Paradise Cave, Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park, Vietnam
I’m going to start this off by making a big call. I think the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is one of the least known of the world’s top natural wonders. That’s not to say it’s completely off the map – domestic tourism is popular here and the number of backpackers who pass through is definitely increasing. But had you heard of it before? No, I hadn’t either.
The drawcard of the national park is its caves. It’s full of them and they are incredible.
Did you know the world’s largest cave is here? No, I didn’t either. It is so big that you could fly a Boeing 747 through it. Another way of trying to get a sense of its size – you could fit an entire Manhattan city block inside.
But I didn’t go into this cave, which is called Hang Son Doong. To protect it, the number of visitors each year is limited to just 300. They have to trek for days to get there and the trip costs at least $3000. It all sounds amazing – and it has gone on the imaginary bucket list that I have!
Instead, I started my exploration of Phong Nha-Ke Bang with Paradise Cave. It is 34 kilometres long and got its name because some of the first explorers were so amazed by the rock formations that they thought it looked like paradise.
Those first explorers were only here quite recently. The cave wasn’t found until 2005, when a local farmer came across it. It seems strange to hear that but when you see the entrance for yourself, it makes a bit more sense. There is thick jungle everywhere and it all looks the same – a tangled mess of vines and tall trees. Only a small hole in a cliff face up a mountain gives a clue to the wonder inside.
As a regular tourist, you can only walk through the first kilometre and a half of Paradise Cave, although there are special tours that can take you further. This first section is designed for visitors, with a wooden pathway the whole way and tasteful lighting illuminating the special features along the way.
When it comes to these features, there are so many to see. The start of the cave is an enormous cavern, bigger than a stadium, but when you get a bit further in it’s the stalactites, the stalagmites, and the limestone columns that dominate the view. They come in all different shapes and sizes – thin ones and thick ones, smooth ones and jagged ones. Some look like rows of guardians, watching over their theatre. Another looks like a house. Another like a waterfall, in suspended animation for millions of years.
I look up at the ceiling of one section and it appears blue with orange markings all across it. My first thought is that it looks a bit like the paintings of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. But then my attention is drawn to the formations all over the walls that look like they could be straight out of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. But none of this is manmade, of course. This is a natural beauty and nature has done a better job at creating an inspiring cathedral than any human artist ever could.
It’s difficult to capture in photos the sense of being in Paradise Cave. No single shot can show you the scale, the length, the colours, and the detail. It’s hard even for my eyes to dart around and see it all. It’s overwhelming in its beauty.
However, what I’m going to do is leave you with a series of photos that I took from inside the cave. Hopefully they give you a bit of an idea as to why I was so stunned by this place. I really hope you get a chance to see it for yourself one day – and maybe even make it to the biggest cave nearby. Start saving for that!