The Belly of the Dragon

Stalactites cave Thailand Le Khaokob

It seems that in this world of ours there are quite a lot of people with irrational fears. In fact, every now and again I stumble over an article that lists the latest fears that have been given names, and wonder what it means exactly for your life when you are afraid of… garlic.

To anyone who thinks he or she is a mess I recommend looking at this list of phobias – I can assure you that you will find plenty of phobias you didn’t think existed, in addition to some that will make you chuckle.

You don’t chuckle that much when you are actually affected by a phobia, it has to be said. Then the irrationality of it all completely fails to amuse you.

In my twenties a life phase of the wilder kind led to symptoms of anxiety. I felt I couldn’t breathe. I felt my heart raced incredibly. I felt I was somehow far away from people. I felt horrible things were about to happen. I abruptly left rooms, I abruptly left trains, I opted out of a multitude of events because the thought already made me dizzy. Endless hours of fun.

Stalactites cave Thailand Le Khaokob yellow

I finally went to a doctor (a GP) to have the physical side ruled out of the equation. Who knows, maybe my symptoms were actually caused by something real. They certainly felt real, so I wanted to make sure I was “just” bonkers. Fortunately (well) I had a panic attack right while the doctor was taking my pulse and blood pressure. I thought my heart would explode. She said to me: “Let’s see… Oh great: your values are excellent!”. Which basically meant that my mind was officially capable of messing with my reality big time.

Not being able to fully trust my senses anymore has definitely changed my life, but that’s what happens. I dealt with it best I could, and eventually the ugly monster left me mostly alone and stuck its head out only occasionally.

But boy, it surely had the time of its life when we were in Thailand, the little sucker!

It started when we were in Kanchanaburi, where the River Kwai Bridge is. Checking out the area by bike, we found a temple in a cave, the Koapoon Cave Temple, and went inside to look at it.

Kanchanaburi buddha temple cave

Golden Buddhas and other godly beings awaited us in the various caves, along with crystallized limestone in odd and wonderful forms and shapes. We wandered around and took pictures when suddenly I got hit by the mean cold sting of massive panic taking over my brain, triggered by a particularly narrow passageway and maybe the air not circulating that well right there. That was a newbie, though. I never had a problem with caves or small spaces before. Not exactly smitten with my new-found ability I carried on and just stayed away from anywhere you kind of had to crawl into. Apart from that, the caves were really quite stunning.

And so it went. I noticed that my new claustrophobia popped up every now and again, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. It was just weird to step into an elevator after having done the same for the last thirty years, just now it felt slightly different. Like it could be a really bad idea.

Then we came to Trang, a city in the South of Thailand. We had a little itinerary for the day, and started with the Thep Taro Wood Handicraft Souvenir Shop where they turn the root of the Taro tree into auspicious receptacles and other things. It is quite a popular place because the Thep Taro Wood is believed to be a lucky symbol.  And it was also a place where you could witness the whole line of production – something I really like about Thailand. Taro wood carving Trang Thailand hand

So we were shown a Taro tree, we got a little tour around the actual shop where all the different products were for sale, we went to the workshop where we even had a go at burning patterns into the wood which resulted in a very nice smell (we’ll not say anything about the patterns we created, though). And the smell is what makes the Taro tree so special: because the root gives off a scent, which the receptacles then also contain.

You think I’m completely off-topic now but I always have to think back to the shop, because when this nice chap named Tanes showed us around, he mentioned the many benefits of the tree, including the leaves which you can make medical tea from.

I asked if you can eat them just like that, too, since I was crumbling a leaf between my fingers to release the smell. He answered that yes, you could, but it would result in diarrhea (so I didn’t try to taste the leaf). I keep thinking about that, probably because that was the first clue for the theme of this day which seemed to be intensively about functions of the colon.

Collage Trang Taro wood workshop Thailand

In the shop there were also flyers for the cave we wanted to go next: the “Belly of the dragon”. I knew this sight would involve us being paddled through a cave, but wasn’t aware of details. Then I saw pictures of people lying flat down on a paddle boat, the ‘ceiling’ about 10 cm away from their noses – wait, wait, wait: I was NOT going to do that!

Loz replied that he was sure it would be fine and not that crazy, and Tanes too assured me that it wasn’t a big deal. So I thought the picture on the flyer maybe showed one tiny bit of the passage and I would regret missing the whole adventure, should I not go and Loz afterwards tell me how great it had been.

Thus we drove up to Khaokob Cave, paid our fare of 300 Baht for the little boat and hopped on. Two guides, one in the front, one in the back, accompanied us. First we were taken down the river and just enjoyed the scenery and the greenery, then we disappeared into the darkness of an underground cave in the mountain Pha Nang Koy.

Vera outside Khao Kob cave Thailand

One of our guides told us to lie down flat and I thought: “Here we go!”. Indeed the ceiling came closer and closer, but not further down on us than 30 cm. Which was okay for me, as  I noted with relief. I relaxed and when we reached the first cave we could walk around in, I jumped out of the canoe, listened to the guide’s explanations, and took pictures.

Several stops and caves and a lot of pictures later, we went back on the boat and, after a nice bit of floating down the dimly lit river, were once again asked to lie flat down. This time the ceiling seemed to come a bit closer than before. The passage got more narrow. There weren’t any lamps anymore and it got pretty dark. I realized I had been relieved too early: this was becoming quite intense. The guides were lying down too now, pushing the canoe forward with their hands along the ceiling which basically left me less space than if I had been buried alive in a coffin – less than 10 cm certainly.

I became a bit nervous and just wanted to position my hand differently, but the guide told me not to move my flattened body. He was amazing – he just kept talking, made jokes, repeated that he was taking care of us here and pretended to nearly get hit by the odd bit of ceiling hanging into our faces.

Inside belly of the dragon cave Thailand boat

So what do you think about when you find yourself in your own worst nightmare? Funnily enough, I just had to think how we were exactly like food in the digestive tract. We might have entered  the belly of the dragon, but now we were definitely in its colon, and I felt so deeply sorry for everything I had ever eaten to go through this process of being pushed through the tiniest, darkest space, not knowing how long it will take, and being all afraid and claustrophobic. I was moments away of swearing to never eat again to spare anything from having to endure this. I kid you not.

The thing is: you can not afford to freak out in a situation like this. You just can’t. So I closed my eyes and thought that I could be anywhere, and that helped, so I opened them again. The guide talked and talked, and I laughed and pretended that I was just a bit nervous, but of course by no means fighting in my head not to lose it. I mostly pretended to be fine in order to convince myself of it. Then I started hearing screams from further behind us, where the next canoe was coming. It wasn’t quite clear if it was your delighted “This is so exciting!”-screaming or the “Oh my god, we’re all gonna die!”-screaming. It echoed on in my mind and had quite a contagious touch, but I shook it off.

I held Loz’s hand very tight (okay, so I nearly broke it) and let my thoughts jump from little kittens to golden ponies, flying over rainbows in a land with trees made out of pink candy floss. Then Loz saw the light at the end of the tunnel and slowly the walls moved away and the ceiling lifted again. I felt a bit pooed out. Our guide seemed to be equally exhausted. I realized that I couldn’t be the only one who would get the jitters – he had quite a lot of responsibility making sure people didn’t freak out because that wouldn’t go well in there, and he did a really, really good job; I have to say that. I contemplated for a moment to propose marriage but we had already finished our ride and they were waiting for us to step out of the boat, so we did.

Collage Khaokob belly of the dragon cave thailand

Then Loz told me (and I love how he always tells me these things AFTERWARDS) that he had read that the tour through the “Belly of the dragon” was something like an auspicious activity with the “colon”-part probably showing that extra bit of commitment for the extra bit of good luck, but that he hadn’t thought it would be this extreme and hadn’t it been just the greatest adventure? I had to agree that I certainly felt ahead of other people now, having had the proper “poo being pushed through and out of the colon of no return”-experience, but could not quite get as excited about it.

And the saddest part is that this is indeed all that I learned from it: how poo would feel. I would have thought that if you dare to face your fears, and manage to successfully overcome them in a critical situation, then it would weaken the power of said fear and strengthen the belief in yourself, but nope, nada. I think back and just feel panicky.

But I guess in a way I now have my own internalized “colon cruiser” who will give me a big harangue the next time I feel funny in an elevator. You know, about how this is nothing compared to the audacious colon cruising tour, and how much room there is even in the tiniest elevator compared to a colon, and how everything changes once you are a SURVIVOR, and so on, until I get more irritated about that than about any claustrophobic impulse.

Stalactites cave Thailand Le Khaokob close up

So if you’re claustrophobic, you might want to skip this sight, unless you’re into confrontational therapy – then this is pretty much the queen of confrontation, my lovely. You’ll never know how long it can take to move 350 m (that’s how long that last bit is).

If you’re not claustrophobic, then this tour might make you! …I’m just kidding!! Exploring Khao Kob Cave, the Belly of the Dragon, is a neat little adventure, and the caves with their funky stalagmites and stalactites are beautiful and fascinating. It’s a tourist destination recommended by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, and rightfully so! In fact I think the visit to all the different bits of the cave completely took my mind off my worries and “awed” a bit of perspective into me (which is the thing that I lose first when it comes to my fears), before undertaking the “colon cruise”.

Vera belly of the dragon

You can arrange transport from Trang City, it’s a drive of around 25 minutes. You pay per boat (300 Baht) which will take up to five people, should you travel in a group. You will not need flash-lights, as there is electricity – mostly. So off you go – collect your own bit of good luck, and rub that dragon belly (probably with your nose – even luckier!) until you see the light. I’m pretty sure you will feel very lucky at that point… I did!

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