Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Anna Williams

If I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn the short Laotian man with the cheeky smile was trying to kill me. First there had been the spider-infested, limestone cave – the watery grave of an American tourist – and now here I was on a fast-flowing stretch of the Nam Song river trying to manoeuvre myself to the bank before my doughtnut-shaped inner tube deflated into a heavy mass of wet rubber. Kicking wildly with my bare feet against the water as my bottom sagged ever more deeply into the cold, I used my flip-flops as paddles for my frantic arms and made it to dry land just as the black ring exhaled its final breath.

Some backpackers come to Vang Vieng, the small town in Northern Laos, for the ‘happy’ pancakes and opium tea. Some come to crash out on brightly-coloured cushions, eating pizza in roadside cafés where episodes of Friends loop constantly on DVD. It’s the South-East Asian destination of choice for those looking for a 21st-century hippy hangout, but we were in search of more action-packed pursuits. The minibus from Luang Prabang had soon driven out of sight of the brown curl of the Mekong, winding high into the clouds where rounded, blue hills receded far into the distance, layered on the horizon like tissue-paper silhouettes. As we entered karst country, half-naked children still waved from trees while their mother tossed rice in a wide, flat basket; but now the brilliant-green paddy fields were edged by vegetation-clothed mountains, a jagged appearance the only clue to what lay beneath their limestone walls.

It is a landscape perfectly suited to caving. On the surface, a mist descends on the mountain tips, weaving fingers of cloud between the serrated peaks. Inside, centuries of acidic water have created their own dramatic digits: the knobbly, brown stalactites and stalagmites that pierce the dampening gloom.

Our guide to these spectacular caverns was Mr Kong, a local tour salesman turned guide for the day due to staff shortages. The English lettering on his battered, red baseball cap read IN YOUR FACE, contrasting amusingly with the friendly smile beneath. There were six in our group, but only four torches, homemade affairs that reminded me of school physics lessons: a small bulb connected to two wires that wound around the terminals of a large yellow battery. The one I shared with my husband had a dodgy connection, only sporadically illuminating the features of the first cave, Tham Loup. Seams of quartz glistened from the smooth, brown interior as Mr Kong pointed out “the Snake”, “the Eagle” and “the Great Wall of China”. Another interesting formation was a row of bulbous shapes hanging down like inverted bongos; when drummed, a booming echo bounced around the cave.

Later, after a much-needed lunch stop, we would explore most tourists’ favourite cave, Tham Nam, using a rope attached to the low rock ceiling to float ourselves through the turquoise water on inner tubes. The highlight of our trip, however, was the journey through the watery bowels of Tham Hoi (Snail Cave), a three-kilometre trip that few visitors undertake. If we’d just gone the suggested 500m past the orange-robed Buddha at the cave entrance, we might not have been so impressed with our experience, but soon Mr Kong was ignoring his own advice, exploiting our lack of resistance to the dark, interior waters and plunging us deeper into the heart of the mountain. Just over a year before, a lone American had been lost in this cave. “We all feel very sad,” said Mr Kong, as he spoke for himself and the rest of the town, but led our group to believe that it may have been a successful suicide attempt. A local guide had warned that the recent weather meant it was dangerous to go too far, but the man had left his passport and camera behind with the Laotian and stubbornly disappeared into the darkness.

We too now left our accompanying belongings behind for safe-keeping, but I hoped we would soon be back to collect them. The water level had moved from our waists to our necks and the low ceiling in the next section of cave meant we could no longer carry our bags above our heads. Unsure what we were letting ourselves in for, the six of us made a unanimous decision to carry on and within a few minutes, our chins broke into the water’s cold surface. Carefully guiding my head between the rock above and the water below, my eyes picked out shiny terraces of gleaming, white silica and hundreds of rounded droplets patiently building the plummeting stalactites.

At the end of the narrow passage, the ceiling arched upwards; a limestone cathedral with the wavy edges of a fruit flan. Close up the rock had a honeycomb texture; ahead huge slabs descended like balanced shields, or blades poised to slice into the underground pool below. It was a relief to swim in those hidden waters after being constricted for so long, but with the entrance over an hour away, it was soon time to head back.

As my makeshift torch flickered and died on the return journey, the light of the Scandinavian couple behind created a looming giant from my shadow. The underground river ended suddenly, startling me almost as much as the sight of a large, black spider near my ear, its long, spindly legs spread menacingly across the rock. It wouldn’t be the last one I’d see and I was glad I’d failed to notice them on the way in. Scrambling over a slimy boulder, I slipped and landed behind our guide in a pool of mud. He turned round with a sympathetic grin. “Adventure?” he asked.