We had been hiking, single-file, through the bamboo jungle of Khao Sok National Park for about an hour when a dreadful notion suddenly teased my over-active imagination: This was an ideal scenario for tour guides with malicious intent to rob us and leave us to wander helplessly in the wild. Anticipating wading through the chilly water of the cave, the ten of us tourists had left most our clothing draped on rocks near where we’d eventually exit the subterranean system. We wore bikinis, board shorts and soggy hiking shoes and carried expensive camera equipment.

My wet shoelaces kept unlacing, so I was at the back of the long line, just behind the two solo travelers: an industrial electricity salesman from Amsterdam and a Swiss farm equipment mechanic.

“Do the cows wear bells?” the Dutch man was asking.

“No, they don’t wear bells.” said the mechanic.

I listened in and eventually inferred the mechanic’s parents own a dairy farm in Switzerland. I imagined cows grazing on a Sound of Music-type hill (although, of course, that’s the wrong country). When I heard the dairy farm moonlighted as a marijuana farm, I imagined those same cows with big grins on their bovine faces.

With an Amsterdam native present, the conversation inevitably turned to the city’s lax marijuana laws. “Pot tourism” is a fundamental of the city’s travel industry — much like (sadly) “sex tourism” is in Thailand. In fact, up to a third of Amsterdam’s annual seven million tourists take advantage of the country’s infamous cannabis cafes. Realizing this, the city has decided against enforcing the country’s new marijuana ban. At the time, however, no one in our group seemed to know about the Amsterdam exemption, and those near the back of the line began decrying the injustice of it all. So I forgot my robbery fears, and Him and I joined in the conversation.

This was a fun group. In addition to the two odd couples (us and the two solo travelers) in the back, we had two German couples and a pair of Midwest American girls taking a break from studying abroad in China. We had each paid 1,500 Baht through Smiley Bungalows / Jungle Huts for an all-day tour of Khao Sok’s Cheow Lan Lake. The price included a tour of the cave, a longtail trip around the lake, kayaking, lunch and transportation to and from our perspective Khao Sok hotels (about an hour drive, each way).

Our main guide, a hefty Thai man who went by the name “Big Man,” possessed an uncanny resemblance to my late maternal grandfather. He continued grinning – even when our vessel’s repurposed truck engine broke down en route to the cave, and he cursed it with a hearty, “Oh my Buddha!” While Big Man beat on the engine, we happily tread water in the clear, turquoise pools around the karst rock formations — far too deep to see bottom. As evidenced by the bare tree tops poking through the water, these impressive limestone islands had been peaks until the Paseang River was dammed into a lake about 30 years ago.

Big Man eventually jiggled the correct combination of engine parts, and the boat buzzed to life. He ferried us down a canal lined with macaque monkeys to the beginning of the cave trail and, gesturing at the bulging belly poking out from his too short shirt as an excuse, left us in the hands of a younger, more fit guide.

We smelled the cave before we saw it. Like my 11th grade math teacher’s halitosis, the gaping mouth emanated a terrific stench. The source, in this case, wasn’t a Coca-Cola addiction but a colony of guano-happy bats dangling from the ceiling. Darkness and manic twittering enveloped our party as we shuffled inside, single-file. Remembering to keep my mouth clamped shut, I trained my flashlight upward and watched their sleeping forms respond with an involuntary flapping of wings.

Despite the darkness, I was determined to shoot photographs of these curious (and, let’s be honest, cute) cave denizens, so I was once again at the back of the line. No happy bovine stories this time but the echo of those ahead of me offering words of warning as we waded ankle-deep through water and dodged stones on the banks.

“Be careful! Be careful!” Him passed along. In addition to the obstacles, he was undoubtedly anxious about my habit of lagging behind.

I caught up to the group when the guide paused in front of a stalactite to point at a pair of tiny red dots — the eyes of a sizable and hairy spider. He then directed our attention downward and 10 flashlight beams revealed we were standing among — and on — spiders and crickets. I was suddenly relieved to be wearing my soggy but close-toed hiking shoes.

The shoes proved themselves a second time when we had to shimmy down a rock waterfall and slip into freezing water higher than our heads. I held the dry bag containing my camera above my head, so there was no hand to clasp the flashlight (NOTE: This is where a headlamp would come in handy on your own caving adventure). I swam through darkness until managing to cough out a request for a light from those ahead of me.

Like an overturned wine bottle, the cave became narrower and narrower as we progressed, ultimately culminating in a thin crevice we ducked through. Outside, our dry towels and clothes welcomed us. Everything was just as we had left it. Nothing was stolen.

The longtail ride back to the docks was uneventful, save for a macaque monkey sighting and a headwind that blew icy spray into our faces. Him and I were in the back of the boat, and we used the two German couples as a shield. We made it back to our lodge more or less dry — but more less.