Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Trekking and caving around Vang Vieng

Yapping puppies greeted us at the Hmong village of Ban Pa Thao, north of Vang Vieng. Just 10 years ago these Hmong villagers lived in the nearby mountains but having eaten all the wildlife they were forced to come down to the river basin, our guide said. Also, post-1975 the government has awarded them land and the village was a mix of bamboo homes and concrete houses. Towering limestone mountains sheltered the village and line the entire Vang Vieng valley cut through by the Nam Song river.
We wandered past a canal smothered in red dragonflies where two boys were fishing. Sporting snorkelling masks they were pushing their faces through the river while holding handmade harpoons; the occasional stab produced a tiny wriggling silver fish that was placed in a small basket attached to one of the boys’ belts.
After a carbohydrate lunch at the restaurant at Tham Nam (water cave), we plunged into tractor tubes (and the icy cold water) and pulled ourselves using a rope under the low ledge that heralded the entrance to the cavern. The low-slung cave eventually opened out a little into what felt like a giant sluice. Blacker than the darkest night we switched on our lamps and pulled ourselves along the rope, spinning occasionally, as the current washed against our tubes. Tiny drips of water splattered on our heads and millions of miniscule flies dived at the lamps. As we travelled further in, giant, clumsy stalactites came into flashlight view. Then we hit a mound of pebbles, got out to walk and as we sunk back into the tubes to continue our journey I realised the rope had gone.
‘Now we swim with no rope,’ said the guide. Errr... this is the bit when we disappear forever, I thought.
‘You do know the way back, right?’ I enquired as I noted that there was not just one tunnel but one leading off to the left and then to the right and perhaps even a few more left and right tunnel turns as well.
It was inky black, the air was humid, the flies were kamikaze, the dripping intensified and the water felt syrupy. Powerful arm muscles were needed to paddle against the flow into the bowels of this cave. I refrained from asking how far we could get on our muscle power as I wondered about ever seeing natural light again.
The return paddle was much easier as we weren’t fighting the river current. We flowed back and happily blinked our way back into the daylight.

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