Saturday, October 29, 2011

Laos Part 6 - Vang Vieng

Excited to get the day started, I hopped out of bed before 7am. We had agreed to meet at the tour office for our half day trip to the water cave at 9 so I hoped to have a quick stroll around town in the morning cool. The room had coffee making facilities (which from my limited experience is uncommon in SE Asia), and I made a very average cup of instant brew with powdered creamer... mmm mmm (blah!). More like dish water, but warm and coffee-like. Opening the curtains, I was again blown away by the magnificent view. Monolithic limestone karst hills or mountains stood a few hundred metres from the balcony. At their base, a few bungalows and village huts sat along the river, directly in front of the hotel. With the mist adding to the scene, it was truly like waking up in a picture postcard.
Breakfast was uninspiring, for me at least. The buffet style fare had lots of Lao style dishes, and bacon and eggs, all with meat or eggs. J chose a bit of everything, but my only option was some cold, toasted baguettes with butter and jam. But the coffee was much better than the instant rubbish I had made in the room, and there were a few different fruit juices. J tried many of the dishes and had his fill. I took the opportunity to explore the hotel pool area and take a few shots.

Wonderful Tours was only a block over and we arrived early. The other members of our group were a bit late, but we were quickly on our way. We piled into the back of a large jumbo (which is basically a small truck with the tray replaced by bench seats and a canopy for shade) and headed north along the same stretch of bumpy, dusty road we came in on from Luang Prabang. The jumbo turned off after 20 minutes or so down a dirt track that lead to the river. A few other groups were already launching kayaks. All around, the karst mountains ringed the landscape. It was another beautiful spot.

As J and I weren’t kayaking, we were asked to walk up a little way and cross a rickety, narrow bridge and meet the guide on the other side of the river. It was held up by some roughly cut logs lashed together to form trusses. Over the top, a long woven bamboo mat (not unlike what you’d find on the floors of many village huts) formed the path, with no rail; just a two foot wide corridor barely a foot off the water. It looked as if my foot would go right through as soon as I stepped on. As we watched, a local farmer lined up his small motorbike and rode straight across. Shrugging my shoulders, I stepped off the muddy bank, and started walking across. Turning back to look at J, I couldn’t help but laugh. He had misjudged his step and had one foot ankle deep in mud. Oh well. Rinse it off in the river. Being the kind, thoughtful sort of girl I am, I had to make a few remarks to J, just to let him know how much I cared (and how hilarious I thought it was), which I know he appreciated judging by how hard we were laughing and his promises of getting me back.
There were three other couples and a single guy on our trip, all doing the full day with the kayaking. While J and I negotiated the river crossing, they tried kayaking the hundred or so meters across the river from where the jumbo parked to the meeting point on the other side. One couple were yelling at each other and laughing, having a lot of trouble navigating the fast flowing stream. They only narrowly avoided crashing into the bridge. I bet the guides were going to have their hands full with them.

Once we all were on shore, we set off to the Elephant cave (Ban Tam Xang), which was a short distance away. From the outside, the cave didn’t look like anything special. But inside, a small alter with Buddha statues and yellow wax candles sat at the far end. Before it, there was a concrete and tile mosaic Buddha footprint that looked like a small pool or pond, probably used during Laos New Year festivities when Buddha statues are ritually bathed. At the side of cave, a large reclining Buddha was being prostrated to by stone worshippers. On the cave wall, there was an interesting carving of a god like being with a fish tale, who appeared to be nursing an infant to its breast. Then, on the rear wall, high up, was the rock formation that gave the cave its name. It looked just like an elephant, but if you didn’t know where to look, you could miss it.

Next, we were lead along a path through farmland and rice fields, with those stunning peaks towering in the distance. Twenty minutes later, we came to a small stream and a couple of small wooden huts. In front was a gorgeous little pool of cloudy, aqua blue water. On first impressions, it didn’t look like anything. A rope hung from a tree that dropped into the water, then lead into some shadows under overhanging rocks. Our guide informed us we were tubing from the pond into an underground cave, a water cave, Tahm Nam. He showed us where to leave our things, and started dishing out tubes and head lamps. Then, with a big splash, the guide threw his tube in the pond before jumping into it, backwards, so his backside landed in the hole. He paddled around, encouraging us to jump in.

Ok. I can do that. Headlamp on, I lined up my tube and backed into it, without the jump. For an instant, the cold water took my breath away. Not so much because it was so cold, but because the contrast between the ambient air temperature with that baking hot Laos sun, and the cool still pool. The rest of the group made their way in; some gingerly easing themselves in, others with a big splash like the guide. Much laughing and squealing ensued as we all adjusted to the water and navigated our tubes around the pond. The guide lead us to the ropes, showing us how to drag ourselves along it to follow him into the hole in the cliff that was the entrance to the water cave. It was very easy. Hand over hand, I followed the rope into the fissure. A sharp bend just inside the entrance then straightened out into a watery, pitch black corridor leading underground. Within a few metres, the little light that peeked in from outside was overwhelmed by the black of the cave, leaving us in complete darkness. Surprisingly, the little headlamps gave out quite a strong beam so you could see you way around without issue.

J and I were towards the front of the group. Our guide let us go ahead a little while he doubled back to check on the rest of the group. From our position, we were able to look down into the dark expanse of the cave to see how completely pitch black it was. So picture this: a shallow mountain stream, running along hundreds of metres of long narrow cave deep underneath a huge limestone karst mountain; at places the roof of the cave was barely a metre above your head; some narrow passages were maybe 2 or 3 metres wide - in complete and utter darkness. Now, I’m not claustrophobic, but it took a lot of mental talking to myself to not have a panic attack. As soon as I thought about the situation I was in (i.e. how there was pretty much millions of tonnes of hard rock above, below and all around me, in water inside this little tiny, narrow cavern, and if anything moved like in an earth tremor or something, I was done, history, toast, gone-ski, no escape), I couldn’t help but want to turn around and return to the relative safety of that first blue pond. In a few narrow passages, I felt like I couldn’t breathe and needed out. But I persisted. And it was an amazing experience.

The tour organisers provided water-proof bags for cameras and other valuables. I desperately wanted to take some photos. But balanced perilously on an unsteady tube (which is basically like a soft, smooth, truck tyre), sitting with bum in hole, legs paddling, arms dragging yourself along this rope in water and darkness, the last thing I wanted to do was take out something that would be completely ruined if I should lose my balance and end up - camera in hand - in the drink. However, I was happy just enjoying floating along, enjoying the scene (at the same time not thinking about it...), seeing the stunning limestone stalactites and other formations hanging off the cave’s walls and ceiling. All the way, our guide sang out a hauntingly beautiful song. I have no idea of what the words meant, but it sounded like some sort of hymn. In the closed in chamber, his melodic tones reverberated around and bounced off the cave’s walls, making for an almost spiritual experience.

At the end of the cave, well, not really the end, but as far as we could go, the cave opened up into a huge underground room, with rock formations and mineral calcifications. The stream continued further as the cave narrowed to an impasse. But we had to turn around and pull our way back to the entrance. The shaft of light, literally at the end of the tunnel, was so bright after the darkness, I couldn’t see for a minute. But my eyes quickly adjusted to the sun and warmth and colours. A quick dive and swim in the pool at the cave’s entrance was refreshing and welcome. Beautiful smells of cooking food quickly made us all hungry.

The wood hut at the edge of the blue pond served as our restaurant. Lunch was simple, but delicious – and plentiful. The others all had grilled skewers of meat and veg, mine just veg, with yummy fried rice and heaps of fruit. At our feet, chickens with their young scrounged for scraps along with a few ducks. There was so much food the poultry ended up with a nice feed. Inside the shady hut, our group had a good laugh and chat, and I was quick to find out I wasn’t the only one to almost melt down in the underground cave.

Lunch done, J and I bade farewell. We headed back to the landing spot we arrived at earlier with another guide. The rest of the group were continuing downstream kayaking (and bar hopping along the way no doubt), while J and I headed back to town to see what we should do next. Taking a few photos along the way, we were soon in the back of the jumbo heading back to town. I asked the guide about other caves in the area, and he produced a map for us to help figure out what was next. Without understanding the scale of this place, I had originally planned hiring a bike and taking the road that lead west to cycle through the wonderful scenery. On paper, it didn’t look too bad. But I quickly grasped the fact it was going to be too hard without organised transport.

Our guide quickly offered his services to take us to Poukham cave and Blue Lagoon. Realising that it was over a 10kms return trip, paying the equivalent of $10 each to be driven out there, and not have to suffer the rocky road under the backing sun, was well worthwhile. Once we arrived back at the tour office, we confirmed the journey, paid our money, and made arrangements to meet back there in an hour. It gave us a chance to freshen up and grab a cold drink at one of the restaurants. It was maybe 1:30pm and the town was almost deserted. Everyone was either still asleep or upstream on the river. TVs played to empty tables, while waitresses lazed around chatting. After walking around town for few blocks, we found an agent that had a minivan to Vientiane departing at 1pm the next day. All other tour agencies only had busses in the morning. J and I wanted to have the morning to explore more before leaving. So we booked, paying (I think) 150,000kip each. We then chose a small place without any TVs for a large iced coffee and lemon juice, before meeting our driver for our trip.

A beaten up, small jumbo was waiting for us with our guide. On the road, we talked with our guide about his family and girlfriend who lived in Vientiane, and how much he preferred Vang Vieng. He hoped that he would continue to live there after he was married. We joked that he was too young to settle down, but the girlfriend didn’t think so. She planned to get married as soon as she finished studying. But for now, he was enjoying working with the tour agency and meeting all us foreigners, spending his days chatting with us and taking us to amazing places.

Within a few minutes we turned off the bitumen onto a dirt track. Boy, was I happy we had chosen not to ride or walk out ourselves. The road was rough and dusty. Not to mention how hot the afternoon was. We passed a couple of young guys riding motorbikes without helmets or shirts, inviting danger. More farms lined the road, with the stunning karsts in every direction providing a dramatic backdrop. We bumped and bounced our way along the dirt road until we finally turned off and parked in a little clearing. A quaint wooden bridge, covered with a corrugated iron roof, lead over a clear stream to a gorgeous pool – the blue lagoon. Twenty or more people were jumping and splashing in the aqua clear water. You could see dozens of fish in the shallows, away from the commotion. Along the stream on the other side of the bridge, a row of picnic shelters gave day-trippers a lovely place to relax.

Walking past the lagoon area, our guide lead us to a little check point, with a sign pointing to the cliff, saying ‘Buddha cave’ – Poukham cave. Soon we were going straight up along rocky stairs carved into the cliff. It was steep. Real steep. In places the steps were half a metre high making for a strenuous, huffy, puffy, climb up. Thankfully it was shaded by some tenacious trees that grew right out of the cliff side. We had to stop to regain our breath a few times (read that as every few metres). Every time I looked up and thought we’d reached the top, the path turned sharply, and more steep stairs lead further up, tormenting me.

Finally, after about 150 – 200 metres of heavy going, we arrived at the entrance of the cave. Our guide handed us each a torch and lead us in, down some slippery rocks to a beautiful reclining Buddha statue about ten metres below the cave entrance. It was set on a wonderful alter with a saffron cloth canopy providing shelter, ringed with offerings and candles. Another stunning spot. But it wasn’t the end. Our guide told us to be very careful, and stay close, as he lead us further down and into the depths of the cave. We passed a couple of guys had been exploring further inside the cave without a guide, or torch, wearing only thongs (flip flops). As they made their way back to the cave’s entrance, we waited for them to pass by watching them slip and slide all over the place. I was lucky. Our guide had warned us to wear good footwear knowing how slippery and uneven the trek was inside the cave.

For about 20 minutes, we carefully negotiated stone walls and huge boulders along the rock floor of the cave as it lead down deep inside the mountain. The light from the entrance only penetrated about 50 metres down. After that, we had to rely on the torches to find our way in the dark amongst the slippery rocks. Another fifty metres further the floor levelled out and we found ourselves in a large chamber. The torch light made it hard to gauge the size of the cavern. Our guide showed us around the cave and shone his torch on some impressive limestone pillars, stalactites, stalagmites, and glittering curtain formations. One of my favourite photos from the trip I took by asking J to stand in a spot that had some rocky shapes, which I couldn’t make out. I clicked off a shot with the flash. Later I saw the magnificent rock pillar he was beside, as well as the other rocky structures in the cave beyond. What I found amazing, or should I say such a contrast to caves similar to this back at home, was that there were no barriers or guide ropes. You could just touch and go anywhere. And, let me just say, there were a few crevasses that were easy to miss in the pitch black, even with a torch. One false step and you’d be tumbling down to certain doom.

Now for the climb back out of the cave. It didn’t take too long to return to the reclining Buddha alter, and then start the torturous descent down those vertical steps. My knees were like jelly at the bottom. Time to cool off. In one minute flat, my hiking shoes were off, tee shirt removed, and I was lowering myself into the fresh, blue water.  Ahh. That felt better. A few rope swings hung dead in the water. Overhanging the pool, a huge branch had a few planks nailed into place to form a diving platform. The temptation was too much. With J looking on in subdued horror, I climbed up the makeshift ladder, over the branch, to the platform. Funny how it always looks further from the top – didn’t look so far from the ground. It was maybe only a few metres. Nothing really. So with a quick laugh and little gasp, I plunged head first in a sort of swan dive. Again, strange how from the moment of jumping off, to the moment of hitting the water, time moved in slow motion. It felt like I was in the air for a minute, but of course it was only a second.

Relaxing in the beautiful, blue water, I literally frolicked, taking leisurely strokes and floating around. No matter how hard I tried to persuade him, J wouldn’t jump of the diving platform. But our guide did. He climbed up higher than where I jumped from, and let fly with a huge jump, letting out a good ‘YAWP’ as he took off, and created a huge splash as he landed. Having cooled off and refreshed sufficiently, we all got out to dry off a little before heading back to town. In the back of the jumbo, we were all quiet after a full and tiring day, content just watching the gorgeous countryside go by. I tried to take some shots while we were in motion, and scored an awesome shot of the only steel girder for miles, right in the middle of a bridge (probably holding it up or something). A lovely rural scene was overshadowed by this thumping big red post. Shame.

It was about 4:30 when arrived back in town. We thanked the tour guide for our awesome day, and gave him a small tip for the private tour. I know I’ve said it a few times throughout my blogs, but really, this was the best, most memorable day of the entire trip (and yes – an absolute highlight)! I was so tired, and J wouldn’t carry me back to the hotel. Even though it was like only a few metres... gee. Another highlight was the beautiful, warm shower that followed (once I staggered to our hotel). In fact it was the best bathroom we had in Laos and I relished the water pressure on my exhausted body. By the time J had his shower, the sun was beginning to go down behind the mountains directly in front of our hotel. Along the riverbank on the other side, a hot air balloon was being prepared for a sunset flight. We watched while the huge yellow dome was filled, gradually standing up, and then rising off the ground, slowly drifting along the river and past our room. With the stunning mountains in the background, the golden sun setting behind a cloud casting magnificent rays of light out in every direction, and the balloon floating past, I shot off a few dozen photos, which turned out to be some of the most picturesque photos I’ve ever taken.

With the light fading, and the sun below the horizon, my energy returned. It was time for a drink and some food. As the Aussie bar was so close, we started there to tell Steve about our day and thank him for the recommendation (not to mention he had the cheapest beer in town). As we had the whole morning in Vang Vieng before our mini bus to Vientiane, he gave us another tip for a walk we could do the next day. So after a quick snack and a couple of beers, we headed off for dinner. Up on the main road, we bumped into our friends from the Nagi boat, who had arrived from LP that afternoon. They didn’t seem to like Vang Vieng as much as we did and were planning to leave the following day. I thought it a shame as they didn’t even have a chance to see the beautiful area. But I did understand why they didn’t like it, as the town was mostly full of drunk or stoned backpackers. The town itself wasn’t much to look at, just a few dusty roads with bars and restaurants. We told them about our wonderful day and the stunning sights we’d seen. They were unconvinced and planned to book the first bus in the morning. Oh well. We knew we’d see them in Vientiane. We left them to their dinner at the Nazim Indian restaurant, and went on to find a place for ours.

Determined to not have pizza, or sit in front of a TV, we chose a nice looking restaurant (I think it was next to the Bakery Restaurant). J ordered a Laos style noodle dish and I had a ‘fusion’ dish of pasta and vegetables, with a spicy Laotian sauce. Both meals were delicious, but the price of the beers was double what we’d paid at the Aussie bar. So we left to explore the rest of the town. We hadn’t even been down to the road near the infamous ‘island’. This road had even more backpacker hostels, bars, and lots of these little roadside stalls, selling pancakes and other snacks with their menus displayed on whiteboards leaning against the front of the cart. Everything was cooked fresh on large, round griddles, making the whole street smell sweet. We chose the Santana bar and sat at a table overlooking the island. From our spot, we could see (and hear) the many bars over the river, all lit up with multi-colour neon lights. The area was pretty quiet given it was still only early evening. We only saw a couple of groups heading over the rickety bridge to begin the night’s festivities.

Without warning, the sky opened up. The sudden downpour had people running for cover. A few bursts of lightening illuminated the river, as the rain came down heavy and hard. J and I shrugged our shoulders, joking how we were trapped so just had to stay there and have another beer. What a pity. The rain lasted for an hour or so. We saw some very keen young people running over to the island trying to keep dry under a plastic sheet. They were laughing, not letting the downpour ruin their night. Finally, the rain stopped, so J and I wondered back to our hotel. The damp streets seemed cleaner, with the day’s dirt and dust washed away. People were coming out from where they’d sheltered into the fresh evening air. But for these two tired bodies, it was time to crash after a spectacular day. -k

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