Big Dark Spaces: cave crawling in Laos

This post was written after visiting Vang Vieng, Laos, in August 2009.

“One day, my torch – go out,” says the wiry teenager through bright white teeth. “Dark. Very dark. Crawling, get out. Five hours, get out. Very dark.” He smiles at us and stabs out his cigarette. His face disappears – everything disappears. Dark. Very dark. So dark that it’s impossible to see your own hand in front of your face. So dark the entire universe could have been suddenly sucked into a black hole and you would be none the wiserImage. That dark.

Just as I am about to resign myself to a slow death in this big dark space, our guide flicks on his torch and follows its flimsy beam of light further into the cave. He skips across jagged rocks and wades through puddles with a balance and speed that should be impossible for someone in flip flops. We struggle along behind him, flailing around like toddlers learning to walk, and every now and then he looks back to make sure we still exist. Somewhere behind us in the blackness are my shoes, somewhere else my clothes are piled on a rock, waiting to be lit up by our flashlights on our return. The soles of my feet are pockmarked with dents from standing on pointy rocks; my legs are streaked to my knees with mud as thick and rich as melted chocolate. My stomach, elbows, arms and thighs are zig-zagged with scratches from countless falls. I feel half-naked and vulnerable in nothing but my swimsuit, half crawling half waddling along with a torch between my teeth, like a blind woman. The mouth of the cave is at least an hour behind us, and our guide shows no sign of stopping – he is still leaping ahead like a mountain goat, tapping on the rocks and singing Lao pop songs to himself. I have visions of him abandoning us in the dark, of the roof collapsing, of a sudden flood. But we keep walking, falling and cursing, deeper and deeper into the big dark space that seems to be without end.

Reading about caving in Northern Laos a few days before I had created quite a different picture in my head. As I imagined it, we would walk a little way into the mountains, find a hole in the side of the rock-face big enough for us to marvel at a few stalactites, and go for a swim in a warm, picturesque cave lagoon. (The lagoon would not, of course, be in total darkness, but warmly lit by glowing fingers of light streaming in through conveniently placed holes in the roof.) The reality, however, is about as far from this vision as Southeast Asia is from traffic control. What the guide book fails to mention is that the caves are big – really big. The cave we visited was so enormous that our guide once spent three days trekking through it without finding its end. The size of the caves is extraordinary; the pitch darkness is frightening.

Our cave experience ended with a large stagnant pool of water, and our guide triumphantly announcing – “Okay! Swimming!” After submerging myself for less than two minutes in the cold, still, cave-water – and imagining all kinds of mutated cave-critters floating around my feet – I was ready to get out. An hour and a whole new set of scrapes and bruises later, we emerged blinking into the bright humidity of the outside world. I’ve never been so happy to see a field of cows in my life.

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