Cheng Chin Yuen

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Vang Vieng (14 – 19 Oct)

The Right Side of the River

Try this…you wake up and through the hazy film of the mosquito net, through the steel squares of the window grill and through the blurry morning mist, you make out the vague outlines of the magnificent limestone mounds that make Vang Vieng the successful tourist trap that it is. You step out of your stilted wooden bungalow and on your right is a stream that once contained last night’s grilled catfish. Beyond it a ripening rice field lies still in the morning’s silent tranquillity. Butterflies do their busy morning rounds moving from one yellow flower to the next in a large clump right before your balcony. A stretch and yawn and the escaping whiff of ping kai (BBQ chicken) reminds you of the marvellous grub you had for dinner. You walk through a flower-garden alive with even more butterflies to a banana-chocolate pancake breakfast when Bobby nudges you and gives you her well rehearsed pathetic ‘feed me’ bitchy look. This is life in Maylyn’s territory…for US$3 a night. Ridiculously good…

After breakfast, we paid the boatman to get us to the wrong side of the river…where hordes and hordes of farang (foreigners) stay and make a lot of noise over bottles of Beer Lao in hordes and hordes of TV bars, riverside restaurants and guesthouses. I am glad we were on Maylyn’s side where there were only two guesthouses and people go into ‘shut down’ mode at 10pm. 2000 kip for a boatride across to ‘happening’ madness was not an unreasonable price to pay.

Maylyn and her guesthouse had a huge role to play in making our 4-day stay in Vang Vieng truly something to remember. The amazing thing about this lady is that when she isn’t smiling, she looks really sullen and glum. Maybe it’s got to do with the Irish guy she married…sorry Jophus if you happen to read this. Fortunately, she smiles a lot when she talks to people…and it’s her wide Julia Roberts smile that makes Maylyn’s the place to stay if you ever come to Vang Vieng. Room 2 is the best choice despite the lizard droppings that drop from above and the comical cries of the unseen gecko.

Now is what Tham?

We rented mountain bikes and pedalled 13 kilometres to visit the Tham Sang Tiangle which is a series of 4 caves all conveniently located within a kilometre of each other. Some anal mathematician may argue that since there are 4 caves, it should be called the Tham Sang Square. Well, There is a reason why Tham Sang’s entrance fee is the lowest at 2000 kip. It is hardly a cave, and the bathtub of a Buddha footprint does make you want to scheme to get that 2000 kip back! At least the elephant statue, if unmodified by man, did resemble an elephant. Still it is visible outside what was probably the smallest tourist cave in the world!

As of to make up for the Tham Sang rip off, Tham Hoi was deep value for money. Yup we crept, duck-walked, slipped, squished, waded and occasionally walked in this reputedly 3.3km long monster! We spent slightly over an hour in this Tham, ending our muddy adventure in a dark eerie swimming pool about 1 kilometre into the cave. Sounds of a waterfall came from beyond the pool and it was good fun plunging into the dark waters from the huge limestone buttresses that lined the pool. It was different from Mulu where the creature comforts of boardwalks and electric lights were still available. In Tham Hoi, we had to make do with our fading head-torches and deal with mud so sticky that we made better progress without our slippers. We finally got our bit of soft adventure caving, especially at the sections where we had to go navel deep in the cold cave streams! Oh to dispel all false thoughts of how brave or stupid we are…we had a local guide whose powerful torch saved many a butt breaking falls and made the black pool finale a wee bit more enticing. Without him, we would have probably turned back somewhere at the hundred metre mark…as much as it is amazing it’s also a maze in there. We emerged muddy and happy, offered our guide some of our peanuts and headed off to Tham Loup, the next cave.

This one as the name implies is a loop in the cavern with several interesting cave. The strangest one being a large pit filled with tiny and almost perfectly round brown pebbles just like the Cadbury-coated raisin chocolates only rounder and smaller. We also walked on a white calcite layer which could be hollow underneath. According to our guide in Mulu, these sometimes thin brittle layers could collapse underfoot. There were also stalagmites with large crystals which looked really grand when they reflected the light from our torches. The great thing about this cave is that human traffic is so low that most of the natural formations are still unblemished by the undisciplined human hand. Perhaps the Buddha statues at each of the entrances gave would-be-looters the buzz-off.
The other great thing is that they are guano-less.

The last of the Triangle was Tham Nam aka Cave Water. This is what you get when nature meets Sunway Lagoon. After squeezing our by-now-fattened butts into the inflated rubber tubes, we pulled ourselves into the cave river system with the help of a rope. This was mundanely fun! A totally un-natural movement in a natural setting. The hauling goes on for about 100 metres were the calm waters reach a shallow pebble bed. We detach ourselves from our ring floats and carry them with us. Soon the current rages over this shallow section at an intersection of a much larger underground river. Being extra careful not to lose our slippers, we shuffled across to where the river tunnel continued. What followed was about 400 metres of cave river tubing. The still water and the constriction of the ring floats meant that we had to pedal with our hands which was quite tiring till we found out that it was easier to backpedal ‘wearing’ our slippers on our hands back facing the direction we were heading. Clever eh? Guess which brilliant Singaporean guy thought of the slipper bit? It was a good plan till I bumped my head into some stalactites. There came a point were we all decided to switch off our lights…total darkness + water + cold = COOL! Again I wished that I had a waterproof casing for my camera! The water eroded tunnel was smooth and scalloped at the sides and somewhere mid-trip, there was a divider that split the channel into two. The water carved edge along this divider was razor thin. We paddled till our butts hit fine sand and turned back the way we came. By this time our butts were quite numb from the cold and the inactivity of being plugged in the centre of an puffed up tractor’s inner tube. When we were fording the river intersection on the way out, my right slipper decided to commit suicide…six years of my smelly feet was enough so off it went with the black torrent. It was a pact. Karen’s left one followed about 5 seconds after. I did feel a little bit sad for that pair of worn-out Bata’s. We left Tham Nam happy for the experience and the warmth of sunshine. Guess who had to walk half a kilometre barefoot to the bicycles?

At the end of the 3 hour cave tour, our guide sprung a demand for a US$10 fee. We were taken aback and explained as best as we could that in the future, it would be better for him and his clients that he should state his fees at the start although we should have expected a guide fee. I didn't have enough cash to pay him so I gave him only 5.50. After some thought, I realised it was a bit too little for all that effort.

On the ride back into Vang Vieng, my feet were saved a certain grating by a roadside mama shed which sold a decent pair of thongs for 1 dollar. At 1 dollar per day, biking is certainly the way to go! Despite the undulating terrain (Laos is 70% mountainous) the road was sealed most of the way. The occassional pot holes helped to slow down the low traffic volume. This scenic stretch is part of the once notoriously bandit infested Route 13 where attacks were frequent up till as recent as 1997!

Here are some common Lao country life sightings:

Women in their sarongs bathing in streams.

A man wearing a surgical mask while cutting his son's hair.

Young girls, probably 5 to 6 years, with baby bro slung on their backs. Mama and Papa are notably absent.

Families resting beneath their houses at 10am, sometimes getting up to rock the babe in the bamboo cot.

Women and young girls walking along the road carrying heavy foodstuff to the local market. They have a headstrap to support the load and the men seemed to be excused from this form of exercise.

Women sitting on the veranda picking stuff out of each other's hair. Very monkey like!

Men doing home-improvement eg. splitting bamboo for walls, fiddling with tools and simple machinery

Swimming seems to be a favourite pastime among kids.

Women again doing the easy job of chopping, bundling and carrying of bamboo for the men and boys back home to hack.

15 tons of unguided beef-to-be plying the roads.

Lots of foodstuff being sundried on the ground and on the roof. Pale bananas and chillies seem to be the favourites.

Toddlers are almost always naked. Baby clothes are of course hard to come by.

I also learnt that the most important part of the bike, apart from the wheels was the seat...

After a fun-filled day of cycling, we hung around the 'mad' side of the river to watch the sun go down behind the karst formations across the Nam Song river. The giant wall of jagged silhouettes and the sunbeams lancing through the clouds to light the tumbling waters was indeed a sight to behold!

Well, we beheld the sight a little too long and missed the last 6 o'clock sampan back to the right side of town. To call (literally you have to yell across the river!) a boatman at the ungodly hour of 7pm would violate the Lao cardinal sin of over-industry and this sin could only be cleansed by a 20,000kips per pax fee: only 10 times the regular rate. Fortunately, two jap tourists and a late boat popped up and we managed, after some bargaining, to bring the price down to 8,000kips. A local guy working at a nearby restaurant came to help us with the bargaining. That was really nice of him! Too much of these late night crossings might start a civil war.

A unique and disturbing feature of the 'wrong side' is the TV bar. Seated on a low platform, behind low tables topped with bottles of Beer Lao, fruit shakes, junk food, sandwiches, armies of western tourists congregate to pay a hypnotic homage to the frontal alter bearing a blaring 50 inch Sony TV. A deathly magnetic slience hangs in the air and no one turns a head to notice us walking by. Visual fixation is the mantra here in this electric Wat. A variety of movies(pirated of course) are screened but the most successful crowd puller is the 'Friends' sitcom. TV bars are a classic example of technology's triumph over men and women. Vaguely, I remember myself subjected to the same kind of mental surrender in Pra Nang eons ago…right Steven? A movie before the tent at 123.

We decide wisely to spend more time on the sane side of Nam Song.

Two Bikes Four Butts and a couple of Bras

With our butts strengthened by the ride on the previous day, we set out to explore two Hmong villages on the more conventional bicycles: the kind with generous seat padding but without gears...seems that you can't have the two together on the same bike here. It was the 'gu niang' kind where girls sit daintily behind with a brolly to shield the sun while their poor boyfriends take care of the cycling bit over the generally hilly terrain. This minor hiccup in sexual inequality would be somehow righted a little later in life after marriage as shown in my observations earlier.

I'm glad Karen got her own iron steed.

The grocery shop we got the bikes from had a dozen or so live frogs on the table for sale. Any problem with these croaking escapees was quickly and efficiently resolved with a 360 degree twist of one of the hind legs. In case of a one leg wonder, a thin rattan cord is speared through all lame limbs and secured to a big fat rock. Cruelly clever eh? No tanks needed. 'BBQ very nise!', remarked the shopkeeper.

As we peddaled along the dirt track (tar does not exist on the right side of the river except in the lungs of men working on their card game in the afternoon) soaking in the rural setting of rice fields and their accompanying lone bamboo and attap hut, two streetwise little schoolboys stopped us with a gentle extension of the hand. One of them patted the rear seat of my bike and pointed in the direction we're heading. Two cute little Laotian hitch-hikers! I was glad to finally give someone a ride after all the free rides I've taken to school and to the bouldering crags in Font. Tackling those uphills on a one gear bike with a 25kg kid put my long neglected biking skills to the grind. The speedy downhill free-wheelings were rewarding though, much to the delight of my pillion rider. Karen's new boyfriend had the worse deal, walking up most of the slopes. He was lucky not to end up pushing her bike.

When we approached their home, a small brown hand tapped me from behind signaling me to stop. They walked up the pathway leading to their clutter of huts and we decided to follow suit to see what Hmong life was like. We were welcomed warmly (I suspected the boys explained that we gave them a ride) and were allowed to take all the pictures we wanted. I was as usual impressed with the functional handicraft (chicken sheds, rice baskets, huts for all purposes, bamboo cages) and the many fine examples of recycling and resourcefulness of the Hmongs. The boys soon returned from the river soaking wet and with a live fish thrashing in their hands. A naked baby was entertaining himself with a scaled down but sharp parang. A three year old boy was hacking at some bamboo with his own metal. I think the knife must be the most popular toy amongst these village boys! There was another toddler sucking a stalk of sugarcane which I guess performed the dual purpose of nourishment and keeping him quiet. A discarded tractor tyre was split down the middle: one half became a large pot to grow vegetables and the other a swill trough. Two older men were building another hut in the back. Suddenly granny in her colourful garb emerged and started distributing white rod-like keropok (I later found out from Maylyn that it was made from tapioca) to everyone including us. The children flocked to her to receive their morning snack. I was busy shooting away and soon found myself surrounded by these little ones who started giggling when they saw the images of themselves. I then realized that these little ones desperately needed a good scrub. We left this tiny but happy community after half an hour. This was our favourite part of Vang Vieng so far.

The villages of Na Som and Na Thong were similarly spartan. There were women doing their traditional weaving on wooden looms and thread-making using a bicycle wheel as the spindle. Children were walking and cycling home from the village school which was a single storey building with four classrooms. Boys were leaping into the river where others were fishing with a short spear and a snorkelling mask. In the same river, an auntie was also bathing. Breastfeeding is the rave here and most amusngly if you are female, over 45 and own a pair of sagging breasts, you seem to have earned the right to walk around openly in your bra and sarong. I saw many a pair, black, beige, white, all colours of the rainbow. These village folk have become more enterprising. ‘Toll booths’ have sprouted at the end of wooden bridges and ‘parking shelters’ are erected for your bicycles and motorbikes! Interestingly, all these money-making locations are manned by middle-aged women and aunties who are usually accompanied by a flock of children. Everyone wants a little more kip these days! It amounts to only just a few cents but it’s not quite what you expect in the rural areas. ‘laid back’ is becoming ‘paid back’.

Boun Ok Phansaa (BOP)

The BOP is the October Boat Racing Festival that takes place on a one kilometre stretch of the Nam Song right next to Vang Vieng. It is similar to the dragonboat race back home but the boats are narrower and shallower and there is no drumming onboard. Each boat has about 12 to 15 rowers including two steerers standing behind. They complete in pairs downstream in a knockout system. There were about 8 ladies teams and probably twice as many men’s teams and the race lasted from 11am till sundown. The winning team may have to row down the same stretch 8 to 10 times! Besides the obvious stamina needed, the rowers have to ensure that the boat did not get too flooded. Some teams had rowers turned bailers halfway through the race. Each team had their unique cheer and pace-setter who used a whistle to regulate the furious rowing. The combination of disciplined rowing and the militaristic cheering was truly communistic in spirit. Another strange observation is that on the ladies boats, the rear-most steerer is always a man. The two race boats are closely followed by a flotilla of smaller crafts containing policemen, officials and tow boats which will pull the winner back to the start line. Each team had their crazy fans and supporters who took to the muddy waters to cheer their team on in the heat of the day. Their dancing, clapping, happy singing and splashing of water had a charming childishness to it. People were having some serious fun here!

The riverbanks, on this public holiday was transformed almost overnight into a huge party area cum grandstand. Makeshift shelters were constructed, a stage, chairs, tables, foodstalls, carousels, games stalls, parking areas, the works. The Lao people sure know how to party and their women sure can drink. We spent the entire day at the riverside, only taking break for lunch and to let our ears recover from the loud and live music. One good thing is that they love their local music better than any other. People were dancing, sing and drinking to the band on stage as the Lao favourites were belted out. Tipsy from Beer Lao but not unruly the Lao people were and the rave was carried from the riverside into the individual homes of the people well into midnight!

Vang Vieng is touristy so stay on the right side of the river. Unlike most tourists, we did not do the traditional tubing down the Nam Song.


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