Pointing at the luxurious looking VIP coach in the travel agents in Vientiane the night before, I kept repeating “So this is the bus? You’re not lying to me?” Each time the wily travel agent would reply: “I promise this is the bus. I not lie to you.” Being bundled into a tiny minivan the next morning for the 5 hour trip, I was cursing the man’s name. Uncomfortable as it was, Crystal still somehow managed to sleep all the way. I was stuck in a bus travellers’ limbo: far too awake to fall asleep, far too bumpy a ride to read, noone to talk to, nothing to do but look at the views or try to nod off. Even views of wonderful terrain get tiring when viewed as though looking at shaky, blurry camera photographs taken on the move.
After a short pit-stop to buy a delicious ham+cheese baguet ( Crystal woke briefly to sample a salad and egg baguet), we continued along the road. It became very bumpy the closer we got to Vang Vieng, and it seemed as though construction was going on everywhere: thick clouds of dust occasionally came in through the windows, and the whir of cranes and diggers made for a rather unpleasant reminder that Laos was becoming more and more popular as a tourist destination.
We reached the bus hop-off point, and Crystal and I grabbed our backpacks quickly and tried to rush off down towards the Nam Song river before the other bible-clutching human turtles. I too, now pulled out the Lonely Planet, though by now I’m aware it’s usefulness is not immeasurable – maps, itineraries and brief histories are what it does best – any recommended acommodation is usually crap, and if it’s not it’s full of other LP disciples anyway. We got our bearings and tried several places by the river, with no success. Vang Vieng had gone upmarket, and $40 was the cheapest room we could find – and even that was a very basic room. Still, it was the closeness to the river that put this particular piece of real estate up. It didn’t seem to have deterred other backpackers – for they are for the most part middle-class kids who can somehow afford a year off to travel and not work. I never got that chance, so am somewhat resentful….though I have plenty of opportunity now that those who are travelling won’t when they get back home and to an office job 9-5 with 2 weeks hoiday a year for the rest of their lives. Ahhh….that’s better….
We found a place eventually. Ban Sabai Bungalows. Actually, it was a place we had been to some 10 minutes earlier, and we were told only one room was available, and it was $55. Now, we were quoted $32, for a lovely room next to a small lagoon, with a river view beyond that. We gladly accepted it, for we had been traipsing around for close to an hour in the early afternoon heat. We checked in and sat on the balcony for a while to soak up the serene charm. Views on the other side of the river were amazing: limestone karst terrain beyond yellow corn fields….like some enchanted land from a fairy tale. The limestone cliffs are numerous and spectacular, blessing the place with an amazing beauty. Boats drifted past on the river, women in conical hats waded in the river picking shellfish out, other people wandered over the bamboo bridges. The limestone cliffs are famous for their honeycombs of tunnels and caverns, and we decided to a go and have a look at one.
We walked out onto the road and rented a bike each – a very old bicycle that reminded me of the ‘mama-chari’ (Grandmother) bicycles I spent most of my travelling time on in Japan. Crossing one of the wider bamboo bridges and swinging a left towards the ‘Tiger Cave’, we soon realised this was a mistake. We had to ride through bumpy corn fields, furrows deep and sun-baked, and it felt like riding a pneumatic drill…..a mountain bike with suspension – also offered for hire – would have been a better idea! Now and again we both stopped just to listen. It was still, all was quiet. This was the most wonderful and complete silence I had experienced since riding through the sugar cane plantations on Hateruna island in Okinawa, Japan. Silence is a beautiful thing, and is all too rare. So often I have tried in Singapore to find a spot where there is no sound of cars zipping by, of people talking, of technology – everytime in vain. But now, in the middle of this corn field, with limestone cliffs towering beyond and behind, I felt extremely peaceful…..I could have stopped, lay down and shut my eyes or read a book….but there were cliffs to climb, and caves to explore….so we pedelled off towards one of them, bones shaking on this bumpy track.
A couple of locals had set up a bamboo shack at the entrance of the cliff/cave. We paid a small fee….around 5,000 Kip, and for this got a hard hat with a flashlight, but no guide. We were completely alone. We crossed a small river and then began ascending the cliff. At various points on the way up we saw small arrows chalked onto the stone which pointed out a place where we could explore a cave. One of them required laying horizontally and dragging yourself through a tiny opening before coming out into an impressive cavern filled with even more impressive stalactities. Going further, guided only by our dim headlamps, it began to feel chilly. At one point we had to slip down a wormhole and go through a low tunnel. There seemed to be only one way through, though there were several tunnels leading to dead ends. Crystal’s headlamp flickered off, then back on. If both went out we were screwed….we were too deep to find our way back,and our shouts of help wouldn’t be heard. We turned back, feeling a sense of danger and the excitement that goes with it. I’d never been ‘caving’ before, and nor had Crystal, so it was a great experience for both of us.
We continued climbing up the steep cliff, and the path got narrower and steeper still. We made it to the top of this particular path, and were welcomed with a circular area with wild grass and trees, and cliffs surrounding it. The silence here was equally amazing to experience….and such was the primitive environment we had come to – virtually untouched – that I half-expected a pterodactyl to come flying out to break the silence. It was all a bit Jurrassic Park…..eerie but beatiful in its silence. Crystal and I spent some time just listening, then began the climb down as the sun was beginning to set. Back at the river we perched ourselves on the low bamboo footbridge and bathed our tired and bruised feet – climbing such steep terrain is difficult anyway – wearing flimsy flip-flops, it’s nigh-on impossible.
We then endured the bone-rattling ride back, dropped the bikes off, and grabbed a coconut pancake from a woman who had set up her cart for the night. Pancakes are a speciality in Vang Vieng, and you can get all kinds of imaginative toppings, from ham and cheese to egg to garlic spread. We sat out on the balcony at our room by the lagoon and nibbled the pancake, tired but high on the sights, sounds, and experiences of our first day in Vang Vieng.
After the sun set it became very cool, so cool that wearing a t-shirt made you shiver. We strolled up to the main drag, and on the way bought a couple of fleeces. I bought a cool one with a hood that read ‘LPDR’….it seemed everyone here had the ‘Tubing Vang Vieng’ fleece…..and I hadn’t tried it so couldn’t well get that. Crystal bought a nice black one….a snip at 70,000 Kip for 2. We continued down the main street. Though there are lots of bars, it was rather empty, and most backpackers had converged upon one or two places. Feeling in the need of company (or at least a place that had the illusion of being in the company of others) we chose the busiest TV bar/restaurant. They were showing back-to-back episodes of Friends. I ordered a big Beer Lao, Crystal an orange juice, and we ordered some food. It was nice to kick back and chill, listening to the laughter of a hundred others laughing at the same Friends jokes you do….not very cultural, but at times this is essential. A sense of comardarie without actuallly talking to anyone. A lovely start to Vang Vieng.