A River Runs Through It

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April 3rd 2007
Published: August 6th 2007
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Misty morningMisty morningMisty morning

Mist on the mountains across the river from the farm.
I knew we had finally arrived in Vang Vieng when I started to see restaurants with pillows on the floor and Friends reruns on the tv. Every description of VV I've heard mentions those Friends reruns, and sure enough they're still popular. Some of the restaurants are also showing Family Guy and The Simpsons these days, but Friends is king. The bus dumped us along the roadside in the middle of town. There were more falang (that's foreigners) on the streets than Lao people. In fact, I'd venture that there might be more falang in VV than even Luang Prabang, but it's hard to say for sure since they're such different places. The combination of the falang and then restaurants immediately brought back memories of Ko Pha Ngan, which isn't necessarily a good thing for VV to be emulating.

I looked around for about two seconds before I spotted a tuk-tuk. I asked the driver if he'd take me to the Phoudindaeng Organic Farm, and we negotiated the price to 15K kip, which in retrospect was a ripoff since I shared with a bunch of people on their way to go tubing. Speaking of tubing, it's one of the main
A new friendA new friendA new friend

The bug (next to my right hand) was huge. It sounded like a helicopter when it decided to fly, too!
reasons people come to VV. The Nam Song river runs alongside the town (and farm) and it is extremely popular to float down it on a tractor inner tube. Of course, people don't just float along; they stop for drinks at bars and to use various swings that catapult you out over the water. The launch point happens to be adjacent to the organic farm, so if you play your cards right you can catch a ride for 5K instead of 15, but I didn't know that of course.

I arrived at the farm, and immediately spotted Mickan, who had been volunteering there for the past month. It was great seeing her again, and it just confirms how small SE Asia really is. After dropping off my stuff I got a tour of the farm which primarily grows mulberry trees, but has some animals as well. We saw some of the mud-brick huts that the volunteers have built, as well as some really cute baby goats and pigs.

After the tour we headed over to the river to go swimming. I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive about swimming in a river since I've only really

Someone tried to drown these cats and we spent a couple hours getting them dry and warm.
swum in pools and the ocean before. However, it turned out to be tons of fun. The river is amazingly refreshing and it's really clean. The current is fast enough to float you along, but you're never far from the shore if you get tired. Everywhere you look there are little kids jumping into the river and paddling around. Just upstream people are bathing. It really is a wonderful escape from the heat.

It wasn't long before we got out to get ready for the evening's English class. Many people who stay at the farm spend some of their time helping out in the English classes that are organized through the farm. The classes are run by the long-term volunteers like Mickan, and then people staying for a few days go to the class to give the students more personalized attention. There are eight classes a week, split into two age/ability levels. The young kids are in the first class, which is taught by advanced students as well as the volunteers. The kids in that class were so enthusiastic and every single volunteer came out the class with a smile on their face. It's just so incredible to sit with a group of little kids and help give them a skill that could actually make their life better.

The older kids are all at very different ability levels which makes teaching the class more difficult. Some of the students are fluent enough to have a conversation with you, while others are still mastering very basic vocabulary. Regardless, it's evident that all of the students want to be there, which is a lot more than I can say for my Spanish classes in high school. In the five classes that I helped out in, the students worked their way through a serious of dialogs in an English text. They had various tasks ranging from translation to transcription. We each sat with a small group of students and helped them to learn the material. It's not all book work, though. In one of the classes we ended up playing "hot potato" which was an absolute riot. We split into four large groups and the students tossed the potato around their group saying out words for the various themes until the music stopped. As soon as it stopped, the person holding the potato had to run up to the board and write the last word that was said in the group. The slowest person ended up wearing a really funny hat, which everyone got a laugh out of. Once the students got into the game they really had a blast, and some of the volunteers even had to run up! Participating in the English classes was a really rewarding experience, and I hope that I was able to help in some small way. At the very least, I learned how truly amazing the Lao people are. Many of them live in very basic conditions, but they're a strong, determined people and they alway have a smile on their face. I can't say that for many people from the West who have supposedly better lives.

Over the weekend, Mickan and I rented some bikes and headed to a couple of the caves around VV. The bike ride took us about 15km from the town where we bumped along a dirt track to the river. We checked out a small cave first with several Buddhas in it before following a path through the rice paddies to the main attraction. The water cave, as it was called, has a large pool of clear water in front of a low opening that leads back into the bowels of one of the limestone karst formations. We paid the entrance fee and got our clunky headlamps (you had to wear a huge battery around your neck) and then waded into the cave with our inner tubes. Once we were inside we hopped on the tubes and followed our guide along the rope line into the darkness.

The guide took us through the water for a couple of minutes before we beached the tubes and proceeded on hands and knees for about 20 minutes into some stunning caverns. The ceilings sparkled with thousands of water droplets and the walls were often covered in glittering minerals. At one point we came across a spider larger than the palm of my hand that was guarding an egg sack. It was conveniently located next to a narrow opening and we had to put our hands just a few inches away from it to get past. I was sure we were going to get bitten, but it held its ground and we got through ok! The guide took us in a circle and we were a bit surprised when we arrived back at our tubes.

We hopped back on and the guide took us deep into another part of the cave, but this time we remained on the tubes as we paddled our way along an underground lake. The only sounds were the small splashing of our hands (and Mickan's singing!) as we slowly paddled deeper into the cave. Our headlamps revealed small parts of the twisting crevices above our heads, but they rarely revealed how far up those crevices extended. We must have paddled for 20 minutes before we reached the end of the lake where we rested for a bit before heading back. By the time we reemerged from the cave our hands were wrinkled and it was good to see the daylight, but I was sad to be done with such a wonderful experience.

There was one frustrating side note to this story, however. As we walked away from the cave our guide approached us and demanded $5 each for his services. We had been led to believe that the guide was included in the admission price, since we never asked for him to take us into the cave, he just showed up. We were perfectly willing to pay him $1 each, though which is what we offered him. For reference, $1 a day is a typical salary for people around VV, so $2 is a pretty good haul for an hours work. Demanding $10 is just outrageous, although it's indicative of a larger problem, which is that tourists often blindly pay inflated prices. This in turn drives prices up even further and causes the people to expect wages that are grossly overinflated. We were firm on $2 and finally just gave him the money and walked away. Then he did something very odd. He tried to give the money back to us several times. He had a friend with him and I think that by taking $2 after demanding $10 he was going to lose some serious face and so he tried to maintain face by not taking anything. Well, we weren't going to take the money back so I think the whole incident ended pretty badly for both parties. It's frustrating. If people would stop paying inflated prices, then incidents like this could be avoided. It is hard sometimes, though, when you don't know how much stuff should cost, like the tuk-tuk I caught when I arrived. There is a difference, though, between paying $1.50 instead of $1.00 and paying $10 instead of $2!

I spent over a week at the farm, and aside from a few outings, most days were spent relaxing and hanging out with the other people staying at the farm. We ate most of our meals at the farm because the food was amazing and we were a forty minute walk from town. We also had a core group of people who stayed at the farm for about the same amount of time. Most days we sat around reading. In the afternoons we'd teach, or perhaps go swimming, and then in the evenings we played cards and drank beer most nights. It was a really chilled-out week and I was really sad to have to move on. Plus, having met up with Mickan for the fourth(?) time now, it was a sad farewell, although there is some chance I might come back if I decide not to fly back to Kunming.

That's about it for my time at the farm. Stay tuned for New Year's madness in Vientiane.


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