Tham Kong Lor, a 7.5K river cave, offers the opportunity to kayak through a pitch black cave lit only by your headlamp. Green Discovery’s 2-day trip combines this unique experience with a trek over the mountain that the cave lies beneath and a night in a village homestay. (See the following post for information on the homestay.)
It really is a memorable adventure, but it’s important to be prepared and have your expectations in check. Lonely Planet touts the motorized boat trips through the “other-worldly” cave as an “absolute must”, explaining, “Your imagination will be in overdrive as the boat takes you further into the bat-black darkness and the fear dial will ratchet up as if on some natural Gothic ghost ride.” Unless you have never been in a cave before, this is a gross exaggeration.
Things to Consider
The track over the mountain is on jagged karst limestone through dense jungle, so boots or good hiking shoes are essential. The cave is big and dark but otherwise ordinary with just one section of stalactites and stalagmites. The flow of the river through the cave is slow so the trip requires a good bit of paddling. The outboard engines on the motorized boats are noisy but in a kayak we had moments of silence to appreciate the immense, damp space.
Getting to the Cave from Thakhek
The start of the tour is in Thakhek (also spelled Tha Khaek) where the Green Discovery office is, but the hike and cave are actually 182k from town, including backtracking 100k towards Vientiane which we traveled from the day before. If I had put this together earlier I might have arranged to stay near the cave and have the guide meet us there instead of going to Thakhek and back again.
Our guide, Tick, and a driver picked up in a spiffy Hyundai minivan, the tourist vehicle of choice in the region, at just after 7 for the 3.5 hour drive to the cave. It took us just under 2 hours to reach the turn off for the cave. From here it’s another 82K on a rough road heavily trafficked by trucks heading to and from Vietnam. Once you turn off this road the secondary road is in much better condition for the rest of the journey.
At the entrance to the cave we unloaded and met our local guide for the day. The gear for our float on the following day was loaded on a motorized boat that would head up stream through the cave and meet us on the other side at a recreation area.
At 11AM we took a short boat ride across the river to the start of the trail. The track begins with a steep climb and then rolls up and down through the jungle. The first part of the trek isn’t too bad. The thick vegetation grabs your backpack when ducking under low branches.
Numerous rocky sections of jagged karst limestone and boulder hopping make this more than just a leisurely walk through the jungle. We passed just a few views of the limestone cliffs through the trees.
Lunch was at the base of a limestone wall. Tick and the local guide set out our lunch, first collecting and spreading out leaves to make a picnic table and then neatly arranging the meat skewers they had bought at the market that morning- chicken, pork, crispy pork rinds and of course sticky rice.
After lunch the “trail” seemed to get worse with more and more sections of steep karst limestone, thicker under brush and fewer views. At times I wondered if we were following a trail or simply bushwhacking through the jungle. The trail doesn’t bother our local guide, a small wiry smoker who glides through the jungle over the sharp rocks in flip flops.
On the last long rocky downhill I think this will never end. With so few views and the rocky conditions I I’m hating life. I should admit, however, I was wearing tennis shoes. As this was the only trek we would do in Laos I did not have my hiking boots with me. It took us 6 hours including lunch to reach the end point, arriving at the recreation area on the other side of the cave at dusk.
From the recreation area we took a local tractor 1k down the road to the Nantane Village where we would spend the night. (See the following post for details.)
This trail is best for those looking for an adventurous jungle experience and who like climbing rocks. That said, there is nothing technical about the trail and it may be too easy for true rock climbers. Some scrambling experience is a must as well as sturdy shoes unless you’re a local, then flip flops are fine.
Tick admitted to us later that some guests take 10 hours to do this trail arriving in the dark sometimes breaking down in tears.
Day 2 – Kayak through Tham Kong Lor
After breakfast we headed back to the river at the recreation area where we prepared for the kayak through the cave. For this route they use inflatable kayaks that they can transport on motorized boats through the cave and then inflate on the upstream side. We found these kayaks stable through the couple of small rapids but difficult to turn or keep going straight.
We were also given life jackets, helmets, headlamps and a dry sack, which did get submerged in one of the rapids. I also had a dry sack that I put our electronics in and then put that sack in their dry sack. Our overnight stuff that didn’t have anything in it that couldn’t get wet we left in our day packs that went with the support boat. For photos I also had an Olympus TG-4 waterproof camera that didn’t focus well in the low light or no light conditions.
The first week in November the air and water temperature were comfortable. You do get wet in the kayak and are pretty much sitting in water the whole time.
The first part of the trip to the mouth of the cave is beautiful, passing through soaring karst peaks above the lush green river bank.
The cave is completely dark except for one section which is lit and where you can get out and walk along an area with a few stalactites and stalagmites. The headlamps light the cave well enough that you can see where you are going but not much else.
There is some boat traffic at times, but with a 7.5K long cave there are also plenty of quiet times. In general it’s not a remarkable cave. A few formations and bats but mostly it’s a paddle in a large dark tunnel.
There was little current so you had to work some, not just float. A couple of rapids keep it interesting but nothing too difficult. We had a one exciting moment on the last rapid at the cave exit where we got caught on a rock and nearly tipped over.
The water level was low in spots and we got hung up from time to time but never had to get out and drag the kayak. I imagine later into the dry season you would. Probably the best time to do this trip is in October when the water level is a little higher but not too high.
We reached the lagoon on the other side at 11:30, taking 2 and a quarter hours from the recreation area. We had the option to go for a swim before lunch. It’s a beautiful pool for swimming but we had been in the water for the last two hours and didn’t feel like a swim.
Lunch was at the restaurant at the park entrance before heading back to Thakhek. The restaurant has a pleasant terrace with karst mountain views and is surrounded by orchids and other flowers.
Drive back to Town
It’s the same 3.5 hour drive back to town on bad roads with pretty mountain views in spots. We stopped for photos at a viewpoint along the way.
If you have the time in your itinerary and are looking for adventure in Laos this may be the trip for you, just be sure to have sturdy hiking shoes and keep your expectations in check.
November 6-7, 2018
For links to all the posts in this series see the Laos/Cambodia page.