A Journey across Northern Laos: Part 2
Vientiane to Veng Vieng
After three days, and two nights, in Vientiane it was time to move on; Veng Vien was calling. Another helpful service offered by the City Inn was VIP bus reservation, and transfer, from the hotel to the bus terminal. A seat was USD 8. I paid for two as I wanted the extra comfort to stretch out during the four hour journey. The departure time was 10 am. At around 9.45 an already packed tuk-tuk arrived to pick me up. I squeezed myself in amongst the mob of Japanese already occupying most of the seating space and, after the driver tied my bag down, we were on our way. Fifteen minutes later we were boarding our VIP bus for the anticipated trip north.
The crew onboard was mostly the young traveler backpacker set with the odd oldie dotted in amongst them. As the bus lurched, and bounced, its way on to our destination most did their best to distract themselves from the bone rattling by listening to music, reading a book or simply shutting their eyes and pretending they were somewhere else. I was still on the lookout for communist memorabilia though and despite the fact that my eyeballs felt as though they were going to bounce out their sockets at any moment, I stayed fully alert for any signs of Laos’ red past. As luck would have it the bus stopped for a few moments outside some government type premises and I was able to get a photo of the Lao National flag flying proudly next to the hammer and sickle.
It has to be said that a VIP bus, in Laos, would not really qualify as a VIP bus in Thailand or most other places for that matter. As we lurched, and bounced, down the streets of Vientiane it became apparent that shock absorbers on this VIP bus – and probably all the others in Laos – were virtually non-existent. By the time we reached Veng Vien I was to clearly understand why; the roads are some of the worst I’ve ever travelled over. After an hour, or so, of lurching and bouncing our way through Vientiane’s outer suburbs we were finally out in the rural areas on our run north. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. The tarmac, and what little there was of it, was left behind in Vientiane. Okay, perhaps I’m being a little over critical here, there were some stretches of tarmac but, it must be said, there was a hell of a lot of dirt as well. As I’ve already mentioned one of the positive aspects of being in Laos, at this time of year, is the fact that it’s dryer and cooler. The down side, particularly in terms of any sort of road travel, is that there are swathes of dust everywhere. The view up ahead of our bus was largely a brown, enveloping cloud thrown up by the convoy of vehicles in front of us. Anything and everything, within a few meters of either side of the road, was caked in a layering of fine dust. The brickwork on the buildings, and the vegetation along the way, all had a drab brown tinge about it which had me thinking that perhaps being up here in the rainy season wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all?
Almost a couple of hours into the trip one of my fellow oldies on board finally lost it. I don’t know what his game plan was as he got out of his seat but it was certainly something to remember as he stood in the aisle and alternated between muttering, in some European language, and whistling at the driver. Whether this had the desired effect one will never know but the driver did, eventually, pull the bus over at one of those roadside eateries. No doubt it was a scheduled food and toilet stop in the middle of the trip. The Lao, although some way behind their Thai cousins in terms of business acumen, are catching on quickly in regards to hitting you with a fee wherever they can. Toilets, at scheduled stops on a bus trip in Thailand, are normally free of charge. In Laos they are not. In fact the twelve baht fee for every traveler wanting to relieve him, or herself, is probably quite a lucrative little business plan in Laos. It’s a captive audience; people will pay without hesitation when they’re busting for a piss. With bladders relieved we all settled in to munching on tuna, cheese and salad baguettes. Twenty minutes later we were being hurried back onto the bus.
The short break was nice but it lulled us into a false sense of peace of mind which, as we were about to find out, was very much was short lived. If travelling on the flat was bad enough the journey up and through the mountains, was doubly worse. Fortunately there were only a couple of hours to go and most of us settled back into numbed ambivalence as we lurched, and bounced, towards Veng Vieng. Eventually the impressive scenery had me forgetting the condition of the road; it was quite spectacular. Apparently, so the story goes, Veng Vieng sprung up as some kind of pseudo half way point for travelers to take a break in their journey up to Luang Prabang. I’ve got another theory and I’m sure this is closer to the truth; four hours of bone jarring travel is quite enough for one day. When we arrived in Veng Vieng not one person was interested in going on to Luang Prabang; we all got off the bus. Although not having a pre-booked accommodation in Vung Vieng, the manager at the City Inn had given me the name of a reasonable standard of hotel to go to; the Elephant Crossing www.theelephantcrossinghotel.com +856 23511232. A few minutes after disembarking from the bone rattler a song thaew – free of charge – was dropping me off at the entrance to the Elephant Crossing Hotel. The room rate was USD 40 and included free wifi, hot water, A/C, and breakfast.
The room was large, and comfortable, and after squaring away my gear I was down at the restaurant which overlooks the river, for a sundowner. As I sat there enjoying the late afternoon ambience over a cold Beer Lao, I considered my plans for the next two days. Prior to coming away I’d done a bit of research on the web and had found out that there were plenty of caves in the area to have a look at. As I was checking in, I’d got a map which showed all the main sites and attractions. It had good detail and the trails/tracks to each site/attraction were well indicated; finding my way around wouldn’t be a problem. There were basically two areas for the adventurous minded to bash around in. The first one, and the nearest, was directly across the river from where I sitting clearing the dust out of my throat. The second area was twenty kilometers North of Veng Vieng and was the main location for the tubing activity. Tubing, so I had been well informed, was the number one attraction for most of the young travelers landing in Veng Vieng and the reason was fairly obvious; they all got drunk during the drift along the six kilometer stretch of river dedicated as the tubing route. The idea was pretty simple and in some regards sounded completely boring. Take one truck tire inner tube, inflate it, and then drift down the river stopping off at various bars, along the six kilometer route, to chug down as many beers as can be consumed. Luckily the stretch of river being used was the safest in the area with no rapids and shallow enough to stand up in; hardly challenging to say the least. As the sun sank towards the horizon I formulated a plan for the next two days. I wasn’t much of a fan of organized tours and being an old school kiwi do-it-yourself type decided to hire a motor bike, first thing the following morning, and venture forth into the great unknown.
One of the great things about being in Laos at this time of the year (January) is that it’s quite cool at night. Since the first day of my trip, beginning in Nong Khai, I’d been able to sleep with the air conditioning turned off and Veng Vieng was no exception. In fact when I woke at 6.30 am and wandered down to the outdoor restaurant for breakfast, it was quite brisk in short sleeves. The coolness, combined with the clouds drifting down from the central Asian land mass, quite often creates a haze in the surrounding atmosphere. And so it was as I sat there drinking my coffee and taking in the cool stillness of the misty peaks across the river.
With a good breakfast under my belt I wandered up the road and hired a motorbike at a rental shop recommended by the hotel staff. It was a four speed Honda 125 which, judging by its rough condition, had seen a bit of use. But, for fifty thousand kip for the day, I knew I probably wouldn’t get much better. I dropped my passport down with the rental fee and, after kicking it into life, powered off towards the rickety old wooden bridge that provides access to the other side of the river. Once I was across the bridge I followed the signage past some cool little wooden bungalows and continued on along a rice field trail towards my first destination; two small caves at the end of a three kilometer ride through the jungle. Unfortunately my first destination proved to be a bit of a disappointment. After climbing the short, rocky stairway I arrived to find there was a locked gate over the small entrance to the cave and no one about. No matter as the ride through the jungle was brilliant and it was amazingly invigorating to be breathing such cool, clean air again. Having struck out on my first destination I worked my way back along the jungle trail, and rice field track, until I was back at my original starting point on the river. There was a larger dirt road which ran in a loop, deeper into the mountainous region, with various sites and attractions branching off it.
As I took off along the road it became apparent, with every bounce and shudder of the motorbike, that its condition was even worse than the road up from Vientiane. There were a number of the younger, backpacker set doing it on pushbikes and I found myself considering that perhaps that was the better option for getting about. A kilometer further on the dust cloud from other vehicles passing me, put paid to that idea. A couple of clicks, and a torrent of dust, further up again I found what I was looking for; a hand painted sign indicating a smaller side track to my next destination – Tham Phu Thong (cave Phu Tong). Another kilometer on, along the side track, and I was stopped by a couple of young Laotian guys at a little wooden hut. I knew what it would be about and it was something one quickly becomes accustomed to in Laos; there are fees and charges for everything concerned with tourism and sightseeing here. There are fees to park your bike, use the toilet, cross a bridge, and to enter a tourist attraction. I paid the 10,000 Kip (40 Baht) then pushed on to a parking area at the base of the cliff and secured the bike. As I was getting my bearings and sorting myself out for the hike up the cliff face one of the kids from the wooden hut sidled up to me and asked “if I wanted a guide.” Even though I was becoming quite annoyed with their “in your face hustling” I kept my cool and just shook my head in the negative. The entrance to the cave was about one hundred meters up a cliff face and from what I could ascertain, the going was fairly steep. When I arrived at the top I sat down on a rock, a few meters from the cave entrance, to recover and drink some water. I was breathing hard and realized, after all the soft city living, I wasn’t as fit as I thought I was. As my pulse rate returned to normal I did a check on my kit: one head strap light and a hand held light, for back up, were in my hip pack. A sweat rag, two bottles of water and a couple of energy bars in my ruck-sack.
The cave entrance was small and I had to crouch down to move through into the first little chamber. I reflected on the fact that I hadn’t been in a cave for a couple of years and that, in the interests of my own safety, I needed to take my time and make sure of my footing. As I worked my way further in it became apparent that the general direction of the system was down. This meant that during the rainy season water would be pouring through from above. Some of the locals had put access ladders in at the difficult sections and the entry down to the second chamber had one but it had rotted from being in the constantly damp environment. Unable to use the ladder, I retraced my steps and found a small tunnel to crawl through. Caving can be a hazardous and challenging activity. It’s a combination of entry level rock climbing – due to the fact that one needs to have secure footing in the wet and humid environment – and getting down and dirty, through crawling around on your hands and knees, and squeezing your way through some tight restrictions. The bottom line is that it can be hard and dirty work. I removed my ruck-sack and wormed my way down, feet first, pulling the ruck-sack through behind me. The second chamber was muddy, damp and hot and the sweat was running off me as I moved towards the bottom.
At the bottom of the second chamber I found a vertical restriction. I removed my ruck-sack and camera again, and squeezed through into the third chamber. By now I was soaked in perspiration. I took a moment to survey the geography of the third chamber; it sloped at forty five degrees from right to left and got narrower towards the bottom. I moved off carefully along the muddy slope towards the bottom, ten meters below me. When I got there I could see the entry point into the fourth chamber was no more than half a meter in height. I shone my back-up torch into the narrow passage; it angled down gradually, and got even tighter before opening into the black void of the fourth chamber. I realized that to get through I’d be doing it on my stomach. I stood up and took a moment to consider my next move. Going into the fourth chamber was doable but there was also the realization that I was reaching the limits of my equipment and risk exposure; to go on was beyond what I considered acceptable risk. If I slipped and broke something, even with assistance from the local guides, I’d have virtually no chance of getting back through the narrow hole. Feeling satisfied with my decision, I turned and moved back up towards the third chamber. I’d been underground for forty five minutes and penetrated in around one hundred and fifty meters through a challenging cave system. As I squeezed back into the second chamber I heard voices and lights flashing above me and as I moved up towards the exit of chamber two, was met by a young European couple and a local guide. They couple were both dressed completely inappropriately for going into this type of cave system; they were in shorts and flip flops. The guide shone his light toward me as I moved up the slope to meet them.
“Is there anything to see down there?” asked the young guy.
“No mate it’s muddy, and wet, with narrow passages,” I said doing my best to dissuade him, and his girlfriend, from continuing on.
“Oh, okay. Maybe we go back then,” he said turning to his girlfriend.
‘Probably the best idea,” I said as I indicated to the local guide to lead the way out while I brought up the rear.
Twenty minutes later we were sitting outside the cave entrance and cooling off. As I scanned the fantastic vista out in front of me I reflected on the fact that although the day had started out a slightly disappointing, it was now living up to my expectations. Overall the short exploration of Phu Tong Cave had been enjoyable except for the one area of graffiti a number of mindless tourists had left as their calling cards. Please Note: I found a number of examples of the kind of handiwork, depicted in the following photo, in the caves in Vung Vieng. I find this kind of graffiti to be crass and completely lacking in appreciation of what a cave environment is all about. I guess some people just can’t go anywhere without leaving there primitive calling cards announcing where they’ve been. For those inclined to do this kind of thing, perhaps you should pee on the lampposts as well?
After cooling off it was time to move on to the next location for some lunch before exploring the next caving site. The going heading back down was slower as there weren’t any steps cut into the cliff side; just worn foot holds in amongst the rocks and tree roots. Fifteen minutes later, after a careful descent, I was on my motor bike and heading down the road to the next caving location; Tham Pu Kham. On the way I was slowed up by cows on the road, Lao style, and it brought back fond memories of the same sort of thing in rural New Zealand many years ago. I found the turn off and motored on towards a spectacular, sheer cliff face. Once again I was hit with the standard 10,000 Kip entry fee as I entered the parking area. After parking I made my way across to the thatched roof, open air restaurant that was facing the cliff. As I sat there eating my kuay thiaw gai (chicken noodle soup) I had to admit the arduous four hour bus ride from Vientiane had been well worth it in the end; the natural beauty this place must be seen to be believed.
The entrance to Pou kham Cave is roughly half way up the cliff face. In the photo above there is a small black hole near the center. That’s not the entrance; it’s a large, inaccessible opening into the cave. The entrance proper is smaller and to the lower right of that opening which, incidentally, is approximately ten meters in height. The track up to the cave entrance ran straight up the cliff face and was almost vertical in places. In the more challenging stretches (shown in the photo below) the locals had been considerate enough to install handrails to assist with hauling oneself up. I was beginning to find that these hikes up cliff faces were seriously good workouts if done at a reasonable pace and, after about fifteen minutes of hard slog, I arrived, breathing hard, at the cave entrance.
After regaining my breath and putting my head set light in place, I moved into the cave. The small entrance went down for a few steps before opening up into a massive chamber at least fifty meters in diameter. A small group of us had gone through together and we all just stood there awestruck. The light coming through from the large fissure lit up most of the chamber and the reclining Buddha, at the center of the chamber, was clearly visible. There was plenty of “wow’s” coming from the mouths of the highly impressed young travelers and two even mentioned that this alone made the trip up from Vientiane well worth it. Everyone, including me, had their cameras out and was busy banging off shots as we moved further into the cave. The following is a sequence of shots as I moved further in towards the reclining Buddha. The first is a distance shot showing the size of the chamber and some of the formations. There is a guy standing on a rock shelf looking down at the reclining Buddha. The second is an approach shot with a large stalactite in the foreground and third is a close up of the Buddha.
After about thirty minutes spent banging off photo’s and checking out the reclining Buddha I was itching to get on with a deeper exploration into the cave. The locals had painted red direction arrows on the rocks where the going was a bit tight or it seemed like there might be a number of directional options for moving deeper into the cave. This was entirely possible due to the fact that there were hundreds of large boulders strewn around on the cave floor. The red arrows helped everyone avoid taking a wrong turn and going up a blind alley. I was still with the small group that I’d first come in with and, as we moved deeper into the system, we all turned on our head lamps as things got increasingly blacker. Eventually we passed through a large diagonal fissure into the second chamber. Looking back one could see still see light coming through from the first chamber; ahead of us it was pitch black.
We stood around for a while in the darkness and then everyone seemed to split up and go their own separate ways. I kept moving forward towards the third, and last, chamber. Even though the photos don’t show it, the internal volume of these chambers is so vast that you could probably fit a decent size shopping mall in them; the ceiling in the second chamber was at least forty meters above the floor. As I moved towards the back end of the cave I could still hear the sound of voices as they echoed within the cave system behind me. Those voices became more distant as I moved further in and the occasional flashes of light I been picking up, from the others’ head sets, faded into the distance as I progressed deeper into the third chamber. Eventually got myself into a position where I could go no further; I was at the inner most point of the cave and there was complete silence as I stood there alone.
The first two chambers were predominantly filled with fallen rocks and petrified formations (meaning that there is no more ongoing calcification taking place from a dripping water source). The third chamber looked completely primordial with an amazing array of formations scattered throughout. Due to the fact that the chamber was so vast the small, inbuilt flash on my camera didn’t have the throw to do the size of the third chamber justice so I positioned my hand held flash light to help create a better lighting effect. After about thirty minutes spent taking it all in, and snapping off a few more shots, I decided it was time to head out and began picking a route back around the opposite side of the cave that I’d entered through. Back in the second chamber, I bumped into another group and stopped for a chat about the third chamber. I noted, like most I’d seen in the caves, that they were also dressed in shorts and flip flops. They moved on and I moved towards the first chamber. I wanted to get to a viewing point directly below the large fissure that lit up the first chamber. After another twenty minutes spent working my way slowly, but surely, around the massive, jagged rocks strewn about I was finally in position. With the natural light at my back I was able to make use of it and bang off a few shots without using the flash, looking down at the reclining Buddha, and in a direction opposite to that which I’d originally entered the cave. The following shot shows the size of the chamber – note the guy standing on the chamber floor next to the rock that supports the reclining Buddha – and a lot of the formations within.
I checked my watched and noted I’d been in there for over two hours. It was time to head down to the spring fed pool, at the base of the cliff, for well earned dip to wash off the dirt and sweat. Thirty minutes later I was sitting down, next to the natural pool, enjoying a pineapple shake, and reflecting on what a great day of caving it had been.
I was back at the hotel at around five pm. As I sat enjoying another sun-downer looking out over the early evening splendor of the mountainous region I’d just been bashing around in, the soreness in my muscles told me that I’d been engaged in some fairly physical activity over the past few hours. The following day, with more cave explorations planned, might prove to be equally as physical; perhaps a Lao massage might be in order? As the sun dipped below the horizon I made my way wearily up the three flights of stairs, to my room, for a well earned hot shower. An hour later, feeling refreshed, I was out ambling around in the coolness of the early evening looking for somewhere to get a bite to eat. I settled on a backpacker restaurant that specialized in Israeli food which, strange as it may sound, just goes to show how many varied people there are, from Nations you wouldn’t really think about, travelling through this part of the world. The meal was fairly plain; a tuna salad and grilled chicken. After downing another Beer Lao I paid the bill and wandered back towards the hotel to check out a massage shop located nearby. A Lao massage is not much different to a Thai massage; the only real difference being the name and price. The day’s hard physical activity combined with the beers, and the vigorous one hour oil massage, put me in a completed sedated state and I was out to it by ten pm.
To be continued…..