This morning I grabbed breakfast at a roadside stand and decided to try their 'french toast'. I was more interested in discovering the Lao version of french toast rather than actually wanting french toast. For 10,000 kip ($1.15), the lady served me a heaping pile of real french toast, baguette soaked in egg, cooked in butter. It was good, but I was disappointed there wasn't some Lao twist to french toast.
I read in my guidebook about caves around Vang Vieng, so I decided to go check one out. I packed my headlamp, and expected to show up and have a kid take me through the cave, like the guidebook claimed. Well, I must have picked the most developed cave, because when I arrived I had to pay a $2 entrance fee, and the majority of the cave was lined with a cement sidewalk. There was also a homemade lighting setup inside - a bit of a disappointment.
However, I found that the lack of a tourguide made the experience thrilling enough. Of course the pitfalls were roped off, but the sheer idea of being in a cave alone is something we don't get to enjoy in the U.S. I saw a total of six people when in the cave, so most of the time I was completely alone, in dead silence. The sidewalk continued through the cave even though the lighting did not, so I got my experience of walking through a cave with a flashlight. Very cool. Very eery. I don't think I'll become a professional caver.
Despite being scared of venturing through the cave with only a flashlight, I hoped the owner would turn off the lights. The cave was supposed to 'close' at 11:30 am, and reopen at 1:30 pm, so I waited around inside until 11:40 to see if he would turn off the rest of the lights. A minute after I arrived at the exit he turned off the lights - if I had only waited five more minutes!
At the base of the mountain was a clear blue (yes it appeared blue!) stream coming out of the side of the mountain through another cave. A few Lao men were bathing in the water in their underwear, so I hopped in in my bathing suit. A Lao woman told me the water was 'holy water' - understandably so, as it isn't too often one sees crystal clear blue water exiting a cave at the base of a mountain. I decided to check out the half submerged cave, and swam 30 feet inside. It turned left, and kept going. A guy outside the cave yelled in asking me if I was scared, and I told him I was not, but that I was content going in 30 feet. When I came back outside, he told me a big snake lived in there. Why didn't he tell me that before I went into the cave???
I walked back into town and dropped by the tube rental company. For 40,000 kip ($5), I could rent a tractor tire inner tube, take a complimentary tuk-tuk a few kilometers upstream, and float down the river back into town. It sounded like fun, and EVERYBODY does it at least once when in Vang Vieng, so I decided to spend the rest of my day as a tourist floating down the river. I met a few Brits on the tuk-tuk ride to the tubing entrance, and joined them for the float down.
Oh, I forgot to mention that the big attraction of this tubing is not so much the activity of tubing, but rather hitting up all of the bars on the way down. Lining the banks of the river are at least ten bars, each with a bamboo deck stretching out over the water, and a giant bamboo platform to rope swing off of. Hmmm. What an interesting combination - alcohol, tubing, and rope swinging. Never ever ever would this pass in the U.S.
Well, the Brits had consumed two 660 ml BeerLao each before we even hopped in the water (we all grabbed lunch together at the tubing entrance). I opted for mulberry tea, knowing fully well I would need to save my liver for the bars on the river (ooh that rhymes!). We arrived at the first bar, and this place had the largest rope swing, so I went off that a couple of times with Jack (one of the Brits), while the other three brits each had their third 660 ml BeerLao. Mind you, 660 ml is a BIG bottle. I had one BeerLao at the bar, and the Brits joined me for their fourth...
Right before we left for the next bar, we watched a slightly overweight British woman go off of the rope swing but lose her grip mid-swing (the platform was at least 30 feet high). She belly-flopped onto the water, which knocked the wind out of her. Three guys jumped into the water to save her. Hmmm, maybe I'll be a bit more careful on the rope swing?
At the second bar the five of us shared a Tiger whiskey 'bucket' for $3.50. The bucket was very small, but it consisted of Tiger whiskey (shitty Lao whiskey), M150 (a redbull-like drink so strong it's illegal in the U.S.), and Pepsi. By this point I was not anywhere near drunk, but I felt a little buzzed, and was perfectly content staying that way.
We decide to skip bar 3, as there aren't many people there, and head on to bar 4, which is HUGE, and hopping. The three british guys decide to try 'happy shakes', which are shakes made from fruit laced with magic mushrooms. None for me thank you very much! To me that seemed like suicide - traveling down a river on an inner tube while tripping on shrooms.
The Brits drank some more BeerLao, and then we floated down the river some more. I was keeping an eye on the Brits tripping in shrooms, expecting them to start freaking out and drown, but they seemed to be having a blast, and really didn't seem visibly affected.
The current took me a little faster than the Brits, and when I passed bar #6, they decided to stop. At this point I was downstream, so there wasn't much that I could do, and I just kept floating. I stopped at bar #10 for a little bit, but I saw no sign of the Brits.
At this point it was beginning to get dark. I realized that it must be approaching 6:00, and if you don't return your tube by 6:00 you are fined 20,000 Kip ($2.50). I left bar #10, and floated down what I had been told was only a kilometer more...at least that's what one lady said. Well, I floated down a kilometer, and saw no sign of a tube exit....or civilization for that matter. Another kilometer goes by, and it's starting to get dark. Speedboats start coming up the river, presumably to pick up those too drunk to float down the river from bar #10. Another kilometer goes by, and by now it's pitch black. More speedboats are coming up the river, and I start freaking out because there is no way they would see me in front of them, so I paddle over to the bank.
I then start to see the speedboats coming down the river, filled with tubers. At least I know I haven't gone too far downstream....but the boats aren't docking anywhere visible downstream. Hmmm. At this point it dawns on me that I'm in the middle of a fucking river in the middle of nowhere, at night. The main attraction of the national park we visited in Vietnam were the crocodiles in the lakes. CROCODILES!! And we were told on the ferry boat at Cat Tien National Park that if we fell in the water we would be attacked by piranhas. PIRANHAS! And wasn't there supposedly a water snake in that half-submerged cave? Shit!
At this point I was scared to keep kicking with my feet because I knew if there was anything in the water, they would surely find me that way. But then again, I was stuck in the middle of the river, with no way to get to the side. I decided my best bet was to kick as hard as I could for the minute or two it would take to get to the side of the river. Finally, I got to the bank, and found a little path leading up to what turned out to be a group of bungalows. I found my way into town, and walked down the main street soaking wet, in my bathing suit, carrying an inner tube. A guy sitting in a restaurant yelled out to me: "a little late?". No shit.
I arrived at the tube rental place at 8:00 - 2 hours late. I paid my 20,000 kip fine ($2.50), and asked if the four brits had arrived. They hadn't. I waited around for a half hour, and then a tuk-tuk full of people and tubes showed up - presumably the people that were picked up by the speedboats. When the tuk-tuk pulled in, the man in charge of the tube rentals acted really angry and said everybody was being fined 50,000 kip (the sign only read 20,000). At the same time I overheard a woman explaining to the rest of the group in the tuk-tuk that they all had to rush the counter where the rental workers took down the number on your hand, and run away before they could get you for the 20,000 (or 50,000) kip fine. Scams on both sides.
Watching this go down was interesting. Guys working at the tubing place tried to corner tourists and make them pay the fine, while being very careful not to physically touch any tourists. Girls tried to sweet-talk their way out of the fine, and a lot of people just ran away. I watched one guy not even show the number on his hand to the rental service (so they knew he returned the tube), and run away. 30 minutes later he came back and said he had been asleep for the last two hours, and that his buddy told him he hadn't been checked off of the list of on-time arrivals. They believed him. God, all of this for $2.50. Ridiculous.
By this time it's 9:00, and I'm getting a little worried for my friends still out on the river. Maybe I should have stayed with them. They were tripping on shrooms after all.....
By 10:00 the rental service people were getting ready to close up for the night. There were still about 15 tubers that had not arrived yet. They assured me that the Brits had probably just gone to sleep, but I checked their guesthouse room they had written on the form, and there was nobody there. A little scary. I had become friends with the tube rental guys by now, and by this point they were quite drunk (they kept offering me BeerLao and Lao Lao, but I really didn't want any alcohol). They gave me a few pieces of fried buffalo skin that they were snacking on.
At this point, one of the tube rental workers arrived with a big dead snake. Apparently a farmer had found a snake eating his chicken eggs, and had called upon the tube rental guy to kill the snake. They lit a small fire next to the tube rental shed, and boiled up some snake stew in a clay pot. When the pot of snake stew was ready, I asked a guy what kind of snake it was. He said it was 'Coba snake', and explained to me that it is his favorite kind of food EVER, and this is only his second time eating it because it's so expensive. He said they paid 50,000 kip for the snake ($6), but it would go for $50 in a restaurant in Thailand (he clearly made that up). Snake seems to be a very popular food in this part of the world. When in Siem Reap, Ryan and I were in a tuk-tuk when we saw a big dead snake in the road. 10 seconds later a farmer ran out onto the street, grabbed the dead snake, and ran back into his house. I also watched a motorbiker in Laos try to run over a snake crossing the road - presumably for dinner.
I asked my host if 'Coba snake' was 'Cobra snake'. Some guys shook their heads in afformation, but others told me "no". Not that that really mattered, as I was going to try the snake anyways.
The stew was quite tasty - a watery broth with lime and spices. The snake was tasty too - kindof like tough chicken, but difficult to eat. I watched the others eating their pieces of snake, and they would take whole inch-long sections and pop it into their mouths - bones, spine and all. I tried to eat the snake that way, once, but opted to strip the little pieces of meat off of the bones. They kept handing me pieces of snake - much faster than I could eat them. They seemed to enjoy a Westerner's affirmation of the quality of their food. The old man sitting next to me wouldn't stop handing me spoonfuls of broth, leaves, and snake. After each spoonful of stew I would give him a thumbs up, which he returned with a huge smile and served me another spoonful of stew.
Midway through our meal an Aussie dropped by to return his tube. It was 11:00. Whoa. A little late. I asked him if he had seen four brits. He had, and they were only a little bit behind him....but their minds were in some distant galaxy. At least they're still alive!
We finished our "Coba stew", and the tube rental guys closed up the shed by 11:00. I checked the guesthouse of the brits one more time, but again no luck. I hung out until 12:15, finally giving up and going to sleep. Hopefully they're still alive!
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