Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Climbing Pha Ngeun

"The poetry of the earth is never dead."

John Keats

Bike Trip Pha Ngeun Lady with Basket
A Lao lady carrying a woven basket at the base of Pha Ngeun.

Pha Ngeun was one of the things I was really looking forward to doing in my Laos itinerary. It is a rocky hill located about 3 kilometres outside of the main Vang Vieng town and is easily accessible on foot or on bicycles. It offers what is arguably the best view of the karst countryside without going skint from paying to go up in a hot air balloon (at about 100 US dollars per butt, we'd need to sacrifice a quarter of our paltry budget to make that happen).

So, on the morning of our second day in Vang Vieng, we rented two bicycles and struck out westward into the local paddy-field boondocks.

Bike Trip Bridge Over Nam Song
Toll bridge over the Nam Song. Picture taken by Cheryl using her phone.

In hindsight, I think we ought to have walked or at least rented mountain bikes with decent shock absorbers because the road was craggier than the seediest neighbourhood on the moon. It was also the dry season so every passing vehicle throws up a cloud of choking red dust in its wake. We were also forced to dismount multiple times to push our bikes when the uphill bits of the alleged road got too steep to pedal through on our one-speed steel steeds.

It would totally have been a gruelling and joyless slog if the view along the way didn't look fucking fantastic.

Bike Trip Scenery and Cows
Mists, mountains, fields and cows.

Bike Trip Pha Ngeun Bike View
Stitched this from 3 pictures. Makes one want to sing Country Roads, doesn't it?

While I was still researching our trip, I came across some achingly beautiful stills of the panorama from the top of Pha Ngeun but they were few in number and all of them were either framed too restrictedly or have unsightly watermarks splashed right across them. To wit, I decided to summit Pha Ngeun, snap some photographs of my own, and share them on the internet for the benefit of the world.

To find Pha Ngeun, one only need to look out for a sign on the right side of the road (assuming you were travelling from the main town) that reads:

Welcometo pha ngeun mountain.
*pha ngeun mountain is a beautiful natural mountain.
visitors can walk from phone ngeun village to the top of pha ngeun mountain about 500 metres, or 20 minutes. the way is safe and easy for visitor go up. when you reach the top of pha ngeun mountain, you will see good view.

Just to share a bit of the local flavour, I preserved the punctuation, capitalisation and grammar in the above quote.

If you are illiterate and unable to read, you can simply keep an eye out for a rather steep gumdrop-shaped hill that's practically standing right beside the road.

Bike Trip Pha Ngeun
Like a Hershey's Kiss™ after someone had bitten its tip off.

We chained our bicycles right outside a local store where we bought some drinks and took a small village footpath right to the base of the hill to begin our ascent. The villagers of Phone Ngeun charges each visitor a 10,000 kip entrance fee (about 4 ringgit) for maintaining the trail and the basic observation decks at the top.

By the way, did I mention that the name Pha Ngeun means "Silver Cliff"? I too wondered about that until I saw the hill from the west.

Bike Trip Pha Ngeun Silver Cliff
It was a cliff that is silver. Who'd have thunk it?

The path up was gentle and easy to follow. It was only near the top that the ascent became more vertical, but the villagers have built wooden steps over the hardest parts. Even if you take a leisurely stroll up, taking plenty of pictures along the way, you are still going to make it in less than an hour. There are no official numbers that I can find but most guesstimates I've seen pegged it at 250 metres.

Bike Trip Pha Ngeun Path
There is even chicken wire bordering the ledge at some parts to stop hikers from falling off.

Bike Trip Pha Ngeun Middle Finger
Cheryl giving me a sign of endearment for making her climb a damn hill so early in the morning.

The first observation deck you'll come across at the top would give you a decent view but walk a little further - past a pleasant meadow of wild flowers and over some harsh limestone jags - and you'll find the second hut, perched precariously over the hill's namesake and facing south.

What that little wooden hut offers was what I came here for.

View from Pha Ngeun
Panorama of the Vang Vieng countryside stitched from six photographs. Click to enlarge.

I am not what you would call a very physical person but I always have a yenning inside me for high places. I suspect it is residual infantile longing from my babyhood in the Genting Highlands, where both of my parents worked. When I backpacked through Tamil Nadu, I only made two stops there - Ooty and Kodaikanal - and both of them were hill stations. When I returned for a month of backpacking in India after I graduated from med school, I spent the entire time in the Dauladhar range of the Outer Himalayan mountains. I love the scenery from great heights. I love the chilly climate, perfect for outdoor adventures or huddling inside with blankets and a hot drink to read. In a way, I am starting to realise that what I think of home is not a question of latitudes and longitudes, but altitude.

I also enjoy the fresh cold mountain air that fills your lungs and feels like it is cleansing your very soul as you exhale. Not much chance of it here on top of Pha Ngeun though.

Bike Trip Pha Ngeun Smoker
I have never wanted to push someone off a cliff so much.

Three other hikers were already at the observation deck and all that fresh cold mountain air was apparently no good for them so they had to smoke some cigarettes, of course. I ran into smokers when I summited Santubong earlier this year too and it seems like it is my inescapable fate to have these pestilential tobacco addicts plague me wherever I go. Nowadays, whenever I see smokers, I just mentally wish them painful, horrible deaths - and if I ever crack and become homicidally insane, I would probably just go and violently kill every smoker I see until the police have to take me down with deadly force.

I was glad when they left shortly after we arrived. We were glad that they took their noxious cloud with them and Cheryl found that an opportune moment to pump her breasts (she's still nursing Darwin). Then disaster struck when Cheryl accidentally let slip one of her trumpet-thingies and it rolled off the platform. That meant that her already bothersome chore of regularly milking herself would be twice as bothersome for the remainder of our vacation!

That was unacceptable and I, valiant husband that I am, went after her suction cup by clambering over the railing and doing a spot of freestyle rock climbing.

Bike Trip Pha Ngeun Hero
"If I die, tell Darwin that his old man was a hero."

I then fell 250 metres into the middle of a field and died in bloody spattering of organs and loose change. PLOT TWIST! This is actually my vengeful spirit blogging.

Anyway, after a short snack of a bar of Snickers and an expired Mars Bars (must read expiry dates when you buy perishables in Laos) and getting used to the amazing vista, we started our descent. I could easily have spent the entire day up there reading and napping but that would be running the risk of meeting other humanoids who violate other people's airways with their personal slow-suicide kits cigarettes. Besides, we had a schedule to stick to and I wanted to make it to Tham Phu Kam before noon to do a little swimming and caving.

I'll tell you more in my next post.

Bike Trip Pha Ngeun Spider Dew
A dew-decorated orb web I saw on the way down.

Bike Trip Bridge Village Weaver
Another kind of weaver that we met at Ban Na Thong, a village we passed before reaching Tham Phu Kham.

Vive La Vientiane: Part One
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: First Night in Town
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: The Blue Lagoon at Tham Phu Kam
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Solo Mountain Biking Trip to Kaeng Nyui Waterfall
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Tubing Down the Nam Song
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Last Day in Town at Pha Poak and Lusi Cave
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: The Night and Morning Markets
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: Phou Si Hill, Haw Kham and Wat Xieng ThongSabaidee Luang Prabang: Out Alone in the City 

Silver surfer,
k0k s3n w4i

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