sign in a cave in Laos

3 February 2008

Caving in N Laos a lesson in local animist culture - BT

Caving in N Laos a lesson in local animist culture

Nature's museums: Many of the Northern Laos caves (Top) are full of stunning stalactites and stalagmites. Some have large rivers flowing through. Pictures: Liz Price

Sunday, January 27, 2008

WE WERE exploring caves in northern Laos and had our base in the village of Vieng Phoukha, which is in Luang Namtha province in northern Laos, close to the Myanmar/China borders. This triangle of three countries was reflected in the features of the local people. They all looked quite different as there are many ethnic groups living here. Most of the people in Vieng Phoukha are Khmu. Although Laos is considered a Buddhist country, the people up here in the north are animists.

We spent 10 days in the area, during which time we explored 20 caves and mapped more than five km of passage. Each day we would go to a village to ask about caves. If the headman was willing for us to see the caves he would supply us with a guide or two. To reach many of the caves we had a long walk, sometimes up very steep mountains. One day we were told of a cave close to the road. 45 minutes later we were still huffing and puffing as we climbed up a mountain. From that day on we asked the distance in terms of time.

Many of the caves had large size passages and chambers and were full of stunning stalactites and stalagmites. Some had large rivers flowing through. Several of the caves would make good tourist caves. In fact one, Tham Nam Eng is already used for tourism since our group explored and mapped it in 2005. The cave now has a large wooden locked gate, and there is a hand written list of rules on the gate. These include things like no smoking and no littering, and also no kissing. This is because young couples used to go in as it was a secluded place.

On some days the village headman or one of the elders would accompany us. Wearing thin slippers they still negotiated the steep slopes with ease and at a much faster pace than us younger Europeans. One day a guide joined us and I was convinced he was dressed in his best clothes as he wore a nice striped jacket and bright blue trousers, but I was told this is just everyday wear for the Black Hmong.

The local people eat any animals they can find in the forest and fields. They also go into caves to hunt bats during June and July when bats move into the caves. The men use scaffolding to climb up into the large and high chambers. Occasionally men fall to their deaths when climbing. I wondered where the bats live during the rest of the year, and why do they go into the cave just for two months.

A few caves were home to large rats. We were surveying one small passage and I was in front and could hear bats squeaking ahead of me. Suddenly one of the giant rats ran towards me and landed on my foot with a soft thump. I don't know who had the greatest shock, me or him. He then ran and hid in a hole in the floor. I was worried the locals would capture the rats for dinner. It turned out they know the rats live in this cave and they leave them alone, because they believe if they kill the rats, "the cave spirits will do bad things".

Other interesting creatures living in these caves were leeches. Not your ordinary dull coloured forest leech, but large leeches with pink colour at the top end. None of us had ever seen cave leeches before. We saw them hanging on stalactites and on the cave walls. I wondered what they eat — maybe bat blood. I did offer my finger to a couple of the leeches, expecting them to love this free meal, but they were definitely not interested and turned away.

The Brunei Times

No comments:

Post a Comment