The bus from Phonsavan to Paksan was a lengthy journey but not for dangerous bumpy roads as much for a countless number of stops in the many villages en route. At first I rejoiced in the empty mustard-yellow Russian made bus, thinking I would be one of only a few passengers. It was a cool misty drive for fifteen minutes before the first stop was made. After an hours wait the bus was soon full and not only with happy Lao faces. Loaded into every niche and crevice were peoples personal belongings that included canisters of diesel, chickens (alive) in cages and boxes, bags of dripping meat, machine parts, etc. With every seat now filled, including the makeshift wooden bench balanced in the center isle, we headed onward. I thought again naively that we were at capacity and would head directly for our final destination in Paksan. I was wrong! We stopped and loaded twice as many passengers at every stop as the number that had just gotten off. People were piled on top of one another, not me, and we continued our journey down the yellow dust roads. With scarf tied around my face, like a Western cowboy in films of old, I entered hibernation and swayed to and fro with the dance of the bus. Nine hours had passed and we reached the terminal in Paksan. With intuition as my only guide I headed left. After forty-five minutes of wandering with pack on back I came across BK Guesthouse. It was a clean room, small in size, but had a fan and hot water and was all mine for the night.
With a hot shower and a few minutes stretched-out on white linen sheets I re-clothed and headed in search of some delicious Laos sticky rice. Finding a promising location I ordered the aforementioned dish with a course of stir-fried veggies. Salivating in anticipation of my long awaited meal I apply mosquito spray, organic, and watch my server walk to the table. A basket of sticky rice is placed before me along with fried lettuce in oyster sauce. OK, it must be what is in season and I devour it all. While basking in the moonlight along the river with stomach now full my attention is drawn to a distant lyrical thumping. Curious, I pay my bill and head off in discovery. At this moment I notice a spotlight making its elliptical path in the dusty evening sky. I follow my senses and arrive at a pop rock concert hosted by Nestle with at least 500 locals in attendance and one white guy (me). I felt as famous as the performers on stage as I strolled through the crowds, at least eight inches taller than everyone else, receiving starry gazes from giggling girls and "hello's" from the men with large smiles. It was a worthwhile night and I had arrived on the right evening.
The next morning I made my way to the crossroads where I had been told the local bus would pick me up at nine. At ten-thirty the bus arrived and I was on my way to Kong Lor. I overshot my destination by two-hours, which I discovered from a fellow traveler from Spain and had to backtrack. Four hours of unnecessary travel, but I met a travel companion for the next few days whose name I did not properly store. We headed to Na Hin where we split accommodations for the night and in the morning headed for the village of Kong Lor.
The 45km trip took two hours, which I have now become accustom to because of the many stops and we arrived at the park entrance by noon. We set out to find a home stay and with little effort we met Buun Homme and his family who set us up. We ditched our packs and headed to the cave entrance. The boat can fit a max of three people and my new travel companion wanted to wait for a third person to save us each a dollar. After about twenty minutes no one arrived and I insisted we make our journey through the cave. We were provided life vests and made our way into the darkness before boarding a long slim wooden canoe. With headlamps lit we puttered on the shallow waters into the depths of an immense subterranean darkness. A feeling of absolute isolation overcomes you as you advance into the shadows that absorb the light beaming from your brow. We stop on a rocky shore and are instructed to hike up an incline. A few minutes pass as I continue in solitude, my travel partner now far ahead of me, before my surroundings light up in eerie blue glow. I am surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites. An alien landscape before me, perhaps I have traveled through space to some distant planet. In amazement I walk forward through the glowing humid cave; the air never moves here. France had embarked on a lighting project for this area in an attempt to bring tourism to Kong Lor. We re-boarded the canoe and made our way further into the darkness. An hour had passed in nearly complete sensory deprivation before light again entered my eyes. We made it to the exit and an adjoining small village. With a short stop we headed back. The round-trip through the 7.5 km stretch of cave took almost 2.5 hours and was well worth the arduous journey through rural Laos.
Upon exist I swam in the lagoon at the caves entrance and made my way back to the family's home for dinner. We consumed a lovely meal with three other travelers from a local guest house and we danced with a group of children until their bedtime at ten. The first night I tossed and turned until one-thirty and was awoken at three by the calls of the many roosters. At five am the whole family was awake and so was I. Spending the day in exploration of village paths through the forest and along the river I came back to the lagoon and had another refreshing swim. My two-night home stay in Kong Lor was by far the most enchanting experience I have had in Laos and it took forceful effort for me to move on to Vietnam. New developments of guesthouses and even a resort were underway in this small village and I fear that it will not be the same if ever I were to return.