I took a day to explore the many beautiful Wats, Stupas and temples that abound throughout the Colonial capital of Laos, Vientiane. It is probably the smallest and most basic capital city that exists anywhere in the world with the tallest building probably not exceeding five stories. Most of the city (town would be more appropriate) is only two or three stories and stretches out from the banks of the Mekong River, the lifeblood of all of the countries throughout IndoChina. Along the river are countless places to eat and drink. Simple local run places with nothing more than a platform and some plastic tables and chairs. At the end of the day you can sit along the riverside, sip on a coconut, a banana shake or a beer lao and watch the setting sun turn the sky into a dance of different colors until at last the light of day fades away.
Happy to have taken my time enjoying the capital, I felt sorry for the many people I met the night before who were skipping out on all of the cultural and historical sights of the country in exchange for partying and tubing down the river in Vang Vieng, the place that put Laos on the map as one of the top backpacker destinations in Southeast Asia. I wasn't sure what to expect from the town or the surrounding area but since all I had heard about was how great the tubing experience there was, I had to make a visit just to check it out for myself.
When I arrived in Vang Vieng, I knew that I wanted to be out of the main town as the streets are lined with bars and restaurants all broadcasting reruns of popular tv shows like Friends on multiple televisions throughout. Inside these tv bars were endless rows of backpackers sipping on cocktails and beers while wasting away their holidays in one of the most stunningly scenic places I have ever visited. I cared so little for this part of the town that I couldn't even bring myself to have dinner in the area as the sound of Ross and Rachel could always be heard in the background. Just seeing that these type of places existed and were actually successful here made me sick.
After doing a bit of exploring around town looking for a decent place to stay, I found a rickety bridge that crossed the swift moving Nam Song river. Arriving on the opposite side without slipping through any of the holes in the bridge, I found myself at a family run guest house that consisted of a series of small huts situated along the river complete with hammocks on each porch, a fan, a large bed and a mosquito net. For just under three dollars, this was exactly what I was looking for. I set down my bags, had some lunch and stretched out in the hammock and spent the remainder of the day relaxing in the shade of my porch slipping in and out of sleep between chapters in the book I was reading.
The sun began to set and with it the air cleared from the hazy and cloudy day that had enveloped the area. It finally gave me the opportunity to have a look around. I found myself to be situated against the base of stunning limestone formations for as far as the eye could see. It was pretty apparent to me that I could find a lot more to do here than partying and watching television.
My first full day, I rented a mountain bike where I made the mistake of inviting a British couple along to join me for the day in my exploration of the area. I had read about some caves around the area that I wanted to check out and in the meantime get some good exercise by covering a lot of ground on a bicycle. Five minutes down the road and moving extremely slowly, I realized that this may have been the first bit of exercise that the British couple had done in the past ten or so years. I was actually having a hard time keeping my bicycle balanced by traveling so slow. I felt guilty about ditching them after inviting them along so I just began pulling ahead and riding back behind them and then repeating the process till we actually reached our first destination.
Although we hadn't intended to find the first cave that we came across (it wasn't in the book or on the map we had) it turned out to be quite and interesting find. After parking our bicycles and paying the man that lived on the property a dollar to let us into the cave, he provided us each with a torch and pointed us toward the entrance to the cave. Seeing as how he didn't speak English, we weren't sure what we would find in the cave or how far in we could actually go but in that lies the excitement of exploring subterranean passage ways.
Having left my headlamp on my bed that morning even after going back to get it, I was not happy with the torch that the man gave me at the entrance to the cave. It lit up only a small spot wherever I shined it's pathetic little beam. As we ventured in through the entrance, we could hear the sound of water rushing inside and after a short walk we were greeted by a rushing stream that poured forth from the depths of the cave. Seeing that the water wasn't too deep, I gladly began trudging up the stream. The British couple just went to the edge of the water and stared. I continued on slowly, thinking they would eventually come along. After walking for a bit, I again found dry land and began to wait for the other two to catch up. Ten minutes later and no sign of flashlights through the darkness and I decided to go back and check on the other two. They were still at the edge of the water and I asked what the problem was. The guy was wearing his trainers and didn't want to get them wet. So sad, I didn't even think that the poor guy would have had to get his feet wet. I suggested he take his shoes off as all of the stones are very smooth and wade across with them to the dry ground that I had found shortly up. Although he seemed reluctant, I think he did not want to appear to be the scared little boy that he was and conceded.
With the British couple walking at the pace of a child through a haunted house, I made my way deeper into the cave where again I was forced into the water. The cave was more of a tunnel that housed a small river that poured forth from it's depths obviously the source of it's creation so long ago. Seeing as how I had just finished reading journey to the center of the earth, finding myself alone in the darkness going upstream in this cave made me feel as if I was a character in the book. I imagined myself going further and further in until I found an entire other world in the depths below.
By now, I had given up hope of the British couple making it further into the cave and resolved to proceed on my own as I have done so many times before in the multitude of caves I have explored throughout Southeast Asia. As the stream went on, I continued to emerge onto it's dry banks for short periods of time before splashing back in again. At one point, I had to take my shirt off and carry my backpack above my head to make it through and keep all of my gear dry. It was becoming an all out adventure!
I had now been walking for a solid hour and the cave was showing no signs of closing up. Normally, having my trusty LED headlamp, I would have pressed on. Here however I found myself at the mercy of a cheap torch that recharges itself by plugging it into a wall. If the other couple had joined me I would have gladly pressed on but the thought of having my torch fail me this far inside began to get into my head. I could easily follow the stream back out in the dark but there was one catch that worried me. Along the way I had passed several spots where some of the water disappeared into small passages that were just big enough for a human to slip through into the unknown depths of the cave. At these points, the water picked up speed and forced it's way into the earth with enough power to take me along with it. All it would take in the dark would be one wrong step and off I would shoot into a passage that would most likely swallow me up, never to be seen again.
I reluctantly turned back where I eventually found the British couple where I had left them making excuses of why they had not followed. “The formations are just so beautiful here that we could spend hours just looking at them!” Bullshit I thought, go back to your pampered lives in London. We made our way out of the cave, thanked the man and remounted our bicycles on a quest to find a cave that I read about where after exploring it's depths it was possible to find an underground lake that made a fine place to have a relaxing swim in the dark.
We pulled back onto a dirt road and the British couple resumed the pace of a child trying to learn how to use a bicycle with training wheels. At this point, I made the decision to move on without them. There was lots to see in the area and the day was already half gone. I wasn't going to let them spoil my adventures. As I cruised down the dirt road turning every bump and hill into a small ramp, I suddenly heard a loud “pop!” and saw the end of a glass bottle fly up from my front tire into the air. I immediately began to swear and brought the bicycle to a halt to find what I knew to be true. The front tire was as flat as could be. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, I could only think that my adventurous plans for the rest of the day would now be replaced by the sad and slow process of pushing my bike the twelve kilometers back to town.
As I pushed along the dirt road, there was still no sign of the British couple behind. As slow as they were, I was surprised that they had not yet caught up to me. Walking along, I was reminded that there are motorcycle tire repair men everywhere here. Even the smallest of villages has someone who repairs the motorcycle tires which are all equipped with tubes here. I started to think that surely it wouldn't be too long before I found a place to repair my tire. At th first sign of life, a few ladies walking along the road, I pointed at my tire and they pointed me on down the road in the direction I was heading. Five minutes later and a few more people pointed me on down again. Ahead of me I could see a group of children playing in a small stream which I took as a good sign that there might be a village nearby and that is where the people I had met along the way were pointing me. Sure enough when I reached the children there was a small path leading into a little thatched hut village. The people I met there pointed me toward the village where I found exactly what I was looking for, a small shack with motorcycle tires hanging on the outside.
Ten minutes and fifty cents later, I thanked the man for his help and picked up my bicycle ready to continue on my way. As I started off on the bike, up walked the British couple now pushing there bikes as well. I said “you too?” The girl only responded by holding up a pedal in the air. “It fell off” she said. Huh, this is something I had never seen before. I decided to wait on them and showed them the way to the repair shop where I was sure the man could figure out a way to get her pedal back on and send us on our way. With the help of a hammer, a file, a screwdriver and a wrench, the pedal was forced back into place and the three of us were again on our way at the miserable pace our day had begun with.
The next cave was much larger and a local man offered his services as a guide which we gradually accepted. After walking in through a large cavern for a while we came to a small throat in the cave where you almost had to crawl under. Along with crawling, you would be forced to again get your feet wet. The man also informed the couple that further up you would be knee deep, then waist deep and then chest deep. This did not sound so exciting to the other couple so they decided to stay back and wait while our guide and I continued on our way.
After walking a good deal further, wading through water and crawling through passages we came to a spot where the guide told me that the water would get chest deep and I could see that there was barely enough room above the water for my head to pass through. He said it would only be that way for about thirty feet and then the cave would open up. A further twenty minutes or so, we would reach the underground lake where I could go for a swim. The catch to this as I saw was that I would have to leave my backpack laying on the ground outside of the passage. With two cameras, an ipod, my wallet and passport I wasn't too happy about this idea. If only the damn British couple had made it this far, they could stay here and stand guard over my things. It seemed like the perfect scam to take people into the cave while someone else waited to take all of your things hiding in some unknown passageway. As excited as I was to find the underground lake, I told my guide that we should get back as it was late in the day anyway and I didn't particularly care to ride the bike the fifteen or so kilometers down the unlit road back to town.
Returning we found the British couple where we left them, the guy still making excuses about not wanting to get his shoes wet. We all followed the guide out of the cave and after sorting out a reasonable amount to the pay the man who was demanding a ridiculous sum for the hour of his assistance we made our way back to Vang Vieng. I have to say at the end of the adventurous day that I had just had, I was disappointed that it wasn't that much better. While I enjoy the company of others, if they lack that sense of adventure of exploring unknown places, it really can detract from what you can accomplish in a day. I think tomorrow I will set out again on my own and attempt to explore more of these incredible limestone formations from the outside as well as the inside without the burden of a my new found friends.