Kuala Lumpur, then home to a perfect gift

I’m sitting writing this at my sister’s kitchen table in Cowfold, wearing fingerless gloves, (almost) the entire contents of my suitcase and a nice warm fleece top (Christmas present from my lovely mum). It’s taken some adjustment to be back in the frosty cold of England, but great to receive a warm festive welcome from my lovely family. On my last morning in Malaysia I was sweating as I packed my bag in the 30 degree heat and humidity. Twenty-one hours of travelling later I found myself shivering and jetlagged in my thin clothes at Stansted airport in the middle of the night, remembering what –2 degrees feels like. I felt like an alien that had just been beamed down from Mars.

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My two days stop-off in Kuala Lumpur was a pleasant way to say goodbye to Asia. It was nice to be back at the wonderful ‘Backhome KL’ hostel – I got the same smiley greeting,  cozy dorm room and friendliness I so enjoyed on my first visit in September, plus they’d decorated a little Christmas tree and stuck it in the lobby as a reminder that it was December (an easy fact to forget here in the heat).

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I took a long walk around town this time (avoiding the malls… the travel budget has been stretched enough) to grab some last hours of Asian sunshine, birdsong and greenery. I ended up at the butterfly house and bird park, making friends with some colourful creatures, then popped into the National Mosque (they’d only let me in if I put on a synthetic, bright purple, full-length hooded gown – how muslim women don’t sweat to death is beyond me!). But before I knew it I woke on morning 103 and I had to face up to facts…. back to reality….

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…. On Christmas Day I got the best present / welcome home gift ever. My new niece, little Alice, was delivered safe and sound and perfect by my twin sister Claire. Some things are worth travelling half the way around the world for!

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So that’s me signing out for the moment. Thanks to all of you who have been reading my entries and writing such lovely comments. It’s been great to know you’ve been with me along the way! It really has been the most amazing adventure and I’ve had the time of my life. Now I just have to start planning for the next trip. Something tells me it won’t be too far away…

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Posted in Malaysia, Places, Travel Diary | 1 Comment

Mixed Emotions in Khao Lak, and Goodbye to Thailand

It’s been mixed emotions since returning to Khao Lak after the dive trip. I’m really missing the life and people on the boat, and am aware of the days rushing by until I’m due back in Europe. I can’t help feeling a little melancholic and sentimental for a return to the adventures of the past few days, and at the same time I’m reading reports of airport chaos in London and am hoping I won’t be stranded on Christmas Eve alone in Kuala Lumpur. Half of me just wants to get home to my family and the other half is yearning to stay… but I definitely do not want to spend Christmas in an airport departure lounge!

There have been some wonderful days here though, spent in great company (divers are always such lovely people) and stocking up on sunshine, beach time, sleep and good Thai eating opportunities before returning to the big European freeze. I hired a cute pink motorcycle and made myself at home for a few days.

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I celebrated travel day no. 100 by treating myself to a day’s dive trip to the Boonsung Wreck. I took a longtail boat with Yemi and Jo (a really nice couple who I met on the the liveaboard) and dive guide Semyi out to this old shipwreck to swim with the fishes one last time this trip. My dive tally is now 49… not bad considering my first dive ever wasn’t until late September. I was hoping to make it to 50, but at least this gives me another excuse to return before too long. We did two lovely dives here. Being back in the water really banished the melancholy and returned a big smile to my face! We hung out with the honeycomb moray eels, loads of lionfish (including a cute baby one), scorpion fish, shrimp and other critters, and it was fun to dive a wreck for a change and to chill out in the sunshine on the boat between dives.

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The dive photos (taken at the Boonsung wreck) are courtesy of Yemi, who always seems to get the best shots!

This morning I took one final blissful swim in the warm sea, whizzed around on the scooter on my final errands, spoke to the people in the dive office about the possibilities of coming back to do my Dive Master qualification and hung out with some great new dive friends until it was time to catch the bus to Phuket, where I’m flying off out of Thailand to Kuala Lumpur.

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Thailand has been amazing! My residing memories will be of diving, romance, sunshine and smiles and I’m going to be dreaming of a return to the incredible oceans here for the months to come. Thailand hasn’t had the same drama as India or the awesome landscapes of Laos, but it has been a delicate, soothing experience that calms the soul and leaves me wanting more.

Best Memories of Thailand

1. Letting off burning lanterns into the night sky at the Loy Krathong festival and watching the sky become a constellation of orange stars

2. Early morning swims in the pool at the fantastic Imm Eco in Chiang Mai and hanging out there with lovely Rahel, my excellent travel buddy

3. Sunset dive in the Similans, joining the dance of the fishy rush-hour in the fading light

4. Diving at Richelieu Rock…. an awesome site, packed full of amazing life and beauty

5. Riding the river taxis in Bangkok at night, watching the temple roofs sparkle

6. Waking up in the middle of the night on the dive boat and remembering I’m at sea, then dozing off next to an open window with the smell of the ocean and the twinkling stars for company.

7. Cooking class with the brilliant Gayray in Chiang Mai – learning to mix delicate Thai flavours in a tasty blend of sweet, spicy, sour and salty.

8. Spotting a seahorse at Richelieu Rock, then within the next few minutes an ornate ghost pipefish AND harlequin shrimp!

9. Early morning sea swims in Khao Lak – loving the warm waters so much I didn’t want to get out of the ocean.

10. And finally, my sweetest memories of Thailand are due to a certain wonderful person, but these are private  Smile

I can’t believe I’ll be home in three days time!!! But I’ve just arrived in Kuala Lumpur… and have a couple of days to enjoy the big city first.

Posted in Diving, Places, Thailand, Travel Diary | 2 Comments

Return to the Similans

I loved my last dive trip to the Similan Islands on the Manta Queen I so much that I decided to do the whole thing again one month later. This time I loved it even more.

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There were a few reasons for this. Firstly, we had three days of glorious sunshine and calm waters, so I could really appreciate the beauty of the islands. It was such a pleasure to wake up at sea on the first morning and brush my teeth on the dive deck in the sunshine, looking out into a bay of bright turquoise sea and getting excited about my first dive of the trip.

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The diving got better and better too. I had another fourteen more fabulous dives to relish, and this time I felt more relaxed well-prepared. I had the confidence to explore a bit, rather than sticking directly behind my dive guide Neal (a crazy American with a vast repertoire of cheesy songs). It’s so much fun to go on little ‘underwater treasure hunts’ and if you’re the first to spot something cool it’s always a kick.

I didn’t have an underwater camera, so the following great pictures are borrowed from other divers…

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Last trip we didn’t make it to the famous Richelieu Rock because of bad weather, but this time we got three dives at this amazingly beautiful site. It was so packed full of life that I didn’t know where to start looking. You could spend an hour exploring a square meter here, but there’s so much more to see. We spotted a seahorse, harlequin shrimp, ornate ghost pipefish, giant chevron barracuda, smashing mantis shrimp, a whole load of nudibranchs and all sorts of other great stuff within minutes of being down there.

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It was also a whole lot of fun just hanging out on the boat in such great company. My beer tally definitely went up this trip, and sleep hours went down, but I still had plenty of energy for diving. I helped Julian draw his amazing dive maps (well, I hindered more than helped… his drawing talent far exceeds mine) and really enjoyed hanging out with another German room mate, Tina. The two of us are getting so addicted to diving that we’re plotting a possible return before the end of the season to do our Dive Master qualification. Maybe this is just a dream at the moment, but I certainly have some serious thinking to do when I return to Europe!

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My only regret is not spotting a Manta Ray, which was top on my wish list. I suppose this just gives me the perfect excuse to come back…..

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Posted in Diving, Places, Thailand, Travel Diary | 2 Comments

Crossing the border with a bag of frogs

So, it was finally time to leave Laos and make our way across to the Thai border.

In our last adventure together, Rahel and I had decided to forego the boring ‘VIP bus’ experience in favour of local transport, so woke at 5am to catch a longboat to shore, waving goodbye to the lovely family that runs the ‘Mekong Dream’. It was the first of many goodbyes of the day. Next came a big farewell hug for Tim, our fantastic ‘Loop-buddy’, as he was heading off into Cambodia.

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Weighed down with our heavy backpacks (that seem to double in size every week these days) we clambered off the boat and found a sawngthaew (a big tuktuk with benches and open sides) which was heading to Pakse. We heaved our bags up to the roof and grabbed good seats, stretching our legs and waiting for the driver to set off. We had some waiting to do. More and more locals arrived, armed with shopping bags, children, breakfast, bags of fish and frogs… the usual chaos. These sawngthaews seem to accomodate around 12 people in relative comfort, but when I counted 20 people on board I thought it must be time to leave. Nope. We didn’t drive off down the bumpy road until there were 36 people, tangled together in a mass of dust, arms and legs.

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Five minutes into the journey, a frog decided to escape from one of the plastic bags under my seat and began hopping from person to person in a desperate bid to escape his fate as the contents of someone’s dinner. Eventually someone grabbed him and threw him out onto the road. Let’s hope he made it.

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Rahel and I laughed the whole journey and sung each other childrens’ songs in our own language to pass the time. The Lao people politely ignored such immaturity.

Just before we lost all feeling in our poor cramped legs we arrived at a bustling market place on the outskirts of Pakse and found another driver willing to squeeze us into his car going to the border (6 bums on a 3 seater means sitting on one buttock each…. painful after a while). We made it though, passed through to Thailand and eventually to Ubon Ratchachani. It was hard to say my goodbyes here to my fantastic travel companion of the past few weeks. Rahel has not only been wonderful company, but also a perfect mosquito distraction device. Always share a room with someone who is well-loved by mosquitos – they leave you alone and go after the nicer-tasting alternative. I’m going to miss her!

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I spent the night in Ubon (an underwhelming experience) in a hotel that looked and smelled exactly like a hospital, but enjoyed my return to sleeping on a Thai mattress (goodbye nasty hard Laos beds!). The next day I flew off to Phuket en route to Khao Lak and another exciting dive trip.

I was dreaming of a return to fishes, kisses, sun-soaked beaches and blue skies, but as my bus pulled into town it was looking decidedly grey and soggy. It’s been a freakishly wet season in peninsular Thailand and Khao Lak was being bashed with monsoon-style weather. I trundled my case through the rain, holed myself up in my guesthouse and waited for a gap in the clouds.

Luckily the sun appeared the next day along with those fishes and kisses. Life is GOOD!

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Four Thousand Island Dreaming and Goodbye Laos

We got to the Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) area in the very south of Laos on a grubby local bus that reminded me of the truck in the old Spielberg film ‘Duel’. It was a miracle that the thing was going at all, as it looked like it must have been in a serious head-on collision at some point and was repaired by a man with a hammer, glue and sticky tape. Amazingly, we arrived without a single breakdown, but seemed to stop at every tiny village (or every time the driver fancied a watermelon or a cigarette). As soon as we stopped, various local women would jump on board and parade down the aisles selling their homemade spring rolls, mango slices barbequed chicken skewers or (my favourite) eggs on sticks. We stopped overnight in the town of Pakse and had just enough time for some sleep and a Korean-style barbeque experience where you cooked your own meat at the table (which was pretty good until until a dog pissed up our table leg).

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The Four Thousand Islands get their name from the fact that during the dry season many hundreds (if not thousands if you count each sand bank) of islands are revealed within the Mekong River. Regardless of season, the larger ones are always there and are enjoying burgeoning tourism due to their reputation of being a wonderful place to relax. We had time to explore just three of them… Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Khon.

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Our first visit was to the largest of the islands, Don Khong. This pretty island is 18km from top to bottom, so we needed to hire bicycles to explore. Our bikes were in desperate need of some oil and general TLC, but we managed to force the creaking pedals round a 20km circuit of the south. The greens and blues here were much more dramatic than further north, like we’d been suddenly swept up from Kansas into the technicolor world of Oz. It was a beautiful place to explore and utterly peaceful. I had my first good night’s sleep in far too many days in a wonderful guesthouse run by a sweet lady called Madame Kampieuw, who spoke to me in French and kept her rooms spick and span. Most Laos mattresses seem to be made of piles of cardboard wrapped in fabric, but Madame’s were blissfully soft and she had the most wonderful terrace overlooking the Mekong.

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Having found such peace here, I was loathed to move on the next day, but there wasn’t much left to do in Don Khong. We took the longboat further south to the smaller island Don Dhet. At first it was a struggle to find a good (and cheap) guesthouse in a peaceful area, but we were lucky enough to stumble across the tranquil ‘Mekong Dream’ and grab the last available room. This was a fantastic place to stay. The back window of our chique little darkwood room  had a view over fields full of grazing buffalo and outside the front door was a terrace that jutted out over the Mekong, full of bamboo hammocks, where you could swing lazily for hours in the shade. Absolute bliss.

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On the second day here we crossed the old railway bridge to Don Khon, hired more dodgy bikes (these were a lovely shade of pink and were about the right size for an average eight year old) to take the bumpy road to some waterfalls. The falls were pretty nice, but further up the road we found what we’d been craving in all the heat and humidity – a place to swim! We put on our swimwear and joined the other Falang (foreigners) desperate for a dip in this sandy cove, exposing our neon-white bellies to the sunshine for the first time in ages.

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Sadly, the clock is ticking and I have come to my last day in Laos. Tomorrow I make my way back over the Thai border for the last leg of my trip. I’m excited about the days to come (and can’t wait to get back to Khao Lak for more diving) but I’m sad to wave goodbye to Laos. I’ve had some great adventures here and have really warmed to this beautiful country and its friendly people.

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Tourism is in its infancy in Laos, and they’re still busy learning how to do it, but it’s been fantastic to visit before things get too sophisticated. The ‘rough around the edges’ travel experience has been a big part of the attraction of Laos. Travel here often lacks the sleek easiness of Thailand, but for me that is part of its charm. I’m not sure how long it will maintain its authenticity as more and more of us Westerners start piling in  (Vang Vieng is an example of how badly things can go wrong) but for the moment it is largely unspoilt and amazingly beautiful. You may have to wait an hour or two before the meal you ordered arrives (and it may not be what you asked for in the first place) but it’s always brought with a smile…. and hey, who’s in a hurry anyway?

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Looping the Laos Loop

Ever since I’d heard stories about the Konglor Caves in central Laos I’d decided that I really wanted to visit. I love caves, and ones that involve a 7.5km underground longboat ride through the darkness sounded fantastic. So we caught the ‘VIP’ bus (a wonderful multi-coloured affair that looked like a cross between a 70’s disco and your granny’s living room on wheels) to the town of Thakek to work out how to get there.

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The guesthouse where we stayed (The Thakek Travel Lodge) turned out to be the place to begin ‘The Loop’ – a 450km circular tour by motorcycle through spectacular unspoilt Laos landscapes, with the Konglor Caves as the central highlight. Our little party of three (Rahel and I were joined by Tim – a solo traveller from the UK who we’d met on a tuktuk) were slightly apprehensive but very excited by the prospect of a new adventure. The giant Visitors’ Book in reception was full of tales, drawings, maps, advice and warnings written by travellers who have already completed the journey. ‘Everyone seemed to be obsessed with one long stretch of road that apparently is in really bad shape (one writer described it as ‘36km of PURE HELL’, so as beginner riders we were a bit scared, but decided to take the plunge anyway. After all, only the minority of people in the book mentioned any hospitalisations!

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The following morning we were up early and the first in the queue at Mr.Ku’s scooter hire shop next door. Mr.Ku is THE man to set you up for the Loop and seems to have quite a reputation amongst those in the know. He gave us our first shaky lesson in how to drive a bike with gears, issued us with a map, told us to take it easy and waved us off on our way.

Vroom, vroom, we were off!

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The first problem we encountered was that none of our helmets fitted. As soon as we hit 50kph they filled with wind and tipped backwards on our heads so we looked like three strange aliens on motorbikes. We solved this by making turbans from our sarongs and then stuffing the helmets on top, kind-of Sikh-meets-Hells Angels effect. At this point you could have shot us head-first out of a cannon and our skulls would remain intact.

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The second problem was avoiding the cattle that roams freely across the road with bored look on their faces. You would have thought that fast-moving traffic would be pretty scary for a slow-moving cow, but apparently not. Memories of India came flooding back, but these caramel-coloured cows seemed much happier and less flea-bitten than their Indian cousins.

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The central Laos scenery really is truly spectacular and there is no better way to appreciate it than from the back of a bike. My crappy photos really don’t do it justice (I missed my SLR camera this week!). At times the landscape flattened into vast plains full of grazing water buffalo and we felt like we’d been magically transported to Africa. We’d then suddenly find ourselves weaving up steep hairpin bends of mountain landscapes to rival the Californian national parks, then through cool palm tree-lined roads and paddy fields full of people bent low under their straw hats. The countryside and villages were all completely unspoilt. It was fun to wave at the children as we passed (they would run out from their bamboo huts to the edge of the road to yell ‘Sabaidee’ (hello) and blow kisses.)

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The stretch of the road ‘from hell’ was actually pretty bad, but a whole lot of fun. Imagine terrain full of boulders, jagged stones, big holes, loose gravel, sharp bends, steep climbs and sudden drops and you’ve got the idea. Perhaps a MotorX driver would have made it look easy, but our little scooters didn’t really have the steering or suspension for this kind of thing. Still, we had a real laugh tackling it and soon enough the road evened out and became silky-smooth again to give our bruised bottoms a rest. By the end of the trip we all felt like biker pro’s, laughing in the face of sticking gears, dodgy sparkplugs and temperamental dashboards.

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The Konglor Caves certainly didn’t disappoint. We were up early to drive the spectacular final 8km towards the caves in the misty morning light, then hired a longboat driver to take us into the mouth of the cave, where we waded though shallow water in the darkness to take our seats on his narrow wooden boat. It was eerily dark as we put-putted along the underground waterway, with just the dim light of our head-torches to allow us to make out shapes around us. At first the roof of the cave was low, but it soon opened out into vast chambers of echoing blackness. At times the water became too shallow to pass, so we had to climb out and help push the boat free (I almost lost another flip flop). It was strange to reach the other side of the mountain and sit blinking in the bright sunshine again.

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At night we found lodgings in tiny villages where we could pay a few kip for a bed in a bamboo hut room and some well-earned rice or noodles. Our favourite place was owned by Mr.Paython, a lovely man who gave us a Petanque lesson and rounds of Laos whisky  round the campfire. He asked us to recommend his place in the big pink visitors’ book back at Thakhek (and also to send him a Western wife to add to his collection – according to him he’s been divorced five times already!). We had a river view on the second night and decided to take an early evening dip. This was great, except for the brown lumps of unidentified organic matter floating past. We kept our mouths clamped shut and tried not to think of cow shit.

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The final day involved 180km of riding on already-sore bums, so it wasn’t for the fainthearted, but we loved every minute and didn’t want to give our bikes back. We returned to Thakhek victorious and so glad we’d decided to loop the loop!

Next stop – down to the south for some lazy Four Thousand Island dreaming….

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Escape to Ventiane

After 24 hours in my sickbed, I woke feeling well enough to keep down some breakfast. That was a good enough reason for me to escape Vang Vieng! Still a little weak and nauseous, I boarded the bus to Ventiane. The trip wasn’t pleasant, but I was happy to be moving on towards the Laos capital city.

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Ventiane tries hard to look like an important and official city, with some grand buildings, fancy French street names, ornamental fountains and a huge Arc De Triomphe-style arch, but it’s a bit like a kid playing dressing-up – it doesn’t quite convince you that it should be taken too seriously. It seems far too laid-back and sleepy to be the capital of anywhere. There’s not a great deal to occupy tourists for more than a couple of days, but the food is good, the terraces are sunny and there are little lights in the trees at night. I really enjoyed hanging out there for a while.

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We hired motorcycles and took a 25km trip out of town to visit ‘Xieng Khuan’ (The Buddha Park). This place is a product of an eccentric mind – an artist/yogi/priest/shaman who had an obsession with Hindu and Buddhist iconography (and, by the look of things, an acid habit). The park was full of concrete sculptures of hundreds of gods, mythical creatures and weird creations (not sure where the giant grasshopper fits in to either of these faiths). Despite the presence of a few visiting monks, there wasn’t much reverence going on, and it was perfect for comedy photo posing. We got to climb though a giant mouth into a cave-like mound full of snake people and concrete skulls standing in the dark, then up steep steps to a viewing point overlooking the whole park. The whole experience was like visiting an Indiana Jones set in Lego land. Hilarious.

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More authentic and beautiful (but, to be honest, not half so much fun) was the old ‘Si Saket’ Temple in the centre of Ventiane. The lovely old cloisters that surrounded the courtyard housed thousands of Buddha statues, most of which were as small as little Russian dolls, each with their own niche in the wall. Someone had lovingly provided a little yellow sash for each of the larger Buddhas (even the ones that were so broken there wasn’t much left of them). It was weird to see a stump wearing a sash, but strangely touching!

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It was also time to wave goodbye to one of our travel family members… Sascha… who has left us to travel on to Bangkok. Sad to see him go – we’ve had a blast!

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Next stop, further south to Tha Khaek, in search of some spooky caves!

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