A Journey to the Deep North (Isarn) and Beyond: Part Three
Veng Vien – Part one
After three days, and two nights, in Vientiane it was time to move on; Veng Vien was calling. Another helpful service offered by the City Inn was VIP bus reservation and transfer, from the hotel, to the bus terminal. A seat was USD 8. I paid for two as I wanted the extra comfort to stretch out during the four hour journey. The departure time was 10 am. At around 9.45 an already packed tuktuk arrived to pick me up. I squeezed myself in amongst the mob of Japanese already occupying most of the seating space and, after the driver tied my bag down, we were on our way. Five minutes later we were boarding our VIP (not) bus for the anticipated trip north. Approximately 15 minutes after the allotted departure time, we were on our way.
The crew onboard was mostly the young traveler backpacker set with the odd oldie dotted in amongst them. As the bus lurched, and bounced its way on to our destination most did their best to distract themselves from the bone rattling by listening to music, reading a book or simply shutting their eyes and pretending they were somewhere else. I was still on the lookout for communist memorabilia though and despite the fact that my eyeballs felt as though they were going to bounce out their sockets, at any moment, I stayed fully alert for any signs of Laos’ red past. As luck would have it the bus stopped for a few moments outside some government type premises and I was able to get a photo of the Lao National flag flying proudly next to a the hammer and sickle.
It has to be said that a VIP bus, in Laos, would not really qualify as a VIP bus in Thailand or most other places for that matter. As we lurched, and bounced, down the streets of Vientiane it became apparent that shock absorbers on this VIP bus – and probably all the others in Laos – were virtually non-existent. By the time we reached Veng Vien I was to clearly understand why; the roads are some of the worst I’ve ever travelled over. After an hour, or so, of lurching and bouncing our way through Vientiane’s outer suburbs we were finally out in the rural areas on our run north. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. The tarmac, and what little there was of it, was left behind in Vientiane. Okay, perhaps I’m being a little over critical here, there were some stretches of tarmac but, it must be said, there was a hell of a lot of bloody dirt as well. As I’ve already mentioned one of the positive aspects of being in Laos, at this time of year, is the fact that it’s dryer and cooler. The down side, particularly in terms of any sort of road travel, is that there are swathes of dust everywhere. The view up ahead of our bus was largely a brown, enveloping cloud thrown up by the convoy of vehicles in front of us. Anything and everything, within a few meters of either side of the road, was caked in the damn stuff. The brickwork on the buildings, and the vegetation along the way, all had a drab brown tinge about it; perhaps being up here in the rainy season wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all?
Almost a couple of hours into the trip one of my fellow oldies onboard finally lost it. I don’t know what his game plan was but he got out of his seat, stood in the aisle, and alternated between muttering in some European language and whistling at the driver. This went on for about 20 minutes. Whether this had the desired effect one will never know but the driver did, eventually, pull the bus over at one of those roadside eateries. No doubt, it was a scheduled food and toilet stop in the middle of the trip. The Lao, although some way behind their Thai cousins in terms of business acumen, are catching on quick in regards to hitting you with a fee wherever they can. Toilets at scheduled stops on a bus trip in Thailand are free of charge. In Laos they are not. In fact, the 12 baht fee, for every traveler wanting to relieve him, or herself, is probably quite a lucrative little business plan in Laos. It’s a captive audience; people will pay without hesitation when they’re busting for a piss. Bladders relieved, we all settled in to munching on tuna, cheese and salad baguettes. 20 minutes later we were being hurried back onto the bus.
The short break was nice and it lulled us into a false sense of peace of mind. That was short lived as we were about to find out. If travelling on the flat was bad enough the journey up, and through the mountains, was doubly worse. Fortunately there were only a couple of hours to go and most of us settled back into numbed ambivalence as we lurched, and bounced, towards Veng Vien. Eventually the impressive scenery had me forgetting the condition of the road; it was quite spectacular.
Apparently, so the story goes, Veng Vien sprung up as some kind of pseudo half way point for travelers to take a break in their journey up to Luang Prabang. I’ve got another theory and I’m sure this is closer to the truth; four hours of bone jarring travel is quite enough for one day. When we arrived in Veng Vien not one person was interested in going on to Luang Prabang; we all got off the bus. Although not having a hotel reservation, in Veng Vien, the manager at the City Inn had given me the name of a reasonable standard of hotel to go to; Elephant Crossing +856 23511232. A few minutes after disembarking from the bone rattler, a songtaew – free of charge – was dropping me off at the entrance to the Elephant Crossing Hotel. The room rate was USD 40 and included free wi-fi, hot water, A / C and breakfast. The room was large, and comfortable, and after squaring away my gear I was down at the restaurant, which overlooks the river, for a sundowner. As I sat there enjoying the late afternoon ambience, over a cold Beer Lao, I considered my plans for the next two days. Prior to coming away I’d done a bit of research, on the web, and had found out that there were plenty of caves in the area to have a look at. As I was checking in I’d got a map which showed all the main sites and attractions. It had good detail and the trails / tracks to each site / attraction were well indicated; finding my way around wouldn’t be a problem. There were basically two areas for the adventurous-minded to bash around in. The first one, and the nearest, was directly across the river from where I presently sitting clearing the dust out of my throat. The second area was 20 kilometers North of Veng Vien and was the main location for the tubing activity. Tubing, so I had been well informed, was the number one attraction for most of the young travelers landing in Veng Vien and the reason was fairly obvious; they all got drunk during the drift along the six kilometer stretch of river dedicated as the tubing route. The idea was pretty simple and, in some regards, to me sounded completely boring. Take one truck tire inner tube, inflate it, and then have a body drift down the river in it stopping off at various bars, along the six kilometer route, to chug down as many beers as can be consumed. Luckily the stretch of river being used was the safest in the area with no rapids and shallow enough to stand up in; hardly challenging to say the least. As the sun sank towards the horizon I formulated a plan for the next two days. I wasn’t much of a fan of organized tours and, being an old school kiwi do-it-yourself type, decided to hire a motor bike, first thing in the morning, and venture forth into the great unknown.
Later in the evening I decided to have a look around and do a recce on the little town of Veng Vien. There’s not much to it to be honest; the main road in, the river front road and a couple of connecting streets. The relatively small township area was a melting pot of guesthouses, cafés and restaurants packed with young travelers from Europe, Australia and the USA. I settled on some Lao food, from a relatively non-descript restaurant, and got my head down early for the full day of outdoor action to come.
One of the great things about being in Laos, and even Isarn, at this time of the year is that it’s quite cool at night. Since my first day in Nongkhai I’d been able to sleep with the air-conditioning turned off. And so it was with Veng Vien. In fact, when I woke at 6.30 am the following morning, and wandered down to the outdoor restaurant for breakfast, it was quite brisk in short sleeves. The coolness, combined with the clouds drifting down from the central Asian land mass, quite often creates a haze in the surrounding atmosphere. And so it was as I sat there drinking my coffee and taking in the awesome stillness, and tranquility, of this time of the day.
With a good breakfast under my belt I wandered up the road and hired a motorbike at a rental shop recommended by the hotel staff. It was a four stroke Honda 125, with gears, and it had seen a bit of use. For fifty thousand kip for the day though, I probably wouldn’t get much better. I dropped my passport down with the rental fee and, after kicking it into life, powered off towards the rickety old wooden bridge that provides access to the other side of the river. Once I was across the bridge I followed the signage past some cool little wooden bungalows and continued on along a rice field trail towards my first destination; two small caves at the end of a three kilometer ride through the jungle. Unfortunately my first destination proved to be a bit of a disappointment; when I arrived, there was a locked gate over the small entrance to the cave and no one about. No matter, the ride through the jungle was brilliant; it was amazingly invigorating to be breathing such cool, clean air. Having struck out, on my first destination, I worked my way back through the jungle trail, and rice field track, until I was back at my original starting point on the river. There was a larger dirt road which ran in a loop, deeper into the mountainous region, with various sites and attractions branching off it.
As I took off along the road it became apparent, with every bounce and shudder of the motorbike, that its condition was even worse than the road up from Vientiane. There were a number of the younger, backpacker set doing it on pushbikes and I found myself considering that perhaps that was the better option for getting about. A kilometer further on the dust cloud, from other vehicles passing me, put paid to that idea. A couple of clicks, and a torrent of dust, further up the road I found what I was looking for; a hand painted sign indicating a smaller side track to my next destination – Tham Phu Thong (cave Phu Tong). Another kilometer on I was stopped by a couple of young Laotian guys at a little wooden hut. This was something one becomes accustomed to in Laos. There are entrance fees for everything: to park your bike, use the toilet, cross a bridge, and to enter a tourist attraction. I paid the 10,000 (40 Baht) Kip and pushed on to the parking area at the base of the cliff. After parking the bike I looked around and got my bearings; the entrance to the cave was about one hundred meters up a cliff face. There was a track but, as I was to find out over the next couple of days, the going was still fairly steep. A Lao kid sidled up to me and asked me if I wanted a guide.
“Mai ow krap. Mee flashlight” I said patting my hip pack.
I took off up the track at a reasonable pace and by the time I was two thirds of the way up the sweat was dripping off me. At the top I sat down on a rock, a few meters from the cave entrance, to recover and drink some water. I was breathing hard and realized, after all the soft city living, I wasn’t as fit as I thought I was. I did a check on my kit: one head strap light and a hand held light for back up in my hip pack. A sweat rag, two bottles of water and a couple of energy bars in my ruck-sack. The cave entrance was small and I had to crouch down to move through into the first little chamber. I reflected on the fact that I hadn’t been in a cave for a couple of years; I needed to take my time and make sure of my footing.
As I worked my way further in it became apparent that the general direction of the system was down. This meant that during the rainy season water would be pouring through from above. Some of the locals had put access ladders in at the difficult sections and the entry down to the second chamber had one but it had rotted from being in the constantly damp environment. Unable to use the ladder, I retraced my steps and found a small tunnel to crawl through. Caving can be a hazardous and challenging activity. It’s a combination of entry level rock climbing – due to the fact that one needs to have secure footing in the wet and humid environment – and getting down and dirty, through crawling around on your hands and knees, and squeezing your way through some tight restrictions. The bottom line is that it can be hard and dirty work. I removed my ruck-sack and wormed my way down, feet first, pulling the ruck-sack through behind me. The second chamber (photo below) was muddy, damp and hot and the sweat was running off me as I moved towards the bottom. The following photo was taken at the bottom of the second chamber looking back up to the entry / exit point; a hole just to the right of center of the photo. At the bottom of the second chamber I found a vertical restriction. I removed my ruck-sack again, and camera, and squeezed through into the third chamber. By now I was soaked in perspiration. I took a moment to survey the geography of the third chamber; it sloped at forty five degrees from right to left and got narrower towards the bottom. I moved off carefully along the muddy slope towards the bottom; ten meters below me. When I got there I could see the entry point into the fourth chamber was no more than half a meter in height. I shone my back-up torch into the narrow passage; it angled down, gradually, and got even tighter before opening into the black void of the fourth chamber. I realized that to get through I’d be doing it on my stomach. I stood up and took a moment to consider my next move. Going into the fourth chamber was doable but there was also the realization that I was reaching the limits of my equipment and risk exposure. To go on was beyond what I considered acceptable risk.
If I slipped and broke something, even with assistance from the local guides, I’d have virtually no chance of getting back through the narrow hole. I turned and moved back up towards the third chamber. I was satisfied with my decision. I’d been underground for 45 minutes and penetrated in around one hundred meters through a challenging cave system. As I squeezed back into the second chamber I heard voices and lights flashing above me. I moved up towards the exit of chamber two and was met by a young European couple and a local guide. They couple were both dressed completely inappropriately for going into this type of cave system; they were in shorts and flip flops. The guide shone his light toward me as I moved up the slope to meet them.
“Is there anything to see down there?” asked the young guy.
“No mate, it’s muddy, wet and a narrow passage,” I said doing my best to dissuade him, and his girlfriend, from continuing on.
“Oh, okay. Maybe we go back then,” he said turning to his girlfriend.
“Probably the best idea,” I said as I indicated to the local guide to lead the way out while I brought up the rear.
Twenty minutes later we were sitting outside the cave entrance and cooling off. As I scanned the fantastic vista out in front of me I reflected on the fact that although the day had started out with a bit of disappointment, it was now living up to my expectations. I checked my watch; it was nearly 11 am. By the time I’d made my way back down, and moved on to the next location (Tham Poukham) it would almost be time for a spot of lunch.
The going, heading back down was slower as there wasn’t any steps cut into the cliff side, just worn foot holds in amongst the rocks and tree roots. A few minutes later I was on my motorbike and heading the couple of clicks up the road to the next caving location. On the way I was slowed up by cows on the road, Lao style, and it brought back fond memories of the same sort of thing in rural New Zealand many years ago. I found the turn off and motored on towards a spectacular, sheer cliff face. Once again I was hit with the standard 10,000 Kip entry fee as I entered the parking area. I parked up and walked over to the thatched roof, open air restaurant that was facing the cliff. As I sat there eating my kuay thiaw gai I had to admit the arduous four hour bus ride, from Vientiane, had been well worth it in the end; the natural beauty this place must be seen to be believed.
Cows on the road, Lao style.
The entrance to Poukham Cave is roughly half way up the cliff face. In the photo above there is a small black hole near the center. That’s not the entrance; it’s a large, inaccessible opening into the cave. The entrance proper is smaller and to the lower right of that opening which, incidentally, is approximately ten meters in height. The track up to the cave entrance ran straight up the cliff face and was almost vertical in places. In the more challenging stretches (shown in the photo below) the locals had been considerate enough to install handrails to assist with hauling oneself up. I was beginning to find that these hikes up cliff faces were seriously good workouts if done at a reasonable pace. After about fifteen minutes of hard slog I arrived, breathing hard, at the cave entrance.
The trek up to the entrance of Tham Poukham
After regaining my breath and putting my head set light in place, I moved into the cave. The small entrance went down for a few steps before opening up into a massive chamber at least fifty meters in diameter. A small group of us had gone through together and we all just stood there awestruck. The light coming through from the large fissure, in the side of the cliff, lit up most of the chamber and the reclining Buddha, at the center of the chamber was clearly visible. There was plenty of “wow’s” coming from the mouths of the highly impressed young travelers. A couple even mentioned that this alone made the trip up from Vientiane well worth it. Everyone, including me, had their cameras out and was busy banging off shots as we moved further into the cave. The following is a sequence of shots as I moved further in towards the reclining Buddha. The first is a distance shot showing the size of the chamber and some of the formations. There is a guy standing on a rock shelf looking down at the reclining Buddha. The second is an approach shot with a large stalactite in the foreground and third is a close up of the Buddha.
Inside the first chamber of Tham Poukham in Veng Vien
After about thirty minutes spent banging off photos and checking out the reclining Buddha I was itching to get on with a deeper exploration into the cave. The locals had painted red direction arrows on the rocks where the going was a bit tight or it seemed like there might be a number of directional options for moving deeper into the cave. This was entirely possible due to the fact that there were hundreds of large boulders strewn around on the cave floor. The red arrows helped everyone avoid taking a wrong turn and going up a blind alley. I was still with the small group that I’d first come in with and, as we moved deeper into the system, we all turned on our head lamps as things got increasingly blacker. Eventually we passed through a large diagonal fissure into the second chamber. Looking back one could see still see light coming through from the first chamber; ahead of us it was pitch black. The following two shots are taken in the second chamber. The first is looking back. The diagonal fissure, showing light from the first chamber, is actually about ten meters from top to bottom. We stood around for a while in the darkness, taking photos, and then everyone seemed to split up and go their own separate ways. I kept moving forward towards the third, and last, chamber. Even though the photos don’t show it, the internal volume of these chambers is so vast that you could probably fit a decent size shopping mall in there; the ceiling in the second chamber was at least forty meters above the floor. As I moved towards the back end of the cave I could still hear the sound of voices as they echoed within the cave system. Those voices became more distant as I moved further in and the occasional flashes of light I been picking up; from the others’ head sets, faded into the distance as I worked my way deeper into the third chamber. I eventually got myself into a position where I could go no further; I was at the inner most point of the cave. There was complete and utter silence and I was totally alone.
Inside the second chamber of Tham Poukham in Veng Vien
The first two chambers are predominantly filled with fallen rocks and petrified formations (meaning that there is no more ongoing calcification taking place from a dripping water source). The third chamber looked completely primordial with amazing formations everywhere. I positioned my hand held flash light to help create a better lighting effect. Due to the fact that the chamber was so vast the small, inbuilt flash on my camera didn’t have the throw to do the size of the third chamber justice.
After about thirty minutes spent taking it all in, and snapping off a few more shots, I decided it was time to head back out and began picking a route back around the opposite side of the cave that I’d entered through. Back in the second chamber, I bumped into another group and stopped for a chat about the third chamber. I noted, like most I’d seen in the caves, that they were also dressed in shorts and flip flops. They moved on and I moved towards the first chamber. I wanted to get to a viewing point directly below the large fissure that lit up the first chamber. After another twenty minutes spent working my way slowly, but surely, around the massive, jagged rocks strewn about I was finally in position. With the natural light at my back I was able to make use of it and bang off a few shots without the flash, looking down at the reclining Buddha, in a direction opposite to that which I’d originally entered the cave. The following shot shows the size of the chamber – note the guy standing on the chamber floor next to the rock that supports the reclining Buddha – and a lot of the formations within.
I checked my watched and noted I’d been in there for over two hours. It was time to head down to the spring fed pool, at the base of the cliff, for well earned dip to wash off the dirt and sweat. Thirty minutes later I was sitting down, next to the natural pool, enjoying a pineapple shake, and reflecting on what a great day it had been.
Tham Poukham entrance chamber with reclining Buddha
Time for a refreshing dip in the spring fed pool at Tham Poukham
Sounds like you had a marvellous time!