Our time in Laos is coming close to an end. We breezed through the capital of Vientianne, stopping only for a good night’s sleep. Our journey led us further south to the border city of Tha Khek. In a few days we will cross the Mekhong river into Thailand. But first, we had some motorcycle riding to do.
Our plan was to do a three day, two night loop through less traveled roads in Laos. The first day’s journey was to take us to Thom Kong Lor. Winding its way through Laos is a river. At one place, this river reaches a mountain range. Most rivers would bend around and flow along. But this river is much more stubborn and it decided to push right through. The result is the Kong Lor cave, which supposedly winds its way under the mountain for over seven kilometers before coming out on the other side.
Our journey started at the river exit. We climbed into the hanger-like cave where the river meets the sunlight and then flows out into the countryside. Weronika and I climbed into our motorized long-tail canoe and the driver and navigator pushed of. Darkness enveloped us immediately. Our meager headlamps were able to cut small dim wedges of light out of the complete blackness. Riding in our little canoe through bend after bend of dark river felt surreal. At one point we disembarked and walked through a huge chamber where the French have installed tasteful lightning to highlight the mesmerizing stalactites, stalagmites, and other rock formations which inhabit underground worlds. Soon enough though, we were back in our dark canoe making our way into the heart of the mountain.
The ride lasted maybe half an hour, which makes us doubt that the cave is 7 km long. However, it was a fantastic experience. Eventually we emerged to find ourselves on a quiet little river with trees on either side. We stopped for a drink and returned the way we came.
We stopped for the night in a lovely little bungalow resort on a quiet stretch of river just outside of the town of Ban Khoun Kham. The place was run by a bunch of effeminate men in women’s clothes who did not speak any English but more than made up for it through their mimicry. It was a very clean and pleasant hotel, but we had to move on.
We started down the road. The first hour was turn after hairpin turn, up and down, through limestone cliffs and lush forests. Soon we arrived in Lak Sao, turned south, and the paved road ended. Instead, we drove on rocks, ruts, and intermittent stretches of pavement whose only purpose was to host potholes. We had fifty or so kilometers of this. It was a blast. Weronika held on tightly to me and I held on tightly to our backpack in front of me with my knees. Our scooter braved the heavy terrain. I have a strange feeling that if someone were to enter the Paris – Dakkar rally on a small 100cc Korean scooter they would not do badly.
We drove through little towns and villages. People went on their daily lives. Some kids waved, some ignored us. Small gangs of little boys, five to nine years old, armed with sticks, slingshots, and sometimes crossbows were a common sight in many villages. The red dust was everywhere.
Eventually we entered a nationally protected area, which is something akin to a national park, and the villages ended. The road did not get any better. We drove on until we started to see swamps with dead trees sticking out of them. We were nearing the flooded reservoir which fuels a giant dam in eastern Laos. We stopped for lunch at the first place we could, which was a pleasant open restaurant overlooking the man-made lake.
Weronika and I ordered our food and shared a beer. As we were picking up our glasses, the two Lao men at the table next to us raised up theirs and with a smile said “bottoms up.” Even though we didn’t want to believe it, we were well aware that this was the end of our bike riding for the day.
They had already drank a couple of beers before we arrived. We drank ours, they bought more, we ordered more. We ate and drank and had a surreal conversation not speaking each other’s language. They said “sabai sabai”, “bo pen ngan”, and “nee” a lot. It means, roughtly “we invite you”, “no problem”, and “have some.” We would shuffle through the three page dictionary at the end of our guide book looking for appropriate phrases. We mimed, took pictures, and protested additional beers as they were brought out. It was no use.
Even before we drank too much to drive, Loon and Pawn insisted that we load up our scooter into their Hyundai minivan and drink more beer. There was no saying no. As the afternoon progresses we learned that they work for a Hyundai dealership and are making their rounds collecting monthly payments. Loon is married and has two kids. Pawn has a girlfriend with whom we spoke over the phone. Both think the Heineken is the best beer in the world.
As the crate of bottles filled up, we all came to the agreement that it was time to go. Loon and Pawn paid for everything. We protested, tried to fight, and attempted to shove money into their pockets. Once again, no use. “Sabai sabai, bo pen ngan” they said. It was very important for them not to take any of our money. The best we could do is to convince them to let us buy a few rounds of beers at the guesthouse we would be staying at. Of course, when we got there and were finished drinking, once again they paid. Resistance was futile. We said our goodbyes to our new friends and wished them a safe journey back to Tha Khek. From this place on the road was paved and flat. The only problem we encountered on the way back is that Weronika got stung by a wasp in the tongue while riding on the back of our scooter with her mouth open.
Weronika and I sat around and contemplated the afternoon. It was absolutely surreal. The next morning we stopped at a few caves as we made our way into Tha Khek. Then, we found a store selling Heineken and bought a case. We delivered it to Loon and Pawn at their Hyundai dealership and thanked them for the great afternoon and the lift. Bo pen ngan.