Most of my body's water content appeared to have fled more completely than my last girlfriend, with the rest quickly following suit. My bottled water supply was long since exhausted, despite over-packing. With a high ambient temperature and humidity to match, I was going to be a in bad way very soon.
Not the best situation for a man alone in the darkness, deep into one of the largest caves of peninsular Malaysia.
Let's back up a bit. After suffering from the heat and crowds of Kuala Lumpur, I had decided to flee. Initially unsure of my next destination, a timely link to a travel article gave me a target: The Cameron Highlands. Cool, wet and exotic, it sounded like the perfect escape from the muggy concrete sprawl of KL. However, I was also determined to get off the tourist trail, of which even the backpacker community has its own version of in SE Asia. My immediate theory for this was to go to Ipoh, a lesser known city on the way to the Highlands. Apparently they had great coffee there, and what's more I could go by train.
The next morning I basked under my glorious AC for an additional hour before zipping up my pack and fleeing for the train station at maximum warp. It helps to travel light. It also helps that the glorious monarchy of Malaysia has online ticket purchasing. I checked in and plopped down in a KFC to pirate internet and await my return of the cute stewardess who had made it her duty to make sure I was on the train. Soon enough she came and I was whisked away towards my somewhat thriving post-colonial destination. Upon disembarking I walked a couple klicks more to my hotel- once again stripping down and worshiping the AC on arrival. It was a surprisingly modern room for such an old-school city.
Ipoh itself isn't particularly suited to tourists, but isn't unfriendly either. Once if cooled off, I began the standard procedure of walking until I found something neat, then walking some more. Many of the streets were dead or otherwise suspicious, but I eventually found a local market with some grub at the terminus. After a night of shopping I returned home and watched some TV over a beer. The next day I repeated the process, tasting the excellent 'white coffee' that Ipoh is known for. It's basically liquid candy. After buying some tasty fried shit off a man on a motorcycle, I started back to the hotel for a siesta.
On the way back to hotel I spotted a white guy and his Asian girlfriend. Suspecting them to be fellow tourists, I tailed them for a bit and discovered that they were heading for my hotel! I adjusted course and speed such that I would run in to them at the entrance, having a plan to execute. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked if they would be interested in visiting a large cave 20km away I had heard tale of. I could afford the taxi myself, but splitting the cost three ways would be nice. As would the company. They accepted and turned out to be a rather nice couple from Australia. We all took our respective breaks from the afternoon heat and rejoined a couple hours in the lobby to meet our arranged taxi.
And off we went, at great speed. Third world taxis are so often thrilling in just the right way. Perhaps that will be just the wrong way some day.
Soon enough we were there, a small compound serviced by a road nestled in the base of craggy jungle cliffs. There was the usual set of offices, shops and bathrooms that surround a tourist attraction- and a zipline. The cave appeared to be reasonably developed, for better or worse, with a set of different tours. We decided as a group to get the best ticket available- but sadly the in-depth caving expedition wasn't available. So we paid our ten bucks for the all-entry pass and set off inside. Despite being paved and lit, the scale of the cave was immediately clear. After passing through a monkey laden piece of jungle and through a small crack with a river in its base, the ceiling opened up, reaching perhaps a hundred meters at the tallest point.
The lit concrete path continued on, going up stairs, down and then up ever more. The cave river snaked below us, often disappearing before returning deeper in. Stunning rooms, winding passages and cliched cave features were all in full form. A one point a 'tour guide' caught up with us, be he eventually gave up and tended to the two children he had brought with him. My partners and I continued on, reaching a terrace overlooking a 50 meter stalagmite and a large chamber where the river reappeared below. At this point our path ended, as did the lighting. A small gate blocked off a set of stairs descending into faintly illuminated depths.
Being the responsible young man I am, I observed for a quite moment before turning back.
And then turning back again.
"I've got a light, water and food." I thought to myself. "Surely I can see a bit farther, get a glimpse of the depths..."
My companions agreed to hang out and stand watch while I plumbed the mysterious realm below. I grabbed my light and began my descent. Upon reaching the bottom, I went upstream, following the river. I figured it would be cooler there. It wasn't. It was still subjectively hotter than the warmest days of Colorado. I pushed on, carefully.
Which is how I found myself in large, dark cave with no company and a rapidly approaching case of heat exhaustion. I've had proper heat exhaustion before and it's not fun, but its subtler symptoms become easy to recognize. Upon reaching the conclusion that I was entering truly dangerous territory- physically and medically- I glanced around one last time and turned back. This may sound majestic and adventuresome, but as with as adventures it was in fact harder and more mundane than expected. Immediately after this brisk turn I felt the signs of my body overheating- and noticed my water was all but gone.
I sat down and fanned my shirt in the dull hope that it might evaporate some of it's sweat, but I suspected the air was carrying a comparable amount of water. I guessed that I could make it back safely, but I've trained to always have a plan, or at least some place to start one. Peering around, I observed the underground river nearby and scuttled over to test it's flow. Nice and cold. Should things get bad, I could always dunk myself. As a precautionary measure, I soaked some parts of my clothing and cooled my extremities. It helped.
Newly renewed, I found my path and began trekking back. It wasn't a slogging march, but caves play funny tricks on perception and I honestly didn't know how far I was. Carefully moving, step by step, I made my way back to the large chamber. As the ceiling once again lifted to impressive heights, I saw the faint light of the platform above. Climbing the stairs, I paused in the darkness half way up to take a break. A final ascent, the end of which I completed in a bounding fashion, put me back in the somewhat safer realm of concrete and rebar. After reporting what I found and scavenging some water from my team, we began our trek back to the entrance.
In time we emerged, just in time to catch a tour bus of Japanese tourists screaming across a lake (in all senses of the word) on the aforementioned zip line. Things always seem a bit surreal after being underground. It was good entertainment while I purchased more water and located a phone from which to summon a taxi- an adventure in of itself.
If you're in the area, I would certainly recommend the cave, especially given the price. However, like so many Southeast Asian natural attractions, it is simultaneously too shabby and too produced to be truly stunning. Should you have the adventurous spirit, there is more to see than the initial path suggests. Just bring the right gear and pay the right folks.
Oh, and be prepared for the heat.