Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) | Mekong | Vang Vieng – Day 46 – Time stands still, Laos
Both the mountains and my nose were somewhat misted this morning with a slight drizzle (but hope springs eternal that this is the last time a likening of my nose to mountains need be published — for any reason). Still, this outlook was an improvement in both weather and health on the downpours of the preceding day and with the clouds lifting a little further during breakfast, I signed myself up for Mr. Phon’s caving and tubing tour.
An hour later I was hunched over in the back of Mr. Phon’s tuk-tuk beneath a Michelin Man statue of inner tubes roped precariously to the roof rack, and with four other travelers, 3 young women and an older American man named Jeff who now lives in Bangkok.
Part way through our ride, with the getting-to-know-you small talk waning, Jeff asked if anyone wanted to smoke a joint. Given that we were about to hike through pitch black caves and fast-running streams and, perhaps, the fact that it was not yet 10am, there were no takers. So, Jeff proceeded instead to glorp down a small bottle of local elixir labeled with a yellow 6-pointed star and the powerful moniker of ‘M150’. I had seen these little bottles being sold all over the place but given their mysterious title, their similarity in appearance to bottles of cough medicine, and the fact that they often seemed to be sold right next to bottles full of motor oil and gasoline, I had kept my distance. When I asked Jeff what he was drinking, he said that M150 makes a double espresso with a Jolt Cola chaser seem like lemonade. He mentioned some ingredient which is an illegal ingredient in edible products in the U.S. (‘toline’ is what I think he called it) and said that M150 is made with toline – akin to caffeine on steroids. About five minutes later we learned that toline is also apparently a neurotransmitter for the ganglia controlling reasonable rates of speech.
We arrived at Ban Pathet, a small Hmong village nestled at the base of sky piercing vertical rock monoliths. While these limestone behemoths were indeed towers of jutting stone, it soon became the case that the average transistor radio antenna could also be called ‘sky piercing’ as nature’s ceiling pressed right down on top of us as if it was too heavy to hold itself up anymore. Which, in fact, was the case as the rain came a gushin’.
It was clear that we were the first outsiders to visit this village in at least…ten minutes, as evidenced by the group of travelers we exchanged greetings with on our way into the village; they were on their way out. We tramped, slipping and sliding our way along muddy paths, through the village, captivated by the sweet raggedy-clothed children who, despite the obvious parade of we raggedy-clothed Westerners, shyly peaked around each other’s legs in order of diminishing height to catch glimpses of us. What surprised me a little was the couple of kids who rode past us on fine looking kids’ bicycles. After a few minutes we edged along beside a quick-flowing irrigation ditch dotted with bobbing brown heads of still more children. The ditch was a feature of the village which was proudly announced by a sign in both Lao and english as another in a series of projects aimed at improving the lives of the Lao people. And so it had, if the swimming kids’ joyful shrieks of fun were any barometer.
We followed Mr. Phon and the ditch in the direction of the cliffs which were glimpsed in shutter-winks of passing cloud. Mr. Phon was soon mountain-goating his nimble way up over razor-edged rocks and slimy tree roots. Apparently, we had reached the base of the rock wall. We five travelers picked our way along as if walking on greasy cactus.
The sound of running water greeted us as we reached the entrance to a cave, a good-sized half circle opening in the rock, just the way Hollywood meant for cave entrances to be. Mr. Phon handed out candles and lit them as we stepped from the gloomy outside world into the inky inside world along a scree of stones. We followed him into the nothingness as our eyes adjusted to candle power. Soon I could roughly make out the size of the cavern, something similar to the average subway tunnel, but with far fewer trains. Instead, it was water, a decent-sized stream, running through the grotto and we were now knee-deep into it. We proceeded slowly in the dim glow. The rocks we were negotiating with our feet were totally invisible and all of us stumbled as the swift flow tugged at our legs. The only
other sense being stimulated was from the echoed sound of coursing water. As we made our way the water level climbed up to our chests and almost the entire way, we straight-armed the wall beside us for balance and support.
After a good 20 minutes of this we came to a spot where Mr. Phon melted the candles to an outcropping of rocks. He then dived foward and we all followed, enjoying a relaxing candle-light swim in a pool some 20 metres in diameter and half a kilometre up inside a mountain. The far side of the pool was fed by a waterfall which fell from unknown heights.
Once all of our teeth were clacking from the cool waters almost as much as Jeff’s had been earlier thanks to the M150, we reversed course and slowly picked our way back out. The outside world was murky as ever. We stopped at a thatched hut where Mr. Phon handed out cold rice, hot chili sauce and kebabs for lunch. Lao-lao, the local and ubiquitous distilled rice liquor, was poured into tumbler sized glasses. This seemed to warm everyone up just a bit.
Lunch done, we zipped along to the near side of the river’s edge. The far side of the river massaged the toes of the vertical cliffs whose faces were still playing peak-a-boo with us among the rain and clouds. A half-dozen rubber donuts slapped the surface of the flowing waters and the five of us, along with Mr. Phon’s nephew, plopped our rears into them, legs and torsos draped over the sides. Mr. Phon declined the drift, choosing instead to ferry the tuk-tuk back to town. We floated along, pelted by cold rain but my shivering teeth couldn’t meet due to the slackness in my jaw as I tilted my neck and blinked into the deluge. Through swirling drifts of cloud the soaring karsts stared out over us with just a hint of disdain. If time could possible stand still, it was doing so, there, above us, all the way back to Vang Vieng.