Sunday, February 1, 2015

Viva la Vang Vieng

Last week we decided that it was time to cross borders and adventure into a new country: Laos. We traveled from Pai to Luang Prabang, Laos for two days on the "slow boat" down the Mekong River. This boat journey merits its own post, but I wanted to focus on the present moment of where we've been for the last two days in Vang Vieng, famous as an outdoor adventure hub for tubing, backpacking, rock climbing, biking, and caving.

Given that reputation, I was expecting a down-to-earth Laotian cousin of Telluride, but we could not have been more shocked and a bit appalled when we arrived at night to rows and rows of bars lit up with neon lights, guesthouses, and restaurants playing reruns of Friends and The Simpsons on large flatscreen TVs at all times of the day. Gone were the charming artsy cafes and organic restobars of Pai -- we had been spoiled. Even the street food menus were entirely identical and unappetizing to our veg-loving, MSG-weary bodies:

In the morning, we realized that we were indeed in a stunning area of natural beauty, albeit from the vantage point of a town that seems to have been designed from a teenager's fantasy. I went for a run out of town, crossing a ricketly bridge to the Banana Bungalows, past verdant rice fields, and on to a dirt road notced with rocks and potholes. I followed signs for a cave and tromped through what seemed to be fallow rice fields towards these stunning, steep mountains:

So,  I was feeling much more optimistic about our stay in Vang Vieng once I returned to our hostel. The day only got better and better as we rented mountainbikes to venture along a dirt road out of town to the Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kham cave. We relished spectacular views of the steep, bulbous mountains, rice fields, and tranquil village life. Thea waited while some Aussie beefcakes finished flexing for photos on their motorbikes and sped off to capture this stunning contrast of colors:

The Blue Lagoon was overrun with tourists jumping into the water from a thick tree branch overhead, so we continued up to the cave, which had the scale and architectural magnificence of a cathedral:

We carefully hiked 30 - 45 minutes back into the cave, slowly leaving behind the chatter and clatter of other tourists and the bright light of day. We turned our headlamps off at the back recesses of the cave (where we could see no way to proceed) and embraced the strange fear of darkness so complete that it seems to penetrate and rob you of sight forever.

After a quick dip in the Blue Lagoon, we stopped at a restaurant that is part of SAE LAO (www.saelaoproject.com), an NGO aiming to improve and sponsor education for local children and to support more sustainable agricultural practices. Their menu explained that the adverse impacts of tourism on this tiny town, such as destruction of the environment to build more infrastructure and easier access to alcohol and drugs for local youth, motivated the founder Sengeko Frichitthavong to undertake this work. The food was fresh and delicious (a pure fruit shake without condensed milk or glucose syrup!), so we were surprised that the restaurant was empty even though it's only a few minutes from the busy lagoon. It seems most tourists opt for the standard fare sold waterside.

Today we had another magnificent nature adventure. We were scheduled to go rock climbing in the afternoon, but when we arrived at Adam's Climbing School, it turned out that the guides thought we were signed up for the morning half-day and had already left. We decided to explore some caves near Vang Vieng instead. In trying to show Thea a cave that I had found on my run the other morning, I got us lost in a thicket of brambles and burrs, but we ended up on a trail with a few markers of orange cloth tied around trees (like the monk's path to Wat Pha Lat in Chiang Mai). We were accompanied by a flea-infested, but very sweet dog/spirit guide we named "Patches." The path took us straight up a mountainside through boulders and under winding tree branches, but we persisted with the hope that our efforts might pay off in a stunning view. And an hour later, they did:

Vang Vieng seems plagued by the contradictions of stunning natural resources and ready-to-party, let's -drink-while-we-tube-down-the-river tourists. We went to a bar two nights ago that offered free drinks from 9 - 10 pm and balloons filled with laughing gas. A giant crane excavating the earth for more hotel construction blocked yesterday's stunning sunset over the mountains:

On Wednesday I leave Thea to embark on a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Myanmar while she continues on to Vietnam, so this will be my last post for a short while. Happy February and happy full moon to all!

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