We left Muang La and the lovely river with a plan – get to the village of Chong Ong and see their caves. We had stopped by the tourist information center in Udomxai two days earlier, and the guy there was really helpful, giving us some handouts about the caves and information about how we could get there ourselves and do a village homestay. The village has a dedicated longhouse meant for folks like us to stay the night. Buy your own fresh vegetables in town and they’ll cook for you too. I was really intrigued by the caves since they were rediscovered only a dozen years ago and they maintained a natural, untrampled appeal with ceilings best described as cathedral-like. All this spelunking glory set amidst a quaint traditional village. Sounds perfect!
In Udomxai we made it to the one motorcycle rental shop in town and laid down our 200,000 kip and a passport and told the lady we’d be back the next morning. I was a bit nerved about the bike – a replica of the one that had broken down on us just a few days prior. The drive was 25km on pavement and another 20km on a dirt road to reach the village. The road was windy but smooth and we found the turn easily enough. We weren’t sure if the dirt portion would be a mostly-like-pavement-but-a-little-dirty dirt road or an only-goats-and-donkeys-should-use-the-road dirt road. Luckily it was the former and we cruised on. We passed a few small villages before reaching what we assumed was our destination, getting stares from the adults and waves from the kids.
When we rolled into Chong Ong we started looking for the homestay, or at least some sign in English. We knew the villagers didn’t speak English (and some not even Lao), so we planned on getting by with sign language. The village was larger than we expected, but we did see a giant green sign talking about the cave. We stopped at the first house with people and tried to get some info. Some motioning towards the sign and the word “homestay” only got us a bunch of confused laughter from the several adults and dozen kids. We motioned for sleep with our hand and head. Nothing. We motioned for cave, showed them our cave brochure. They acted like they had never seen a cave in their lives. Ok, time to ask someone else. Two teenage girls were even more confused. We made it further up the road and found a guy who did speak some English. He understood we were looking for the cave and sleeping but was too busy or uninterested to really help. After staring for a while he finally pointed in a direction towards the homestay – not helpful. “Show us, please!” We’re back at original confused family. Apparently the house next door is the homestay? The people who own it aren’t around? Why does everyone seem so confused? Are we the first people to do this?
Finally, the English speaking guy says something about a key, but we don’t know what. Then he goes back to his scooter repair. It’s 4:30pm and we only have a couple more hours of daylight. After a half hour of sitting and staring, we made the call just to go back to the city. We had no idea if we had a place to stay and a storm was a brewin’.
We knew we weren’t going to repeat the ride the next day to see the caves, so, dejected, we rode on back home to the comforts of the city. Hopefully the next travelers are met with a bit less confusion.