So for the weekend of my twenty-third birthday, I went to Palawan. (Scratched that off my “25 Before 25” list, yes!) And one of the must-dos in Palawan is to go see the Puerto Princesa Underground River National Park. There are a billion and one blogs out there telling you how to get a tour, what travel agency to book with, how to DIY it, so I’m not gonna talk about. Instead, I’m going to prattle on about the insane existential crisis the river gave me.
So there I was, waiting at the harbor and taking photos of Sabang Beach (which is hella pretty, if you have the time to take a dip, DO IT) with no idea that I was about to get a self-awareness whammy of universal proportions. The boat ride to the mouth of the underground river was uneventful, although I still did take photos of the beautiful scenery as the boat zipped by.
After getting off the boat, there’s a short walk through a forest until you get to the river’s pier, where the boats that go inside the cave are docked. There’s usually quite a wait before your number is called, so I had enough time to explore.
The entrance to the underground river is located just at the curve of the river before it empties into the ocean, which means the water in the area is pretty brackish. It was also a bright, clear green, reflecting the canopy that grew all around the river. The trees in the area were massive, and also hella fun to climb. (Which, you’ll remember from my post on Baler, I really like to do.)
When it was finally our turn to get into the boats, the boyfriend and I scrambled for the seats in front (and by “scrambled”, I mean I stared down another couple also trying to get the seats in front with my patented “fuck outta my face, bitch” glare – sometimes, RBF has its uses). Nowadays, the Underground River National Park employs the use of battery-operated audio devices with headphones that you can put in and listen to. Of course, it’s full of National Geographic British-accented voiceover stuff that could lull anyone to sleep, no matter how interesting the subject matter is. If you’re not into that, you can simply listen to the bangkero – who probably know more about the area considering they grew up there. Not to mention, they have the most hilarious jokes.
The entrance to the underground river is a jagged cave mouth, reminiscent of some monster’s gaping maw with stalactites and stalagmites for teeth. The creepy factor is only upped by around a million percent or so once you really get inside the cave, considering it’s pitch black.
The Puerto Princesa Underground River is over eight kilometers long, only four of which is navigable by boat. Of those four kilometers, only the first is accessible by the underground river tour. Sometime since the underground river was mapped, explorers have also discovered that the cave has a “second story”, that there are waterfalls inside, and there is a fossil of a prehistoric manatee embedded in the walls.
best scariest best part of the whole ride is when the bangkero stops rowing and just lets the boat float at the edge of a straight part of the river called “The Highway”. Here, the speed picks up, and the river flows deep into the darkest part of the cave. The bangkero switched off his headlamp for a bit so we could see just how dark it was inside the cave – and let me tell you, it was really dark.
It was so dark, I wasn’t even sure if my eyes were closed or not.
You could hear nothing but the rushing of water, smell nothing but the sharp tang of the sea, see nothing but an endless expanse of black that let you know just how screwed you were if you fell out of the boat or got lost.
As you can probably tell by this blog post’s title, being inside that cave gave me one hell of an existential crisis – but the comforting kind. That cave has been there for millions and millions of years, carved out by the slow and inexorable march of the river onwards. It took untold eons for the cave to change face, and long after I die, the way the cave looked when I first saw it will still appear the same way. The cave has seen thousands of people, and although it has changed, it has done so in dozens of tiny, infinitesimal ways undetectable by the human eye.
No matter how badly I fuck up, that cave will still be the same. That cave will still look the same. The cave, the river, the trees, and the rocks don’t care. No matter how we march on towards progression, no matter how much everything changes, that little cave in the middle of the forest at the mouth of a river will remain, long after everyone who’s seen it in this century are dead, gone, buried, and rotted.
Life is so fast-paced, changes so easily. What I see now is not what I’ll see a week later. Every morning when I open my eyes, so many things have happened since I closed them the night before. But in the untouched forests of Palawan, there is a cave that will take millions and millions of years to change.
There’s comfort in that sameness.