Too old for backpacking in Laos?

Trip Start Oct 20, 2010
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13
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Trip End Feb 07, 2011


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Champasak,
Thursday, December 16, 2010

After two days of orchid trekking, some backpackers recommended that we take a 7.2 km kayaking tour through the famous Kalgore Cave. Green Discovery sent along Puk as our guide for this 3 day biking, trekking and kayaking adventure tour.   We started with a 5 hour long ride on the local bus from Vientiane to Thakhek.  We should have known what is coming up when the bus driver lighted a burning incense on the front bumper of the bus before we even left the station.  This bus was for both passengers and cargos.  Not only they piled stuff (including our bikes) high on top of the bus but tthey also cramped big bags of tapiocas under our feet and in the aisles.  The minute the bus left the station, they turned on loud Lao music.  Within a few minutes the bus stopped and a mob of people came on the bus to sell sandwiches, water, fruits, grill meats, gum and whatever you can imaging.   One of the big complaints about Laos bus is that they stop along the ways to pick up more passengers and you never can be sure when you will arrive your destination. 3 hours into the trip, the bus stopped for bathroom break by a grove of bamboos.  Men stands outside and women went inside the groove a little deeper to relieve themselves.  We finally got into the mountain ranges and the karsts mountain is as pretty as the ones in Guilin and Stone Forest in China.  When the bus going around a tight turn,  the assistant will run outside to place incense in front of the stone to pray for safety.  It must work because we made it to our destination in one piece.

We found out that we were the only people in the guest house.  The weather turned cold and windy and for the first time on this SE trip, we were freezing cold.   Some hot tea helped to thaw us out but we were not interested in doing much in this weather.  We tried for a short bike ride in a nearby park. Since I had never rode mountain bike over big rocks before, I had a hard time handling the bike. We ended up leaving the bikes along the path and walked the 2 km toward the waterfall. This  was a forest with some really big trees not at all like the orchid trail.  The last 1 km was straight up.  After we went for about 500 m and it got really dark and started raining.  I decided that I was not really interested in seeing another waterfall anyway and we turned around to go back.  I felt down twice in the dim light but luckily was not hurt.  We came back to the guest home and tried to keep warm and ignore the hollering wind outside.

The weather improved on 2nd day and we were ready for the 50 km bike ride before getting to Kalgore Cave.  The road was nice, flat , straight and no traffic.  I rode for 25 km and took the rest of the way inside the support truck.  Ray sped down the road and impressed the truck driver with his energy.  Puk brought two plastic kayak and pull them through the cave by long tail boat. We would paddle them downstream on the way back.  The entrance to the cave is beautiful but riding in a boat in a pitch black dark long cave with only a few miner's lights showing where we were going was quite an experience.  We stopped for a short walk to see the stalagmite and stalactites inside the cave. The village where we would be staying for the night was 2 km from the exit of the cave.  We rode on a long arm farm tractor to get there. Some locals huddle over a fire and made conversation with gestures to Ray.  Most villagers were out working in the tobacco farm and only older people and children were around.  Puk took us into an empty house and told us to make ourselves home.  He carried water from the well and started a fire to cook our dinner.  This village is quite remote from town and relatively poor.  People moved into this region many years ago to avoid wars.  Although there is another road, villagers prefer to drive through the cave because it is shorter and faster to reach outside.  Puk brought everything he needed to make our dinner but the cooking process was slow because the only light he had in the kitchen was the minor’s headlight.  The father and daughters came home from the field and were surprised by the invasion of strangers.  They graciously took us in and set up our sleeping quarter with mosquito nets and curtains made of beautiful sarongs.  Puk’s village friend came over with a rooster and a jar of homemade rice wine.  The jar is full of sweet rice, husks and yeast and had been fermented for 2 weeks.  They poked two bamboo straws in it.  One person pours water into the jag while other pople sucked the wine through the straws.  It tasted a little stronger than ordinary rice wine but veery smooth. Ray liked it very much and even I liked it and took several sips.   Everybody now regrouped into kitchen and the rooster was butchered and boiled in a pot.  They severed the chicken entrails but reserved the whole chicken for the Baci ceremony for tomorrow morning.

We were up at 5 am to walk around the village.  This is a pretty good size village with a new temple and a relative new school. Our host father performed a Baci ceremony to bless us before we leave.  This one is simpler than the one we had on Don Khone Island.  It doesn’t have the fancy flowers arrangement but the basic was the same and we added more friendship cotton threads on our wrists

We went back to the river and started kayaking through the cave.  Puk and I took one boat and Ray and the driver the other.  A long tail boat followed us with our luggage. Puk gave each of us this clumsy minors battery operated head light.  It was very heavy but we needed the light for kayaking inside the cave.  There is one rapid immediately after entering the cave, Puk tried to run it but veered too close to the big rock and we tipped over and went into the water.  Luckily the water was not very cold but I was totally wet (luckier yet becasue Ray told me not to carry my iphone).  Ray and the driver learn from our mistake and  walked on the rock and let the kayak runs pass by itself. Kayaking inside a cave is totally different than floating in Missouri rivers.   Since we can’t see the flow of water, we couldn’t  judge where the water is deep and where is shallow.  I figured Puk knows the way so I let him paddle and hope we don’t run into any more rocks in the dark.  Ray’s head light went out and he was angry with such lousy equipment.  We went for another 2 hours and reached another rapid near the end.  This time Puk didn’t take any chance and put Ray and I in the long tail boat and he and the driver paddled the boats out.   

On our way back to guest house, John, an American from Tampa, Florida, came and asked for a ride into town.  He is a retired teacher and backpacking by himself through SE Asia.  John is the first American backpacker we met on this trip.  He rode with us to the junction where he can catch a bus to Thakke and plan to stay another month or so in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Australia before returning home in March.  We agreed that very few Americans like traveling by themselves without the security and convenience of a tour group.

Our next stop is Luang Prabang.  We took a VIP bus this time which is more expensive but more comfortable than local buses.  Almost all the passengers were wimpy foreigners like us.  By this time I had enough adventures with mountain biking so we changed our biking tour through Laos ethnic villages to riding inside a van.  Luang Probang is quite different from the rest of Laos, it is full of restaurants, café that catering to tourists.  I think there are more tourists than locals in this town.  There is also a night market selling the special Hmong quilts and embroidery items.  We went with tour guide Joey to visits nearby villages including his own Hmong village way on top of the mountain.  Hmong people originally came from China and was forced by wars into high mountains. They got involved with CIA during Vietnam War and was persecuted mercilessly by North Vietnam.  Over 60,000 of them immigrated to USA (mostly settled in Minnesota and California) and that was where I first saw their intricate style of "cloud" or “elephant foot” type of curve embroidery and quilting.  Joey told us that Laos’ government cracked down on poppies planting in the 1990s and most of the Hmong villages moved to lowland.  His village is the only one left on top of the mountain.  We visited his aunt’s house which is a very simple box building without any windows.  Most of the villagers activities were done outdoors.  I saw several ladies working on the Hmong quilt blocks and they let me tried my hands on it.  All I can say is that it requires good eye sights, steady hands and lots, lots of patients. This area probably has the best prices for Hmong quilts and I bought two of them at the night markets. 

We took another long 10 hour ride in a crowded van to Luang Namtha.  This is the last Laos city we stayed before crossing over to Yunnan, China.  Laos is indeed a beautiful country but is more suited to young backpackers who are seeking adventures.  For “senior” folks like us who preferred “softer” bus seats, we needed to travel in more conventional way.  What a awaking call to find out that I am too old for backpacking in Laos!
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