Saturday, October 29, 2011

Laos Part 6 (b) - Vang Vieng and bus to Vientiane

Only a few hours left in this stunning place, but there was a weeks’ worth of places to see. So best get going. Unlike yesterday, I wasn’t risking breakfast at the hotel. As soon as we were awake (after suffering another cup of yummy instant coffee and creamer - compliments of the hotel’s in room coffee making facilities - while watching another hot air baloon take off in front of the hotel and taking in the stunning morning view), we headed to Steve’s Aussie Bar. The breakfast menu promised baked beans on freshly baked baguette, as well as vegemite on toast, along with all the standard bacon and eggs fare. And I wasn’t disappointed. It was hands down the best breakfast I had in Laos.

With Steve’s help, and my copy of the Vang Vieng ‘hobo map’, I planned out a walking route to see more before we had to depart. At the end of the road our hotel was on, we turned right and walked a bit further towards the Vang Vieng resort, maybe about a kilometre. There was a toll gate at the entrance to the resort grounds charging either 5,000 or 10,000 kip to enter (can’t recall now). The resort was set along the river with spacious grounds and lots of shady trees. As we passed through, we noticed lots of hammering and painting going on. Once the work was complete, I bet it would be a lovely place to stay. Something I noticed throughout Laos, work seemed to be stress-less. Even as they were working, the men were telling jokes and laughing with each other. Beside what appeared to be the main resort building, there was a group of women sitting under a tree preparing vegetables while having a good old chat. They all appeared relaxed and happy, working away happily. Work seemed more relaxed, unlike our dog-eat-dog workplaces back home.
At the end of the resort, a long, narrow, red, footbridge hung over the river. On the other side, a ridge of small karst hills sat behind a green field. A short path lead us to another lovely blue water hole. Little wooden bridges provided lots of pathways over the meandering stream. Local families were picnicking with lots of kids running around playing tag. Again, another gorgeous spot.

Checking the map, some small caves were up further on the other side of the waterhole, along the stream. By my calculations, the ‘Buddhist Shrine” cave was only about 500 metres away. Initially, the path was clear, heading mostly along the river. An A-frame ladder let us climb over a barbed wire fence without trouble. But after that, the path became overgrown. A hundred metres further, we found ourselves in a treed area where the path became a series of mud bogs. Checking the map, I knew the cave had to be close. Urging J to keep going, I negotiated another mud puddle, clinging to an overhanging branch to jump over the deepest point. We pressed on for another 5 or 10 minutes, through more swampy ground. Hmm. If we’re trying to find a cave, surely we should be along the cliff. Actually, where was the mountain? We are near the river. Shouldn’t we be more over that direction? With all the trees, it was hard to tell where we were. When we came to a farmhouse, I was pretty sure we had gone too far. By now, the track was almost non-existent, just some cleared spaces between trees. To go even a few metres, we had to bash our way through undergrowth, and more thick mud patches. Ok, let’s find the mountain and head that way. And we weren’t too far off. Within a minute, I could see the cliff and rocks of the karst, but there was no track. At least there wasn’t so much mud. But all the branches and sharp sticks were too much to bear. Not to mention we were more exposed to the sun. 

So instead of marching on to try to find the cave by following the cliff, we decided to re-trace our steps, back through the quagmire. It didn’t take long to return to the ladder over the fence. From there, we headed toward the base of the cliff to try to find the cave that way. And wouldn’t you know it, it was right there. The ‘cave’ was more like an overhanging rock, with a large fissure that was so narrow you couldn’t get through. On a concrete ‘wall’ at the base of the overhanging cliff, four moss covered Buddha statues sat in various states of decay. Exposed to the elements, a couple of the statues had eroded badly leaving only the legs. The others were intact but deteriorating rapidly. There were no offerings or incense here. Judging from the overgrowth, I’d say no-one had been there for weeks, or months. It was a charming spot that I found quite spiritual. 

 We made our way back to the water hole by exploring along the base of cliffs. There were a few more caves, or crevices, all the way along. So much more enjoyable than the muddy bush bash we’d just done. I joked about having taken the scenic route instead of the easy way with J, who didn’t laugh at my quip remarks. Even so, we both enjoyed our little side trip, but were very happy to be making our way back just walking effortlessly. Back at the water hole, we ripped off our shoes and enjoyed a quick splash in the cool water.
From the water hole, a set of steep stairs ran up the front of a steep hill to Chang cave. At the base, the entrance was gated with a little ticket booth making sure all visitors paid their 20,000 kip before entering. J and I were quite blown away at how relatively expensive it was when you consider the other caves had been 5,000 to 10,000 kip. But it was still only a few dollars. I joked that the extra money was for a lift or escalator so we didn’t have to make the arduous climb. But alas, I was wrong. So up we go, again. If it was any consolation, the stairs were well made, evenly spaced, and there were little platforms between sets to allow you to catch your breath. Once at the top, the 100 or so steps were well worth it. A wonderful view of the town, river, and surrounding hills extended for miles providing a great perspective.

Almost before we staggered up the last steps, three little girls held out bundles containing incense sticks, a flower and candle to make an offering at the Kwan Yin Buddha altar at the entrance to the cave. Though cute, they were very pushy, trying to push the packages into our hands. We had to say a few firm “bo, khawp jai”s (no thank you) before they gave up and let us pass. Inside, it became very evident why we had to pay so much more to enter this cave. Electric lights illuminated every corner and passage. Lots of well formed paths, steps complete with handrails, as well as a few bridges made walking around and exploring easy. The cave itself had a few nice limestone formations. One path lead deep inside around various interesting pillars and formations and then ended at what looked like a cave in. Another path lead around and through to the other side of the karst to another opening. The view from up here afforded an even broader aspect of the surrounding countryside with patchwork rice paddies and distant rolling hills. 

Having explored lots of the small side tracks, J and I made our way out. The girls who had accosted us when we arrived were still sitting there, chatting and playing around, mostly ignoring us on our return. As they weren’t hassling us, I asked for an offering bundle to pay my respects at the little alter. Lighting the incense, I placed the offering with all the others in the vessel at the base of the altar. I made my prayer and internal offering; “May all beings be blessed with such magnificent surroundings”. And may I be blessed with not having to struggle down all those stairs... Again, down the stairs we went, quadriceps burning all the way. Remind me not to go up so many stairs. My poor legs hadn’t recovered from the previous day’s torment and here I was abusing them again.

Back at the gate at the bottom of the stairway, there was another little temple with a large bronze Buddha statue. Far from being ancient, this looked only a few years old, with modern tiled floor and plaster clad walls. Smoking sticks of incense were placed at the offering table. Unlike the jungle shrine, this little temple was visited frequently and recently. Having already made my offering back up at the cave, I just walked by with a quick closing of hands, clearing of thoughts, and bow of my head. 

Retracing our steps, we walked quickly back towards town. By now, it was approaching midday, and that burning Laos sun was really stinging my bare skin. Not to mention we’d finished the last of the water when we came down those stairs. We zigzagged along, finding every overhanging tree or structure casting any shadow to escape the sun. It didn’t feel so far on the way out as it did now on the way back. We were hot, tired, not to mention parched, and hunger was getting into the mix. When we came to ‘The Elephant Crossing’ hotel, we took one look at each other, and without saying a word, we simultaneously headed directly to the restaurant with renewed energy. Actually, we nearly booked this hotel when I was researching staying in Vang Vieng. But I had too many good recommendations on TripAdvisor for the Vansana, and now seeing, it I was happy with our choice. Not that it didn’t look nice, which it did, but the car park and restaurant were between the hotel rooms and the river and I didn’t notice any balconies.

Choosing a table right at the edge, we immediately ordered water, as well as lemon juice, and iced coffee for J. The restaurant was set on a deck directly above the river bank with a lovely view. It felt so good to be sitting somewhere cool with the load off my feet. We ordered sandwiches with a side of fries. Unfortunately, once the drinks finally arrived they were wrong, but quickly corrected. But then lunch took over half an hour. Luckily we had a bit of time before our bus to Vientiane. At least the food was good.
Refreshed, we headed to the hotel for a much needed shower before packing up and getting ready for our pick up. When the mini bus arrived, we found ourselves to be first on. Great, We picked two seats near the back, as the driver and an assistant put our bags in the back. Next, we picked up another couple, who quickly got in. No problems. Then, a group of five backpacker girls. Now we were filling up. The luggage area had no more space, so they started piling the backpacks on the rear seat. At this point, there were two seats left in the bus, apart from the front seats. But, we drove on and picked up another traveller. Then, the bus returned to town and stopped in front of the booking agent’soffice. The driver and assistant pulled all the bags out, and started re-arranging. They were pushing bags under seats, stomping on them with their feet to make them fit. The girls protested. J and I kept an eye on our bags, making sure they were loaded. Bags were put in aisles and in every spare spot, under our feet between seats, anywhere. The assistant then told us that there were three more passengers to collect before we were on our way. What? Three more? Like where are they going to sit? As it was, the back seat had been stacked with bags. Amazingly, they were then re-stacked and strapped to the side, freeing up two very squashy places.

We headed off, now almost an hour after J and I were first picked up. A few kilometres out of town, we picked up a local older lady, with a younger girl and guy. They happily squeezed into the back seat. And now we were on our way. The road wasn’t too bad to start with, just few pot holes and bumps. But as we kept going, it got worse and worse. Ah well, at least it wasn’t windy. We stopped at a roadhouse for a toilet break, and many passengers bought drinks and snacks. I stayed on board while J had a cigarette, chatting with the backpackers and having some water. What I’d failed to notice was that I’d set down my water bottle without the cap being totally secured. So when poor J came back, his seat was completely wet from my carelessness. With a laugh, I told him that I’d cooled down his seat for him. The guy behind us had a good old laugh, seeing what had happened. So I did the right thing and offered to swap seats. But J, being so lovely, said not to worry and sat down in the sodden seat. Apparently, it was nice and cool, for the first five minutes... Thanks J :)

The trip to Vientiane was meant to take three or three and half hours. After our initial delays, and the bad state of the road, it took over four and a half hours for our trip. Over bad, bone jarring road, in an uncomfortable, crowded minivan, we did not find it a pleasant trip. I would go so far as to recommend catching the larger VIP busses – those big tyres were sure to offer better suspension and cushioning over the appalling road. By the time the bus finally stopped in the city, our backsides were numb, legs cramped from not being able to stretch out, and bodies ached from all the bouncing and jostling. 

Looking around, we had no idea where we were. There was a sports field across the road, and nothing much around to help us orient ourselves and try to figure out the way. Once all the bags were unloaded, I tried to show the driver a note I’d printed with the address of where we were staying, which also had a little map. He said it was too far to walk. A few tuk-tuks had seen us all disembark from the mini bus with our luggage and had approached hoping to get a fare. Seeing us try to get directions from the bus driver, a tuk-tuk driver quickly yelled out, “I know, I know”, and lead us to his vehicle. Leaving J to haul the luggage into the back, I asked the driver how much it would be. 50,000 kip. No way. I was expecting it to be 20,000-30,000. So I told him 20, and we settled on 25. It felt bad haggling over what is only a few cents in Australia, but it was the principal, and I usually give a small tip - provided they were a good and safe driver. Turns out, our driver had us there in barely two minutes – it was that close – and he helped us get our luggage to the gate of the guesthouse as well as gave us a little map of the area. So I gave him 30,000 kip, and he gave us his card offering to take us anywhere in Vientiane; “Special rate for you”. 

Auberge Sala Impeng guesthouse was a tiny property with 4 little chalets set in a tropical garden. It was just off the busy main road that ran along the river, but this little oasis made me feel like we were miles away in a jungle or something. Surrounding the guesthouse were local, suburban houses on a quiet little street. Instantly, I was happy I picked it. A lady from reception lead us to our chalet, the superior cottage, which was set apart from the others. A few steep, high stairs lead us into a darkened room, with a comfy big bed, air conditioning, and modern bathroom. Perfect. A quick change of clothes, splash of cool water on my face, and I was ready to explore this new city. With our little map in hand, we set off in search of beer, and to get our bearings, as the sun cast its last golden rays over the Mekong river. - k

No comments:

Post a Comment