Adventure tourism in Laos has its mecca in Vang Vieng – where you can tube down the Mekong river while drinking yourself silly at the bars that line the river banks (many people die every year as a result of mixing intoxication, stupidity and water), and there are more caves waiting to be spe-lunked than you can shake a joss stick at.
Rules are lax; in Asia the cost of living and traveling is cheap enough that a westerner with means enough to buy a plane ticket can live like a rich person, and do pretty much whatever they please. This is, of course, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having the freedom to try things means that you can break out of your comfort zone and expand yourself; on the other, freedom can be a dangerous privilege (see: deaths while tubing down the Mekong).
I had scant frame of reference for caving, and was entirely unprepared for caving in Laos. In Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, we had visited a couple of caves, but it was on a guided tour, so the adventure consisted of jostling around like a herd of bewildered sheep, fighting other tour groups for real estate, and half listening to our guide ramble on about the difference between stalactites and stalagmites.
This was to be nothing like that.
We rented a scooter and tootled around on the country roads outside of Vang Vieng, maneuvering around herds of skinny cattle and watching water buffaloes going for a dip in the river.
When we arrived at the cave site, there was a smattering of sunburned backpackers jumping into the river from the branches of an overhanging tree. There only presence of any kind of authority figure was a bare-chested man slinging beer by the river, and a lady renting out head lamps at a table at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the cave’s mouth. In North America or Europe, this scene would have been wildly different, but this was Laos and the lack of safety infrastructure was somewhat exhilarating.
We rented a head lamp and climbed the stairs to the entrance of the cave. There, we met three bedraggled westerners emerging from the cave like moles. “How long were we in there? What day is it?” screamed the leader of the group. His friends cackled like hyenas.
We sat outside the cave to finish our beers, and two young boys, between 4 and 6 years old, came to offer their services as guides, and to laugh at our funny way of talking. They followed us into the cave, giggling and asking to have their pictures taken.
The interior of the cave was magnificent, like the inside of a grand and drafty and poorly lit castle. Light from the entrance fell softly, making shadows and playing tricks. There was a shrine of Buddha lying in the center, observing humanity serenely, as always. The kids scrambled around and over top of each other, their laughter ricocheted off of the cave’s walls, like reflections in a fun house mirror.
We moved past Buddha and further into the maw. The light from the head lamp was weak, and the darkness was cold and sinister. Every now and then, I’d step into a murky puddle, blindly – there no way to tell how deep it was without just putting my foot into it – and playing in my mind was the image of that scene in Star Wars where they’re in the trash compactor and that one-eyed monster pops out of the sludge.
It was so slippery, we both removed our flip-flops (horrible choice of footwear), and tucked them into the backs of our shorts. We scrambled through a menacing pile of boulders – the doorway from the first section of the cave into the next, leaving what little sunlight had been filtering through, and the children’s laughter. It was like closing the door to the outside world and entering a new, uncharted world of icy, perfect darkness. The only sounds were of the steady dripping of water that plinked sharply, like glass shattering in slow motion, and the secretive chattering of bats tucked away high above us. It was like being in Edgar Allen Poe story; a vast and interminably creepy catacomb.
We tentatively explored the dark vault, slipping into puddles and over rocks. I felt like an explorer in the Arctic or some expansive, harsh and uninhabited wasteland. We tried to find scorpions but were (thankfully) unsuccessful.
When the terrain became too difficult for me, we turned back. I lulled myself into a false sense of confidence. I was doing this! I was great at this, I knew my limits, but this was incredible, climbing around in this horror-show cavern like I knew what I was doing, and barefoot, too. I’ll definitely do this again. Etc. I whispered to Flo – what is it about silent and dark places that conjure up a church or temple like reverence and you automatically speak in whispers? – and so I whispered, “Check this out, babe, I’m like a mountain goat!”
“Sure you are, baby,” he whispered back.
We took a different route climbing out, past the sentinel boulders and the downwards into a gaping pit, a pit of indecipherable depth that separated us from Buddha and the flickering, beckoning light at the entrance. Flo turned to me and whispered, “Okay, this part might be a bit tricky.”
“No worries,” I said, “I’m a mountain goat, remember?”
We were on a narrow ledge that sloped steeply downward. The rock was vertical on one side, and dropping abruptly into the unfathomable pit on the other side. There was no other way down. And slipping, needless to say, would have been disastrous. I took a deep breath and focused on the ledge more intensely than I’ve ever concentrated on anything. I slid slowly and carefully, using gravity and well placed appendages to ungracefully maneuver myself out of this situation. It was the least fun slide I’ve ever been on. I got to the bottom and nearly whooped for joy. Adrenaline surged through my body like lightning. I was on fire.
And then I looked ahead. Flo was reaching out to me from the other side of the terrible abyss. I had to leap from the ledge, over the chasm, and onto a bulbous boulder on the other side. It was about a meter wide but it looked like the grand canyon. My elation subsumed into sheer panic. I began to shake all over. My muscles were like the needle on a sewing machine at full throttle. I looked around, “I can’t do this. There’s got to be another way!”
“There’s not. You can do it. It’s not that bad. That ledge was way more dangerous,” he said.
I laughed a little, and tried to calm down my whirring body. I took another deep breath, and jumped.
We climbed the rest of the way without incident, and emerged blinking into the fading daylight – it was nearly sunset. I felt like we’d been in there for weeks, and my legs were amorphous goo. A group of backpackers came up the stairs, red-faced and looking pumped. “How is it in there?” one of them asked.