I crossed my fingers and hoped for safety as the boat was enveloped in darkness. The navigator and driver, just moments earlier had finished their Beer Laos before reluctanly complying to do their job. We had been engulfed by Kong Lo Cave, a 7.5km long unground river. After a day and half, two buses, a van, a freight truck and and a taxi, we'd finally ended up exactly where we wanted to be.
Vientienne was a non-entity to say the most. The biggest tourist attraction was a worn down oriental take on the Arch de Triumph, and it wasn't even taht impressive. A sign on the arch read, "...up close, it is even less impressive, like a monster of concrete." If the city itself is mocking it, that is not good. It was a quaint riverside city, right on the banks of the Mekong, yet not a single cafe sat along it, no beers and coffee near running water for us. The only thing good to say about it was the food, which was fantastic. Michelle treated me to a great french meal for my birthday. I won't describe it, it'll just make you jealous.
Despite the great eats, we had to leave this place quickly. The second Michelle picked up her passport from the Indian Embassy, we took a bus going anywhere or nowhere, Paksan to be exact, since their were no direct buses so late to the cave.
We'd both fallen asleep on the bus and even though our driver knew our destination, he neglected to stop. Using a map and the course of the Mekong as reference, I'd figured we'd gone to far.
"Paksan?" Michelle asked the bus conductor.
"Pakse?" He asked back, referring to a city about eight hours down the road.
The man said nothing, but was obviously irritated. I wondered how far we'd gone passed the mark. It was no big loss though, Thaket, the next major town had transport to the cave as well. About 45 minutes later, the ticket collector yelled, "Paksan!" at us; we'd figured that maybe we were mistaken, the bus was just taking too long, as happens in Laos. The idea was squashed when we noticed we were in the middle of nowhere. We then thought we were being ditched, until a bus coing the over way stopped, pulled over and picked us up.
"Paksan?" We asked the new driver.
He nodded. The bus was packed, seats, aisles, space near the door, the small stairs out the door and all. Somehow, they managed to squeeze two plastic stools into the aisle for us. So we went back the way we came. Michelle and I took guesses of how far we'd gone as the bus packed even more stragglers from the side of the road. We were both wrong. We'd overshot by two hours! Our four hour trip became eight in the end and we arrived after dark in Paksan, a town comprised of nothing but dirty sell-all shops and noodle stands. We didn't see a guest house anywhere.
"I'll ask here if they know a good guest house." Michelle proclaimed.
"Nah, let's just walk further down the highway, there is sure to be a place."
We decided to be a perfect stereotypical picture of the differences between men and women.
"I'll just ask." Women are alway right.
The shopkeeper's daughter spoke enough English to help us and we were loaded into their van and taken to a guest house for free. It was a reasonably priced hotel as well, resembling the old motel of the United States past.
We'd already deduced that this one buffalo town did not have a bus station despite its 30,000 person population. The helpful hotel lady typed a time on her cellphone calculator when we asked, "Bus...Lak So?" 6:00.
We awoke at dawn and sat on our backpacks waiting for a bus that never came. We were almost about to give up when a song-thiew (essentially a pickup truck with benches in the back), filled with morning glory, boxes, pineapples, some scrap metal, and a giant bag of rice announced he was going in our direction, so we cleared a space in the freight and headed down that familiar stretch of highway for the third time.
When we finally left the highway, the scenery was fantastic. Our driver would stop every few miles and either drop off or pick up more supplies or pack more passengers, apparently, this was the bus.
Four hours later, we were dropped off at the gateway village to Kong Lo. After finding a guest house, which was not hard; depsite a complete lack of tourists, there were fifty guest houses. It was low season I guess. We finally caught a taxi to the cave.
It ws well worth it. There is a special feeling that comes from taking an underground river through a cave for nearly three miles. The chambers were huge, the ceilings towering sometimes 100ft above our heads. A quarter of the way in, we disembarked and the navigator turned on some lights to illuminate the spectacular stalagtites or stalagmites, I can never remember which one is which. He walked around with head torch, a large battery over his shoulder, lighting up transparent crickets and rock formations, always with a high-pitched giggle.
"Oh look! Heeheeheeheeheeheeheehee!"
We were stuck a mile deep in a cave with a madman!
The cave was simply put, amazing. Surely a highlight of the trip. I'm not sure if another cave will ever wow me again. Just as amazing was the scenery around the cave. It was well worth the headache getting here.