Monday, January 26, 2009

Oh my Buddha

Hi all. Well, first off I’ve extended my trip one week. I would have had to really rush through Laos and there was no way I was ready to leave by the 6th. So I’m now flying back on the 13th. It still doesn’t feel like enough time, but I’m glad I was able to do it.

So the bowling alley was interesting. Luang Prabang is peaceful because they close the bars at 11:30pm. The bowling alley is out of town so they cart all the foreigners out there. It was an interesting scene. Luckily, we ran into the Opera singer from NYC who took us to a disco tech. It’s where the Lao people go. It was great…except it closed after three songs. So we had to go back to the bowling alley. We actually got to bowl and it was a good time. I just found it so funny that no matter where westerners go we need to party, and the locals found a solution to keep us from waking everyone up.

Ashley and I got about 3 hours of sleep that night because we caught an early bus to Phonsavan to see the Plain of Jars. The bus was 8 hours of windy roads, but it was beautiful! We drove along ridge tops winding through little villages perched on the mountains. There were mountains as far as you could see. I think the road was new and I can't imagine doing that drive on dirt roads.
Once in Phonsavan we were bombarded by people selling their guesthouses. One really nice guy drove us into town and showed us a couple places to choose from. Since we split the room and this town was cheaper, we got a really nice place with a hot shower (normally you’re lucky if it’s warm) and a TV. It was luxurious.

The next day we went on a group tour of the Plain of Jars. There are thousands of these 2,500 year old stone jars strew over the landscape. They were once carved for an unknown reason by unknown people. There are many theories such as they were used to make wine or spirits or they were coffins but no one really knows. They were very impressive and eerie.

This area of Laos was also riddled with bombs during the Vietnam war and you could see large craters everywhere (see above photo). We went to the three main sites of the jars, went to a small whisky village where we learned how they make Lao whisky, saw an old Russian tank that’s been striped of usable metal by the people, and got noodle soup in a little village where kids were playing soccer. It was a great day.

When we got back to town we went to the MAG gallery to watch a film on the bombing of Laos. MAG is a worldwide organization that deals with unexploded bombs. There are millions of unexploded bombies (small dispersed bombs air dropped by America) in Laos, killing farmers and children when they come upon them. During the Vietnam War America held an illegal secret war on Laos making it the most bombed country in the world. The damage is horrific and it’s the aftermath of that war that keeps Laos one of the poorest countries in the world. America has never taken responsibility for this. MAG is doing great work trying to rid villages of deadly bombies and needs as much help as they can get. Traveling as an American can make one feel very guilty.

That night we caught the night bus to Vang Vieng where we arrived at 1am. Luckily a tuk tuk took us to town and found a us a room. Vang Vieng is a huge backpacker destination so the first couple places were full. This is a crazy place. It’s full of backpackers because there’s a lot of adventuring around such as climbing, kayaking, caving and tubbing. It’s therefore of course a big party town. We ran into Owain (Wales) and Ashley (Ile of White) and did what everyone does- go tubbing down the river. We knew that there were bars along the river and it involves a lot more drinking than tubbing, but we had no idea. We got dropped off 3km up river where we had a drink before even getting wet. Then as we floated down we saw huge bars crammed with people, the techno music blaring. It was like "spring break". A rope was thrown out to us and we were pulled into the first bar. We ordered a gin and tonic… in a bucket and joined the party in the sun. There was a zip line into the river that we of course had to do. Ashley and I climbed up to the platform and went on the zip line together. At the end of the line was a spring that snapped you back sending you flipping into the water. We planned on letting go before the spring… the nice thing was you didn’t have to let go because the spring hit you so hard you were thrown off, but it also snaps your neck and you land in the water on your head. It was a blast, but my neck is feeling it today. We floated to the next bar where there was a water slide and a fire pit. The water slide was also fun until I hit the water and felt like I got punched in the face. So far I’m not sure their big on safely here ;). We had to get our tubes back by 6pm or else pay more so we hurried down. We’d only gone ¼ of the way and had a long, chilly float. We got our deposits back just in time. On the float we met Bjorn from Norway and he joined us for dinner. We all had big plans to hit one of the many bars, but after eating we were all ready for bed.

Today I tried to sleep in because my tummy felt a little funny. I’ve been lucky not to get sick so far and didn’t want that luck to end. Waking up to the view of big karst mountains over the river wasn’t so bad.

Bjorn, Owain, Ashley and I then met at noon to rent motorbikes and drive around (sorry parentals). We got two bikes (4 helmets) and set out to look for caves. The bikes were fun and I was relieved that Bjorn knew what how to drive a manual. Ashley and Owain:

We went 20 or 30 km and found a dirt road to the river. We had to pay to park, pay to cross the bamboo bridge and pay to enter the cave, but we went for it. We started down the trail into the dried rice patties and would have gone the wrong way if it weren’t for three little boys leading us. We weren’t sure where they were leading us, but followed anyway. We followed through rice fields under the rising peaks to what looked like a small cave. Right inside was a large Buddha.
Thinking that was it, I walked further in to the cave and got out my headlamp. Turns out it kept going. Our little guide was still in front of us so we followed for what seemed like forever. The cave was beautiful. The cavern was pretty big most of the time with a couple spots where you had to crawl through. There were beautiful sparkly stalagmites and stalagtites and rounded river rocks that show that in the wet season a river runs through. We must have gone at least a mile in when we heard water. We got to the river and waded as far as we could (it reminded me of Fern Gully). Our journey ended when we reached a deep pool and our guide stopped. So naturally we went swimming. A mile deep in a cave! It was incredible! The water was perfect and we were hot with sweat after the clammy walk. It was hard to tell how deep parts were and I scraped my toe on a sharp rock. I swam with my headlamp on to the next pool and it looked like the cave continued on. It would have been fun to keep going and see the end (or start). The swim was perfect and we all turned out our lamps for second and sat in total darkness. We definitely didn’t expect this much of an adventure and it was awesome.

We hiked out and wanted to give our little guide a tip. When we offered it to him he wanted more. He’d never told us it would cost anything and we never asked for the help. It’s frustrating to feel like he deserved a good tip, but to also feel cheated into something we didn’t ask for (a feeling I have a lot here). It worked out though and we headed back to the river for lunch. Then I learned to drive the motorbike. It was tricky to figure out the gears and the hardest part was stopping. The breaks were weak so down shifting was your better bet. I practiced on the dirt road for a bit and managed to only run into the bushes once. Bjorn was terrified to get on with me, but I did just fine. It was fun- even when I had to honk at the cows to get out of my way and maneuver through them. We biked for a little longer and then headed back for a beer. We laid on cushions at a deck restaurant by the river and watched the sunset. It was a great day. Tomorrow I’m going climbing! Cheers.

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