I had been living in Chiang Mai, Thailand for almost a year. Unfortunately, planning ahead is not my forte, so I didn’t think of getting a year-long visa from my home country before I went. So that meant my only option (aside from miraculously convincing the school where I worked to obtain proper working papers for me) was to undertake a visa run to another country every three months. Since I couldn’t afford to fly regularly on my English teachers’ salary, my only choice for a quick trip was the grueling overnight bus to neighboring Laos. That also meant hanging out in Vientiane for three days, which I had already done once and didn’t plan to ever do again. So this time I planned my trip over a weekend so I would have enough extra time to take a bus to Vang Vien.
Going to Vang Vien
I’ll spare you the nasty details of the long trip and the longer visa application line. Suffice to say, I dropped off my application on Friday morning, and would pick it up on Monday afternoon. So I headed to the bus station to board the four-hour tourist bus to Vang Vien. (By now I’d discovered that busses are incredibly cheap while tuk-tuks are incredibly expensive in Vientiane – so my tuk-tuk from the embassy to the bus station was almost the same price as the bus itself!) The bus ride was not as bad as I had read online, aside from the Canadian guys in front of me who kept singing the Canadian version of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” and the scenery was breathtaking in places. When we arrived, I found a guesthouse with small cheap rooms and dropped off my stuff so I could wander around the town. After almost two days of sitting on busses, I was desperate to do something physical, and wanted to fill my short time here with as much adventure as possible. Most of the people from my bus were heading straight for the river tubing that gives Vang Vien its fame among young backpackers, but sitting in a rubber tube getting drunk just wasn’t enough for me today. So I asked around at several tour agencies for something I could do for the rest of the afternoon, and came up with a half-day rock climbing trip. Half my afternoon was already gone, so I overpaid a bit, but they were happy to send a personal guide with me for the extra money. My guide was really friendly and interesting, and when I said I lived in Thailand we were mutually delighted that we could practice our Thai language skills. It turned out that he had been a rock-climbing guide in Krabi, Thailand a few years ago, but had to return to Laos due to family problems. He actually used to work at the same climbing company that I had used when I last visited Krabi, and knew the guy who had been my guide there!
By the time we finished this conversation, we had left the tiny tourist town behind and were now in the “real” village. We veered off the dirt road into someone’s rice paddy, for a half-hour walk through the field and the jungle beyond. Eventually, the landscape turned to rocks. By now I was out of breath and struggling through the rough terrain, almost twisting my ankle several times. My small but wiry guide, loaded with a backpack full of climbing gear, was bounding ahead and calling back impatiently, “Are you ok?” When I finally arrived at the base of the climbing wall, the guide had already pulled out the equipment and was waiting for me. We tied our rope and he started up the wall first. There was already another group there, with about eight young travelers from various European countries. I started chatting with some of them, and before I knew it the guide had finished the route. After belaying him back to the ground, I tied in and started up the wall. This first two routes were quite easy, and I was proud to impress the less-experienced climbers in the other group with my (rudimentary) skills. So we moved to a harder one on the other side. I watched the guide climb up the jagged rock face and up under a long stalactite thing that draped gracefully off the overhanging rock above. I couldn’t see the top of the route, but he shouted that he was finished. Next it was my turn. This one was significantly more difficult, and I was a bit worried. Sure enough, within a few meters my fingers were scraped and bleeding from the sharp rocks on this face, which was protected from the eroding wind that had smoothed the stone on the other side. Wincing, I carried on through a few difficult moves and reached the hanging stalactite. Wedged between the wall and the stalactite, I shimmied my way desperately upward. Unable to move my head to look up, I was glad that the guide had made me wear a helmet. The space was rapidly narrowing and I frequently bumped my head as I awkwardly contorted my body to push myself up to the anchor. I breathed a sigh of relief when I suddenly came to the top. With bleeding knees, elbows and hands, I returned to earth, trembling from the exertion. The guide told me we could squeeze in one more climb before dark, but I was shaken from the last one and didn’t think my swollen fingers would stand another go at the sharp rock.
The guide hurriedly packed our gear and rushed down the path, saying that if we caught up with the other group we could get a ride back into town. This sounded good to me, so I ran to keep up with him. After my encounter with the rocks, I was unphased by the uneven path that had given me so much trouble on the way there. We managed to catch up and hop into a somewhat motorized vehicle that looked a bit like those things that they raced on in Star Wars. It was the Lao version of a tractor: a two-wheeled wooden platform attached by two long metal rods to a third wheel far in front. Between these rods was a loud motor that looked like it had been stripped from a lawnmower. It made a lot of noise, and the guide explained that it was called a “tak-tak” after the sound that it made (just as a tuk-tuk is named after its sound, apparently). My guide casually invited me to smoke opium with him later, but I declined graciously, explaining that I was already booked on a trek for the next day and wanted to get some sleep.
After a cold shower, I felt refreshed and headed out to dinner. I shied away from the row of “happy pizza” shops showing old episodes of Friends on projector screens, and opted for a place that looked like it served more authentic Lao food. With a book, a beer and a bowl of noodles, I settled in for a quiet but satisfying meal. As soon as I finished, though, the group I had been climbing with showed up. They invited me to join them, and soon my quiet meal turned into a night of barhopping and guzzling “rum”-and-cokes. In accordance with Lao law, however, the bars shut down at midnight, and drunken teenagers took to the streets looking for the after-party. Watching groups of loud college kids stumbling down the street, running into people they knew and instructing them to meet outside their guesthouse, I felt a sense of déjà-vue. This scene was strangely familiar, and suddenly I placed it – I had somehow been transported to a campus frat party at my university! A girl stumbled over the curb and threw up a few feet away from me, and I jumped up in disgust. The guy holding her up bragged to his friend that he was totally gonna bang her tonight, if she ever stopped puking. “Ugh!” I was unable to contain my horror at this unexpected reminder of the worst people I had known in university.
I looked around desperately and located someone from the group I’d been hanging out with. They were standing around with an old, tanned hippy who had the grizzled look of a guy hiding from something. He invited us to come to his bungalow for a few drinks, so we followed him down a precarious stairway and across a narrow walkway to a small group of bungalows that were literally sunk into the side of the tall riverbank. The faint light from a Lao-populated nightclub on the opposite bank, combined with the bright moon, created just enough reflection on the water to silhouette the bridge and the trees hanging over the slow but powerful river. The stars were breathtaking, and there was absolute silence apart from the sound of flowing water. In awe of this mighty yet peaceful display of nature, we huddled in hushed conversation around our bottles of Beer Lao. After a few hours, I was startled out of my reverie when I remembered that I was hiking early in the morning. I said my goodbyes and hurried back to my room, miraculously managing not to fall or get lost along the way.
The next morning I woke bright and early for my trek. After a few painkillers and a good breakfast I felt surprisingly fresh and ready for adventure. My guide, unfortunately, was not nearly as friendly as the one from the day before, and the only other people were a nice but quiet Danish couple, so our trek proceeded mostly in silence. We started with a short drive to an unremarkable spot in the road, where we got off the truck and walked through, you guessed it, a rice field. We passed a few farmers on the way, who greeted our guide but ignored us. Eventually we came to a hillside, which dropped dramatically to a wide river. The water was fast and deep, with small ripples and crests betraying logs or rocks below the surface. Across the wide expanse, high above the water, stretched a thin white string. This footbridge started directly in front of us, supported by the top of a tree a few meters in front of us, and beyond that flew unsupported across the water and into a clump of trees on the other side. Eight small pieces of bamboo made up the beginning of the bridge, but it narrowed in the middle, and the other end was too far away to see. It was supported by two long pieces of cable, along with one more as a handrail. This is when the Danish woman revealed that she was scared of heights.
The guide slowly crossed the bridge to demonstrate that it was safe, but when it swayed back and forth and he nearly lost his footing, we were not very reassured. He shouted when he reached the other side and told us to come across. The Danish couple graciously allowed me to go first. I took a deep breath, gripped the side cable, and stepped onto the bamboo. It creaked and gave as I walked across, bouncing as my weight bent the tree branch it rested on. I made it to the branch, enjoying the stability of something solid beneath me, then reluctantly ventured out over the river. The bridge swayed slowly back and forth with my steps, throwing off my balance and making me cling tighter to the flimsy hand cable. The bamboo sticks supporting me narrowed to four, then three, then two, their less robust brothers having given out under the feet of previous crossers. I swallowed nervously every time I passed a broken stub of bamboo and my foot space shrank. When I got toward the middle of the bridge, I was on two uneven poles, and the two cables that stabilized the bridge had converged into one, meaning there was no stability. The poles twisted from side to side like a bottle bobbing in a stormy sea, and my feet could find no hold on the slippery near-vertical ramp. One foot slipped off and my right leg swung over nothingness. My heart stopped as I slid, and one thought flitted through my suddenly blank mind: I’m going to die. Then my left hand instinctively tightened on the hand cable and stopped me from falling off. I desperately gripped the lifeline with both hands and pulled myself to a semi-standing position. I switched to scooting sideways, balancing on the bamboo surfer-style with two hands on the cable. I rationalized that even if I slipped off, which I did a couple times, my firm grip on the cable would save me from a watery grave. With this dark thought I accidentally looked down to the river, a million miles below me, and my heart started pounding, sending blood rushing to my head. I looked back and saw that I was more than half-way across – but the half ahead might conceal unknown dangers, while the half behind was at least familiar territory. Refusing to turn back, I pushed away these thoughts and concentrated on inching my way sideways across the crevasse. I turned all my focus on delicately shifting pressure between my heels and my toes to keep the bamboo from flipping and throwing me off. After what felt like an hour, I saw salvation: a new bamboo stick appeared and the bridge widened from two to three. Emboldened, I shuffled faster, and soon the bridge was four sticks wide and the cables underneath separated to two sides, making the bridge stable enough to walk normally. When I approached the riverbank, a supporting tree trunk came up to meet the bridge, and another hand cable appeared to support my right side. I practically skipped the last few meters.
With a huge grin on my face, I jumped down to join the guide on solid ground. “I just survived a near-death experience!” I thought giddily. The guide shouted at the couple to come across, and I gave them a thumbs-up. But even from across the river, the woman’s fear was visible. With her husband’s encouragement, she started across, but she stopped at the tree and fled back to collapse into his arms. Unable to communicate across the river, the guide decided to head back across and see what was happening. After a few minutes of talking, he shouted something to me across the river, and motioned me to come back. Are you kidding me?! No way I’m going across the death bridge again! But the guide was insistent and kept shouting about kayaks. So I repeated the terrifying ordeal, at least armed with the experience of crossing once before.
“We walk down the river and find truck with kayaks,” the guide explained. Instead of doing the kayaking later like we planned, we would walk now to a part that was good for kayaking, then walk on a different route back to the finish point. But first he had to agree where to meet the truck. He pulled out his cellphone and wandered around looking for signal. When he was satisfied he pressed call and had a heated conversation with the person on the other end. Finally he hung up and announced that there was only one kayak available now, so someone would kayak downriver to us and we could use it to cross. We waited about twenty minutes, then saw a tiny yellow form swooshing down the river. The kayaker deftly maneuvered to the bank and stopped. It was a one-man kayak. It became unclear how we were going to all get across in it. There was an argument in Lao, then our guide asked if we were all good kayakers. “Uhhhh…” was the general reply. The Danish guy got in the boat to see if he could go across by himself, but the river was so swift that he couldn’t even get off the bank without losing control and being swept downstream.
“Ok,” announced the guide definitively. “He kayak, you hold boat,” he instructed the couple. “You walk,” he said to me, and pointed to the bridge. Great. Resigned to my fate, I started across the bridge. It was much easier the third time around, and this time I had the distracting entertainment of the strange scene unfolding below me. The kayaker got into his vessel and the couple waded into the water, clinging to the boat and each other. For a few meters the kayaker managed to steer across the river, but before long they hit a current and the kayak swung out of control. The couple lost hold of the boat and splashed frantically. The woman clung to her husband and he swam desperately for shore. They were swept a hundred meters downstream but managed to get to shore, where the kayaker, already beached, ran to meet them. Our guide came across the bridge to meet me, and said with conviction that everything was fine and we should wait for them to walk back to us.
While we waited, I heard laughter and conversation floating through the jungle. Out of the mass of trees emerged five young children, chattering happily, laden with baskets full of some nut or root. They looked at me and laughed, then pranced across the bamboo bridge as if they were skipping down the sidewalk. They even passed two other kids coming the other way across the bridge. I stared in astonishment and stopped mentally congratulating myself for having crossed three times. Shortly after, the Danish couple appeared with the kayaker, seemingly recovered from their river scare. The guide thanked the kayaker, who disappeared back into the jungle, and told us that since we had wasted so much time (glaring at the woman), we wouldn’t be able to go kayaking at all. I personally wasn’t sure if it was the time or the fact that there was only one kayak that was the problem. The woman was embarrassed and apologized repeatedly to me. I gave her a look of sympathy and told her not to worry – the bridge was really scary and dangerous (and their river crossing wasn’t any better!).
We walked the rest of the morning and arrived in a beautiful valley for lunch. The valley was quiet and peaceful; bees hovered over the flowers, water buffalo lay motionless in puddles of mud, a small creek bubbled by. We all forgot our morning woes as we lay under a straw roof, made as lazy as the buffalo by the mind-dulling heat. But there was no time for afternoon naps, so we threw cold water from the stream onto our faces to prepare for the hot trek ahead. After two hours of hiking through sunny fields and humid jungle, we were all drenched in sweat and ecstatic to reach a waterfall. We bathed in the cooling water for a while, then continued on, walking in the rocky stream at the mouth of the pool. We sloshed through the shallow water for some time before the stream converged with the main river. Swift dark waters blocked our path, possibly from the same river we had already crossed once. I had a feeling that this was where we were meant to be kayaking.
The guide instructed us to put all our valuables in his dry-pack, although he assured us that the water was no more than waist deep and we could wade across easily. Cameras, wallets and phones were piled into the plastic sack and sealed tightly. The couple, already experienced in dangerous river crossings, held hands and ventured in bravely. The guide started in and I followed close to him. The bottom was made of smooth, fist-size rocks like the stream we had been walking in. They gave way slightly when I stepped on them, and became more slippery as the water got deeper. It quickly rose above my knees, and I was having trouble keeping my footing while the powerful current pulled at my legs. When the water reached waist high, I started to panic, knowing I would lose my footing at any time. The guide continued ahead of me, still upright even though the water was up to his chest. My feet slipped and the ground was gone, and I was rushing downriver, spinning and tumbling through the turbulent water. I opened my eyes to see a huge rock sticking out of the water, coming straight for me. I dove into the water, struggling vainly to swim away from it, then the mighty river parted around it, carrying me safely past. But by now I was upside-down underwater, thrashing wildly, trying to impose my will against the water and regain control of my path. My lungs contracted and again my mind went completely blank, except for one thought: I’m drowning. My limbs stopped moving of their own accord, and suddenly the water broke and my head bobbed above the surface. I was still rushing downstream, but I was breathing and I wasn’t panicking. I saw my guide not far ahead of me, closer to the shore, doing a frantic doggy-paddle. I followed his example and suddenly the light clicked on – I don’t have to walk across, I can swim! I moved easily through the water, still going swiftly downstream but now moving diagonally toward shore. The current weakened as the water got shallower, and soon enough I could stand. The guide had already reached shore and walked down to meet me, giving me a hand up the muddy bank. “Ok?” he grinned. “Yeah, fine,” I said, not too enthusiastically. That was NOT the easy crossing that he told us it would be. “Rain a lot,” he said to explain the high water level. A few meters downstream the other couple had already scrambled up the riverbank to the path and were waiting for us.
Drenched from head to toe, we continued walking, picking up a light coating of dirt as we walked down the dusty trail. The sun was low in the sky and we were no longer hot. We came to a vast expanse of green rice patties and started through them, following the narrow raised path between the swampy puddles of rice plants. Several farmers were visible in the distance, hunched over their crops with triangle hats shading their heads. A large shadow overtook us and I turned around to look for the sun. It was sinking behind some small mountains that I hadn’t even noticed before, its rays filtering through the thick summer air and illuminating the lush bright green of the rice. Smoke rose from a small bungalow in the distance, bringing with it the smell of someone’s dinner. This scene made the exhausting trek worth it.
Later, at dinner, I was reviewing the day’s adventures in my head. At first I felt exhilarated that I had tried some dangerous things and overcome my fear, coming out unscathed on the other side. But then I remembered the woman and her fear of heights, and started to get a little angry – no one had warned us of the stuff we would face on this trek; there had been no mention of “strong swimming skills required” or “will include crossing a high bridge.” And our guide hadn’t been very concerned about our fears or our wellbeing during these experiences. What if someone less adventurous or less physically capable had come on the trek? Sure, I had been panicking in the heat of the moment when I thought I would die, but in reality someone could easily have died. Sipping a beer and reflecting on these thoughts, I looked out at the vast river that the restaurant overlooked. I now knew first-hand how the swift water felt. My attention was drawn to a silhouetted figure on a sandbar extending into the river. The man threw a fishing line into the river and waited patiently. Two young boys were playing at the water’s edge near him. How many kids learn to swim by falling into the rushing water? I wondered. I recalled the kids that went bounding across the terrifying bamboo bridge. No more than twelve years old, they were merely returning from the morning’s work, crossing the same bridge they took every day. Tourism in Laos is undeveloped and unregulated; how can tour guides anticipate all the trouble that Westerners will experience in completing the tasks that are commonplace for them? I decided to keep my negative judgments to myself, and cherish the beautiful photos and great stories that I had to show for my trip.