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April 28, 2007

In the Caves and On the River

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After my last doctors appointment I spent the day lounging around in Bangkok and decided I didn’t want to do that for another week while I waited to see how my ear would do.  I took an overnight train the following day to Laos.  I’d planned on spending one day in the capital to extend my visa for a few days, but was given a 30 day visa instead of 15 days when I arrived so that took care of that.  Instead I got on a bus and headed a few hours north to Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng is a bit different than the other towns in Laos in that it is primarily just there for the backpackers coming through.  They have lots of caves and rock climbing available, but what it is really known for is renting an inter tube and floating down the river stopping at the bars that have been built along the banks as you go down.  I decided to wait a day for that and rented a bike my first day to go see the caves.  The area around the town is gorgeous.  I hadn’t seen any mountains for quite a while and these just shot up out of the ground gaining altitude rapidly while still being covered in green trees.  

After ride which felt uphill all the way (only being able to use 2 of the 18 gears on the bike may have had something to do with that) I arrived and crossed the river to the caves.  There are four in the area I went to.  They all were a good size and one I had to stop myself from continuing into further since it had lots of options of what route to take and I was in there by myself.  I was sure I knew how to get back from where I was, but it would have been really easy to miss my turn on the way back.  I guess when there was an extra bike at the end of the day someone might start wondering.

It worked out that the last cave I came to was the coolest.  The cave has a river going through it and after paying your dollar they give you an intertube and push you into the lagoon.  There were ropes tied along the route that you pull yourself along with as you work your way into the cave.  Once they get you in there aways in in the total dark the rope ends and you have to start paddling.  It was actually quite nice and I only ran into the walls twice while paddling backwards and staring up.  It must have gone a good 1/2 mile in where you wade through the water a little ways and then go another 1/2 mile to a dead end and head back out.  It was a totally different way to experience the cave plus you don’t have to watch your feet all the time while still trying to see the sites.  I was looking forward to coasting most of the way home, but somehow the ride back seemed almost as uphill as the way there.  No idea how that worked, but sitting on an inflatable cushion and floating on a river sounded like just the ticket for the following day.

The next morning I headed down got my tube and as soon as the pickup filled up off we went.  They take you about 4 kilometers upstream and tell you to be back by 5:30 or you pay the $2 overtime fee.  Off we went while the dark clouds pulled in right on top of us.  There was one clap of thunder and two minutes later the skies cleared and it was clear and sunny the rest of the day.  The bars start up right away and naturally so does the drinking.  There is only one beer in Laos, called Beerlao.  Luckily it is quite good, and $1 for a 22oz bottle.  The bars have also taken to making swings out over the river to get you to come in and have some fun and buy a drink.  The swings vary from about 8 feet above the water from where you jump off at to one that was over 30 feet.  Somehow the first one I stopped at a did happened to be the tallest one on the river.  You build up quite a bit of speed, let go just before you start heading back and fly out into the river.  They have done a good job a making sure you land in the deep spots even though the wooden supports that are holding them look patched together with a little less planning.

The day just flew by as did the beers and you can see how people get “stuck” there for way longer than they planned just doing that over and over.  Also all the restaurants/bars in town have tables set up super lower where you just kind of lay down with a pillow while they have tvs setup to keep you there.  Each bar picks one show and then just shows all the episodes, you have Friends, Simpsons, Seinfeld and so on.  I managed to stay away from them, but after the day on the river it was quite tempting to nestle down order a pizza or burger and I would have been there until they kicked me out.

That is something else unique to Laos (at least in Southeast Asia).  They have and 11:30 curfew when all the stores have to be shut down.  The bars stay open until they guy comes around to tell everyone to go home so it is somewhat lax as he was on foot and just following where the noise was.  I didn’t know about that though, so when someone in a green shirt and an AK-47 across his chest came strolling by the conversation I was in and said it was time to go home it was amazing how effective it is.  It was done in a very friendly and laid back Laos way, just through me off until I got the full story.

As for the ear it is making small improvements so I’ll take that hope it continues.  All of a sudden I’m down to just over two weeks left over hear and I can tell I’m going to be really rushed to get see the few places I’ve picked out.  Hopefully it all works out, but I’ll just try to enjoy whatever I do get to see.

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