Hot springs & waterfalls – a hidden paradise in Wulai, Taiwan

Wulai was without a doubt my favorite part of Taiwan.  Sure I only had a long weekend to explore but everything I loved about Taipei was in this quaint mountain town’s market too.  But the real attraction of Wulai isn’t the night market you can find in the capitol, its the lush natural surroundings & friendly locals.

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Directions to Wulai
849 bus from Xindian station (end of the green line.)
Bus fare – $15 NTD ($.50US)
Taxi fare – $600 NTD ($20US)

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Wulai 2

Upon first arriving in Wulai its impossible to miss the stunning bridges criss-crossing across the river augmented by the Wulai Waterfall.  A column of water 80 meters high plummets to the river (making it Taiwan’s largest waterfall) just across from the natural hot springs where you’ll find locals inviting you to join them for an afternoon soak.

 

 


Wulai Bridge


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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!

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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!

Castaway on an island in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam – Day 2

Waking up on Castaway’s boat in Ha Long Bay and walking to the sundeck for a relaxing morning would have been fantastic.  It was cloudy and we had to transfer to a smaller boat soon after breakfast and hustled across the side to the other vessel.  A few hours on these choppy seas caused the worst hangovers to grow exponentially worse.  Luckily that wasn’t me.

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I jumped up and down enjoying the sway of the ocean while dancing to a fellow traveler’s tunes.  Some of my companions huddled inside fearing each swell while the bravest of us enjoyed the salty spray aboard the bow.  Green islands skirted along either side towering over of us when suddenly someone spotted a massive jellyfish off of starboard._DSC9518 _DSC9525 _DSC9531 _DSC9547

Lighthouses and tour boats grew scarcer the further away from the mainland we sailed.  Unfortunately the trail of littler seemed to intensify as each luxury liner was replaced with smaller local fishing & market boats.  Around the next bend we began spotting small floating houses and villages; their nets already hauled in from a morning catch.  It was suddenly clear that no one wanted to haul the trash that these natives generated and we all felt a twinge of guilt for bringing even more garbage to the seas.  At least everything we brought would stay aboard and get shipped back to shore.

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Slowly the waves died down and a happy calm swam across the ship.  Our vessel turned and glided between the green monsters which now protected us from each treacherous wave.  As the waters calmed we began to see more floating houses and islands with tropical beaches.  Most of these lush paradises were devoid of all signs of humanity.  Simply a beautiful beach protected by an overgrown jungle filled mountain.

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Before we knew it our boat slowed and turned towards one such beach.  Castaway Island was clearly inhabited, albiet there were a few shanties, a solitary bar and 2 docks roped off in the waters.  We landed, had a beer and found out that electricity would only be on for a few hours in the evening.  Rock climbing began after lunch as did tubing and some other festivities.

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After eating I tried my luck at rock climbing debuting the cliffs for our trip.  Without too much struggle I reached the peak of the “easy” climb.  It was by no means easy but certainly a ton of fun.  I took my free beer for making it up and waited while plotting my ascent of the “hard” path to secure 2 more cold ones.

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My 1st belayer's awesome tatoo!

My 1st belayer’s awesome tatoo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile tubing began with a hilarious group of Brits who affectionately referred to me as “dirty Mike” and themselves as “& tha boys.”  Conner an unusually short gentleman was hilariously tossed great distances from the tube; a fate I later found out that it was inevitable as I too flew into the tropical waters.  (no one went nearly as far as Conner in this dwarf tossing experiment)

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After getting a good laugh I took a chance on the tough climb.  Harnessing up, my belayer (who was an expert climber) gave me some last bits of advice.

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“Keep breathing.  Follow the crack on the right.  At one point you’ll need to brace your back legs and use a technique called ‘stemming’.”

Alright, I thought to myself.  I got this!

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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.

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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.

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Son Doong – On the trek to Watch Out for Dinosaurs

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Son Doong – On the trek to Watch Out for Dinosaurs

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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.

 

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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.

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Son Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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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.

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

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_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.

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Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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

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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.

 

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Han Song Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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Butterfly!

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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Day 1 inside Son Doong

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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.

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Son Doong’s darkness

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mushrooms, rocks & spiders

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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2nd campsite in Son Doong

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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.

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Foreigners losing at Vietnamese card games, Son Doong