Most people who travel to Laos visit the North of the country – only those with time, and who want to see a different Laos, head to the South. Our first stop on our southbound odyssey was Ba Nah Hin (Ban Khoun Kham) for the eerie 7 KM cave.
Our day started at 5 AM. After showering and packing our bags, we hopped on a tuk tuk and made our way to the South bus station, 9 KM out of town. It was a cold, windy ride but we were able to watch the sun rise. And what a sunrise! Yellow and pink mixed together with clouds and reflected on rice paddies – magical! I’m not usually one for sunrises, but this one was spectacular.
As soon as we got to the bus station we found our bus and reserved our seats. In Laos, it’s important to sit as close to the front of the bus as possible, and to get a window seat to reduce the risks of motion sickness. Travis grabbed a tasty, crunchy baguette filled with La Vache Qui Rit, fresh herbs and cucumber as well as another plain baguette for the ride. We were set for the next 7-9 hours ahead, as per the given travel estimate. We weren’t really certain though about when we’d get to Ban Na Hin, because it wasn’t the bus’ final destination.
The driver’s assistant turned on the TV, and VCC (karaoke videos) from Laos and Thailand played for the remainder of the ride. Some of it was hilarious, but mostly all of the videos follow a lot of the same formula: girl meets guy, guy cheats, girl is brokenhearted – or – guy fight with girl, guy leaves town, return conveniently during her wedding ceremony and is brokenhearted. Trust me when I say that it’s better when you’re blocking out the sound with your own music.
We left the station on time (a pleasant surprise) but stopped right away outside of the station. As soon as we came to a stop vendors filled the bus, many selling the same goods. Anything and everything was for sale – falang (white – like what they call us tourists) baguettes, drinks, chicken wings on a stick, sticky rice and even one enterprising fellow was selling motion sickness pills. 5 minutes later we were off, and we were already having loads of fun.
Most of the actual bus ride felt quite different than what we are accustomed to in Laos: the road was mostly flat and straight. The landscapes were back to the burnt grass, mixed in with reds and golden yellows of winter fields. It wasn’t really pretty to look at, and the villages we passed were not nearly as interesting. Once we turned off the main highway though, to make our way towards to Vietnamese border, the scenery, and the road, started to change. We entered mountains and curves. Limestone and thicker forest mixed with odd, jagged black rocks. It looked as though the rocks had burned and crumbled – it was very strange. Perhaps it was a taste of what was to come tomorrow?
Our bus dropped us off in Ban Na Hin, and Travis scouted our room. We had made good time: we arrived just pas noon, only 5 hours after our departure (another pleasant surprise). We settled into our room and headed out to find food. We settled on a tiny wooden shack that served pho, and had a great bowl of noodles while watching Thai soap operas.
Full, we decided to split ways to explore the area. Travis went off to explore the waterfall, a 6 KM hike return that I just didn’t have the energy for. I decided to explore the road that veers off the highway, and ended up exploring the town.
I went through the market, which was small and limited, but made sense for a one-street town. I took a wonder behind the market, and found houses after houses made of wood sitting in the bare soil. It was very much like the villages we had been seeing along the highway everywhere in Lao, except this was concentrated in one area and on flat ground. I had really wanted to stop by one of those villages, but as I walked around I felt as though I was intruding. I said hello to passerby, but they just stared back. Usually people are so friendly! Where had all of the children waving at us and shouting sabaidii earlier gone? I decided to go back to the main road, but the reception wasn’t much better. It just felt like a ghost town…
I headed to the only temple (I love temple – never can get enough of them!) and this one was in a dire state of disrepair. The temple building was a cacophony of junk and religious items, all thrown in together into the same building. The building was on the verge of collapsing it seemed, and the floor moved with every step I made. Good thing that the building was close to the ground! And good thing that they are building a new temple.
Ban Na Hin, while a jumping point for the Tham Kong Lo (also known as Kong Lor, Konglor) cave, doesn’t have much going for itself right now. It’s a mining town, without much charm and a few lose women. Ban Na Hin though is a town that really wants to be the next tourist hot spot, but isn’t there yet. There are loads of new hotels and guesthouses, but restaurants are still makeshift wooden structures where staff doesn’t quite speak English and menus are hard to come by. And not one internet café! You know you are off the beaten track when… No one tried to sell us anything, rent us anything. There are no tour agencies to whisk you off to the caves, and no motorcycle or jumbo driver offering to take you either. They do have really loud karaoke though, going on through the wee hours of the night – never mind that it’s a week day.
Travis and I met up after his hike, and he brought with him a lady dog we had befriended earlier on. She apparently followed him all the way there and back! What a sweet girl. It’s such a treat to come across such a friendly, well trained dog in Asia… so often they can be quite scared of people or indifferent to people due to poor treatment.
Dinner was had in the most “solid” looking establishment on the main strip – what looked like a log cabin with windows without glass but doors that lock (not much logic there). It was quite the adventure: no table service, limited English, and pretty crappy food. At least the prices were some of the cheapest yet in Lao!