The Journey Is The Reward
After arriving in Khoum Khan late in the evening, I found a place to sleep and good company on top: a few Australians who also had arrived that day and wanted to go to Kong Lo Cave the following day. I was really relieved since my biggest worry was that I would have to pay for the entire transport to Kong Lo village and for the cave alone.
As it turned out, getting to the village of Kong Lo involved a small bus, canoes to cross a river and a small bus again. If this sound like a lengthy, cumbersome trip, it is not, compared to what it was like a month ago. We were among the privileged to travel on the newly finished 30 kilometre road from Khoum Kham to Kong Lo. Before, it was a short bus ride and a 3.5 hour boat trip.
Nevertheless, there was still one crucial obstacle: the bridge crossing a small river was only half finished, so everything and everybody from the first bus had to be transferred across this flooded river on tiny canoes and then reloaded onto the second small bus waiting on the other side. Maybe I should mention that our small truck was not only filled with passengers but loaded with sacks of rice, fruits and machinery, plus 200 litres of gasoline in canisters.
Once in the village of Kong Lo, we were met by an elderly man who spoke some English and who linked us up with the boatmen. It was ten dollars for a boat, but we needed two since one boat holds only three tourists, the guy on the engine and the man up front with the headlamp. When we arrived at the boat landing, we faced the sad image of boats drowned by the heavy rain during the previous night. The boatmen were just scooping out the water to get two of them ready for our cave crossing.
The minute I saw these tiny boats and the flooded river my heart sank. The four Australians were even more nervous, asking if it was safe and if there were life jackets. At this question I simply smiled, but they were persistent even though nobody understood what they were asking. Finally they resorted to their Lonely Planet dictionary pointing at the words “safe”, and “lifejacket”. The men simply shook their head. We climbed into the swaying canoes anyway.
During a short trip upstream, we passed gorgeous scenery, but when we arrived at the entrance of the cave, we realized even more how high the water had risen. Above all, we stared at insurmountable rapids. Well, you do not need to go passed these rapids but continue the trip through the cave on a boat that is waiting inside the cave. However, the prospect of passing a flooded cave in a small wooden canoe with a guide equipped with a small headlamp made us decide to turn around. Luckily, we got most of our money back.
The Australians immediately had abandoned their plan to do a home stay in Kong Lo, when they fought their way through the mud: the whole village was a swamp. So back in the same small truck to the river, another crossing, another little truck! The driver asked for 50.000 kips from each to take us the remaining 20 kilometres to Khoum Kham. We angrily stormed off although we knew we never could walk that distance before it got really dark. By chance, a little pick up passed by, the ONLY other car we saw on this road. It was the overseer of the construction site at the bridge. We hitched a ride for 10.000 kips each, about one dollar.
Back in Khoum Khan at around 04:00 pm, all options of reaching the main road, route 13, to catch a bus down south had vanished. So I had to stay another night in Khoum Kham, luckily again in very nice company, before I headed to Pakse, another 9 hour bus ride south.