Seven hours from Vientiane, the bus drops us in Ban Na Hin, a small village with an edge-of-the-world feel. People here wear hostile faces punched with eyeholes of suspicion. We struggle to find a guesthouse – anywhere to stay. The dam construction firm is in town and they’ve taken every last room. Finally, we find a shack above a pig field, across muddy fields. It’s over-priced but we’re tired and hungry, so we leave our bags and head for food. Heads turn to watch us in silent condemnation. We eat hastily and decide to leave. We grab a ride on the back of a pick-up and head into the karst villages, stopping at Kong Lo village near a famous cave.
We get a homestay in the beautiful, friendly village. Our hosts cook us dinner and we play with the children and their pets: a family of kittens and an owl, who isn’t so much of a pet as a non-paying lodger. He swoops down to say hello, tolerated some rough handling by the toddlers and then flies out for dinner. He’s back later though, cheep-cheeping away and pecking at Nick.
After breakfast the next morning, we are protected by the old man of the house, who wraps spirit threads around our wrists to ward off evil spirits and help retain our good spirits in case they do a runner in the cave. Sprit belief is strong in Laos, certain tribes, including Hmong (who are about to be expelled from their refugee camps in Thailand and sent back here for near-certain political persecution) still believe in werewolves.
We get a boat into the cave which cuts into the karst mountain for 7 kilometres before emerging in glorious sunshine on the other side. Spectacular!
That night we journey down to Thakaek on the Mekong, leaving the day after for a two-day trek through the karsts and into the protected forests. The animals here are shy, mainly because they are still hunted and eaten by villagers, so we see few. Forest harvesting villagers pass us with assorted edibles in their baskets, including mushrooms, snails, insects, squirrels. They munch on red ants and Nick is offered some to try. He declines.