Vang Vieng, Laos, June 07
Laos (Part 2)
Our plan for the day was to rent motorbikes with Andrew and Suzie and take a daytrip to a place called the Pak Ou caves overlooking the Mekong River. The caves are home to hundreds of old Buddha statues which have been brought as offerings over the years.
Unfortunately, we awoke to gloomy skies, but decided to go ahead with our plans and not waste the day. It was Andrew and Suzie's first Southeast Asian motorbike experience (a feeling I could remember all too well...), so we took it slow and all made it out of town into the countryside in one piece. Before long, a heavy rain began to fall, but the road we were on was nearly deserted, winding it's way through rural farmland and small villages, making the ride enjoyable. Along the way we experienced one small setback when Andrew and Suzie's motorbike had a flat tire, but luckily we were able to find a nearby roadside bike-mechanic-and-concrete-block-making hut. In less than an hour they had our small band of hapless foreigners back on track.
We were following directions given to us by the guesthouse owner, using a photocopied hand-drawn map he had provided. Needless to say, we had to stop and ask for clarification from locals more than once. On one such occasion, Sue and I pulled over to ask for help from what we thought was a bunch of schoolkids hanging out in a bamboo hut. They instead turned out to be a group of guys probably in their twenties passing around a bottle of clear liquid. They seemed overly happy to see us and to help out and after confirming we were going the right way, I was offered a drink from their bottle. I took a tiny fiery sip and confirmed my suspicions - it was 'lao khao', homemade Lao rice whiskey. I declined further offers since I was driving and also because I didn't want to go blind.
After a couple of hours we found what we thought was the correct turn off of the main road and headed down a very muddy dirt road into the middle of a village. Explaining to the locals that we were searching for the ferry which would take us across the river to the Pak Ou caves, we were directed down another, even muddier, dirt track. We rode on slowly, nearly wiping out in the mud a few times, until we came to a half-constructed hut in a clearing overlooking the river. We could not see the caves across the river, but there appeared to be some trails on the other side and a few longtail boats pulled up onto the near riverbank down the hill from us. No one was around, and a search of the riverbank turned up no ferryman. We contemplated taking one of the boats on our own, but seeing the swiftly moving monsoon-season waters of the wide river, we chose the more prudent path and continued on down the dirt road in search of another river crossing.
We rode for a couple of kilometers down the road, then gave up and turned back before passing a Lao man and his two daughters riding towards us. We asked him for directions and he indicated that we should follow him, so we headed off down the dirt road once again. The road wound along next to the river, climbing over hills and providing great views of the river and karst rock formations forming the opposite bank. After several kilometers, we came to a large village where a boat could be hired to take us across the river to Pak Ou. We parked our motorbikes in front of the man's house and walked down to a restaurant overlooking the river for lunch before heading across to the caves.
The caves themselves and the many Buddha statues were really only marginally interesting, but the scenic motorbike ride through the countryside made it worthwhile. On the way back to Luang Prabang we rode out to the main road by a shorter dirt track (realizing that we had indeed arrived at the village via the wrong road). We rode through some of Luang Prabang's rustic suburbs and made a quick stop to see another wat before heading back into town.
Having had such a successful motorbike outing the day before, we decided to rent them again and ride the other direction out of town to have a look at the Khouang Sy Waterfall and a swim in the pools below. Unlike the day before the weather was perfect. The dirt road leading to the falls wound it's way past thirty or so kilometers of peaceful rice paddies, grazing water buffalo, and small villages exhibiting the unusual juxtaposition of wooden, thatched-roof huts sprouting improbably large satellite dishes. Arriving at the entrance to the falls area, we parked our motorbikes, paid the requisite fee, and began the ascent through the forest trail leading to the lowest of the falls' several tiers.
Along the way we came across an interesting sight - a Malayan tiger prowling slowly back and forth on the other side of a (very high) chainlink fence. A nearby sign stated that the tiger had been saved from poachers in it's native land and was now under the care of a local Buddhist monastery. The fence separating us from the tiger stretched off into the forest out of sight in either direction, so I assume it had plenty of space to roam and it appeared to be in good health. Unlike a proper zoo, we were able to walk right up to the fence and stand literally within inches of the tiger (who was not shy).
Continuing on, we passed by a few small pools and cascades marking the lower levels of Khouang Sy. Climbing up a series of steps cut into the clay led us to the base of the main falls which were spectacular. We crossed the river in front of the falls by way of a wooden bridge and ascended a very steep and slippery slope up the other side. We crossed back across the river by wading through some shallow water near the top of the falls and then found our way to a deep swimming hole just below the main waterfall. The place was quite popular - I was a bit shocked to see thirty or forty other foreigners gathered around the pool. Some were just relaxing while others took turns jumping off the edge into the pool a few meters below. Before long, Andrew, Suzie, and I worked up the courage to take the plunge while Sue took pictures.
From there we headed back down to a more peaceful lower pool for a swim and then walked back through the forest to the road. We mounted up and rode about a whole one kilometer back towards Luang Prabang when both of our motorbikes conked out within a few seconds of each other. Neither of them were out of gas and the bikes appeared to be fine (not that Andrew or I could pass as mechanics...). They simply would not start no matter what we tried. Twenty minutes later, as the discussion turned to sending someone back to town to get help, a Lao man and his wife rode by and stopped when they saw our predicament. They didn't speak any English, but were willing to help us out. The man produced what seemed to be an entire garage's worth of tools from beneath the seat of his motorbike and after tinkering with our bikes for a few minutes, had them both started again. We gave him a few thousand kip for his help and drove back to Luang Prabang without stopping, fearful of being stranded again.
Before sunrise, Suzie and I met out on the main road through town to witness the ritual of 'bintabat', the Buddhist monks' morning alms walk. (Sue and Andrew slept in, opting to wait for the pictures instead.) Monks all over Southeast Asia rely on alms (offerings of food) from the local people for their daily sustenance. It is one of the many vows which are undertaken upon entering a monastery. The people offering the food to the monks do so as a way of "making merit" towards the goal of improving their karmic lot. We had seen the odd monk here and there in Thailand wandering the streets with their metal food urns, but Luang Prabang, with it's concentration of temples (and monks) provided an opportunity to observe the ritual up close.
As the sky began to lighten, local women appeared on the street carrying wooden yokes across their shoulders with pots hanging off each end. The pots were filled with their offerings for the monks - wads of sticky rice wrapped up with banana leaves into a neat little package held tightly together by a toothpick. There were a few other foreigners out on the street and we spent the next few minutes waiting for the monks to arrive by fielding offers from the Lao women to sell us our own rice-and-banana-leaf surprises so that we could be a part of the alms-giving show. I bought a couple.
The monks first appeared as a hazy orange mass far off down the road through the gray early morning light. The local women set up their pots along the side of the road. Those of us who had purchased rice offerings joined them. The monks drew closer, a seemingly endless single-file line of mostly teenaged boys with shaved heads clad in saffron robes and blank expressions. As they passed along the line of alms-givers, they held out their urns to receive the offerings from the women's outstretched hands. The women were careful not to touch the monks or their robes, as that is considered a cultural no-no. By the time the monks passed by me and my meager rations at the end of line, they had each accumulated a healthy collection of small banana leaf packages. I had, of course, previously disassembled the goods I had bought to see what was inside so that when I placed my poorly reassembled banana leaf into the first monk's urn, ,it promptly fell apart, littering rice over his neat green pile. I repeated the blunder for the next monk and then beat a hasty retreat from the alms line to a safer position behind my camera.
Later in the morning, Andrew, Suzie, and I walked around town for a bit to see some local sights including Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City), one of the most elaborate temples in Laos. During the afternoon it rained a bit so Sue and I relaxed at the guest house and caught up with Andrew and Suzie later on for dinner.
This morning we parted with Andrew and Suzie, who were headed for northern Laos, and hired a tuk-tuk to drive us to the bus station. We hoped to meet up with them again farther down the line in Laos. Our next destination was Phonsavanh, in the mountainous Xiang Khouang Province to the east near the Vietnamese border.
By eight o'clock we were somewhat comfortably situated on a rickety old bus half filled with intrepid foreign backpackers such as ourselves and the other half with Lao folks. All of our backpacks were piled up on the seats at the far back of the bus while the roof was tieed down with a top heavy mish-mash of crates, boxes, baskets, and burlap sacks belonging to the locals. I believe there were a couple of motorbikes and some livestock up there as well.
The bus rumbled out of the station and we braced ourselves for the six to eight hour ride. Sue downed a Dramamine and was out cold in no time. As we approached the higher ground I psyched myself out in anticipation of nauseatingly winding mountain roads and took a Dramamine as well. The road ended up being fairly straight as we climbed into the mountains and I fought to stay awake so I could watch the scenery.
Around noon we stopped for lunch in a small mountain town. An hour later we rolled on and before long the landscape became much more visibly remote. That's when the fun began.
Now first of all, keep in mind that it was now rainy season in Southeast Asia, so when the sealeed road we were driving on gave way to a more primitive bumpy and muddy dirt road, we were a bit concerned. We occasionally passed signs of road construction in progress, with workers breaking up stones and clearing rubble. Most of the work was being done by hand. I only saw one backhoe and one bulldozer along the several kilometers of roadwork we passed.
The second item of interest is that the guidebook suggested that the stretch of road we were travelling on may not be entirely safe, with incidents of armed banditry having occurred in the past. So when the bus stopped to allow two machine-gun toting youths to board, the atmosphere on board became somewhat hushed and expectant. They couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen years old. We soon realized that they were soldiers, not bandits, and I think we all breathed an uneasy sigh of relief. A short while later the bus stopped to let them off and then we continued on lurching and grinding along the muddy road.
A few kilometers further on, we rounded a bend to find a bus stopped on the road ahead of us. The passengers were all off the bus and standing off to the side of the road. Our bus stopped as well and, with dimishing hopes, we all filed off to see what was happening. Beyond the bus stopped in front of ours was another bus, also stopped, facing towards us and blocking the way. The Lao bus drivers were busy arguing amongst themselves and it was a good while before we had any information. The bus up ahead had broken it's front axle while attempting to plow through a particularly deep stretch of muddy road and was now immobile. Wr stood around for a whiole awaiting some action to be taken, but nothing was happening. At one point, a few loud explosions reverberated through the mountainside, giving us all a good start. We saw a puff of smoke rising into the air from down the road behind us. At first I thought it was artillery shells, but soon realized it was just some demolition work from the road construction. It was about three o'clock in the afternoon.
Over the next couple of hours, several more buses came driving up the road behind us and were also forced to stop. Their passengers (mostly Lao people) joined the everswelling group of strandees sloshing around in the mud while their drivers joined the group of men who were discussing the problem, but taking no action. Despite our best attempts at communication, we could receive no good information about what was to be done about the situation. We tried to determine if walking was an option, but were told wildly conflicting estimates of the remaining distance. Eventually, after our bus driver (and his family) set up their sleeping mats and settled down for dinner on a small platform at the front of the bus, we realized that we were stuck for the night. Again, despite our best attempts, we couldn't get a clear answer of what solution awaited us in the morning.
There were about fifteen of us (backpackers), mostly Irish and English, a German girl, and Sue and I. We tried to make the best of the situation by collecting a bunch of semi-dry wood from a nearby ravine, intending to build a fire. The locals watched us, curiously amused. From one of the buses behind ours, a Lao man produced some mangos for sale. One of the Irish guys and I climbed on top of his bus with him and we bought an armful to take back to our group. Considering the situation, they were the best darn mangos I ever had.
About this time, a small pickup truck came driving up along the side of the bus. The driver intended to go on to Phonsavanh. There was room in the bed of the truck for two people and after some discussion it was decided that Suzanne and the German girl would go on. Sue would get a hotel room and leave me email as to where I could find her when I (hopefully) arrived the next day. We retrieved the girls' backpacks frrom the bus and they climbed into the pickup amid a pile of boxes and bags. The truck drove away, spinning it's wheels through the mud and out of sight.
The sun was setting and seeing the success of the mango sales, a Lao woman produced some eggs for sale and another came by selling sweet rolls. We bought a tray of eggs and a few rolls. One of the Irish guys produced a metal camp cooking pot and utensils. I dug through our supplies and found some salt, pepper, and ketchup packets. An hour later we had the fire going and managed to cook up some fairly decent scrambled eggs to eat while sitting on some big rocks we arranged in a circle. After eating, several of us sat around the fire talking late into the night. It was actually a good time.
Sue was not faring quite as well. For nine hours, the pickup truck plodded through the mud, often getting stuck which required everyone to get out and push. The mud was knee-deep in places. They had no food and only a little water. Eventually, after travelling only a few kilometers, the driver gave up and they stopped for the night at three o'clock in the morning. The girls slept in the bed of the truck. As Sue told me later, she was miserable, but kept her cool. Her German friend, however, could not cope and kept up a steady stream of complaints. Sue had to dig down deep into her patience reserves to keep from giving the girl a good thrashing.
In the morning, after sleeping sitting in my seat on the bus with my head propped against the window, I joined the gathering group once again milling about in the mud on the road. No action was in progress and a general sense of confusion filled the air. There was talk of turning the buses around and heading back. Attempting to speak with our bus driver resulted in gruff responses in Lao. Eventually, thinking that Sue was waiting for me in Phonsavanh, I decided to continue down the road on foot. A few Russians from a different bus joined me and we strapped on our packs and set off. We walked a few hundred meters and the road condition was not improving. The sun was climbing higher into the sky and it was getting hot. I only had about one half liter of water left in my bottle. I knew that it would be a long day.
As we were laboring through the muddy ruts on the road, a huge army truck with massive tires appeared ahead of us in the distance. As it was slowly coming towards us, I said to my new Russian friends that I'm sure my resourceful wife would send someone to come and get me once she made it to Phonsavanh. I didn't expect this particular truck to be that someone, but knowing that such vehicles were able to navigate the road gave me hope. I put my head down and trudged on.
A few seconds later one of the Russians said, "Hey, is that your wife?"
I looked up and could now make out all the details of the truck. Sue was standing up in the back, looking out over the top of the cab. She was waving her arms. I felt incredibly relieved.
The truck stopped and Sue and the German girl jumped down. They were covered in mud. Besides them, the back of the big truck was filled with Lao people. Some of them had come to sell food and drinks to the hungry captive audience out on the road. Sue explained what had happened since we had parted, and not being able to make it to Phonsavanh, had hitched a ride on this truck back toward the bus. She said that the Lao people coming from Phonsavanh had said the road was impassable for buses further on, so our best bet was to go back. We bought some sticky rice from a Lao woman and then walked back to rejoin our group by the bus.
An hour later, after a very heated argument between us foreigners and our bus driver, a deal was negotiated whereby he would turn the bus around and drive us to the town of Vang Vieng instead of back to Luang Prabang. (Vang Vieng would have been the next stop on everyone's agenda after Phonsavanh.) We all thought he should drive us for free since we didn't make it to our original destination, but in the end had to settle on paying him 40,000 kip (about US$4) each. We really had no choice since he was our only hope of getting out of there.
By early afternoon, we rolled into Vang Vieng. We walked from the bus stop into the tiny town and found a room at one of the many guest houses. After showering, we did a thorough washing of our mud covered clothes and shoes. I also washed the mud and eight months of sweat from my backpack. I had to rinse it about fifty times before the water was clean(ish). Following this we slept for most of the afternoon. In the evening we explored the town a bit and then treated ourselves to a meal at the Vang Vieng branch of our favorite Indian restaurant chain in Laos, Nizam's.
Searching for the Nam Ou River, near Luang Prabang
Found the Nam Ou River, now searching for the Pak Ou Caves, near Luang Prabang
Pak Ou Village across the Mekong River
Pak Ou Caves (1)
Pak Ou Caves (2)
Pak Ou Caves (3)
Pak Ou Caves (4)
Riding the motorbike back to Luang Prabang
Grazing water buffalos along the road to Khouang Sy Waterfall, Luang Prabang
Rice paddies along the road to Khouang Sy Waterfall, Luang Prabang
Dave and Sue along the road to Khouang Sy Waterfall, Luang Prabang
Khouang Sy Waterfall (1)
Khouang Sy Waterfall (2)
Khouang Sy Waterfall (3)
Khouang Sy Waterfall (4)
Khouang Sy Waterfall (5)
Khouang Sy Waterfall (6)
Monks on the early morning alms walk (1), Luang Prabang
Monks on the early morning alms walk (2), Luang Prabang
Monks on the early morning alms walk (3), Luang Prabang
Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
Mosaic of the Buddhist Tree of Life, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
Mosaic detail, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
The fabled white elephant! Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
Not sure who this guy is, but he was covered with sticky rice offerings, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
Bronze buddhas, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
Pillar detail, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
"Silly tourists, it's just a little mud..." (Stuck on the road to Phonsavanh)
Bus with the broken axle, Stuck on the road to Phonsavanh
Osama bumper sticker, Stuck on the road to Phonsavanh
Sue cleans the mud off of her shoes, Stuck on the road to Phonsavanh