Saturday, October 25, 2014

How to “Trang” Your Dragon

NOTE: Trang is actually pronounced “Tr-ah-ng.” The title’s misleading pronunciation will be justified later, I promise.

With our Ethiopian adventures behind us, we bid Africa one final farewell and set our sights on the next stop in our tour ‘round the world – Thailand. For about as long as I could remember, Belle had been telling me all kinds of stories about the amazing sights, excursions and most of all, food that we’d be getting to experience while we were in Thailand, so it was very exciting to finally be arriving there together. Once again, we arrived on little-to-no sleep, but the anticipation of our adventures to come and the over-stimulation of the development around us (i.e. fast food, water fountains and expressways) were more than enough to keep us going on empty tanks.

I was SO extremely excited to finally share this part of my life with Steve, and it would be the first time for me to visit Thailand alone (without any other family). I knew our itinerary for Thailand was packed – what with seeing the southern and northern parts of the country, visiting family (as much as we had time for), stuffing our faces constantly and getting our dive certifications! It would be a big change from living the very simple life in Tanzania, though the biggest change for me was switching from speaking Swahili most of the time to almost exclusively speaking Thai. I didn’t think it would be that difficult, but I guess after speaking it for only a few minutes a week for two years with my mom, it makes sense that I would be a little rusty. Luckily, I have so much family in Thailand that Steve and I were taken care of so incredibly well and had a place to stay everywhere except Chiang Mai! Another GIANT THANK YOU to all of Belle's family who took such amazing care of us over the 2+ weeks we had in Thailand!!

After spending our first night in Bangkok, we set off for the city of Trang along the southern strip of Thailand. The reason why we decided to go to Trang was because of the crazy anecdotes I had told Steve about the different “emerald” themed locations and the Dragon’s Belly Cave. I wanted Steve to get a quick taste of Thailand anyway, so we figured we would go to Trang for the South and Chiang Mai for the North.

Our first taste of Trang’s flavor came at the Emerald Pool. One of my cousin’s accompanied us on our trip that day. The park is accessed via a 20-minute walk through some thick jungle-y foliage. The pool on the other end does not fail to live up to its vibrant name and it was quite warm even in the early hours of the day. The temperate waters and serene surroundings made for a very pleasant swim before the afternoon rush of student and tour groups came in. A short walk from the Emerald Pool was the iridescent Blue Pool. Bubbling sulfur discharges within convinced us to heed the warnings and not enter this one, but the view from outside still made it well worth a look.

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(Left) The forest walkway leading up to the Emerald Pool and (right) the Emerald Pool itself 

(Left) Squatting in front of the Blue Pool and (right) soaking feet in a hot spring waterfall nearby the pools

Part II of our introductory day trip in Trang took us on an adventure that would prove to be equally as terrifying as exciting (which was great for me because I really enjoy scary things in a weird, masochistic kind of way). The Tum Lay (lit. “sea cave”) is probably one of Thailand’s best-kept secrets, even among locals. More telling of the experience you get upon entering, however, is the cave’s nickname – the Dragon’s Belly.

As soon as you enter your guided boat, you quickly come to realize that this is no leisure voyage. Even when the waters are low, passengers have to lay flat on their backs in the boat in order to pass into the narrow mouth of the cave, but on the day we went, near the end of the rainy season, we were told the river was only a couple of centimeters from rendering the route inaccessible. I didn’t know if we were lucky or not.

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(Left) Entrance to the Tum Lay, a.k.a. Dragon’s Belly, cave and (right) watch your head…and torso!

There are a couple of stops along the way to get out and walk around in the cave to see all of the stalagmites and stalactites and stag-bites, etc., many of which seem to look like funny or recognizable everyday things. But then like the flip of a switch the mood of the cave changes drastically as the faint lights begin to dim up ahead and the ceiling seems to sink ever lower in a foreboding and most ominous indicator of what’s to come. Suddenly you are forced to lay as flat as the benches on the boat as you try to suck in your own belly as much as possible in order to escape the looming ridges of the dragon’s rib cage just above your face. And with the water as high as it was for our journey, I found it extremely difficult to gauge which part of my body was most at risk of scraping along the cave’s jagged roof. I laid there, holding my breath, squirming and rolling my head and shoulders instinctively in order to try and pass unscathed, while at the same time getting translated orders from the guide behind me via Belle to my right. Needless to say, all of my senses were working on overdrive and only when we came to a brief clearing at the dragon’s heart did I regain awareness of the rapid beating of my own.

As I was translating what the guide was telling Steve to do or not do, I couldn’t help but think of my own previous experience with the Dragon’s Belly a few years back. I remembered that one of my family members (whom I shall not name) was stuck in the shallow opening due to a protruding belly and I just chuckled to myself thinking about it. During that slight delay, I had been in the following boat so I could see everything and was just incredibly thankful for not being claustrophobic! I am pretty sure that if the water had been as high in the previous trip as it was the day Steve and I went, I am pretty sure we would have been stuck even longer…  Anyway, I was happy that Steve was enjoyed it because for me, it was just as thrilling as I remembered it! :)

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(Left) Not the easiest route for those afraid of the dark or claustrophobic and (right) the dragon’s heart inside the cave

Following this brief intermission, the reverse-digestion continues even more intensely as you approach the esophagus of the beast. Only now do you realize what an ample, spacious cavity the rib cage was in comparison to the sarcophagus that the boat now appears to have transformed into. You have no choice but to keep your neck straight and eyes glued to the roller coaster of rocky ridges that you can almost feel graze the tip of your nose from above. You are at the complete mercy of the guide at the rear of the boat for any instructions regarding movement. This was fine considering his level of experience, but nonetheless incredibly nerve-racking at every point when he tried to feverishly redirect the boat at the last second or had to use his own back as a springboard from which to push the boat along through the passages that were too shallow for the boat to pass unassisted. Somehow, we managed to escape the 300-meter catacomb and I finally regained awareness of time and my surroundings, and once again remembered that it was probably okay to breathe.

Altogether, surviving the Dragon’s Belly was an enthrallingly fun experience, in spite of the temporary moments of terror that came while inside. And in case you couldn’t tell, this would remain as one of the absolute highlights of my first trip to Thailand.

The next couple of days in Trang were spent snorkeling near Krabi, doing a short forest walk in a botanical garden, and visiting the Emerald Cave, or Tum Morakot. The coolest thing about the Emerald Cave is how to get there. The only way to see the cave is by sea and you have to swim through it. Steve was again the only non-Asian since this was another “unseen” Thailand excursion, so I had to translate to him what to do. Once we arrived at the cave entrance, it looked just like any other mountainous island. Not until you looked closely did you see a small opening that was the mouth of the cave. We were all instructed to jump into the water and immediately hold on tightly to the life jacket in front of us, and NOT let go. Each subsequent person was to do the same and we all had to bicycle kick our way slowly into the curving cave. The current was strong but we eventually made it into the cave and the color of the walls was a radiant emerald green. I brought my waterproof camera; however, the only way to truly soak in the brilliant green is to go and see it for yourself.

Snorkeling fun around the Trang/Krabi area

The most strenuous part of our swim was in the tavern’s cavity. After you pass the main cave entrance, everything goes black and you cannot even see the bobbing head of the person in front of you. All you can do is hope that no one in front of you lets go of a life jacket and you get stuck in a dark, cavernous abyss with no light. Just as you think you will get enveloped in complete darkness forever, you see a light ahead of you that marks the end of the cave. As you are led by a chain of people, you swim into a bright sandy clearing in the middle of the mountain, and you can finally loosen your grasp and relax. The island mountain of the Emerald Cave is hollowed out in its center like a donut and the path to get to that hole from the outside is the Emerald Cave. After relaxing a bit, we linked up with one another again and swam out of the cave.

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Forming a kanga line to enter the darkened Emerald Cave

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(Left) Emerald Cave and (right) canopy walk at the botanical gardens

With such an action- and adrenaline-packed start to our Thai tour, it was hard to believe that we had only scraped the surface of our excellent Thailand adventure with our time in Trang. We still had plenty of places to see, family to visit and, of course, food to eat over the next couple of weeks.

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