Bus From Vientiane To Lak

If the hellish 24-hour bus journey between Vientiane and Hanoi doesn't appeal, take local transport instead and stop to enjoy some of central Laos along the way.

Nam Kading NPA

d^aBaijojjttaij^njj^riBnj Heading east along Rte 13 you'll come to the sleepy yet picturesque village of Pak Kading, 187km from Vientiane. Pak Kading sits just upstream from the junction of the Mekong River and the Nam Kading, one of the most pristine rivers in Laos - for now (see p65). Flowing through a forested valley surrounded by high hills and menacing-looking limestone formations, this broad, turquoise-tinted river winds its way into the Nam Kading NPA. The river is undoubtedly the best way into this wilderness, where confirmed animal rarities include the elephant, giant muntjac, pygmy slow loris, François' langur, Doue langur, gibbon, dhole, Asiatic black bear, tiger and many bird species. As usual in Laos you'll count yourself very lucky to catch anything more than a glimpse of any of these.

If you're interested, the World Conservation Society (WCS; www.wcs.org) has a research centre on the banks of the Nam Kading about 30 minutes upstream from Phonsi. It welcomes travellers, who can stay in the centre for the same price researchers pay. A stay is best combined with a trip to Tat Wang Fong, a small

CROSSING THE THAI BORDER AT PAKSAN & BEUNG KAN

This rarely used crossing of the Mekong between Paksan and Beung Kan could almost be described as 'family run'. The customs officers invited us to play cards with them while their wives breastfed babies and small children played in the dust. Still, if you turn up at the at the immigration office (® 8am-noon & 1.30-4.30pm) they should process the paperwork without too much fuss, though they do not issue visas on arrival. The boat (60B, 20 minutes) leaves when five people show up or you charter it (300B). To get there, go west along Rte 13 from Paksan for about 1.5km and turn south - look for the 'Port' sign.

In Thailand buses leave Beung Kan for Udon Thani and Bangkok (infrequently).

waterfall, in a wonderfully picturesque setting about 30 minutes upstream.

To get there, some travellers have reported chartering boats on the Pak Kading side of the Nam Kading, underneath the bridge. However, it's simpler to continue east about 15km to the village of Ban Phon Kham, just past Phonsi; follow a blue sign along a rough laterite road until you reach the river and ask for a boat to Tat Wang Fong. It should cost about US$20 return, including waiting time while you swim and picnic at the falls - bring food and water as the falls are mercifully free of salespeople. Boats just to the research centre costUS$7/15 one-way/return.

Falls or no falls, Pak Kading is a good place to stop for a meal at the Bounxou Restaurant (g§ 055-320046; Rte 13; meals USSl-2.50; S 8am-9pm), where the fish dishes are fam ous. If you have to stay there is one simple guesthouse.

Ban Khoun Kham (Ban Na Hin)

The village of Ban Khoun Kham (also known as Ban Na Hin) on Rte 8, 41km east of Rte 13, sits at the northern tip of Kham-muan Province in the lush Hin Boun valley. Surrounded by tall karst peaks, the village itself is notable for its position near the Theun Hin Bun dam, which is recognisable more by its blue-roofed Lao-European-style bungalows and golf course than any large dam wall.

Ban Khoun Kham is not without charm but its main role is as a base from which to visit the extraordinary Tham Kong Lo (opposite). The other main attraction is the impressive twin-cataract of Tat Namsanam, 3km north of town. The falls are in a striking location surrounded by karst and the upper tier is quite high. To get there from the market, cross Rte 8 and go through the archway and follow the signs. Vehicles will need to stop after about lkm, and the ensuing 2km walk gets rocky and slippery in the latter stages.

The Khammuan tourism office has built a Tourist Information Centre (Rte 8) just south of the Tat Namsanam entrance. While it wasn't manned when we passed, the plan is to run community-based treks from here into the Phu Hin Bun NPA.

As you approach Ban Khoun Kham from Rte 13, there is a sala viewpoint near Km 36. Do not, whatever you do, miss the spectacularly dramatic scenery here.

SLEEPING & EATING

Ban Khoun Kham has several sleeping options, with more expected to follow the new road to Tham Kong Lo.

The standout favourite, both for its rooms and meals, is MiThuna Restaurant & Guesthouse (@ 020-2240182; Rte 8; r USS5-9; (gl (S)). The new rooms offer modern comforts such as hot water, air-con and cable TV and owners Ralph and Mon are a great source of local information (especially on getting to Tham Kong Lo) and Western and Lao food - the big English breakfast is the perfect way to start the long trip to Kong Lo. They also provide packed lunches. Other services include limited free (if slow) internet for guests; mountain-bike hire where the money goes to the local school (US$1.50 per day); free laundry (a tip for the washer is appreciated); and a 25m-long swimming pool expected to be finished in 2008. Mi Thuna is about 800m south of the market on Rte 8, past the Shell station.

Opposite the market Seng Chen Guesthouse (@ 051-214399; s/d USS4/6) has three clean rooms with nets, fans and cold bathrooms. It's the second-best option.

If these are full, try the simple XokXai (@ 051 -233629; Rte 8; r USS4-6) on Rte 8 at the southern edge of town or SK Guesthouse (@ 051-250598; rUS$4-5), about 300m north of the market. For food, Mi Thuna Restaurant is recommended and the DK Restaurant (meals US$0.75-1.50), opposite SK Guesthouse, serves tasty Lao food.

GETTING THERE & AWAY

All transport along Rte 8 stops at Ban Khoun Kham. Buses for Vientiane (US$4) usually stop about 7am, 8.30am and 9.30am, and there are a couple that go all the way to Tha Khaek (US$4, three hours, 143km) in the morning. Beyond these you'll need to take any of the semi regular sawngthaew to Vieng Kham (Thang Beng) or Lak Sao and change. For transport to Tham Kong Lo see p232.

Phu Hin Bun NPA

iliSBBijajuiiBijgioajmiJifiu The Phu Hin Bun NPA is a huge (1580 sq km) wilderness area of turquoise streams, monsoon forests and striking karst topography across central Khammuan. It was made a protected area in 1993 and it's no overstatement to say this is some of the most breathtaking country in the region. Passing through on foot or by boat it's hard not to feel awestruck by the very scale of the limestone cliffs that rise almost vertically for hundreds of metres into the sky. Flora clings to the cracks in the cliff face, at once wonderfully isolated and desperately exposed.

Although much of the NPA is inaccessible by road, local people have reduced the numbers of key forest-dependent species through hunting and logging. Despite this, the area remains home to the endangered Douc lan-gur, François' langur and several other primate species, as well as elephants, tigers and a variety of rare species of deer.

A trip out to Tham Kong Lo (see p232) will give you a taste of what the protected area has to offer. But there are two better ways to really get into this area of almost mythical gothic peaks and snaking streams.

Khammuan Province and Dutch NGO SNV have established two and three-day community-based treks (see p70) into the NPA at reasonable rates. The treks start in either Tha Khaek or Ban Khoun Kham (Ban Na Hin). From Tha Khaek, the two-day trip (US$86 for one person, US$46 each for two or three, US$33 for four or more) into the Phu Hin Bun is especially good. The route includes plenty of karst scenery, a walk through Tham Pa Chan, accommodation in a village and four different swimming locations, including the stunning Khoun Kong Leng (aka the Blue Lagoon; see p239).

There's also a three-day trek to and around Tham Kong Lo. This trek has a couple of variations, depending on where you start, the time of year and how keen you are to climb over a mountain (rather than boat through it). Including all food and transport, treks cost US$88 per person for one, U$77 for two or three and US$65 for four or more, a bit less starting in Ban Khoun Kham. There's an extra charge of US$50 per boat (maximum four people) between June and October. These treks were designed to bring tourist dollars into some of the poorest parts of Laos and they do; we highly recommend them. Bookings can be made through the Ecoguide Unit at the Tourist Information Centre 212512; Th Vientiane; 8am-4pm) in Tha Khaek (p236).

With a little more time and money Green Discovery (www.greendiscoverylaos.com) offers similar treks plus one very tempting four-day kayaking trip between spectacularly sheer cliffs, as the Nam Hin Boun follows a large anticlockwise arc towards the Mekong (US$138 per person, minimum four). Thai-based North by North-East Tours (www.thaitourism.com), also runs tours into the NPA. Alternatively, you might be able to arrange a similar trip yourself with a boatman, though it wouldn't be cheap.

Tham Kong Lo tpaeoneja

Imagine a river disappearing at the edge of a monolithic limestone mountain and running 7km through a pitch-black, winding cave and you'll start to get an idea of Tham Kong Lo, truly one of the natural wonders of Laos. Pronounced tham kqwngldw, the cave-cum-tunnel is quite awesome - up to 100m wide in some places and almost as high. It takes a motorised canoe nearly an hour to pass through.

Boat pilots hired for the journey can lead visitors to natural thdat (stupas) that are actually groups of glittering stalagmites in a dry cavern branching off the main tunnel. Be sure to bring a torch (flashlight) and wear rubber sandals; the gravel in the riverbed is sharp and it's usually necessary to disembark and wade at several shallow points.

Besides snaking through the tunnel, the Nam Hin Bun meanders through some spectacular scenery - Gothic mountains and cliffs of jagged black karst. Amazingly, a fair amount of hardy trees have managed to take root on the cliffs. Keep an eye out for sago palms that have attained rare heights of more than 2m; in more accessible places these slow-growing trees have been dug up and sold to landscape gardeners in Thailand.

At the north end of the tunnel lies a scenic valley that once served as a refuge for lowland Lao fleeing Haw harassment during the 19th century. Temple ruins believed to date from that period can be seen in the valley.

SLEEPING & EATING

It's possible to visit Tham Kong Lo as a day trip from Ban Khoun Kham, using the accommodation there (opposite), but until the road is complete it will remain a very long day. More fun are the options closer to the cave.

At the edge of Phon Nyaeng on the banks of the Nam Hin Bun about 12km from Tham KongLo is Sala Hin Boun 020-561 4016;www.sala lao.com; rincl breakfast USS18-23). The 12 comfortable Lao-style rooms have hot-water bathrooms and balconies, those with river views being the biggest and most expensive. Cheaper rooms are s/d USS13/18, and all are US$5 cheaper in low season. Lounging in the wicker chairs overlooking the mountains and river is a great way to spend an afternoon. Lao and Western food is available for about US$3 to US$4 a meal, though you need to order in advance. Staff can arrange guided trips to Tham Kong Lo and other caves.

In Ban Tiou, about 6km closer to Ban Kong Lo, the same outfit runs the Sala Kong Lor (www .salalao.com; rUS$4-12), a much simpler Lao-style place aimed at those who can't afford the Sala Hin Boun. In Ban Thone Ngeng, nearer again, is the Guesthouse Saynamngeng (rUS$6-8) where the rooms are even simpler but have bathrooms; look for the yellow sign on the 'road' towards Ban Kong Lo.

For a real experience of Lao village life say the word 'homestay' (US$5 per person, ind dinner & breakfast) when you reach Ban Kong Lo, about lkm downstream from the cave mouth, and you'll be hooked up with a family somewhere in the charming, mazelike village. We met one guy here who speaks English well, so it might not necessarily be so hard to communicate. For more on homestays, see p48.

GETTING THERE & AWAY

A 50km road from Ban Khoun Kham to Ban Kong Lo is being built and is scheduled to be complete before the wet season in 2008. This road will make getting to Kong Lo an easy one-hour motorbike ride or sawngthaew (US$3). In the meantime, however, there are two ways of getting to the cave; by land (note that we don't say 'road') or river.

As things are changing so quickly here, ask Ralph and Mon at Mi Thuna Guesthouse for the latest information.

By Land

When we rode it the first 30km of the new road was smoothly steamrolled laterite. Nice. It was so easy we were almost wishing it would get more interesting - until the road ended and was replaced by the track people have been using for decades.

Until the new road is finished, this track is only passable between about the end of October and June. It is, after all, just a bone-jarring series of rice paddies which have dried like concrete. And you know those buffalo you see lazing about in rivers and mud holes? During the dry season they are working in the fields and every hoof step leaves a big inden tation. Dried hard, these and the countless dikes you need to haul your rattling Chinese lOOcc bike across are like riding a jackham-mer. The whole trip took us more than two hours, though this will get shorter as every new kilometre of road is built. If you do find yourself shuddering across the earth, with your wrists acting as shock absorbers (it rattled the pins right out of our watchband), then take some comfort in the knowledge that Mi Thuna Guesthouse can call in a masseuse to loosen out the knots when you get back to Ban Khoun Kham.

By River

For now, the only way to reach Tham Kong Lo during the wet is by river. If you're not riding a bike, take a sawngthaew or jumbo (three-wheeled taxi) from near the market in Ban Khoun Kham to the village of Ban Na Phuak (US$1 per person, 35 minutes, 14km); one service is guaranteed from Ban Na Phuak to Ban Khoun Kham at 9.30am, returning at 10.30am; after this you have to wait for it to fill.

From Ban Na Phuak boats follow the beautiful Nam Hin Bun for about 3'/i hours to Ban Kong Lo, just downstream from the cave entrance. It's a stunning trip, with the walls of the valley slowly closing in as the river winds southward. It's also stunningly expensive at US$50 a boat for the return trip, with a maximum of four people. This is the price the local boatmen have agreed upon and given that they use at least 18L of fuel each way and probably only make a trip on average every few days, it's not as outrageous as it sounds.

Whatever the season, puttering up the river is undoubtedly the most enjoyable way of reaching Tham Kong Lo. In the dry season the river drops and boats might not be able to take four people.

Through the Cave

So you've arrived, one way or another, in Ban Kong Lo. You're only here for one reason, so everyone (kids, grannies, stray dogs...) will point you toward the river and a boatman. It costs US$10 per boat for the return trip (about 2V2 hours, maximum four people) through the cave, including a short stop on the far side. Cave entrance costs US$0.20 and there's a US$0.50 motorbike parking fee.

Tha Bak

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About 18km east of Ban Khoun Kham, Tha Bak sits near the confluence of the Nam Kad-ing and Nam Theun rivers. The town itself is pretty, and pretty quiet, and the only real reason to stop is to take photos of the river or actually get out on the incredible bomb boats. The name is slightly misleading, as the boats are actually made out of huge missile-shaped drop tanks that carried fuel for jets operating overhead during the 1960s and '70s. Empty tanks were sometimes dropped and those that weren't too badly damaged when they hit the deck have been turned into boats.

We're not exactly sure which planes carried these tanks, though that's not for want of trying. After enquiring with veterans we found ourselves in an acronym-filled email discussion that bounced around the world, from retired USAF generals to ex-Ravens (see pl30) and pilots of various other aircraft flying over Laos during that period. The villagers themselves usually attribute the tanks to the giant B-52 bombers; however, the pilots who flew them say no, it wasn't them. More likely they were dropped by F-4 Phantoms or F-105 Thunderchiefs flying from bases in Thailand.

If you fancy a spin in a bomb boat just head down to the riverbank at the east end of the bridge and negotiate a price.

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  • Tom Duerr
    How to get to bomb boats in lak sao?
    7 years ago

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