There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Kong Lor Cave and a Minor Disaster: Part 6 of Thailand and Laos

The gentleness of the early morning sun made our wooden balcony a delightful place, with the Hin Boun flowing lazily below and the jagged cliffs standing proudly behind. As we gazed at this idyllic scene, Phim came paddling past.

Phim paddles down the Hin Boun in morning sunshine
We had a good breakfast….

Breakfast at the Auberge Sala Hin Boun
… and spotted this spider while returning to our room. It is one of the garden orb-weaver spiders, Argiope Anasuja, I think. Common, unaggressive and with only a mildly toxic bite (I read that, I did not put it to the test!) they are commonly known as Signature Spiders; the characteristic stretches of reinforced web allegedly resembling a signature, though our spider has only initialled her web (the squiggle below the lower right legs)

Garden Orb-weaver, Argiope Anasuja
 Our itinerary said we would stroll through the woods to the mouth of Kong Lor Cave; Phim clearly intended to go by car. We suggested walking and he looked aghast. ‘You can if you want,’ he said, ‘it is 6km along the road with no shade.’ ‘Through the woods,’ I countered. ‘What woods?’ he asked. We got in the car.

The road through the valley was built five years ago, but beyond the auberge much of the surface had been washed away by floods. We bounced along for six kilometres past fields of cassava, the stubble of harvested rice and much scrubland but no woods.

No travelling in this post - we stayed within a few kilometres of the hamlet of Sala Hin Boun

We paused beside a small restaurant. ‘I will book lunch,’ Phim said. According to our itinerary we would eat at the other end of the cave. ‘There is little there,’ Phim said ‘maybe noodle soup.’ ‘That’s all we want,’ we told him.

We eventually reached a small patch of woodland, parked beside it and walked through the woods - for about 100m - to a kiosk where Phim paid an entry fee and engaged a boatman.

Equipped with head torches and life-jackets we descended to a pool on the Hin Boun. It looked placid, but the river emerged from Kong Lor cave at the far end white and frothing.
The pool on the Hin Boun, the river issuing from the cave at the far end
The boatman paddled us across the pool in a leaky canoe and we followed him and Phim down the bank and into the mouth of the cave. Half a dozen canoes with long tailed outboards were moored inside the entrance just above the rapids.

Following Phim into the mouth of Kong Lor Cave
Once settled into a canoe the boatman launched us into the darkness, the beams from our head torches playing weakly on the roof and rock walls. Even using flash there was nothing to photograph except Phim’s ears. There is little remarkable about them, but the photo clearly shows that he wore no life jacket – nor did the boatman. This annoyed me. Firstly there is the discomforting thought that our lives were being regarded as more important than theirs. Secondly the tourist industry too often treats representatives of rich western countries as though we were strange, nervous, delicate even childlike creatures. I am not a cut glass decanter, I am a pint pot and should be treated as such. If there is no danger, do not pander to a perceived timidity by supplying unnecessary equipment, if there is danger, then give everybody a life-jacket. It was impossible to gauge the depth of the inky black water, but the rock was often a smooth arch rising straight from it and probably we should all have worn life-jackets. Warning: this is part of an ongoing rant, it is not over yet.

Phim's ears
We soon ran aground. Lynne and Phim got out and splashed over the shoal, allowing the boatman and me to float across.

Further on the river passed through a wide cave where we could get out and walk among the stalactites and mites. I misjudged a sandy bank and slipped as I walked up it. ‘Do be careful,’ said Phim his tones suggesting that as a cossetted westerner I might never have encountered sand before.

Stalagmite, Kong Lor Cave
As we walked Lynne observed that my backside was wet from the water in the boat. At her suggestion I removed my wallet from my back pocket and put it in her nice, dry bag.

Limestone curtains in Kong Lor Cave
 We re-joined the boat and continued our cruise.

It was only in the 20th century that the locals discovered that the river that disappeared into a mountain in a remote valley was the same river that appeared from another mountain 7km away. The story goes that an upstream villager lost his ducks, and found them when visiting a downstream relative. They could not have flown, they had not been abducted, therefore, he reasoned, they came down the river under the mountain.

That story may or may not be true, but we had to admire the bravery of the people who first made this trip. We knew it was a single stream and you cannot get lost, they did not. We knew no dragons lurked down there, they could not be sure.
There was nothing to photograph in the darkness, so here is another picture from the cave we walked through
For the best part of an hour there was little to see, or if there was it would be too dark to see it. The boatman kept his torch beam on the water to avoid the lumps of rock loitering like icebergs in the shallows. Most of the way the cave was 20m or so wide, effectively a tunnel through hard rock with no ‘land’ at the edge, but we passed through one cavern so big we could not see the exit until we were half way across.

An 'iceberg' loitering in the shallows, Kong Lor Cave
After the blackness it was a relief to eventually see light at the end of the tunnel. Less than 100m from the light we ran aground again and this time it was everybody out. The water ran ankle deep over a formation of hard rock and Lynne, who hates water of any depth, inched carefully forward clinging to Phim's arm. I clambered laboriously from the boat and strode confidently (or over-confidently) after them, my camera in my right hand, a small bottle of water in my left.

My right foot caught on a rock. After several paces of staggering and stumbling I was beginning to wonder why regaining my balance was proving so difficult. Then my right foot found only water beneath it. It continued downwards and, with Newtonian inevitability, the rest of me followed. I struck the water on my right side and with horror felt my hand holding the camera plunge deep below the surface. My fingers struck something painfully hard but I clung on, turned onto my back and stuck the hand holding the camera vertically upwards. It was too late, the damage was done, the camera would never work again, but it seemed sensible at the time.

Hearing the splash Phim spun round, his face, according to Lynne horror struck. It is considered bad form among the tourist guide community to lose a client in an underground river. Feeling he had to do something he grabbed my up-stretched arm and pulled. He was a slight man and there was no possibility that he could pull my distinctly unslight self vertically from the water.

I found myself floating in a gully of pleasantly warm water. I stayed there while I checked out my physical condition and then, having decided that nothing was broken or dislocated, I tried to stand up. I failed because Phim was still heaving on my arm.

Hoping to bring some British sang froid to the situation I said, 'Stop pulling, it doesn't help.' For reasons I do not understand, the intended voice of quiet calm came out as a peremptory command. Phim dropped my arm.

I stood up carefully and used his offered hand to raise myself out of the half metre deep gully. As I stepped up I noticed its rocky edge, jagged and sharp.

Once out I felt annoyed with myself about the camera, or rather the camera card, the camera was cheap and replaceable, the contents of the card were not. Otherwise I felt fine but the expression of horror remained on Phim's face. Looking down I realised my legs were covered in blood, most of it from a small but deep cut on my right knee. That bleeding would stop soon, but the hole below my left knee and the deep gouges running down the top of my left shin looked more serious and swellings were already forming. The top of my left big toe resembled red meat, the skin having been neatly sliced off.

I splashed water around and cleaned myself up the best I could and with Phim and Lynne hobbled towards the waiting boatman. I hobbled, not because of my injuries, but because the toe strap of my right sandal was no longer attached to the sole – which explained my strange inability to regain my balance.

Back in the boat for the last few metres, Kong Lor Cave
Back in the boat it took but a few minutes to reach the open air. Only then did I realised that my head torch had stayed firmly attached the whole time and was still working, but the bottle of water that had been in my left hand had disappeared.

We re-emerge into daylight, Kong Lor Cave
Up on dry land was a clearing dotted with stalls/restaurants, benches and rough wooden tables. My appearance caused a small stir among the locals and the two or three other foreigners present who expressed sympathy but had little practical to offer.

A clearing with some huts and rough tables and benches

I sat on a bench and Phim acquired a large bottle of drinking water so I could wash the wounds thoroughly. Then, as we had nothing else, I slapped on antiseptic hand wash. That stung.

I suggested to Phim that I would like a cup of tea, how else would the British deal with a crisis?

At this point Lynne raised the subject of what we, for some reason, refer to as my 'inner being' – a second wallet I carry inside my waistband attached to my belt. My regular wallet, snug in Lynne’s bag, contained only ‘little money’ for immediate use while my inner being held the proceeds of our last visit to an ATM, our emergency stash of US dollars, credit and debit cards, passports and a reserve week of Lynne's blood pressure pills - all the stuff we cannot afford to lose. It was not, as far as we knew waterproof. Plastic cards don't mind the wet, money will dry, the pills were sealed in plastic, but our passports? When our daughter worked in China a friend visited Hong Kong for the weekend and while there contrived to drop his passport in the bath. Once dried, the document was good enough for the Hong Kong authorities to let him out, but not good enough for the People's Republic border guards to let him in. He spent the next ten years in the Lo Wu border station. [No, of course he didn’t, he returned to Hong Kong, acquired a new passport and visa and arrived back in China a couple of days late for work].  My inner being turned out to be more waterproof than expected and our passports, though slightly deckled would recover completely.
Bloodied but unbowed - and in need of a cup of tea
Update May 2016 - I now know I gained a few (more) permanent scars to my left leg
This exploration over, I spotted Phim astride a borrowed motorcycle about to set off for the nearest village. He was off to find some antiseptic cream, he said. Lynne explained that we had dealt with that problem and would really like a cup of tea. After a trip round the stalls he approached us apologetically with a bag of tea in his hand. 'There is only this,' he said. It was black tea, larger leaves than we are used to maybe, but ordinary black tea. 'That's perfect' I said. He looked surprised, pampered foreigners, he thought, needed tea in neat, sealed bags. I insisted it was fine, glasses were produced, tea tipped in and boiling water added. Lynne and I now had 'cups ' of tea - and much appreciated they were.

Once we had our tea Phim informed us there would be no noodle soup, the stallholders had just returned after the rice harvest and were still setting up. 'I will cook something,' he said, re-borrowed the motorbike and whizzed off into the distance.

A passing youthful fellow-countryman paused to sympathise. His camera took the same card as mine and he demonstrated that I had lost none of my photos, which made me feel much better.

Injured I may have been, but I was still capable of schadenfreude. A boy tasked with minding his small sibling had been carrying him in a sling. The nappy-less infant urinated, as infants do and the look of disgust on the older brother’s face as baby pee cascaded down his legs was memorable.

An accident is about to happen
Phim returned with noodles, eggs, chillies and greens, borrowed a wok and set about producing lunch for three. It was remarkably good, and if the stalls had failed on noodle soup, Beer Lao was, as always, available.

Phim rustles up lunch in a borrowed wok
After eating I felt up for the two kilometre walk to the village which had presumably supplied our lunch. Having made the effort to arrive in this isolated valley, we ought to have a look at it.

Coping with a flapping sandal required care and I soon discovered a cut on the sole of my foot which made walking painful, but I persevered. We strolled through the harvested rice fields and past stands of cassava (tapioca), an important crop locally.
Limping along behind Phim
 There was nothing special at the village, it was just a remote, unspoiled Laos village....
Typical Lao village house
 .... and that made it worth the visit.
A remote, unspoiled Lao village
After a good look round we headed back to the clearing and then to the cave.

The boatman was adamant that I would not get out at the shallow section by the entrance. Lynne and Phim stood in the water on the rock shelf while he backed up, opened the throttle and charged at the obstruction. With a frightening scraping noise we bounced over. I was surprised by the quantity of water in the bottom of the canoe as our bouncing sent it rolling from one end to the other like a mini tsunami.
We approach the end of the journey back through Kong Lor cave
The rest of the return journey was uneventful. We saw a bird flying through the cave, just above the water and bats hanging from the ceiling, and I kept an eye on the water seeping up between the planks of the boat. The leak looked mildly alarming to the untrained eye, but we arrived back safely enough.

We are paddled back across the pool

Back at the auberge there were still no other guests. We sat by the river and had a beer while Phim, our driver and the younger men of the owner’s family went fishing. They caught nothing, so had a swim instead.
Back at the auberge
The slightly dilapidated guides and drivers accommodation

Dinner was pleasant, if unremarkable. Afterwards I felt suddenly very tired; delayed shock, Lynne said. It was dark and there was nothing to do anyway, so I went to bed.

Part of me wanted to blame Phim for my mishap. If he had worn a life-jacket, or allowed me to stumble on the sand without comment, or made tea without fussing (even if that was after the event) I would not have reacted by becoming so over-confident. In fairness, though, he was a decent man, trying to do his best. Bad luck was the main cause and such fault as there was, was all mine.

If Kong Lor Cave was in a developed country there would have been a concrete walkway with a handrail and signs warning of a wet floor, but this was rural Laos, only a handful of tourists venture this far and it remains gloriously unspoilt. I cannot guess how long it will stay this way, but I am very glad we saw it when it was still almost pristine and if that means you occasionally have to fall in the water and cut your leg, it is a price well worth paying.

1 comment:

  1. Travels sprinkled with rants and small disasters are just the way I like them! I'm quite content with your suffering as long as all was repaired. Now I must really get back to my own journaling and photo archiving...