The mist lingers as we motor slowly upstream. Barely three metres wide and in places so shallow we risk running aground, our boatman wades whilst we huddle in the bow. We slip gracefully between rows of vertical sticks, like centurions charged with slowing the river’s path. Dugout canoes, near relatives of our own floating chariot, loom suddenly into view, and as quickly vanish. The sun peers over the towering karst peaks as we glide towards our destination.
A deep blue pool greets us, then the river is devoured as it enters the underworld. A larger boat, guided by two men with feeble headlamps, navigates a passage through darkness. After half an hour and some scrambling over minor rapids we reach a gallery high above the waterline. Two days earlier a team of engineers completed installing the electricity and only now can the limestone formations be revealed in an astonishing kaleidoscope of light and shadows. Muted yellows and blues create a magical fairytale scene deep inside the heart of a Laos mountain.
In hushed awe I stumble back to the boat and continue my journey. A further three kilometres and we enter daylight again, threading between tree roots into a jungle of lush vegetation. An anaemic sun shines down on a few friendly villagers eking a living selling snacks to a handful of tourists.
The trip back is in silence, broken only by the occasional need to abandon ship to allow the boat to fall unhindered over the rapids and ram itself up against the opposite wall. We pass other tourists in other boats, but mostly it is just dense blackness, the gentle lapping of the water against the side of the boat, the comforting hum of the motor, and an often hastily shouted command from the bow. I emerge into the harsh sunlight on the arm of one of my guides, and bid them adieu.
Konglor village is at the end of a valley, hemmed in by karst limestone cliffs that merge where the river enters the cave. My return up the valley is not by boat, but on foot. Mud walled, thatch roofed barns pepper the fallow ricefields, while on the other side of the newly constructed tourist road grows acres of blindingly green tobacco.
I leave the road, making my way through the dried out fields. The ground is parched, a shallow stubble preventing the cracked earth from blowing away. I reach a stand of trees, a sandy beach beside the river, and join a herd of cattle on a midday siesta watching the reflections. I enter a small village, a few poorly constructed stilt houses built back from the river’s flood plain. There are no signs of modernity in this village, no vehicles, no satellite dishes, no electricity. Two naked children continue to play as I pass by.
I push open the gates to a river resort. This resort is part of a chain of Eco resorts which stretch from Luang Prabang in the north to Don Khong Island in the very south of Laos. But today it is deserted, aside from a solitary man sitting on the step of a run down cabin.
The man calls out to me in English. After explaining that all the staff are on holidays, he offers to cook me an omelette. On the deck overlooking the river sipping a cold Beer Lao, this man tells me the story of his life. In 1979 Joi and his family fled civil war in Laos by swimming across the Mekong River to Thailand. Eventually they ended up in Australia, where Joi completed his education and began his working life. In the 1990s some of his older siblings began returning to Laos and setting up businesses. Joi returned to Laos much later, and has been managing this family owned resort for the last couple of years.
Joi had spent more of his life living in the West, yet here he was living in a rural backwater, without much more than basic amenities. I wondered that someone could give up the opportunities of a new life in a new country to return to such a simple life with so few creature comforts.
I thought of those people living their uncomplicated lives in the nearby village, who could have no concept of what Joi had given up to return to his country. I thought of the fairy cave inside the mountain and I understood that family, country, culture and belonging are tangible. Joi knew where he belonged and he was happy to be home.
I finished my omelette, and as I picked my way through the fields back to my homestay, I hoped one day I too would be happy to be home.