Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) | Mekong | Vang Vieng – Day 45 – the caves, Vang Vieng, Laos
The now customary morning rain beats a vertical path from low grey flatness. I’m still fighting my cold, it seems, as I feel exhausted even with a full eight hours of dream-tossed sleep. Perhaps yesterday’s excursion is contributing to my lethargy as well.
That excursion found me padding off through the muggy heat, down the riverside road, about a kilometre out of town in quest of Tham Jang (‘Steadfast Cave’). I passed the town hospital whose yard has the unique feature of a tethered cow grazing on its grass. I traversed the slightly hoary but peaceful grounds of the Vang Vieng Resort where a small fee was exacted to cross the resort’s suspension bridge over the Nam Song River.
On the far side of the river I was greeeted by a path which lead a couple of hundred metres further and turned at the loveliest of clear turquoise running streams, a rare site in Asia in the rainy season when most waterways are thick with chocolate silt and mud run-off. The stream, crossed by a couple of wooden foot bridges, seemed to be flowing from a small arched hole at the base of a towering vertical jag of limestone cliff. It might as well have become coming straight from Eden! The path continued to a booth beyond which a locked gate prevented entrance to a steep stairway, the latter climbing the cliff face to a cave entrance. A sign on the booth indicated the gate wouldn’t be open again for another 90 minutes. What to do? Hmmm…really hot and muggy, I’m sweaty, there’s this really inviting, deliciously clean stream…
Paul and Lana, an Australian couple had wandered up and were puzzling the same factors. There was nothing for it but to shed down and slip into the inviting stream, blue and green. Delicious, but with a forceful current that enabled swimming in place with a good investment of energy. While we were horsing around in the sweet flow of waters, a Lao man walked up and indicated that arched hole in the cliff face, the source of our swim. He motioned that it was possible to swim through that entrance and up into the cave. Paul and Lana stayed with my stuff and I slipped into the flow. It took a good thrashing, but I windmilled my way to the opening. I found a hand-hold and pulled myself in.
The water insisted I leave, pulling at my entire body. But the daylight from behind me was dancing through the deep all around me inviting me onward as it sliced glacier-green shafts and played tricks on the dark rock walls. I felt along the wall for the next hand-hold of rock while relaxing my body and letting the flow mould it into less resisting positions, my feet mermaiding behind me. I pulled forward like this for some time and, as the light from behind faded more and more, I became aware of the echoing chortle of the stream all around me, as if the whole cave found my instrusion something of an amusing game. Someone had come to play. After a couple more minutes more natural light was atomizing from above — holes in the limestone cliff, slash-shaped portals several metres above me. This made it easier to continue. A few minutes later, pushing further still I was perhaps 50 or 60 metres into the cave when the last photon of light abandoned me. It was a weird sensation, a tangible liquid force pushing at me but completely invisible in the blackness. Lana had followed me in. We decided there was no way to go forward for the simple reason that we could see no way to go forward. I let go of the wall and let the current finally have its way. Now it was my turn to play and I smiled all the way out as the green became turquoise became day. The man who had encouraged us to explore the cave claimed you could go some 500 metres inside. I was happy to bank my 50 metres.
Finally the gate to the steep stairs up the cliff was unlocked by an attendant and we huffed our way up, maybe 20 storeys high. This part of Tham Jang was lit up by tourist-friendly electric lights and pathways of cement showed us in. Inside, the cavern opened up and limestone artwork, still in progress after millions of years, hung in lumpy, pointed and ripple-twisted forms all around. Water, most patient of artists, dripped from its master-works in glistening plinklets of delight to the stoney floor. Eventually we came to another opening in the cliff wall which provided a veranda with a commanding view across the neon green of rice paddies, the chocolate brown river, the forest green mountains and the (finally) crystal blue sky, itself still splashed with columns of cumulo nimbus.
Not yet caved out (caved in?) Paul, Lana and I decided to head for the next closest cave which, according to our guide book was just a couple of Sunday-stroll kilometres away across some rice paddies. What did three urban West Worlders know about traversing rice paddies? A helluva lot less than we know now!
For example, we now know that distances can be a bit deceiving when looking across a sea of green rice toward soaring karst cliffs. We also know now that during the rainy season the small earthen walls which separate one paddy from the next and provide narrow pathways for getting around in the fields, well, these mounds tend to soften up considerably. They become very slippery sandal suction mud. We also found out that those same pathways can be home to the most vengeful of little red ants which will bite you in crevasses you never thought your body had, should your right leg slip knee-deep into their nest…which mine did. We also learned that those pastey mud paths don’t always (or even often) lead in the direction you happen to want to go resulting in considerable additional trekking. Sometimes they lead to a dead end, nowhere at all. In addition, we found that the pathways were often broken by running water, as irrigation required the flow from one section of rice to another. These gaps were most challenging to negotiate.
While learning all these lessons and becoming caked in mud up to our axles (or a part of the body that sounds similar) it took us a good 90 sweaty, slippery, unsteady minutes to get, finally — nowhere. We got close to the cliffs but we couldn’t find any cave entrances, nor could we find pathways that would lead us directly to the base of the rock walls. So, we reversed course, checking out a smaller karst mound that was reachable and finding nothing but very hungry mosquitos there. When we finally returned to the ‘mainland’ we toasted our attempt with towering bottles of BeerLao in a riverside bamboo-hut of a bar and admired the sun’s final curtain call, 5 o’clock shadows growing across the faces of the rock towers, as the sun bowed out on the day.