Friday, 25 April 2014

Vang Vieng

Wow, amazing day!

I left Vientiane yesterday. Ruairí walked me to the main street near the house and helped me to negotiate a tuk tuk into town. Here he is above, riding along behind to wave me off!

Tuk tuks are like motorbikes with a trailer attached. They're similar to motos in Rwanda in that you can just put out your hand and hail one. They're called tuk tuks because they make the sound tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk as they go along.

Just as planned, there was a large bus waiting next to the museum, direction Vang Viang. I'm still a bit confused about the number of zeroes on the currency, and accidentally tried to give the guy far more than I should have, at which point he smiled and gave it back to me, explaining the difference. So far the people I've met in Laos have been so incredibly helpful and friendly. Everything is done with a smile.

The bus was comfortable and air conditioned, which was a blessing, and the four hours went by quickly, gazing out the window at the villages we passed with their traditional houses on stilts, and the domestic animals: dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, goats, cows and water buffalo. Laotians seem to love animals. There are plenty of stray dogs and cats, but they all look well fed. Animals and people co-exist quite happily together.

It was fairly flat terrain, an extension of lowland Vientiane, right up until we reached Vang Vieng, when these incredible, gravity-defying mountains suddenly appeared! A taste of things to come.

It was a little confusing when we got off the bus, because we appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. I wasn't entirely sure we'd arrived, despite the large sign saying Vang Vieng Buss Station. So I stood around watching the other westerners getting off, looking as confused as I did. We didn't have to wait long though, a free minibus soon appeared to ferry us five minutes down the road to the centre of town, stopping outside one of the main guest houses. 

I assumed it would be pretty packed, so gather up my bags to take a walk along the high street, as I thought there might be better places to stay. One guy called to me from a bar and showed me around a really cheap room, but it was right above a bar and Vang Vieng is known as the backpacker's party capital, so I politely declined and continued along the road a little further until I came to a nice-looking place called the Phou Ang Kham Residence (Laos 023-511033 or 020-55669659 / / Facebook). It was supposed to cost 260,000 kip (£20) for two nights, but there was a change debacle, so I paid 300,000 (£22) and got breakfast included.

The room was lovely, and fully air conditioned. It was a couple of degrees cooler than Vientiane, but that isn't saying much. There was a TV with lots of Asian channels, CNN and BBC Wold News, plus a few German and French programmes. The only thing that was a little odd was the bed. Firm isn't even the word for it. I've since come to discover that beds in Laos are basically the floor, only higher. Still, the view more than made up for that.

Vang Vieng is mostly one street, lined on either side with bars that attract backpackers in their hoards. They go there for the kayaking, swimming, trekking and caving, but the wonderful thing about Laos (from my perspective) is that 11:30pm is closing time, no ifs, no buts. Laotians get up early and go to bed early, so even though it's loud in the evenings, you are guaranteed some shut-eye before midnight.

The first night, I simply dumped my stuff and grabbed some food down the road. I was tired, hot and sweaty and simply wanted to veg out in front of the telly and enjoy the air conditioning.

The guy on reception, Nee, was extremely lovely, and talked me into taking a tour the next day. I didn't really fancy trekking in the heat, and although the sound of water was appealing, I wasn't that interested in kayaking. However, I was extremely interested in the caves, so he offered up the perfect solution: swimming in caves. Sold!

The next morning Nee turned up with a mini van and a guide, Alen. I'd paid 300,000 kip (it was supposed to be 350,000 but he gave me a discount!) and was expecting to join a tour group of other people from the various hotels in town.

Nope - just me!

My own private outing.

We left town, headed further into the Elephant Mountains. I've included some video clips in this post, but I've reduced the quality to save upload time. I may redo them at some point in the future, but they're fine for illistrative purposes.

Nee dropped us off at a place by the Song River, where Alen collected our water from a café before heading off towards the caves.

Song River

The first cave was very small, and directly opposite the café, so we didn't have far to walk. There were Buddhas inside, and a large Buddha footprint, as well as a number of other interesting images.

Buddha Footprint

Natural Elephant Formation

Mermaid, said to protect families and heal people.
Interesting as Laos is a landlocked country.

That last one is Alen holding the bell outside the cave, which is made from an old bomb left over from the war with America. Laos is the most bombed country in the world, beating Germany and Vietnam combined. Around a third of the bombs never went off, and remain scattered across the landscape, maiming and killing people on a regular basis even to this day. It's not unusual to see people melting down the bombs as scrap metal to make cutlery, ornaments and temple bells.

Then we began our walk to the bigger caves. It was around 38c, so the ten minute walk felt a bit longer.

Baby rambutan fruit, one of Martine's favourites.

Cows sheltering from the sun.

Entrance to the cave up ahead.
We stopped here for water and a rest.

Once we were rehydrated, we continued up a steep embankment to the largest of the caves. There were beehives above it, clinging to the cliff face, and the remains of a fire where locals had been smoking them out to steal the honey. 

The rickety ladder up to the cave was a little precarious. There's a lot in Laos that UK Health & Safety would balk at, you really have to watch where you're going.

Bye bye world!
Inside the cave it's pitch black but, with the help of a head torch and a camera flash, you can make out some of the incredible rock features. It was wonderfully cool beneath the earth, and we spent about forty minutes scrambling about, deep into the cliff. Apparently the spirit of a red monkey lives in the tunnels, confusing travellers. An Argentinian man apparently drowned there because he went in during the rainy season and the cave flooded with him inside. Apparently he tried to leave a trail to find his way out, by tearing up kip and stuffing them in the walls, but his headlamp went out and he couldn't see them to find his way back, so now the Lao put ropes in the dangerous caves to stop travellers getting lost.

It doesn't show up on my camera, but the rocks glitter like ice when the light hits them. It's like being in a cave full of diamonds. 

Alen's underground ATM machine.
Insert card.

Below is a short clip of Alen playing a tune on the rock formations.

During the American bombings, many people would take shelter in the caves. This is Lao graffiti, the names of those who hid in these caves. There was an even larger one further inside, where the entire ceiling was covered. I went to take a photograph and then decided against it. Like Auschwitz, it just didn't feel appropriate. There was something truly horrible in that some western tourist had written an obscenity on the graffiti: 'on f'ing tour' in blue paint. It seemed so completely disrespectful to those who had cowered in fear whilst bombs ripped through their villages and burned them alive beneath the ground. 

There was a smaller cave next to this one which housed a large Buddha. The cave entrance was too small to fit it through, so they had to build it inside.

Having managed to navigate my way around large potholes and low ceilings in the dark, I then very inelegantly landed on my bum in the mud in this cave, causing much hilarity and a good deal of washing myself off in a puddle. It was a funny cave not least for that, but for a giant stalactite which hung down from the ceiling in the shape of a giant penis!

'Have you seen this?' Alen asked, shining his torch on it. 'What does it look like?' We both burst out laughing. 

For such a conservative country, I was a little surprised, but then you should watch The Rocket. The Lao have quite a cheeky sense of humour about these things.

After that, it was another ten minutes up the road to the most wonderful cave I have ever seen in my life!

I changed into my swimming gear in the toilets, picked up a waterproof head torch and a large rubber ring...

Then we set sail into the cave, pulling ourselves with our arms along the ropes suspended from the low ceiling. We went for about quarter of an hour, following the channel through the rock. Again, it was pitch black, and occasionally we turned off our head torches and just felt our way in the dark. Alen asked if I was scared, and it was a little spooky at first, but in all honesty, it was one of the most relaxing experiences ever. A bit like a giant floatation tank.

When we had gone as far as we could, we rested, turning off our torches again and having a water fight in the shallows, trying to move silently, and locating each other by sound, splashing in the direction we thought the other was in. He was much better at this than I was. Every time I moved, he got me, but every time I splashed, he seemed to be in a completely different direction. The acoustics in the cave were amazing, and we whistled and sang as we travelled.

Entrance to the Water Cave

On our way back, he played a trick on me. We had turned off our torches and were racing each other back in the dark. I was behind, trying to catch up, but I suddenly got the sense that I was alone. I slowed down to listen for him, but I couldn't hear anything. When I turned my head torch on to look, all I could see was his rubber tyre floating towards me with nobody in it!

Of course he was hiding under the water, and I managed to get a good splash in as he surfaced.

He tipped me out of the tyre in retaliation!

It was so much fun, and I think I visited just at the right time because you can't enter the caves once the monsoon starts. They flood and it becomes too dangerous.

After that, we took a slow walk for about an hour through the countryside towards a village where Nee was going to meet us to drive us back to the hotel.

On the other side of the village was a bridge where local children were swimming. They were standing on top of the railings and jumping in!

Rice paddies during the dry season, waiting for the rain to fill them up.

When I got back to the hotel, I headed across to the Irish bar next door for a well earned beer and a bite to eat. The night before I had witnessed an almighty thunder storm, the clouds completely swallowing the mountains. Tonight was even better - torrential rain. There was nothing for it but to order another beer and try to film the lightning.

Gary's Irish Bar.
Top place.

There is a bus leaving at 9am for Phonsavan and I've booked a pick-up from the hotel. Apparently it takes about six hours, and costs 115,000 kip (about £8.50) including the pick-up. I've very much enjoyed my time in Vang Vieng. Would thoroughly recommend it.

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