Rocketing through the darkness on a long, thin wooden boat, the local guide skillfully maneuvers around the obstacles following the winding path of the river cave. Looking up at the ceiling of the cave stirs my imagination, I’m inside the belly of some gargantuan sea creature. Something from a Jules Vern novel. A creature named Tham Kong Lor. Kong Lor Cave.
First Expedition through Kong Lor Cave
It wasn’t until a bundle of rice seedlings and then an ox yoke floated out of the cave that the locals ventured inside. Assuming it was the start of the river, they had no reason to go further than it’s mouth. Now, what if a civilization was on the other side of this deep, dark, mysterious place? 7 brave men set off in boats into the darkness of the cave. Torches light the way, and 3 days later they emerged back into the sunlight on the other end having gone 7.5 kilometers underground, straight through the mountain. Tham Kong Lor (Kong Lor Cave) was now explored.
Introduction to Kong Lor Cave
A highlight of the Thakhek Loop moto adventure Kong Lor Cave is a must-see for this region and for many, a major highlight of any trip to Laos. 40 kilometers off the main road, past rice fields and through small villages backed by jungle-covered karst peaks, lies Kong Lor Cave. Getting into a long wooden boat (called a sampan) with an outboard motor, your guide will take you through 7.5 kilometers of an underground river as it twists and turns far below the earth’s surface, until you emerge back into the daylight at a few remote villages. During the first part of the trip through the cave, you will stop at a short walking section where the jagged stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave features are illuminated. Otherwise, the cave is pitch black, light only by your headlamp.
Kong Lor Cave
Fees ($1 USD = ~8,000 KIP):
Boat Tour: 110,000 for the first person and 10,000 for each additional person up to 3 people (maybe 4, if you have small people)
Parking area outside the cave (5,000 kip). There is a restaurant here with reasonable prices. A ticket office (2,000 kip) and small visitor center which recounts the legend of the two women who first settled this area and some other information. A nice walk through the forest (5–10 minutes) and you’ll arrive at a small booth to pay for your tickets. Lockers are provided as well as a (not very good) headlamp and sandals if you need them (your feet will get wet)
Inside Kong Lor Cave
Board a Sampan and you’re off, motoring into the darkness. But don’t get too comfortable, after 5 minutes you’ll get out of the boat, the only section of the cave with lights. 10–20 minutes walking through some nicely light formations and you’re back in the boat. The entire trip inside the cave is about an hour, zooming through the darkness.
Look up at the ceiling and walls, try to spot debris (logs and sticks) wedged high above you, a testament to how the water can get when it floods. Shine your light on the water and marvel at the lights rippling reflection on the cave walls. Try to see the bottom of the river where it’s shallow, through the clear water. Get disoriented looking at the reflection of the walls and ceiling, trying to figure out if it’s a reflection or if you’re looking through the water. Some fun activities to keep you looking around.
In the dry season, you will probably have to get out of the boat a few times to cross a rapid. In the wet season just hold on while your skilled boat operator guns the engine before quickly pulling the propeller out of the water as you go up the rapid.
The end of the cave and the light outside beckons you back to the world of the living and the heat of the day.
Ban Natane — Other side of Kong Lor Cave
(Ban Natane, Ban Na Hang, Ban He, Ban Phone Khan):
Shortly after you emerge on the other side into the sunlight you will dock at an area with some buildings selling food and drinks. You can rent a bicycle here to explore the local villages starting with Ban Natane, something I’d definitely recommend if you have time. Bicycle Rental Fee: 2 hours = 20,000 kip Half Day = 30,000 kip Full Day = 40,000 kip. There is a marked bicycle loop (small red signs with bicycles painted on them). The sign says you need 2 hours to ride the loop, but it can be done in 1 if that’s all you’ve got (though you can relax and stop for snacks or lunch if you have more time). Take a picture of the map when you rent the bike and if you get lost while riding just ask any local “Kong Lor?” and they can point you the way.
The first time I went through Kong Lor Cave I didn’t bike around Ban Natane or even really leave the docking area. The second time I went through Kong Lor we had time so we spent about an hour biking the small loop through the villages. It was well worth it and I found myself wishing we had more time.
It appeared to me that this area was rarely visited by tourists and all the children came outside their homes to greet us with enthusiastic “Sabaidee” greetings pressing their hands together and bowing slightly, it really made my day! Not only this but the landscape is spectacular and the villages, so authentic.
Accommodation in Ban Natane:
It’s possible to stay in Ban Natane or the other villages in the area. Just show up and you’ll find a homestay. If you have time you can stay here for a day and explore the area. It’s places like this, authentic, rural villages, where you can find the real heart and spirit of Laos.
If you do stay the night in Ban Natane you will likely have to pay the boat ride through Kong Lor Cave twice. Once when you arrive and once on the way back.
Back to Kong Lor Village:
The trip back through Kong Lor Cave will be quicker as there is no stopping (other than to cross a rapid or two in the dry season) and you will be going with the current.
There is a bridge and cabanas set up at the entrance of Kong Lor Cave in the dry season. It’s an excellent place to hang out and go swimming after your trip through the cave. (In the wet season the water flows higher and the current is stronger, though it’s still possible to swim here. Just be wary of the current)
Things to know about Kong Lor Cave:
1. Your feet will get wet and you might get splashed. Brings sandals or other water shoes. There are sharp rocks so something sturdier will be better. Sandals are available for you at the boat tour office (included in the price) but aren’t good quality and might not be in your size.
2. Lockers are available at the boat tour office to store your valuables (included in the price).
3. If you bring anything with you make sure it can either get wet or bring a dry-bag for your electronics and phone if possible (or be very careful). The bottom of the boat has water and water may drip from the ceiling.
4. A headlamp is included in the price, but it’s a very focused beam and doesn’t illuminate a whole lot. If you really want to see the cave bring the brightest light/lights you’ve got.
Wet Season vs Dry Season
Kong Lor Cave can be visited in both the wet season and the dry season. Extreme rain and flooding could affect this but in general, you should be able to access the cave year-round. In the wet season, everything around the cave will be much greener and the air will probably be clearer. Inside the cave, you will feel closer to the ceiling in places when the water runs higher and you probably won’t have to get out of the boat at the rapids.
Getting to Kong Lor Cave:
Most people access Kong Lor Cave by motorbike on the Thakhek Loop. From the main highway (Route 8 ) take a left follow signs through Ban Nahin. There is a rough section of dirt road but it’s short and most of the 40 km is nicely paved, up until the last few km at the end.
By Bus from Vientiane:
A bus to the village of Kong Lor (1km from Kong Lor Cave) departs the Southern Bus Station at 10:00 am daily, 80,000 kip 7–8 hours. Most Guesthouses in Vientiane will sell you a ticket for 90–100,000 kip for transport to the bus station from your GH. Sout chai Travel runs a bus from Vientiane http://soutchaitravel.com/transportation/
By Bus from Thakhek:
It’s possible to get to Kong Lor by public transport from Thakhek but you will have to change buses a few times. From the main bus station in Thakhek take any Northbound bus (to Vientiane for example) and get off at the Route 13 & Highway 8 junction in the town of Vieng Kham (~100kms 1.5 hours). The next destination is Ban Nahin. Take a bus from Vieng Kham to Ban Nahin at 2 pm (20,000 kip/1 hour). From Ban Nahin take a minibus departing at 3:00 PM (25,000/1 hour) to Kong Lor. Double check with your hotel and/or the tourist information center in Thakhek for bus times or a direct bus to Kong Lor. Either way plan on spending one day in transit.
Kong Lor Cave Accommodation:
If you’re driving the Thakhek Loop on a motorbike you have more options. Stay in Nahin or in Kong Lor Village. Nahin is on the main road (Highway 8) about 40 kilometers from Kong Lor and so a good place to stay for two nights while you explore Kong Lor Cave. Or, if you arrive in Nahin early in the afternoon then you can continue driving all the way to Kong Lor Village. However, I definitely DO NOT recommend driving this road at night as it is very dark and there are lots (and I mean LOTS) of cows and many potholes near the end of the 40 kms.
There are Guesthouses and Homestays in both Nahin and Kong Lor. If it’s an extremely busy period you might want to book in advance, otherwise I would just show up.
Sanhak Guest House
A great place to stay in Ban Nahin, clean, friendly staff and a good on-site restaurant. Lots of information is available here on the local attractions as well as motorcycle rentals and tours.
Dorm Bed: 30,000 kip
Private Room: 50k to 60k kip (fan only. Price goes up if you need A/C)
Turn left off of Route 8 at the first road in Nahin. Sanhak Guesthouse is just a few minutes down the road on the right.