Monday, December 28, 2009

"Happy Place" - Part II

The next morning in Vang Vieng we awoke a little groggy and organised ourselves for the tour. Unfortunately I didn’t know that the shared bathroom on the right had a hot shower. But using the cold shower bathroom on the left woke me up pretty fast. Sitting to breakfast was a moment in itself. During the course of our typical eggs and baguette breakfast, I think I looked up at the view and said “look at that” with dumb astonishment no less than twenty five times. Really, it was that beautiful.

We were collected for the tour and dropped at the tour office where we met up with Rachael who gave a little embarrassed smile and we also met a Israeli guy called Yossi. As we waited to leave we wondered where the other five backpackers where. Eventually we were ushered onto a jumbo Tuk-Tuk with about 10 Thai tourists. Arriving at the first stop we were a little pissed off. We were told the maximum tour size was nine people and that our tour would be full of backpackers like us. Instead there were about 15 of us, the Thai tourists ignored us, the tour guides had to explain everything twice and we were told that we were already running late so we would have to wait before we could enter the caves.

After walking through a serene little village we arrived at the first cave, more of an opening in the rock and only about 10m deep. This cave was called Elephant cave due to a large stalactite that actually did look like an elephant, albeit the slightly smooth surface suggested that there may have been a little bit of human intervention in its formation. After a children’s folk story about the local myths, we walked through the local village to the opening of another cave. This was known as “Water Cave” and the cave opened like mouth with a small river running out of it’s dark depths.

We had to wait while another tour went into the cave and came out again, and sat outside the cave on the smooth river stones and tormented the local ducks by throwing pebbles to them. No matter how many times a duck realises you are throwing stones to it, it still tries to pick it up and eat it, this possibly why ducks never invented the wheel. Eventually it was our turn to go into the cave. Prue decided there was no way her claustrophobic self was going in and was more than happy to wait with the ducks. So Rachel, Yossi and I climbed into the tubes, grabbed the guide rope and hoisted our way into the darkness.

After turning the first corner the cave was pitch black, we had a battery pack hanging around our necks and a miners headlamp. The battery pack was a little worrying as the whole thing was regularly submerged in water, but there is no such thing as OH&S in South East Asia and luckily I found myself not electrocuted. Caving was fun, dark, cold and wet, but still fun. We pulled ourselves through the cave on a rope for the first part, then after reaching a shallow part we walked hunched over for a bit, got back into the tubes to paddle against the current until we reached the end of the cave where we did it all again in reverse.

Back outside in the sunshine we were fed lunch which included a baguette each. This time the ducks were most impressed to find the things we threw at them were actually edible. Then we walked back through the village to the river where the kayaks waited. The tour guide pulled aside the Thai tourists and in Thai he explained in great depth the absolute basics of how to kayak. After 15 minutes he finished and walked over to us and asked if we had ever Kayaked before, we all nodded, he told us to follow the guides and he motioned for us to get in a Kayak.

The Kayaking was nice, we couldn’t really go very fast because we had to keep stopping to wait for the Thai tourist to catch up, which meant about 30 seconds of paddling, followed by 3 mins of drifting or back paddling. There were some little rapids to add a bit of excitement. But really none of it mattered when you stopped and looked around you couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the magnificent views. I’m probably banging on about the scenery a bit too much, but it is totally deserving of the praise. Eventually as we winded our way peacefully down the river for about 5kms, we slowly drifted towards the energetic sounds of a big phat throbbing subwoofer pumping away, we had arrived at “The Tubing”.

The setup is like something from Peter Pan, wooden platforms with rope swings and zip lines sprout from each side of the river launching screaming partiers high into the air before dropping them deep into the water. The platforms are covered with masses of drunken men and women, dancing like tribal warriors to the beat, in an epic orgy of hedonistic mayhem. The conservative nature of Laos people is forgotten in this place. We pulled our Kayaks up to the second platform and became almost instantly absorbed by the party atmosphere. After buying a beer from an eight year old boy I scrambled up the first rope swing tower and took the first of many high flying plunges into the river.

The Tubing place is a hell of a lot of fun. The tubes themselves are practically useless and can become a burden as they carry hefty fees for loosing them or returning them after a certain time. The entire place can easily be navigated by swimming around or walking. Most people never make it past the first bar, which is easily understandable as it is so much fun, there is no reason to go any further. By the time they do make it to the second bar they are usually shit faced. This was the condition we met the English couple from the night before in (Emma and Tim). Emma was so drunk that Tim couldn’t get her out of the tube, she was almost face down in the water, and eventually Tim decided it best to put her back in the tube and float home down the river.

Then we met Shaun and his girlfriend. Shaun was a typical bogan Aussie who had been deprived of Aussie contact, something we found strange considering the number of Aussies in Asia. Maybe the other Aussies were avoiding him. With a drunken slur Shaun threw his arm over my shoulder and asked me my name, he did this about five more times in the following hour that he decided we would be best friends and have a drink together. Every time I flew off the rope swing, Shaun would scramble up behind me. Shaun’s girlfriend was getting a bit worried as each time he went off the swing it took him longer and longer to get back up the river bank. Prue and Shaun’s girlfriend managed to talk each other into having a go on the swing, and flew off in tandem, squealing with joy.

I never did get to have that beer with Shaun, we all headed down to the last bar at the end of the river and as we got there we saw Shaun trying to get out of his tube, he was too drunk and couldn’t do it. Shaun’s girlfriend helped him back into the tube and they too floated home. At the last bar we caught up with the four UK girls from our nightmare bus ride and we partied until darkness started to set in. Prue and Rachael braved the gigantic slide and I flew from the biggest swing, getting so much air that I had time to look over at a guy on the bank who said “Whoa, that’s massive air bro!”, I replied with an even bigger splash.

After getting back to town we changed into dry clothes and met up with Rachael and Yossi again at the BBQ kebab place for dinner. Eventually we said our goodbyes and separated, Prue and I headed back to the Guest House to chill out. The town wasn’t as busy and wild as it had been the night before, I grabbed a couple of beers from the cafĂ© and settled into the hammock with a book and sparked up a joint I had left over from the night before. After awhile my peaceful bliss was interrupted by a couple of American guys who were trying to get into the pants of a couple of Japanese girls, but they had some more pot so it wasn’t all bad.

Earlier in the night Prue had met a man outside the cabin who looked fairly geeky and in his late thirties, he didn‘t fit the mould of the backpacker crowd, in fact he stuck out like dog‘s balls. He was acting fairly nervous and freaking out about some unknown substance in his shake the previous day. When he wandered out to sit beside me on the balcony he was still sporting the same first impression. After a few polite introductory conversations the geeky man implied nervously that he wanted to get some “Marijuana” to calm himself down. I pointed him to the chilled out bar and explained the casual approach of ordering a beer. After an hour he hadn’t quite talked himself into it, and midnight was approaching, so I sighed, rolled out of the hammock, and offered to hold his hand.

Back at the chilled out bar again things were quite different, the place was quiet. I ordered two beers, two spliffs, pocketed one, gave the other to the geek and we sat down by the fire. The geeky guy sat uncomfortably and made obtuse observations rather than conversation. To make it worse, he didn’t pass the spliff, I didn’t mind, but a few of the hippy looking scruffians by the fire seemed to casually notice, especially after he had a few puffs and let it go out. When he got up to go to the toilet I found out that the hippy looking scruffians had been in Vang Vieng for eight days already. They looked like they had spent eight days going hard Vang Vieng style, their edges were frayed and they collectively stared at the fire, while staring through the fire, and probably well beyond.

One of the locals came over to the fire and motioned for us to stop smoking as it was nearing midnight. I tried to ask him if it had been much, much busier the night before or if it was my imagination. Language barriers struck me at a dead end, possibly because I had asked if it was “chocka block”, suddenly one of the hippy girls jumped to life and said “Chocka Block! Oh my god! Chockas!”. Apparently the poor little Kiwi hadn’t heard many colloquialisms of late, and was a little bit too excited by the use of “chocka block”. This made the geeky guy more nervous, possibly from not knowing what “chockas” meant so we returned to the Guest House, where I slunk back into the hammock.

Midnight in the hammock was another unique sensory experience, while the geeky guy and I exchanged puffs on his joint the sounds of the town blared on around us loudly. From our vantage point we could hear the bars of the island, with the two largest stereos playing their individual tracks, but from above the tracks blended together creating a messy hybrid song, like a B-grade remix. Then in an instant it was gone and there was no sound at all. The town was plunged again into silence and darkness. Then came the chaotic sounds of the crowds below. Rising from whispers to talking and then shouting, as if an imaginary force was slowly turning the master volume up.

The geeky guy found his relaxation in the peace and quiet and slinked off to bed, leaving me the rest of his joint, which I offered up to the American guys, who had failed to plant the finishing moves on the Japanese girls, who had also gone to bed. The American guys had arrived in Vang Vieng earlier that evening and arriving after dark had not seen any of the view. I spoke to them for a while, and took great pleasure in telling them they’d shit happy bricks in the morning when they see the view of the mountains. I didn’t see them in the morning, but I did see the view, again finding myself in dumbstruck awe while eating the typical omelette and baguette breakfast, pointing at the view and nudging Prue saying “look at that!”

We originally arrived in Vang Vieng after a spectacularly scenic bus ride. Two days later we were boarding the bus bound for Luang Prabang, another bus ride. This bus trip was heralded as one of the most hellish bus rides in Laos. We would have liked to have spent more time in Vang Vieng (I’d even consider applying for a Laos Citizenship and move there) but unfortunately our time restraints were still hitting us hard. So we pressed on to Luang Prabang on a bus that wasn’t at all hellish, unless you’d called it hellishly beautiful. We wound our way through more spectacular mountains, flying sideways around corners as usual. I suppose it is the corners people complain about, but mountains would be boring if the roads were straight.