Caving in Vang Vieng

19 02 2015

The Midwest is frozen. With highs in the single digits around here this week, another massive snowfall is slated to fall this weekend. February may be waning, but winter is still going full force.

It’s this time of year that I relish in warm memories to keep me sane.

Winter is also the time of year when I get caught up on all of my indoor hobbies, like sewing or collaging photos in my collection of photo albums. Recently, I was donning my double-sided tape and glitter pens, as I finally placed my photos from Laos. It was 2012 when we were there on our true, month-long ‘Honey-Moon,’ and I made enough memories to last me a lifetime.

546778_411245945624702_1231613780_nVang Vieng

Halfway between the bustling capital city of Vientienne, and the French-influenced Luang Prabang, sits a small town of Vang Vieng. Nestled between steep mountains, this village has one way in and one way out, along a winding, 2-lane road that they like to call ‘paved.’ We arrived on a 10-person minibus (a van whose driver clearly wanted to make it round trip and home in time for dinner). We stopped at a small guest house with an open courtyard ringed with individual buildings for the rooms. Our new German friends, who we met in Thailand, ended up staying at the same place as us, so we dropped off our packs and walked to town together for dinner as the sun was already setting behind the mountain.

The town center is actually pretty developed, with a jarring contrast of bars and restaurants each blaring bad dance music and selling cheap plastic souvenirs targeted at 20-something college students from Australia and Europe. Even when we found a place to eat that was geared towards a more mature crowd, we could still hear the music thumping from the place next door, whose storefront was completely open to the street. As we ate, we read more in our guidebooks and travel apps about this place.

Apparently, when the borders opened to Laos, this sleepy village became a prime destination because of it’s amazing mountains and the lazy river that flows through. Things quickly escalated, as young people flocked here to get drunk on an inner-tube or go rock climbing. Alcohol abuse and drug use were quickly running rampant, and several tourist deaths were starting to become normal. The government quickly shifted gears, to try to market it differently- no longer as a party town for rich foreigners. The excessive drug and alcohol use has tapered off, but the remaining business owners seem to be confused about who they are selling to, now that more nature lovers are coming here.

vientienne siem reap 457The next morning, we slept in- a treat for me, since I usually wake up with the sun no matter what time zone I’m in. The steep height of the neighboring cliffs kept our room in a pool of shadows until late morning, and we were enjoying the leisurely pace of things here. Our new travel companions, Timo and Inez, came here to climb, so they set about their day renting ropes and gear. We knew about some caves nearby, and were looking forward to the free bike rental that came with our room. We ate breakfast outside (also included in our $18/night room), under the shady canopy of the main common space, where Laos soap operas played on a television mounted to the wall behind the bar. While we ate, our host had her husband pull out a couple of bikes for us to use. They were single speed cruisers… with baskets. Ohhhh, yeah. I asked about bike locks and they smiled, “You no need here.”

Searching for Darkness

It’s pretty difficult to get lost in Vang Vieng, with the mountains framing your horizon, and just a few dirt roads peeling off from the main road. I had written down directions to the first cave, but we had to rely on the infrequently posted, hand painted (and often peeling) signs to show us our turnoff. Bethany and I proceeded to pedal down the main road, where trucks and cars swooped into the oncoming lane to give us plenty of room. I thought it would be scary to bike on this main road, but, unlike in the U.S., biking is the most common form of transportation here, so those with automobiles were incredibly respectful and cautious of people on bikes. We set off, the warm sunshine shining on our backs. I tried to take pictures with my phone as I cycled, and we had to stop a couple times due to livestock in the road. It felt like we had been biking a while- longer than I expected- when we finally looked back and saw a sign that said “Vang Vieng 20 km.” That’s when Bethany looked at me and said, “I told you I thought we missed our turn.”

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We turned our bicycles around and started peddling back toward town. From the opposite direction, we saw a sign for a different cave, and decided to try that out. We pedaled down a dirt road for a mile or two, and came to a parking lot with a few tour buses haphazardly parked. We rushed ahead of the group and crossed a small bamboo bridge. We followed the wooden signs until we saw the cave. It held a large, 17 foot long reclining Buddha, and there was a large island in the middle where people could choose a fortune reading. We removed our shoes, I wrapped my exposed shoulders in a sarong, and we entered. We watched as Laotian people pulled one, read it aloud, and gleamed with joy. We wanted to understand, but we barely spoke enough Laos to get by. Thankfully, as we were lingering and about to leave, someone who spoke English asked us if we wanted them to read ours to us. I grabbed the cup, shook out my fortune, and handed it to the kind stranger. We struggled in broken, woven languages, and smiled at the fortune, though not really sure what we had just been told.

vientienne siem reap 329We took a few photos of the cavern and the sculptures, then turned to leave. There was another cave, a real cave, down another path, so we followed those signs. We grabbed our bikes and walked for a while, then got back on and road over the bumpy, winding dirt path. We enjoyed the quiet, meandering through a sparsely treed area, with the massive rock looming before us, guiding the way. Eventually, we got close to the base of the rock, and then saw a small shade structure with a few teenagers hanging out, blaring loud music from a boombox. They explained to us that we must pay the equivalent of $0.50, which was what we had read ahead of time. Then they loaned us a cheap headlamp, and pointed us to the entrance of the cave. Bethany tried to say she would pay them double to turn off the music so we could enter this sacred place in peace, and eventually they did turn it off for us. We looked at the headlamps they gave us and tried them on. Thankfully, we had our own, much brighter headlamps with us.

We walked up to the face of the cliff, the opening was obvious, but there was no actual sign. We ducked slightly to walk into the opening, and were faced with nothing but darkness. We saw glimmers of gold reflecting back at us, and turned on our lights. Before us was a large seated Buddha, barely illuminated by the sliver of daylight shining in. We admired the statue, which was again quite large. Then we turned our heads to the left and saw only endless blackness. “I guess the cave continues,” I stated. We walked on, exploring stalagmites and stalactites. We stepped through narrow passages, and heard the sound of distant water rushing. We paused, unsure of whether it was safe to continue.

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The sound of water quickly grew louder as we pressed on into the darkness. It was odd, to get so far into a cave, and to be utterly alone. I’ve been on cave tours before, in Kentucky or Indiana, but never once had I been simply pointed towards a cave without a guide. I verbalized the natural fear that crept into my head, “you know, if something happened to us in here, nobody would ever know where to look for us.” We recognized the risk, and decided to just go a little further. We’d been exploring for about 45 minutes, and  we had no idea how far this cave actually went.

We stumbled upon the source of the water sound. A small stream crossed the floor of the cave, then sharply turned and disappeared into a hole in the wall to our right. I tried to shine my light inside the hole to see where it went, but all I could tell was that the echoes implied a very steep fall downward. At that point, we realized that we had NO idea how far up, or down, this cave had already taken us. After about an hour, we decided to head back.

Emerging from that mountain was surreal. We left the dank, dark, isolation and were plunged back into the lush, forested meadow.The teenagers had turned their music back on, we handed back the lights we didn’t use, and counted our blessings that nothing unexpected had occurred in there.

There were 4 more caves on our hand drawn map.

The sun was still up, as it was only just after noon, so we mounted our bikes, and off we went. We decided to intentionally get lost. There was a split in the path, and we had no idea where it might lead us, but with the mountain on our right, we felt safe in our adventure. We bicycled through a tiny cluster of houses made from thatch and bamboo, along an irrigation canal, past farm fields growing rice. We saw cows and chickens roaming freely, and waved back at the small children who seemed so excited to see us rolling past their homes.

We had no clue where we were headed, and, frankly, we didn’t care. It was so freeing to feel unrestrained by roads, or signs, or rules. We just were pedaling in the sun, and smiling. Eventually, we did see another hand-painted sign for a cave, so we followed it back to another remote area. We paid our admission fee to the elderly woman standing near the entrance, and she smiled profusely at us, possibly the only visitors she’s had all day. We didn’t see another white skinned person the whole time we were back there, away from the main road. It felt like this place was here just for us to see and appreciate the hidden treasures that the denizens of Vang Vieng were keeping.

We saw two more caves that afternoon. Each was equally desolate. They required climbing down on progressively questionable handmade ladders, branches strung together with twine. Some were slippery with damp condensation from the cave below. Never once did we see another soul. The caves were remarkable, each with different formations. Some were chilly; some felt warm and humid. We became comfortable navigating the dimly lit darkness by ourselves, holding hands, and only able to tell when the other was smiling by the sound of our lips squeaking against our teeth.

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We paused in every cave, to take a few minutes to sit still in the absolute darkness. I could hear my breath echo as I strained to listen to the silence. It was utterly beautiful. Nothing can describe what it feels like to be there, surrounded by thousands of pounds of solid rock, not a sound to be heard except the infrequent drip of a stalactite, and the heartbeat of my love.
vientienne siem reap 427When we bicycled home that afternoon, the valley was already in the shadow of those magnificent formations. My heart felt so full, I was grinning like a schoolgirl in love. And… I was.

Despite the misfortunate beginnings of tourism in this area, it is a nature lover’s paradise. Quiet, stunning, peaceful, and I’d go back in a heartbeat for a full month of exploring.

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Lost in the Canyon

15 11 2014

kb leaving mooneyAfter scaling a cliff to get down to the bottom of Mooney Falls, I was pretty sure that the worst was over, but unsure of what lie ahead. Our path out to Beaver Falls- the fourth and final of the named falls in the canyon- began by simply sloshing through the river. We had been warned that the mileage marked on the maps was way off, but we felt like we still had plenty of energy left to explore more.

Within minutes of leaving the roar of Mooney Falls, I could hear other sounds again, and realized that we were not far behind another group of adventurous hikers. Two young couples appeared to be in their twenties; the women hiking in shorts and swim tops, while the guys hiked shirtless, but wearing backpacks. They came into view as the ground heaved upward and slowed their pace, our shared path blocked by a massive drop. I heard them murmuring as they figured out how to climb over, and the guys went first, rather easily. The second guy paused when he realized that his girlfriend’s legs were too short to jump down the steep drop on the other side. He grabbed her from below and hoisted her down safely, doing the same for the second woman, and then he looked back at me, paused, and asked me if I needed help. I politely declined. I figured that if we couldn’t get down on our own, we sure as hell were not likely to get back UP without anyone else around, and I wanted to be sure that we were not making a mistake by continuing.

It took me a couple minutes to figure out my approach, after a couple of failed attempts to climb down. We were about 7 feet up on the boulder, but that wasn’t the scary part. The landing pad was a narrow ledge, just a few feet wide, and if I missed my target, I would be falling another 20 feet to the river floor below. I would have to duck under another rock outcropping as I jumped down, making it particularly awkward and difficult. There was no easy handle to grab onto, and no way to slowly climb down. I just had to lower my body as far as I could from the top, then jump. Bethany froze behind me, watching me calculate my mental math. She was terrified that I was going to fall to my death, and began stammering and questioning if we should turn back.

As I blindly poked my hiking stick below me to assist myself, my feet failed to find anything but sheer vertical wall. I craned my neck to get one last look at where I was about to jump to, and let go. My heart racing, I landed safely with a soft thud, and immediately backed away from the close edge. I tried to play it cool to calm Bethany’s nerves. She was noticeably frightened, though relieved that I was safe. Now the fear shifted to her own safety. She was realizing that she could not make the same leap, with an extra 6 inches to make up for her height. “It’s okay,” I cooed, “I’m going to grab you by your legs and lower you down slowly.” She got more agitated, and at first I was a little offended. “Trust me,” I responded to her expression. She explained that her fear was in response to a vision of me trying to help her down, losing my footing, and sliding off the perilous ledge.

After everything we had already been through to get here, I was not willing to give up. It took a few more minutes of coaxing, but we did eventually get Bethany safely down, where we paused for a minute to embrace. We were in the good reality, but these ‘adventures’ in hiking were starting to exhaust our nerves! We are both stubborn and logical. We may never come back to this remote village again, we were sure, so this was our one chance to see what most visitors do not. We trekked on.

hike mossAhead, our path was much easier. We strode through low growth along a dirt path, discovering countless tiny waterfalls, all different and unique. One was made from a ball of stone, as big as a Geo Metro, which had been sown with a vast array of colorful, delicate mosses. A stream of water poured over the ball evenly, trickling across the surface until the last curve turned under, and the water could no longer cling to the moss, falling gently below. It sparkled with  thousands of tiny droplets, in a hundred tiny, waterfalls, each a single stream wide.

We waded in and out of the river, crossing whenever the trail turned to cliff. It went on and on, through a lush green field strangely devoid of trees, and over rocky outcroppings that capped each end. There were no signs. No arrows. The skin on my achilles began to chafe as the wet-dry-wet mileage took its toll. We began to wonder if we would make it. How far had we gone? Did we miss Beaver Falls? There were so many falls, after all.

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We were grateful for the occasional hiker who passed by, so we could track our progress. I began to wonder if we should turn back, knowing the trail home meant scaling up that enormous cliff by Mooney Falls. Daylight was already starting to wane in the valley.

Finally, after what felt like hours of hiking in and around the river… we found it! The increasing roar of water was met with echoing sounds of laughter. Our bodies slumped with relief, as we approached our final descent.

b beaver fallsBeaver Falls is made of three tiers of falls, each between 10-20 feet tall. We had also been told of a secret “green room” that you can swim to if you are brave enough to swim under the rock wall at the base of the middle tier. By the time we got there, my sense of mortality was pretty ripe, and I had zero interest in testing my luck searching for underwater treasures. Bethany’s feet were throbbing, so she had no more ladders in her. She stayed at the top level, soothing her weary feet in a cold, shallow pool.

kelly beaver falls 1I couldn’t not go further. I left my bag with Bethany, and walked ahead towards the ladder. I walked across wooden rungs to the edge of the water, then climbed down another set of ladders. There was space to sit on a rock ledge alongside the center pool. It was the most lavish, decadent spa-like setting I have ever been in. I removed my shorts and set them on the rocks next to someone else’s bag. I stepped into the water. It was cold… refreshing… invigorating! It got deep quick, and I plunged my whole head under water, then swam towards the base of the falls. No matter how hard I tried, I could not reach the falls, forced back toward the edge of the lower falls.

For a split second, I feared that I would be pushed over the edge, down a 20 foot drop to the lower pool. Then I remembered the natural lip formation that protected me, creating the incredible depth to the pool. The calcium in the water had created a built-up rim, like the edge of a tub. It was many inches thick, and I watched the water flowing just over the top of it.

I sat there, arms resting on the calcium ridge, leaning over the waterfall cliff, surrounded by rushing liquid, marveling at the beauty all around me. I felt like a pearl in a clam. I was literally sitting at the precipice of Beaver Falls, with a 20 foot fall directly below me, and a 12 foot cascade behind me. The water roared with so much white noise that I could close my eyes and pretend that nobody else was there. It was just me, and the river. It was magical.

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I wished that we had another day, so that I could have stayed here and watched the moonlight glistening off the water. I didn’t want to go back. My feet were tired, and I could feel the blisters that needed attending to, but as long as I stayed in the water, nothing hurt me. However, Bethany was not there by my side, and I knew that she was waiting for me. Our hike back would surely take longer, now that we were sore and damaged.

We said goodbye to the falls, and headed up canyon. The scenery had completely changed, as midday fell to dusk. I no longer stopped to take photographs at every bend, as I began to worry about daylight. I took pictures with my mind. My tired, achy mind. We stopped only to add bandages to our feet, and to engulf chia bars for the energy to make it back. The last few miles between Beaver Falls and Mooney Falls felt like an eternity.

IMG_6374Bethany’s pace was much slower than mine, and I had to stop every 15-20 minutes so as not to lose sight of her. We tried to follow our route back, but ended up in unfamiliar areas. At one point, we had come up through the river, but went back over the cliff. I found myself at the bottom, questioning which way to go, as my feet hit water again. I looked back up, waiting for Bethany to crest the top, to see if she wanted to try another route. I thought she was just 20 feet behind me, and should be there any second. While I waited, I waded out into the water to look upstream and downstream, to assess how deep it got. I went back to the shore. Still no Bethany. I began to get worried, but it was a steep climb back up to where I had come from, and I didn’t have the strength to do it twice right now. Had I missed her? Did she keep going while I was wading in the river? I called out her name, but got no reply.

I looked up at the cliffs, which had grown a dark shade of crimson with the evening shade. I began to worry. I waded back out into the water, shouting her name, both upstream and downstream. Because of the constant sound of the river flowing, I could not hear anything. I didn’t know what to do. Should I keep going? Backtrack? What if she went a different way and was heading back without me? There was no cell phone reception in the canyon, and no way to know how to locate her. I began to panic.

I screamed Bethany’s name again, and heard a faint, distant whistle. Thank goodness her pack had a plastic safety whistle built into the clasp! I splashed through the river bed, certain that if she could see the water, this was her best chance of finding me. There she was, about 60 feet ahead, up on a cliff, with no path down. We shouted over the roaring water to figure out who should stay and who should move. When I finally got to her, I was furious, and relieved. “If she had lost me, I would have never forgiven her,” my cranky logic concluded. My fear manifested as anger, and it took me several minutes to calm myself down. “She is safe. It’s all okay. We are in the good reality,” I told myself.

We hiked on in silence. Partly due to frustration, partly due to exhaustion. The climb back up to the top of Mooney Falls was easier than the climb down. We barely stopped for anything, we were so ready to be done. I was sad that we were already at the end of our day, and she never even got to see Havasu Falls, which I had enjoyed the night before.

Despite her exhaustion and pain, I convinced Bethany to just hike down to the bottom of Havasu Falls with me for a minute, so she could at least say she was there. She watched as I swam in the pool, the water now a shadowy blue. It was chilly without the sun, but still felt amazing. Bethany said she was heading back, but told me to stay as long as I wanted. I wished she would stay with me, but I understood her needs were different than mine.
IMG_6238After she left, I was all alone. I was surprised that nobody else was here to enjoy this time with the falls. The cliffs around me were all dark, though the sky above was still a soft blue. I stared at the waterfall, mesmerized. My eyes would catch a pocket of water as it leaped over the top, following it all the way down until it plummeted into the pool below. I could have watched water falling for hours. I breathed deep, aware of the smile on my face that seemed to exist without any effort. I closed my eyes and listened. A breeze brought goosebumps to my bare skin, and I pulled my towel closer around my shoulders. A single bird flittered into my periphery, landing in a nearby tree. She sang for me. She sang with the waters. She sang with the ancestors, whose spirits rest in the rocks beyond. This, is why I am alive.








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