Surviving “The Loop” in Lao — Day 3

I woke up before dawn to the hammering of a torrential downpour on our guesthouse’s tin roof.  Nature’s alarm clock has many settings in Lao:  dogs howling, roosters screaming, bad dance music, and the occasional other-worldly buzzes and pitches (Buddha?) that leave you questioning your sanity.   (Back in Vientiane, I  had a lucid nightmare one sleepless dawn where I could feel something pulling on my legs and lifting me above the bed.) 
 
 
We were to meet the other riders for breakfast at nine, then walk a kilometer south to Lao’s most famous cave, Konglor — a name that already suggested mysterious majesty.  We sat down for breakfast at a restaurant up the road, where the other riders were waiting.  The restaurant’s owner, who once lived as a business owner in Minnesota, was a bluntly kind man who also lives there with his brother, children, and grandchildren.  I tried ordering a few things off the menu including various meat dishes, but, because he had run out of beef, pork, and even rice the night before, he said we’d have to wait for the bus to come at eleven with the daily supplies.  You get used to these kinds of episodes in Lao — slow service, late buses, goods unavailable, etc. — and you just have to smile and appreciate the silent modesty.

So most of us took what he had left, curry noodles with chicken and egg, and ate while enjoying the scenery.  A kid no more than ten years old drove up the road on a plow tractor hitched with a trailer carrying a gang of other children.  They laughed and waved at us as they sputtered along.  As we finished our meal and were getting ready to walk to the cave, long puffs of clouds lowered over the mountains and again, the heavy rain came.  None of us had umbrellas for the walk to the cave, and even though I had my swim-trunks on, we didn’t want to be soaking wet when going through.

 

We waited it out.  But we knew we couldn’t for long because it was our last day and Mr. Ku wanted his bikes back by 6 p.m.  We still had about 170 kilometers to burn and we knew the longer we waited for the rain, the faster we’d have to high-tail back to Thakhek. 

At eleven, the supply bus came in.  Actually, it was just a “saungtaew” — an open-air, covered long-bed truck the locals take as the most inexpensive means of getting around.  After they unloaded the goods, we tried getting on, only to be met with a stiff load of about 15 backpackers also headed to Konglor.  All seven of us crowded in and I had to stand up while bending over so I could fit since there were no seats left.  When we got to the park entrance, there was a bit of confusion as men came up to the sides asking for money to get in.  Nobody said anything to us about money, and we kept quiet too while the bus pulled in and we scurried out of the crowd of backpacks towards the cave, wallets unscathed.

At the ticket desk, you pay 110,000kip for a two person boat or 115,000kip (~$12) for a three.  I guess one of us was only worth 65 cents.  A barefoot boy wearing a head-lamp came over to us with a armload of life-vests.  He simply smiled and handed them over to us, then motioned for us to follow him.  While ‘modern’ kids back home are busy playing wii, this little guy is a bowman for a 7.5 km long-boat ride on a river slicing through the middle of a mountain (and he’s got the best graphics of them all.)  He led us across a bridge, all the while talking and laughing to himself, and into the entrance of the cave where our boat and driver were waiting.

We piled into the boat and pushed off into the water.  The little bowmen was up front scanning his headlamp left and right across the sides of the cave and down into the deep blackness as our driver opened up the throttle.  The air was crisp, but as we headed farther into the darkness it became surprisingly warmer and warmer.  We only had one LED flashlight between the three of us, and it could barely pierce the darkness as we pushed through the black waters.  Riding a boat in pitch-black darkness is gratifyingly eerie:  goosebumps kept popping up on my arms and I couldn’t tell if they were from a feeling of elation or from a fear of the unknown ahead.  We passed sharp rocks peeking up from the black waters and weaved around long, winding turns, my mind completely blown at the epic immensity of it all.

Our first stop was on a sandy shore, where the little guy led us down a path to an opening of beautifully lit up cave formations.  I looked on in awe.  We were not even a quarter of the way through the cave and it was already worth the money.  To think, I was looking at millions of years of slow mineral deposits, the same natural beauty that perhaps thousands of those before me had the privilege to marvel.   It is said long ago, the locals believed the cave led into the deep bowels of the earth; only until sometime later some brave souls ventured all the way through to find a gorge on the other side of the mountain.

After snapping some photos, we sat back in the boat and continued into the belly of the mountain.  As we skimmed along the clean black waters, other boats and tourists’ headlamps could be seen passing in the dark.  There were a few times we bottomed out on some shallow rocks and we had to get out (and wet) while our guides pushed the boat through to deeper depths.  I kept thinking about the log rides you take at amusement parks — you know, the ones where you float through some tacky, decorated cave with mechanical animals and tense music.  But this was the real thing:  not even Disney could attempt to recreate Konglor’s natural wonder.  That said, you’ll never pay to ride imitation again after experiencing this.

About an hour after entering, we could see light peeking through an opening in the distance.  As we approached, the daylight shining through became more and more intense.  We slowly came into a huge opening surrounded by thick jungle and high limestone cliffs.  My eyes couldn’t adjust quick enough — much like when you wake up after a night sleeping by the fire — the daylight was gloriously blinding.  This must be a small fraction of what people feel when being trapped in a mine and finally coming out; you appreciate how beautiful light and color really is.

We stopped for a rest at a small outpost on the side of the river for a Coke before heading back through.  It was still drizzling and we were trying to decide if rushing back to Thakhek would be a good idea.  The roads were surely wet and we didn’t know what kind of obstacles would be waiting for us on the ride back.  If it was still raining when we returned to the entrance, we decided it was probably best to phone Mr. Ku and tell him we would stay one more night because of the conditions.  He said this would be alright, just as long as we told him ahead of time and we’d just have to pay for one more day of rental.

When we reached the entrance, to our surprise, it stopped raining and the sun was even peeking through the clouds.  It was about half past one, so we walked back to the guesthouse as fast as we could, knowing it would be a race against daylight to get to Thakhek.  At two, we packed up our bags and fired up the bikes.  We had four hours to burn through 170 km, yet we still had to be cautious — the last thing we wanted was to spoil the trip with a nasty slide-out or perhaps T-boning a crossing cow at 70 kph, the latter being something I kept imagining in my head (whose meat is this?).

We darted out of Konglor valley and whipped  around a winding mountain pass, speed and adrenaline flowing into my weary permasmile.  When you’re flying down the roads in a relatively untouched country like Lao, you can’t help but wonder what the hell you’re doing.  

From time to time, I would imagine myself in the grand-scheme of the world, everything happening at that moment:  my family and friends back home working or doing daily routine, wars being waged, money being made — and here I am wandering on the back of a small motorcycle in a country most of the world has forgotten, lost in an ever-enlightening moment of discovery.  The feeling is hard to describe, but it’s like when you succeed at doing something you’ve strived for and the dopamine is released in your brain creating a moment where time and all things worrisome cease to exist.  Except this moment isn’t limited to “success.”  It’s like a drug that’s always around you — existence — and all you have to do is appreciate it.  Life is always waiting for you to make the move, not the other way around.

We reached the last big left turn of the loop in the town Vieng Khan around 5pm and filled up our bikes at a regular station.  At this point, we had a straight shot back to Thakhek:  no more winding roads, massive potholes, sandy slides etc.  Some said this was the most boring drive of the trip and we planned it for last just in case we had to hurry back, in which case, it paid off.

With over a 100 km to go, we were on the edge of Mr. Ku’s deadline.  We didn’t know whether we’d have to pay more or what the penalty was for being late, so we wound the throttles up and pushed 80kph through the straights.  Flying at those speeds on a 100cc bike can be a bit hairy at times, especially when the drivers seem to think of you more of an object to be avoided than an actual motorist.  A few times I had to veer over and teeter on the gravel shoulder while an oncoming truck came barreling through my lane to pass.

The sun was sinking into the horizon and with every turn of the odometer, I feared the oncoming darkness.  I flipped on my crooked headlight and hoped its slanted beam would give me a clear vision.  I strained my eyes on the road ahead, thinking at any moment a large rock or pothole would wipe me out leaving me lying in a bloody wreck on the side of the road; a hospital was the last place I wanted to be in Lao.  I had the choice of taking it slow and riding in complete darkness or keeping it fast to get back with just enough dusk to make out and dodge any hazards on the road.

Finally, at about 7:30 pm, we pulled into the Travel Lodge.  I was afraid of what Mr. Ku would say about my busted alignment, but luckily, he was no where in sight.  One of his mechanics saw me and asked, “Passport?”  I nodded and waited for him to check out the bike.  He took one quick look and gave me a thumbs up and then went to retrieve my deposit.  I sighed in relief.  Should I have said something?  Well, I guessed they would find out sooner or later.

We had already bought our overnight bus tickets to 4000 Islands, so we had a quick bite to eat and reveled in our survival of 3 days teetering on the brink of disaster to witness some of the most pristine, breathtaking landscapes and calm modesty of the Lao people.  It was all like a flash of a lucid dream; one that you know is all too real, but you just can’t believe it’s actually a part of your life.  I made a journey through not only one of the last untouched countryside of the world, but also veered into a territory of the mind where I learned to never take anything for granted.

The unknown dangers that lay ahead in life always come with a side of enlightenment.  Ride on.

 

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