On the south-west Thai island of Koh Lanta, in a stroke of perfect timing, we were able to meet up with some friends from back home who were on a one week vacation from their own year away, teaching in Taiwan. Koh Lanta is one of Thailand's more popular islands, but as was the case with most of our trip, it was relatively quiet, so we were able to experience some really fun activities without any crowds. Taking a break from lying on the long beach (backpacking sure is rough), we thought it would be nice to rent a couple of motorbikes and explore the island for the day. $5/bike for the day and luckily our gas tank was already filled. We heard about the small National Park on the island that was occupied by rubber tree forest. In addition, according to the Muslim family who live on the park, one of their cousins discovered a really big cave on the property. So, that sounded like fun.
EZ drove us south down the golden dirt road. The main road was quiet enough that we were able to relax and take in the sights without worrying too much about the traffic. The back of the bike was definitely dragging a bit, and we noticed it most on the stops and starts. I held her hips, and together we looked like Boo Boo driving with Yogi Bear in tow. Eventually we made a left inland and went from off-road to off-road, asking locals along the way if this was indeed the way to the cave. They nodded and pointed us along toward our first embarkation, Khao Mai Kaew Cave.
We waited patiently at the park entrance for the guide (the landowner) to finish his lunch. Eventually he approached us, asked for a 50 Baht guide fee, handed us some headlamps for the cave, and we began to follow him on foot into the jungle.
As of the time of our visit, safety wasn't the first precaution taken inside the cave and we would be in for a very raw and adventurous experience. Adventurous, that is, compared to my lifestyle back home in Toronto. The jungle hike was quite pleasant. We saw how rubber is born; very similar to our Canadian maple syrup. A couple of vine and hill-climbs later, we reached a small, indistinct hole inside a rocky outcrop. Our guide disappeared like an OG (or for those not familiar with the reference, Alice's White Rabbit) into the cavern. We followed.
Our lamps flickered on to reveal the dank interior. The first 'room' was not too impressive, but, as we slowly made our way along the slick and uneven surfaces and over a tight bridge into the next chamber, the beams extended further. Each open space preceding was the size of a cathedral Basilica. Not St. Peter's of course, but big enough.
After some very physical hiking, here came the sticky bit. In between the jaw-drooping interiors, we were making our way from one cavern into the next. Some clever footing was involved as we negotiated our way down a tunnel. Up ahead I heard EZ start into one of her nervous whistles and our friend Ben said "Uh Oh". I was shining my headlamp onto where I wanted to put my hands and feet next. One extremity at a time. The vibe was getting weird as I got closer to my friends. I came through the tunnel and saw Erin and Ben staring at something out of my view, but still adjacent to me. I shone my my light to the right, put my foot down, then shone it to the left to pull myself out, and, what do I see but the devil, in all his majesty.
If you have ever known me, you know that even a little spider in the bathtub will send me out of the house. However, in the words of Martha and the Vandellas, there was 'no where to run to' here. There it was, a male spider that was almost the size of my hand. Definitely the biggest bug I have seen.
I've always put myself in this type of situation in my minds eye and wondered how I would react. In my head, this situation never turned out well. But, here, strangely enough, confronted by my single greatest fear, I really didn't do anything. Albeit, in that environment there was nothing I could do, but, I 'hmfed' and just kept on walking. I didn't stop to gawk like EZ as the big fella slowly moved up the wall of the cave. I didn't take a photo like Ben did. Just kept my head down, watched my step even closer and kept moving. Who knows how I would be in the car... sun in my eyes... pull the sunscreen down and a giant woodsman spider falls on my lap. Probably different. I heard this is the number one cause of traffic accidents in Australia. I am never going to Australia.
I digress, earlier in the cave trek we did spot a couple female eight-legged-freaks, but, they were far enough away and stationary in the giant caverns that I remained relatively sane. To be honest, they were kind of pretty, their jade-green surface shining in the light. I wouldn't feel to good about finding one under my bed sheets or in my shoe, but, it still appeared peaceful. The big male on the other hand, was big, brown, black, and hairy. I can barely write this without shivering (shudder).
Anyways, a couple caverns later we came upon the bat cave. These bats were quite a sight to see in the wild. Definitely bigger and wilder than the ones at the zoo, with some of their bodies as big as a puppy dog. They didn't enjoy the camera flash and flew in our direction once or twice. This was not the place for infants. But, again, as was the case in so many places, my 'hedges' were being trimmed and fears assuaged. The bats, in all their numbers were more creepy than scary. The squeaking echoed through the cavern, and when they flew at us all you could really do was hide inside your shirt. Our guide got us a great shot directly under the colony, looking up toward the little buggers.
Act 3 of the cave trek featured a fine climax. After about 1 hour inside, we had reached the final room. I saw that the only way out was to crawl through a tunnel about 1.5 feet in circumference and a couple metres thick. This was a very tight spot and I could not see the light on the other side. The other option for an exit was to walk back through the way we came. That wasn't happening. So, I kneeled over and climbed inside. It was akin to The Great Escape, or, that tunnel in Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood that led to the Land of Make Believe. Very sweaty and completely filthy, I emerged to the other side and felt a shot of adrenaline, and accomplishment, as I saw the light of the jungle through the darkness.
We returned back to our guides home, and the missus fixed us a fine lunch of Pad Thai and 'Happy' Banana Shakes.
Back onto the bikes we continued to explore the island views. About a kilometre away from where we were to drop the bikes off, of course, the back tire blew. We swerved off to the side of the road, close to a crappy elephant farm that featured one really sad looking pachyderm. I got off and EZ took the bike back herself. Ben came back and ferried me home. The guy at the rental place didn't seem too upset. "Happens all the time", he said. Geez, are there any rules or regulations here?
We returned to the long beach for the sunset, and to watch the fishermen cast their nets off of the rocks and into the waning tides of the Indian Ocean.