We knew it had to come to an end, so Jim put it off by booking himself on a local banana boat for a two day trip down the Mekong.
I peered at the details and thought I would sample a few more restaurants in LP.
And try a Lao Massage at the Red Cross centre. Crumbs have you ever had a Lao massage? Even with oils, you really know you have been worked on. They apply really hard pressure to arms, legs, back, ankles and head! I was trying to find out what the alleged benefits were. Does anyone know?
Not long after leaving LP for his river trip, Jim called to say that he had made a small error and that the journey would take four days! There was a lot of sucking of teeth on my part.
Luckily he decided to stop half way and come back as planned.
We had received a message from our French friends who had found an article about the small village Luang Namtha in Northern Lao, we had visited with them a couple of weeks earlier. It told about the availability of Opium. We had stayed there on our first night in Laos.
Three elderly women dressed in local ethnic clothes approached all tourists endlessly trying to sell local jewellery and also things they carried deep in their cotton shoulder bags. We had difficulty moving them on as they were so persistent. They were cheerful enough as we shooed them off endlessly.
I thought the herbs in their bag were tea or medicinal! Matthieu pointed out that they tried to sell him a small pipe with the herbs. So they may indeed have been selling Opium!
We were not really looking forward to the driving as the car was still terrible and the gears were a constant worry. However, we had found a new garage in Vientiane. It was a Canadian guy who lived locally and who had been fancied by other Overlanders. He seemed to have a few new ideas about our gears and the main dealers we had used had so far failed to diagnose the problem and fix it. We thought we would pay him a visit.
We had also made contact with David Goodchild of Plodd Stop in Thailand. He hosted Overlanders in Thailand and was going to help us negotiate the Thai border challenges when we were set to cross. We thought perhaps of skipping the rest of the trip through Laos and Cambodia if the car was still limping. We were very close to Thailand in Vientiane, the Laos Capital. It might be easier to get Landy fixed up in Thailand. We could then go back to Cambodia, potentially by bus to visit Ankor Wat?
On account of the car, we decided to take the direct route to Vientiane and this involved a stopover in Vang Vieng which for many years has been an essential stop on the backpacker trail through South East Asia, and the attraction for most is Tubing down the Nam Song River, or hurtling along zip wires down cliff faces or across ravines, or dashing around on readily available beach buggies, exploring the local lanes and finding lagoons, waterfalls and caves.
The road journey to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang was stunning. The greenery, the hills, the paddy fields and the amazing views as we bumped through the many small villages on the route. The car was not at its best and driving up the very steep hills without second gear was challenging, particularly if following a heavily loaded, sow moving, pile of aggregate or overloaded lorry full of smelly raw rubber.
We often had to go from 3rd to first and if we were lucky, we could get into second going back up again! We were confident that we were going to make it, but it was more difficult to stop the car over heating when you could not use the correct gears! We stopped for lunch at a cafe at the very top of a steep climb. The local dogs were enjoying the vantage point. Eat your heart out Tilly.
I could not be pursuaded to eat, but Chinese tourists who had stopped too, were drawn to the stall selling weird mushrooms and jungle food. These lizards were a pricy delicacy!
Jim took over driving the car on our last stretch into Vang Vieng. And gradually the gears started working normally. He put it down to his superior driving skills of course. This has happened before but it was very useful as the road down to the town was incredibly steep and it was easier to slow down with all the gears to hand! We rolled into town to find our bed for the night which we had booked as we bumped along.
We realised quite quickly, that we had found the Lao Benidorm. Restaraunts were serving Happy Pizzas and selling hits on laughing gas and balloons.
Slightly jolly young people were returning from tubing on the river and the bars were just hotting up! Luckily our room had a fab view, even if the bar below was pounding out Bob Marley till late.
We found a good dinner in the Happy Mango restaurant and left the next morning to find the Golden Flower Cave, before heading off for Vientiane. We set off, following Maps Me directions deep into the countryside, crossing two rickety bridges advising a 2.5 ton weight limit - we were a tad more and then we abandoned the car after fording a stream, when we could go no further without damage to paddy fields!
We followed signs on foot for about 1km, across a few paddy fields and jungle paths between hanging branches and banana leaves.
On the wonderful track, there were only local children off on errands, perhaps fruit picking and a women washing her clothes in the stream.
We had left the beach buggies behind and there was not a zip wire in sight! We were looking for the entrance to the cave which we understood was guarded by an elderly custodian who would act as our guide.
We eventually reached a well tended clearing in the jungle undergrowth and there were local people gardening and collecting leaves and we were greeting by a friendly dog and small child. An old man was lying at the entrance to the cave woke up sleepily when we arrived and got ready to take us up to the obscured entrance to the cave.
We were taken up the steep path with narrow steps cut into the deep damp red soil. We eventually arrived at a small sheet of corrugated iron which hid a grill held in place with two simple padlocks. Our guide shifted the barracade and we realised that we were going to descend into this dark hole!
Luckily he issued us with head torches and led the way. (I was very glad that I had taken a pole to help stop me slipping as we descended into the dark.) We picked our way down steep slippery steps into the caves and followed our tiny guide in fipflops as he showed us the wonders revealed under the light of his torch. Very quickly we realised that this was one of those incredible experiences. There were sparkly residues of white, silver and gold in the ceilings. These he explained were gold and silver. Real gold and silver deposits? Jim was ever the doubting Thomas.
The whole space was full of the most enormous stalactites and stalagmites. There were many colours, white, yellow and brown formations. He talked about many millions, in fact many many millions of years in the making. Surely a wonder?
(Photo taken by Matthieu Bossan as mine were poor)
In some places the rocks had formed flower like clusters which were hanging from the ceilings. These had taken millions of years to form and were in a virtually undisturbed condition. There were hundreds of these formations. As we picked our way through the gloom we occasionally had to hold onto one of these precious stalagmites to stop ourselves slipping on the damp red mud.
The caves were damp and wet and water lay in shallow pools at our feet. We tried not to fall as we were not used to the dark and he spent at least an hour showing us all the accessible chambers underground.
It was a wondrous experience and when he led us out, he filled up his plastic water bottles from the glistening cave pools and he locked up as we left.
It is hard to believe that there are quite a few of these caves to be found in this area and that there is not more security in place. We wondered who would take care of the cave and protect it in the future?
We felt privileged to have seen it and also we enjoyed the respite from the overbearing heat under the late morning sun as the clouds evaporated above the jungle undergrowth.