Travel

Who does not love exploring?

Hello again


Hello again, hello, hello, hi… I don’t want to start off awkwardly but get naked, cover yourself in honey and go stand next to an ants nest in the full sun for eleven hours and fifty minutes.

Ok, you have just had a more pleasant day than myself. It would seem that the German people have not improved their method of transporting large numbers of people since they were busily shoving Jews into overcrowded train carriages, hosing the outside down to stop them from dying and nicking the gold fillings of the ones who did. The trouble started at the Bangkok airport. At gate D4 we were all shuttled into a cubicle sized glass room which let in the blinding sun. Oh, sorry, I changed a few flights about after finishing my climb early and suffering a strong desire to be back in Denmark. As Qantas and some other airlines are barking on about union trouble I was forced to change flights and go via Berlin, with Air Berlin, the world’s worst airline, I say this despite that fact that I have flown into Lukla Airport with Yeti Air in a 1960’s Twin Otter.

Anyway, our box gave us a lovely view of the sky corridor (the walkway to the plane) just ending without a plane attached. I stood there in the glass room amongst fat business men who were sweating out last nights whiskey and numerous screaming children who fit the prescribing criteria of Ritalin (see movie; “The Exorcist”) I clocked five young mum’s holding babies and a few incontinent looking old couples. None of whom I wanted to be seated with, on long flight there is only one person I like being seated with, Jette, other than her I just pray for three or four empty seats located near the front of the plane so I can get off quickly after landing. I hate nothing more than being on the ground ready to get off the plane but having to watch short people making really hard work of lifting their huge hand luggage cases out of the lockers above. Seriously, two words; Hand. Luggage. If you cannot carry or lift it above your head it can hardly be called hand luggage now can it. While I am on this thin ice offending people I might as well jump up and down a bit….

I think that instead of making a blanket rule of 20 kilograms checked luggage and 7 kilograms hand luggage, airlines should give a total weight allowance for the flight. “Sorry fatty kind of used up your total weight allowance there, you can only take 5 kilograms, suggest you go and make friends with skinny baldie over there….” Well, the plane has to fly. Anyway enough of this, no just a little bit more, things I have learnt in flight about different cultures;

  1. Arabic people have terrible smelling feet and they don’t care, they also hog the armrests
  2. Chinese people fart, a lot
  3. French people complain about the food
  4. Nepalese people sweat nervously and are jumpy (as they were on the to Doha to be used as practically slave labour.
  5. Italians drink too much whiskey and kick the seat in front of them.
  6. Argentinians go out of their way to piss on the floor of the toilet and
  7. Ok, enough now

As no explanation was given for our lack of plane I could only assume that some last minute mechanical problem they didn’t want to us to know about was being patched up. I did get a chuckle when the Captain and Co-Pilot followed by babbling cabin staff purposefully strode down, past us and into the sky corridor. Hugely disappointed to not see the Captain fall off the end, Monty Python style, I again chuckled as I pictured them huddling in the corridor speaking in whispers not wanting to walk past us all again after their grand entrance.

Finally the plane casually rolled up like a petulant child with no explanation and docked with the corridor. This made me wonder who was driving as our Captain was currently huddled in the sky corridor. Like with cars, the mechanics probably draw straws on who gets to drive around in the machine they have just fixed. Anyway, they did over half an hour of pre-flight checks which convinced me that the delay was mechanical. We were left waiting in our glass box before being let us onto the plane.

To my great disappointment, but not surprise, my seat was in the crappy middle section with four seats, to my right an Asian lady was loudly munching on Pumpkin seeds and burping pumpkin burps and to my left was the aisle. Numerous German folk rubbed various body parts onto my left shoulder as they lent over me to rummage through my bag in the over head locker. Usually on takeoff the Pilot shows off a bit, does a bit of “Check out how powerful my plane is” for the ladies. You are pushed back in your seat as the Pilot uses less than a quarter of the runway length to be in flight, within seconds you whoosh upwards, ears popping and enjoy the flight comfortable in the fact that this machine which is currently suspending over two hundred lives, has the power to stay up. Think about it, it is really quite an amazing thing to be sitting in a seat, in the air, listening to music or drinking a coke, don’t you think?

Anyway our takeoff was somewhat slower, I heard the rush of the engines winding up but didn’t feel that powerful backwards push, we trundled down the runway slowly gaining speed. It would be easy to imagine the Pilot sitting up there, yawning to the Co-pilot to wake him once we got up to takeoff speed. Just before we turned left onto the city ring road we escaped the clutches of gravity and the ominous squeaking stopped, it was obviously a suspension issue which we don’t have to worry about again, until landing. The squeaking was quickly replaced with the high pitched squeal of the wheels retracting, this noise dominated the cabin for over half an hour.

Finally in the air I noticed that the cabin had something of a different atmosphere to the one I just flew in with Thai Air. Thai Air cabins firstly smell nice (from the flower scented super bug killer they lace the air with), the upholstery is spotless, looks brand new and is colored purple, yellow and other pleasant tropical colours. Thai attendants glide about the cabin with a small smile playing around their mouths and attend to your every need. As soon as a drink is finished they either whisk away the empty or refill it, if you sneeze they get a tissue to your nose before you are done. Oh, and the food is amazing, especially if (like I always do) you tell them you are either Vegetarian, Vegan or Muslim. This also means your food comes out first and you can enjoy your meal as the others around you watch the regular trolley’s glacial progress up the aisle.

This current plane kind of smells like raw potatoes and boiled cabbage, the upholstery is threadbare and depressingly dark blue, my cushion is 3 microns thick meaning that my ass is already numb, I have been sitting in my chair for less than twenty minutes. The attendants are kind of scary with angular features and that unnervingly penetrating blue eye stare Germans do going on. Mid-daydream, the attendant who glared at me throughout takeoff suddenly appears at my side and barks out an order in German. Cowering in my seat I plead; “ITWASN’TME-I-SWEAR”. Oh she is just offering me a drink, “Yes please I would like a coke” The Asian lady to my right and her boyfriend sneak off to the toilet together and return five minutes later, him looking very smug. I barely resist leaning over and saying; “Dude, that little effort falls outside the official rules for Mile high Club, go and try again champ” but just chuckle to myself.

Watching the ice melt in my glass, boredom starts to kick in. The hours slide by, second by slow second. On long haul flights, which this one is definitely going to be, normal airlines instal those wonderful little screens on the back of the seat in front of you, with a retractable controller in the armrest. You have a selection of Television shows, documentaries, video games, recent movies and cartoons for the little ones. This plane has two central screens which has shown repeats of the 1980’s hit series ‘Cheers!’ and ‘Friends’. The problem is that I cannot hear what is being said on the screen as earphones are three Euros each. Next thing they will be charging for snacks, I check the menu and find out that they are; 6.90 Euros for a cut sausage in gravy and 10.90 Euros for a cut sausage in gravy… with rice. My travel agent had better have a fat roll of notes as a refund waiting for my return to Tasmania.

Waking with a thoroughly cricked neck I wish I had smuggled in the Diazepam I bought in Laos for a back issue at least I would sleep soundly with relaxed muscles. I decide to look for better lodgings. I reach the very back of the plane where usually there is either a fruit platter or snacks and spot an empty double over the opposite side of the plane. Not wanting to wake the people sprawled across their hard seats in the middle I decide to sneak through the rear galley, nick some food, maybe get a drink, and enjoy my new seat. I pull back the curtain and indeed there is a fruit platter, surrounded by air hostesses’s, which is clearly not going to be shared with the rest of us. I flash a smile, which is returned by a blank, pale skinned stare, and ask; “Mind if I just sneak past to a different chair”. The leader of this Air-Hostess-Wolf-Pack looks at me and says, with no word of a lie; “You go other way like rest of people” I turn and walk back down the aisle, wake a poor soul to sneak past and just beat the skinny balding man to the free double seat, nice… take that baldy.

We are now flying around Katrachan, (never heard of it either, looks sandy) and I have just go to thinking, as one does when spending eleven hours and fifty minutes on a plane, I am thinking;

“If the pilot got bored, what is to stop him from taking a shortcut over Bagdad, apart from fighter jets and Derka-Jihads of course? Do the pilots get better food than the rest of the us? Why were air hostess’s in the sixties and seventies so good looking but now the standards have slipped, is this an equal opportunity initiative for uglies? Now might be the time to see what really happens when you smoke in the toilet? Why was I frisked three times in the Kathmandu Airport yesterday – maybe he just liked me?, What is that incessant squeaking noise? What to do for the next four hours?, If someone really got naked, covered themselves in honey and stood next to an ants nest, would they be able to sue me as I told them to?”

I ponder these big issues as the plane rattles on it’s detour around Baghdad, slowly bringing me ever closer to seeing my lovely Jette who I have not laid eyes on for way too long. This slight discomfort will be easily worth it.

Angkor Wat and seeing hands massage

grey Angkor Wat and seeing hands massage

Circus. A total circus. That is the only way to describe Angkor Wat at sunset. It was an amazing show though! Winding through hoards of camera wielding Japanese tourists, gum chewing Americans (with bumbags) and British tourists with security belts poking out of polo shirts we found a lovely quiet spot and sat to view the sunset.

Angkor Wat is only part of this massive temple complex. It is the biggest part, built by a guy called Suryavaram II at around the same time as the Europeans were busily building the Notre Dam cathedral in Paris. Suryavaram II was something of a megalomaniac, he extended the Khmer influence right through Asia and it would seem when he built his temple was trying to compensate for something (like those guys who drive around in lowered Skyline cars with the lights under the wheels). Angkor Wat, unlike the other temples in the almost 20km square area dotted with temples of various vintage, has been in constant use since it was built. Every block was cut and dragged from a quarry 50km away.

grey Angkor Wat and seeing hands massage

Just as sunset began to light the clouds and just as I had the tripod set up to capture some photos of Jette and I a disagreeable little man wearing a sweaty green guards uniform came puffing up to tell us that we had to leave. The temple was closing. I looked at him in disbelief. We slowly packed up our things and dragged ourselves away, dawdling, we were the last to be shepherded out of the inner temple complex. Not before the guard offered to let us climb the currently-being-restored main temple, for $20US. We declined and slowly made our way out of the inner temple.

grey Angkor Wat and seeing hands massageInto a throng of other visitors, children selling bracelets, adults selling guidebooks, tuk-tuk men offering rides and Japanese watching it all through canon viewfinders. Phirun met us and took us away, efficiently and politely to our hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


grey Angkor Wat and seeing hands massagegrey Angkor Wat and seeing hands massage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next thing I knew I was somewhere down a dark alley in a disused hotel, lying facedown on a hard bed with a man holding my hand. I had left Jette behind to return to the hotel alone. Sounds dodgy? ‘Seeing hands’ is not a charity but a business. Blind Cambodians are offered board, food and massage lessons free for three years. When they graduate from school they work at the massage parlour for one year to repay the loan, after that they get to keep the money they earn. Not only does this keep motivated blind people from needing to beg on the street but it also gives them dignity and a sense of accomplishment. As his thumbs tried to penetrate my lungs through my back, Dale, a short Cambodian man in his mid twenties, was excitedly telling all about his plans for the future now that he has paid back his loan, a future which now extends beyond one day to the next.

 

The name “Seeing hands” is so apt. Throughout the massage which Dale so deftly performed I was constantly thinking it is amazing how confident he was. The only indication that he was without two eyes, (literally, to empty sockets) was that he started by gently tapping over my back to get his bearings. At one stage for one particularly stubborn bus-seat knot Dale climbed onto the table and dug his heel into my left shoulder blade. I got up off the table one hour later feeling like he had taken my back completely apart, every nut and bolt, polished and oiled all the bits, then reassembled it. This was the first time since I started being assaulted by awkward bus seats three weeks ago that my back had been completely knot free. I gladly left a hefty tip on top of the $7 charge and walked away wondering how this knot-whisperer knows what the different dollar notes are.

grey Angkor Wat and seeing hands massage

 

 

Siem Reap – Dodgy tuk-tuks and temples

This is a conversation I had in Siem Reap after a long commute:

“Wrong hotel mate”

“This is the one I was told to bring you to”

“No, we definitely said the Mandalay Inn”

“Well, we are here now, do you want to look at the rooms here anyway?”

“No, I want to go to the Mandalay Inn…like we agreed”

“Just look at the rooms”

“No” *grabbing bags*

“Do you have reservation at Mandalay Inn?”

“No”

“The rooms here are nice”

“No”

(Jette) “Can you just take us to the Mandalay Inn please?”

“Mandalay Inn is much further away, please pay extra”

“No, we agreed on $4 to the Mandalay Inn”

“I was not told this, you need to pay more”

“How about, we walk to the Mandalay then, you miss out on money”

*Both tuk-tuk man and I grab Jette’s bag*

“No, just look at the rooms here sir”

“I want to go to the Mandalay Inn, that is what we agreed on, any confusion is your problem not mine! Make this happen”

(Jette) “Just take us to the Mandalay Inn, and we will pay you $4 as agreed, why did you not take us there to begin with?”

“Customers I take to the Mandalay Inn are never happy with it, this place is better”

(Jette) “So you agree that you were told to go to the Mandalay Inn”

“Ummm, yes, but it is not good”

(Me) “We want to go there, NOW please”

“This hotel has a pool”

“Mandalay Inn, as agreed”

“Mandalay Inn is so far out of the tourist centre though sir, you will need to pay more”

“$4 to take us to the Mandalay Inn, as agreed” “$5”

(Jette) “How is this a discussion?, we agreed on $4 to the Mandalay Inn, that is what we want”

“But I do not get work from the Mandalay Inn, can you give me work tomorrow and I’ll take you there” (Me) “$4 to take us to the Mandalay Inn, as agreed” “Can you give me work tomorrow?”

(Jette) “It is too bad for you as before you took us to the wrong hotel we were saying that you seem nice and that we might hire you for two days exploring Angkor Wat”

*Sad tuk-tuk man* “Oh”

(Me) “Pays to be honest champ”

(Me) *spotting transfer assistant* “There is your manager, I’ll ask him”

(To transfer assistant who for some reason arrived at this hotel) “We have been taken to the wrong hotel”

“Oh, sorry sir, I forgot to tell you, all hotels but this one close after midnight”

“Bullshit” *Walk back to tuk-tuk man* “Ok, we did not get what we agreed on, we are not going to pay, we will walk”

*making to leave* *sigh* “Ok sir, I’ll take you to the Mandalay Inn”

*Paying tuk-tuk man $4 at Mandalay Inn, which is quite open, close to the centre and wonderful*

That is close to the conversation we had at 1:30am in Siem Reap after eighteen hours on a bus. Tuk-tuk drivers get a kickback for recommending tourists to particular hotels, they get quite aggressive in their recommendations.  I will not bore you with details of our commute. In short we had a 6am start in southern Laos, a dodgy border crossing, three bodged bus changes, two bags of chips, a Japanese student sleeping on my shoulder, annoying sunburnt British man with the gay wheeled suitcase and eighteen hours sitting before we were arguing with this tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap. Tempers were strained. Notwithstanding, the following day we enjoyed a lovely sleep in, followed by a slow wander through town.

Every step is punctuated by a question; “Tuk-tuk” “Massage?” or “Mariguaaan?” I even once got offered; “Opium?” with which I was particularly pleased. We drifted into the big Angkor National Museum where we set about cooling off in the air conditioned halls while learning all about the history of this amazing area. Full of new information we went in search of the Sunrise Childrens Village.

This is an orphanage where I was planning to donate half of my Baby Teresa clothes. Baby Teresa is a very cool charity set up by my friend Kirsty Dunphey. It is an online baby clothes store where for every item of clothing sold, one is donated. Donations are ferried around the world by willing volunteers on holiday. I have already made a donation while in Ecuador and have another drop off for Kathmandu later in the month. The security guard took down our details at the gate and checked our identification. Obviously they cannot let just anyone wander around the grounds amongst the kids.

The Sunrise Orphanage was set up by an Australian lady by the name of Geraldine Cox. Following a visit to Cambodia Geraldine, through her circle of friends, organised regular monthly care packages to be sent to children in Cambodia. She then applied for a grant through her employer the Chase Manhattan Bank who supported the orphanage project with $20,000 annually over five years. Now the orphanage is a well established not for profit organisation and receives donations from all over Australia.

The group has expanded and now have a second orphanage in Phnom Penh. The facility in Siem Reap cares for over sixty children providing housing, schooling, consistency and most importantly safety and love in its large enclosed grounds. They mainly care for school aged children but have an active program which sends social workers to out lying villages to give education, support and care packages to young mothers. This is where the Baby Teresa clothes are destined. Despite not being the poorest orphanage, due to its strong connections with local villages and other orphanages I figured that the donation will get to where it is most needed. A worker gave us a tour of the orphanage and told many desperately sad tales about the children milling around our legs. Their newest resident, a tiny four year old boy with old eyes, was originally living with his mother after his father left. His mother worked as a prostitute and was an alcoholic. His mother would regularly bash him to within inches of his life. He ran away from home one year ago and was taken in by a kindly old monk. The monk was too old to look after the boy properly so he was taken to the orphanage a week ago and is starting a new life.

I was amazed at the resilience of these kids. Despite his sad eyes and beaten dog look, the boy showed great interest in my fake grass thongs and kept on insisting I help him with his drawing while the worker spoke to us. Due to strict regulations on photographing the kids I was not allowed to take any photographs with the children. We spoke with the worker for a while, gave him the baby clothes, which he assured us will be very gratefully received and went to meet our pre-arranged tuk-tuk man. We first met our tuk-tuk man on the way to the orphanage by chance.

We initially ignored the call of “Tuk-tuk” but a few steps later we both stopped and simultaneously said “He seems nice” We were right, our man (whose name I have forgotten, let’s call him Phirun) had bought his tuk-tuk on a loan agreement only hours before and was just starting his career. Phirun has a wife and a new born baby to support and had just finished painting his new wheels when we walked past. He quoted us a very reasonable fee of $5 to go to Angkor Wat for sunset. Phirun was sat excitedly in his new tuk-tuk outside our hotel waiting for us when we arrived.

We jumped in and set off to see a sun setting over Angkor Wat.

Irrawaddy Dolphins and breast milk

Waiting for a Jumbo to take us to the corner of Routes 8 and 13. A bus stops and we change plans, it is good to stay flexible when traveling. On the bus we meet Shitole, I am not making his name up. Shitole is a young student who is keen to practise his English. I giggle my way through a stilted conversation where he asks us how many children we have and when we got married. I do not try to explain that, despite being the grand age of thirty-three, neither Jette nor I have kids (fingers crossed!) and that we are not in fact married. Shitole gets the driver to drop us at the corner and bids us farewell. The first hour of our commute worked out quite nicely. Claudia has decided to join us as far as Pakse, as she would be arriving in the nighttime she wanted company and we gladly let her tag along.

Despite our best information no busses pass us on the way south so we give up and flag down a Jumbo headed for Tha Khaek. In Tha Khaek we switch to a motorbike tuk-tuk which takes us to the bus depot. We are glad to find a bus leaving for Pakse in ten minutes. Fresh baguettes are hastily filled with sardines from a rusty, dirty tin and inhaled along with a can of coke before we walk to the bus.

Which is impossibly crowded.

Small plastic stools have been set all the way down the aisle for extra seating, people crowd in the aisle, trying to find room for legs, bodies and luggage. The heat inside the bus is beyond description. We stand in the aisle trying to find room for the eight hour ride and just give up. We fight our way off the bus and stand in the full sun, which feels cool after the bus’s interior. Looking at the bus I see a railway car crowded with Jews on their way to the gas chamber, not a transport option. Three Italians sit on hard won plastic chairs in the bus and ready themselves to brave the journey. Not long after this crowded bus leaves another one takes its place. This one is only going as far as Savannakhet, but will see us in the right direction and is far less crowded, however shabby and stinky it is.

About three hours later we jump off in Savannakhet and are greeted by three very tired looking Italians who have beaten us by a mere ten minutes. Their eyes twitch when I tell them about the second bus. Another baguette later we find a bus which is headed for Pakse. This bus stops every few metres along the journey and Jette, Claudia and I are all thoroughly sick of bus life when 11:30pm and Pakse rolls around. A motorbike with a side car takes us to the nearest open hotel where we collapse.

I wake to hear the shower. It feels like 5am but is really 9:30am. We find breakfast, and the Italians, who are eating slowly and thoughtfully. Their crowded bus arrived in Pakse at 2am after requiring some roadside repairs and unloading. This is where we stop complaining about our relatively painless commute. After breakfast Jette and I farewell Claudia and set out for another, relatively short commute.

On the Jumbo bus trip to Ban Naka Sang I develop a fondness for Sudoku and narrowly miss being hit by flying breast milk. A young mother is feeding her very new baby when a violent bump separates baby and nipple (I could not help but notice it was an extremely long nipple straight from the cover of National Geographic). I look up from my Sudoku at the bump to see a stream of breast milk spraying nearby commuters like a wayward fire hose, a very unimpressed baby and an embarrassed mother. I look back down to my Sudoku quickly and avoid any eye contact with Jette as this would start racks of giggling. Despite no eye contact I can hear her thoughts “don’t look at Ben, don’t look at Ben” Thankfully the bus ride finishes soon afterwards.

We jump onto a boat which takes us directly to Don Khon Island where we find a room and stop.

It is really nice to just stop.

Our room sits on the banks of the Mekong River near the end of its four-thousand, nine hundred and nine kilometre journey. The river is big, fast and rich brown. It discharges four hundred and seventy-five cubic kilometres, kilometres!, of water annually. That is two times the length of Tasmania-ish cubed, full of brown, muddy water. Try to picture this number if you can, it is a figure which is truly hard to comprehend.

We don’t strain ourselves on the island, a lazy morning is followed by a short walk to a beach where an unpainted canoe takes us to find the extremely rare Irrawaddy Dolphin. A close relative of the Irrawaddy Dolphin, the Yangtze Dolphin was recently declared extinct. This marks the first large vertebrae forced to extinction by humans in fifty years and only the fourth time since 1500 that a complete branch has fallen from the evolutionary tree.

The Irrawaddy Dolphin is sadly following its cousin’s fate with less than one hundred in existence on the entire planet, all of them living in the Mekong, forty where we are going. In the 1950’s there were thousands of these snub nosed dolphins right along the Mekong’s length. Future plans for more dams, levees and barrages will put impossible strain on this species.

This sharp decline is not due to persecution or hunting but unskilled fishing. Long, un-baited lines bristling with hooks are dragged up and down the river snagging fish, branches and dolphins, nets are cast carelessly. In the dry season greedy fishermen drop dynamite into deep pools to stun and catch fish. These pools are where the Irrawaddy Dolphins stay to wait for rain.

Our canoe sneaks us over the border into Cambodia where a viewing platform sits on the bank overlooking a deep pool. We spot one fin, then another. The irrawaddy dolphins look like the goofy cousin of the bottle nosed dolphin. The cousin which you have to be nice to despite his irritating laugh. Despite their plight they wear a perpetual grin but are extremely shy, they only briefly pop up for air before diving again into the brown waters. I manage a few photos but cannot do the moment justice. I struggle to capture them on their brief sojourns to the surface. The dolphins rise so rarely for air that I start to think it would be convenient if one had asthma, or smoked. No such luck. We sit in the heat and enjoy seeing this species, one which most likely will be extinct during our lifetime. I mentally review my bucket list as we ride the canoe back to the beach.

-Bottle Nosed Dolphin – tick

-Pink Amazon Dolphin – tick

-Irrawaddy Dolphin – tick

-own a ride on lawn mower – not yet

-eat moose meat – not yet

-skydive in a tuxedo – not yet

-Climb a mountain, paraglide from summit – not yet

There are still some jobs to be done…

Tomorrow we are waking early again and are bussing again. This time a short (15 hour) hop to Siem Reap where we have a big temple to see and I have some baby clothes to donate to an orphanage courtesy of Baby Teresa. Both should be rewarding experiences.

Kong lo caves, Laos

The valley we follow to the Kong Lo caves reads like a highlight reel of Asia. Again I am perched on a small ledge on the back of the Jumbo photographing. We pass two storey concrete buildings which stand next to woven bamboo huts standing above the rice paddies on their long legs. We pass buffalos, cows, pigs, chickens and naked children jumping off bridges into muddy streams. If you only had one day to ‘see’ Asia I would recommend you spend it hanging off the back ledge of this very Jumbo and go down this valley. The Jumbo driver drops us off in an open area of jungle where a bamboo hut sits next to a river bearing a roughly carved sign that tells us we have reached the “Boat Committee” I watch our Jumbo go hoping we have not confused our driver and that he understands we will need a return lift as well.

The Boat Committee man speaks enough English to take our 115,000 kip and give us a shared, roughly printed ticket for entry into the cave. Numerous canoes line the river bank in various states of disrepair.

One canoe is not sunk, this is the one we choose. One little Lao man in the front steers and a second little Lao man paddles from the back. I eagerly wait for the Oompa-loompa song to begin but am disappointed. We simply cross the river towards the mouth of the cave, tie up the canoe before the rapids and walk beside the river into the cave. The river flows out of the mouth of the cave, a dark hole ceaselessly vomiting brown.

Inside the cave we escape the heat, fifteen long canoes with propellor wielding four stroke Honda motors wait in silence. Being low season, our team of three are the only non-local explorers in the caves. Four local women dip square nets into the cool water at the cave mouth, they are scooping up confused fish that have survived a trip through the 7.5km long cave system.

We gingerly sit in the low lying canoe as it wobbles wildly and tries to throw us out into the black water. The driver starts the engine and takes us into the cave. A very big cave.

Just as my eyes are starting to adjust to the darkness we pull up at a sandy beach with a steep bank. We alight the canoe and walk along a walkway and I discover that the head light I have rented is not working. Our mute guide presses a button causing blue and white spotlights to bring the stalactites, which had been hiding behind shadow, into sharp focus. The curtain is raised on this frozen, silent play, the soundtrack is one of awed silence. The caves were first discovered in 1995 by non-locals and the lights installed in 1998 by ONG Energles Sans Frontiers, which is, I imagine, an engineering version of the French Medicine San Frontiers.

Huge stalactites hang down from the roof, bathed in blue light, they look like enormous cancer specimens in a jar. We wander in silent awe as the river babbles over rocks from somewhere in the pitch dark.

We walk back to the sandy beach which is completely out of place deep in a cave system, settle carefully in the canoe and set off again into the blackness. Headlights occasionally light up nearby rocks grasping at us out of the dark. In some areas the roof is up to one hundred metres high. It would take the drops of water about five whole seconds to travel from the roof of the cave to just behind my neck. The roof is so high that I get the eerie feeling that we are really outside in the canoe. Shadows on the patterned cave wall could easily be trees passing by in the night.

Every sound is sucked into the void above, even the sound of the motor does not return to us. Soon a light signals another mouth in the cave system. We burst down a rapid, water flowing freely into the unpainted wooden canoe and we blink in the light. The river is now rich brown, not oily black, the canoe burps along past lush green jungle. We stop at a rest area where a Lao man who has clearly spent too much time alone in the jungle confuses himself when he doubles the price of our water. Our guides are no longer mute but speaking gleefully rapid Lao with the scraggy bearded bushman.

Back in the canoe we retrace our path through the dark maze. I shiver involuntarily when a strong mental image pops into my mind, we have sunk the canoe and are trying to swim in the dark. I recognise the beach, the dark begins to submit to sunlight and we hear a yell. Three Lao women are on the beach with their square nets jumping up and down and waving us over. The driver of the boat turns quickly and pulls up at the beach. He puffs his little chest out and despite not being able to understand a word we know what is happening; “Hey ladies, check out my boat, I’ll rescue you” I have no idea how the three ladies were got to be there on the beach without lights with their nets but they pour onto the boat and we set off again. Water threatens to overtake the canoe as the driver shows off and revs the engine taking us quickly to the cave mouth where we started.

We finish back at the Boat Committee. We don’t talk much, our minds fail to find words to describe this labyrinth. It is a set directly out of Star Trek or Dr Who. I would never have believed that a cave could possibly be so massive, so black and so vast. This is one detour which was well worth the effort.

Tomorrow we are going to bus again, further this time, right to the bottom of Laos on our way to Cambodia. We get an early, early night in readiness for hells bus part three.

I fall asleep thinking about Gollum from the Hobbit, he would love the Kong Lo cave, all those tasty, pale, slippery fish and dark, moist corners to hide in.

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This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

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