Between a rock and a hard place…

Written by Stuart Revnell No Gravatar

We are currently in Mong Ngao, a little town idyllically located about eight hours upriver from Luang Prabang, an hour by boat from Nong Xiaw. The town is only accessible by boat, which makes for a pleasant, relaxing experience – not a car or a scooter in sight, and barely even a bicycle.

The area is famous for its limestone karst landscape, encompassing vast networks of underground caves and streams, where the Laos people would shelter from American bombs during the Vietnam war. Nowadays, a lot of these caves can be visited, and today we went to one which is easily accessible from the village via a thirty minute amble along a dirt track.

Given the relative innaccessibility of Mong Ngao, we were the only visitors when we arrived at the cave. I prided myself on having had the foresight to bring a candle, which, as the flame swelled to life as we ventured into the murky recesses of the gaping cave’s mouth, lent the feel of an Indiana Jones movie to the proceedings.  Jane had brought a torch.

After a couple of minutes, the light from the entrance had by and large disappeared, and the candelight flickering on the stalactites lent a spooky, other-worldly air to the scene as we ventured gingerly into the darkness.

Soon we came to some water, and I waded as far as I could, but soon realised that I would have to swim if I wanted to go further.  Not wanting to get my clothes any more wet than they were, I stripped off and swam, eager to explore. It wasn’t long before Jane was calling me though – whether concerned for my welfare or anxious she’d have to walk back to the village with only an empty pair of denim shorts and a singlet for company, I don’t know – so I swam back.

For some reason it was relatively easy to persuade Jane to strip off and get in the water too, and, leaving the candle on a rock to mark our entry point, we were soon both doing a sort of one handed doggy paddle, our other arms held aloft bearing the wind-up to torch and the camera respectively, as we made our way through stalactites and stalagmites to a bank at the back of the pool. Once there, we climbed cautiously up a slippery slope and took stock on top of a rock. Shining the torch around, the size of the cave became apparent – shadows loomed everywhere I looked and in the distance I could hear the sound of fast running water, indicating the presence of an underground stream or river somewhere below us.

While I was Indiana Jones, Jane was by now playing the part of the exasperated heroine to perfection, shrieking the following repeatedly:

  • “Stuart, I’m really SCARED now!”
  • “I heard a BAT!”
  • “I SAW a bat!”
  • “Can we just GO now please!”

At this point, as we prepared to return, Jane heard voices coming from the entrance. We froze, and realised that another group of tourists were heading the same way. Neither of us had stood naked in a cave, hemmed in by approaching tourists before, so it was anyone’s guess as to how to proceed. I suggested climbing up to higher ground and hiding behind a rock, but of course, there was the possibility that an extended family of bats lived there, so in the end we lingered around in a rather non-committal fashion on the clay, attempting to cover ourselves. Jane struggled more than I did, after my short swim in the frigid waters of the cave.

Have you ever watched a Hugh Grant film and wondered if anyone speaks that way, or whether the dialogue is simply a very well conceived vision of how English folk talk, to facilitate the film’s success in overseas markets? I had, and was to find out now, when the first visitor arrived with his flashlight, and something approximating the following exchange took place:

Me: “Hello there! Just letting you know there are a couple of people here in case you get scared!”
Visitor (American accent): “Hey. That’s good to know.”
Me: “By the way, we haven’t got any clothes on I’m afraid. We didn’t realise you could swim through, and we didn’t bring our swimming costumes”.
Visitor: “No problem. I’d have done the same”.
Me: “By the way, I think there might be an underground river, if you like that sort of thing.”
Visitor: “Cool. Which way?”
Me: “ Up there to the right, I think.”
Visitor: “OK.”
Me: “Well anyway, don’t mind us – we’ll just wait up here until everyone goes!”
Visitor: “OK.”
Me: “Good luck! Have fun!”

There followed a ten minute interval during which four more flashlights arrived, and eventually they disappeared towards the source of the underground river. At this point, Jane and I slid down the clay, stumbled our way back to the water, and swam back to where we had left our clothes and rucksack.

Safely back on dry land and fully dressed a few minutes later, a group of smiling young trainee monks came bounding nimbly into the cave in their saffron robes for an excursion of their own. Thankfully they hadn’t arrived five minutes earlier – I’m not sure Jane wanted to be the one responsible for hastening the inevitable realisation faced by every fourteen year old boy (trainee monk or not) that there’s more to life than Buddha.

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