Kayaks, Caves & Waterfalls - A Week in Laos

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Asia » Laos
September 24th 2006
Published: September 24th 2006
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In contrast to its dubious distinction as the most heavily bombed country in the world, (between 1964 and 1973 the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, roughly 30% of which failed to detonate and remain dangerous today), my experience of Laos was of a peaceful, extremely laidback and very beautiful place. Rugged limestone cliffs, emerald-green forests, pristine jungle waterfalls, friendly people, a relaxed atmosphere everywhere you go, and all to be enjoyed with what is probably South East Asia's best beer... What more can one ask for?

As always of course, my enjoyment of this trip did depend largely on the company. There were four of us who set off late one afternoon for a hectic week-long trip through Laos. Casto & Leti you know from previous blogs, two of the best people I know. And quite a few of you have recently asked me about Jen, the girl with me in my profile picture... 😉 Jen is from South Korea, but spent some time on exchange in the U.S. a few years ago, where she met Leti. Taking advantage of how close Leti was in Thailand, Jen came across for what was initially meant to be a short visit. We both sensed something between us early on, but sat down together one night and decided that there was no point starting something, when it seemed as if it could only end in us both getting hurt. So that was where things stood, as we all set out for a week in Laos together. But you know what they say about best intentions...

While always fairly comfortable, (to be honest, ridiculously luxurious compared to all other Asian public transport I've taken so far), the air-conditioning on Thailand's long-distance buses is just silly. After a sweaty wait for our bus in the humid heat of Bangkok's northern bus terminal, we stepped on board to be hit by an icy blast of truly Arctic-level air-conditioning. Initially a relief, we soon found it too much, shivering in our seats and putting on extra t-shirts. It's around this point that they walk around handing out blankets... Now surely it wouldn't be that difficult to find a level of air-conditioning that's comfortable but not so cold that you can see everyone's breath as they exhale? (Alright, it's not quite that bad but it's close...) I managed to find an extra blanket but still woke up cold numerous times during the night.

After an uneventful border crossing at Nong Khai the next morning, we caught a tuk-tuk in to Laos' nearby capital - Vientiane. Even the ever-enthusiastic LP couldn't find many complimentary things to say about this tired little town. While we were there, teams of disorganised workers were carrying out messy roadworks all around the centre of town, which no doubt contributed to the sense of general disrepair. We found a great place to stay though, (Dragon Lodge, if anyone's heading to Vientiane soon), and set out to have a look around. We didn't visit any 'sights' at all that day, instead enjoying some Laos cuisine and Beer Lao for lunch, and then taking advantage of the French influence with some afternoon coffees & pastries.

Vang Vieng
We decided to press on to more interesting destinations as soon as possible, so left early the next morning for Vang Vieng. Quite a few of the other exchange students had visited Laos earlier in the term, and everyone had loved Vang Vieng. It was easy to see why on arrival - a small backpacker town on the edge of the lazy Nam Song river, overshadowed by a dramatic cluster of limestone karst cliffs in thick jungle. Setting out to explore the main street, we found what was essentially a mini-Khao San - dozens of tiny travel agencies, internet cafes, restaurants showing pirated movies and endless re-runs of 'Friends', and so on. One way in which Vang Vieng is different to Khao San though, is that the drugs are much more readily available there. Every restaurant we ate at openly advertised long lists of various combinations - opium tea, mushroom shakes, space cakes, and so on. I'd read in LP that there'd been some recent crack-downs by the government... Makes you wonder what it was like before?

As well as the easy availability of drugs, many travellers come to Vang Vieng for the tubing. All guesthouses and travel agencies offer this - they drive you upstream, give you a big inner tube, and then you float back into town, stopping off at the many river-side bars along the way. We decided to do it a little differently, joining a kayaking trip instead. This meant we started a bit further upstream, taking in some fairly decent rapids, visiting a couple of caves along the way, and generally having a more active day than those lazy, good-for-nothing tubers. =P

The caving was quite an experience, mainly because it was unbelievably slippery and the thongs, ('flip-flops', for any American readers =P), we were all wearing weren't really up to the task. We were all given head-lamps, slinging batteries almost the size of those in cars around our necks, and then we slithered down some rocks to the mouth of the cave and into the inky blackness within. With only our (totally inadequate) lamps to light the mud-slick floor, it took a lot of concentration and balance just to stay upright and avoid the numerous holes and crevices. Definitely made the whole experience a lot more interesting than it would otherwise have been. There were some beautiful sections to the cave though, particularly the deepest caverns, in which the guide banged out a tune on the huge & seemingly hollow stalagtites and pointed out other odd rock formations.

Back on the river, we decided to stop and spend some time at the biggest & most popular river-bar of all. The main reason for its popularity was the huge rope swing that provided a shot of adrenaline for those who went on it, and endless entertainment for those who preferred to sit and watch with a couple of Beer Lao's. We all had a couple of goes on it. You climb a long ladder up a tree, onto a little tree-house platform about 10m above the river, where a Lao guy retrieves the trapeze-style handle for you each time. Trying to get the biggest swing possible, I jumped a little too high as I left the platform the first time, banging my head on an overhanging branch and nearly losing my grip on the handle. =P As a result, I twisted a little in the air as I swung down out of the tree, over the surface of the river, and then back up again. When I thought I'd reached the highest point of my swing, I tried to pull hard on the handle, just to get a little bit more height before I let go. Of course, because I'd twisted a bit in the air, I ended up falling in a really strange position - frantically trying to reorient in mid-air - and hitting the river with a very ungraceful (and extremely painful!) backflop. =/ Swimming back up to the surface, I was greeted with appreciative cheers from the watchers and sympathetic winces from my fellow jumpers. So I spent the next week with an initially red, and later blue-black, bruise on my lower back. =/ Luckily for me, my second jump was much better. The crowd didn't seem to enjoy it quite so much as the first though...

Luang Prabang
We moved on early the next morning, headed for what LP calls "South East Asia's most enchanting town" - Luang Prabang. I'd read a little about the recent armed attacks on vehicles travelling this road, (whether it was politically motivated or pure banditry is unclear), so I was a bit edgy when we came across some sort of obstruction about halfway along. Fortunately, it was just a Beer Lao truck that had overturned, spilling beer everywhere and holding up the sporadic traffic for hours. As we waited, tourists and locals alike picked through the jagged wreckage, gleefully extricating the occasional intact bottle from the foamy shards. Much as I enjoy Beer Lao, I decided I could hold on until we reached Luang Prabang.

I'm reticent to give my opinion of Luang Prabang, simply because we saw so little of it. Checking into a comfortable guesthouse in the centre of town, we spent the rest of the first day wandering along the main street, trying some typical Lao cuisine, (such as jaew bawng, a thick dark sauce made from dried buffalo skin and chillies), exploring the small night market, and enjoying the town's relaxed pace. The next morning, we got a tuk-tuk out to the Kuang Si Falls, an amazingly beautiful waterfall south of Luang Prabang. We hiked around it for about an hour in search of an elusive swimming spot near the top, but eventually had to content ourselves with a refreshing dip in the large pools at the falls' base. Back in town, we organised a flight to Chiang Mai, (a trip that would have taken us a couple of days otherwise), and then enjoyed our last night in this undoubtedly beautiful and relaxed little town. I don't think I could fully endorse LP's praise just yet, but Luang Prabang's definitely worth a second visit to make sure, hopefully some day soon.

Chiang Mai
As I look back on our trip through Laos, I realise it sounds fairly boring. Written up as a simple record of what we actually did, the trip would mostly be a repetitive listing of bus rides, accommodation searches, lazy meals, and so on. However, this was a trip that was all about the company, rather than what we actually got up to or where we went. We all got on so well that a whole afternoon spent just sitting around and chatting over a couple of Beer Lao's was an afternoon well spent.

Our time in Chiang Mai was much the same, although we did make a bit more of an effort to see a few of the sights - Wat Chedi Luang (housed the Emerald Buddha - which is now in Bangkok's famous Wat Phra Kaew - in 1475), Wat Phra Singh (apparently a good example of the local 'Lanna' architecture), the sprawling Night Bazaar, and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (its hilltop location affords a great view out over the town).

As I said earlier, before this trip Jen & I had decided there was no point in starting anything and that we would try to remain just friends. But over the week we spent travelling together through Laos, we got to know each other a lot better. And the more I got to know Jen, the more I liked her. Sweet, fun, adventurous, intelligent and opinionated (not to mention beautiful), Jen is a special girl. We returned to Rangsit a couple, not sure where it might lead, but content to just enjoy our time together and then deal with whatever came next. Of course, since I always seem to be so far behind in my blogs, all this took place almost two months ago. What's happened since then?! Find out more in the next installment... =P

(Happy Birthday for today Mum, and Dad for the 27th, hope you both have a great day!)

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24th September 2006

Can't wait for the next episode! It all sounds so rich on so many levels, the photos are as ever beautiful and the friendships precious for themselves, no matter how long they last or where they may lead. Thanks for sharing it all with us.
24th September 2006

Thanks Michael for a great blog on my birthday! It is always the people who make a place and I'm glad you had the opportunity to have such a great trip with your three special friends. The country looks spectacular and your photos reflect a fun-filled trip. You were game trying fried whole frogs!
25th September 2006

Hurry up and give us the update! :)
25th September 2006

Bombed but beautiful!
Hej! Great to read your newest blog. Beautiful pictures, great text. Lovely photos of Jen and your other friends! What amazing experiences you are having, so keep writing material that will be ready for your book!!
27th September 2006

is it at all ironic to anyone else that you should be wearing a "quicksilver" shirt the day you fell into the quicksand?

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