Rivers, caves, and limestone cliffs.
04.02.2010 - 07.02.2010 30 °C
After only a single day in Luang Prabang I decided to head up north to the quiet little town of Nong Khiaw. Once again stuck on an overcrowded minibus, with only 12 seats and yet still somehow managing to fit 17 people on board, it was a long and uncomfortable 4 hour winding journey through the mountains of northern Laos.
Despite my Lonely Planet being two years out of date I was not prepared for the level of change to have occured in that time. According to my "travel bible", accomodation in Nong Khiaw can easily be found for 20,000 Kip. Imagine my surprise when told by these same guesthouses that the price for a room has now somehow gone through the roof to an astronomical 150,000 Kip. Inflation is one thing but when it borders on Zimbabwe levels I begin to loose hope.
Having got off the bus with a German lady and a Koren man we managed to find a place close by for 70,000. We decided to take it as it was by far the cheapest offer we'd had so far, however they only had one room. The German lady looked a little worse for wear and was suffering from a very bad stomach, which had stopped our bus a couple of times on route already, so we decided she should get the bungalow. I was then offered a room in the main house for 40,000 and quickly took it. Consisting of a bed and a light switch, no fan or air conditioning, no proper sheets or covers, four bamboo walls (which became worryingly see-through when lit from the inside), a shared outside toilet, consisting of a porcelain hole in the ground, with no flush, just a large bucket of water and a small bowl (bowl + water down hole = flush!), and a seperate outside Lao shower, with no hot water, or in fact any running water at all, just an enormous waist high tank filled with cold murky looking, possibly river water, and another small bowl (bowl + water over the head = shower!!!), it was my favourite accomodation to date! Unfortunately the next day a bungalow became available and so I was moved there for the original 70,000 Kip.
That afternoon I decided to walk to the Pha Tok caves where the local villagers hid during the bombing in 1964. I was unimpressed at having to pay to see natural caves in the first place but when they tried to charge me double to have a 10 year old boy walk around with me carrying a flashlight (as I already had my own flashlight and told them so) I was even more put out. Despite saying no to the 10 year old guide he decided to come with me anyway and proptly put out his hands and said "money, money" the second we stepped out of the caves. I shook my head and he then asked if I had a pen so he could note down that I'd been in the caves. I gave him one and he quickly took off with it never to be seen again!
The following day I met up with the German woman and the Korean man from the bus. The Korean had now become known by the local children as Candyman, due to always carrying a bag full of chocolates and sweets wherever he went. Thankfully in Laos a strange man handing out candy to children in the streets does not have the same connotation as it does in the western world. I wonder how long before a child would run screaming "paedophile, paedophile" in the streets of England. A fact I failed to mention to him so can only hope that England is not the next stop on his travels. They both wanted to visit the caves I'd seen yesterday, to which I advised them not to hand over any pens or personal items to the local guides, while I headed further on down the road. If you're looking for something a little more adventurous, and a LOT more dangerous than the Pha Tok caves, then you can always continue walking along the road, through the following village, and turn to see another hidden cave in the moutain before you. Up a sheer incline, with only random branches and twigs to hold onto, it's a long and nervewracking climb to the top. Upon reaching the cave there is a definate sense of achievement, along with a certain amout of fear at finding a huge shed snake skin acting as a deterrent to venturing inside. It still didn't deter! When climbing down from the hidden cave I was spotted by a couple of local school children, and by the time I reached the bottom the entire village had come to see the strange foreign man emerging, dirty and sweaty, from the mysterious cave at the top of the mountain overlooking their home. Not one said a word, they just simply stared in awe and amazement, possibly a little fear, who knows?
Deciding to stay an extra day to visit some of the local riverside villages I once again found myself well off the beaten track. Following the river for a couple of hours I found a small overgrown trail leading off into the mountains and for some reason believed it to be a good idea to follow it. After climbing for nearly an hour and finding myself at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere I suddenly come across a couple of locals carrying large knives and axes. They give me a puzzled look but continue on their way. A little worried I continue walking, only to stumble upon a couple more locals carrying knives. Suddenly I begin to wonder how long I can keep walking before one of these poor and down trodden workers realises how easy it would be to dispatch a foolish tourist, who carries a backpack full of all his valuable belongings, at the top of a mountain, with no other person in a 3km radius. As a result I head back down, a little too quickly perhaps, and stumble headlong into a herd of charging water buffalo. Although fairly friendly in nature, when there's only one small path leading up the hill these enormous beasts don't take much notice of anything standing in their way. Luckily I manage to avoid being thrown from the mountain side and make it down to solid ground.
By now the midday heat is beginning to take its toll and so I head down to the river. Finding a private little pebble beach, with a large island in the middle of the river, I head in to cool off. Not taking much notice of the speed of water rushing past I almost get swept away to Luang Prabang! With the water only waist high, the force of it makes it almost impossible to stand up and I realise that the idyllic spot may not have been so idyllic after all. Due to the large island in the middle of the river narrowing the gap for water to pass, the current gathers force around it and sweeps anything, or anyone, out of its way. I decide a full swim may not be a good idea and settle for wadding with the local fishermen and watching the local children unsuccessfully try to spear fish from some nearby rocks.
After a good few days I head down to the dock and buy a ticket back to Luang Prabang. Lonely Planet describes it as one of the most spectacular boat journeys you can take, and I fully agree. With amazing scenery and a cool river breeze it makes the idea of returning by bus almost non existent.
The trip however was still not without its problems. One notable highlight was when we hit a particularly rough patch of water and got sideswiped by a larger than usual swell, drowning the four elderly people in the front. They were not amused. I on the other hand was highly amused, as was the driver who tried his hardest not to show it. Another interesting part of the journey was when we pulled up at a local village and were told that we would have to walk as the water was too dangerous for us to go by boat. We were then led for 20 minutes through the town by some local children to our waiting boat the other end. Although this was considered too dangerous, the section of river in which we hit the rocks at the bottom, and bounced up and down for a while before coming to a shuddered halt, obviously was not. Now stuck in the middle of the river, with the bottom of our boat wedged between the rocks, it was up to all of us to get out and begin pushing the boat out of the shallow water and back into the deeper river ahead.
Escorting the boat off the rocks
Bus to Nong Khiaw - 35000 Kip
Very basic room in house - 40000 Kip
Bungalow (with hot shower) - 70000 Kip
Pha Tok caves (plus pen stollen by local child) - 5000 Kip
Boat to Luang Prabang - 100000 Kip