Day 141: Trekking up 100 Waterfalls in Laos
The hike takes us through some local rice paddies, as well as up the mountain river. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
THE manager of Tiger Tours, Harper, was still sitting behind his cluttered desk next to Delilah's Bakery, though several scooters had already been rolled up into the room for in anticipation of closing.
“Is it too late to book the tour for tomorrow?” I ask
“Yes.” “Perfect, Ana said you'd come by,” Harper says.
I sit down on a long metal cluster bomb shell that's been converted into a bench to fill in the paperwork.
I explain how the dice brought Ana and I to this point.
The total cost was 180,000 Kip, which was pretty expensive. However, the price included lunch and supposedly goes toward the local village as well – so I wrote it off as the die's decision to be a responsible tourist.
“Did she look at other tours?” He wants to know. “They are cheaper, but we're the only ones that take care of the village. I'm trying to get them to sign a document to take to the government to prevent other tours from going to 100 Waterfalls, as we developed the trek along with the help of the local village.”
A4 pieces of paper with passive aggressive notes about other tour companies litter the walls.
“I think she did, but the die decided that we go with you.”
Harper, a long-haired man in his late 40s, perhaps Dutch, starts in about cosmic plans. Asking if I've read the Rhonda Byrne book The Secret, which is revolves around the ideas of the laws of attraction and that positive thinking can create life-changing results.
“Do you want to know what to expect during the trek?” Harper asks.
“That's okay. It doesn't really matter, the die has decided, so I'm going either way.”
Harper likes that, but when he finds out that I might bring a drone and get some footage for him, he decides it's better to brief me, putting on a few videos / slideshows of what turns out not to be the trek but Laos tourism in general.
Though I'm not convinced that there will be safe places to fly the drone near the waterfall, Harper insists that there will be three places to get footage. He's eager to get the video for promotional material for Tiger Tours.
I find myself hoping that he'll cut me a deal on the price of the trek given that I'm offering to give him the drone footage for free. However, I don't ask for it, and he doesn't offer. Instead, I find myself offering to cut off the intro of a movie that he wants to play at the cafe in the evenings.
The Hmong Laos documentary Hunted Like Animals dives into the ongoing genocide of the Hmong people who were abandoned by the United States after we withdrew from Vietnam. The Hmong fought a jungle mountain gorilla war for the US after being trained up by the CIA, we left behind more than 17,000 people who are still being hunted down and tormented by Laos and Vietnamese soldiers.
Watch the whole thing, or just get a feel for it. Video: SommeFilms
As in today, somewhere in the jungles of this country that I am pleasantly cruising through on my motorcycle there are entire families trying to avoid extermination.
It was hard for me to wrap my head around. We are use to these things – genocide, mass killings – coming to light after they happened or at least somewhere else. But this was still happening. Still happening here.
Harper was hoping that if I edited out the first couple minutes of the movie, he'd be able to get permission from the Laos government to show it – freedom is always a frame of reference I guess.
This morning, Ana and I joined the rest of our group at Tiger Tours, where Harper was haphazardly trying to get everything in order so that our guide, Thom, could get started.
Thom's a young, handsome Lao man. Married by the age of 19, this 26 year old now has a five year old son, OB.
We climb into a narrow blue boat and head down river.
The Nam Ou River is running high, very high, climbing up tree trunks along the bank.
“Kayaking was once very good, when the water ran fast,” Thom says. “Now, the Chinese dam has changed everything.”
The hydropower dam built and owned by the Chinese farther down river, prevents direct boat trips between Luang Prabong and Nong Khiaw. It was finished only a year or two ago. Since then, fishermen have been struggling, their traditional fishing techniques which utilized certain types of nets are no longer ideal for the significantly deeper, slow moving water. A collection of plastic bottles float along the surface, which I assume is trash from the town up river, until Thom points out that they are attached to gill nets stretched out beneath the river's muddy surface.
The dam is already having significant impacts on locals. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A number of locals that owned low-lying, river-side property this far up stream are in the process of suing the Chinese company responsible for the dam, seeking compensation. After they planted their crops, the dam forced the river up onto their farm land, submerging them. Villagers closer to the dam were already compensated, but those in this area weren't supposed to be impacted by the dam, explains Thom.
Our boat pulls up along the bank. We disembark at a village. There is a sign at the center of B Don Khoun, if center is the right word, which it probably isn't, that says it costs 10,000 Kip to go up the 100 Waterfall trek, 50,000 kip for a local guide and 5,000 kip to spend the night in the village. There goes Harper's claim that Tiger Tours has some sort of exclusive rights to the trek and that the village is upset about other companies coming through. I have a sneaking suspicion that the villagers don't give a flying-one which tour agency brings people through, as long as we all put our info into the notebook of the boss woman of the village and the appropriate fees are paid.
Already hitting the bottle and it wasn't even noon yet. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The village life wasn't too different than what I'd seen traveling the roads of Laos on the motorcycle. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The boss woman squats on a small stool, her huge breasts drooping beneath a flowery blouse. She hands Thom a book for as all to register in.
Straight through the dusty little village, the same sort of village that I've passed through on the motorcycle dozens of times, we find ourselves tromping up an irrigation canal that looks a lot like a flooded hiking path.
The village is a dusty affair a collection of two-storey, wood-paneled houses with a Buddhist temple that is falling into disarray on the outskirts. It's not exactly what I'd consider a selling point for a tour. In fact, I assume that there is another village further up, closer to the waterfalls – something more primitive – where we'll be served lunch.
The impact of the Chinese dam compared to that of the Laos hydro dam on the stream our trail keeps crisscrossing after we leave the village behind is like comparing a single human life to the entire biomass of plant earth. Basically, there is no comparison.
Dangling above our heads are the thinnest of electrical wires.
“Not China damn; Laos damn,” Thom says.
These dozen or so spindly wires are carry a light electrical current from the stream up ahead to the village behind us. Just enough electricity for a handful of the homes to power small televisions and radios.
The Laos hydro damn is so primitive and ingenious that it seems impossible that it creates something as extraordinary as electricity. Let's pause for a single moment and reflect on how supremely impressive electricity, in all its forms, is, as well as our ability to harness this power.
Two boards channel the stream water down a narrow shaft. The water hits what appears to be a boat propeller, which spins at a rate fast enough to power whatever contraption is sitting at the other end of the dowel rod that sits under a little black bucket. Under the bucket is where the magic happens. Somewhere in my head there is the idea of magnets and copper wire and some whizzing, whirling magic that ends up producing electricity. However, I'm not so confident that's how it works. How incredible is it that I am so entirely reliant on something that I fail to really understand even at the most basic level.
Laos-style hydro dam. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Farther along, we break from the stream and work our way through golden fields of rice.
“There are two types of rice,” explains Thom. “Down here, they can plant and harvest three times a year, while on the mountain slopes, they can only plant one crop before having to clear another section of trees.”
Freshly harvested rice, yet to be thrashed is piled into turrets, the heads of the plants facing inward and covered by a single tarp.
We stop for water and more pictures, watching as a group of a dozen or so men and woman harvest the rice from a paddy. Each person, some wearing traditional cone hats others in baseball caps, grab handfuls of rice before swiftly slicing the plants at the stem. Hunched over, the teams work quickly and methodically.
The rice is cut, thrashed and then carried to the river where it can be transported to the nearest roadway. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Ana walks into one of the fields for a better photo, I follow. A cute puppy, perhaps two or three months old is bouncing around in the field. Noticing the attention that Ana and I are paying to the pup one of the women good-naturedly snatches the animal be a single hind leg and holds it up for us.
“No, no, no put it down. Put it down,” Ana says, starting to panic.
The woman gives her a huge grin and puts the animal back down.
“It's okay. It's cultural; they eat them here,” I explain to Ana as we return to the trail and catch up with the rest of the group.
The group is standing awkwardly near a raised bamboo sala where three local men are drinking, eating and successfully avoiding work.
Though everyone else seems too shy to join them on the bamboo mats spread on the sala floor, I don't hesitate when they invite me up for a drink.
I throw back the shot of Lao Lao, local moonshine, that they poured from 1.5 liter water bottle.
A piece of meat, perhaps an organ, is handed to me as a chaser. I gobble it up, not worryied about what healthy and safety regulations might be violated at this little picnic.
Cut off some more meat, one of the men tells another in a local dialect.
With a handsome knife the man slice pieces of soft, delicious pork liver from a chunk of meat sitting in a woven basket nearby. The meat joins an assortment of other dishes in plastic bowls at the center of the circle. The blade of the knife is from the metal of a bomb. Done slicing up the liver, the man locks the knife back into it's wooden sheath.
I take another shot of booze and followed by more meat. Fuck the waterfalls, I could spend the rest of the day, overlooking the rice paddies being harvested below and getting drunk with these guys.
So I joined for a drink and food. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
However, the rest of the group is ready to go, so I hop down and tug my shoes back on.
“Did you try it?” I ask an Israeli guy who's part of the trek.
“No, it looked like piss,” he replies with a smile.
“Yeah, it's moonshine. All moonshine looks like piss,” I reply. In this particular case it would be someone's piss if they were suffering a yeast infection – it was a bit cloudy.
“Was it good?”
“It was Lao Lao, so as good as Lao Lao can be, I guess.”
The trek up the waterfalls themselves is fine.
The jungle is pressing in pretty close, closing in over the tumble waterfalls. Rudimentary stairs have been cut into section of smooth flow stone allowing us to climb up the mountain stream.
There is a bit of commotion in the group as the braver ones use a section of rope to climb up a steep waterfall, while others take a bamboo ladder to the top. I pass my dry bag off to someone taking the ladder – the bag at this point has my camera, Ana's camera and one other guys camera in it.
I find myself being very thankful that I'm not committed to producing any drone videos, as there's yet to be a section of the waterfalls that's financially safe to fly.
Thom stops on a couple occasions to hack a fresh bamboo stem, which I presume will be used in lunch later in the day.
The top of the final waterfall offers a pleasant view of some of the surrounding mountains. There's a little shelter, table and benches setup.
Thom unpacks curry fried rice wrapped in banana leafs for each of us – a less than impressive lunch, but delicious nonetheless.
My legs start to tremble as I continue down the steep slope behind one of the four Israels on the tour. I had no idea that I was this out of shape.
Back at the sala, the three men are a bit more drunk than when we last saw them. They warmly greet me, calling me back onto the mat. Soon, I'm joined by couple others from our group, while the rest stand alongside.
This time, the Israeli guy goes ahead and tries the moonshine and the pork, which catches me off guard.
As we're leaving, I catch Thom slip the men some money out of the corner of my eye.
A deep tiredness sets in. I'm not the only one that feels it either. We still have the cave to explore as we climb back into the long boat, but all I want to do is nap. Listening to someone talking, I close my eyes and drift off. All-day tours always seem like a brilliant idea until I find myself on one. I've been glancing at my watch for the last three or four hours I think.
The boat stops not far up river at a small restaurant owned by Thom's wife. A single bungalow with air conditioning is available for rent and a petanque pitch is set up.
Most of the group begrudgingly joins in the short approach hike to Pha Kuang Cave, across the road from the restaurant. Thom doesn't exactly own the cave, but he pays taxes on the right to charge an entrance fee and manage the cave.
Religious artifacts, as well as war-time artifacts are still present in the cave. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The cave has a mammoth entrance, which opens into an impressive cathedral. On the right-hand side of the entrance there are several circular blasts marks from when the cave was bombed for several days in 1971 by the Americans during the Secret War in Laos.
Thom, from a nearby village, doesn't known how many were killed or injured in the attack.
The dry cave played a number of roles during the war as it was a makeshift hospital, bomb shelter for locals and Vietnamese and a place to store ammunition, Thom explains. A small collection of broken medicinal vials and rounds of ammunition can be seen near the entrance. Further in, I find even more artifacts from the war.
The dark mouth of the cave was bombarded by US war planes in 1971. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Remain
At the back of the main chamber, with a cathedral ceiling more than twenty meters above, is a jumble of broken Buddha images where the original Buddhist place of worship was before it was destroyed by a bomb blast. A new, modest, shrine has been established a few meters away.
The cave itself is easy to navigate as it is very linear with side-branches that don't reach out more than a several meters from the main path. Past the first cathedral, the smooth walls and well-packed cave floor leads us deep into the cave. At about this point, even before the OB squeeze most of the group turns back. At the squeeze itself, everyone else calls it, leaving Thom and myself alone in the cave.
The OB Squeeze, named after Thom's son, is the first tricky part of the cave. With a bit of effort I manage to pull and wiggle my body on a diagonal, squeezing through. Once on the other side, I'm able to move in comfortable crouching position, before I come to an about-20-meter long section that requires army crawling. On the other side, the cave opens back up, eventually letting out into
another larger chamber.
Unfortunately, even this deep in vandals, tourists, have left their marks, scratching dates, names and silly phrases into the ancient rocks walls.
Peering into nooks and crannies I find small clay Buddha images.
“How old are these,” I ask, touching one of the small figures.
“More than 100 or 200 years old.”
Two wooden signs mark the end of the road for Thom and me, as technical caving skills and special equipment would be required to push further into the system. A piece of metal, that looks very much like a climbing bolt, is visible on the far side of a chasm, toward an upper tunnel.
Thom points it out, though doesn't know who put it there or why they did so.
It's amazing to think that this much history and archaeology is still unexplored in this single cave. Several days of dedicated work could reveal all sorts historical treasures. Of course, pushing any further into the cave would also be going beyond the area swept for unexploded ordinances by Laos UXO, so might come with some unique dangers to caving. Either way, surely these tunnel were part of a larger network used during the war.
Back outside, Thom and I join the others, who are tired and ready to head back at their rooms.
“Do you want to chip in for a tip for Thom,” one of the woman on the trip asks me. “Sure, how much?”
However, it turns out that the Italian couple already tipped him by the time the woman started collecting money.
“I'll just give him a tip later,” I say, as I don't having appropriate change.
“Okay, see you tomorrow Thom. I'll come by and we can set up the TripAdivsor and Facebook for the cave,” I say, waving Thom off.
The woman who asked about leaving the tip catches up with me.
“That's the best tip you can possible leave,” she says, warming my heart a little, as I was feeling a bit guilty for not giving him a cash tip. However, he and I had been talking about setting up an online presence so that people can explore the cave, which is good for him, but also good for tourists.
Ana is glowing from the trek, though also dirty, hungry and tired. However, standing in the middle of the bridge on the way back to our respective bungalows, we are both completely captivated by the extraordinary beauty of the view up river. Somewhere above one of the limestone mountain peaks the moon, three days away from being full, seems five per cent too big. The river itself, despite its' breadth disappears into the blue of dusk, while the sharp outlines of the mountains proved the faded backdrop to even more mountains.
“I'm in love with Laos. I could spend weeks right here,” Ana says, smiling at the world around her.
Later that night, thinking about a friend of mine from Phuket who is to meet up with me for the final leg of the Laos trip, my thoughts turn to Julia. Julia's the beautiful woman that I left in Phuket when I started the journey. It feels so strange to have met up with a number of friends from Phuket, yet actively avoided trying to get Julia to join me for any section of the trip. Of course, it's complicated, which is why I'm avoiding it.
“If it's an even, I'll see if she wants to come visit me in Chiang Mai I reason. If it's odds, I'll... I'll leave it up to my better judgment,” I say, knowing full well that it's a weak second option.
I'm grateful to see the cube showing me a four.
“That simplifies things,” I think.