I had driven more than 400 kilometres that day, winding through the jungle-thick mountains, past bamboo hut villages dwarfed by jagged limestone cliffs tracing a zig zag in the blue sky. I had accomplished my goal, which was to ride a motorbike solo to the massive, 7 kilometre-long Kong Lor cave in central Laos. The grueling five-hour ride was worth it, the cave capitivated me for two hours. On the ride home, I took in the lush scenery, impressed with my own independence and sense of adventure. I had just taken a picture of the sun set and was hoping to get back to my guest house in Thaket not long after dark.
Then I hit the pot hole. It was 22 kilometres from Thaket. At first it looked like a bit of water the size of two fists and then when my front tire hit it, it went in, flipped the bike and throwing me onto the road. My helmet hit first, then the gravel scraped my right cheek, my chin, my chest, my stomach, and my right knee. Both my hands were scraped up and the right one was quickly swelling. My clothes were ripped and I was covered in blood. I moaned out in pain and a local ran over and lifted the bike off of me. I stared between my wounds and the man, clearly in shock. I didn’t know where I was. I had no phone and 50,000 kip on me, less than $5.
The man helped me onto the back of the motorbike and we rode down a dark dirt track. He stopped in front of a little concrete house with a wooden bed in the corner and a cabinet of medical supplies. It was the village clinic. The doctor cleaned my cuts, and it felt like every inch of my body was stinging with pain. The parts that weren’t cut felt sore and bruised. Many of the villagers gathered around to look at me, whispering “falang” or foreigner, and sometimes saying something that would elicit laughter. I felt like a proper fool and more lonely than I’ve ever felt in my life.
One man spoke English; he said the clinic was his father-in-law’s and he was American, I think originally from Laos since he spoke the language but having immigrated to the U.S. “You’re pretty banged up, what are you going to do? Do you want to spend the night?” “No, I need to get back to Thaket,” I croaked out.
He said they could get me a pick up truck to drive me back with a bike. I asked how much. He said 1,500 Baht. “We’re in Laos, what’s the cost in kip,” I said.
He paused and exchanged some words in Lao language. “$40 American.”
Can I please have the total in kip, I said, feeling immediately like I was trying to be done over. “400,000 kip,” he said.
I decided I could ride the bike back myself. The villager who took me to the clinic rode me back on the dirt road until the highway and then I slowly carried on down the dark and deserted road. I wanted to cry but I knew it would shake me up more so I steadied my jaw and rode on.
When I got to the Travel Lodge Guest House, I stumbled up to the front desk and said “I need to go to the hospital.” One of the employees, Bounthanh, rode me and my bike to the hospital, a single-storey four-room building with blue-tinted lights. I was led to a rickety gurney draped in a sheet stained with the blood of previous patients.
I was worried about getting any sort of injection, wanting to make sure the needle was clean. The doctor assured me it was and gave me an anti-inflammatory shot. My wounds were thoroughly cleaned. My elbow looked like it needed stitches but they said it was okay with just a bandage. They put gauze on my wounds and sent me away. I was so grateful Bounthanh was there with me, he was compassionate, kind and caring during one of the scariest times of my life.
The next day was spent getting the front end of the motorbike fixed (not bad at 250,000 kip or less than $30) and buying the proper disinfectant for my cuts and scrapes.
Looking back, it was dangerous to do the trip alone.
I had met other people who were doing the Thaket Loop, a three or four day, several hundred-kilometre motorbike journey around Khammouane province which includes stops to several other caves and the Kong Lor as the piece de resistance. It’s a trip mostly reserved for avid motorcyclists and instead I wanted to get to the cave and back in a day. When I approached some companies about mini buses, they said you had to have a group of about six to reduce the cost. I’ve ridden a motorbike about five or so times before and figured I could handle the trip on my own.
The signs were bad from the start. The first day I tried to head to the cave on a motorbike, I drove 200 kilometres in the complete opposite direction. I kept stopping to ask locals, from gas station attendant, to cell phone shop clerks, to guest house managers, if I was going in the right direction. They just nodded and waved their hands in a non-descript direction. When I hit Savannakhet, I checked my map in the Lonely Planet and that’s when I realized I had gone south instead of north. I rented the bike for a second day and tried not to think about the wasted gas money.
The second day, half hour after I started out at 7 a.m., it started to rain. The sky in the distance looked grey and dark with little chance of letting up. I kept on into the rain, driving slowly but determinedly. The drops felt like pieces of hail hitting my helmet and my rain jacket. I stopped at 8:45 a.m. to dry off and to eat some noodles. I decided I would go back, if it rained all day I’d basically be driving in the rain for 10 hours.
Just as I made my mind to go back, the rain suddenly let up and I could see blue skies in the distance. “I’m not coming to Thaket and not doing the cave,” I said to myself. Some travellers online had rated the Kong Lor cave as one of the top sites in South East Asia. I needed to see it.
As I rode on, the weather cleared up and about an hour later, as I neared Ban Lao, I saw the reason why people rave about this drive. Mist engulfed the mountains in the distance, making them look like they were sprouting from the sky. As I rode on, the detail in the mountains became more clear and I could see the black and tan-streaked limestone dotted with green trees. I rode the S-curve roads up and through those mountains, up roads so steep I actually had to propel the bike forward with my feet for a few metres.
Once I got to the cave, I could see why people say it’s the highlight of Laos. I climbed into a little wooden boat and was swallowed by the gaping mouth. The boat rounds a corner and any of the light shining in from the outside world is gone, leaving me surrounded by darkness expect for the three beams from the headlamps of myself and the driver at the front and the back. Their lights searching back and forth to find the way looked like the search lights of a ship, sending signals to unseen vessels in the distance. As the light from my headlamp searched the walls and roof of the cave — as high as 100 metres in some parts — my imagination went wild. In those rocks I could see anything I wanted. Heads without faces, faces without heads. Creatures frozen into stone. In some parts, rain fell down in isolated columns, as if from one of those little rain clouds from Super Mario cart that appears out of nowhere. It was magical and terrifying all at once.
The cave and the journey were totally worth it and I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Well except for the crash, I would definitely change that. I’m now recovering on the 4,000 islands and trying to think of stories that are less embarrassing than “I toppled my motorbike.” Maybe “attacked by tigers during a jungle trek?”