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Andy’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 07 Jan 2007

Location: Vang Vieng, Laos


After enjoying tubing so much how could we pass up the opportunity to take similar tyre tubes through a water filled cave?

Ruth, Nat, Phil arrived at the nearby Tham Phou Kham cave on the edge of town which had been directed to us as the location.

"Is this the cave you can tube in?"
"Yes yes. Tube cave. Yes."

No! The lack of water and tubes provided the initial clues. We had clambered up a huge flight of steep steps, had our ticket verified and stamped, double checked and clipped (they love inefficient jobs in nominally socialist countruies - why have one person in a job when you can have five? Full employment!) only to find an unimpressive cave of little interest.

There was an opening and a small balcony halfway up the mountain however which provided fantastic views over the Nam Song, Vang Vieng town and the mountains in the distance.

Thankfully, we were able to swim in a laggon at the base of the cliff. It was more of a plunge pool, small, deep and intensely blue set amongst the darm rocks of the mountain. We swam up into the small cave opening from which the water emerged into a dark channel and discovered water is not blue because it reflects the sky (later confirmed in my Mum's 'Does Anything Eat Bees' book). Ruth's flip flop then made a bid for freedom, drifting off her foot and triumphantly bobbing off round the corner of a rocky stream only to be returned later by a kind laotian man.

In the evening we ate at an organic cafe. All the produce is grown on a nearby local farm and i can highly recommened the Mulberry milkshake. The restaurant was filled with thousands of bugs however. Handy hint to the owners, when it rains, close the windows.

The next day we had more luck and hired a tuk tuk to 'Water Cave', a thirty minute drive through verdant countryside and small, traditional villages full of men and women fetching water, scrubbing clothes in the river or collecting firewood - daily essentials. Dogs and waterbuffalow lay idly in the road while cows and goats grazed in rundown school grounds.

We eventually pulled up by the side of the river and were directed to cross to the other side. A boat from the village pulled up and wanted to charge us a dollar each. This doesn't sound much, but for a ten second ride it's a rip off. "So what?" you might ask, a dollar is nothing to a backpacker. I can sometimes relate to those who complain of overly thrifty backpackers who are confronted with peoples that regularly live on a few dollars a day. But when you are on a tight budget one dollar actually becomes quite significant. I have no problem if a traveller bargains hard if it means they can see and do more. As long as they are polite and don't get irate if unsuccessful.

I was also miffed by the rickety bridge made of logs which stood a few metres downriver. All it needed was two planks of wood (which lay on the bank) to bridge the gap. I smelled a scam.

The first cave was an underwhelming alcove containing a rock in the shape of an elephant and was imaginatively titled Elephant cave. Our hopes were not high for the next set but thankfully proved more exciting. A villager led us through a maze of rice paddies (for a small fee) until we reached the bottom of the mountain where we bartered for two locals to guide us through the caves. A traveller ventured in alone a few years back and never re-emerged - these tunnels stretch, twist and branch off for many kilometres and are not the pleasantly lit, clearly paved caves found in more established tourist areas.

We were all fitted with feeble head torches and set off into the dark, confidently at first and then less so as one after another we threatened to plunge into thick mud. It was certainly an experience journeying through dank wide chambers, narrow passageways and wading through increasingly deep cave lakes and ponds. We all saw daylight again though muddier than when we entered, especially Ruth who slipped over and dropped her camera in the water.

Afterwards we took a short walk to Water Cave. The tubes stacked outside indicated we were at the right place. The cave entrance was a low, wide opening at the base of the limestone mountain out of which a clear water stream poured forming a small pool. We each grabbed a tube and paddled over to the rope and began pulling ourselves along inside the pitch black tunnel. Luckily we were provided with waterproof torches. Dark water, particularly in a cave can be ever so eerie; the trickle of the water was the only sound - except for when i began flapping wildly when we reached a chamber with strong current flowing in the direction of a dark corner. For some reason i got it into my head that there was a waterfall.

Back at the village Ruth and Nat took the groups bags across the river by boat (by this time we had picked up an american couple) and the rest of us decided to swim. A questionable decision in light of the fast flowing rapids and rocks a hundred metres or so downriver. We all made it, though apparently my face midway across the river, where the embankment no longer provided protection from the current, was a picture.

We headed back to town after a satisying and packed afternoon!

Ruth and I both wanted to leave the next day, or tube again and leave the day after but fate intervened. For the first time in nine months i was struck down with food poisoning. My stomach, internally, if not externally, is made of steel! At uni i regularly extended the 'ten second rule' (the time allowed for food to be picked up off the floor and eaten) to a few minutes. But my gut was no match for a dodgy salad of papaya, shrimp, peanuts and fish sauce. Even now my stomach churns thinking about it. After eating from street stalls for months, a standard meal at a pricey cafe serving westernised food had me inspecting the inside of a toilet bowl much closer than i ever desired.

So for the next few days, as i recovered and craved some home made cooking, we sat at a delightful guesthouse on the edge of town with a veranda perched high over the river. We spent many a day chilling, reading our books, chatting and just admiring the scenery. In front of us rose the stunning limestone mountains which more than make up for the town centre; below us the river full of splashing, giggling children. We spent longer than desired in Vang Vieng but sometimes it's nice to take do nothing.