We decided to take a guided kayaking trip along the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves which were supposed to contain some huge number of thousands of Buddhas, a popular trip from Luang Prabang. We were sure to book the half day trip because, due to an unfortunate combination of Vietnamese week long national holidays, weekends, and our travel plans, we HAD to get our Vietnamese visas THAT afternoon.
The morning started by the four tour-ers + two guides being shuttled to the kayak launch site in a minibus. The trip involved pulling in to someone’s private driveway complete with household man in wifebeater, woman holding a baby with a 5 year old zipping around the front, and a money exchange. The kayaks also happened to be stored here and were loaded onto the bus. In the back row Jason and I were invited to try one of the guide’s breakfast of a hunk of smoked pork skin with sticky rice, and after politely declining but encouraged to eat anyway, tried it. It tasted weird and chewy, just like it looked.
Before we got in the boats the guides were sure to make sure we were trained and prepared for all outcomes. Something like this:
Guide: “Have you kayaked before?”
Jason and I: “Yes.”
Guide: “OK, great! Let’s go!”
We climbed in, pushed off, and were on our way! After about ten seconds, we showed our kayaking expertise by getting the boat wedged on some rocks. We masterfully freed ourselves, using mostly the power of our yelling, so finally we were able to get on with the next order of busines—flipping the boat. Yep, within 30 seconds of getting in our boat we fell out. With the help of our guides who dutifully paddled back up stream to help us, we embarrassedly and awkwardly clambered back up and resumed the journey.
I am a bad writer/blogger/traveler and don’t have that much interesting to say about the rest of the journey. I was thinking sometimes about what a different experience you get kayaking rather than taking a motorboat. One difference is the peaceful silence. Another is physical labor, of which we both have different opinions of who did more (me, obviously). Often I was thinking about how incredibly un-cold it was (wet clothing from our “dip” was a blessing for about 10 minutes, until it dried). The parts of the trip I did not spend thinking about the above things, we spent “discussing” how one of us thought our kayak was unsafely tailgating the guide’s while the other thought we should stay close to follow their path exactly to avoid hitting hidden rocks and dumping over again. And also Jason decreasingly politely asking me to repeat myself because I would say things facing forward (I’m always instructed to sit in the front?) because WHO KNEW but when you say things facing the wrong way, the other person can’t hear you. You learn something every day.
Once, and this is one of my favorite memories, there was a shaft of sunlight streaming down on a tuft of plants crowned with wee flowers and a flock of tiny white butterflies flitting around it. I thought groups of butterflies spiraling together around shafts of sunlight over a tuft of flowers were strictly in fairy tale territory, but it’s REAL!
Besides the butterflies, the highlight of the scenery was a towering cliff that we could see from afar and slowly slowly paddled towards. Kayaking allowed us a much closer, slower, and quieter experience with the cliff. It was neat to paddle right up to the side—the previously higher water level had eroded the cliff so there was even an overhang lining the whole cliff to explore. The rock was rippled and pitted in an interesting texture due to the erosion by the Mekong over the ages (no pictures sorry, camera while kayaking = sad camera). The guide also explained there was a story locally that any man wanting to be mayor of the local village could take over, no questions asked, if he proved himself by jumping off the cliff. Apparently nobody became mayor.
The buddha caves were nice. There were lots of Buddhas. Big Buddhas, small Buddhas, gold Buddhas, wood Buddhas, sitting Buddhas, lying Buddhas. The guide told us it used to be a very holy site for locals and they would bring a buddha statue here for luck, but now the tourists are coming and taking pictures all the time so it is not holy any more. Um. Whoops.
After the caves we were escorted to the included lunch which was chicken fried rice and some of the super sweet Southeast Asian bananas. After this we were supposed to split up into the half day and full day tours. The full day-ers were off to have an elephant ride and then kayak some more. We were supposed to be shuttled back to town so we could make it to the Vietnamese consulate by closing time.
SURPRISE! Our guides MOST generously insisted that we could have the full day tour as a FREE UPGRADE (but skip the elephants, those cost more). We politely insisted that while it was a MOST generous offer, we really must be back to town by about 4pm (and it was already past 1pm, the time we were originally promised to get back to town). The problem was, apparently, they could not split the guides and had not planned on us coming back earlier than the others (?). On any other day we would have been perfectly happy accepting the full day tour, but THIS day we needed. to. get. back.
After mentally rearranging our travel plans for the rest of the month to accommodate our late visa, somehow the other two guys agreed to go back with us. I even think they might have been relieved. Or at least they pretended to be a little relieved.
OK! So now we had cut two other guys’ tours in half and we would possibly get back to the town before the consulate closed. All we needed was the van to take us back!
But the van couldn’t reach the lunch site or the kayaks where they were. So we paddled to another landing and then draaaaaaaagged, painfully, inch by inch, the kayaks up this impossibly steep slope made of loose gravel so there could be a road nearby for the van to get to us. It seemed to me like some plastic filled with air that also floats should NOT be that heavy. But it was.
So we were all on our way, everyone feeling terrible. Us because we made the two guys cut short their tour, the guys because we cut short their tour, and the guides were also irritable. I thought maybe they would be happy because they would get a half day off for free, especially since one of them had a sister’s wedding that night(to which he invited two other foreigners at lunch. But not us! How do the other people get invited to random weddings?), but they weren’t. And during all the terrible pot-holed dirt roads and heat of the hour plus van ride back I was trying not to look at the clock (because I have tried to convince myself that when you’re in some transportation that you’re not controlling (train, minibus) it doesn’t matter what time it is) but in my head going over and over the possibility of missing the visa and having to redo our plans. Because, you know, that would be the worst thing EVAR.
When we got back to town we ran back to our hotel (the van dropped the other folks off at their hotel but dropped us off several blocks away for some reason. My guess is they didn’t want to pass the tour agency and let them know they were off the clock) quickly changed clothes and ran back outside to one of the ridiculous rainbow rickshaws and directed him towards the consulate. But of course he didn’t know where the consulate was so there had to be a lengthy discussion among all the rickshaw drivers in the area, including some passing by, about where the consulate was. Ever so slowly, some consensus was reached and we were on our way!