Paradise Cave: Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Paradise Cave was discovered in 2005, and have now taken over in popularity the better known Phong Nha Caves that are announced by a huge sign on one of the hills outside the town of Phong Nha. The latter caves can only be reached by boat then walking to the caves so we opted for Paradise. Which was just as well as we discovered later, which also explained why Paradise seemed to be suddenly getting crowded at one point, the Phong Nha Caves were closed due to high water. It took four years for experts to fully explore over the next four years before opening to the public –  31 km long, the largest dry cave in the world, we only explored the ‘easier’, monstrously large, dry section. 100 metres at its highest point and up to 150 metres wide. The boardwalk inside this section of the cave, once down the steep, steep stairs, is an impressive one and 1/4km long that provides many wonderful views of the various formations one would expect in a cave. The more intrepid can choose to stop at – before or after – one of the more challenging sections for dark caving (no thank you), wading in water through a cave, rafting, (I think that is what they meant when our guides were telling us about the activities) and cave climbing. There is also the very carefully protected cave in which only 300, carefully vetted, visitors per year are allowed to explore. This particular cave, Hang Son Doong, could fit an entire Manhattan city block insid and takes a week to explore! Like I said, we chose paradise (need I suggest, over Hell?)

These reminded me of ancient blades melded together over time.

My only fear was having one of these fall on us!

Readers may note I say we versus me, I was on a four day motorcycle tour with my youngest daughter. She ended up not being a happy camper during the significantly long uphill, switchback trek to the mouth of the cave. (Rather than tell me she was hungover she just complained – most likely because I would not have felt a bit sorry for her. The blisters on her feet however were another issue) It took me 45 minutes to an hour to the mouth, she took longer.

There were maybe 3-4 places with coloured lights; my preference would be none. (In and around Guilin, China, also known for its caves, lighting is a garish art form

Once there we had to climb down a short set of steps, enter the somewhat narrow mouth to the cave, adjust our eyes, then be wowed by the spectacular, disorienting view, in the eerie darkness. Plus the stairs. The steep stairs. Wooden, vertigo inducing stairs. I had a few moments when I did not think my equilibrium would balance on time to go forward or back. Fortunately my brain and feet worked in unison and I sallied forth. My daughter was somewhere behind me taking pictures and finally enjoying herself despite the muttering of ‘I’ve seen caves, why am I here’ that were audible enough for me to hear until I was further away – I never did remind her that sound carries. I focussed on being awed by the natural, internal world. White walls, cathedral surmounting ceiling, a couple of degrees cooler than outside, naturally formed, marbled statues that outclass even the most perfect of all statues – which is of course up to debate. I was happy to note this cave is tastefully lit, just enough light to not trip over your feet. We were also there, until as noted, more visitors were arriving, when it was relatively quiet. At one point it felt as though we were the sole inhabitants of a lost underworld. 

Although called a dry cave there was water on many of the surfaces. I did wonder where it came from.
This was like time had suddenly stood still in mid bubble.

Photos cannot do justice to the magnificence of huge spaces unless taken from above, and, although I took a few pictures from the top of the stairs’ the feel for the space – I never felt I was literally under millions of tons of rock, well not until now – cannot be depicted unless perhaps a drone (heaven forbid) were to be used. I hope I managed, with help from my daughter who has a much better eye for photo ops than I, to find enough shots for others to enjoy. 

This was the end for us although my daughter thought the sleeping guard gave us the opportunity to slip over the guardrail. I did read later that it is possible to explore further with a guide. The fact a guide is necessary made me happy to turn back.


Pre-trip Preparations: What about the cat? (And trivial stuff like health & rent)


Insisting I cannot leave him – he threw my clothes on the floor and made a nest.

Smitten with my cat is a mild descriptor for how important he is to me. I have lived with cats, either my own or, by extension family cats, for about 40 years. With just a little effort I could probably name all of them. Which brings me to heading out for a no working 60 day trip. Leaving my cat behind for any length of time is becoming more and more difficult. He is over 15 y/o, born in a hole-in-the-wall shop on the University Road stretch of Nanning, China. These days I leave him at home with my daughter. (In the past he has stayed with extended family) I am grateful she does not currently have my wanderlust. What is most important is to give carte blanche decision making even if it means you, the traveller, might come home to a paw print and a box of ashes and an emptier bank account. The only other choice would be to stay home. Reality sucks, less so if prepared.
He does the best royally pissed off face. In royal comfort.

Am I cruel to leave Mozzy behind? Not if he will receive the same gold standard care and love I lavish on him. Am I sure he will indeed receive said lavishness – absolutely. About the only concern I have is that our vet is a 30 minute drive from home. They know how to handle him, they have his records, they are prepared. My daughter does not drive. Mozzy needs Cartrophen injections every other week for a leg injury from a few years ago. He also has some other issues we have been trying to get a handle on – before I leave. It would help if he would eat his bribe or salmon. Which brings me full circle, it is difficult to leave any loved, elder family behind – even a cat.

This photo always goes with me on my phone

Other than the fact I will be 60 y/o when I begin this trip, which brings its own delightful issues, I do have some health concerns. I would rather ignore them; however, to appease family (maybe some friends if they know – oops, some of them read this) I will take whatever precautions necessary. Main priority, I have non-insulin dependant Type ll Diabetes. Battling the needle is ongoing. Much to the chagrin of my GP and various doctors I refuse to have injections. Keeping my numbers down is part of that battle. One saving grace is that they tend to be lower, not quite where they should be, when I am travelling for the simple reason I am so much more active and not tied down to commitments. As I write this I find my numbers are already creeping up, barely a week after coming home from my trip to Ontario. Back to taking control of the battle.
Then there is travel insurance. I strongly recommend getting some form, even if only basic coverage. Cost will depend on the area being travelled to, age, activities, and medical conditions that must be reported. I was happy when World Nomads raised their pre-screening age from 60 to 65. I do have to look into my status with controlled diabetes. As for activities, the only dangerous one I will do is riding pillion on a motorcycle, which I think is fine. It is important to have coverage starting from home to returning home rather than just once you hit the ground.
My knees are another major worry. I really do not want to collapse in mid-stride. Exercises to strengthen my quads, chair yoga, various unguents, OTCs for swollen joints and pain, and now one brace are helping a bit. I should have two braces. Which is possible if I purchase at the local Walmart at 1/15 the price of just one, not even good for both knees, where I go to see the various doctors about the pain. Walking is fine with a brace, stairs are not. So I am practicing. Gritting my teeth in frustration and at times pain. I just work through it.


I know I am fortunate to be sharing with my daughter. Not only is she my in house kitty second, we share all the expenses. However, like anyone with a mortgage, rent still has to be paid. We came up with an arrangement that has so far worked for both of us. I pay less rent when I am away; that savings goes towards to accommodation. Although it is not enough to pay for too many days I believe that any amount I can funnel into my overall budget is a bonus. Working out a rough budget prior to leaving is important and knowing I have the funds to cover roughly two weeks of hostels – depending on where I am – is comforting.

Somehow we have managed to deal with bills only when I return from a trip. Yes, a major hit to the bank account, but not when I might need the funds while travelling. We also have everything fixed to equal payments so I tend to have the figure sitting quietly in the back of my brain rather than resting heavily on my mind. All I have to take care of is making sure my phone is paid for. Also car insurance if I do not take it off the road for the time I am away. (Always check this is acceptable if you have a parking spot – you will most likely have to pay a low coverage regardless where the vehicle is parked. I recommend it.)
Packing: Like a June/December romance – it will work
My 40 days in Eastern Canada the tail end of June and most of July was fairly simple to plan for. Shorts, sleeveless tops and sandals. It also helped me decide what I should not take to China and Vietnam. Until I remembered I will be travelling in various regions, varying degrees and seasons. That complicates packing. Summewear sounded sensible for Vietnam until I considered mosquitoes and a ten day motorcycle tour. Long sleeved tops and pants are practically de rigueur for clothing – fashion be damned.
I will hit Shanghai mid-Sep and I already know the temperatures can range from well over 20 c to chillier low teens. Without central heating in the buildings it can also feel dampish when the numbers dip. Without AC to battle the heat – miserable. My itinerary so far is broken into three sections for China. Ten days in a tight circle to get me back to the Pudong (Shanghai) Airport for my flight to Vietnam. Once my motorcycle tour is done I plan to visit the southwest interior of China, where it can be suffocatingly hot or have an autumn chill. As I head north, so far always north, it will only become colder. By the time I reach Shanxi province I may be encountering 5 c and below in November. Yikes! I do know I can wrap my winter coat around my backpack – it is just such a nuisance when the first full month will be warm. Ah, decisions, decisions. 

Day 10 (I think): Belleville

One of the jobs my daughter does when training patients to do their own dialysis is to visit them at their homes soon after to see how they are doing. This worked out for me as it meant I could be dropped off at the nearby town while she headed down a dusty country road. (I admit that description was solely in my imagination) This particular day I visited Belleville. Early. In a sleepy, quiet town. I was doubtful I would find a place for a cup of coffee until my D called me from her car – Bluetooth is great – saying she had passed a place. 

Very impressive Belleville City Hall.

By this time I had walked past the rather stunning city hall, around the block plus some and noted there were several churches, upon a second tour, slightly extended, around I discovered that one of the main streets is aptly called Church Street. My day was planned. Find a washroom, then coffee, then explore. At 8:30 in the morning it is not always easy to find facilities in a small town. (Or is this only an issue for older travellers?) However, most towns with a decent population do have a city/town hall that have public facilities – I suggest to anyone travelling to seek out this public building, after all taxpayers pay for it and you are a guest. Information can also be found about the area if an Information Centre is not available, closed or on the outskirts.

Next on my agenda was to find one of two cafes. I was hoping for The Brake Room, and had actually passed it on one my earlier circuits. A perfect blend of two of my favourites, cycling and coffee. A fabulous idea, open a bicycle repair shop combined with a coffee shop that is situated near one of many trails and, “they will come.” It helps if the fare offered is good, and it was. They promise locally sourced food and quality coffee. I was not disappointed. A flat white and a maple scone (finally a scone that was not so dry or overly fluffed with baking soda to choke a person) to tide me over. Although the seating area was not exceptionally busy at the time there was enough coming and going to think this place will stay in business for some time. I did have a fleeting thought about how slow things must be over the winter months. I also thought that if I knew how to repair bikes I could sink my teeth into a similar business. Not in Victoria though, I believe the bike repair and the Cafe market is saturated despite not having a combined shop. I was ready to take on the rest of Belleville.

Thinking as a cyclist I checked out possible paths where walking was also encouraged. My first stop was at the railway station. “Belleville became an important railway junction with the completion of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1856.” Unfortunately it appeared the station was closed so I walked further on to admire some of the condos and townhouses along the river – minimal glimpses. Some very nice boats tied to private docks. No access to trails that way so I headed back to the railway station. This is where one of my few prejudices kicked in. (I will not go into detail as to why; suffice to say I do have a legitimate reason) Two men, who appeared to be insufficiently homed and possibly inebriated (this was before 10:00am), were sitting on a bench at the entrance to both trails so I approached the trails around the backside in the hopes of not creating any friction. In either direction the main arteries were closed due to flooding. So I had to backtrack to the crosswalk, smack damn in front of the aforementioned benches and occupants. To raise my blood pressure one of the men sauntered towards the same crossing I was heading for. I crossed, waited for the next crossing to go to the opposite side. Of course this fellow saw someone he knew and crossed over part way up the street. I know I was overreacting but knowing should never be discounted when in an unfamiliar place. I headed to a Church Street.

The river appeared very close to lapping the tracks

Of course, once again, none of the churches were open. This makes me think about my daughter’s PhD focus on the interconnection of Sacred and Secular spaces – where tourism flourishes. I expect locking the doors is a direct impact of too few congregates, priests and pastors and the various individuals who make a church run smoothly. As steeples seem to fascinate me I took photos of those rather than poor ones of stained glass. The United Church, sitting on a hillock above the street, had a quite an ambitious garden going. I have a strong belief that churches should use the land for gardens to “share his bread with the poor.” On that note it was time for lunch.

Like I had passed the Brake Room, I went by Paulo’s Italian Trattoria a couple of times during my wandering. My daughter had a couple of hours before seeing her patient again and sent a text suggesting an early lunch. I was checking out the menus when a server and then the owner said I could come in although it was not even 11:00 and they would not open for another half hour. Coffee was put on to brew, water provided. I was duly impressed without even eating anything. Lunch turned out to be delicious. Warm bread with butter, and a hearty soup. It had been raining off and on all morning. Great service, all within the timeframe before we had to rush off. 

I was dropped off at a nursery where I am sure the owners thought I had been abandoned. One can only traverse the aisles of a small greenhouse and the outdoor paths of a small operation for so long. I probably walked 5000+ steps! When I was finally picked up we bought some lovely flowering plants and I thanked the owners for letting me hang out. 

The numbers: $7.00 snack $ coffee; $35.00 for train meals and snacks while in Quebec; 20,000 steps

Travelling with pain

I saw my physiatrist again. She thinks cortisone is unnecessary for the chronic pain I have in my left knee, and now my right knee. Seems that not rolling on the floor, crying to be put out of my misery, means I must be fine. In Canada we have an excellent medical system, however, there are ways for clinics to make money. Such as getting a market hold on all the needs of patients in one field – do that and the money comes rolling in from sales of all the extras. Also the fact so many medical personnel are under one roof churning through patients. I am of the opinion that there is too much pushing of expensive, not covered, devices over medication or other means of alleviating pain that are less costly. The other issue is that a number of practices are not covered by our medical system – depending on which province one lives in. 

Kinesiology was suggested by a friend of mine. Specifically the tape I have seen runners and other athletes use. I have less than three weeks to look into if visiting a kindsiologist is covered. I doubt the tape would be. My main interest is that tape is far less bulky than two braces. That being the suggested action I should take. I am weighing the pros and cons without having learned more about taping so thought I would ask around, here and elsewhere, if anyone else has had to deal with chronic pain and how they dealt with it.

How is it possible to travel on a motorcycle for ten days wearing one or two braces? Carry baggage without falling over?  Rush to catch a train/plane/bus because traffic was crazy. Or run away from polar bears? (It is unlikely I will encounter any this time of year but who knows) How to fit the things into an already tightly packed backpack to meet flight carry on specifications. Perhaps just keep taking NSAIDS and using one of many topical ointments. Except the latter would not be allowed in a carry on bag. Just how does anyone travel when in constant pain that only subsides when visiting the doctor!?