sign in a cave in Laos

22 August 2008

Caving in North Laos - Star

Travel & Adventure
Saturday July 8, 2006

Caving in North Laos


WE were in Laos, readying to explore a cave in the northern province of Luang Namtha. But before we could enter, it was necessary that the village headman or guide first “obtained” permission from the cave spirit.

This involved a prayer. When I was caving in Madagascar some years ago, we had to pour an offering of rum to appease the ancestors. But the Lao cave spirits were content with just a verbal request.

I was on a German-Dutch expedition, partly sponsored by the European Union, to set up eco-tourism and help the locals. Our base was in the village of Vieng Phoukha, close to the Burma-China border. Although Laos is considered a Buddhist country, the people to the north are animists. Most of the people in Vieng Phoukha are Khmu, and we had a few of them as our guides.

There were six members in our expedition and each day we split into two teams to look for potential caving attractions. We would drive to a village and ask the headman if the people knew of caves in the area.

The entrance to the cave in Laos.

Many of the caves required a long walk to get to, sometimes up very steep mountains. One day, we were told of a cave close to the road. Some 45 minutes later, we were still huffing and puffing and soon found ourselves climbing up a mountain. From that day on, we asked the distance in terms of how long it took to get to the caves.

The biggest difference between Malaysian caves and those in northern Laos is the temperature. The caves are definitely cooler over there and the water is cold. On the first day we did a river cave and were up to our waists in water within minutes. The next day we entered a cave and had to crawl through water, where the roof almost met the floor. Our guide Hong Tong stripped off down to his underpants, lay in the water and disappeared through the hole. Seconds later, we heard his excited cry, “It goes”.

And then he was back, looking very pleased. Luckily for me, the cave didn’t go much further.

The local people eat any animals they can find in the forest and paddy fields. They also go into caves to hunt bats during June and July, when bats move into the caves. One cave we went into had very large and high chambers, and we saw lots of scaffolding, which the locals use to climb to reach the bats.

The wet passage through the caves.

In Gomantong Caves in Sabah, they use rattan ladders but here people use elaborate scaffolding. Occasionally, men fall to their deaths.

A few of the caves were home to large rats. These were much bigger than any rat I’ve seen in Malaysian caves and were quite pretty with cream-coloured chests. Once we were surveying a small passage and I was in front and could hear bats squeaking ahead of me. The minute I said, “I hope this passage isn’t a dead end and the rats don’t run into me”, a rat did just that.

It ran towards me and landed on my foot with a soft thump. I don’t know who had the greater shock. The locals leave the rats alone, because they believe if they killed the rats, the cave spirits would do bad things.

Other interesting creatures living in these caves include leeches. Large pink leeches. We saw them on stalactites and also on the cave walls.

Some of the caves in Laos are ‘gated’.

Many of the caves had large passages and chambers and were full of stunning stalactites and stalagmites. Several of the caves would make good tourist caves. In fact one – Tham Nam Eng – is already used for tourism after it was explored and mapped in 2005.

The cave now has a large wooden gate that is padlocked, and there is a handwritten list of rules on the gate. These include no smoking, no littering, and no kissing (apparently, young couples use it for that as it is a secluded place).

We spent 10 days in the area, during which time we explored 20 caves and mapped more than 5km of passage. On the last evening, we held a farewell dinner for all the guides and locals who had helped us.

Before the dinner, we had the farewell baasii ceremony, an important part of Lao culture. The baasii and other elements of spirit worship exist side by side with Buddhism. A village elder arrived and we all sat in a circle around a small table on which a variety of offerings were displayed – a small chicken, sticky rice, biscuits, money, flowers and lào-láo (rice whisky). The old man recited a blessing to ensure that our guardian spirits would remain with us on our long journey back.

The elder then tied a piece of string around each wrist of the expedition member next to him. He then moved around the circle and tied strings to each of our wrists. He was followed by all the guides and locals, who did the same while wishing us well on our journey.

In Lao tradition, the soul consists of many guardian spirits that occasionally wander away from their owner. These must be called back and bound to the body to ensure a person is properly protected before any important undertaking. It is believed that the string must be worn for at least three full days to ensure the desired effect.

When we left for Houay Xai we still wore our bracelets of white string.

The old man then left and we adjourned to the tables outside for dinner, speeches and beer. The following morning we bid farewell to everyone and set off for the border town of Houay Xai, making sure we had our spirits firmly attached to us.

Vieng Phoukha is a new area for trekking and caving. It is a three- to four-hour drive from the border of Houay Xai, which is easily reached from Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.
Vieng Phoukha
Luang Namtha Province
Tel : +856-81-212-400

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