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Backpacking through Laos Part 2

Pic_1._Tubing_along_the_river_at_Vang_ViengTubing through mountains and caves

 

By Laura Bijnsdorp

It was midnight; we had been travelling by bus for over eight hours along dense jungle and swerving narrow roads. The bus stopped with a squeak in a dark area. We knew we had arrived at our destination – Vang Vieng, a small town in Laos. There was one problem; as we unloaded our backpacks from the bus, we thought: "Where is the centre of the town and our hostel?"

There was just one tuk-tuk (sort of taxi) driver waiting with his small truck. We asked him where the town was and he vaguely waved his hand towards his right and asked if we needed a ride. We looked at each other and said yes, as the previous town had been over 10 kilometres further than the bus station. The driver asked us for twice the amount we had paid for the 10kilometers. We were used to the haggling in South East Asia and finally brought the price down to what we thought would be fair for the drive. But the driver turned out to be a "bonafide hustler" because within two minutes, he turned left, right and another right and we were in town! It turned out that the bus station was not even a five-minute walk away from the centre of town.

Once little more than a bus stop on the long journey between Vientiane at the Thai border and the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng is now one of the most popular and well known destinations in Laos. Still not much more than three streets and a bus station, the main attractions are the river, laid back countryside, impressive mountains and cave-filled rock formations. After walking up and down for a bit, we found the hostel we were looking for and crashed for the night.

The next morning, we walked through the small town. Due to the recent influx of backpackers, the natives of Vang Vieng have seen a drastic change in their community. In recent years, guesthouses, bars, restaurants, internet cafes and tour agencies have popped up. The three main streets are fully built to cater to the large crowd of young and rowdy backpackers. Most of the restaurants now feature western food with TVs playing episodes of "Friends" all day long. If you walk just a bit further, you are immediately transported again to a more rural, local, traditional Laos.

Just a few kilometres upstream you'll find the main reason why this town has grown into what it is today: River tubing. Visitors in Vang Vieng party by night; and sleep, lounge and tube by day. Since 2006, along the 4km-tubing route, riverside bars have sprang up as ports of call and tubers have made a day of it, fuelled by free shots of the lao-lao whisky, super-potent cocktails and openly-sold drugs.

To a backdrop of pounding music, the often blind drunk tubers would throw themselves into the river off the platforms, flying foxes and slides that bars have constructed to lure people in. Unfortunately, intoxicated acts lead to injuries from sprained ankles to fractured skulls and even fatalities.

Exactly how many have died will vary depending on who you ask. Common consensus is that at least 20 died in 2011, while seven including two Australians died in 2012 before the government crackdown. Since that crackdown, most of the bars closed down, with just about four now legally open.

That afternoon, armed with our own drinks and rented tubes; we started the journey down the river. Noticing the first open bar, we splashed our way to shore. Clambering over slippery rocks and retaining my first injury hitting the bottom from a clumsy slip, I instantly understood why there had been casualties, especially involving people who did not know when to stop drinking. The bar was fun; we each grabbed a beer, danced on tables and even made a short hike to a nearby waterfall.

After an hour, we slowly and carefully got back into our tubes and headed to the next bar. This bar seemed to be most popular along the way. There was volleyball, basketball and other games set up on a grass field in between grazing cows standing in front to keep customers entertained while shots were shared out. There was an all-round great vibe, though it was a bit strange to be having such a western-style beach party in the middle of a rural jungle, in one of the poorest countries in the world.

We finally reached the last bar along the way, receiving a few more scratches from the slippery rocks at the bottom of the river. Handing back out rented tubes, we all headed back to the hostel.

The next morning, we rented a couple of scooters for the day. We had heard that there were various cave-systems around the area and set out to find them. After getting lost quite a few times and heading down a few dodgy paths, it finally seemed like we were on the right track. The road got really muddy and it was hard to keep the scooters from falling over; despite the struggle, we still managed to take in the amazing scenery around us. Bright green rice paddies stretched out in front of us for miles and were surrounded by dark green, steep mountains covered by clouds on the tips.

We were covered in mud by the time we got to the entrance of the cave, but that was okay as you could only enter this cave by water. Again renting a set of tubes and armed with flashlights, we made our way through the river towards a small dark gap.

Holding to the top of the rocks, we slowly drifted into the cave. Caves like these begin to form when rainwater absorbs carbon dioxide as it falls through the atmosphere. Rainwater is absorbed by the soil into the ground. As rainwater comes through the soil, it absorbs more carbon dioxide that is being produced by plants that are dead. This changes the ground water to a weaker form of carbonic acid.

When it rains and the droplets hit limestone rock, caves can form. The water reacts chemically with limestone and slowly a larger and larger space will form. This happens because the rocks are made of calcium carbonate. This is what you call chemical erosion.

As the space becomes larger and larger, the water can flow through. As it flows, it erodes. Physical erosion washes away rock and sand. This is what makes a cave larger and forms an underground stream. Finally over hundreds of thousands of years or even millions of years, the cave is formed.

We manoeuvred our way through the low hanging stalactites, shining our flashlights through the pitch-black cave to find our way. Finally, we reached a small beach and saw that if we wanted to keep on exploring, we would have to leave our tubes behind and crawl through a small opening on our hands and knees. Wondering for a second if it was safe, we decided we couldn't stop now. Dropping low to the muddy floor, we slowly started worming our way through the small opening. At times, I even had to drop my body so low that I was basically dragging myself along like a snake.

We then heard a scream. All of the sudden, I was told to go back. In a slight panic, we started shuffling backwards, not knowing what was going on. Back at the beginning, the friend who caused the chaos gasped: "BATS! A lot of bats!" Laughing, we took a deep breath. The group debated on facing the bat-population, but decided we shouldn't disturb them any further, to some of our relief.

We had to move on towards our next destination soon but, luckily, still had time for a game of paintball. The dense jungle of Laos proved a great arena as we "hunted" the opposing team members. After a few hours of games, and being shot in the middle of my left-butt cheek, we decided to call it a day.

It had been a visit of contrasts as the town seemed to be trying to balance the influx of tourism. We had had a great time.

I now fully understand why in the past, The New Zealand Herald wrote, "If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng."

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