Never Has Mud Been So Clear

Day 40: Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Last night we shook on it: no alarms. Today we sleep as late as we want. It’s been a chimerical couple of days and all of the slumber is in order. Still, my eyes pop open at 730am–there is writing to be done. I take my keyboard to the balcony where I spend three hours downing tea and coffee, writing, and playing with the world’s cutest puppy. I eat breakfast and inquire about cave tours at reception. A helpful guy pulls out a map of the area with a handful of caves marked on it: The Cave Loop.

By the time Flo wakes up and has breakfast, we figure there is enough time to check out one of these caves by the end of the day.
The bikes need a little tweaking at the mechanic first–oil change, new headlamps, gusto–presto!
We follow the map for twenty-five kilometres to ‘Dark Cave’. It’s after three when we arrive, but we’re fucking doing this thing (adventure time often hunkers down around 5, when the sun hangs heavy in the sky). It costs fifteen bucks for a ticket. They give us a helmet with a headlamp, a life jacket and a harness. We climb a tower high above a turquoise river and zipline to the other side, landing within splashing distance of the entrance to a hole in the side of a mountain–Dark Cave. We dive into the cold water and doggy paddle to the opening where steps lead up into the darkness, our headlamps lighting the way. We clamber up a rockface and into a dark tunnel with gushy sides of mud. The ground softens and brown mush squishes between our toes. Walking through the narrow passage, our feet sink deeper into the ground until a wall appears and we somehow maneuver over the slippery sucker. Below lies a pool of mud, it’s cocoa surface stretching forty feet across by twenty feet. This is the dirt-soaked Cloud Nine of every oinker from here to hell and back. This is the pipe-dream of mud-wrestlers around the globe; the inspiration for luxury spa treatments since the beginning of time. I slip down the swampy embankment into the glorious pit of muck like an ovezealous pig and ‘swim’ with the speed of an astronaut in zero gravity, every body part emerging from the pool a centimetre thick in wet dirt. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, eat your heart out. This opaque pool lets you sit in it as though it were a chair, float as though you were a weightless entity. Our group of cave-hunters slap around the mud in the dark, our headlights highlighting our nearly naked bodies all slicked up from eyelash to toenail like we’re about to be served up on a human fondue platter. Or maybe we are a minimally sexy, somewhat hilarious and really disgusting version of those mudwrestling chicks in bikinis on t.v.
I never want to leave this place! The feeling of mud on skin makes me re-evaluate normal bathing. How are mud baths not a regular occurrence in everyday life?

We play here for half an hour, swimming and throwing handfuls of mud. I climb along the pools edge and cannonball into the muck, dunking my head and splattering the group with gobs of sludge. When we have to leave, we exit by slipping down a mud-cliff to a pool of dark water below. The rest of the group greets us stragglers at the bottom by kicking water over our soiled bodies.
Our guide leads us to another cave-pond, swimming through the who-knows-how-deep water into the innards of the mountain where we all turn our headlights out and wade in the blackness back to the entrance. The cave floor finally meets our feet and we walk out to dazzling dusklight, climb into kayaks and race back to the other side of the river. Some of us zip line into the middle of the waterway, then climb a ten foot high obstacle course set over the river that lights my muscles on fire.
Back on shore we clamber, shivering, onto our bikes and drive half an hour to the hotel. Flo somehow feels that a workout is necessary after that crazy obstacle course and creates a DIY home gym in our room using chairs and a bed frame.
‘Bamboo’ across the street is the place to be for dinner. The atmosphere is vibrant and bumpin’ and the food is phenomenal–eggplant stew and chicken salad and then beef stew. There is a good mix of travellers here, and we chat with a few Europeans and wave to some fellow cave-hunters at another table. We enjoy another languid meal, candlelight and beer melting us into our chairs until we pull ourselves away and cross the road to Heritage By Night.

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