Saturday, August 27, 2011

Between Holidays...

December 27-29, 2009

...awoke to the sound of pre-dawn roosters. One of them had a crow so bad that it kept Miki and I in bed, giggling. We rented bicycles and peddled around looking for other, less ramshackle places to stay. One of these, Mayly guesthouse, was highly touted but slightly past its prime. For some reason, the owner began to discuss with me his plans of expansion, but he sounded a bit weary from the uphill struggle, worn down by his own pessimism. Where a few years ago he'd been the only guesthouse on the far side of the river, now he was surrounded. Vang Vieng was on the grow, and as such, it was a very noisy place. Night was accompanied by the thud of bass, day was the sound of hammer and saw. For every existing guesthouse, two more seemed to be going up.

Five minutes on the road out of town, I got a flat. This was followed by an hour walk back to town with the bike on my shoulder. The woman at the shop would do nothing for me, so I walked away angrily after an uncharacteristic show of temper. I am usually very patient in times like these, but have grown weary with kind people who have sold their humanity for tourist dollars. More than this, I hate myself for my anger.

The new bike, from a different shop, handled the bad roads well. It took us through rice fields and jungle, past lazily grazing cows, and under high karst mountains. It also took us through a series of small villages newly created to house the resettled Hmong. In one, we caught a glimpse of some ceremony: two lines of Hmong girls in traditional dress tossing a ball back and forth. (I later found that this was practice for a courtship ritual.

We reached Blue Lagoon cave soon after. A boy took us up a steep climb over sharp, triangular rocks. The cave itself was a mere gash in the cliff face. Inside was a tight maze of narrow openings and a slippery, knife edge ridge above a chasm of imperceivable depth. It truly was dangerous going. The boys would stop sometimes and point their torches up at a heap of rock and say something in Lao. One boy ran his hand along a stalactite: instant xylophone. Back outside, we sat and drank water, our bodies and knapsacks streaked with mud. I found it strange that we hadn't seen anything that the guidebook had promised: no lagoon, no Buddha, and no Brooke Shields.

We cleaned off in a stream down on the valley floor, beside a boy spearing small fish with a small gun. Downstream, we had lunch on a deck overlooking a bamboo bridge, kids swimming and bathing below. One kid was handicapped, pushing himself along on a makeshift walker. His granny squatted, doing laundry at the water's edge, suddenly angry at a 4WD that created waves as it made the crossing. When we paid for lunch, we only had bills of a large denomination (worth $6 dollars US), which the owners couldn't break. The husband went somewhere for about 5 minutes, then returned, handing the bill to a girl, who probably would've biked off somewhere to change it, leaving us waiting further. Never in a hurry, the Lao.

We pedaled out along the dusty roads, under a sun now hot. There were plenty of villages out here, plus one 'town,' which housed a college composed of a few concrete buildings around a large, overgrown athletic field. It was around here, at a T-junction, that we found a good-natured Frenchman astride a dirt bike, looking at his map. He'd rented the bike 21 days before and had been riding around the country. He pointed us down the right direction. We ran into him later at a river crossing, the 3rd crossing of the day. We'd twice had to pay for the privilege, to nearly identical women sleeping in nearly identical huts beside a barricaded bridge. (Near the first, two girls riding a motorbike had fallen sideways into the river from the bank.) The Frenchman had told us that we'd mistakenly come along the southern road, and were now looping back. Which explained all the foreigners we'd passed coming the other way. It also explained why we'd had such a hard time following the map we'd gotten at the bike shop. This turned out to be lucky after all, as the northern road was fairly shady, cutting back some of the afternoon sun's bluster. Water buffalo had their own solution: bathing in the river, burying themselves in mud. In this they proved smarter than the red-faced tourists on bicycles.

Back in town, we rehydrated at Vang Vieng resort, then rode across the bridge to Tham Jang cave. We arrived at 4:20, 10 minutes before closing, but the gatekeeper wouldn't let us in. I tried reason, I tried pleading. I even pointed at the monk seated nearby and said, "Show some of his compassion." He didn't budge, despite there still being at least 20 people lingering up at the cave entrance. "You are a bad man!," I yelled in his face, showing anger for the second time that day. What had compounded my anger was the fact that, 15 minutes before, I'd realized that what we'd thought was the Blue Lagoon cave was a different cave deliberately mislabeled in order to dupe tourists. I wasn't liking the people of Vang Vieng at the moment. But our friend here wasn't so much greedy as lazy, and at 4:30 on the dot, he mounted his bike and rode away, passing a German in a small swimsuit who was swimming into the lower reaches of the cave, breaststroking like a big fat frog. Five minutes after the gatekeeper left, Miki and I hopped the fence and climbed the steep steps. We weren't able to enter, barred by a heavy gate now locked. As we looked out over the river, I wondered if I wasn't a bad man too.

In town, we looked for a place to enjoy the sunset. For all the building, very few riverfront cafes or hotels had seating that faced the million-dollar scenery to the west. We eventually found one, but the mozzies soon drove us off. So we walked the town. The video in one cafe was playing "Friends," (and would be every time I walked by). Another cafe had the sign, "No Friends." Two other cafes were partial to "Family Guy." A different cafe had the sign, "Give Pizza a Chance." Many other signs had bizarre English with nospacingbetweenwords. Down on the island, the coming of night brought mayhem. Many of the bars had their names spelled out in Xmas lights, music pumping competitively, the alcohol reached only by crossing haphazard bridges. (There was a charming transcendent nature to it all.) This, along with the chubby, half-naked drunks strolling around really made me dislike the frat party that is Vang Vieng. Twenty years before, I'd probably have loved it, but now, for me, "party" is no longer a verb.

We finally sat to eat at the Organic Cafe, but found both the men and the food wanting. As we ate, a truck kept circling the block, the people in back holding up a trophy and singing...

...Miki had a fever last night, so we had a mellow day of resting and reading. We spent most of the morning at Luang Prabang bakery, then separated. I watched monklets beg at the Irish Pub where I ate Steak and Ale pie. We spent the rest of the day beside the river on the island, lazing on one of the covered bamboo bungalows. Later, roti pizza from a street vendor.... the morning, we rode out to some caves in the back of a truck. Our guide was a jolly Lao named Boum, whose girth gave me confidence in the fact that, if he could negotiate the narrow passages of a cave, I certainly could. It turned out not to be necessary, a world away from the ridiculous danger of a couple days back. The first cave was a series of interconnected chambers; the second a long tube. Coming out of the latter, we saw hundreds of dead bees on the trail. The caretaker of the cave was nearby, preparing to roast the honeycomb. A few days ago, no one had been able to enter the cave due to the bees, but I doubt the genocidal solution was done out of concern for the tourists as much as a means to have a tasty snack.

We rejoined the rest of our group at the Water cave. The highlight here was pulling yourself through while sitting in an inner tube. Some of our group stayed inside to swim, but I'd had enough of the cold water and had come out early. After lunch beside the stream, we walked through a couple Hmong villages. The poverty was pretty severe, especially when compared to the Lao of Vang Vieng town. The low-riding pigs and chickens weren't food but commodities to be sold if money was needed for medicine,. etc.

The rest of the day was the highlight for me, the kayaking. I wound up with a boat to myself. Before leaving, the guide had shoved some weeds in a round slot in the aft. Assuming it was some superstition, I asked him about it, to be told, "Keeps the water out." It was bliss to work my way slowly down river, beneath high karst walls. Villages came up, and their villagers -- fishing, bathing. Two children led a herd of buffs across the river. A granny and child on the bank, silhouetted against the sky. Further down river were people tubing, looking drunk, cold, and bored. They were passed by the long-tailed boats ferrying Asian tourists up river. Most bizarre were the bars. You'd hear them before you saw them, the music booming along the water. Then the structures would loom up, rickety and precarious and teeming with partiers, who'd dive off the platforms or were swinging out over the river on zip lines. It all reminded me of the night scene in Apocalypse Now when Willard's team drifts up to a stream of lights hanging across the Mekong, distorted music rising above all. We took a break at an empty platform further on, to sit in the sun and swim. I took my turn on the zipline. Two moments took guts: letting your feet leave the platform, and letting go of the trapeze bar.

Had dinner back in town, sharing a table with a half-dozen Vietnamese backpackers. Funny that my memories of Vietnam 12 years before was of a country not unlike Laos today. And now the Vietnamese are backpacking. The meal, and the day, was soured a great deal by the waiter, who was as surly as he was incompetent. He got 2 of our 3 items wrong, and forgot the other one altogether. When it came time to pay, he couldn't remember what we'd ordered. We were complicit in our own poor memories. A fitting, and metaphoric, end for our lukewarm relationship with Vang Vieng...

On the turntable: "Suzanne Vega"
On the nighttable: D.H. Thomas, "The Southwestern Indian Detours"

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