Two Backpacks

Water slide Vang Vieng

Chapter 22 - A Day on the Water, Vang Vieng

            With help from our bus driver, we locate our hostel, KTV. I only booked for two nights as I wasn’t sure how good the room would be at the bargain price of ten dollars a night. But it’s fine, and there are plenty of restaurants nearby.

            Ron and I drop our bags in our room and head out for lunch, a baguette and lassi shake purchased from a small, homely café overlooking the picturesque valley.

            ‘I think we’d better head back soon,’ suggests Ron as we finish our meal. He indicates the dark clouds gathering in the distance. A sharp crack of thunder emphasises his point. We pay for lunch and dash to our hostel, arriving just as the rain begins to fall.

            A clear, bright morning welcomes us when we rise the following day.

             Vang Vieng is a backpackers’ paradise.  Accommodation is cheap, and there’s plenty to do. The town is famous for its riverside tubing bars where, for a few dollars, you can hire a rubber tube and float down the river, stopping at bars along the way.

             It’s popular with backpackers travelling north or south via Luang Prabang. Ramshackle huts and rickety bamboo restaurants line the unmade dirt streets serving cheap food and beer, adding to the town’s charm.

             ‘Don’t fancy floating downstream on rubber rings!’ I state as we both study options at one of the many adventure outlets that line the busy main street. ‘How about that one?’ I point to a flier advertising kayaking and a cave trip.

            ‘Suppose so,’ replies Ron with little enthusiasm.

              ‘It’ll be fun!’ I insist. ‘Come on, let’s book it.’

             ‘But I’ve never been in a kayak, let alone paddled one! Are you sure you want to do it?’ asks Ron.

             ‘You’ll be fine. Just follow my instructions. We’ll have fun!’ I repeat, hoping to convince Ron.

            We’re up early, and after a quick breakfast of toast and coffee, we walk to the meeting point, ten minutes away. There we meet our fellow adventurers – five young, fit people keen on having a good day on the Nam Song River.

            Our transport, an elongated tuk-tuk, weaves through narrow lanes, following the river upstream. Forty minutes later, we’re standing on the river bank, receiving instructions on navigation.

            ‘But first, we go to caves,’ advises one of the four assistants with us on our day’s outing, adding, ‘There’s been rain in the hills; this can cause the caves to flood. We will see what the water level is once we arrive and then decide whether it’s safe to proceed.’

            ‘At least they sound professional, but the thought of being stuck in a flooding cave network doesn’t sound good.’ I’m not happy at the thought of going underground. But Ron doesn’t seem concerned, so I try to shrug off my feeling of unease.

            We dutifully follow the guides across fields to the caves’ entrance, where we’re each given a black inflated rubber ring, a lamp fastened to an elastic headband and a large square battery to power our head torches.

            ‘They look a bit dodgy!’ exclaims Ron as a guide clips a battery to his chest. ‘Don’t they realise that electricity and water don’t mix!’ Ron quickly adjusts the belt so it’s nearer his chin and away from the water in the caves.

             ‘Here, let me adjust yours,’ he offers.

            Once we’re all set, we head for the caves and wade knee-deep into the icy cold water. With my bottom well and truly wedged into the opening in the inner tube, I prepare to set off.

            ‘Hold on to the rope,’ instructs our guide. ‘Don’t let go! These caves go for miles. If we lose you, it will take a special team to locate you again.’

            He fails to add whether we’d survive in such a scenario!

            ‘I’m not sure I want to do this now, Ron. It all seems a little haphazard.’

            ‘You’ll be okay. Go first; I’ll keep an eye on you,’ Ron states, pushing me ahead of him.

            I float by, desperately trying to use the rope as a guide, passing it hand over hand as we edge farther into the caves. There’s the sound of rushing water in the distance. The cold, eerie darkness envelopes us, lit only by the dim lamps on our heads.

             We follow our guide. I can see the roof of the cave, dark, dank and ominous; it slopes down towards the gurgling grey, murky water. As we get closer, I realise there’s only a narrow space to negotiate our way through. I watch in horror as the man before me lays flat on his inner tube and launches himself through the gap.

            Then it’s my turn. Ron’s behind me, but panic is rising. What if I get stuck or the water rises, and we can’t get back? Trying to steady my nerves, I take a deep breath and pull myself forward on the rope, pushing myself down onto the tube at the last minute. The rock face scrapes the inner tyre and I feel cold stone against my legs and arms. I can’t hold my breath much longer! Then I’m through and in a large cavern with three of our group. Now all I have to do is hope Ron makes it through okay!

            What seems like ten minutes but is probably only two; Ron’s by my side again.

            ‘Bloody hell! That was dangerous! I wasn’t sure I’d make it. Have we got to go back the same way?’ Ron asks one of the guides, who simply nods in reply.

            Our progress is slow as we work our way deeper under the hills. I’m trying not to think of the tons of rock and earth now above my head.

            A little later, our guide indicates that we must clamber out of our tubes and walk. Like a class of children playing Chinese whispers, the message passes along the line, Water too shallow, get out and walk.

            We follow instructions and, clutching our inflated rings, hobble over the rocky river bed to a section with more water. Getting back into my tube is difficult; the flow of the water is stronger than before. I fling myself onto it, grabbing the overhead rope at the same time, fearing I’ll disappear into the dark abyss of underground caves.

            ‘Sandi, are you okay?’ Ron’s voice cuts through the rush of water.

            He’s just as worried as me! I think as I try to steady myself.

            ‘Go head to foot,’ comes the instruction from the man ahead of me. ‘Like this,’ he adds, throwing a leg over my tube and hooking it through the hole in the centre.

            I pass the instruction to Ron, who does likewise to the person behind him.

            Now, our only means of propulsion are our arms which we rotate in a sort of backstroke. After ten minutes of constant paddling, my shoulders are on fire! Totally reliant on the person in front of Ron and me at the rear, I pray neither lets go of me or my black inner tube.

            We stop a few minutes later. Again, the Chinese whispers. Too dangerous to continue. Water rising. We’re returning to the surface.

            The journey back passes without incident, apart from having to navigate our way under the rocky overhand again. This time the thought of escaping the caves spurs me on. Back in the sunlight, I collapse on the grassy river bank.

            ‘That was frightening, Ron! I nearly lost hold of the rope a couple of times. I’m sure something brushed against my leg. I’ve no idea what it was!’

            Ron doesn’t reply immediately. I think he’s recovering from the ordeal too.

            ‘I wonder what would have happened if one of us had disappeared into the labyrinth of caves? Would they have gone to look for us?’

             ‘We’re safe and alive to tell the tale!’ I reply, pulling myself up from the grass to join our fellow adventurers for lunch.

             An hour later, we’re preparing to kayak downriver. Our guide repeats his earlier instructions on navigation and then comes over to where Ron and I are standing.

             ‘Would you like to split up? Each of you go with one of our experienced kayaking crew?’ he offers, unsure whether Ron and I can handle the trip together.

            Before I can say anything, Ron replies, ‘No, thanks. We’ll be fine. Sandi’s kayaked before.’

            I turn to look at him. ‘But you haven’t! Wouldn’t it make sense to go with someone who knows what they’re doing?’ I ask.

            ‘We’ll be fine! It’ll be fun!’ Ron states, ending any further discussion.

            We shrug ourselves into our lifejackets and clamber into our boat, me at the rear steering and Ron up front providing the power, or so I hope!

            One of the guides pushes us from the bank, and we begin to paddle towards the group waiting for us upstream.

            Are we going to survive this? I wonder as I watch Ron struggle to come to terms with his two-bladed paddle.

            ‘Okay, Ron. A few simple instructions.’

            But Ron’s not listening; he’s looking about in a world of his own.

            ‘Ron! Listen! When I say paddle right, I want you to paddle on the right side of the kayak. The same applies when I say paddle left. Got it?’

            ‘Yep! Sounds fine.’

            I’m not convinced.

             We set off, following the lead guide, one kayak behind the other. Ron has trouble paddling, but luckily, we get into a rhythm before we reach the first stretch of white water.

            ‘Paddle right!’ I shout to Ron, who slices his blade into the water on the kayak’s left side. ‘Right!’ I yell, trying desperately to steer away from fast approaching bank. ‘Ron! Are you listening? Right! Right!’ I scream as I frantically push my blade against the strong current in an attempt to guide the kayak parallel to the bank.

            ‘Watch out, Ron!’ I warn as overhanging branches and thorny brambles clutch at our clothing. The angry waters sweep us along as I try to control our passage through the undergrowth.

            Bloodied but still afloat, we manage to rejoin our group. The chief guide paddles alongside us.

             ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like to change crew?’ he asks, obviously concerned for our safety.

             I’m not sure, but I think it’s a Scottish thing – Ron’s determined not to give in to me, the guide or the river.

             ‘No, thanks, mate! We’re grand,’ Ron replies with a smile.

            Once the guide has paddled away, it’s my turn. Trying to control my temper, I ask, ‘Which is your right hand, Ron?’

            Ron holds up his right hand.

            ‘And which is your left?’

             Ron obligingly holds up his left hand.

            ‘Then when I say paddle right, you friggin’ well paddle on that side! Got it?’

            I’m still unsure that Ron has, but we’re in fast-moving waters, and I’m desperate to stay afloat.

            ‘Left, Ron! Left!’ I yell and watch in horror as Ron shoves his blade into the water on the right.

             All I can do is try to steer through the churning waters as we continue downstream. In one section, I misjudge an outcrop of rocks. I know what’s going to happen.

            ‘Hold on!’ I shout as the kayak’s bow slides upward onto the smooth rock surface before the force of the water takes the stern sideways, and we slowly but gracefully flip over.

            The shock of the water and the tumbling motion of the waves disorientates me. I scramble over the river bed, trying to grab a boulder, anything to stop my momentum. I surface downriver. I’d done as instructed and kept hold of my paddle – it was this that the guide had grabbed as I went tumbling past! Another guide, seeing what happened,  had paddled after our kayak and brought it back to where Ron and I are standing, waist-deep in the cold water.

             ‘You climb on board first,’ our guide instructs me. ‘Once she’s in, you get in,’ he adds, looking at Ron.

            Both seated in our kayak again, I know what Ron’s about to say.

            ‘Don’t you dare say a word!’ I mutter through clenched teeth. ‘If I’d not been worrying about what you were doing, I might have been able to steer us passed that rock!’

            We spend the next twenty minutes in silence, paddling alongside one of our guides, until we reach the tubing bars. I’m relieved to be out of our boat and able to dry off in the sunshine; I laze on the river bank, grateful when our guide brings a tray of alcohol-laced fruit drinks and pastry snacks.

            The bars are busy. Ron and I watch, horrified, as intoxicated young men and women happily throw themselves from the swing ropes into the sluggish waters of the river.

            The alcohol and food help revive us, and an hour later, we’re back in our kayaks, paddling downstream on the last leg of our trip.

            Ron’s stiff; his back is playing up. I can see he’s in pain as he moves around in front of me, trying to ease the muscles in his back. Once or twice he nearly has us over again.

            ‘Ron! Sit still! I don’t want another soaking!’ I yell.

            ‘It’s my back. I can’t sit like this. It really hurts. Paddling doesn’t help either,’ he replies.

            I know his back can be a problem. I’ve seen him when it’s been bad before. He has to lie on the floor for several hours and do gentle exercises to ease the pain.

            ‘Look, I can manage by myself. The current isn’t strong here. Try to get comfy. I’ll get us back. Just don’t rock the boat!’

            We return without further mishap and arrive at our hostel sore and exhausted. After a hot shower, we head to our favourite café for a delicious shepherd’s pie supper.

            Once our waiter takes our order and brings us a beer each, I ask Ron the question that’s been bugging me all day.

            ‘So why did you insist on paddling on the left when I was shouting right?

            Ron looks sheepish.

            ‘Well, I thought you’d got it wrong; to turn right, I had to paddle on the left side.’

            I try to explain, but despite ten minutes of discussion, I’m still not sure Ron’s convinced.

            ‘Okay, how about we do it again tomorrow, and you steer?’ I ask in frustration. ‘Let’s see how long it takes before you have us in the water paddling on the wrong side of the boat!’

            Ron looks at me and laughs. ‘It was quite an adventure, wasn’t it?’

            It’s impossible to stay angry with him. I smile. 

            ‘How about we agree to disagree for now?’ he asks, finishing his beer. ‘Come on; I’m exhausted. Let’s head home.’

            We’re in bed by eight-thirty!