Gollum would have been at home here. Harry and Dumbledore, Kirk and Spock, Orpheus and Persephone, they’ve probably all paid a visit. And now that it’s in the book that’s surgically attached to every traveller – I hope not to see another Lonely Planet for a long time after this trip – many others may be making the interesting curveball of a trip to Konglor Caves in central Laos very soon. So, if you happen to be in that area anytime in the near future, get yourself there before the apparently accelerating development turns this great natural experience – 7.5km of pitch black underground river – into just another tourist theme park.

We’d read that it might be hard to get to, but we reached the nearest village to the caves, Kong Lo, by bus from Vientiane after a fairly easy journey. Only blighted by the now familiar bumpy roads and around four hours of non-stop Laos pop videos (which really have to be seen to be believed), our journey ended with us being popped off the bus straight into a brand spanking new simple guesthouse. We’d hoped that we might arrange or find a homestay, but all that Laos pop creates a craving for a quick fix and a lie down, so we were happy with our digs.

The village itself, with the exception of one or two building sites where guesthouses are starting to take shape, was a charming agricultural settlement set in a beautiful plain between hills of jutting karst. The light in both the morning and evening lent an idyllic air to the place, something added to by the constant smiles and playfulness of the ever friendly Lao children. As we have seen, all in Laos is far from an idyll, but here that seemed easy to forget as we planned an early night, ready for our cave trip in the morning.






From the village it was a short 1km walk through some dapped woods to the lakeside cave site, whereupon we were greeted by the “boat committee”, seemingly a way of sharing out what small tourist trade there currently is (and the more they hope for in the future) fairly between the local boatmen who navigate the river through the underworld. And what an underworld it was. As the light at the mouth of the cave faded into the distance and our shallow bottomed longtail boat, lit only by the head-torches we’d hired and those of our two boatmen, began it’s steady put-put along the water, we felt like we’d been plunged into the mother of all ghost trains. The cavern was high and the sides relatively featureless, but at any moment we expected to see a hooded skeleton punting in the opposite direction, or perhaps we’d pass a group of grumpy Tolkeinesque axe-wielding dwarves. As it was, and making it still more fascinating and enjoyable, we saw no-one.





Soon we were back on dry land though, as we entered a huge cavern, the only electrically lit part of the cave, which had only been wired up as recently as 2008. We stepped out of our boat for a short wade through dry-season shallow water to a sandy subterranean beach and here we could see why a French NGO had gone to all the trouble of bringing artificial light to this place. A museum of rock presented itself, with huge stalactites and stalagmites rising like waxy pillars into their newly given light. These serpentine twists and trunks of rock had been sealed in darkness for millennia, and now, looking like one of the better Star Trek sets, had been lit up for us to browse.





But we couldn’t let our eyes adjust for too long, as we were soon teetering back into the (newly bailed out) boat. For literally miles we travelled underground, stopping occasionally to get out and help to push the boat up the parts of the river that were too shallow to drive. At one point, we almost became stranded in the underworld, when one of our boatmen (it later became apparent he had a club foot) couldn’t push strongly enough, and the boat threatened to wash away. Luckily, a few extra hands meant that we weren’t condemned to the underground life on that day.


Eventually, the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ appeared and we were back, blinking into daylight. We’d emerged to a stunning river scene and the juxtaposition of the greenery, hills and light with the dark mystery of the cave was stark but enchanting.



We stopped for a drinks break (we were an hour in by now) and were soon eager to get back into the tunnel, looking forward to more of the ghost-boat. When we got past the bat-infested entrance again, and back out to the tranquility of the first pool and the village, it was strange to think that we’d been on such an other-worldly journey. Our only problem now was going to be finding a way, both in terms of logistics and willpower, to leave Kong Lo. Perhaps when the coach-loads start their inevitable arrivals and the caves become a precession, the leaving will get easier.




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