to a deserted landing from which we followed a quiet trail for 2 km to a tiny remote village.
In 2017, we approached the same landing but under very different circumstances. It seemed that we had stumbled upon a full on Pi Mai rave party! If the Konglor side of the cave seemed tame, the other side was anything but. There were multiple competing soundstage set up blasting deafening music into a sea of Laotian zombies and shirtless young guys looking as if they had just escaped from watching a rowdy football match at an insane asylum. Unless you’ve spent a fair amount of time in Laos, this might not seem so striking. But in the Lao cultural context — a cultural which prides itself on modesty, humility, politeness and passivity — what we had stumbled upon was striking. In terms of Pi Mai, it was also only the tip of the iceberg as we’d soon discover in the coming days.
Lori was concerned about Noe’s eardrums — we’d walk away from one ear-bleedingly loud set of speakers, only to encounter another. We ultimately settled upon the “quietest” spot in the center of the stages where warm Coke and shade awaited.
Twenty minutes seemed to drag on. We pondered walking to the village 2 km away, but it was too hot and we didn’t have enough time to make it worth our while. Finally, it was time to head back to the boat, and back into the cave for some heat relief.
The return trip was peaceful and contemplative. With the substantial crowds on both sides of the cave we were struck by how few boats (and people) we saw transiting in the cave while we were. Over the course of 30 minutes, we crossed paths with only 3-4 other boats, and followed one boat for a few minutes. But most of the time, it felt as if we had the entire cave to ourselves.
I can’t adequately describe what it’s like to ride a motorboat through a long and winding cave.
For one, it’s fairly loud — even with a small outboard motor, the tak-tak reverberates across the often-cavernous spaces. Some of the stretches are high — really high — cathedral high.
In addition to the driver’s powerful headlamp, we each were loaned wimpy headlamps. At times, the ceiling was so high that our lamps couldn’t illuminate them.
As the map on the wooden plank earlier in this post suggests, the route is quite curvy. It seems we were consistently turning one way or the other, sometimes around horseshoe bends, which does a number on your butt cheeks shifting your weight constantly.
This time of year, the water was shallow at times, very shallow. We momentarily ran aground twice, in which the boat driver would hop out and quickly pull the boat loose from the gravel bottom.
Back at the main entrance, a small gathering had formed in the shade of the mouth of the cave.
It was surprising at first that so many had gathered outside the cave with no intention of entering. But 120,000 Kip isn’t exactly cheap for a lot of people. Plus, there are real fears among some contingents of the population regarding caves, rooted in folklore, but also fear of the unknown that we all harbor from time to time.
One thing was apparent, the mouth of Konglor cave (on either side) was the place to be on this holiday weekend in this pocket of the country.