I was up at the crack of dawn once again in order to get one of the 3 extremely early buses to Ban Khuan Kham in central Laos. My mission was to get to the Kong Lo cave in the Khammuan province. It was so early that most of the tuktuk drivers in Vientiane were still asleep so there was no hope of finding one with passengers, waiting to fill up! Why are the bus stations so far out of town? Anyway, once on the bus I thought I'd be the only non-Laoatian until 3 Kiwis and and a Brit climbed aboard. I was thankful that they did in the end as those caves were not exactly on the beaten track and it's much easier to negotiate transport as a group. The bus was music filled again but sadly I'd forgotten to put my earplugs in my bag. This time it was worse. Apparently it's usual. Also on the bus were several cardboard boxes containing chickens and at least one cockeral by the sound. Once we had finally crawled out of the bus station we stopped for another hour whilst several bags of vegetables and rice were loaded on. I knew this was going to be a long haul. Ban Kuan Kham is a small town seemingly in middle of absolutely nowhere, there were barely any other tourists but guesthouses (not cheap ones at that) were in abundance. We had all read in the Lonely Planet (does nobody have any other guidebook??) about this fantastic guesthouse with swimming pool, run by a helpful English speaking French couple. So all 5 of us climbed into a tuktuk to get there only to find a very different story! The owners were away, nobody spoke English, it wasover-priced and the swimming pool turned out to be a mud bath! We decided to take up the tuktuk driver's offer of a lift all the way to the Kong Lor area directly which was after all where we needed to be in order to see the cave. As we pulled away a strange French punk rocker and his girlfriend came running out of the guesthouse and jumped aboard, also eager to make a hasty retreat! The driver was leaving for Kon Lor at 1.30 so we went for some lunch in a cafe where we met Nick - an English guy who had been there for 2 hours waiting for someone who happened to be heading to the same place - lucky he found us!
We found a lovely place to stay, wooden huts on stilts agan right next to the river. We even had our own private beach. This was still a few kms away from the cave itself but at least a decent road has been built since the book was written. There was a slightly more upmarket set of wooden huts down the road (labelled eco-lodge!) for about 3 times the price and went there for dinner. I had chicken in banana leaf - the most expensive meal I'd ordered in Laos and the worst. Tough as old boots. The following morning only Nick and were up at a decent our so we flagged down a roaming tuktuk to take us to the cave. I have to say the surrounding scenery was stunning but the cave was something else. You charter your own small conoe (3 passengers max) at the cave mouth and you have a driver and assistant (12 years old) both wearing powerful head torches. The cave was about 7 kms long and in some areas we had to get out and wade as the water was too shallow and the boat had to be lifted over. About a third of the way along there was floodlit grotto of weird and beautiful stalagtites and stalamites. The rest of the length was pitch black and really quite spooky. It was slight relief to see the light at the end of the tunnel - literally. Then we had to go back again! It was an out of the way experience but definately worth going to. In the evening 2 of the lads decided to order duck for dinner. One was grabbed off the ground and stabbed in the neck and brutally plucked before their very eyes. In fact they eagerly joined in with the plucking. A couple of hours later it was been barbecued and served to them in a dish. I was hoping it wasn't one that I had observed peacefully sleeping on a warm heap of sawdust earlier in the afternoon. I had stir fried vegetables.