Now in Laos Day 206: Back Out of Retirement

In the morning when I picked up my motorbike rental to officially begin the clock on the lease, the owner gave me a warning and some advice when I told him that I planned on visiting the still to be explored Xe Bang Fai River Cave. The original way that I had planned on taking to get there according to Andrew’s advice was down this road that apparently quite treacherous and muddy this time of year and that I should instead take the paved road to the Vietnamese border where I could then veer off for a shorter dirt road and take a boat the rest of the way. I knew little of this and took him for his word. I left Thakhek after gagging over a stomach churning bowl of noodles to go in search of some caves in the nearby area. The Mahaxai karst limestone landscape has many caves to offer but I only wanted to visit the best of the best and avoid yet another Buddha-jammed cave. After passing on Tham Falang (a swimming hole – btw ‘falang’ means foreigner in Lao) and Tham Pha Pa (otherwise known as the Buddha Cave, which was a heart wrenching moment to deprive myself of), I stopped first at Tham Xieng Liab which was set amidst the limestone karst hills and mountains like all the rest. After parking the motorbike, I was given some quick directions from the girl running show (who was perhaps six or seven years old) because the elders either didn’t give a damn or were too lazy to lift themselves from their chores of laying around on their bamboo wood platform/throne of inactivity. So I began walking in that generally pointed direction as clueless as I was when I first arrived of where to start. I took a left since the beaten ground seemed to delineate along the best path I could find. I kept following the grey craggily rock past cows munching on the foliage while I ducked and maneuvered myself under and through the thorny overgrowth hoping the next gaping hole might lead to an actual cave but no luck could be had. Rather than frustrate myself any further, I went back to the bum shack to get slightly better directions. Of course they first went asking for the parking fee but I made it clear ‘no cave, no money’. They pointed again randomly with a twist of the wrist and elbow towards the limestone rock which offered no further clues. Realizing they would continue voluntarily choosing not to summon the little strength required to get me started, I had to make it painfully clear to them where in the blessed bloody hell is the cave. Is it to the left, right, over the river, etc? I had little to work with with these people. Eventually I found said cave but I still needed to use my own investigative exploration to arrive at the gaping hole in the rock wall where the stream flowed through. The water was raised too high to find any easy walking path into the cave so I played my best Indiana Jones to hop from rock to rock and cling loosely to the large boulders along the path like the amateur boulder that I am. I managed to work my way through the entirety of the cave with an exit as large as its mouth nearly falling over backwards at my worst but the feeling of practically discovering this cave for the first time was exhilarating. Caving is dangerous and stupid in many ways but that in part is what draws me: the mystery of the unknown and what may linger within. The stalactites were not visually noteworthy but the sense of isolation and quiet besides my own beating heart and the sparrows that called Tham Xieng Liab home made the visit worthwhile. I ended up further away than I thought needing to fight through dry jungle and loosely designed fences to return to the road I came from. Up next I checked out Tham Pha Nya which supposedly contains holy waters you are allegedly not allowed to touch. I went up the carved staircase to the mouth of the cave where a darkened staircase possibly led downwards the water hole at the bottom. At first I heard loose sounds perhaps emanating from some sparrows. I stomped my feet in an effort to kick up whatever may be lingering below. The scratches turned groans and coughs which immediately brought my imagination to an Asian Gollum that lurked here with overgrown hair and fingernails and old wrinkled bleached skin but still containing the spry energy to make an attack on an unexpecting visitor. I could not get out of there quick enough rapidly high stepping my way down the stairs and revving that engine up before my earthbound reality could catch up to my nerve twitching imagination. The last cave on the incomplete list before I could make that last long drive towards Xe Bang Fai was Tham Aen. Tham Aen is the most tourist end cave of them for one being the only cave I visited with an entrance fee and the other being a popular day’s picnic for local Lao people. I paid for the boat through the cave and it was well worth it. While teaching my rower some English and learning some Lao myself on this bumpy little boat, I looked around at all the many beautifully formed stalactites and stalagmites around me, only further impressed when the cave opened up larger than before to an immense cavern who knows how many meters up. Besides our own voices I enjoyed this quiet welcome into the darkness with not overly explosive and cliche light to ruin the moment. Although I wasn’t able to get up and explore as I could earlier on with the other tourists amidst the alternating rainbow light peeking out from all corners of the opening part of the cave, I embraced the feeling of how small I could be and still surprised through all the caves that I already visited. This only wetted my appetite for more caves and the grand daddy of them all, Xe Bang Fai River Cave, where I would make up for lost times from my sad exclusion of doing a proper caving trip in the renowned Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park home to Son Doong and all the rest now just a matter of a simple Vietnamese border standing between us. After lunch, I planned on making no further stops and cover as much ground as necessary to reach accommodation nearest to Xe Bang Fai at Langkang, which sits 15 km or so from the Vietnamese border. Along well paved road like I had ridden all this time here, I came through a town called Gnommalath found a patch of road sealed by loose gravel. According to my recurring narrative I fell hard sliding along that very gravel cutting up the left side of my body. In shock, I looked down at my bloody hand, elbow, knee, and stomach before yelling out loudly while not holding back a serious of F bombs and every expletive you may ingeniously be able to come up with. Why me? Why again? Sure I could have broken a leg or worse but why has lightning struck so many times for me? Falling six times is too much, plenty, I have overfilled my quota. My first thought was to turn around to Thakhek, go back where I came from, and give up any further determination to ride a motorbike again. However, I needed to care to my wounds. I was pointed to a clinic which had a nurse who spoke some spare English. The woman tended to my wounds while the oblivious others attempted to follow her instructions. Gritting my teeth and my sweat rag, I pulled through still asking myself why of all things. The fee for all the services was minimal but I could not believe they had no bandages anywhere in this facility. How in God’s name do you not have bandages? They placed gauze over my wounds and the one helper could barely figure out why I wanted them wrapped. For some stupid reason, she believed these small square patches of gauze would magically cling to my wounds and not fall off while not letting in the dirt that would surely bring home bacteria and infection. I have had way to many experiences in clinics and at pharmacies out here while traveling. Maybe a travel guide on these facilities are in order; I am sure mine would be the first of its kind. For some reason while the nurse was cleaning and dressing my wounds I had a change of heart. I would continue on as I had originally planned not letting this added setback deprive me of something I so wanted to achieve. I have met many struggles before which may have worn down my spirit but at the end of the day I can’t let the pain and fear stop me. Despite a rain delay and driving quite slowly due to the built up fear from my accumulating falls, I made good time reaching Langkang and checked into a proper guesthouse no matter the price. Even though I saw a sign pointing randomly off the road towards Xe Bang Fai River Cave affirming my previous convictions, no one seem to understand where it could be. Eventually after picking up meager supplies from a shit, broken down clinic, I began to piece some details together and realized what stood ahead for me tomorrow. I would be riding over a dusty dirt track for at least 20 km to a river where I would hopefully gain further transport by boat to the mouth of the cave. If the boat didn’t materialize, the cave likely stood another 30 km further down the road upon grit and grime that my imaginations most feared. I had a fun series of conversations with the locals including the Vietnamese speaking hotel owner who thought I knew more Vietnamese than I could muster upon hearing the few spare phrases in my arsenal. For dinner, I had limited options if any options at all. I went to a stall grilling up some random kebabs of meat which were essentially barbecued rubber (some of the meat cubes had weird tiny speckled spikes jutting out that only further questioned my consumption). The dogs surrounding me were awfully eager especially considering their cousin could have been one of those skewered onto these sticks. Some guys my age welcomed me with their share of beers always making sure my glass was full for a full round of cheers amongst us. They spoke little English but they enjoyed the curiosity that I was and attempting to practice what infrequent English they may have been able to speak. I ended the night early knowing that I wanted as much time as necessary to tackle the likely long grueling dirt road and whatever else may stand in my way.

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