Top 10 Travel Photos of 2014 #1

2014 was my most traveled year yet.  I had the good fortune to bring in the New Year in the Philippines before returning to my job in South Korea.  Summer vacation was spent backpacking Vietnam and Chuseok (Korean thanksgiving) brought me to Japan.  I ventured to Shanghai before heading back to America for the end of the year holidays and all along these crazy adventures my camera followed me.  Tens of thousands of pictures were narrowed down to roughly 30 finalists before I selected my top 10 travel photos of 2014!

#1 brings us back to Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, the deep in the jungles of Phong Nha Quang Binh National Park, Vietnam!   Its no surprise that my favorite photo of 2014 comes from the most amazing adventure I’ve ever taken.  The photo comes from deep within Son Doong in a section of the cave known as Watch out for Dinosaurs; a doline (collapsed ceiling) allowing light to pour in resulting in the spectacular jungle.  Cave formations are covered a splendor that can only be found in Son Doong are seen in the distance as the jungle’s heat mixing with cool cave air generates the cloud just slightly obscuring the far wall.

I hope you enjoyed these travel shots!  Stay tuned for some honorable mentions that barely missed the top 10!


What is your favorite one of my photos from 2014?  How about your own favorite shot?

 Check out #2 here!

 For the best of 2013 go here!

Son Doong Day 4 – The most glorious bath ever taken

Grimy and ready for a bath, we arrived at Son Doong Camp 2 after frolicking beneath the Great Wall of Vietnam in the muddy Passchendaele Trench.  We were greeted with our porter’s friendly smiles.  Most of them refused a hug and instead adroitly maneuvering a cup of tea into my hand convincing me to chow down on a scrumptious lunch.  We cleaned off (barely) and ate up before setting off again.  Ahead of us were two dolines and hundreds of meters of cave between the jungles; with any luck we’d arrive in time to take a detour to our first scrub since the river crossing near the cave’s entrance._DSC8071

Our bittersweet departure meant that we would soon be leaving this enchanted fantasy world.  A world of awe inspiring natural beauty just around each bend.  Beauty shrouded in a seemingly endless blackness that melts away as we approach.  Son Doong captivated us on the way in and was sure to follow through on its promise to amaze as we climbed back into the Garden of Edam._DSC8090


Immediately the heat began beating down on us; a gentle reminder that deep inside Vietnam’s Phong Nha Quang Binh National Park Queen ruled with a merciless red-hot fist.  With every step, with every boulder, every precipice we surpassed Mother Nature continued to crank up the heat.  Just past noon we happily took a shady break in the jungle but quickly moved on; we were even more excited to descend the far side of this mini-mountain in search of cooler temperatures.  Resting at the edge of the shade we pondered abandoning our lives awaiting us back home and simply turning back into the wonderland._DSC8094


A cold rinse in the cave’s river was enough to motivate my legs so the dreams quickly dispersed and off we went venturing back into the refreshing darkness.  The descent grew trickier as the trail fell lower; we took a different path with massive razor sharp boulders lining the trail.  No, not lining the trail.  They were the trail!  These multi-meter jagged edges were common throughout Son Doong but never before in such prevalence.  One thing was certain, this passage made me incredibly thankful for Oxalis’s bright orange Kevlar-like gloves.  I paused to don the glowing gauntlets and by happenschance turned around catching a truly magical sight.

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Rain began to fall in the doline behind us!  Floating hundreds of meters down amusingly similar to snow in the 40+ degree Celsius forest I couldn’t help but crack a smile!  Slowly the flurry transformed into a downpour and I decided to snap one quick photo before turning back around.  I thought it would be best to continue onward before the already slick rocks became even more perilous.  The maze of boulders beneath me made for slow going but luckily the rest of my party wasn’t far ahead.  Before I knew it I approached a sheer cliff where a few of my companions lingered.

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Dozens of meters below we could make out the faint sound of hear a stream in the pitch black.  We weren’t heading all the way to that tumultuous waterway but our 10 meter journey required a safety rope.  Deb began tying a bowline around us before guiding each of us one by one along the last few meters of this descent.  One at a time we half climbed-half swung from razors edge to the safety ropes.  Mr. Ky awaited us below as the river grew into a thunderous echo throughout the chamber!  After a quick horizontal stint we finally began to emerge from a small tunnel; our campsite directly in front of us and the doline to the left illuminated the end of today’s journey._DSC8124

If trekking teaches you anything its certainly that just because something is within your sight that doesn’t make it “close.”  Another hour or so of bouldering brought us back to the world’s best campsite.  We dropped our packs and grabbed some soap, tonight we could gloriously clean off 3 days of filth.  Mud, BO and grime combined with other unpleasantries Son Doong threw at us turning each of us into a foul aromatic concoction!  Miraculously the journey to this narrow waterway brought us past yet another marvel; a chamber who’s walls were lined with million year old fossils!  In awe of these creatures frozen for eternity we eventually surrendered to the thought of being clean and sought out that refreshing water.


Swimming into the chilly creek was another reminder how deep we were.  The water felt great but it was enough to prickle your goose bumps.  I should point out that our bathtub was narrower than an airplane aisle; we had to go in single-file for a scrub; oh and it was deep.  Who knows how deep but within seconds none of us could stand and we began bracing our backs and legs on opposite walls.  Getting out proved even more difficult that returning as the first bathers stayed near the edge and we swam under or somehow gallivanted over each other.


I ventured further for a blind swim as the rocky walls gave way to an expansive chamber.  Without light to guide me I decided it best to keep my journey to a minimum.  There was no way of telling how big it truly was but swimming back to the small gap with light and playful sounds of new friends was an entirely unique experience for my senses.  Practically no sound came from the river or cave down here and there was definitely a complete lack of light.  I imagined myself being in a sensory deprivation tank in a psych experiment before freaking myself out and heading for shore.

After some extensive scrubbing we were all sufficiently “not dirty.”  No one was clean.  We were still in the jungle after all and bathed while wearing some of the dirtiest clothes I’ve ever had the misfortune of donning.  Oh well, it’ll have to do until tomorrow night when we can have a proper swim in Hang En!  We ventured back to our campsite with the world’s best bathroom view.

By the time we arrived the fried chicken and array of Vietnamese delicacies complimenting Howard’s chips were ready.  Everyone enjoyed the rest of the rice wine with this meal since a few porters promised to rush ahead and get another shipment from a friend meeting him on the road (they do this all the time and love their rice wine even more than we do!)  After eating the meal a few of the Vietnamese joined us for a game of Tien Len and somehow our faces were all covered in charcoal as punishment for losing again!  So much for that bath.

When the rice wine ran out talk about how porters like to arm wrestle began rustling around the table.  Trying our luck amongst the foreigners a few matches gave clear results.  The most obvious was that I wasn’t going to win.  Toby, Chris & Julian all fought hard but Julian came out as our champion in a finals match between Julian and Toby that the porters were placing bets on!


Moments later a heavily tattooed porter showed up; the one who had recently spent a few years in Taiwan but more importantly had schlepped over 70kg all day!  Julian stood half a head taller and clearly had broader shoulders.  But this guy was a muscle man for a living.  He was clearly in better shape than any of us and was the porter’s favorite.

Thanh walked over to referee announcing a best of 3 matches.  First and last would be lefty!  A murmur went through the crowd as most of the contestants groaned.  All but Toby  who hid his left handed dominance in our preliminary matches.  He suddenly became a surprise favorite and the bets started to bring our campsite to a dull roar when Thanh gathered everyone’s attention for the first match: Julian vs. our tattooed trekker. Continue reading

Son Doong Day 3 – The Garden of Edam



Hiking from Watch out for Dinosaurs to Garden of Edam

Son Doong’s Garden of Edam peeked through the next passage like a half moon keeping a wary eye on foreign travelers.  Hiking once more in the dark, our headlamps illuminated bulbous calcite deposits left by a millennia of rainy seasons carving its way through this ancient waterway.  In another million years our passageway will likely be sealed by this natural cave evolution._DSC7659

_DSC7660Sending Deb and Mr. Ky ahead as our models, we made use of the vantage point provided by the calcite domes. Setting up the photograph wasn’t too difficult with such natural beauty.  The tricky part was accounting for the clouds that kept rolling in.  At first I thought they would bring some stunning contrast to the shot but quickly realized we would have to wait for them to clear.



Hiking from Watch out for Dinosaurs to Garden of Edam


Climbing into The Garden of Edam

Finally the clouds dissipated with a resounding “ooo, ah!” and “holy f*ck!” from us white folk.  Snapping a shot of the Garden of Edam’s lush entryway with white stalactites completing a scene that will be ingrained in my brain forever.  Eager to join the jungle’s chorus (or at least get a closer vantage point) we went out once again.  Climbing down the calcite stalagmites proved to be a simple task. As we reached the left wall. a dried up riverbed lead the way among boulders as we headed straight for the doline’s base.


Slick, but not as fickle as Watch out for Dinosaurs’ red carpet we were able to make the ascent as a group.  Of course Thanh, Carla and I trailed for some excess photography.  By the time we reached the mouth of Son Doong’s second jungle (that former watchful eye) everyone was relaxing on a vine-laden outcropping while a misty cloud surrounded us.  We joined for a water break and some friendly banter about the differences between British, American, Canadian and French Canadian English.



Climbing into The Garden of Edam


Climbing into The Garden of Edam


Climbing into The Garden of Edam


Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

Garden of Edam’s lush overgrowth was littered with all stages of life.  We found dozens of crushed snails, many as big as a baseball!  Monkeys descend the treacherous walls of this doline from the deep jungle outside, especially when it rains.  Once down below they smash these snails for a quick snack.


Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam


Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam


Looking back at our ascent

Massive trees loomed 30 meters above while Thanh pointed out 3 stages of a gorgeous mystery flower. It bloomed by sprouting a pink stalk that eventually fanned out for a peacock like display.  We climbed over downed banana trees and every moss or fern you can imagine as a cacophony of birds and bugs echoed from nearly 300 meters above!


Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam


Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

The heat & humidity climbed the further that we did.  Coupled with the thought of our next feast being prepared by Mr. Tu and the porter team, we were convinced not to dwell up here for too long.  It took about 30 minutes to get through three doline where we could barely make out the campsite below. At first on our right was an archway massive enough to house a skyscraper!  Howard let us know that passage was sealed off although the river previously flowed through it. Within the last few million the calcite formations grew too large and diverted the river.  That very change in course created the cavern we had just passed through and rewarded us with a wonderful vantage point after a brief climb.  The river is apparently now creating a 3rd path since ours was nearly stopped up and may be impassable in a few hundred million years.


Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam


Desending to Hang Son Doong’s Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam


Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

Moments after arrival Mr. Tu and the porter crew laid a new feast before us.  It was impossible to predict that fried chicken & french fries would be freshly made this deep into the jungle but they were just as delicious as the Vietnamese stir fry that accompanied tonight’s dinner.  After eating we switched over to Vietnamese card games and challenged the porters managing to walk away a little cleaner than the night before.    The bad news was that we walked away cleaner because of a new penalty, we still lost 9 out of 10 games and were delivered rice wine and kneeling penalties which meant you had to kneel on the hard rocks until you won a round!


Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam


Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam


After the sun set we went into overdrive setting up a night shot of the campsite surrounded by the green mouth of the doline.  Thanh, Mr. Ky and Chris hiked partway up the boulders and used our headlamps to illuminate the scene.  Half of the remaining crew lit the foreground while Carla and I snapped these once in a lifetime pictures of the entrance to Son Doong’s 2nd doline.


When Howard brought the BBC reporter to this very same location he approached from the darkness behind us.  They rappelled down the Great Wall of Vietnam (which I would get to see tomorrow); upon turning the corner the commentator saw The Garden of Edam and exclaimed “Fuckin’ Hell!”

“Cut!” shouted his director.  BBC is family friendly so they had to reshoot the entrance a few times before finally managing “Fffffreaking hell” which was usable.  Howard’s anecdotal stories like this were a great addition to the trip.  ONe of my other favorites was his adventure to Coral Reef, 18 hours beyond the Great Barrier Reef; well maybe the camera man he brought to Son Doong who accidentally burned Howards hand and then forced him to carry all the equipment in a climb after nearly breaking his “good” hand.  If you want to hear them the best thing is to head to Phong Nha and join one of these trips!


Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam


Son Doong Day 3 – Watch out for Dinosaurs

Breakfast our second morning in Son Doong proved even more delicious than the first.  Sitting at a picnic table eating fruit-filled fresh crepes boggled our minds as we imagined the prehistoric scene awaiting us in the distance.  We broke camp and were on the trail by 9:15 AM heading under the boulders on a new path towards Watch out for Dinosaurs.


Son Doong Campsite #1

Howard and Deb had been taking people on a more perilous elevated path where the stones were less secure.  Luckily they recently discovered a lower route which required ducking and crawling among the jagged edges surrounding us.  I closely followed Thanh and he regularly reminded me to keep my hands off the camera on this dangerous stretch.


Son Doong – On the trek to Watch Out for Dinosaurs


Son Doong – On the trek to Watch Out for Dinosaurs


Skylight above Watch Out for Dinosaurs

Squeezing through we reached the cavern’s right wall and were greeted with a cloudy sky leaking into the doline.  Watch out for Dinosaurs began with a treacherous climb among slippery mosses and loose rocks.  We split us up into groups of 2 plus a guide in case loose stones began raining down from above.

I waited patiently at the bottom hoping to snap pictures on both ends and left in the 3rd group.  The climb slowly turned from gigantic stones into a mossy fern-filled path.  Rocks were replaced with pebbles as a slick dusty path snaked its way upwards. Climbing through the cloud nature’s green presence continued to grow.  By the time we reached the summit we were deep into a jungle with the first peak offering a mind-blowing view of our ascent.  90 degrees to the left a series of verdant stalagmites, smooth and rounded with age, stoically defended us from the abyss.



Son Doong – Climbing Watch Out for Dinosaurs

Next to these green guardians were a set of plate-like green gours filled with life.  Droplets glistened as they fell from the massive opening to the jungle hundreds of meters above.  By the time I reached the top Kate & Chris were playfully catching droplets in their mouths while Howard supervised with a camera in a scene out of a Flintstones grade school recess.

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Eager to join the fun and games I reluctantly stayed my crossing to snap some shots from a distance.  The next chamber silhouetted everything beyond with an unimaginable darkness.  That darkness we would eventually penetrate after a leisurely afternoon in nature’s green playground.


Son Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!


Son Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

I_DSC7522t was atop the second precipice that I met Mr. Phuoc, a park ranger, who completed this scene with a broad Vietnamese smile.  after I ventured out and back he patiently waited for me to be the last one down the far side of the doline.  Along this descent Mr. Phuoc pointed out scenery and some alien insects while assisting with my photography.  Despite a distinct lack of English we communicated and carried on very well.


Son Doong park ranger – Mr. Phuoc relaxing in Watch Out for Dinosaurs!



_DSC7507We soon caught up to Chris who had paused his venture to setup a brilliant shot with Kate & the whole doline.  I took the cue on the scenery and managed to find a pool that sported a magnificent reflection of Watch out for Dinosaurs.  Thanh waited at the top and was an excellent model as a few others climbed a nearby calcite mound for a higher perspective.  By the end of our photo session Mr. Tu (our cook) had arranged a glorious picnic for all.


Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!


Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!


Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!


Han Song Doong – Picnic with a view of Watch Out for Dinosaurs!



Han Song Doong – Picnic with a view of Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

The afternoon meal had tons of Vietnamese snacks sitting between sliced fruit and dozens of peeled hard boiledeggs.  There were crackers, cheese and coconut Vietnamese snacks.  Oh, and don’t forget the kit-kats & oreos!  We devoured the meal before departing for the dark cavern; a speck of sunshine barely visible from the next doline.



Han Song Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!


Han Song Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

Son Doong Day 2 – Jungle & Descent

Mother nature’s alarm clock began to ring as soon as light shone through Hang En’s massive entrance above us; with any luck we’d arrive at Son Doong by this afternoon but as the chorus of cicadas and swifts convinced me to check my watch I decided that could wait.  5:15AM, I think I’ll snooze for another hour or so.

My second wake up was on my own accord as I met Howard, Deb and Thanh by the fire.  Declining tea or coffee I opted for a brief swim to wake me up instead.  Over a steaming breakfast of  Vietnamese noodles with veggies and eggs we discussed some of the cultural American anomalies and stereotypes.  After deciding colour vs color, why the imperial system is just plain ridiculous and hearing a few caving stories it was time to get moving.

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Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

Hang En-36

Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

Hang En-37

Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

Hang En-38

Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

Hang En-39

Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

First we took a brief detour staying in  Hang En’s main chamber.  Bouldering up the sandy rocks afforded us a dazzling view of our campsite below.  In spite of being half-broken down by our porters it was still a spectacular view.  We soon climbed back down and donned our remaining gear.  The trek out of Hang En sported some massive passageways and difficult terrain.

We crossed the Son river at least once and climbed some hundred odd meters to a glorious overlook.  Playing with the silhouettes and lighting we were able to snag some sweet shots as the porter team disappeared in the distance.  But now it was time to say goodbye to this former contender for world’s largest cave.  We began our descent and quickly approached the monstrous mouth of the cave and exited back into the jungle.  We would follow the river for nearly 2 hours before climbing up the gigantic riverbank and back into the undergrowth.


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

Along the trek the sun beat down on us as butterflies stole the stage.  Every few hundred meters we encountered a swarm of the symmetrical critters.  Howard learned (from a National Geographic team) that the best way to attract the beautiful insects is actually to urinate.  No one tried it since they seemed to be flocking to us anyway.


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam




Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

Sloshing through the knee-deep river when it finally came time to exit the waterway we were quite ecstatic.  Little did we know that the wooded path before us would be much more difficult.  We weaved around and over muddy rocks and logs while the trail snaked upwards as slippery as it was steep.  Deb pointed out hand and foot hold as I trailed the group taking photographs of our jungle journey.


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

Distracted by the natural chorus and beauty all around I ignored Deb’s hand hold trusting my own balance when the  log beneath my feet suddenly gave way!  Reaching out I caught my camera in my left hand and grasped a slick log with my right.  Luckily my left foot landed firmly on a rock after only sliding a foot or two.  Checking myself for injuries I was relieved to find I only banged up my shin but it certainly was a necessary wake-up call as to the potential peril’s of our trek.


Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

After a quick recovery and another 30 minutes of climbing the trail leveled off.  We were told “5 minutes more” before a lunch break within view of Son Doong’s entrance!  Slowly finishing our morning journey Deb and I were chatting away.  I probed her with questions about the jungle and the local people, I was intrigued by her and Howard’s worldly adventures that frankly seemed otherworldly to a simple laymen like myself.  Suddenly I spotted something black and yellow glittering just above our heads.  “Stop!” I shouted to Deb, “What is that?” I pointed to a spider hanging just off the path.  A wondrous web was sprawled out nearly a meter across with a fist-sized Golden Orb spider lurking in the middle.


Golden Orb Spider (roughly the size of my hand and they eat birds!)

I mentioned to Deb  that I’d seen much smaller Golden Orbs in the Costa Rican rainforest near Arenal Volcano and she reminded me that the natives collect the web for nets just like the aboriginal Costa Ricans.  I went around the next bend to grab any non-arachnophobia companions and show them the journey’s biggest creature so far.  We posed with gloved hands for scale of the black and yellow critter.  It’s spots and stripes shown in the afternoon sun as our stomachs rumbled louder luring us back to the permanent camp for Son Doong’s “guards.”  There are two rangers/guides posted at all times just in case.


om nom nom nom!

Upon arrival we were greeted with heaping plates of homemade spring rolls, fresh watermelon, bananas and snacks galore.  We ate and enjoyed some bird watching as the anticipation of our momentous descent became too much to handle.  As we finished eating the porters began fitting harnesses while Howard and Deb reviewed some safety techniques and protocol.

The first few feet of our descent brought a cool embrace from a light breeze exiting the black abyss below.  A short rope climb brought us to the last stretch of jungle before I squeezed feet first through a tiny hole.  Crouching low my backpack snagged on a rock behind me; I reached behind and detached my tripod releasing me from the clutches of the sharp stone.


Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!


Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!


Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

Bats swooped around the corner just over Deb’s head.  As I came around the bend I noticed my companions peering into the blackness as Howard and the rest of the Vietnamese team checked the ropes.  After getting the all clear we got a quick tutorial and began one at a time.


Son Doong was discovered by Ho Khanh in 1990 before being explored by our guides Howard & Deb in the late 2000’s


Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!


In awe at what we are about to do. Become among the first 200 people to enter Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

A series of 4 ropes would bring us  halfway to the bottom.  In between each we had to disconnect and reconnect with some veteran help.  Below us the river rambled through rock formations in the darkness.  The second half of our entry would bring us closer to that waterway but didn’t require safety ropes.  Carefully we climbed down the bulbous stalagmites to arrive at the first river crossing.  An orange rope dangled above as a handhold in case the current was swift in this waist deep passage.


Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!


Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!


Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!


Holy Crap, Son Doong!

After crossing we took a water break while the bats continued to zip around us.  Howard told more stories from his treks around Vietnam and most notably Son Doong’s original exploration.  Eager to see more of this main event scoured the vicinity with our headlamps.  This damp chamber was full of fabulous rock formations but Howard sensed our anticipation and we quickly moved onward.


Day 1 inside Son Doong


1st river crossing, Son Doong

The pathway ahead was strewn with massive boulders.  Thanh led the way under each rock as our passage grew narrower you got a sense that above these massive stones the chamber was many times as big.  Before long we met the next river which would act as our guide over the next series of boulders before we arrived at the crossing.  On the other side we took our packs off, grabbed some soap and had a group “bath.”  This would be our last wash for the next 3 days!

As clean as we could get deep in the Vietnam’s jungle we set out one more time.  The trail on the far side of this river was slippery but we managed to keep a good pace anyway.  The following chamber’s sandy pathway weaved through spider webs.  No, web isnt’ the right word.  These are more like nests of white silk half-burrowed into the sand.  As the webs thinned out the crickets grew more prevalent when someone spotted fresh mushrooms on the left, perhaps they would be added to tonight’s dinner.


Son Doong’s darkness


mushrooms, rocks & spiders


Black stalagmites covered in sand

Suddenly the cavern expanded; blackness surrounded us as we hugged the right wall and were told a great landscape lay just ahead.  The Hand of Dog is a massive stalagmite, not quite as large as the world’s biggest in the previous chamber.  The structure itself is dwarfed by the chamber surrounding it instead of taking up the almost every cubic meter making it a much more formidable sight in one of the most voluminous caverns in the world.  To make it even more impressive just past Hand of Dog’s peak is the first doline, a collapsed portion of the cave where light and rain come in turning it into a green oasis.


Son Doong, aka the world’s largest underground darkness

Deb was sent ahead to climb the stalagmite while Thanh posed significantly closer on a “small” round stalagmite.  Kate set up shop on another rotund rock near the cameras and after a few practice shots Howard assigned “light painters.”  Their job is to pan back and forth with their headlamps while we use a long exposure to capture as much of the scene as possible.  In a few takes we had what everyone hoped were stellar photographs (see for yourself!) and continued towards the sunlight in the distance.


Hand of Dog silhouetted in front of Watch out for Dinosaurs, Son Doong


Hand of Dog with Deb on top

We crept closer to Hang Son Doong’s first doline, aptly named “Watch out for Dinosaurs.”  As we approached following the line of stalagmites along the western wall it was instantly apparent that the abyss beneath us fell off in a sudden cliff.  Focused on the encompassing darkness I nearly missed the stunning campground that appeared as I slipped past Hand of Dog.  A cloud formed just beneath the doline as the temperature changed.


2nd campsite in Son Doong with cloud cover in front of Watch out for Dinosaurs, a jungle inside the world’s largest cave!

The green gours in Watch out for Dinosaurs peaked through a cloud that formed above our tents but would elude us until the following day.  Arriving at the 2nd campsite our tents were already set up by the porters and soon began our feast.  Tonight’s Vietnamese dinner was a barbecued set of pork ribs, beef paired with a chicken & veggie stir fry.  One of my new favorites, a spicy tofu was present with our rice & rice wine staples.


2nd campsite in Son Doong


2nd campsite in Son Doong

After eating Thanh taught us the Vietnamese version of the card games Uno and Asshole/President (Mau Mau & Tien Len).  These games are wildly popular among the porter team but after arriving at camp by 4pm we were still able to hear Howard’s jungle rescue story after a flash flood trapped some of his team in a distant cave for nearly 2 days.  He reminded us that the breathtaking view here would easily make it the “best toilet in the world,” the alien jungle bursting forth in the distance promised an enjoyable stay on the throne but wasn’t enough to keep me from going back to the card games.  Unfortunately they instituted a “loser gets painted with charcoal” rule.  You can tell us foreigners need practice.


Foreigners losing at Vietnamese card games, Son Doong