Day 120: Getting high on Vang Vieng's wet caves, laughing gas
Too bad the laughing gas high fades so quickly. Photo: Pink
“I forgot to pack extra underwear and money,” Pink informed me after we arrived in Vang Vieng. The woman is a miracle worker when it comes to pulling together things at the last minute, but the details of planning never seemed to be her strong suit.
“Don't you have an ATM card?”
“Yeah, but I can't use it here,” she explains exactly why it won't work, which doesn't quite make sense to me. Fortunately, I've got enough cash for both of us – I like to travel with a decent amount of cash on me when possible.
“No worries. I'll float you and you can just pay me back when we get to Vientiane,” I say, peeling off a little under a million kip – which is not nearly as much money as it sounds like – and handing it to her.
That was yesterday, a work day, where we holed up at my least favorite cafe chain in Laos – Parisian Cafe – and both buckled down to get some work. A jaded expat might think Pink's planning to run off with my money, but she's an established business woman, she doesn't need or want what little money I have. Moreover, and I'd say vastly more importantly is the fact that she's incredibly honest.
That was yesterday, since then she's bought herself a Beer Lao t-shirt and an American flag bathing suit – she also forgot to bring her bathing suit. I had been so impressed by the fact that she'd gotten everything she needed for the few days in Vang Vieng in a small beach bag. Now, I'm finding myself wandering what in earth is actually in the bag.
Though it was the die's decision to “go to Laos and do drugs”, it's being stubborn about actually getting us started with the “do drugs” part. On a number of occasions since arriving in Vang Vieng it's shot down the idea of sucking up a party balloon of laughing gas.
Before heading to bed last night, the die was given a less contentious set of options for today: Wake up 7am go to cave, wake up 7am go to waterfall, wake up 7am go for a motorcycle drive or wake up at 7am and go to the Blue Lagoon. Pink was pretty set on us waking up at 7am.
The die chose the cave. Though I wake up at 7am, it takes awhile for me to actually get up and sort myself out. Not expecting much of an adventure, I put on a pair of swim trunks and my flip flops – hardly the proper attire for proper caving.
A rickety suspension bridge stretches across Nam Song River. The thick metal cords are rusted, the wooden boards, though sturdy, have without a doubt seen better days. Nonetheless, a covered pickup truck with a pile of black inner tubes strapped on top manages to rumble across with its load of tourists to a small island in the middle of the river before quickly slipping across a second, smaller bridge.
There are plenty of reasons to come to Vang Vieng that have nothing to do with illicit drugs and the party scene. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Standing like sentries on either side of the the bridge, after a tolling station that sits in the shade of a handsome tree, are two man-sized American bombs, presumably defused.
Pink hands 10,000 kip to one of the two young men working outside the multi-storey house cum toll booth. They give her a receipt.
Eventually, the well-paved road, which cuts through rice paddies flanked by the karst limestone cliffs, dumps us on to a large-gravel road. It's bumpy going. Following signs for a couple caves, we drive through a couple small villages that look like a pastry chef has dusted them with cinnamon, as the gravel road gives way to a red-dirt one.
We come to a stop as a herd of water buffalo, mud dried to their flanks from the heat of the morning sun, saunter out of the way. Once the imposing beasts have moved to the side of the road, an essential road-safety habit they've developed, we continue on to a wooden truss bridges built over a mountain stream. The clear water, polishing pebbles and pushing sand into the banks as it goes, looks cold as it speeds toward the Nam Song River.
The big animals knew they didn't have right of way. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The bridge itself has low side rails with horizontal boards laid over a metal frame. Nailed into the horizontal boards are two sets of boards running parallel to the road; they're set a wheels-width apart, like train tracks.
Wobbling across the bridge, we're forced to dodge a place where the parallel boards have been mostly been ripped out, revealing some of the river below. Though we could have probably just driven over the section, it's unnerving to do so.
Where is my riding gear when I need it? Photo: Pink
Back into the rice paddies, we continue to follow signs to Nang Oua Kham Cave and Patong Cave.
At the turn off to Nang Oua Kham Cave there is a small booth where a man charges us several thousand kip as an entrance fee. Farther down the dirt road, past the booth, we park the bike in an open field. I'd considered taking the bike over the narrow bridge in front of us, but with the side boxes making my ass look big, I'm not sure there is enough room between the side rails.
Beyond the bridge, there is a large shelter with tables and chairs and a man-made lagoon filled with striking, teal colored water. The man and woman sitting at an out-of-place desk in the shelter hand us a couple head lamps for the cave.
“It's very wet. You'll have to swim,” the man tells us.
I guess I won't take my camera along.
Crude steps and bamboo railing lead up past a welcome sign explaining the history of the cave. One of its two most popular names refers to its history as a place where men would hunt snakes, often not faring well. The other refers to a mythical love story.
Snakes in a wet cave? I think not.
Though it's not a cavernous entrance, there is plenty of room to walk directly into the cave, no need to crawl at this point. We switch on our headlamps. A small snake slithers into the darkness.
Though not ophiophobic or claustrophobic, the idea of wading through water, the walls of the earth pressing in tightly around you just as your torch catches a snake swimming out of the pure blackness of the underworld gives me shivers. In attempt to comfort myself, I recall that snakes are cold blooded and that cave water is nearly always fairly cold, so not something they'll be readily involved with.
Pink doesn't notice the snake. I don't mention it to her, as it's impossible to know if she'll want to track it down or be afraid of it, neither of which are ideal situations.
Farther in, there are a couple small Buddha images in natural cubbyholes worn into the walls. The wet clay floor keeps our steps short as we work our way through the cave, as we go from one modest chamber to another. A couple little white signs with blue lettering appear on wooden stakes to point us in the right direction.
This is already better than many of the tourist caves in Thailand, though I have a feeling such a chilled out sabai sabai approach might not last. Caves are by their very nature dangerous places for untrained, unequipped homo sapiens. Most of us in the modern world have lost touches with these original sources of shelter. That's not say wandering a hundred meters or so into cave is necessarily a risky activity. Many caves, especially dry caves, are incredibly safe. Nonetheless, even experienced cavers follow a number rules as they work their way through caves, even ones they know as well as their backyards.
The rules are:
1. Never enter a cave alone! (check)
2. Always get permission before entering a cave – Every cave has and owner,
respect landowners and their property. (check)
3. Cave in groups of at least 4, and have and experienced caver in the group. (fail)
4. Know your group – make sure they understand and practice cave conservation
and safe caving techniques. (fail)
5. Let someone know where you are going, and when you expect to return. (check, though they have no idea when we'll return)
6. Always have at least 3 reliable sources of light. (massive fail)
7. Know the cave and check weather conditions before entering. (fail)
8. Always wear a helmet & have proper equipment in good working order. (fail)
9. Always have twice as many spare batteries/carbide than you think you’ll need to
complete the trip. (spare what?)
10. Know your limits, and have proper training and safety equipment before
attempting advanced techniques such as vertical caving. (check)
11. Know and abide by the state and federal cave protection laws. (N/A)
12. It is illegal to: break or remove broken formations; disturb harm or remove cave
creatures; disturb or remove historic artifacts or bones; deface the cave by leaving
litter or marking on the cave walls. (N/A)
13. Don’t leave anything in the cave – Pack it in, pack it out! Dispose of all trash
properly. (I assume this means our dead bodies as well)
14. Never use ropes, ladders, etc. that have been left in a cave. (fail)
15. Never run in a cave, and never jump when you can climb. (check)
16. Always stay clear of people above and below when climbing. (fail)
17. If you dislodge anything while climbing, scream “ROCK!” (fail)
18. If someone screams “ROCK!”, don’t look up! (fail)
19. Always stay with your group – don’t wander off. If you get lost, STAY PUT…
someone will find you. (fail)
There are a few more, but you get the idea. Pink doesn't know any of these rules. I'm sure if I yelled rock, she'd look up. Hell, I might look up too.
In Thailand, nearly all the caves that are easily accessible for tourist to wander into are sacred Buddhist sites, often maintained by monks at an on-site temple. The caves house stunning Buddha images, some of the reclining images in the caves are as long as a lorry. Nearly all of these “Buddha caves” also bask in the warm glow of electric lights. The lighting systems are often situated to highlight certain features of the cave, such as “Chicken Rock”, “Chang Rock” or “Swarm Of Bees Descending On Butterfly Pea Flower Rock”. Okay, that last one might not actually exist, but the bottom line is that you don't need a personal source of light, let alone three.
The abundance of caves in this part of Laos, as well as southern Thailand, is due to the limestone bedrock. Where there is limestone, there is nearly always cave systems. Even my home state of Indiana, which nearly nobody knows anything about there are beautiful cave systems due to the limestone bedrock. Because of the accessibility of caving in Indiana, I do have some experience in caves. I would say I have just enough experience to know that Pink and I are about to plunge in over our heads.
A wet cave system, much like Nang Oua Kham, that I developed an intimate relationship with back home is Doghill Donahue. We'd spend hours working our way through the cave. We'd start at a metal drainage pipe that suddenly dumps us into the cave and finish up hours later when we emerged from the cold cave into a warm deciduous forest. The highlight of the system for me was never Bird's Squeeze, which kept a fat friend or two on the other side, but a this low crawl under an engorged, rippling piece of flow stone. Head turned sideways to take advantage of a few inches of breathing room between the rock and the water, you're forced to army crawl several meters until you make the other side. You'd never know that was the way to go unless you were incredibly adventurous or had some beta about the cave.
With out the beta about needing to swim in Nang Oua Kham, Pink and I would be in a similar lets-turn-around situation.
However, we have beta. The cave floor slopes down into a deep pool of water that disappears beneath a low hanging rock formation.
“I guess this is where we get in,” I say.
I strip off my t-shirt, bundling it up with Pink's shorts and shirt. In the light of my headlamp we look like we're willing characters in a horror film. Pink's breasts and wide hips are wrapped up in the American flag bathing suit; I'm standing their in my blue board shorts.
There is the shock of cold water as I wade in first, and a second shock as the frigid liquid ghoulishly licks my genitals. I think no matter how old you get it's impossible to get use to the feeling of dipping your crouch in cold water.
Pink wades in behind me. Though we're not forced to swim, the water quickly comes up to my chest.
“Want a piggy back ride?” I ask.
Pink climbs on and we continue to wade into the darkness. The walls suddenly open up as we reach the far side of the pool. A wooden ladder leads from the rim of the pool to the rest of the cave, which is a few meters above us.
Having left our shoes behind with our clothes – flop flips are not suitable for real caving – our toes dig into the sandy soil along the bank of the pool before finding their way back onto the hard-packed floor at the top of the ladder.
At this point, the cave is a huge tunnel worn away by millions of years of flowing water, or a dragon – there is always the possibility that a giant water dragon burrowed down here like a sulking worm. A dragon, of course, would be a great deal more scary to run into than a snake at this point.
The cave continues on and on and on.
“When do you want to turn around?” I call back to Pink.
Silence. She's there, but doesn't answer.
I ask again several minutes later, again, nothing. At this point, I can't tell if she isn't understanding the question or if she's actively ignoring me.
Daintily, we work our way through a shallow pool of water, the sharp rocks jabbing into our bare feet.
We're unprepared on so many levels: some drinking water, perhaps food to have a picnic, would have been smart things to pack.
We walk further into the darkness. A sign marks a dangerous drop off. This would be a bad time to start breaking legs or twisting ankles.
“When do you want to turn around?” I try again. Still nothing.
We're both lost in our own worlds I guess.
It's not until Pink gets up next to me that I realize how dim my head lamp is. Has it been fading this whole time, or has it always been this dim? Getting down to a single light source between the two of us this deep in the cave is a bad situation.
The total blackness of a cave, something everyone should experience at least once in their life, is its own type of perfection. At the same time, it's completely disorienting. Even with light sources its a struggle to keep track of time, depth distance walked and even from where you came. Have we been walking for 20 minutes? An hour? Two hours? Surely not two hours.
As we push farther into the cave, I'm clinging to the hope that there is an exit, that we won't have to double-back.
Delicately, we work our way over another section of micro-sharp rocks in a shallow pool of water, it's one of many sections like this in the cave. What I'd do to have caving boots or even my flip flops. The sharp rocks are really getting to Pink, slowing her down a great deal. I push forward to check around sharp bend in the main tunnel.
The smell of the cave as slightly changed, I can nearly feel a breeze. At least I think I can. Another 100 meters in and there are signs marking one section as “dangerous” and another as “do not go”. We're at the end of the cave. At least the end of the “tour”, as there is lots of cave left to explore.
The change in smell; the breeze, were fictions of my imagination.
With the cold of the cave setting in and my light quickly fading, Pink and I turn around.
Some time later, we scramble out of the cave's mouth into the humid, tropical warmth of the jungle. A group of Asian and Indian tourist are heading up the muddy slop toward the cave, looking even more unprepared than we were – surely they won't even do the swim through.
Smeared in mud and barely clothed – as we've decided to stay in our bathing suits, Pink and I splash into the teal water of the lagoon below.
Laying on the floating dock in the middle of the lagoon, I come to terms with the bliss of being a lizard on a hot rock. It must be such a trying life to be cold blooded, but it's hard to imagine any type of creature more appreciative of the sun's radiance.
After we dress, a half dozen little boys strip down to their underwear and hurl themselves into the cold water. Three of them commandeer a small paddle boat and oars from somewhere. The others play with a partially deflated black inner tube not far from the shade of an enormous tree. The twisted, winged base of the smooth-barked tree makes it look like it belongs to the Dipterocarpaceae family, which counts a number of sacred species in Southeast Asia among its members.
The kids' brilliant smiles and laughs further warm us.
The boys strip down to their underwear and jump into the lagoon shortly after we get out. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
After getting lost on the way back to Vang Vieng – it's hard to figure out exactly how I'm able to get lost when there's such limited options of roads to take – we end up on an alternative path back to town.
The side of one of the limestone mountains has been ripped open. Not far from its base is a gravel and rock company.
The fresh, white gravel road beneath Rocinante's tires is without a doubt formed from the beautiful mountain's entrails. It's so sad to see an industry destroying any part of such natural beauty. The western conservationist in me immediately begins a familiar internal conversation about the need for countries like Laos to make greater efforts in preserving their natural resources, not exploiting them. Of course, such dialogue always comes from men and women who sit on the shoulders of wealthy nations that became wealthy by ravaging their own precious resources and those of many other nations for hundreds of years.
Who are we to attempt to dictate the resources of another nation under the flag of “world citizens”, when we are only able to raise that flag through the wealth of our own nations? When was the last time you saw a poor Kenyan farmer rallying around the World Citizens' flag?
The gravel road crosses a wide, clear stream before running abreast of another, narrower, stream mostly obscured by low lying bushes and trees, whose leaves are painted a chalky white from limestone dust.
A giraffe tractor, the long-necked kind used in the rice paddies is pulled up on a path leading down to the stream. A couple teenage boys are collecting kindling for a small fire, while about half a dozen have stripped down to their underwear and started to wade into the stream with spear guns.
Most of the boys in the water have round, antique-looking scuba diving masks strapped to their faces, small wicker baskets tied with string around their waists and crude spear guns in hand. They fan out in the water, heads down looking for small fish, snakes and frogs. From time to time one will disappear beneath the surface, legs kicking like a frog's as they chase something down toward the bottom of the shallow stream. Steadily, they work their way up stream, spearing finger-sized fish as they go, then depositing them in their baskets
The teenagers were able to only catch the smallest of fish for their barbecue. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Running further up the road, I search for another path to the river to take more photographs. By the time I've returned, Pink's made friends. The boys crowd around her as she teases them. One of the boys, wearing a a camouflaged baseball cap backwards and sitting on a mat with Pink, has his guitar out.
Loudly, with landyboy bravado – which always makes me wonder – Pink is in the midst of getting the boy to play a popular Thai song for her. A thin stream of light gray smoke is starting to rise from a pile of wood as the other boys start a fire. I join the 17-year-old boy, Pink a couple other boys on the mat.
“Drink,” they say, handing me a glass filled with a cloudy beverage poured from a water bottle. “Lao lao.”
The Lao moonshine stings a bit on the way down, but I polish it off with a bit of relish, promptly finding the the glass refilled for another round.
“Okay, last one,” I say, before finishing the drink. Pink refuses to join in on the drinking, and for good reason: it's really not the most tasty beverage in the world.
Pink wasted no time in making friends with the group of teenagers, speaking to them in Thai. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A dump truck comes rumbling past us, kicking up a cloud of dust. Back on the bike, Pink and I return to town. The dice send us out for a couple drinks at a hippy-style, riverside bar called The Island.
A bridge stretches across a deep section of the river to the island, half of which has been taken over by a resort and bungalows, the other half overgrown with vegetation. The remains of a couple pre-2012 riverside tubing bars succumb to the weight of vegetation. Banana trees have popped up around them, while vines are working their way up cement bars. Two little girls, a young white woman with shortly cropped hair and a Laos woman that looks like she's suffering from a meth addiction are dancing in the grass in front of the bar. Well, not dancing exactly. Their eyes are glued to the television in the bar as they follow a spandex-clad woman through a dancercise workout on YouTube. Despite the heavy amount of thrusting, it ends up being a completely unattractive, uncoordinated affair, though humors to watch. Only a couple other people are sitting at the bar when we arrive.
The dice order me a strawberry daiquiri, served by a New Zealander who happened to be coming through Vang Vieng at the time they were building the bar a month or so ago. He put his building skills to use and is apparently staying on the land for free for a few weeks now and working behind the bar in the evenings.
With couple drinks polished off and the night already pressing in, I make an executive decision: we're going to have a laughing gas balloon.
The woman at the rasta bar at the end of the river road, right before it dips down and away, hands us two menus. One is a food and drink menu. The other is a drug menu. A big sign out front advertises Laughing Balloons for 10,000 kip – a dollar – a piece.
We browse the extensive drug menu.
“Hey, how are you?” asks a gaunt Scandinavian coming down from a opium high. He's the only other client in the bar. I'm assuming the adorably cute puppy standing on a table nearby isn't here as a paying customer.
“You should get the weed. It's really good,” says Ricky, the Scandinavian. “Mind if I join?”
“No, not at all. The more the merrier,” I say to be polite, though I'm entirely happy just playing cards with Pink on the pillowed platform.
Ricky starts talking. He's talking a lot, seemingly unaware of the fact that Pink and I are having to divide our attention between him and our card came. I leave Pink with him to go order two balloons.
When I return, he's still talking.
“I live here,” he says.
“Oh, nice. How long have you lived here.”
After having lived in Phuket for five years, I find people claiming to live somewhere who've really been there a dozen or so weeks to be making flimsy claims.
“I work at a canteen down there eight hours a day,” he explains. “In return, I get free food and a place to stay. There are days I don't spend any money at all.”
Ricky, who apparently is in love with a Laos girl and recently bought her a phone, arrived back in town from Vientiane today. He crashed his scooter three times on the way up, which was at least part of the motivation for self-medicating with opium.
“Can you paint?” he asks me. “I've got a friend opening up a resort who needs painters. You just have to work four hours a day or so and you'll get free accommodation.”
“Interesting. I'll let you know,” I say, though I'm not at the point in Dice Travels that I'll go about working four hours a day as a painter for 10 dollars worth of accommodation.
Our painted speckled balloons, full of nitrous oxide, arrive. I hand one to Pink, who is confused on what to do. Ricky starts explaining that you breath in and out of the balloon until it's all gone.
“You huff it,” I say to Pink, showing her what I mean by putting the top of the balloon in my mouth and sucking it down and then inflating it again several times.
My voice deepens and gets slushy in my ears. With my notepad out, I start to document the feeling, but Ricky doesn't stop talking at me. I just want him to shut up so I can enjoy the immediate onset of the high.
My lips tingle and my head goes foggy. Pink looks comatose, but she just looks that way sometimes.
She and Ricky are yelling about something. I pop the balloon back in my mouth though there is no nitrous oxide left, it dangles from my lips like a flaccid piece of bacon.
The rush quickly fades. It was similar to the feeling you get when you hyperventilate, which makes sense, as the laughing gas actually prevents some oxygen from reaching your brain, which causes the high.
“The weed here is amazing. You can get the whole bag for 100,000 kip,” Ricky says.
“I don't think we need that much, and I don't want to carry it around on us.”
“It's fine. You don't want to smoke in the streets, but like in your room is fine. I can bring it to your hotel if you want,” Ricky says, really pushing for us to buy some weed.
Instead, Pink and I decided to go with one of the edibles: a weed pancake. Admittedly, edibles aren't the most exciting drug, but having had a couple drinks, it seems like jumping straight in and doing shrooms or opium is a bad idea.
“You can also just buy a single joint, smoke it in the back,” Ricky says.
“Okay, let us eat this pancake first and we'll see.”
“Mind if I come back and share the joint with you, if you do buy?”
“Yeah, that's fine.”
Pinky and I dig into the fluffy, golden pancake immediately after it arrives. A little butter and some maple syrup would be perfect, but even as a naked, dry flap jack, it's pretty good eating.
“I don't think it's working,” Pink says.
“Are you sure she said one was enough to split?”
“I think so.”
Ricky finally wanders off, but not before reminding me to let him know about the “sweet” painting job.
I settle our tab at the bar. On the way back to the room the weed hits us – hits us hard.
Pink passes out in her bed.
With my arm around her, I turn on the TV. My head's buzzing like a hive of sleepy bees on the verge of dreaming about winter. CNN is on. There's something about African businesses today playing – a Nigerian is “revolutionizing” the bottled juice industry in the country. For couple hours I contemplate how perfectly wonderful it is to sit in a comfortable bed and watch CNN. It's hard to think of a situation more conducive to watching a news channel. After a straight news section, the channel switches over to re-run of their featured Asia segment, which was on before the African segment. They're talking about the development of the high-end, socially-aware local food market in mainland China as I drift off into a deep, blissful sleep.