Glimpse correspondent Lauren Quinn gets off the tourist trail in Laos.

THE MAN HOLDS my open palm in his. In it, he places a small clump of sticky rice and pork. He raises his right hand to his face, murmurs blessings in a language I don’t understand. He waves a piece of string, then ties it around my wrist.

“He wishes you good health, good luck,” Pauline translates.

I smile, bow. Outside the open-air room, lightning stutters the night sky white.

Travel can take you to strange places. Not that the places are strange, so much as it’s strange you’re there.

I hadn’t come to this remote region of Central Laos in search of a “cultural experience.” I’d come for the cave. Carved into the rock of Phu Hin Bun National Park, the 7.5km Tham Kong Lo was purported to be “spooky,” “other-worldly,” “reminiscent of the Greek underworld.” You could ride a skinny wooden boat through the cave, down its subterranean river and back. It sounded cool.

But to tell you the truth, I hadn’t even come for the cave. I’d come to escape the backpacker guesthouses and elephant trek tours, the Beer Lao tank tops and fruit shake stands of Laos’ tourist circuit.

With no organized tours or direct transport, simply reaching Kong Lo Cave sounded like a feat.

Getting to Ban Na Hin / Tham Kong Lo

Kong Lo is 30+km off Highway 8, which intersects the busy thoroughfare Highway 13. All local buses running between destinations such as Vientiane and Paksan, and Savannakhet and Pakse, stop at the junction. The closest proper town to both the junction and the cave is Ban Na Hin; with a handful of guesthouses, an ATM, and internet access, the town is a convenient base.

In forums and chat rooms, the route most often recommended is to take one of these Highway 13 buses, ask to be let off at the junction, and then take a frequent sawng thaew to Ban Na Hin. Here you can catch a sawng thaew to Kong Lo Cave (very few run directly from the junction to the cave). It sounds dicey, but as tourism is relatively rare in this part of Laos, locals will know where you’re headed and point you in the right direction.

From Vientiane, buses for Tha Khaet are your best bet — they pass the junction, and depart every 30 minutes beginning at 6am. You’ll pay 60,000 kip for the bus, while the sawng thaew will cost 25,000 kip.

Alternatively, several buses run from Vientiane down Highway 13 to Lak Soa. They leave every two hours beginning at 6am, and will let you off in Ban Na Hin (thus negating the junction transfer); expect a 6-7 hour ride and a 75,000 kip fare.

A direct bus from Vientiane to Kong Lo Cave officially departs daily between 9-10am, though in actuality it’s often canceled due to lack of passengers.

Coming from the south, your easiest base is Tha Khaet, where sawng thaew run to Ban Na Hin for 50-70,000 kip. Again, locals will know before you even ask where you’re headed. Tha Khaet is about 100km north of Savannakhet.

MY JOURNEY FROM Vientiane ends up being rather smooth — a touch over seven hours, with only one bus breakdown. I arrive in Ban Na Hin, drop my bag at one of the guesthouses that line the town’s one main road, fuel up on some noodle soup.

I start to troll the town for other Westerners. The boat ride through the cave costs 100,000 kip, so I want to find fellow travelers to share the fare.

I meet Pauline in front of another guesthouse, where she sits typing on her laptop. Yes, she is headed to the cave the next day; yes, we can share a boat. “But you’ll have to ride back alone. I will be staying on the other side of the cave.”

“You mean you won’t be coming back?”

She shakes her head. “No, there are some villages, on the other side. I’m studying them for an anthropology project, so I will stay there for 10 days.”

She’s already done one 10-day stint in the villages, which are cut off from the rest of the region by roads that are impassable most of the year. The only real way to reach them, she tells me, is through Kong Lo Cave.

A French NGO is sponsoring the development of ecotourism in these villages. Homestays on the near, more developed side of the cave, in Ban Kong Lo, have already become popular, bringing new wealth and modern amenities like running water and refrigeration. But the villages on the other side remain largely unknown, rural, and poor.

“I’ll be staying in the biggest village, Ban Natane. There’s a store and a few families that can do homestays.

If you like,” she shrugs, “you can stay there as well.”

It strikes me this is exactly what I’m looking for.

Getting to Ban Natane

Once at the entrance to Kong Lo Cave, arranging a boat is simple: local men hang out near the snack stalls waiting for fares. The narrow wooden boats accommodate three passengers, in addition to the two boatmen, and cost 100,000 kip — regardless of whether you ride back or not.

Artificial lighting has recently been added to a small section of the cave; the rest remains veiled in an eerie, bat-swooping darkness.

On the other side, climb up the slope to the snack stands; you’ll see a blue sign announcing homestays in Ban Natane. Facing the sign, take the dirt path to your left for 2km. You’ll arrive in Ban Natane and, while very little English is spoken, you’ll look like a foreigner and they’ll know what to do with you. They can also facilitate your return journey; remember, you’ll need to pay the 100,000 kip boat fare again.

ENTERING KONG LO CAVE the next morning is like entering a mouth — stalactites like teeth, and the feeling that you’re going inside, riding inside, the body of the earth, organs frozen rock-hard. My torch casts a feeble glow into the black; mist rises from the water like ghosts.

On the other side, Pauline, her Lao project supervisor, and I start for Ban Natane. My cheap thongs having broken in the river’s strong current, so I walk the 2km dirt road to the village barefoot. The earth is warm, pitted with deep ruts, raised by tree roots. Thunder rumbles from some place behind the mountains.

We arrive in Ban Natane just as the afternoon storm erupts. I scramble up the steep ladder of our host’s stilted house, wipe the dirt off my bare feet. One of the daughters brings me a warm glass of murky water. “It’s local herbs,” Pauline explains. “They use it to purify the water, after they boil it. It’s safe to drink.”

I swallow, and it tastes like earth.

Once the storm passes, we walk around the village. Fresh puddles glimmer in the afternoon sunlight as life reawakens: ducks waddling, pigs snorting, women with babies tied to their backs carrying hoes. Beneath the wooden stilted houses, an old woman sits looming; a young boy rocks an infant asleep in a hammock. Men rattle by in a hand tractor. Schoolgirls in white blouses and sarongs carry books and make their way through the puddles. From every house — open-air and windowless — comes the blare of a television set.

“TV came three months ago,” Pauline explains, “so everyone is like this — ” she puts her hand to her face and stares, then laughs. “The children are very excited but…I don’t know — I think maybe they will lose some of their culture.”

I nod, watching a line of ducks move past a satellite dish.

When to go

While Kong Lo Cave is open all year round, the best time to go is during the dry season, October through May. Dirt roads that connect Ban Natane to other villages become rutted, muddy messes in the rain, and many activities like hiking and caving aren’t possible during heavy storms.

If you go towards the end of the dry season, expect your boat to bottom out several times as you pass through the cave; you’ll need to hop out and wade through the rocks a bit.

Bring with you:

  • A decent torch or headlamp and sturdy rubber sandals will be indispensable, as well as a sarong for ladies to bathe in.
  • A Lao phrasebook would also be useful, although the local school does employ an English teacher who can provide minimal translations.
  • All goods in Ban Natane and its neighboring villages have to be transported through the cave, so any products or snacks you need should be purchased on the other side. There’s a small store in Ban Natane that has chips, Nescafe packets, and a modest selection of toiletries, but at high prices; during rice harvest time, the store closes.
  • Bringing small candies or Big Brother Mouse books will make you popular with the children.

THAT NIGHT, we’re served dinner by our homestay hosts — a silver tray on the straw-mat floor. Baskets of sticky rice accompany steaming plates of greens, chili paste, and… frog. “It’s frog season,” Pauline translates from her French-speaking supervisor. “The son — ” she looks over at a teenage boy “ — he foraged these this afternoon.”

Locally sourced, sustainable eating, I think.

We’re dipping our hands in the tub of water and drying them when a man’s head pops up from the ladder. He speaks in Lao with the supervisor, who nods over at us. “Come,” is the extent of explanation given.

In a house a few rows over, a group of 20+ people has gathered. They sit on the floor around an altar of banana leaves and white flowers, baskets of rice, and a brimming bowl of meat with a pig’s head peeking out.

We’re motioned to sit down, a scarf draped across our shoulder. “It’s a Baci ceremony,” Pauline translates, “for important visitors. Not us,” she laughs, “but the district chief,” she nods at a smiling man in a polo shirt and slacks. “He came today for business.”

The village chief gives a short speech, then holds the district chief’s hand in his as he recites a blessing. Next, everyone commences blessing each other: a ball of sticky rice and pork, a plastic cup of lao lao, a string waved and tied. People smile warmly at me — I feel like neither an oddity nor an intruder. I feel like a guest.

“You must keep the strings tied for three days,” Pauline tells me, “for the blessings to be true.”

I look at the line of string down my wrist, at the room of people chanting and bowing, out into the dark of a village night, flickering in the lightning.

“I think I can handle that.”

What to expect in Ban Natane

You’ll pay 50,000 kip for a night’s accommodation and three meals. A family will provide you with simple accommodation: usually a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net. Expect squat toilets in outhouses, and for bathing, either buckets of water scooped from a basin or the river. Keep in mind Lao modesty — cover up with a sarong, and if you want to swim, do so in your clothes.

Ban Natane relies on subsistence farming, so you’ll be eating what the land provides. Meals will be extremely traditional, served with sticky rice and eaten with your hands. As a guest, you’ll be expected to eat first, and, to honor you, your hosts will serve as much protein as possible. For this reason, a homestay is unfortunately not recommended for strict vegetarians — there’s no cultural conception of vegetarianism, and the likelihood of offending your hosts is high.

A lack of running water means people boil and purify water with local herbs. While it has a distinctly earthy flavor, the water served is safe to drink.

In June 2011, a NGO is sponsoring a training program for locals to become tour guides for the area. Once this happens, intended activities including trekking, bicycle tours, and caving.

For now, you can rent your own bicycle and explore the surrounding villages, hire a local to take you on a hike, or just hang out and participate in village life. As it was already the rainy season when I visited, my options were limited; I hired a hand tractor (100,000 kip) to take me around to the other villages for a half day.