On Sunday, we hired a motorbike and road out from Thakek, Laos, into the surrounding area. It was sunny and the road was reasonably good. To get to the first cave we turned off the main road, following a red dirt road through a local village ... and then another village ... and then getting directions and turning back, getting off the bike and following a walking track. The track led across flat land, past rice fields and skinny cows munching on grass in an unused area, to a sudden outcrop of limestone hills. At the base of one of the hills were steps leading up to a shrine, and more steps from there weaving up into a cave opening. The cave was decorated with little colourful flags and woven god's eyes, and further inwards were several shrines: images of buddha with incense and offerings.
The second cave was a lot further off the beaten track. This was only discovered recently - 2004 - by a local who was out hunting for bats. Climbing a cliff face, he entered a cave to discover over 200 images of buddha inside. Apparently he didn't tell anyone for days; the story goes he was too frightened he had imagined it all. To get inside I had to don a traditional skirt, and we took off shoes and hats. Bending down to go through a narrow openeing, it was a surprise to enter and find ... a staircase with a handrail to guide us down into the cavernous space inside, reasonably lit by fluros and ventilated with a fan! Nice. All the buddha statues were guarded by a few local people. We looked around, and sat down, and an elderly man came to each of us, recited chants over our right hands and before tying plaited orange string around the wrist. Although we couldn't understand what was said, it was a peaceful gesture that meant something to the people doing it, and that was enough.
We visited a few other caves, and the final one I went into by myself (there was a large entrance fee and by now we'd seen a few). This was the biggest one by far I'd entered. Steps led up and around curving walls, so I lost sight of the entrance way. Everywhere I could hear the sound of dripping, and the ground was wet. Initially there were fluro lights angled about the place, but after half way they stopped working and I dug out a head lamp. Water flooded the pathway, and I clambered up the side of a wall to keep going further inwards. At the end of the path, I was at the top of an inner chamber, and looking down could see a deep, still, clear pool.
I turned off the headlamp and listened to the cave, and my breathing. A Frenchman has described memory as being like a series of rooms. But these chambers make me think more of the heart: a series of resonant chambers, opening up off one another, forming slowly over time, like love.