Khammouane: Konglor Cave

Journeying to the Konglor cave in the dry season means a few uncomfortable bum-scraping sensations when your flat-bottomed boat bumps along the riverbed. 

But that's part and parcel of visiting one of the natural wonders of Laos - a massive 7.5km long cave that you can only get to by boat. 

Konglor cave is in Phou Hi Phoun national park in Khammouane province. It's about 180km from Thakhek, and 5 hours by car from Vientiane. It's also a popular stop off for tourists on a 3-day motorbike loop around the national park. 

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Khammouane itself is a beautiful province. It's squished in the narrow central part of Laos with Thailand to the east and Vietnam across the mountains to the west. We drove north along Route 13 from Thakhek and into Khammouane, we reach a winding mountain road and great views over the national park.

Then the road opens up to a broad, flat landscape framed by big rocky karsts. Even in the dry season it's so green. Just beautiful. 

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We drove to Khammouane from Khon Kaen in Thailand, passing Savannakhet and Thakhek during Pi Mai (new year) in April. Temperatures in the capital soared into the 40s but down in central Laos, it was balmy 30+ degrees. Perfect swimming, boating and chillaxing weather.

And we were happy to soak it up at the lovely SpringRiver Resort, a hotel right on the Nam Hinbuan river with views, good food and friendly staff. 

The SpringRiver is the kind of place where you just want put your feet up and switch off. That's less easy with kids so it's great that the Nam Hinbuan below is clean and very accessible.

Big fallen tree branches lay half in the water, perfect for perching on and dangling your feet in the cool water. Or, as the local kids do, for flinging yourself off like a diving board. Our stretch of river was a busy spot; kids shouting and splashing, locals fishing and bathing, and the occasional boat weaving through the debris of logs and rocks.

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In the late afternoon after we arrived, I sat on a log in the river, kicking my feet in the cool water and watching my kids build a muddy pool for the crab and tadpoles they'd caught. A neighbourhood boy climbed a tree and to vigorous shake down its fruit. Two girls walked along the soft sand of the bank nearby digging holes with a wooden pole. Then one would reach in, pull something out, string it into their bundle and kept on digging. Upon inspection, they cheerfully showed me a collection of live crickets. Destined for the market or the dinner table. 

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Foraging, farming and seeing the efficient life of local Laos people here was one of my favourite parts of visiting Khammouane. 

First thing the next morning, we hopped into a wooden long boat and chugged our way slowly up the bum-scraping Nam Hinboun towards Konglor cave. It's a 45-minute journey and thanks to the low water levels, also involves hopping out a couple of times to trek around a boulder-filled rapids. 

Along the way, we saw river farm beds, people fishing, bathing and working the land. Kids splashed in the water, having a great time. Everyone smiled and waved at each other and called out Sabaidee! as we passed.

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The riverside farms had flocks of the fattest, healthiest-looking ducks I've ever seen, and their little feet paddled furiously away as we approached. They must eat the snails, bugs and weeds near the crops; this is real free range farming. 

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We also passed the odd cow and goat and buffalo munching on grass and cooling off in the water. Again, they are fat, healthy and relaxed. Birds chirped in the trees and hundreds of red dragonflies swooped and skimmed on the water around us. It was all so peaceful and lovely. 

Then the boat rounded a bend and we were out of the farmland. Karsts towered above us and bamboo stilt salas signalled that we'd reached the tourist end of business. It was time to strap on life jackets and head torches, collect another boatman and head into the cave itself. 

In the rainy season, the Nam Hinboun swells and a speedy boat ride through the cave, dodging submerged rocks and riding rapids while in pitch blackness may not be for the faint hearted. Luckily, you'll be putting your life into the hands of the very experienced boatman whose headlamp never stops moving, manouvering the rough wooden long boat through the underground cavern. 

In the dry season, it's a slower pace yet just as eerie an experience. The giant walls and ceilings of the cave disappeared above us. It was much cooler inside and the wind buffeted our faces. I was glad I'd wore a long-sleeved top under my life jacket. We were amazed at the deft capableness of our weather-worn boatman and expressed it with a much appreciated tip at the end. 

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Not far into the cave, the boat stopped so we could hop out and walk along a lit path to see the natural statactite and stalagmite formations. Even for someone like me who I wouldn't describe as a keen caver, it was impressive and awe inspiring. 

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Then we got back in the boat and carried on through the rest of the cave. Finally, after a 2.5 hour journey to the other side of the cave and back, we emerge back into the sunshine where we started. The water is clear and inviting in the hot sun and we suddenly all feel like a swim.

First though, we stop off at a spot marked "fish area", home to an (unsurprising) shoal of very fat and healthy fish. Our kids have a great time hurling handfuls of food (on sale for 10,000 kip a bag) towards the greedy chompers. It's a great concept - tourists pay money to feed and to fatten up the fish, which are then presumably eaten by the locals at the nice-smelling BBQs back at the bamboo salas. 

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We're overdue a swim by then and there's a cordoned off beach area that's very refreshing in the hot sun. Then, we return to our waiting boatman and head back down the Nam Hinbuan, past the bathing buffaloes, and onto our own lunch. 

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Visiting the Konglor cave makes for a great long weekend from Vientiane. Aside from the SpringRiver Resort, there are guesthouses and homestays. The Konglor cave journey costs 65,000 per person in the boat and each carries a maximum of 3 people (or 2 adults and 2 small people). Life jackets are compulsory, head torches optional or bring your own. Your shoes will get wet and so may the rest of you depending on the season! Our kids aged 5 and 7 loved it. 

Eat Drink Laos is an independent food blog created by Australian freelance writer and web designer, Lilani Goonesena. Got a foodie tip or question? Reach out or connect on social media @eatdrinklaos.