Stepping into the Underground World of Southeast Asia

We climb down at night, away from the streetlights and roads. If we go too early and get caught then it’s game over – exploring underground drains, after all, is dangerous and illegal.

We have to blend in with the black. No lights or bright-coloured clothing to give us away to late-night walkers or policemen. It’s risky, as we let down the rope that we are soon to abseil; we can’t even make out the bottom. As soon as we do, our exploration begins into the vast underground zone which is larger than we could have ever imagined.

Travelling light, we brought only one rope, a dim-torch, our cameras and drinking water all packed in a waterproof bag. Our entry into the drain from the outside appears simple – drop a rope and abseil down it – but abseiling into darkness is enough to raise the hairs of any man.

We tie our rope to the handrails that run along the drain, and make our slow descent. As I lean back over the edge, nervously holding the rope, my legs threaten to give way. The wall is caked with mud and it’s slippery as I desperately slide my feet up and down the wall to find a foothold. My hands are tight on the rope, and I begin to awkwardly bounce down – If I fall, it’ll be a typical hospital story of broken bones after a late-night blunder. Right now, I have to keep my head.

Image Credit : Oliver Jarvis

Image Credit : Oliver Jarvis

As we both descend down the 10-metre drop we see a jogger run past overhead. He has no idea of our presence, and disappears somewhere in the above-world. To make a reference point, we’ve given ourselves a route: to head east to where the drain meets the sea. According to our dirtied map it’s estimated to be approximately a three-kilometre trip. Our two concerns are mainly being seen, and the heavy-rain (we didn’t fancy being caught in a flooded drain).

As we head east, we are careful not to tread in the glare of the streetlights. To achieve this, we have to hug the wall, and walk sideways until we find cover – and cover for us is a deep and long tunnel under a bridge. It’s already midnight, and as we make our way to the tunnel we can hear the late-night taxis and buses above. As Saturday night party-goers dress up to spend the night on rooftop bars and clubs, we’re dressing down to our rain-jackets and booties to find what lies below.

Finally, we reach the cover of the bridge and walk into total darkness. It’s a man-made cave, and as we light it as best we can, we see that this underground tunnel runs on for at least a kilometre. It smells like wet cement, and overhead you can see the supports of the bridge that rattle as vehicles fly over. It’s wide – perhaps large enough to drive three lorries side-by-side down it – and splitting through the middle is a shallow river that runs for as far as we can make out.

Image Credit : Oliver Jarvis

Image Credit : Oliver Jarvis

It’s an oddly peaceful setting never to be seen. All you can hear between the rumble of the above, is running water filled with life you’d expect to find in a country river. As we shine our torchlight onto the stream, we can see catfish and mudskippers follow our beam –there are unidentifiable fishes as large as your arm, and we come across some mudskipper eggs by the water’s edge. Even in this man-made world designed solely for monsoon rain and surface run-off, there is life and it’s thriving.

We continue down the tunnel, and following the map, turn right into a narrow passage that leads towards the sea. It’s uncomfortable. I spend most of my time brushing spider webs out of my hair and the walls are lined with geckos and cockroaches. There’s also a feint smell of sulphur, and it lingers as we pass down the corridors that weave in and out, running off to other parts of the city. We have to carefully follow the thin lines of the map, but as we follow it, the ceiling lowers and we end up on our hands and knees. We check with the map constantly to work out where the hell we’re going, and how much further until this narrow passage opens out. But as we’re crawling through drain water and algae, we hear a loud rumble of something above.

Image Credit : Oliver Jarvis

Image Credit : Oliver Jarvis

It sounds like thunder. It echoes throughout the underground, and as it does I begin to worry that everything is suddenly not okay. We’re stuck in a narrow passage, any amount of water that bursts through now will drown us. Again a rumble overhead. We push through quickly, scrambling on all fours – our backs grazing the ceiling – until finally we reach the wide-opening and shoot out of the narrow corridor, into a rushing river.

It’s raining heavily. As we reach the outdoors, a plane passes directly above us, and we’re caught in a current that drags us down. This drain is filling with water, and we’re desperately clawing at the wall trying to grab a low branch or a hold in the wall. We’re near the coast, floating down this man-made canyon designed to push out the dirty water of the city, and we need to get out before we’re washed out into the open ocean. We grab onto a low-lying bridge, and thankfully manage to pull ourselves out. Exhausted, we end our adventure here. The intertwining passages that we have just crawled through, and the peaceful wide-open tunnel is now consumed by rushing water. As we lie on dry land, it’s a harsh realisation that the tunnels and drains are out of bounds for a reason.

This is the river we had just climbed out of | Image Credit : Oliver Jarvis

This is the river we had just climbed out of as the light trail of a plane passes over | Image Credit : Oliver Jarvis

But even with its pressing dangers, the underground world with its grand halls and arterial corridors leading to the many openings of the city, has and always will be fascinating for urban explorers. This interconnecting world functioning underneath holds much that we don’t know, and with its vastly unexplored areas, it is the ideal place for people to truly discover a new kind of escape.

This article featured on NookMag [31.08.2016]