Floating on a precariously-balanced wooden boat, apprehension sets in as your non-English speaking guide paddles the small skiff around a limestone corner. The sinister mouth of a cave swallows you into the darkness and you realize the eerie nature of the adventure at hand – welcome to Tham Kong Lo Cave.
Tham Kong Lo Cave (sometimes spelled Konglor Cave), hidden deep in the Phu Hin Bun wilderness of central Laos, is one of Southeast Asia's geological wonders.
Otherworldly stalactites, spooky limestone formations, and ceilings over 300 feet tall make this flooded cave a highlight and bragging-point for many travelers in Laos.
The Nam Hin Bun River flows through the cave, making it only accessible by small boats which must be hired from one of the river villages. Boats do stop throughout the 7 km cave, allowing travelers to explore a little on foot. Colored lights donated by a French organization create a dramatic light show bouncing off the shadows.
The river passage through the cave is also used by locals for transporting goods (the town of Nam Thone regularly delivers bulk tobacco down the river), but traffic or overcrowding on the inside is never a problem.
Entering Tham Kong Lo Cave
To explore the cave, you must hire a motorized boat from Ban Kong Lo village and chug the 7 km through the cave; boatmen usually charge around US $6 per person. The long, narrow boats are tricky to balance and like the experienced men that paddle them, show their weathered age.
A typical boat can carry up to five passengers plus two crewmen.
About five minutes in, the boat will stop at an in-cave shore, where you can disembark and explore on foot. The multicolored lights add drama and flair to what used to be a pitch-dark experience; paved walkways allow you to wander without slipping or tripping on wet limestone.
At its widest, Konglor Cave's cave chamber rises over 100 meters above the water and 90 meters from wall to wall. The oddly-shaped, gleaming stalactites and stalagmites underscore the otherworldliness of Konglor Cave's interior.
At the end of the ride, the boats emerge into a verdant hidden valley. You'll spend a fifteen-minute break here (friendly vendors here will sell you snacks), before riding the boat to float back the way you came.
Other Tham Kong Lo Tips
Wear shoes that allow for scrambling on wet rocks and wading in water. Sharp rocks will make short work of your soft flip-flop sandals.
Confirm that your boat price includes the cave entrance fee (less than US $1).
The landscape around the villages and cave is stunning, but the bomb craters should be a reminder that millions of unexploded objects are still scattered throughout the region.
Mosquitoes are particularly aggressive and persistent around the river; use protection. Read more about how to avoid mosquito bites.
The boatmen are experts of their craft but do your part by shifting around as little as possible inside of the narrow boats.
Getting to Tham Kong Lo
Getting to Tham Kong Lo Cave is half the adventure and many travelers only doing the Vientiane - Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang trail miss out.
Many travelers crossing over from Thailand at Nakhon Phanom on the Mekong River use the tranquil town of Tha Khaek as a base to explore this rural part of Laos. Regular minibusses run a four-hour run down the winding road to Ban Khoun Kham.
Ban Khoun Kham (also known as Ban Na Hin) is set in the beautiful Hin Bun valley and is the largest town in close proximity of the cave.
Ban Kong Lo - the village nearest to the cave - has been recently improved; the 30-mile journey from Ban Khoun Kham now takes around an hour. Plentiful motorbike taxis and sawngthaews (pick-up trucks retrofitted for passengers) are the cheapest options.
Accommodation near Tham Kong Lo
Thanks to a short mention in the guidebooks, a small trickle of backpackers do visit the cave and a few guesthouses have sprung up in the surrounding villages.
Sala HinBoun and Sala Kong Lor are two popular residences with rooms for around US $20.
Homestays: A more adventurous and memorable option is to sleep in a homestay in Ban Kong Lo village, only 1 km from the cave. Homestays cost around US $5 - $10 and include family-style meals. Sleeping conditions are usually rough and language is a barrier, but the chance to see how locals live is well worth the effort.
To book a homestay, just turn up in Ban Kong Lo and ask around. Someone will inevitably offer you accommodation.
The cave could be explored by a long day trip from Ban Khoun Kham but is better enjoyed with an overnight stay. Inthapanya Guesthouse in Ban Khoun Kham has an English-speaking staff and can make arrangements for you.
When to Visit Tham Kong Lo
The best time to visit Tham Kong Lo is during the dry season in Laos from November to April. Take care not to arrive during particularly dry seasons, as the boat may touch bottom if the water levels are low.