My original intention was to ride up to Luang Prabang, about another 250km to the north. But, I’d originally planned to be riding a motorcycle with slightly longer legs than the Suzuki Smash. The bike’s casings tell me that it’s blessed with an engine capacity of 110cc, but from the feel and sound of the motor, it seems to have a 100cc piston slapping around in its oversized bore - a piano playing in a great cathedral. Luang Prabang will have to wait, but the charms of Vang Vieng are drawing me in.
The hills surrounding Vang Vieng are not really mountains; they’re what my old geography teacher always referred to as ‘hummocks’. Tall fingers of rock with rounded peaks covered in vegetation and marbled with natural cave formations. At the undisclosed entrance to one of these caves, I find a local entrepreneur who wants to be my best friend and guide. At each of the caves, the price is always the same, 10,000 kip ($1), but it’s a price worth paying. Without the local guide you’ll struggle to find the hidden entrances and if you haven’t brought your own flashlight and large ball of string, then you’ll likely get lost inside, or fall down a chasm and die.
Inside one of the cave complexes at Pheung Kam, the air is strangely cold as chilling currents flow from somewhere far below ground. Stalactites hang from the high and not so high ceilings, and stalagmites rise from the ground to meet them. The tunnels are narrow, the floors are well trodden and unannounced gullies threaten to swallow the incautious tourist. And then, around a corner, ducking to avoid another collision between forehead and rock, sits a substantial image of Buddha. Too large to have come in through the entrance, it must have been constructed where it sits. It’s old but not ancient and according to my guide, it dates back to the 1970's when these caves were used by ‘People’ to shelter from the almost continuous US bombing raids. I’ve no idea if that’s true, but being here now feels quite claustrophobic and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like in a time of war with bombs raining down on the mountain above. Actually, I don’t think Laos and the USA were ever technically ‘At War’, which seems surprising, because in the 1970's America dropped more ordnance on Laos than the total amount of ordnance dropped on the entire world during World War II .... mai pen rai kap.
Back on the roads around Vang Vieng, sandy tracks that cross dry river beds and shallow flowing streams, the majority of the people in and between the small hamlets are young. School kids ride from school to the river on their bicycles while younger kids hang out of their clothes and around their grandparents on the bamboo porches of lopsided homes. Apart from those people working in hotels and restaurants, the people here are either old or young, there's nobody in the middle. The parents of the kids, I suspect, are away making money in the city while the older folks take care of the family. I’d earlier joked about feeling like the poorest kid in town, but that had been back in Vientiane. Here things are different, very different, worryingly different. The shirt on my back makes me feel rich and I suspect that tonight I’ll be eating far better than many of the people that I’ve seen around here today. I don’t feel guilty for being here, I just feel ‘aware’ of my surroundings. Laos is clearly experiencing a period of rapid economic change and in Vientiane that new wealth is visible, often rudely so, but it’s an economic surge that appears to be bypassing these rural communities to the north.
Outside of the small towns, agriculture is the main activity and it reminds me very much of Thailand back in the 1980’s. It’s a manual economy that runs with the seasons and still employs more buffalo power than diesel. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed, but that’s very easy for me to say. I’m not the one who’s bent double in a field beneath the burning sun thinning-out the rice crops.