Monday, January 7, 2008

Vang Vieng

If there is one place in Laos I must go back to, it is Vang Vieng. The guesthouse and restaurant filled town is nestled next to the Nam Song river amidst steep karst cliffs. Vang Vieng is home to caving, kayaking, rafting (in wet season), rock climbing, trekking, and tubing. The Southeast Asia backpacker's rite of passage, tubing down the Nam Song, is the big attraction. Laura and I visited the tubing cartel for a 40,000 kip/person (just over $4) charge; that got us each a tube and a tuk-tuk upriver. Once at the organic farm launch site, the adrenaline was flowing.

Laura was the first to brave the initial rapids.

About 100 meters downriver, a riverside bar blasted Red Hot Chili Peppers and advertised Beer Lao; we couldn't say no. Upon docking at the bar, signs advertised free shots of lao-lao (Lao whiskey) and a free jump with any purchase made. I quickly puchased the first Beer Lao of the day, then cringed after downing my free lao-lao shot. After a few sips of beer, I asked what the free jump was about. The bar owner pointed to a high tower with a zip line leading into the water. What an opportunity... free... noone using it... feel like James Bond... too good to be true. I climbed up the tower and set sail!

The awesome plunge into the chilly water set off my adrenaline and I kept insisting to Laura that she must go. She refused and refused and finally, I resorted to feeding her as much of my Beer Lao as possible (a difficult sacrifice).

We set sail on the Nam Song again

and not another 50 meters downriver, bar #2 played Bob Marley and sported a rope swing with a 6 to 7 meter drop into the water. I insisted I had to try this one so we paddled over and docked again. At this rate, we'd never finish the 4 kilometer trip. I purchased another Beer Lao, downed a free lao-lao shot, and plunged off the rope swing. It was easily as fun as the Willoughby Lake rope swing from my younger years. This time Laura was too curious (and probably buzzing from Beer Lao) so she climbed the rope swing tower and set sail.

Her scream caused laughter all along the Nam Song.

After finishing our second Beer Lao, we decided we had to pass some of the bars or we'd never finish. We cruised past many before we found the largest rope swing I've ever seen. Farang were gathered all around to watch those who dared plunge into the water. This couldn't be passed up. I summited the tower and a woman held the swing in her hands. She couldn't get herself to jump, so she handed the rope to me. My stomach butterflies roared as I looked 10 to 15 meters down. I decided it was best not to think and jumped from the platform.

What a ride!!! The plunge to the water must have been at least 10 meters; it was body jarring but an incredible rush. We finished off our Beer Lao and cruised the rest of the way downriver. I haven't tubed since I was 10 years old in the Barton river with my best friend Jeff. It was great to relive the fun.

That night, Laura and I went out to a Simpsons bar. Non-stop episodes of the Simpsons while you eat and drink.

Ahhh, the life of leisure. Of course, the night before I had to suffer through the Friends bar so it's not always as great as it sounds.

Our second day in Vang Vieng, we biked to Tham Phu Kham, a limestone cave.

The initial cave opening contained a reclining Buddha image; many locals consider the cave sacred. We continued past the initial opening to a monstrous cave with amazing stalactites and stalagmites.

As we wandered slowly through the cave with our headlamps,

we saw deep cavernous holes; images of glacier crevases came to mind. We eventually wandered deep enough that the entrance daylight was gone. As we looked back, we wondered if we could find our way back. We decided not to continue deeper and returned towards the entrance. It took us probably double the time to return due to the disorienting nature of the cave. This would have been a great place to hire one of the local guides, but we decided one cave entry was enough. One couple who did hire a guide said they spent 20 minutes just going into the cave.

After the cave, I biked further to Na Som village; the ride provided awesome karst scenery.

That night, the Moukdavahn guesthouse owners invited us to the baci for their 15-day old child. The baci comemorates major family events like a wedding, buying a house, or a birth. In this instance, it brings good luck to the child. We watched as an elder gentlemen chanted what seemed to be a prayer over a tower of flowers.

During the chant, one lady threw rice at everyone kneeling around the flowers. Once the prayer ended, food offerings surrounding the flowers were passed out to all attendees. This included chicken, sticky rice, boiled eggs, and oranges. Whatever the old guys handed you, you ate. I was happy not to receive the chicken head! After the food, women pulled bands of string off the flower tower and tied them around peoples' wrists while chanting. The bands give good luck to the recipient.

Each of the attendees ceremonially tied a band to the baby's hand for good luck. Once the ceremony was over, we enjoyed an incredible Lao meal with plenty of supplemental Beer Lao, lao-lao, and Black Label whiskey.

The Moukdavahn guesthouse has been the most inviting (and clean) guesthouse throughout our entire stay in Asia. It was a home away from home. It was special to be invited for the baci.

We travel to Laos's capital city, Vientiane, next.

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss the often-ignored but ever-present Northern Lao passenger bus driver. We had the pleasure of sitting front and center to monitor these marvels of the motorway on a bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. The talents of these men are second to none. They are fearless. They navigate two-lane roads that are exactly the width of two buses constantly threatened by Isuzu transport trucks, landslide cliffs above, and menacing cliff drops below. They are tireless. Just when a hill village break from winding through narrow hill roads is coming, village obstacles appear out of thin air. Their dexterity kicks in as they avoid unsuspecting children, charging roosters, spooked kittens, herding goats, curious dogs, and wandering pigs. Their athleticism is professional grade. They spin the steering wheel like a sea captain in a storm, balance against centripetal force, and pump gas and brake pedals endlessly. They must be ruthless. It is a given they will need to deal with the farang female demanding a western toilet stop, but they must suppress this complaint and force the farang female to hold it or use the Lao wilderness. Their leadership is admirable. They must ensure their 2-man crew loads monstrous 50 kg rice sacks, responds to their every radio request, and provides the proper Lao bus driver sustenance of sticky rice, pork jerky, and red bull. Poor leaders would be stuck with plain rice, vegetables, and water. They must multitask. Each 180 degree cliff corner may need to be taken while answering a cell phone, eating sticky rice, or listening to a shouting passenger. They must be master operators of the horn. The horn, sounding similar to the air-compressed horns used by sportsfans, is the lone bus driver tool for warning oncoming traffic or roadside villagers of the bus's presence. It also is great for preventing that annoying farang female from getting any sleep; she'll just leave with a headache. Finally, they are guardians of the people determined only to transport 40+ human beings with all their cargo safely to a new destination. If only Greyhound produced similar men, we Americans might have a candidate we'd all want to vote for in November 2008.


Greg said...

Hi guys.
Spent part of the day with momma and your dad - Jeremy. He looks great.

I am playing blog catch up starting with comment at 12/22.

Peace and safe travel be with you two.

J.Pallotta said...

Hey Greg,

Great to have you back postng comments. We were missing the comments. Hope to hear more from warm VT (wow, I can't believe it's warm there already). Don't know if you'll be so lucky on your next comment post.

Anonymous said...

we do need another candidate for the top job in our land; the people of N.H. gave Hillary the win in their primary so now both she and Obama have won one early contest. John McCain won the N.H.primary on the republican side. Hope you retain some of the things you learned from the bus drivers over there as you will probably need some of those skills to navigate the roads of southern N.H. or northern Mass. whenever you conclude this worldwide adventure. sounded like a good decision on the cave hike to have turned back when you did. really interesting storys about the monks and the guesthouse party you got to attend in the previous entry.

Anonymous said...

does Laura's red nose in her close-up photo mean that she has already consumed one of those Lao-beers before this photo was taken???? Must have been a hot day hey Laura!! Brown is sitting next to me on the table as I am looking again at these pictures--wonder if he recognizes anyone?? TAKE CARE DAD

Greg said...

Hey Laura and Jeremy,
I know I said I was going to work my way up to this 1/7/08 swimming and eating blog, but I could not help myself. The photos were just to darn too interesting I had to read the words. Having done both these might as well comment.

Once again Laura and Jeremy are kickin butt and trying whatever IT is. So jealous here. Black Label whiskey .... I see the capital letter on the L but was wondering was it Johnnie Walker, Jack Daniels, or Black Velvet? See where my interests are these days. NOT. Ok maybe.

A bus driver from Laos for president of USA is not a bad idea. He could perhaps steer through the Red and Blue parties.

Meal with the natives ...... truly the best of any visit. I can see the rice in your hair. Similar tradition to our wedding rice throwing.

Peace and safe travel be with you two.
Friday 1-11-08 2115

Anonymous said...

Lots of great detail! Keep the blog entries coming!

One of the last things you worked at the old job on saved the day over the last week, I'll email a thank-you privately.

Safe travels!


J.Pallotta said...

Hey Jim,

Thanks for commenting again on the blog. Good to hear from you. Glad I did something positive for Ball, just can't imagine what it could be.