Me Tarzan, You Jane

Trip Start Nov 28, 2004
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Trip End Nov 23, 2005


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Friday, July 15, 2005

DARKNESS consumes us. We drift over black water that threatens to swallow us and hide us from life. An impenetrable and unforgiving place we have come to. No one would ever know we are here. Just as the long forgotten light outside has no home here amongst us, and the silent stone around us. Then the darkness wanes once more as we turn on our three small Petzl LED headlamps, our only guides, taking us further into a black hole...

Laos - a land of breathtaking natural beauty, from the lush jungles of the north to the fertile river islands of the south, is a country I fell in love with four years ago. This time I'm with the girl who I fell in love with just a few short months ago. Ayala and I made our way on foot over the quiet Lao - Chinese border, and a smile of relief came to our faces after our bus ride from hell. Cats are not the only ones who have nine lives! The heavy rain storms cleared, and as we made our way to the Lao customs shed, the sun came out, the cicadas sung and hundreds of butterflies danced through the surrounding jungle and welcomed us to a new country. A stark contrast to the buzz of human activity back over the Chinese border we'd now left behind. A short time later, we handed our passports to customs. 'Saba idée' greeted the customs officer, 'welcome to Laos'! The warm nature of the Lao people is immediately contagious, and I found myself on a natural high as we found a ride to the next town.

Maybe I've watched too many Vietnam War movies over the years, but that afternoon, as we rode in the back of a truck along a rough dirt road, Paint it Black by The Rolling Stones played over and over again in my head. Water buffalo ploughed the soils; pickers worked the rice fields, and the basic rawness of what unfolded before us as we drove by memorised me. It was like we had found a land that time had forgot. Perhaps what I saw could have been a wide scene shot from Apocalypse Now. A feeling of energy and excitement returned in me that I had lost somewhere in the chaos of our travels through China.

We spent a few days in Luang Nam Tha, a small and spread out town about 50km's from the border. Heavy rain fell for days, so we spent the time walking from one end of town to the other, ducking undercover when the rain came. We soon became bored. There's only so much you can do when it's pissing down all the time. Now, the one thing that stood out in my mind most about my last visit to Laos was how much of an adventure playground it had been. Jungles hiding secret caves and crystal clear waterfalls...the stuff only kids, and adults, dream about discovering in weird, dream like places. Dr Zuess sort of stuff, you know. So, after immersing ourselves in the cultural sights of China...now it was time to play!

Due to the recent heavy rain, our bus struggled its way through thick mud, passing trucks stuck along the way. One truck had turned on its side and the desponded looking driver sat by the side of the road, poking his fingers into his meal of sticky rice and fish. He looked relaxed though, probably used to getting his truck stuck in the wet season. I wanted to offer him a Beer Lao. Poor bloke. Little did we realise, but I had a feeling, that our bus would end up in the same situation very soon. In usual Lao style, our bus was already way over being late. Earlier that morning, the bus driver had revved the engine then slammed the gear stick into first. The clapped out bus lurched forward...only problem was, the bus shelter was in the way. Slam! The shelter rocked precariously, people dived out of the way and ran every direction, and then the bus came to a grating stand still. The sound made the hairs on the back of my neck stand tall. Fuck. Everyone in the bus stood up slowly and peered out at the bus stand through the swirling dust caused by grinding wood and concrete. It was absolute bedlam. A scene I found myself pissing myself laughing at...a real cowboy outfit trying to run a national bus service. Ayala found it just as funny. I imagined John Clease being amongst the scene, trying to fix the problem like he always tried to in Faulty Towers. Anyway, it all worked out in the end. The beat up bus was working, ready for another furiously fast drive to the next town. The shelter took on a new slant, and the good customers sitting under the bus shelter at the time were all smiles by the time we drove out the parking lot around midday. A few hours later, we too, like the truck we had passed, got stuck in the mud. I think it was inevitable. So, way off schedule, the bus pulled up by the side of the road hours later and we jumped off into the misty dusk of a village somewhere short of where we were supposed to get off. A tuk tuk driver quickly asked us where we were going. We agreed on a price, grabbed some Beer Lao for the ride and made the last leg to Nong Keaw in the company of a friendly German couple going our way. One thing's for sure, Beer Lao tastes great in the humidity.

Ayala had raved about a tiny little river village nestled in the jungle in the North East of Lao called Muang Ngoi. She also said that we would surely find adventures there that we were looking for. Wicked I thought, what are we waiting for. I hate to fuck up a great place by writing about it online, but Muang Ngoi has been in Lonely Planet for a couple of years now. As long as people don't start asking for air-con! So, the next morning we caught a long tail boat up river to Muang Ngoi. We arrived and were greeted by local kids with big grins playing and somersaulting into the river. The cicadas played their usual orchestra from the surrounding jungle, and the whole village looked like it was so close to being consumed by the thick jungle surrounding it. As we trudged up the slippery mud bank to the village, Ayala slipped, went ass over face with her backpack on and landed in the mud. I laughed and received a scolding gaze. Don't try that one at home. Walking down the only street in town, pigs, chickens, bare footed locals and all the usual suspects played their usual village roles. No cars, no motorbikes. Bliss. We found a bungalow by the river and settled in; meeting what seemed like the only other westerners in the village, Joss and Bear, and their huge bag of jungle weed. A father and son team from California, easy going and great fun to hang out with. The four of us soon formed a good friendship. Some of the time was passed playing drinking games over a pack of cards as the rain fell. After a couple of days, the rain stopped, so it was time to do some exploring.

All ready, the four of us grabbed our flashlights, rented some inner tubes from the bungalow owners and took a long tail boat further up river to a small cave entrance. The boat guy dropped us off and threw in a fishing line, looking content to wait for us. He said that there was an underwater river feeding the fresh clear water into the cave complex, and if we were lucky we should be able to swim on the inner tubes a fair way into the cave. He didn't say it in as many words, but that's what we figured by his broken English. We crawled in through the low ceiling entrance to a fair sized chamber, and stood on a small beach with a steep bank descending into a sea of cool black water as far as the eye could see. It was an eerie sight. Huge stalactites hung from the cavern ceiling, dripping mineral rich water into the sea below...hollow echoes breaking the ghostly silence. We wearily slid into the water and headed off further into the cave on our tubes. If you've ever been to a big amusement park and been on a log ride, that's what this ride reminded me of. Excitement at not knowing what was around the next corner. Our head torches cast strange shadows over the cave tunnel as we paddled ever deeper into the mountain. We guessed that we must have swum and paddled at least two kilometers through a series of tunnels before we became too cold to continue. At one point, we stopped on a small beach in a wide, low ceiling room and smoked a big fat joint. I felt like we were pioneers, the first people to have come this far into the tunnels. I still remember that awesome yet unsettling feeling of discovery at having found this incredible place, and no amount of words can truly describe it. Eventually, we turned back and got lost for a while before finding our way out into the bright warm sunshine flickering through the jungle canopy above. The boat guy saw that we were back safely and suggested that we jump in the river and drift back to the village, which we did.

Later that day, Ayala and I had dinner with the fisherman and his family. His simple wood fire deep fried the river fish caught earlier that day in a delicious garlic ginger marinade. Fish heads, guts and all...Lao style. Skewered river shrimp was also served along with a bottle of Lao Lao - the local Lao whiskey. The food was delicious...fish heads and all...but I'll never drink Lao Lao again.

A few days later, we decided to check out another cave and waterfall about an hours walk through the jungle on a small trail. We arrived, again, with our inner tubes and climbed up a rock face, and this time entered a huge cave mouth with a cathedral like roof looming high above. Hundreds of bats flew overhead somewhere in the shadows. The rushing water came towards us in small rapids. There must be another underground river somewhere up ahead and we would have to swim against the flow of water. We weren't sure this time how far the tunnels would take us, but we were keen. I could easily get used to this caving business! So...with a big 'woooohoooo'... we jumped on our tubes and waded further into the cave. I was looking forward to riding the river on the way back, rapids and all. It soon became pitch black again as the outside light faded back at the cave entrance, and we turned on our flashlights. A few hundred metres on, the tunnel narrowed a lot and we barely had enough room to get us and the inner tubes through. Soon, we came to a dead end and a tiny shelf sticking out of the water below us. The tubes were lifted onto the shelf and we climbed up a steep bank and into a void of nothingness. As I rose my torch in front and up, I gasped, along with the others, at the unbelievable sight before us...

We had entered a gigantic 'stadium' (I can't think of a better word to describe the enormity of it). I guessed, after we spent a while climbing around it, that the whole cathedral we were now standing in would have been about the size of Sydney Olympic Stadium. An underground stadium. A dried up waterfall rose up before us, watching guard over what treasure may have been escaping our eyes in the dark recesses. This was something straight out of the Goonies movie...all it needed was a wrecked pirate ship in the middle and a bunch of misfits chasing treasure. There were rocky outcrops rising from the floor, pools of deep water, and tiny tunnels carved out of the walls by years of continuous water flow. The tunnels were dry at the time, so on all fours we crept through one of them, winding our way down and into another huge cavern...this time the cavern that we now had our eyes on was deeper than anything I have ever seen. We couldn't see the bottom. Narrow arms of rock floor acted as a level between us and the cavern bottom, and spanned out like a spiders web to the far reaches of a black oblivion. Silence in an unforgiving place such as this is spine tingling. Mountains have secrets, I swear, secrets hidden in these dark caverns they call home. It was dangerous to try and walk the arms, too slippery and narrow, so we admired the scene before us with mouths far enough open to catch bats, and headed back through the tunnel from where we had entered on all fours.

A long time later, we climbed up the lip and out of the cave entrance, again into the welcoming sunshine and across the small river beside the cave entrance. The river made its way through the deep mountain caves and came out at the entrance, so the water came out crystal clear once the sun hit it. A natural spa had formed just inside another smaller cave entrance, so we sat inside a small alcove, feeling the rush of water come up from underneath. Feeling lazy, we jumped in the river and headed off back downstream to Muang Ngoi, hitting some nice rapids along the way.

As sad as it was, we had to make a move and leave the tranquility of Muang Ngoi to head south to the former French colonial town, Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang sits on an islet dividing the Mekong River. Its buildings a great reminder of past French occupancy. It had changed a fair bit since I was there last, but still had a great charm about it. Joss and Bear were still with us, so the four of us grabbed a tuk tuk and headed for a waterfall an hour or so from town. I had been there before, but the rain back then had washed the waterfall out. This time it was spectacular, and we spent the day swimming and exploring. I stabbed my toe on a stump, so spent about an hour cursing and swearing at it. With a swollen toe, I fell off a part of the waterfall trying to climb into a cave and gave up on any more exploring that day...gravitationally challenged. Those who know me will know what happens when I have too much time on my hands and a pack of Rizla's in my pocket.

And lastly, what would a trip through Laos be like without having your bus break down? So, on the way to Vientiane on our last afternoon in Laos, it happened. But, an hour later, while waiting for repairs and watching a bunch of Lao kids harassing a lizard with a stick by the side of the road, the bus came back to life. The engine revved, diesel fumes belched out, the happy people of Lao rejoiced and we again zoomed our way to the Thai border. After all, all good adventures must come to an end to give us new ones to look for right? But...the memories of the adventures Ayala and I had in Laos will, I hope, help keep me young for the rest of my life!

Cheers
Paul
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