Welcome to the underworld

Written by Stuart Revnell No Gravatar

An early start this morning – up at 04:45 to catch a tuk to the bus station in Vientiane for our 06:00 bus to Ba Nam Him, jumping off point for the Kong Lo cave, our next scheduled stop on our way down through the country.

Our plan was to stay overnight in Ban Nam Him, visit the cave the next day, stay another night, then continue our journey.  As it happened, we arrived at midday, jumped on a shared sang thaew (open backed taxi – seats eight by design and twenty in reality) towards the guesthouse we had planned to stay at, but decided to visit the cave the same day, as it transpired that they were only a kilometre or so apart, and there didn’t seem like there would be a huge amount to occupy our time if we checked in for the afternoon.

We wandered through a beautiful, calm forest for ten minutes or so, up to the river’s edge, where a handful of boatmen hang out in a shelter, waiting to take visitors through the cave.  On the way down, an enterprising chap hires out head torches for £0.40 a pop – he’s the only one though, as the cave still seems to be a fairly minor blip on the tourist trail, despite having been open for fifteen years to the outside world.

We strolled along to the mouth of the cave to pick up our boat, and as we ambled over the final ridge, something dawned on me – this cave was huge.  The mouth gaped open, and the entrance was  filled with long boats – hinting more at the promise of a mass influx of visitors rather than the reality – waiting to ferry visitors into the blackness.  We fired up our headlamps, and after a short walk to our boat, began our journey along the 7.5 km river.

What followed was unlike anything I’ve ever done on my life.  After a few minutes, we stopped at a jumping off point to view a stalactite / stalagmite garden, and standing there dwarfed by the huge formations, eerily illuminated by blue uplighters, I felt like I was on the surface of a remote planet, far away from the world I knew.  This section of the cave was the only one with any artificial light in it, and the experience is all the better for it, in my opinion – with only our headlamps to navigate by as our boat continued its journey, I sat open-mouthed, in awe of the incredible features around me, barely perceptible, but most definitely there.

You know those nights when you arrive in a place far away from any street lamps, step outside to view the stars, and as your eyes adjust, you’re silenced by the realisation that there are forces at work in the universe which, no matter how hard you try, you can’t quite get your head around?  It felt a little like that – there are really no words that I could use to convey how impressive the Kong Lo Cave is.  The fact that something of  this scale probably started life several millions or hundreds of millions of years ago (there comes a point when it doesn’t really make much difference to one’s level of awe) is quite staggering to me.   That the water from the roof of the cave, high overhead, had been dripping onto the stalagmites below for thousands of years, while human language systems were developing, science, commerce and medicine were evolving…my imagination ran wild, and I loved every moment of it.

NOTE: The final paragraph originally asserted that the cave had been formed by running water, that it had been in existence for billions of years, before all life began, and that the stalagmites had been forming for millions of years, through the reign of the dinosaurs, the last Ice Age, and the Dawn of Man.  Jane reviewed the post, and questioned the validity of these assertions.  After some internet research, I’ve now found out that limestone is apparently formed in part from the remains of animal life (so the cave could not have been formed before life began), the last Ice Age may not have reached South East Asia, and that caves such as these are not primarily formed by running water, but instead, by a process whereby carbonic acid turns calcium carbonate to calcium bicarbonate, effectively dissolving rock.  I have therefore graciously accepted her editorial input, and despite sounding rather less grand in scale, trust the article now contains no inaccuracies.

One Response to “Welcome to the underworld”

  1. SarahNo Gravatar says:

    Amazing photos – and well done Jane for correcting the info!!

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