Monday, 1 April 2013

... Indochina: Fangs For The Memories

I awoke at midnight wondering what on earth that noise was. It sounded like someone was constantly and rather irritatingly tapping. Then I heard the loud thunderclap and the sky lit up. This was a thunderstorm and then some. I went outside onto my balcony and watched as the ominous karsts were lit from within the darkness. It was absolutely lashing it down. I don't think I have ever seen rain with such force nor intensity... And I'm British! I watched transfixed for a little while before returning to bed and falling asleep until around 6am.

Breakfast was a French roll. I still wasn't feeling all that great and certainly do not want a repeat performance of the last few days. However, is it really any surprise that not long afterwards I was riding a pink bicycle across a kind of dodgy looking wooden bridge (with bombs for posts and a toll fee) and 7km into the countryside? Probably not really.

Imagine riding a one-speed bike, complete with girly basket (for plenty of water!), on what can be best described as dirt track. This wasn't even a mountain bike. But thankfully not a road bike with thin & crispies either. Oh and it was already above 90 degrees. I think I was sweating from my eyeballs.

A bunch if chickens scared me more than I scared them as I trundled past them and startled them. However that wasn't as much as the (thankfully female) cow that came up from behind as I paused to contemplate how on earth I was going to work my way through the herd of cattle that I had just come across.


That was before I came upon the bull with very large horns that began scraping his front hoof into the ground like they do just before they charge. Was he merely digging for food? I wasn't about to find out and so I hopped off and pushed my bike around him at a considerable distance before pedaling like the clappers when I jumped back on.

The bridges that followed were of dubious structural engineering... and about as wide as a door. Bamboo is sturdy, right? At times it didn't feel that way.

I had been hoping to work my way out to Tham Jang, the most famous cave in the area. This was used as a hideout from the Yúnnánese Chinese in the early 19th Century. It seems that everyone wants you to come and visit "their cave". Makeshift signs dotted along the way start to all look the same and at one point I felt like I was reading three signs that were each trying to out do the others by proclaiming they were the "real" McCoy. Needless to say I got confused by what was called what and ended up following the route for the "2nd best" cave.

Upon arriving at the admission gate (10000 kip) for Tham Phu Kham I secured my bike and set off by foot towards the karst ahead. I don't think I was quite expecting to become a wannabe rock climber. But apparently that final 200m climb is worth it for a dip in a turquoise pool after. So off I set.

I perhaps should've opted for my walking boots but my Keens were doing me proud. I made pretty light work of the rocks and various bamboo ladders listening to the sounds of the jungle. I was quite literally just below the ledge to the cave having climbed up a rickety set of stairs when I stopped in my tracks. Whilst skinny it was certainly longer in length than I am in height. I stared transfixed for a moment.

OK, so is it front or rear fanged? Is it venomous or a constrictor? I recognized the distinctive head and nose but for the life of me could not remember the name let alone the details of the snake I had seen last week at the Snake Farm. My knowledge of snakes extends as far as petting Striker & Cocoa at Science World, who like to try crawling up my sleeve for warmth. However even they have fangs. This was nature at its most fascinating, potentially dangerous and I am no dummy. "Assume all snakes are poisonous", a fact I did remember from the Snake farm presentation. By now this beautiful silvery-gold coloured Whip snake had probably sensed me, and the tongue was darting in and out most likely detecting my scent. Yeah no cave or turquoise lagoon for me today. I for one did not need to add snake bite to my list of adventures on this trip, certainly not when the nearest urban centres for antivenin are in Thailand and Vietnam. Time to leave. I got a quick picture with my camera and about turned. Of course now I was on high alert and paranoid about anything that looked snake-like, then my mind went into overdrive and I began worrying about potential other creepy crawlies and what might be lurking in the nooks and crannies that I was WALKING on. If I could've ran down that hillside I probably would've. Sweat was dripping off me but I didn't stop until I was by a stream right at the bottom. I waded through. Not only to cool off but it seemed a darn sight safer than the bamboo bridge I had precariously crossed when heading in the other direction.

The lady at the admission gate seemed surprised to see me back so soon. I showed her the picture. Her expression and the noise she made said it all. I'd, perhaps not surprisingly, had my fill of caves and decided to head back to the town. I felt like I had just starred in my very own Indiana Jones movie.

This is what I found out about my fanged friend:
"The Oriental Whip snake is a very common rear-fanged venomous snake found in SE Asia's rain forests. They usually are found in trees or bushes but will occasionally be at ground level hunting for frogs and small lizards. They are diurnal and so active during daylight hours. They can grow up to 190cm long with a finger thin body that tapers to a pencil thin neck. The head is spear shaped. It can spread its neck area to increase by double it's size as a defensive technique. The venom toxicity is weak; it is not considered very dangerous to humans due to this and also its non-aggressive nature. They are fast and have a short striking range. The beauty of these snakes are legend and there are green, brown or yellow versions of this snake with the latter two colors being common with juveniles"

The "not very dangerous" instead of a straight up "not dangerous" makes me feel glad I about turned.

Whilst not as exciting, I did slowly work my way around the entire town by bike after stocking up on more water. By that point I had already drank 2L. There are four temples here to explore should you not yet be "templed-out". They sadly seemed kind of out of place in amongst the rave music and drunken debauchery. With all the undercover cops apparently in the town and heavy fines, which equals the confiscation of your passport until they're paid, I was perhaps naively astounded to overhear a bunch of travelers bragging about some drug-infused "happy" item that they were en route to try after a day participating in the number one activity here: tubing. Unfortunately tubing in Vang Vieng does not have good press and for good reason.... More than 20 backpackers die tubing here per year. This is likely because this activity is, of course, combined with alcohol. You basically bar-hop down the Nam Song river on a huge inflatable inner tube. This has led to a crackdown by authorities and many of the bars have been closed down.

Interestingly, the USA had an Air Force base and runway here called "Lima Site 6" that was used by Air America. This was the covertly owned and operated airline the CIA had that supplied and supported covert operations in SE Asia during the Vietnam War & the Secret War. The history behind all this is truly fascinating and if you're interested in reading more take a trip over to good ol' Google. Today it was being used for a market and the closest I got to a moment in history was cycling across it. I didn't find anything that highlighted what it was and I wouldn't have known had I not read up on it beforehand. Yet you will have no problem in locating a specific bar. It would appear that many people don't come here for the culture, they come to get wasted rather than riding pink bicycles into the countryside. They don't know what they're missing!

And so love it or hate it that was Vang Vieng, the World's most unlikely party town. I personally can't wait to leave.

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