Caving in Vang Vieng, and a cave tragedy back in Thailand
On Saturday, I explored a cave in Vang Vieng. It's a popular thing to do. There are many caves in the area, and unlike in England, where, unless you're an experienced potholer, or caver, you're led down a cave with a big group of people, in Laos, (and in Thailand too I guess - though I've only ever been in 3 caves there) you're all on your own. It's just you, your friends, a guide and lots of rocks. There's no lights in the cave, or nicely concreted over steps and handrails. You carry your own battery pack and headtorch. You scramble over slippy rocks. Sometimes there's big drops, 10 or so meters, and nothing to stop you falling down them. Somtimes there are pools of water that you have to wade through, and crabs and spiders that you have to avoid. In this part of the world, caving is a real adventure.
I say I went to 1 cave. I'd originally planned to go to two. I walked all the way up to the entrance to the second one, a kilometer and a half trek through rice padies plus a small climb up a rocky slope. I got to the entrance. Like the cave I'd been in earlier it looked very black. I tried my torch. It didn't work. 'You go first', said the guide, swapping battery packs and headlamps.
I walked in. It had been raining earlier in the day. The rocks were covered in mud and very slippy. I'd stood there less than a minute when I felt the sole of my foot slipping sidewards. I grabbed a rock. 'It's OK', I told him. 'I'd rather wait for you.'
He fiddled with the circuit for a few more minutes. Battery packs in Laos have live wires connected to tiny metal screws. They reminded me of science lessons at school, where you have a battery, a couple of red and black wires and some crocodiles clips and need to make an alarm go off or a light work. The principle's the same. 'Ready?' he asked me. 'Sure' I said. I looked at the cave. My foot slipped again. I wondered how wet it would be inside. 'It's OK' I said. I'd already changed my mind. I didn't want to go in.
The guide made fun of me for being frightened. I was a real chicken he said, and had just walked throught the field for nothing. 'It's OK,' he told me. 'Once we get through this bit its not wet.' He smiled, expecting me to trust his words. But, it had only just stopped raining, and the rain had been very heavy. There was no way it was going to be dry. It's OK.I said. 'My shoes aren't good enough to go in.' It was a crappy excuse. I was wearing sandals, with ridged soles, good for trekking and scrambling. He had plain flip flops. Not a grip in sight.
The planned cave trip was abandoned. Walking back the guide didn't seem to happy. He was only 18 years old. He'd been working as a full time cave guide for almost a year now, trying to save up enough money to finish his studies and eventually train to become a policeman. Maybe he was worried he wouldn't get paid. 'People go in caves all the time', he told me. 'Even when it rains. It's not dangerous.' His sense of danger differed from mine.
The guide (I forget his name)'s stories contrasted with what another guide had said. The 1st guide, the one who took me around PhuKam cave, the first stop on my little tour had told me that people die or become injured in the caves around Vang Vieng almost every year. It's just that one foriegn death rarely makes the news, either in Laos, Thailand or back home. Deaths are bad for tourism, and one death's hardly enough to cause an outcry. The last guy to die went caving alone and became stranded for 3 days. No one was able to rescue him in time.
I walked back through the rice field. The trip hadn't been a waste of time. The views were stunning, the rice was a lush green colour. It was fun to look for fish and crabs in the tiny brooks that crossed or ran parallel to the muddy path. I met a couple of girls, hacking away at the undergrowth, looking for herbs to cook for their dinner. The cave, and the guide soon disappeared from my thoughts.
I called a friend when I got back to Nong Khai on Sunday. He and his wife met me at the bus station, and took me to their house for a shower. He turned on the TV. I was sat at the kitchen table, when the footage, of a guy stood in the middle of a forest, holding a ripped black T Shirt came into view. The story emerged. There'd been a tradegy. In a cave, of all places, in Khao Sok national park in Surat Thani, in the South.
8 people, 6 foreigners and their 2 Thai guides died when the cave that they were exploring flooded. A sudden surge of water swept them away. One English girl survived, by climbing up onto the rocks, keeping out of the water and clinging to a ledge for hours and hours.
One sad thing is the name of the cave - when translated from Thai to English - means that the cave has water running through it, and, presumably warns people that its likely to rise quickly and flood.
There was a similar tradegy back in April. Heavy rainfall caused flash flooding in Trang province. At 2 waterfalls a torrent of water (almost like a mini-tsunami) surged downwards and over 30 people lost their lives. Most of the dead were local Thai families. April's 'Songkran', Thai New Year. It's a time when many people working in Bangkok or the big provincial cities return home to see their family and friends. They make the most of their time in the countryside. A couple of bamboo mats, some food, a buket full of ice, a bottle of whiskey or 2 and a pick up full of friends are all they need to have a good time. Foreigners tend to like going to the beach and sunbathing. Most Thai's, in contrast tend to avoid the sun. They tend to like cool mountain areas. Waterfalls are especially popular.
Few of those picnicing on the riverbank were aware of the danger of being near a waterfall during and after heavy rain. The Trang story made the international news, though only for a day or so. There were no foreigners amongst the dead and injured, nothing to keep the story going. The waterfalls were both closed for a couple of days. Thai TV was at its guresome best showing bits of bodies being found, wrapped up and carried away. Hysterical survivors described what happened and weeping relatives wailed their laments for the dead.
After the Trang tradegy there was talk of installing sirens and loud speakers, to warn tourists of the dangers of being near the waterfall in heavy rain. People suggested their own 'solutions' and ways to prevent a similar tradegy from occuring again. The park should be closed in heavy rainfall they said. That's not the answer. What's more important is educating people about potential dangers hidden in the countryside.
There's similar parallels with this weekend's cave traadgey. 4 National Parks in the South are now closed. One national park officer suggested that the parks be permenantly closed in the rainy season, though there's now talk of reopening their 'safer' bits.
The parks have been closed for a few days now. Today's Bangkok Post mentioned that locals are already complaining about the impacts of tourism on the area. Many people in the region depend on money from working as trekking or cave guides, and longtail boat drivers.
Eco tourism is a big growth area. Many farangs who come to Thailand seeking adventure like to trek in small groups, in places where they're unlikely to see another farang. Khao Sok national Park is especially popular with foreigners seeking an escape from the crowded tourist hotspots of Phuket and Samui. Long tail boat trips across Khao Sok's lakes, and caving adventures are now seen as 'must do's on any backpacker circuit of the south. A chance to see 'real Thailand.' The kind of unspoilt jungle paradise farangs dream of.
I've never found the time to go there, though I went through it 3 weeks ago. I took a bus from Surat to Phuket. The main road weaves its way up and over the mountains, cutting across the country and right through the park. The park's famous limestone karst cliffs were shrouded in early morning mist, and looked stunningly beautiful. As soon as I saw them I resolved to try and go back there one day. I can still picture the view and can see why the one survivor, when asked to describe what happened that day said something along the lines of 'one minute I was in paradise, the next there was death all around me.'
The death's came at a bad time. The south is gearing itself up for the tourist season. A few weeks ago a '1 to Go' plane crashed whilst trying to land in the middle of monsoon storm. Almost 100 people lost their lives. Thailand's south was in the international news for the wrong reasons. The story had only just died down when the cave tradgedy occured.
I can understand why National Park Authorities were keen to say they wanted the parks to be closed. A bold statement along these lines creates a good impression overseas, making the Thai staff look like they have learnt from the tradegy and are eager to demonstrate that it can not and will not ever happen again.
But it's not a sensible or viable solution. If the parks remain closed, a few weeks later, maybe even less than that, everyone knows that it will be 'business as usual.' Rangers want their 400baht entrance fees. Foreigners want to see, and be in the jungle and, however dangerous the conditions, there will almost certainly be guides willing to take them there. The fact that the park would be closed, but would make foreigners even more eager to go there. The journey to, and through it would become more of an adventure. The danger would only add to it's attractiveness. Plus the park would be really quiet. Visitor numbers would go down and there'd be few other foreigners around. It would become the perfect trophy destination, the opposite of what the authorites hope to achieve.
Closing the cave in heavy rain might be a sensible idea but closing the whole park won't solve anything. It will just hide the problem. Heavy rains and flash floods can occur at any time of year. They're not solely a rainy season thing. The parks can't be closed forever, can they?
What's much more important (and what doesn't seem to have been done so far, despite the tradgedy in Trang earlier this year) is educating people (both locals and foreign tourists), and making them aware of the danger of being around rivers, waterfalls and in caves during heavy rain; explaining how weather conditions can change very quickly, and teaching them about how unpredictable and dangerous the weather can be.
What happened last Saturday was a tragic accident. Unfortunately, it was also a preventable one. The sad thing is that the authorities focus is still on closing the parks for a while, waiting for the fuss to die down, and then carrying on as normal. Unless they start trying to educate people about local weather conditions and dangers, there's every chance that it could happen again.
|Create Date : 16 ตุลาคม 2550
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