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Caves and Safaris

semi-overcast

This morning, monkeys were gathered up by the bathrooms, jumping around from branch to branch. They were the first animal we spotted before our next wildlife tour. We hopped back in the longboat to see the same type of hornbill we'd seen at night. It had a black body, white chest, plus a long tail and beak. When they flew, they had an orange/yellow stripe across their wingspan and their wings made considerable noise. We also saw the bright blue kingfisher.
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For breakfast, we had banana pancakes plus another banana on the side for good measure. We lounged around until the 10 am checkout then took off in the longboat for our second cave adventure. It took an hour's voyage on the uncomfortable wooden plank boat seats to reach the next platform.

The hike took an hour or so, steeper than yesterday. We went up with a local ranger and Two. Two showed us a large tree with air roots that climbed other trees before strangling them to take their place. It was their invasive way of reaching the sunlight. More cicada mounds were along the path along with their shells and some spiders.

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This cave was big but the tour wouldn't be as extensive as yesterday's. The cave held high levels of carbon monoxide and it could be dangerous to stay down there more than a few dozen minutes. As we explored, we found the critters here were bigger: the bats, spiders and crickets.

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We walked down to the cave on a sometimes slippery path. There was a rocket-shaped stalagmite that Two joked about. We had to scale around a rock wall, and at the end Two shouted out about a two meter long snake we could see. It was lightly coloured and moved slowly enough at a distance from us. We went in a bit further to see spiders and crickets. Finally, we visited the large guano-scented bat cave with thousands of black critters just hanging out.

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We trekked back down, begging the rain Gods to make our path less challenging by staying at bay. It worked and we walked the final path across a big fallen floating log and over the random boards and rocks, hoping not to slip. We had a lunch of fried rice and egg plus creatively cut pineapple and watermelon where the peel was the eco-friendly tray.

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Back at the mainland pier, our luggage waited for us in the back of a van. We thanked Two and got dropped off at a nearby bus station. Tickets to Surat Thani were 150 baht. I ran into the nearby Big C grocery store to cool off with their A/C and pick up snacks: panda cookies, croissants, M&Ms and goldfish knock-off crackers I always used to buy.

Once arrived in Surat Thani, we turned down pushy tour agents offers, found our own way to the pier and saved no money on the tickets. Sometimes we learned, people could be honest in sales. We sat at the waterfront pier area near a lively market selling clothes, household items and food. We managed to find food and drinks at a nearby restaurant stall. Ryan got to try satays, I had some big fried noodles and we both had EST Thai cola.

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We had pancakes for dessert, small but tasty, made by a lady watching a football match intently with a few other vendors, and by 10pm it was time to board the overnight boat to Koh Tao. Stepping inside it looked more like a dorm than a boat with dozens of big bunk beds everywhere. At least they had toilets with toilet paper and soap, a rare find out here. Since we were travelling together, Ryan and I got the slightly larger than a single shared bunk mattress.

Posted by Sarah.M 15:39 Archived in Thailand Tagged lake cave safari snake khao_sok hornbill Comments (0)

Khao Sok Lake

overcast 25 °C

We moved out of our cozy jungle bungalow and had a bit more French toast before taking off on our tour. We all jumped in a songtao to go to the dammed lake. There were a few German friends, a Belgium couple and a Russian lady in our group. The drive took just over an hour, more than long enough bouncing around in the back of a songtao. Mr. Bao assured us that our big bags would arrive the following day on our through voyage to Koh Tao.

Our enthusiastic guide met us with aviators, a plaid shirt and a long braid. He introduced himself as Two, 'like one, two', he explained. We bought the 200 baht entrance tickets and boarded the longboat for an hour's journey to the raft houses we'd be staying in.

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The whole area had been flooded so they could have a dam, which made the lake here quite deep. Since it was done recently enough, a lot of the old treetops were still standing in the water, dead, but a testament to how far below the former ground would have been. There were ample limestone peaks with vegetation to keep our cameras busy until too much water would splash in. I pulled out my purple poncho from 7-11 at one point to stay warm and dry. The sun and thin plastic achieved an unsettling sweaty heat quite efficiently.

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An hour later, we pulled up in front of a bamboo raft complex. It had a small docking area attached to a floating restaurant. Further down the bamboo bridged path were small raft houses, really basic, just a mattress, a door and a couple chairs on the deck area each. No lights or locks. Our daypacks just fit inside the room with us, but it would only take about three steps before we'd be able to take a dip in the beautiful lake. It was a decent trade off.

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Our guide, Two, explained that we'd have lunch, have some down time and then start our cave tour. We hadn't really bothered looking into the whole itinerary (though it was available to see) so the cave tour came as a pleasant surprise. We did love our caves.

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We hopped into the lake for a refreshing swim. The water was a bit cool considering the outdoor temperature was also chillier, but it was still really nice. Ryan and I swam around from one log to another in the sectioned-off swimming area.

For lunch, there were several dishes, two of which were vegetarian friendly. Both were mildly flavoured stir-fries we shared with the rest of our group at a communal table. After that, we had a bit of time to rinse off, change and rest before the tour.

The boat ride to the caves took all of four minutes. We'd hike quite some time up, then do an hour through the cave and half an hour walking through the jungle to get back to the start. Our uphill hike took us through a number of small rivers so walking sandals were ideal. Two stopped to show us chameleons, spiders, a millipede, and cicada homes which were deep holes that the bugs dug in their youth to sleep in and grow wings.

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At one point, we stopped and there was a black wild cat with a long tail. As we were at the back, we didn't get to see it, but Two and out other guide told us they were quite rare during the day and were pretty excited encountering one.

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Two made sure it wasn't going to rain before the final hot and sweaty climb to the mouth of the cave. Inside, caverns were quite tall and large. Bats hung from the ceiling and our lights picked out a few more golden spiders. A snake was slithered around a stalagmite and crickets were abundant in some areas. Luckily, Mr. Bao had provided us with headlamps as a final thought to make the journey easier. Some of the cave formations were round and porous with water running down. Others were jagged and tall.

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About halfway, we gave our valuables and clothes to Two for safe keeping in the dry bags and tied our shirts around our heads like turbans to save space and keep them dry. In just our bathing suits, we walked carefully through the water which at times came right up to our neck and chest. Then the cave would change and we'd be on solid ground again.

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One section required us to scale down the cave walls to avoid being sucked away in the strong flowing water. Here the ceilings were high but the corridor was quite narrow. Two found his own sneaky dry path around the river after giving us instructions on the descent and making sure we cleared the dangerous section. We had a bit more wading ahead of us before we reached the natural light trickling through the exit and lighting up the now gentle flowing water. We'd made it safely back to the rainforest.

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As we took pictures around the cave and got back into more hike-friendly attire, Two shared the story of two guides and six tourists who had died in the cave in previous years. A storm had come and rain had rushed into the cave. With the narrow pathways, the cave flooded quickly and people were washed away. Only one woman had survived, pushed up to a high spot by someone where she stayed for a few days before it was safe to rescue her. We had no idea it could be so dangerous and were thankful it hadn't decided to rain.

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The cave had another interesting bit of history. It used to be home to students affiliated with communist organisations fleeing the government. The local people didn't care too much about the politics, but helped feed them because it was the right thing to do. The rest of the hike went by quickly and we had another rest by the cabins.

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On the way back from the cold showers, I caught the reflection of the bamboo raft houses on the still turquoise water and it was absolutely stunning. For supper, we had a tasty massaman curry, another stir-fry, a big fried fish (head and all) and a giant plain omelette. We found out that nearly everyone in our group was a teacher or in-training to be one. The Belgium couple had travelled from Laos, Cambodia and Thailand and were heading back home in the new year.

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Our night wasn't over yet, time for a night safari. With a spotlight and a longboat, Two showed us sleeping hornbills on the Banyan tree and some of the big cats with red eyes. All we could glimpse of the latter were the eyes, but it was still neat. The cicada wails were quite strong too. Two found one of the insects to show us. The bug got accidentally dropped back into the water and was subsequently rescued. When we brought him back to the raft house area, he flew away.

Posted by Sarah.M 21:48 Archived in Thailand Tagged lake cave longboat night_safari khao_sok Comments (0)

We're Railey Rock Climbing

rain 26 °C

Dark clouds obscured the sky and soon droplets fell down as well. None of this was reassuring to two people who had booked a rock climbing session in Railay today. The staff at the guesthouse assured us that it would go, rain or shine. The company picked us up in a songtao and drove to a very desolate pier. Compared to yesterday, we seemed to be on the opposite side of Railay. The rain gained momentum as it attacked our skin and clothes, damping our optimistic thoughts that the rocks could stay dry. The operators weren't bothered, a good sign surely.

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The tide was quite low this morning so 'docking' required quite a bit of walking through murky water to reach the beach. They brought us to King
Climbers straight away to get fitted with gear and sign our waivers. We were impressed with our climbing shoes and chalk bags too.

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Next, we walked back to Railay East where our target rocks lay. At the far end were karst towers just before a small stretch of beach. To our good fortune, the rocks were hardly even wet at all since they were so sheltered. Another group had already started climbing. I was a bit envious of their small group size. They managed the first wall with only a few difficulties.

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We learned our first skill, tying the figure eight knot that would keep our harnesses attached to the rope. It required two twists then slide the rope through. Next the rope came close to the harness, through the two loops and the rope end followed the original eight's path. If the rope was still too long it got tied in a simple knot.

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A few people raced up the first wall the guides set up and once the second was up and running, they invited me to start climbing it. It was pretty easy to get a good grip on the rocks. The footholds were great as well. I scaled it pretty quickly until I looked down and realized how high I was. I began to panic a bit so my grips got worse and shaky. Reaching the next point was tricky, but I pushed myself to do it with sweaty palms. I touched the silver ring at the top and gestured I was ready to come down. Even after I was on the ground and untying my figure eight knot, my hands were still shaking.

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Ryan tried the first wall, which was a bit higher. He raced up pretty easily and only slowed at one section where he had to wedge himself a bit to get the leverage to go further.

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When I tried the same wall, it took much longer since I couldn't reach all of the holds. I forged my own path in the beginning and had plenty of rest spots where I could chalk up my sweaty palms. I made it in the end but my forearms felt like lead for half an hour afterward.

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Ryan tried out the third wall. The bottom had a tricky section where you had to stick in your feet, pull with your arms and stretch to make it past the protruding rock. Ryan made it to the top easy enough after that.

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When I'd rested enough to give it a go, I got stuck further up since my feet wouldn't plant well enough for me to reach the next rock. Short people problems. When I finally did make it after many tries and needed a rest, the belayer dropped me back to that initial tricky position. A few more failed attempts and I called it a day.

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After the climb, we had the option to boat back right away or stay until 5:30. We decided not to let the rain clouds decide for us and stayed. Need be, we'd wait it out in a cafe. Ryan and I walked over to Princess Cave to go exploring. It was one of my favourite parts of the area. People stuck near the beach and few waded over to the cave so we had it all to ourselves. We climbed up the sandy rocks and sneaked through crevices until we made it to the other side where the waves rushed and back out. There was a small cove with limestone rock formations sheltering it from oncoming boats.

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When more people found the spot, we ventured up to a higher cave with a nice viewpoint of the limestone walls blue waters. The climb back left us a bit muddy and bruised, but it was worth it for the nice views of the beach. We swam a bit afterward until hunger called.

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Wandering around the island, we found a little restaurant with reasonable prices and vegetarian food. Ryan had some of his favourite Pad Thai in all of Thailand and I had some green curry.

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It was too muddy to climb to the viewpoint/lagoon so we just relaxed on the beach until it was time to take the ferry. Opposite the cave we actually found a neat swimming area and a pretty cool island.

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The Chinese family we had climbed with this morning was still there too and the man asked us if we'd attempted even more climbing. Not so much. Our bodies were content with just the morning. Back at Ao Nang, I had an relaxing massage with lots of much needed stretching. Then Ryan and I went for supper nearby.

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Posted by Sarah.M 04:08 Archived in Thailand Tagged rain cave rock climb limestone railay princess beginner Comments (0)

Krabi kayaking and ants

semi-overcast 31 °C

The next morning we learned why the guesthouse had a no food in the rooms policy. I went out on the balcony to make myself a breakfast sandwich only to find nature had added its own protein. The jar swarmed with tiny ants so I put the lid back on, left it on the ledge and went back inside.

"I hope you like plain bread."

"Why?" Ryan asked.

"Go look at the jar."

Ryan walked over to it and had a similar reaction. That thing wasn't coming near our room if it wasn't it a Ziplock. Some ants had escaped and were crawling around the ledge too.

We didn't think they'd get up to the fifth floor. Crazy buggers.

We packed up our bags and lastly brought out our rule breaking offense. We found a trash bin in the lobby to dispose of it. Soon we were in the van with a few other tourists as our guide briefed us on our half, or full for others, day of kayaking. He had a lot of information and zest. No one in our group had kayaked before either.

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At the site, they walked us through the basics of paddling forward and back in our two-man sea kayak. I sat in the back as 'captain' since I'd been kayaking before. An Indian couple were in our group as well as a Canadian woman who went with our guide.

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Our first stop was an oyster farm and around the time I realized the different memory card we brought was corrupted and wouldn't allow us to take more than 10 pictures, so apologies for the poor quality. Essentially the farm was our guide picking up a crate with oysters attached then putting it back in the water.

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Next we paddled to Lod cave with impressive stalactites. The neat part was that we were able to paddle the canoes all the way through and back. Our group was more interested in getting photos of themselves kayaking in these places than moving around too much. Very recreational tour. They kept telling us to slow down. The mangrove forests that we traversed were quite beautiful and the root structures showed as the water was low.

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We paddled a short distance to the second cave that featured ancient cave paintings. According to our guide, they were done in blood and still remained today. The water levels then would have been much higher, given the location of the paintings. Some paintings were of men, animals, and even aliens. Jury's out on whether he was joking or not. He did also tell us that the people used the caves to hide from dinosaurs in all seriousness. Ryan found this quite amusing.

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We kept walking around the dry cave to admire the stalactites and stalagmites. The caves were quite large, a couple stories high and we explored the different levels. Lighting was a bit bad for photos, but we all snapped away anyway. We found out the other Canadian woman had been studying in Australia so she shared some information about it with us. Partway through the chat, it was already time to paddle back and have lunch.

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The Indian couple's boat got towed back behind the guide's since they were struggling. We raced them all to the starting/ending point. The guide complimented our kayaking skills. I'd wished we'd done a little more real kayaking, but maybe next time. The caves were cool.
We had a lunch stop on the way back, delicious cold fried rice, but meat-free and that's all that mattered to me. The van dropped us off at 3 Bees guesthouse which was a bit tricky since neither us nor the driver had been there before. When we saw the Italian flag on the sign, we got them to stop and we were there.

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We walked up the fifth floor, again. The Thai guesthouses really had it out for us and settled into our room. We took our time showering, washing some clothes and cooling off until we realized there was no wifi in the room. When we asked about it, they explained it would work a floor down or we could switch rooms. We weren't sure why we didn't get the other room in the first place, but it all got settled. The other room was in a different building but luckily only on the fourth floor.

We booked another tour for tomorrow, rock climbing, inspired by our false attempts in China, and then tried to make it down to the beach for sunset. We got easily distracted with the supply of cheap fruit shakes, little markets and even a nearby mosque in passing. In theory, twenty minutes of walking down this street would reach the beach.

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Near sunset, we finally made it to the gorgeous beach, even in time for a quick swim. The clouds were epic against the lightly coloured horizon. With working memory cards we took a lot of photos. Some settings are more fun than others. We found a dramatic one we enjoyed.

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For supper we found a tiki style restaurant where we shared pineapple fried rice which came in a half of a hollowed out pineapple and Ryan's favourite, Penang curry. On the walk back, the pancake stalls were so tempting we topped up our supper with an apple cinnamon pancake each. Thailand was a land of wonderful snacks and treats.

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Posted by Sarah.M 01:32 Archived in Thailand Tagged sunset beach krabi cave kayaking painting ants butter peanut Comments (0)

Another day in karst wonderland: Yanshuo

sunny 30 °C

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We had a few morning missions to complete in Yangshuo. Making breakfast was one of them, although we were met with a line of fellow travellers. Most seemed to be in their thirties and European. While I tackled that, Ryan went to the front to inquire about tickets to a mud cave and get the information we needed to buy train tickets written down in Chinese. The women at the front desk certainly knew us well with our inquiries.

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We had a swift bike ride into town. Ryan found a new bike that didn't have a flat tire. Yesterday, his last few kilometers had been on foot. The staff hadn't been too concerned when he told them. I chose the bike I had yesterday since I had gotten used to its personality: the rhythm of changing gears on its own schedule and the squeal of its breaks.

Visibility was much better today and most of the ride to town was downhill from the guesthouse. We found Friend Hotel in good time and lined up to buy train tickets at the only game in town. Apparently, the Chinese government had set restrictions on the number of tickets that one person could purchase at eight to discourage tour companies from sweeping in, buying them and up-selling at a higher costs. While that was all well and good, it left us high and dry combined with the train station's sell two days before this particular train policy.

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We waited behind a Chinese man as the clock ticked closer to nine o'clock. My heart beat fast as I wondered if we'd even be on that train tomorrow.
Only fourteen tickets left as of last night, so our odds weren't looking too hot. The clock hit nine and the woman at the front began checking in the first man with his Chinese identification card. Another Chinese man came waltzing in and stood right in front of us and the Chinese woman behind us. We had watched people do this in train stations before, and another man from North America had called the man in question on it and he went to the back of the line.

Ryan tapped the man on the shoulder to motion that there was a line. The man simply looked at us, turned around and stood at his cut position like he was a third grader. Even my students didn't get away with those shenanigans. The woman at the front didn't seem to care and served him first, then us. Something about that arrogance and entitlement that he deserved things faster than everyone local and foreign alike really rubbed me the wrong way. We did get our tickets in the end: two top bunks together. I was still pretty shocked there were still some left.

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We followed dozens of bicycle convoys on the road past the bus station. It was incredible to see so many people cycling and enjoying the area, but less great to have to navigate through traffic to pass their leisurely pace. Our voyage took us through passes of the karst cliffs climbed by very fit adrenaline seekers, by gardens, scenic bridges, a couple of commercial caves and finally by Moon Hill, our first destination, so we had to backtrack a little.

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Our tickets were only 15 yuen or about three dollars and we began our hike up to the top. Looking straight up at Moon Hill, a limestone arch with a hole in the center, told us we had some climbing to do: the kind with stairs. We beat the estimate of an hour to the top, doing it in half an hour. We passed a group of Chinese tourists on the way, up but lost our lead to a large group of Europeans as we rested on the benches to eat our oranges and alien-like rambutan fruit.

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The noise of their voices led up to a better viewpoint, which became the birthplace of numerous selfies and group photos. We waited our turn to have our own and took a group photo for the Europeans while they took ours too. Before we left, we sneaked into one of the corners and took a few photos fake rock climbing. Although, given the grip on the rocks and the chalk-like powder on them, they seemed ideal for climbing. No wonder they had to put up all those signs to forbid it.

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Next, we biked back to Golden Water Cave to go on our next adventure. We harboured no illusions that this would be a natural cave as its artificial lights had been griped about in trip advisor posts, but it sounded fun anyway. I changed in the dark and gross bathrooms while Ryan refused. Trough systems weren't the most pleasant.

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We still had to wait awhile for the obligatory guide after they confirmed that we didn't speak Chinese. Lunch hour wasn't the best time to arrive. Our tour ended up being a private one, since no other English speakers were in the vicinity. The tour was fairly straightforward as she would name the formations or stalagmites and turn on the lights to bathe them in artificial colours. Some of the highlights were Buddha, the Yangshuo landscape, elephants and even 'mother's milk'. We did learn that the cave was around 20 degrees Celsius year round, a welcome fact in the midday heat.

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On the second level, there was a section called rebirth where our guide encouraged me to climb through a narrow and tight space to meet them on the other side. My hips and bum hardly made it through. Once I spotted Ryan and our guide, they had a photographer in tow to document my success or struggle rather, for later purchase. The whole process made me happy to make it out of the tight space.

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The third level held mud baths and hot springs for the more recreational part of the tour. They had changing rooms after all and we went into the chilly mud bath. Some time passed before we were brave enough to submerge more than just our calves and thighs. The mud bath was empty save for us until our guide and the photographer came back. They encouraged us to kneel down in the mud so we could take some of those 'authentic' cave photos as well as experience the floating sensation due to the density of the mud. We posed for a few of the photos, but had to rub on the mud as it didn't naturally stick uniformly to the skin. A group of Chinese tourists came in, cameras at the ready and snapped away photos even when we turned away and covered ourselves. We weren't looking to be their cave attraction.

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After a quick shower, we made it to the hot springs. The first was scalding, but the second tolerably hot so we could relax once again in solitude. It was nice to unwind after cycling most of yesterday and that morning. The guide was pretty good about letting us have as much time as we wanted. On the way out, we ordered one of our mud bath photos that came out all laminated for us and we headed through a gift shop. It was crazy to see such commercialism right in the cave.

Ryan wasn't feeling so great after we left so we sat outside in the shade. I thought it might be heat exhaustion because he was nauseous, so he took in plenty of fluids and some food. That didn't stay down, but he felt a bit better afterward and we started our bike ride back. We looked around for cab options but found none. He was sick once more on his hands and knees into the ditch on the side of the highway, but determined to cycle back, claiming he felt fine right after.

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We made it just past the bus station, the area where I thought we could maybe cab from and continued to a 'supermarket'. After perusing their expired food supply and picking up drinks, Ryan was sick again and I flagged down a cab who to our good fortune would also take the bike. I had the guesthouse's business card with directions in Chinese to give the driver so that wasn't a problem. I still wanted to pick up snacks for the long train voyage the following day, so Ryan took the cab on his own while I did some bike riding. I never did end up finding products that weren't expired and got to the guesthouse only ten minutes after he did. He was resting under the covers when I came in.

Ryan rested for the rest of the night and I went off to find supper in town since eating was at the bottom of his to-do list, understandably. Timing wasn't too kind to Ryan as I found the snazzy vegetarian restaurant on the ride home earlier. I went in anyway, to a place that from its empty tables and Western trying to be zen and earthy atmosphere I assumed few locals frequented. It was likely because they didn't understand why anyone in their right mind wouldn't eat meat.

I sat in my own little alcove on a pillow. They handed me a tablet to flip through and order my meal that even had English and plenty of pictures. I could even snack on the baby mandarins and soy beans while I took my sweet time. One of the oranges found its way into my bag for when Ryan was feeling better. Eventually, I settled on some Guilin noodles which were rice/glass noodles with broth and a sweet, nearly sour, sauce.

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I wandered through the town and took some pictures of the night markets by the river and down West Street. It was almost reminiscent of Thailand with bright lights, food vendors and little trinkets for sale. There were some neat handicrafts around as well. I stopped in a fruit market to grab some bananas that hopefully Ryan could eat the next morning. They were supposed to settle the stomach too since he hadn't wanted any teas. When I got back from my bicycle ride in the dark, Ryan still wasn't feeling too well but did manage to rest between bouts of sickness.

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In the morning, we headed out soon after breakfast. We met a Turkish man studying history in Beijing and vacationing at the time who shared the cab with us. He spoke great Mandarin and again we were wishing we had some skills of our own. They didn't come without practise though and that we hadn't done.

If we were going to put money on who would be most likely to miss a bus because of a bathroom break, even after food poisoning, I'd still get the vote. Sure enough, after depositing our stuff in an empty bus and me running around to ask people where the toilet was, pointing at my toilet paper and only further confusing them, I came out of the facilities and the bus was gone. I heard someone shouting 'Sarah!' across the parking lot, not Ryan, but our Turkish savior. He had told the bus driver what was going on when Ryan realized the bus had started moving and I was still absent. I did make it on the bus in the end, so we could watch the Gods Must Be Crazy, dubbed in Mandarin.

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Luckily, getting on the train was much easier. We managed to deposit our large bags for a small fee, pick up a snack which included the large yellow fruit pomelo that had been growing all over the countryside, and eat lunch in a snazzy air-conditioned restaurant with an English menu and wifi. The fries tasted like they were straight out of McDonald's fryer and the 'lemonade' was just overpriced coke with a dash of lime, but it made up for it by being a cozy place to loiter, and glancing around the booths of others with large bags, we weren't the only ones. We even made it to the train on time too to enjoy our snug top bunks. Not enough space to move, but enough of a ladder to make us feel like acrobats.

Posted by Sarah.M 01:20 Archived in China Tagged mountain cave light bike karst mudbath artificial moonhill Comments (0)

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