The young Buddhist monk in a saffron-colored robe offered his blessings to me and my kayak. He wished us good luck on our journey through the big cave under the mountain.
He then waved the village boys over to push our small group of adventurers off the beach.
After an hour of easy paddling in anticipatory silence, we entered a narrow gorge and got ready to enter the huge vault of an ominous looking cave. Being the safety paddling guide in the back, I switched on my headlamp but it fumbled and slid off my head into the murky river water. Instinctively, I rolled my boat over and was able to quickly grab this essential piece of cave kayaking equipment. Though the situation was lucky, it was not a good start to our journey.
I rolled my kayak back and hurried after the other paddlers. They had just entered the maw of one of Southeast Asia’s geological wonders—the Tham Kong Lo Cave system named “The Beauty of the Dark” by the local Laotians. Our expedition’s objective was to be one of the first Western adventurers to kayak on the Nam Hin Buon River which flows through the caves for about 5 miles. We expected the caves to ultimately open up to a long run through steep limestone valley gorges.
Our boats were an unorderly mixture of patched-up, inflatable torpedo boats and Greenland-style folding kayaks. These matched the blend of Indochina expats and international clients of mine who had followed my call to join yet another exploratory adventure in one of the hidden corners of our wonderful, watery planet.
This all happened 15 years ago and, at that time, this river cave was not known to many outsiders. Today, more tourists on off-the-trail travels in Laos visit the cave by small local boats. It was my friend and co-guide, Mick O’Shea, who suggested we should give it a go. He had heard about the river from the locals who had mentioned that they were able to transport bulk tobacco through the mountain on the river in very small boats. This had been done for some time and, according to local lore, five Konglor villagers first navigated the tunnel in the 17th century. They also told him about the Tham Kong Lo cave chambers, which rise over 100 meters above the water and are 90 meters wide from wall to wall. He learned how the oddly-shaped, gleaming stalactites and stalagmites underscore the otherworldliness of the caves.
Our headlamps scoured the magical scenery around us. The river ran about 30 meters wide at some spots and had a limestone ceiling decorated with enormous stalactites, some named for their artistic shapes: “Buddha,” “Frog,” “Owl,” “Soft-shell Turtle” and even “Fish Trap.” On our way, we landed on the cave beaches to explore the infinite and glittering cave systems surrounding the swiftly flowing river. It was all magic indeed, and we were quiet in awe by the spectacle.
Normally, large caves are silent and tomb-like places. Here, on the contrary, was the constant sound of flowing water gurgling around us. At one point, we got a little anxious expecting to tackle white water in the dark, which is not a safe proposition. It turned out that the cave just exacerbated the sound of the running water and what sounded like a serious set of imaginary rapids were just small riffles and a one-foot, easy pour-over across an even limestone ledge.
After several hours of paddling and exploring the cave system, we literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel—a soccer goal-sized opening in the limestone wall, where the river poured out and into the verdant Hin Boun Valley below. With some relief, we had crossed below and through the Cardamom Mountain Range. We high-fived and thanked Mick for his splendid idea of adventuring in the magnificent caves of the Upper Hin Boun.
Mick is a swell guy and no stranger to wild adventures. Raised by his uncle among the opal miners in the Australian outback matured him quickly into a self-confident yet humble explorer, constantly seeking soul-stirring adventures and always linking his exploits with an environmental message to the world.
In 2003, when Mick was just 20 years old (a few years before our trip on the Hin Boun) he became the first to navigate the full length of the 4,000 km Mekong River from its source in Tibet to the South China Sea in Vietnam. Most amazingly, he did it all by himself and in a small red river kayak! This extremely dangerous kayaking adventure navigated icy creeks on the High Tibetan Plateau, cartwheeled through uncharted Himalayan gorges with its terrifying rapids and floated along the large Indochinese river delta.
Moved by his first descent of the Mekong, Mick became immediately attracted to the power of the river in addition to its cultural significance and exotic beauty. As a follow-up to his successful first descent, he set out on a crusade to make the world pay attention to the destructive Chinese hydropower dam constructions. For years he worked doggedly, spreading the message about this environmental threat to the people of Southeast Asia and the natural habitats around the Mekong River region.
World Wildlife Fund, our partners in conservation, are actively engaged in the conservation effort of this riverine region. They and other NGOs realized that the Mekong watershed area, which spans over 200 million acres, contains some of the most biologically diverse habitats in the world. It is recognized that the Mekong is the richest river basin, by area, for fish biodiversity on the planet. As the world’s largest inland fishery, the river provides a quarter of the world’s freshwater catch, which grosses billions of dollars annually. Harming this watershed would mean disaster to the more than 10 million people who depend on it.
Today, I still recount our entry into the “Beauty in the Dark”. It was not only the beginning of a wonderful adventure but a chance to better understand the Mekong River, its surrounding habitats and its threatened communities.
The young Buddhist monk’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama reflects about this:
“The world grows smaller and smaller, more and more interdependent…today more than ever before life must be characterized by a sense of universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.”