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Laos Unlocked

8th November 2017

Wild Frontiers traveller William Alexander recently visited Laos with Wanderlust World Guide Of The Year Mark Steadman. Here he talks about trekking to a cave in remote Laos.

Our group was gathered in silence. We kept close to each other. We were floating in the waters of Paeum Cave. Darkness was absolute. The gentle drip, drip, dripping of water was the only sound. Here we could not see our hands when held directly in front of our faces. But perhaps this was unsurprising - we had just swum over 200m into a sunless, limestone cave system.

The bat-blackness was only broken after several minutes, when Mark switched on his head torch. Light revealed stalactites, growing icicle-like from high above, rooted to the cavern roof. All around us the walls glistened with water, which had over geological time, sculpted this cathedral and decorated it with fantastic calcareous formations. After identifying some paw prints in the mud as having been left by a freshwater otter, we began our gentle swim back towards the cave mouth and light at the end of the tunnel.

The lunch that greeted us in the warm sunshine was presented on a ‘tablecloth’ of banana leaves, laid on the wooden floor of a stilt platform. We were elevated over the still waters of a remote lake, surrounded by a verdant karst landscape. Picnic spots don’t come much better than this! Freshly caught and barbecued Mekong tilapia fish, steamed local vegetables and blood red juicy melon were all finger-eaten without chopsticks or cutlery. Our group recalls this as the most unexpected and delicious of the many meals relished in Laos.

Unseasonal recent rainfall had raised both the subterranean and surface water levels that are considered normal in this area for October. The suggestion earlier at breakfast - that the impending trek to the caves “Might be a little damp under foot” proved to be just a tiny bit inaccurate! When you find yourself following your local guide through forest swamp waters, at times up to your knees, whilst he is in front wielding a machete to prepare the route, then you recognise that true adventure is afoot.

We all hugely enjoyed the full day of experiences and found our conversations revering those intrepid Victorian explorers, who must have walked (and waded?) through many unmarked, unmapped landscapes, not dissimilar to this one.

Surprises, challenges, delicious food, humour and spectacular scenery – what other ingredients do you need to make great travel memories? ‘Wild Frontiers’ certainly lived up to its name on this particular day. It is not an exaggeration to say that every day unfolded to provide another ‘highlight day’.

Mark Steadman certainly ‘Unlocked Laos’ for us, revealing so many different aspects of this fascinating land-locked country. We would never have discovered the right ‘keys’ without him.

William Alexander

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