True darkness is characterized by the absence of light. Despite being familiar with black nights (dark purple nights in Paris – thanks, light pollution), dark movie theaters, and occasional dimly lit restaurants, I don’t think I’ve really experienced true darkness quite like we did today in Tham Kong Lo (Konglor cave) in central Laos.
The cave itself is an impressive 7km (4.5 miles) long tunnel that follows an inky river under a giant karst (limestone rock mountain). It’s located in a remote corner of the Annamite mountain chain in central Laos that is (for now anyway) seemingly unmarred by mass tourism.
Perhaps this is because the cave is far off the North-South backpacker route – known as the banana pancake trail – and pretty inconvenient to get to. In our case, we started the day in unremarkable but pleasant Tha Kahek off the main road: a tuk-tuk, overloaded local bus, dusty jumbo (a sort of converted pick-up truck with welded-on benches and metal top) and a sweaty walk, 8 hours later, we finally made it.
After paying our park entrance fee, cave entrance fee, boat fee and waiting until one of the dozen or so canoe captains felt motivated enough to leave his card game and afternoon lao-lao (rice whiskey) to bring us though the tunnel, we approached the yawning cave entrance with its craggy stalactite teeth.
The air flowing out of the cave was cool and humid, but not dank as I was expecting (conditioned response from riding Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland perhaps?). As we picked our way along the rocky sand, our eyes slowly adjusted to the blackness. Some local kids were swimming in the large shallow lagoon, a natural way to avoid the baking heat outside. We could now only see dim outlines of shapes – the line of longboats on the shore, an oar waiting on the sand, our captain and coxwain hunched over steadying the boat as we climbed in to be seated single file. We pushed off and headed for…darkness.
A few meters later, the boatmen snapped on their yellow headlamps, looking something like a cross between fishermen and old-timey miners. They gestured for us to do the same. Stalactites were interspersed with smooth limestone on the ceiling of the cave which varied from only a few feet above our heads to soaring so high our headlamps’ circular beams couldn’t reach the surface (100 meters high in some places). The longboat’s lawn-mower sized engine made a loud rattley echo which was punctuated only with our impressed and continual “woowwww…”.
In all this darkness, your imagination can run wild. How did anyone ever discover this cave and that you could canoe all the miles and miles straight through it? Maybe some fisherman passed out in his boat after too much lao-lao and woke up a few hours later on the opposite side of the karst. I also spent my time freaking myself out by the prospect of getting stranded in there. Several times along the long route upriver, the shallow rocky bottom and current dry season meant we had to get out and wade in the ankle-deep water until the boat was once again afloat. What would happen if the boatmen just took off? With all our stuff? And just left us here in the darkness? Would I have the courage to swim the several miles to the entrance in the scary black water? Or would I just freak out in the darkness and wait for a balrog to come eat me?
We felt the end of the tunnel before seeing it. After an hour of peering into the blanketing blackness while our boatmen expertly navigated between petrified trees and unseen dangers (real and/or imaginary) lurking just below the surface, the air became slightly dry and warmer. A few moments later, the heavy darkness was punctured by a white glow. It grew progressively stronger until…there it was: the proverbial and literal light at the end of the tunnel. We clicked off our headlamps and watched as the gap in the rock widened to take in a view of sun-lit green jungle beyond and, not scary black, but lovely turquoise water of the river. We glided up the last bit of rapids and poured back into reality, squinting into the light. We were once again safe, on the other side of darkness.
Here’s a short clip of us finally emerging on the far side of the karst into the luscious jungle.