It's tough to recall after almost 10 years what posed the greatest risk in the flooded cave in which I'd become hopelessly lost: the darkness or the snake that patrolled black pools of frigid water. I was in Laos and a place I would later regret visiting. Vang Vieng used to be a sleepy river village in country known for its calm and natural beauty. Then came tubing. Every day, scores of feckless backpackers in bikinis and boardshorts float down the Nam Song on tractor inner tubes, turning pink as they guzzle cheap beer and leap off rocks. As the activity boomed, so did the number of 'happy' pizzas and vomiting teenagers, helping to turn the town into an ugly scar on the southeast Asia traveller trail.
But I was still young and stupid and, during a break from a teaching job at a university in eastern China, Vang Vieng seemed like a fun diversion as I headed south to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The day I went tubing, in 2004, a local man suggested halfway down-river that I visit a cave. For a small fee, he would provide an old torch connected by a frayed wire to a brick-like battery. Using what looked like a pre-war contraption, I could then explore the cave by myself, wearing only flip-flops and shorts. This, too, seemed like a worthwhile diversion to a 22-year-old fool (I only know now that more than 20 backpackers die tubing every year) so I set off with an Australian I had met that afternoon.
Adjusting our eyes, we noted the absence of any paths, signs or lighting, or any of the features of the caves I remembered visiting on family holidays to France. As the tropical sunlight coming from the entrance faded, we had only our makeshift torches to guide us, which illuminated the muddy floor, unremarkable rock, and our own gormless faces.
As we wandered deeper through vast caverns, stooping under the narrow arches that connected them, we were becoming lost without realising it. The Australian then slipped in the mud and dropped his battery pack, ripping the flimsy cables from the terminals and leaving him in the dark. With my torch our only guide, we turned in what we thought was the direction of the entrance. We had been warned that in places it would be necessary to wade through long pools left by old underground rivers. So when we reached one, we happily stepped in, unable to see what might have been lurking beneath the surface.
As the water got deeper and deeper we had no choice but to swim through it, me trying to hold the torch and battery above the water while kicking frantically. Twenty or so metres later we reached a rocky cul-de-sac and with nothing to hold on to, we were forced to swim back to ground, tiring quickly as we progressed.
Breathless, cold and up to our ankles in mud, we were then plunged into the kind of darkness that can only be appreciated underground. My torch had failed. Worry turned to something approaching panic as I fumbled blindly with the battery's terminals. After a minute or so, the torch flickered back to life, threatening to go out again at any moment. We backtracked, desperate to see daylight.
Some moments later, I saw in the distance the reassuring beam of another torch and shouted after it. The man who had sent us here had come to look for us and lead us back to the entrance. He was unmoved by our plight and I later suspected these 'rescues' were commonplace. Perhaps he expected a reward. His insouciance vanished, however, when, just metres from freedom, he froze. We all held our breath. Rising from a small puddle in the middle of the narrow path ahead, its head set back and forked tongue extended, a snake blocked our way out.
I had more or less kept my cool until this point, but faced with a big snake which looked determined to prevent us from leaving the cave, I slightly lost it. I don't like snakes. Nor did the local, who called out to a friend he had been talking to outside.
He arrived with a stick. He threw it at the snake, giving us a second or two to dash through the pools and leave the cave, almost two hours after we had ventured in. As we retrieved our tubes and continued down-river, more soberly than before, I wondered how many other serpents occupied the pools I had gamely waded and swam through just minutes earlier, and how quickly I could get out of Vang Vieng.
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