I awoke earlier than even my alarm clock had arranged but well in tune with the local time of rising with the sun. Packed up and resisting the temptation of consuming an unsatisfying bowl of mystery for breakfast, I set out onto the dusty dirt track none too troubled to begin with seeing mostly smooth reddish brown earth under my wheels with the exception of the requisite jutted out stones. The road initially didn’t leave me too intimidated as I firmly put myself away from whatever civilization stood behind me. Occasionally cars and motorbikes drove past (flying by me since my pace slowed to five mph in spurts) so I was mostly out here on my own counting down the kilometers on my odometer to reach the point of the Xe Bang Fai River at Ban Pakphanang where I hoped to arrange some floating craft to drift me down the river towards the cave of my dreams. Soon enough I realized why the motorbike rental owner advised of this direction since it planned on hopefully saving me much pain and aggravation by cutting out an extended stay on the gravel and rocky roads all the way to Boulapha Town which stands as the closest base to the cave. These roads tested every bit of my will to continue. I could never say that it delved into the hell of that one ‘road’ in Vietnam but the number of rocks outgrowing their position on what SE Asians choose to call a road made me question why I should bother. Besides the quest for adventure, I so desired to witness what could possibly lurk within this cave, a cave that had only recently been discovered and few had the fortune of walking and boating through, that I was willing to risk a little bit of myself whether that be my own patience or a section of my untapped skin. I probably looked down at the odometer too much but I desperately wanted the nightmare of this road to be put behind me so that I could reap the rewards of all the scrapes and bruises. Along with repeatedly glancing at the odometer and speedometer, I kept my eyes squarely dedicated on the road in front of me knowing that one mistake, one blessed miniaturized boulder could alter my perception of the world in a flash. I had many close calls that struck a shiver up my spine and further coursed through every nerve in my body. With each near mishap I came to a halt, shook myself from the depths that my confidence was plummeting to, and prayed my body would be spared this once. I rode through mud, over poorly built bridges with enough cracks questioning their own resolve to support the next passenger, and streams that convinced me to walk through rather than take that fateful tumbling chance. I saw several Laotians ride through those rivers bumping along with rarely any trouble but I on the other hand was not bred for this. Hell I struggled just to walk the bike through while revving the engine to give it that necessary boost to continue over whatever boulder or crevice that stood in my path. I kept reminding myself that each trial I came across was one step in the direction of the almighty goal. At times I stopped to ask a local if I was heading in the right direction and how much further I stood but especially out here communication was nearly nonexistent. Eventually I reached a river that seemed incapable of being crossed and assumed it must be Xe Bang Fai. While I saw passengers (some still sitting upon their motorized steed) getting ferried across on essentially a canoe, I tried communicating with hand signals pointing forcefully down the river where I assumed the cave lay and using every manipulation of the cave’s name hoping I might stumble across the one that may ring a bell. They nodded or shook their head without giving me any sense of reassurance. Even though I could clearly see engine powered canoes sitting across the river they proved ignorant time and time again. I still had the phone number of the motorbike rental owner but no one around seemed to own a phone which partly didn’t surprise me considering the depth in poverty of these surrounding isolated villages. A bridge was being built for accessible crossing of the river in likely the 22nd century figuring the way things work out here and so I searched the construction site for the one guy that may possibly be able to deliver my call. In one truck just finishing up his own call, I found my guy. Even though he clearly knew what I wanted, he didn’t seem to be willing to oblige. After some desperate begging, he called the number and so I came in contact with the rental guy but apparently I found the rare jackass that didn’t have a single friendly bone in his body to translate the situation of the river and my current predicament ultimately leading to him hanging up on my sole English speaking resource. I went back down to the river to assess the situation knowing that I had no plans of giving up considering how much I had gone through and put up with to get here. The language barrier was not going to put me down nor any other excuse that might deter any other in my situation. Sure enough one of the girls powering the ferry canoe with her oar seemed to understand what I wanted and waved me onto the canoe. I motioned to her that I would park my motorbike on this side of the river since I had no desire to teeter within the precarious confines of the canoe while sitting atop the bike but she had other intentions for me. So there I sat or rather stood on my motorbike within the canoe with my feet trying with all their unstable and misaligned might to balance this floating craft that was within a few inches of swallowing up water and taking me down with it. Against all odds I made it across and brought the bike ashore where the girl took me to what I can only assume was her home and father that had been napping (a favorite pastime and hobby of all SE Asians) who seemed to be the man taking me to Xe Bang Fai Cave. At this point, we had to arrange a price. She wrote down an exorbitant price that I should have bargained but since I truly wanted to see this cave that badly and I had given so much of myself already to get here I accepted the terms and in the best way I could through gestures and on the paper communicate that I was paying for not only transport there and back but also into the cave to explore as well. From there I boarded the motor powered canoe that would in all my hopes and dreams send me into this barely discovered cave. I sat crunched up Indian style on the boat’s floor while the man kept scooping out water as we cruised along past limestone rock forest stopping every once in awhile when the engine stalled or needed gas. Also along the way we passed swimming water buffalo, naked kids at play splashing in the water, and perplexed, confused villagers curious about why I was here and what designs I had for this far off, isolated part of Laos. This man spoke no English and likely didn’t understand more than the word hello. After close to an hour charging upriver we finally made it to the cave but he pulled the boat off to the side on shore despite my minor initial protests until I figured I probably needed to pay some kind of admission. On shore, I saw the vacated ‘tourist office’ which was basically a two-square meter open hut with a flat raised bamboo wood bed for likely the attendant to nap open. My boatman disappeared likely to find a representative. Since I hadn’t paid anything yet as per the unwritten rule in Asia I wasn’t too worried by his disappearance. As expected no one turned up but on the other hand unexpectedly, he would not take me into the cave. With all the rocks and boulders at the entrance to the cave, the boat could not fit in which I accepted but what didn’t accept was my denial into the cave. I wanted to pick up that damn boat regardless of its size and weight and carry it up and over those boulders so that I could get into the cave and explore what I most sought for. A canoe, a wooden raft, something had to be around to get me in there. I did not suffer this much and spend this much time, money, and energy just to look at the mouth of the regardless of how impressive it was. The water was too high for me to walk along the inside edge of the cave so all I could do was sit and sulk on a boulder while trying to peer into the mysterious darkness that held untapped potential. I had seen some National Geographic photos early on weeks ago in my anticipation of my future visit and knew that a world of possible dreamlike formations awaited. The sense of the unknown captured me and thus killed my spirit knowing I had done all this just to come up short. I had a long moment with myself looking up swallowed within the gaping jagged mouth of this cave while sparrows or bats whisked into an out. I had some many questions and no answers to justify some acceptance of the current truth. Some times in life no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you commit, some things are simply out of your control and leave you short of your expectations. However after further contemplation, I realized that that should not stop me from trying, to keep working to the next goal. Life isn’t easy, it holds no promises or guarantees. I will keep striving, fighting. Today might not have been my day but another awaits me and on that day I will be ready like all the rest. I sat there for awhile feeling beaten before returning to the boat and the waiting boatman. Just across the river, I met some local villagers and an English speaking man who had some working association with the cave. I was told that apparently the best time to visit the cave was during the dry season when the water levels were lower which made no sense for a boat trying skirt through a river cave. Then he said that the canoes that are normally here were in use in the village or on the other side of this 15 km river cave or some other bullshit location. I told him to translate to my boatman that since I wasn’t able to go in and see the cave that I would only pay 75% of the agreed upon price and as all evidence had appeared the message seemed to be acknowledged as far as I could tell. The boatman took me back to the original river crossing after initial rainfall that seemed to piss on my situation while I sat there in a lesser mood than when we first departed in search of the cave. On shore at the village I gave the girl the 75% fraction of the price which displeased and the boatman looked beside himself as well. I explained through gestures and short simple phrases that I was firm on my stance. Fair is fair. I gathered my things and took my motorbike to the water crossing meeting the girl once more. I wasn’t sure whether I would have to wade through the water to get across if she were to spite but she took me across anyways. On the other side, she asked for what in my opinion was inflated rate for ferrying me across the river which I refused and then awkwardly tried to escape while she initially tried to hold me back as I revved up the engine and pulled away. I don’t know who I was fooling. If any villager had a desire they could have caught up with me since I moved as slow as molasses on that shitty piece of roadway. In my long waited pursuit of genuine paved road taking my time knowing the potential consequences, I still slipped and fell as another middle finger on a day tried to break my spirit. I picked myself up and continued having no desire to ride a meter longer but with no other choice but to ride. Eventually I made it back to pavement and felt blessed. I still had time in the day to reach Thakhek and get ride of the motorbike once and for all but I had a lot of road to cover and lots of time to question my stability on the bike. Many times whether it was my nerves or reality itself, I felt myself swerves and wondered whether lightning would strike an eighth time after my seven previous falls. Bringing it all further in perspective, I saw a grouping of people and pulled off traffic around a tuk-tuk that had flown off the road and into the ditch with fatality being a certain possibility. When I finally at long last after a day that began at sunrise and now ended near dusk, I felt blessed to be alive and know that I would likely never have to ride a motorbike again or at least for a very long while. After dinner at the market, I returned to my room knowing tomorrow would be a needed respite to sleep in and gather myself to some respectability.
Now in Laos Day 207: A Bitter Pill to Swallow