I think some people are cave people. What I mean is, some people get a kick out of exploring caves. I am not one of those people. So when the idea of visiting Kong Lo Cave in central Laos came up, I wasn’t sure if it was worth it.
I had my heart set on doing a two-day trek through Phu Hin Bin NPA (National Protected Area) that involved a village homestay, emerald-hued lakes and our money going mostly to the villagers themseves. Unfortunately, because they can’t subsidize costs, it was out of my budget. It didn’t help that rainy season meant much of the regular path — and the emerald lake — would be impassable. (If you can afford it, please go on my behalf!)
In that case, there was just one other equally well-reviewed sight in central Laos — Kong Lo, a 7km cave that actually sits within Phu Hin Bin and gives you a great look at the park’s outer boundaries. That was the hook for me. And once we heard you could do homestays in the village, we were sold.
The cave was, in fact, really cool. It was interesting to navigate for more than an hour each way through the dark space with ceilings that, at times, were more than 300-feet-tall. We happened to be the first ones there — the boatmen were whittling paddles and playing games with beer caps when we arrived — so going through first was a nice treat, at least just to say we were first. The cave is just 1km from the village, you pay about $2 in entrance fees and each boat costs roughly $12 per boat with a max of 3 people. I’m so glad we went, but for me, it was more about our experience in the village that will always stay with me.
After a supremely relaxing three days in Thakhek — worth a visit if you want to chill out, talk to locals, and eat good, cheap Lao and Thai food — we headed off to the village right outside the cave, known as Ban (village) Kong Lo.
It involved three modes of transportation. At 9:30 am we took a cushy (by Lao standards) AC bus that was en route to Vientiane, but we hopped off after just one hour at Vieng Kham. We then took a dingy local bus to Nahin. Once in Nahin, we were notified by a songthaew bound for Ban Kong Lo that we had another two hours before he’d be leaving, which really meant, “we’ll leave when I have more people.” So we finally arrived at 4:30 pm.
It sounds like we knew exactly what we were doing — and we did know where we needed to go every step of the way — but since it was a matter of flagging down buses and songthaews, we were never 100% sure we’d make it to the next leg.
As it turns out, this was one of the most fun rides we’ve ever taken — and one of the most scenic. We wound up the mountains through jungle (and Phu Hin Bin, I think) and the last 45 minutes were the best. This was our (unPhotoshopped) sight through the songthaew toward the end:
Do NOT take a tour bus; the three-way transport is a part of the experience. And really easy.
We had done some research and knew we wanted to do a homestay. There are homestays on the other side of the cave as well, but from what I read on blogs, these villages were a bit too real for us…like frogs-for-breakfast-lunch-and-dinner real. We just weren’t ready for that kind of authenticity, so we settled for a happy medium: a homestay on the entrance side, where the villagers are used to foreigners but haven’t greatly changed their ways. We simply said to our driver, “homestay,” and he knew where to go.
He dropped us off at the home of a retired military man named Boolhaan (sp?), who lived with his wife, who was sadly withering away from a cancer, as well as his daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, a girl named Sim and a baby named Pot (rhymes with “moat”).
Of course, we don’t know this for sure. They didn’t speak a lick of English, so this is what we inferred from some family photos and our meager Lao-English phrasebook. Accommodation was simple but clean. We were set up with mattresses and mosquito nets in their family room, had a squat toilet (yay) and were provided all meals for 50,000 Kip/night (about $6/night).
They seemed to be one of the more well-off families, but we were still so grateful to be eating their food. That said, they served us copious amounts of rice (a given at any homestay), sauteed lettuce and an omelet for dinner #1. We were served a dome of rice mixed with lettuce and egg bits for breakfast #1 and lunch #1. We we served ramen noodles with lettuce for dinner #2. We feigned fullness to avoid a different rice-lettuce-egg iteration the morning we left.
Life in the village moves at a snail’s pace, giving us time to appreciate the mountain surroundings and lime-green rice fields. The village has a few simple guesthouses, but I guarantee in a few years the village will be filled with eco- and luxury resorts. A sad, sad thought.
Anyway, time in Ban Kong Lo also gave us the chance to play with the kids, the cornerstone of any village visit.
Most of the time, we played with Sim, watching Thai soap operas in their den during the afternoon heat or making up games like, “Let’s make a shape out of these six Jolly Ranchers” or “Guess which hand the Jolly Rancher is in?” But I’ll always remember her for her love for drawing. From the minute we met her, she showed us her drawings, drew new ones for us and asked us to contribute to her notebook. It breaks my heart to think she’ll never have the opportunity to take advantage of her innate talent. I wished I had a notebook and some colored pencils to give her — and I’m still thinking of a way of getting some to her — but in that moment, all I could do was draw and encourage her.
Pot is just a baby, but his energy was through.the.roof. He had watched me play Thumb War with Sim, and misinterpreting the game, he tried to play with me, too. In fact, up until the very moment I left the village, he would grab my hand, take me to “the Thumb War spot” and play.
Other times, we walked around the village, playing and photographing little kids along the way. (We always asked their parents first and were always obliged. I had said Chamapsak was the friendliest place in Laos/on earth but I think Ban Kong Lo beats it.) These kids were a riot. So excited to have their pictures taken and always eager to see the results, they posed, they showed off and they wanted to be picked up. All of them.
On another day, we came across Sim and her two girlfriends playing with makeup. One grabbed my hand, said something in Lao and made a freestyle swimming motion. They wanted to take Eaman and me swimming. Rivers and lakes are an integral part of village life; it’s where locals cool down in the heat and bathe — women wear sarongs — at night. We figured they’d be taking us to the main one we had previously seen, but instead, they took us to a serene lake hidden behind the village that we never would’ve found. We played a lengthy game of “Who can hold their breath underwater the longest?” before they escorted us home. One thing I’m continually amazed by is how inventive village children are. They can have fun with practically nothing, and their happiness is infectious.
I know I use the word magical a lot, but Laos is just that, a place still immune to the commercialism and materialism found so often along the SE Asia backpacker trail. Take a look at our two-day stay through some pictures. I’m going to be using them to relive our stay in Ban Kong Lo for a long, long time.
View from our homestay during a rainy day.
Our space in the family room with mosquito nets.
Our gracious host, Boolhaan.
Pot, with the little girl who took me to the lake for a swim.
World’s best beer garden?