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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Heaven in Havasupai

18 10 2014

Canyon hiking in the desert is not like other hiking. It means that you are prone to unique weather patterns, and while significant rainfall is rare, flash flood potential is very real. Before we enter into any slot canyons or wash hikes, we seek updates on flash flood warnings. Up until this point on our trip, we have been extremely lucky with blue skies and dry trails. This morning, however, I awoke in our motel room to the soothing sounds of rumbling thunder. This is not a good thing when you are about to embark on a 10 mile hike down into, and through, a rural canyon, with nothing around but a remote tribal village at the end of the 10 mile hike.

 

We still have a 2 hour drive ahead of us to get to the Havasupai Hilltop, where the trail head starts. grand canyon sunset 1We barely made it this far last night, after leaving Antelope Canyon and following the detour around the major road closure. The detour led us past the Grand Canyon, where we paused briefly at sunset for a quick kiss goodnight. We drove on. Through the inky blackness of the desert sky, we finally found the neon glow of our charmingly renovated Route 66 motel.

 

Information about today’s hike is sparse. The Supai tribe is very negligent when it comes to providing useful information for visitors, so I still didn’t REALLY know what to expect. My mom kept asking me about the hike, and whether there were going to be any more steep, narrow cliffs. I couldn’t exactly answer, and I was hesitant to look too hard, for fear that the answer would be yes.

 

We packed up before dawn and hit the road, stopping for coffee along the way. I searched on my phone for more details. I found another online review, and learned that we had to hike down 2,000 feet in the first mile. Is that too steep? Hmmm. My mom was getting nervous about whether or not she would be willing to do this hike. We agreed that, if she felt uneasy once we got there, she could take the rental car and drive back to civilization, picking us up two days later.

 

As we eat breakfast, the rain pours against the diner’s wavy glass windows. I pull up the radar map on my phone, between bites of potatoes and sparse cell phone reception. I gulp. The system is HUGE, and extends all the way up from Route 66 to the Havasupai canyon and over the entire Grand Canyon, down to Flagstaff. I begin to get nervous about whether or not we will even be able to start our hike down into the canyon, let alone make it safely to the Supai village.

 

If the trail is flooded, I know, we will be totally out of luck. Our reservation at the Supai ‘lodge’ had been made months earlier, and they were absolutely unwilling to allow changes or cancellations. I had no idea what to do. Bethany pulled up the phone number for the Supai lodge and called. Nobody answered (which is normal). I began to imagine the worst case scenario- we drive another 2 hours only to find the canyon flooded, with no way to cancel our 2 night reservation at the remote village, and no idea what to do. As we sit there in the diner, sipping coffee refills, Bethany keeps calling, and finally gets through. The woman who answered the phone in the village said, “It’s only light rain here. There’s no problem with flooding.” I look down at the radar on my phone again and, although I am still doubtful, I chirp, “okay, let’s go do this!” Off we went.

 

HIKING DOWN INTO THE VILLAGE

supai hilltop 2Remarkably, after driving over an hour through the downpour, we got to the hilltop and the rain had stopped. The skies were still dark and impending, but mostly off to the east. The hilltop is about 2,000 feet up, with an amazing panoramic view of the canyon. Before we do anything else, we walk over to the edge so my mom can peer down and make her decision.  The trail is a good 6 feet in width- wide enough to accommodate two passing strings of horses and pack mules. It switches back and forth above itself, so that even if you fell over, you would only fall down one layer. My mom agrees to go down.

 

We load everything we needed on our backs for 3 days, extend our hiking poles, and begin hiking down. The path is rocky, but mostly worn down to a thick layer of sand that drifts between my toes. (Yes, I hike in Chacos). It is a beautiful hike, with the same view seeming like countless new views with every leg of the switchback. We slowly dip deep into the canyon over the first hour. The landscape continually transforms as we hike further, unfolding around us with each bend in the dry wash floor. The first five miles felt pretty good, and I am grateful for the cloudy skies. We stop occasionally to take photos, but I’m surprised we don’t see more hikers. Maybe 10 others? By mile 9, my shoulders are aching from the weight of my backpack (my mom’s backpack, actually), my back is sweaty, and my feet are pale with dust. Eventually, the canyon comes to an end. I walk up to the first sign I’ve seen so far, which reads “Supai Village,” with a hand painted arrow pointing left down the intersecting canyon. We have been hiking for 5 hours, and we are all ready to be done.

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Inside the village, the roads are still sandy, meandering, and mostly used by horses carrying down the packs of visitors. There are no cars, or bikes, but there is a helicopter pad used by locals and tourists. Buildings here are a mix of trailers, shacks, and some wood framed homes with multiple, custom additions. Things are dusty, and in disrepair, with dogs running wild throughout  the canyon. It is about what I expected. Despite the $35 per person daily charge to just BE on their land, and the expensive cost of the motel room, there are no signs of the Supai people getting rich off of tourism.

 

As my mom and Bethany putz behind me, I walk ahead to try to figure out where the lodge is in the tangle of unnamed roads and paths, I’m afraid that we missed a turn. I ask a villager for directions, only to turn around and discover that I have lost my two companions. After waiting a few minutes for them to appear, I walk past the store, the school, the church, and see the lodge. There’s a white guy sitting at a table on the front porch. He looks even more tired than I feel. “Checking in?” I ask of his large pack. “Yep. They said she went to the store and will be back soon,” he says, pointing at the closed door and teasingly lit up ‘open’ sign. I laugh, and sit down to wait.

 

Once we get checked in, we walk through the courtyard to our second floor room. The three of us collapse on the two full beds, shoes and all. Laying down for 10 minutes felt amazing! I recover quickly, and, although my hiking mates are done for the day, I decide to go out to explore. I want to see what the big waterfall hike will look like for the next day, since getting to the village was only the beginning! The real reason we are here is to hike even further down the canyon to see some of the amazing waterfalls. Most people don’t see all four, but I am hopeful we will have time.

 

In the pale, waning light of dusk, I make it out to the second falls- Havasu Falls- and am pleased to find that the visitor reviews of this portion are fairly accurate. I don’t go any further, knowing that it will be dark soon. When I return to the hotel room, I share my snapshots of inspiration to get Bethany and my mom excited about what we get to see tomorrow. Even after turning my 10 mile day into a 14 mile day, I can hardly wait!!

 

navajo fallsThe next morning, after a restful night of sleep, we pack plenty of chia bars and soy jerky, water, and band-aids, and head out for a fun day of exploration. The named falls, in order of distance from the village, are Navajo Falls, Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls, and Beaver Falls. I suspect that my mom might not make it to Beaver Falls. I have heard that the last one was hard to get to, involving some wooden ladders and some steep climbs, but it’s a little unclear exactly where those are, or how many miles it really is to Beaver Falls. Some people have complained that the hand-drawn map was not correct, and it’s an additional 1-2 miles more than the map leads you to believe. We will see!

 

Our game plan is to head to the farthest falls first, then slowly make our way back and enjoy each spot with the time we have left. It’s supposed to be 5 miles out to Beaver Falls, so we expect to make it there in a couple hours. The elevation of the canyon floor continued to fall lower as we head out from the village, with a pretty gradual grade the first 2 miles. The trail meanders past Navajo Falls, a multi-tier cascading set of falls, the highest at 15 feet.

 

havasu fallsHavasu Falls is just a bit further, and as we crest over the hill, it suddenly appears off to the right, a roaring mirage below us. The trail splits in two, and we can either wander down to the bottom of Havasu Falls, where the flowing, turquoise pools are speckled with people in colorful swimsuits, or we can continue on toward the campground. We march on.

 

We walk through the area designated for camping, which is basically anywhere that isn’t riverbed. The pattern of water flow diverges, and weaves its way through in an army of little, babbling brooks. It is nearly 4 miles until we come upon the third waterfall, Mooney Falls. Much like Havasu Falls, the promenade is from above, and the falls plummet down from the clifftop on our right. Mooney falls is much taller, and we can hear the falls as they echo off the cliff walls. Unlike the last one, the trail does not split up, nor is there an obvious, easy path to continue on. We walk over to the edge, and I am in awe. The water falls a tremendous height, roaring with power as it carves out the rock at its base. This is the one where people used to cliff dive, because the pool below is deeper than you can ever imagine.

 

mooney falls b topThe cliff wraps around, and our easy path suddenly morphs into a rocky outcropping of steps. My mom bravely decides to try it, but warns me that she might have to turn back. Within the first 12 feet, the path folds back under itself, and there is barely a trepidatious foot of width left to the path. “Well, Mom,” I smile back at her, “I totally understand if you want to stop here.”

“Yeah…,” she laughs nervously, “I think I’ll head back. See you girls back at the hotel!”

 

Bethany and I continue, unsure of what to expect. I use my left hand to grip the rock wall, my right on my hiking pole. The trail begins to feel more like a multiple choice test, with spray painted arrows on rocks showing different ways you can climb down to the next level. In just 10 minutes, I snake my way back around to the point where I can once again see the falls, obscured now by the trees. The trail stops, with a sign that warns of the potential hazards. I turn to my right and see an orange arrow pointing at a large black hole in the wall. This is my only choice.

 

mooney falls descend riskThe second that I duck my head into the cave, the sound of the waterfall dulls to a dim echo. I pull out my cell phone to light my way, advancing down onto subtle steps that had been carved into the stone. I can see the light from the exit up ahead, and as I erupt back into daylight, I can clearly see the falls. The path is now framed with a heavy metal chain bolted into the rock wall, acting as a rail to prevent an accidental fall over the edge. There is nothing below me now but sheer cliff, and air.

 

In just a couple more strides, another tunnel immediately takes me back into the dark, but this time when I emerge, there is no trail. There is no guardrail. Instead, it goes down. Thick, heavily worn wood is formed into a ladder, likely a dozen years old, which is chained to the rock at my feet. Shit just got real. Mist from the falls, still  a few hundred feet away, settles lightly on the chains. I pull the straps for my poles over my wrists, letting them swing loosely at my sides. I take a deep breath, look back to be sure I haven’t lost Bethany, and I begin to climb.

 

kelly mooney falls climbAs I descend, I can’t see more than a few feet to anticipate what is coming up next. How far will it go on like this? My hands are wet from the cold metal, and my knuckles are pale from my tight grip. I find myself recalling my basic ladder safety tips. Three points of contact at all times! Release left hand- grab wooden rung- release right hand- grab- release left foot- feel for next secure footing- repeat.  I realize how tight my muscles are and try to tell myself to relax. Then I laugh at myself inside my head. “Relax?!?! Yeah, right!” The rungs are slippery, and I am climbing down blind. If I mis-step, it could be disastrous. I look up periodically to check on Bethany. She is slowly following me, and I can tell that she is equally fear-stricken.

 

It felt like forever for my legs to finally reach solid ground. My quads tremble with relief, and I take a minute to just look up at what I have accomplished. For a split second, I feel myself filling with dread, knowing that, “we still have to get out the same way.” It is like rock climbing, except we have no harnesses or safety gear.

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Bethany is still 30 feet above my head, moving very slowly and deliberately. A logjam of people have accrued behind her, waiting, because there is no place to pass. Her large backpack makes her top heavy, and the uneven load is definitely slowing her down. I am grateful she didn’t lean back too much and lose her balance.

 

When she finally reaches the canyon floor, we both sigh a breath of sweet relief. “Holy shit that was intense!!” “I can’t believe we just did that!” Had I known how treacherous the hike would become, I likely would have turned back too. Thankfully, I didn’t.

 

Money Falls is breathtaking, and worth the ‘hike.’ The force of the water is so strong, that groups of young men are taking turns swimming at full speed towards the frothy white rapids, only to be pushed right back to where they started. The group of adventurers who made it this far is small, and only gets smaller as we look on. Despite our plan to hike to the end and then make stops on the way back, we agree that we have totally just earned a break! We spot a picnic table sitting empty in the middle of the river, with a foot of clear blue water rushing beneath it. We sit down, resting, eating, in awe of what stands before us. It is so powerful!bk mooney picnic
The last leg of the hike is the part that remains least known. Most people never make it this far. The trail is easily an extra 1-2 miles further. When we get up to head out, I can’t even tell where the trail is, as water flows everywhere I look. A young woman guides me, “Just follow the river, you can’t get lost.” Great. Can’t get lost. That sounds like a challenge to me! And with that, we walk ahead, through the shallow river.

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