I never thought that standing at the pearly gates would be such a sweaty ordeal; in fact I was pretty sure I was heading straight to the more fun side of the afterlife, being an abomination and all. But to my surprise more than anyone else’s here I am and Charlie’s here too. This all makes no sense at all; unless the bible makes no sense and the people that wrote it make even less sense than those interpreting it who seem positively eloquent compared to the dunces paying money to buy it all without even trying to make sense of it. Come to think of it, all this lack of sense tends to make a lot of sense if you chase the tail all the way around to the nose. There I go making no sense again, until you make sense of it of course. 

But I digress, where were we? Standing at the pearly gates, the entrance to paradise ready to pass the vaunted threshold and see what all the bigots have been crowing about for centuries. At this stage we have a confession to make, we had envisioned; well, we’d envisioned gates. And we though they would be, sort of, pearl coloured or some shad of off white at the very least, maybe even shabby-chic. But no, you schlep up a hill and all the glory and might of paradise lies behind a hole in the mountain; a tight, stingy little cleft that we have to duck notably to get into. On the other side there’s no oceans of fluffy white clouds with angels playing harps, just darkness for now as we walk downwards; those hallucinating nutters have this all so backwards.  

Charlie Winn

Long staircase into and out of Paradise cave, Phoung Nha, Vietnam.

Despite all the topsy turvy misinterpretations of the mental illness crowd sans medication, there’s one thing they got quite right: Paradise is paradise. Through the tight cleft in the mountainside the world is the world again but not as we know it. There is no darkness, only light to emblazon a stone sky dripping liquid rock upon a world frozen in a moment. Fingers of sky reach to earth and beyond where sky is rock and earth reaches back in a symbiotic reality like the waking instant that slips from your grip before you can make it solid, a dream that for a second was born. We’ve entered the realm of the largest caves in the world, in the Annamite mountains of Vietnam and for all you cynics and disbelievers, paradise is not lost.

Of course this cave we’re in is called Paradise Cave and we’re set for a casual little peep in for a kilometre no less but it’s the first glance from the top of this winding timber staircase that demands pause. This feels like no cave but a stadium, an open air stadium such is the immensity of the space we are so discordantly thrust into after the tight squeeze just a metre or so behind us. The world glitters below us with all the glamour and immensity we’d have expected from paradise while the sky of solid rock soars so high above, large enough to plot constellations in.   

Charlie Winn

15m melting candle formation, Paradise cave, Phong Nha, Vietnam.

 All at once the world flows and drips like candle wax sitting frozen in a moment that time forgot about. Apparently stalactites grow a about 1cm per 100 years, an interesting little tid-bit. So when the dude we now call Jesus was kicking around duping people with sleight of hand tricks this work of art before us about 15m tall like a candle that melted into a four sided waterfall was already 13m high. And so our adventure goes, paradise resides not above us in the clouds but in the bowels of this earth on which we tread. Formations somewhat similar to ones we have seen before surround us, the stone world melting in slow motion, but the scale is disorienting, confusing. Oversized pieces of art clutter this gallery displaying the same exhibition for more than 15,000 years, maybe more, of curated elegance.

Eventually our walk comes to an end, paradise is plunged to darkness once more, and so we return through the parade of glamour we still can’t place into ordered thoughts. This cave really isn’t a cave, it’s another world, a universe all of its own, a paradise. There’s a stillness to the air in here and a coolness that belies the heat outside making it feel like we could be breathing the same air as when that 15m candle was a mere stub on the floor. Nearing the entrance to paradise again we know it’s time to leave but we pause for one last breath of pure air and a glimpse at perfection beyond human creation.  

Charlie Winn

Vietnamese boy herding water buffalo at the end of the day, Phoung Nha, Vietnam.

The crowds have gone to lunch and this world for a moment is ours. If we were spiritual people in the deluded sense, this place would be the stuff of sermons, proof that glory exists beyond us. Instead we’re content to realise there’s glory beyond us with no need for a sermon, the sky above us twinkles and captivates like a clear moonless night while the wonders of the world shimmer at us in hues of imaginations gamut, most of all a pearly white not wasted on gates after all. With child-like wonder we spin a circle and take in the kaleidoscope of what paradise looks like, all the shapes and spaces collide for one blessed instant where reality exceeds imagination rather than being the other way around. It’s called Paradise Cave and as we return to the world of heat and reality so limited, I wonder if anyone really thought how aptly it is named; the biblical paradise that is. We caught a glimpse of a whole kilometre into paradise, I wonder what the other 32km’s of this wonder are like.

Charlie blew another rubber on Rob on the way out but we’re still beaming from our acceptance into paradise not lost after all. After a quick repair we snake the winding road through the aggressive shapes of these mountains that house paradise in a world that now seems to carry a trace of that pearly glimmer snatched from where angels dare to tread. A small boy herds his buffalo down a road, such fragility dances on the backs of immensity, a scene in a setting in a place to make the millions of years wait seem all worth it. Today we went to paradise and decided to stay, the other options just couldn’t stack up to what we’ve got right here. For now.