Asia Destinations Laos

In Knee Deep: A solo hike to Tham Pha Thok caves

The river had looked harmless. But the water was already up to my knees and with every step I risked plunging into the stream.

My toes poked around for a stable foothold. The current was so fast it seemed determined to carry me away. Knee deep, the local woman had said. But the water rose with every step.

I wasn’t far from the insignificant village of Nong Khiaw, which was represented by a petite collection of ramshackle houses rising from river Nam Ou’s edge. An untouched valley hamlet amid abrupt mountains that were often shrouded in cloud. Its very peacefulness had made me crave adventure.

nong khiaw village in laos

… Which is why I had found myself, on my second day, wading knee deep in water to get to Tham Pha Thok.

“A series of caves in an abrupt limestone cliff,” the Vietnam Lonely Planet guidebook said. “The horizon’s array of towering karst formations reaches a brief but particularly impressive climax.”

Limestone cliffs. After Lan Ha Bay and Phong Nha Khe Bang in Vietnam, I had a hankering for karst formations so I had set out to explore.

A walk in the countryside

From Nong Khiaw, I passed typical rural Laotian scenes. A narrow country road. Stilted houses of wood with thatched walls and roofs. Their residents sheltered from the sun while they went about their daily tasks.

Men and women washed their garments in a stream that ran alongside the road. A man sponged his motorbike. Only the occasional motorcyclist frequented the road.

road to nong khiaw

But the further from town I walked, the more isolated it got. Soon, it was just me, the road, and the isolated karst mountains towering around me like disciplined guards.

It felt like the middle of nowhere. With few signs in English. No maps. No help. Yet peace infiltrated the valley. And my mind.

It seemed an interminable period before I encountered this sign:

sign to pha thok cave

I veered off the main road. The sign directed me down a trail to a rustic hut (four wooden posts and a tin roof) where a women held a baby on her hip. She held out her hand for the 5,000 kip entrance fee and led me to the banks of a fast-flowing river. It looked shallow enough.

She pointed out an obscure path on the other side. She put a hand to her knee to indicate the water level.

I edged out slowly. The water churned below me, around my ankles. Then my knees. Then my thighs.

Halfway across, I clung to a branch that interrupted the torrent. It supported me for the rest of the journey across.

river crossing to tham pha thok

Tham Pha Thok caves

After that, I was feeling rather intrepid, so I felt gleeful when I found the narrow and steep concrete stairs that led into the cave.

There was no one else about. At the cave’s entrance, light filtered through. It illuminated mystical blue signs that raised more questions than they answered…

art unit in pha thok cave

Way back in the Second Indochina War (the Vietnam War), civilians and government officials sheltered here to escape the American bombs. These poor people were residents in the world’s the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

I resorted to torchlight further inside the cave, trying to convince myself I wasn’t afraid of what might lay in the shadows. A sudden burst of noise startled me (to say the least), but I had to laugh at myself when its origin – a flock of birds – took flight.

At the end of the cave, light streamed in from an opening accessed up a broken bamboo ladder. I contemplated my luck before I heeded the ‘No Access’ sign and turned back.

Back to the river.

Perhaps I took a different route on the return crossing. This time, the river bottom dropped suddenly. Water slapped my thighs. Then my arse. Then my belly button.

But I waded across, feeling like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Amanda, intrepid traveller extraordinaire.

The thirst for adventure stayed with me as I returned to the road. I gazed longingly beyond bamboo turnstiles over wire fences. And at the paths that disappeared into scrub or snaked around bamboo houses. I even began to strike out across a rough path cleaving rice paddies in two.

laotian rural countryside

But I halted before I got too far.

Tham Pha Thok was inhabited for a reason. It served to remind me about the perils of aimless wandering in the Laotian countryside. This is a peaceful country. But it was once rocked by war. And many of those war remnants lay hidden in the long grass, in the rice fields.

UXO = Unexploded Ordnances = landmines.

About 25% of Laos’s villages are contaminated with unexploded landmines. About 300 people die from them every year. And 40% of those casualties are kids.

This is Asia. A land of intoxicating beauty and gentle peacefulness … And a horrifying history, with consequences that still ripple through to our times.

But they were thoughts for another time. For that moment, I was happy to soak up the sun and trudge back into town. After all, my drenched clothes were perfectly suited to keeping me cool. I had nothing to complain about.

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