A Journey to the Deep North (Isarn) and Beyond: Part Four
Veng Vieng – Part Two
It had been quite an action-filled day and, as I sat back enjoying another sundowner looking out over the early evening splendor of the mountainous region I’d just been bashing around in, the soreness in my muscles told me that I’d been engaged in some fairly physical activity over the past few hours. The following day, with more cave explorations planned, might prove to be equally as physical; perhaps a Lao massage might be in order? As the sun dipped below the horizon I downed the last of Laos’ most famous thirst quencher and made my way wearily up the three flights of stairs for a well earned hot shower.
A fridge full of Laos’ most famous thirst quencher
An hour later, feeling refreshed, I was out ambling around in the coolness of the early evening looking for somewhere to get a bite to eat. I settled on a backpacker restaurant that specialized in Israeli food. Just goes to show how many varied people there are, from nations you wouldn’t really think about, travelling through this part of the world. The only thing of note, during the largely forgettable meal, was the couple that was seated two tables away from me. The bloke, a British fellow of ample girth – probably a Lao beer, or twenty, too many – and over flowing verbosity, sat talking not stop to (at) his Thai female partner who just sat there nodding disinterestedly.
In the 45 minutes it took for me get through the meal, and polish off another beer Lao, he alternated between English, Tinglish and bar Thai without let up about his plans, and aspirations, for the pair of them. I found myself thinking why it was that there seems to be so many of these insecure types landing in Thailand? I paid the bill and wandered back towards the hotel; there was a Lao massage shop nearby. A Lao massage is not much different to a Thai massage; the only real difference being the name and price. When I arrived at the entrance of the massage shop it was a bit of an eye opener to say the least. There were a number of very young girls sitting there all tarted up and looking as though they might be offering a bit more than the standard massage if the price was right. I settled on one that was a little bit older than the others; she was 19. I was a bit shocked to find out later on that there was one girl working there that was only 15! Towards the end of the massage the 19-year old enquired if I might be heading to the disco, down the road, later on in the evening. Remembering what I’d been told regarding foreigners caught consorting with the local lasses – a jail term or a hefty fine or both – I quickly replied that I was having an early night. Give her the due though, the massage was very good and I slept like a log.
I woke a little later the following morning and wandered out to the restaurant area to find the haze was still hanging about over the distant peaks. The skies were cloud filled and the atmosphere cool and calm. With breakfast under the belt and all my gear sorted, and ready to go, I walked across the road and hired the same bike I had the day before.
The early morning haze over the ranges
My target area was 20 clicks up the main road north of Veng Vien. Within a couple of kilometers of departing the township the road had deteriorated, once again, into a bone rattling ride and, as I rode on, I was being caked by clouds of dust thrown up by passing busses and lorries. Sometimes it was that thick that most of the locals I passed, on motor bikes, had their jacket sleeves covering their mouths to avoid inhaling lungfuls’ of the stuff. I pushed on further into a more mountainous area and noticed that the hazy start to the day was becoming hazier as thick clouds drifted in over the ranges that I was riding towards. After an hour of bouncing, and rattling, my way up the road I pulled over for a break next to a bridge. Something was amiss. I was about to cross over the river, at an amazingly scenic spot, and therefore realized that I’d gone well past the turn off.
The view looking back to my intended destination
After checking the map I worked out that the turn off to my intended destination was about five kilometers back the way I’d come. Feeling slightly demoralized I jumped back on the bike and rattled off back towards Veng Vien. 20 minutes later I spotted a barely visible sign indicating the track down to the caving and tubing area. A few minutes later I was pulling in at a nice little grassed area, set aside for parking motor bikes and bicycles, directly opposite the tubers starting point. As I put the bike on the stand I was approached by a local and hit with the obligatory parking fee. There were a bunch of pickups, also parked in the area, piled up with kayaks and inflated truck tubes. No doubt waiting for the hordes of party animals to arrive for the coming day’s drunken drift down the river. I needed to cross the river to get my day's sojourn underway and, as I stepped up to the rickety wooden bridge, another local appeared out of a small hut with a ticket for the bridge crossing fee. I couldn’t help thinking that these buggers really have wired, don’t they?
The bridge to the other side and the kick off point for the tubing drift down the river
After crossing to the other side of the river I took a bit of time out to relax after the hour's juddering I’d received on the trip up here. There was a small, shanty style restaurant overlooking the river so I sat down and ordered a Lao coffee. There were a few others sitting about talking about their upcoming tubing trip. After dipping my toes in the river I decided they were definitely welcome to it. Perhaps I’ve got a bit soft, and the blood has thinned out after living in the warm climes of Asia for so long, but the water temperature was definitely too cool to be immersed in for long periods of time. Next time I come up here I’ll bring a wetsuit. With a strong dose of Lao caffeine coursing through my system I was on my way up the trail to the caves I’d come to have a look at; Tham Hoi and Tham Loup. According to the reasonably detailed map, in my possession, both sites were situated together at the end of a relatively short – one kilometer – walk up through some rice paddocks and a bit of bush. After walking through a stretch of scrub, and crossing a couple of creeks, I arrived at large cleared area divided into rice paddies.
A make shift bridge over a creek
The trail was easily identifiable but there was no signage anywhere. I’d covered roughly about one kilometer and I could see that I was nowhere near the cliff faces which are the normal geographical terrain for caves. No doubt I missed a turn off somewhere as the cliffs were about 500 meters over to my left. I took a few moments to get my bearings and, in the process of doing so, was confronted by a friendly herd of buffalo ahead of me on the trail I’d been following. As I was getting the camera ready something became apparent to me; apart from the odd twittering bird, it was completely and totally silent. After living in a large city, such as Bangkok, for so long one becomes oblivious to this truly remarkable state of calm; the sound of silence. Our senses are bombarded, and numbed, by constant noise, and chatter, and we completely forget what it’s like to be somewhere that’s silent; where the mind isn’t subjected to the constant bombardment of noise. I stood there for a few minutes appreciating the tranquility of the moment. Moments which, in the stress of urban living, are all too fleeting? I banged off the shot. One of the buffalo grunted and, as I moved towards them, they kindly moved off the trail.
Buffalo on the trail
I continued on looping back through a small village and heading over towards the cliff line. A couple of locals, working in the paddocks, indicated in the direction I should be going and I carried on to eventually be back at one of the creeks I’d crossed. There was a small turn off, heading towards the cliffs, which I’d missed. There was still no signage about but I continued on eventually bumping into a young local who, as luck would have it, turned out to be a caving guide who spoke basic English. With a price agreed upon for guiding me through the caves – USD 10 for both – he led the way and a few minutes later we were standing at the base of the cliff line; the entrance to both caves was a short walk further on. In a nice little clearing, no more than 50 meters from where the tracks up to the caves started, the locals had erected a shelter; basically a 6-meter square cement pad covered by a corrugated iron roof. We sat down for a breather, and a drink of water, while my guide explained a little bit about the first cave to me.
“Tham Hoi goes in one kilometer under the mountain. It’s not such a difficult walk. There are some places where we must bend down to get through but mostly we are able to walk in a normal position. There is a fresh water pool and the end of the cave where we can have a drink or have a swim if you want? Do you have lights?”
I opened my hip pack and took out the headset light and put it on. I also showed him the extra handheld, backup light and he nodded in approval. After making sure everything was in order, and getting my camera set up for the walk into the cave, we were off up the short track to Tham Hoi. At the entrance was a faded, but impressive, Buddha statue. I’ve often wondered what the infatuation is with Thais, and Laotians, regarding Buddhas and caves? It seems as though every decent size cave I’ve been to in this part of the world has a Buddha image of some sort in it. Perhaps Buddha lived in a cave for a while?
Another Buddha image in a cave
I banged off a couple of shots and then we pushed on into the cave proper. It was almost the perfect tunnel, being approximately 4 – 5 meters at its apex and a comfortable 3 – 4 meters in width. The going under foot was slippery and foot placement was important as we negotiated the rises and falls in the cave floor. My guide informed me that, during the rainy season, the cave was an underground river and the water flow was often a meter high. As I picked my way through the expanses of smooth, worn boulders there was no doubting what he’d just told me. The first half of the walk in alternated between stretches of jumbled rock and wet clay. In some places there were still pools of muddy water in the hollows in the floor. These could be skirted by hugging the cave wall and carefully negotiating a narrow track running above the hollow full of black goo. In one spot a rough ramp had been put in place by the locals to get over a deeper hollow.
A rough ramp over a muddy hollow
As we moved deeper into the cave the humidity inside was beginning to take its toll on me; my shirt was wet with sweat. One thing I’ve found, through the experience of going into caves over the years, is that a nylon type shirt is much better attire than cotton. Cotton, when it becomes damp, is heavy and makes you even hotter. Nylon has less of a tendency to stick to you and it dries out much faster. As we moved deeper and deeper into the cave I had to give my guide his due; he seemed to know every twist and turn like the back of his hand. Not only that, he was setting a pretty good pace and I couldn’t but admire his agility when negotiating our way over some of the more difficult stretches. He later told me that he often did this cave tour twice a day.
About halfway in the terrain changed abruptly; instead of wet clay, and a boulder strewn floor, there were solid limestone features to work our way across. We paused for a drink and the guide informed me that, during the rainy season, the dips and hollows in the limestone became water-filled pools. He pointed out the water marks on the limestone and, in some places, I could see that the pools would be well over a meter in depth. After a short drinks break we moved off again and began to pick our way across the ridges and dips in the hard surface. We were over half way in and although the going seemed easier, on the hard limestone surface, I could see that the volume of the passageway was getting narrower; in couple of places the tunnel narrowed down to a point where I needed to crawl through on my hands and knees. A bit after an hour since entering – as the guide had originally stated – the tunnel open up to reveal a large chamber and a freshwater pool; we were at the end of the cave. We both crouched down for a few well earned gulps of sweet, pure spring water.
The solid limestone terrain and a well-earned drink of sweet spring water
The guide asked me if I wanted to go for a swim. I shook my head and moved off across the ridges of limestone, in amongst the pools, to bang off some more shots. As our voices echoed off the cave walls I reflected on the fact that we were one kilometer in under a mountain; it was quite amazing to say the least. After getting a few more shots I rejoined the guide on the rock shelf at the side of the pool where we both sat down and to rest and cool off after the trek in. I sat there absorbing the silent ambience of the surroundings while he lit up a cigarette; it kind of ruined the moment but I couldn’t complain too much because he’d done a pretty good job guiding me in.
A few minutes, and another ciggy, later my guide stood up and said “we should get going as it was getting late and we need time for the other cave.” We had another couple of gulps of spring water and then moved off back down the tunnel retracing our path in. We trudged on silently into the darkness, my footfalls occasionally interrupted by the guide’s timely warnings to watch my head on low hanging formations. The landmarks we’d noted, on the way in, were recognized again on the way out and it gave me an approximate estimation of how much further we had to go before emerging into sunlight again. Although moving along at a steady trot I was doing my best to make my exploration of the cave one to remember by stopping, every now and again, to look at some of the more interesting formations. For the guide it was probably just a case of another day and another tourist and he was doing his best to hurry me along. On the hour the first glimpses of natural light appeared ahead of us and a couple of minutes later we were exiting the cave. I checked my watch; we’d been underground for nearly two and a half hours. As we sat down, for another drinks break, at the shelter I reflected on what a fantastic day of caving it had been so far. Hopefully the next cave would be just as memorable.
The entrance into Tham Loup
Fifteen minutes later we were on our way up the short track to Tham Loup. The entrance into the second cave was down a rudimentary, but solid, wooden stairway. The guide stopped to give me a bit of a brief about Tham Loup.
“Tham Loup is not so long to go in like Tham Hoi. It only goes in about 200 meters but it is much bigger inside and there are many beautiful formations.”
I followed his lead down the stairs and we were soon looking at the obligatory Buddha image just inside the cave entrance proper.
Another cave and another Buddha statue
With a couple of shots secured in the camera we moved further in and, within a short distance, it became apparent that what the guide had indeed informed me, was absolutely correct; there were impressive formations everywhere within a vast chamber. To move into the second chamber we were required to work our way past a restriction created by a formation. Tham Loup was had a much larger internal volume than Tham Hoi and the other thing that soon became noticeable was that it was a dry cave; there was no water course and the going was much firmer under foot. Compared with the trek into Tham Hoi the journey to the furthest extremity of Tham Loup was much easier to negotiate and, within fifteen minutes of entering, we were at the back end of the second chamber. I was banging off shots all over the place while the guide continued pointing out some of the more impressive formations. Many were large and were a complete monolith running from cave floor to ceiling; a sign that this was a fairly ancient cave. In the odd location there were still smaller, growing formations to be seen; the incredibly slow process taking place, one calcified drip at a time, over thousands of millennia.
Moving through a restriction into the second chamber to view more impressive formations
I did another time check. We’d been in Tham Loup for around 45 minutes and I figured that was enough. I still had the trek back to the staging point and the ride back to Veng Vien to factor in before it got dark; I didn’t fancy being out on the highway at nightfall. We turned around and picked our way back out, occasionally stopping for me to bang off a few more shots. Twenty minutes later we were sitting back under the shelter and discussing what a brilliant afternoon it had been. All too soon I was back at the village, saying goodbye to the guide, and rattling down the road on the motorbike again. I took it at a bit more of a sedate pace to enjoy the surrounding natural terrain in the late afternoon light; thoughts of another beer Lao sundowner ever present as I rode on towards Veng Vien.
An hour later I was back at the outdoor restaurant. As the sun slipped towards the horizon I felt well satisfied with two days I’d had in Veng Vien. There was probably plenty more worth looking at but I’d done, pretty much, what I set out to achieve; checking out the caves. This was the perfect place to relax after two full on days of physical activity. In the fading light of the afternoon a herd of cows arrived for a drink and a bunch of kayakers paddled by. I took another gulp of my beer Lao; tomorrow it was onward to Luang Prabang.
Kayakers and cows on the river in the late afternoon
Reading these wonderful trip reports REALLY makes me want to go there!