Published: October 28th 2007October 1st 2007
No...I'm not being deep in any way. It's just that I spent some time in caves when I was in Laos and it was always nice to see the light at the end.
In any case...Sabai-dii!
In this region, you'll often find that drivers, travel agents, etc will tell you anything and will agree to whatever it is you're saying to them.
"Can you take me to the temple?" - "Yes"
"Do you know how far it is?" - "Yes"
"How far is it?" - "Yes"
"Um...ok...do you understand anything I'm saying?" - "Yes"
"Ok, my fault. Bad question. You don't understand anything I'm saying, right?" - "Yes"
And so it goes. Sometimes despite much effort up front, I'll get a minute or two into a moto/tuk-tuk ride and realize that we're just going in a straight line until I tell him to turn. Also...most of them can't read maps. So even when I show a map of the town and point to where I want to go...it doesn't help and only gets me another "Yes."
That doesn't really apply to this story...but thought I'd share. This is more about talking to 10 different travel agents
in Hanoi and hearing 10 combinations of details about the bus trip to Laos (Vientiane - the capital). Apparently it can be anywhere from 16-24 hours...cost $15-26...be on a "good tourist bus with air-con"...be on a local bus...be on a NEW "good tourist bus with air-con"...stay on one bus the whole time...switch buses at the border...etc. After seeing that the people on the Halong and Sapa tours all got the same for different prices, I opted for the $15 bus and figured we'd all get the same deal. I'll never know...but what I got was:
- Picked up an hour late
- Mini-bus to the bus
- Changed buses at the border
- Wasn't on anything resembling a "good tourist bus with air-con"
- Had to walk nearly a kilometer between the Vietnam border station to the Laos station because the bus went ahead without me and one other guy.
- And got there 22hrs after the journey began.
Thankfully I was pretty tired and managed to drift in and out of sleep for most of the first 12 hrs. It was mostly locals, no air-con, and I was sitting on some sort of burlap bag for a lot
My shoulders felt a tad tweaked the next day...but it was fun.
of the trip. I actually liked this last fact because I had more room to lay down. In any case, it was far from what was promised...but not far from what I expected. It's one of those experiences where attitude and expectations make all the difference.
Upon arrival in Vientiane we (the 9 of us who were not locals) started wandering around town looking for accommodation. I once again ended up rooming with a couple of people I didn't know (but did know one of their names - Rory from Sunderland, England...the other was Paul, and Aussie who was turned back at the Vietnam border for not looking enough like his passport photo) and paid a whopping $2 for my room that night.
Vientiane is easily the sleepiest capital town I've ever been in. Didn't feel much like a capital, but rather just a chilled out smallish town along the Mekong river. There really wasn't much to do there, so after a day Rory and I hopped on a bus bound for Vang Vieng...a supposedly even more chilled out town 4 hours north of Vientiane.
I believe I forgot to mention the plan for Laos...don't do/learn/see a
damn thing. It's my last week in SEA and I really can't be bothered (shout-out to all my UK friends out there) to see or learn anything cultural or historical. I'm tired, I've seen loads of temples, and just wanted to play for a week. Laos, having the least developed tourist industry in the region, was just what the doctor ordered. Not to say that Laos doesn't have culture and history...but Vang Vieng certainly isn't the place to find it. Perfect. Oh...and all the activities there involve water. Even more perfect. A few entries ago I said it's not all fun and games...but this week it was.
First up on the non-culture agenda was a day of tubing down the Nam Song river. The deal with this is that we pay some folks in town $4 for a tube and a ride 4km up the river. Then we hop in and float. Easy enough. The sweeter part is that after about 5 minutes a Laotian dude throws a bamboo pole out to us in the middle of the river and pulls us over to shore. Welcome to river bar #1...fully equipped with a swing, a pole, and beer.
Is This Really A Good Idea?
Yes...that's me at the top of that pole. I ended up climbing just a bit higher to the final step so that the top of the pole was about even with my knees. A rather terrifying moment in my life.
- climb a ladder to a platform about 3-4m above the river. Grab the swing and flop yourself out into the middle of the river. Brilliant. The Pole
- Climb this really dodgy looking pole that angles out over the river at 10 degrees or so and reaches over 10m into the air (I don't know how high it really was...but it was freaking high...4 storeys maybe?). Freeze in fear at the top for a while and jump. This is for stupid people. The Beer
- Umm...yeah, it's just beer.
And by "bar" I mean a sandy patch with a little wooden stand with a lady selling beer. This business plan is brilliant...no capital expenses...just build a swing and have some cold beer for all the silly backpackers who float by.
We watch as a crazy Israeli girl climbs this pole and eventually jumps into the river. She surfaces with a pained look on her face and makes her way back to shore. She's hard-core. Mikaela, one of the Swedish girls floating down the river with us that day says "If you do it, I'll do it." I looked at her and firmly said
Almost To The Caves
This is the brilliant taking a photo of each other taking a photo of each other.
"No, I'm not here to kill myself." I immediately tell Rory to not let me do this regardless of how many beers I've had. It's really really tempting, but I'm not that dumb. It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time
Yeah, I'm that dumb. 5 minutes later I'm half-way up the pole and clutching onto it for dear life. I'm not crazy about heights, but usually am OK as long as I can hold onto something with my hands. Unfortunately in this case, what I was holding onto was this stupid dodgy pole with questionable structural integrity. (Mom...I'm just kidding...it was totally safe...yeah, believe me...would I lie to you?)
After about 10 hours of navigating the steps (each step was about 1/3-1/2 my body height) and stability wires, I finally made it to the top. (Great views up there by the way...and it's amazing how much higher something looks while up there compared to being on the ground). I spent the next 5 minutes trying to understand if Eimir (the Irish girl with a camera) had managed to take a photo or not and if she was ready to take a video. Since I was
up in the clouds I couldn't really hear what she was saying and finally decided that waiting any longer wouldn't do me any good...it was riskier to climb back down than to jump.
I stepped forward and did my best to keep myself vertical...of which I did a great job. Pointed my toes and everything. Only problem...in order to keep vertical I had been waving my arms around...but didn't tuck them at my sides for entry into the water. I never really knew how quickly both of my arms could turn purple. Now I do.
The pain of entry wasn't too bad except for the newly destroyed arms and I slowly swam back to shore to be greeted by my cheering crowd (of 6). I may be that dumb...but I'm glad I did it. Mikaela however, isn't as dumb...she climbed up about a 1/3 of the way and launched from there. Fair enough. Like Anna back on the Tongariro Crossing, she may be the smart one here.
I reprimanded Rory for letting me go - he claimed that he wasn't at fault because I had told him to not let me jump after having some beers and
I hadn't even yet had one
. I still hold him to be at fault.
We hopped back into our tubes to see where the river brought us next. It turns out that the river brought us to...yup...another Loatian dude throwing a bamboo pole to drag us to his bar with an even bigger swing, a taller pole, and a zip line. This was a more proper place that also had beach volleyball, sitting areas, food, etc. Don't worry...not only was I not inclined to climb this pole...but they don't even let people climb it anymore because it's too dangerous. But the swing was great.
After a few hours at this place, we continued with the river tour and bounced from place to place until the increasing darkness made us think that maybe we should head to the exit point. So we all took a final jump off the platform at the last bar and got back in the tubes. A bunch of us banded together for the 20-30 minute trip to the end. Despite not knowing where the end was...eventually a bunch of Laotian kids started dragging us to shore and pointing to where we were to go.
Rory and I decided this had been one of the greatest days of our lives and it needed to be repeated the following day. Oh...did I mention that due to my pole jump it hurt to sit down for the rest of the day? Yeah, it did...apparently my arms weren't the only victims.
So day 2 consisted of pretty much the same - minus the arm&bum-destroying pole jump. Oh, and it still really hurt to sit down. I also managed to get a cheer from the crowd (bigger this time...30 or so) when I figured I should try to hang up-side-down from the swing by my feet. This also seemed like a good idea at the time...and was...but left me with bruises and abrasions on the tops of my feet for a week. Oh well...the price of pleasing the crowd...
Having mastered the river, we figured that day 3 required a change of pace. We had heard some great stories about the caves in the area. So we - me, Rory, Mikaela, and Linnea (Mikaela's friend - their other two friends Walter and Ole opted for another day on the river) - rented a couple of motorbikes
Water Cave Crew
This is during our rinse cycle after the muddy water cave experience.
and headed off to see what trouble we could find.
The first cave we came across was Tham Sang
. This place was pretty cool and we explored until we came to the end several hundred meters into the cave. All in all, this one took about 30-40 minutes.
A local lady managed to communicate to us that we should head further up the road for the next cave...Tham Nam
. Some local kids flagged us down and told us to park the bikes so that they could take us to the cave. This place was pure money. There was a river flowing from the mouth of the cave, so we were given some tubes and head lamps and off we went into the emerald waters of Tham Nam. After navigating the twisting tunnels in the tubes, we came to a sandy area where the kids told us to leave the tubes. We spent the next hour or so following our guides and crawling and inching our way over rocks, through mud, and swimming through shallow pools. So much for those white/light blue board shorts of mine. Several stubbed toes and 2 scraped knees later we made our way back
to the tubes and out to the light. Really cool.
Next the kiddos led us past some rice fields and tea fields to Tham Hoi
. This one was guarded by a giant Buddha at the opening. We cruised past and headed into the darkness. This cave covered the range of experiences...walking upright...crouching...crawling...swimming...wading...slipping on mud...stubbing more toes...malfunctioning lights...the whole deal. After about 45 minutes or so the kids said "Ok, we go back". We asked why and they informed us that the cave went 6km further into the mountain. Right...let's go back.
We got back on the bikes, drove through all the slippery mud of the semi-path back to the road and headed on home. We were hungry and stopped at a place on the side of the road that looked sorta like a restaurant and asked for a menu. They sat us and just started cooking...apparently there was no menu...just soup (something like Vietnamese Pho). In any case, it was a perfect way to finish up a great day in the Lao countryside.
Day 4 in VV was a special occasion...Rory's 30th birthday. Gee...how could we celebrate? With all 4 Swedes having left at 7am, we were
on our own to suffer another day tubing on the river. Within minutes we were joined by a Brazilian dude (Ricardo) who looked oddly familiar. He remembered me too and was able to remember that we were on a ferry together in the Thai gulf on the way to the Full Moon Party over a month ago. We didn't actually meet then...but the reason I remember him is that he had basically plopped his head on my leg while taking a nap across the 3 seats next to me. I know the Brazilians are touchy-feely...but I shooed him away. All that to be said, he proved to be an entertaining addition to our birthday tubing crew. More tubing fun the rest of the day and the b-day was a success. (Oh, and by the way...it still hurt to sit down that day.
As you might expect...due to the wet nature of water activities...the photos from tubing and caving are at a minimum. Bummer.
The other comment about Vang Vieng...I've seen just about the entire series of Friends here. For some reason all the cafes here have decided that they need TVs (fairly common)...and they all need to be
showing Friends (not so common) episodes non-stop. Honestly, it's possible to be at one cafe eating and you can hear 2 other episodes across the street. There was one place that bucked the trend by showing Simpsons and Family Guy. But other than that place, it was pretty much all the friends you can handle. Final Days
Ok, so maybe the light at the end of the tunnel title was a little metaphorical and also applies to the fact that the last day on the river basically concluded my adventures in South East Asia. The next day I hopped a bus to Vientiane so I could be (as the great philosopher Neil Peart once said) On the train to Bangkok...aboard the Thailand express...we'll hit the stops along the way...we only stop for the best!
Somehow, I think he was talking about something other than the sleeper train I was on...but I love music references...
I'll have some concluding thoughts on South East Asia and some comments about what happens next in this journey of mine in the entry that follows this. Stay tuned...
But a final story from Lao:
The first day on the river we encountered
an Aussie family (parents and two daughters - 18 and 24). This family was whacked in many ways...but I won't go into that. Just one thing. At one point the girls started easing into the drunken "America sucks" spiel. Super. Eventually the younger one said something to the effect of "But doesn't it tell you something when everyone you talk to doesn't like you because you're American?" Early in the conversation I had good humor about it...but as they built to this point I was just ticked off and told her that since she was really the first person in 6 months I've met with this attitude, I'd say that tells me more about her and her close-mindedness than anything else. I was done talking to her...there were more entertaining folks around. Normally I'm willing to give the younger folks out there a break when they're ridiculous...but she just gets chalked up in the stupid column.
So please, people...if you're going to bash America...at least come at me with something resembling a cogent argument...not just incontinent flow of ill-informed vitriol. (Yeah, I just had to use a dictionary to confirm that meant what I thought it did).
and there also was another anti-American American one of the days on the river. I can't remember if I've complained about these people yet or not. But if you feel that you need to bash America to ingratiate yourself to all the foreigners...get a grip. This girl was basically just naming poor traits that nearly all humans have and saying how America stunk because we have greed, selfishness, etc...even economic success was negative for this girl. Thankfully, a couple of Canadians were doing their best to defend America and set her straight. I don't think she was listening, but props to those Canucks for saving me from jumping into another argument. So to all the Americans out there who aren't confident that people might like you for being you...try to be objective and if you really feel like bringing up America's bad points to sound cool, stick to the ones that are uniquely American rather than thinking Americans are the only flawed humans out there. For the Americans who truly don't like America...well...then go for it...bash away. But in general I've run into a few of the first type.
Rant over. I have a few more for later though.
Ladies on the Bridge
Had to cross this stream...pay the lady in the hut some tiny amount and we were in our first cave.
There are more photos below