Saturday, August 12, 2017

August 11 – Exploring the Caves of Son Trach

Today was cave day. The day tour would take us 50 kilometres north-west to the town of Son Track and the Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park where several caves are open to the public. The largest cave in the world was discovered in this park just a few years ago and was recently opened to a very small number of people per year (I think about 300) and is extremely expensive. The ones we would be visiting have been open for at least a decade and draw a huge number of tourists every year.

The bus picked us up at the hotel, and then picked up several others and we were off. One of the other passengers was a girl named Anna from South Korea. In fact she lived in the Gangnam area of Seoul, and if that neighborhood name has a funny ring to it, it should. Oppa is Gangnam Style! We asked her to demonstrate the dance, but she said we were probably better at it than she was. We had an excellent chat with her and she told us all about South Korea, its relationship with the north, the various dialects in the country, insane housing prices and so on. She had quit her job as an engineer for a semi-conductor manufacturing company as her workaholic tendencies were causing her health issues. She was taking six months to travel the world as a solo female backpacker. I was so impressed by this girl, having the courage to quit a job that paid a lot, but was slowly killing her, and heading out in the world for a life reset.

We arrived at the first stop for the day which was called Paradise Cave. I had a bad feeling when I saw dozens of tourist busses in front of the entrance, and my bad feeling was confirmed when we went in and were stuck behind a huge pack of tourists. This is the problem with going to the “can’t miss” sites of a country – everybody else is there too. We waited our turn and then were driven a mile or so in a golf cart, and then dropped off and told to start walking up a series of pathways. It was actually a fairly beefy walk and my calves were shrieking by the end of it. On top we hit a huge wall of tourists so had to wait patiently to get into the cave. It wasn’t too bad standing in line though, as there was a strong, cool breeze wafting out from the cave entrance.

The cave was massive. We walked for one kilometer into the cave, but the entire thing ran for about 35 kilometres in total. The thousands of tourists spread out nicely on the wooden pathways, giving us some room to walk and take photos. It’s pretty pointless to describe a cave, so let’s just say there were plenty of stalactites, stalagmites, columns, bizarre shapes and dripping walls, and it was all supersized, in fact much, much larger than all of the caves we have been to in the past. I must say, they did a remarkable job building the stairs and pathways into the cave as it was able to handle a huge quantity of people, but kept them away from the actual structures so they weren’t poking and stroking every surface.

After this tour we were driven to a restaurant for lunch with many other tourists. We had some decent food and a bit of a break from the heat, but were soon back into the second half of the day. We were led down to a river and put on a boat, which started motoring its way slowly up the river, passing by water buffalo grazing on the banks, naked children swimming in the water, and fishermen tending to their nets. We reached the entrance to the Phong Nha cave and were surprised to see that a major branch of the river flowed directly into it, or perhaps from it. The boat motored up and into the cave and then the driver cut the engine and we floated in. The driver began paddling from the back and his assistant took the bow paddle and slowly moved us deeper into the cave. Although the caverns were not as enormous as the first cave, being able to paddle into it on a boat made it much more interesting. There were plenty of other tourist boats there, but they deftly maneuvered around each other and it was surprisingly quiet in the cave.

We paddled in for one kilometer, at which point the cave ceiling was too low to continue, but we were told that you can take another tour where you strap on head lights and paddle kayaks from this point forward, many more kilometres into the cave. Our pilots turned the boat around and paddled halfway back and then pulled up to shore and let us out to explore the cave. There was fine sand on the floor and we were able get close up to many of the cave structures and take a few pictures, before continuing by land out of the cave and up a hill where we passed by a dozen vendors selling cold drinks, coconut water, ice cream and knick knacks – sort of like the gift shop that every museum exit seems to lead you to.

After hanging around for a while exploring, we got back in the boat and did the return journey all the way back to the hotel, arriving around 5:30 pm, with a bit of time to spare before our 6:45 train departure. We retrieved our bags from the left luggage room at the hotel, had a not-so-thorough sponge bath in the bathroom, and then took a taxi to the train station. We sat down at a local shop just outside of the train station and ordered up a round of noodle bowls, drinks, and a nice cold Huda beer for myself. This was one moment of the trip that I think will stick with me. Sitting in miniature plastic chairs, at a miniature plastic table, with our bags piled up on the street, train station in the background, surrounded by mostly locals, feeling grubby, sweaty and tired, slurping back a spicy noodle bowl, getting ready for an overnight train to our next new destination, where who knows what adventure awaited us. To me, such a perfect image of a typical, unspectacular backpacking moment, and one that I will always remember.

A week previous, we had booked a first class private sleeper cabin with four beds. From the pictures online it looked quite luxurious. In real life, it wasn’t. The sheets were dirty and had hair on them, somebody’s shoes and bag were beneath one of the bunks, there was a full garbage can overflowing, the floor looked like it had never been cleaned, and the pillows smelled moist and suspicious. At first we thought we had the wrong cabin, so I ran out, checked the coach number, and sure enough it was the correct one. Oh well, in cases like this all you can do is make the best of it and call it a travel story. We pulled all the sheets off, shook them out in the hallway, flipped them over and put them back on the beds, and then wiped off all the visibly dirty surfaces, except the floor, which was beyond help. It wouldn’t exactly pass the Portuguese cleanliness test (ie. You feel safe running your tongue across the entire floor) but it would have to do. It made me think back to our conversation with the Henriques about germophobes and what a perfect torture chamber this could be.

We had a couple of games of Uno with the kids, then read for a bit and announced lights out at 10:30. For me, the rumbling of the train was like a tonic, and I immediately lost consciousness.

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