Monday, April 07, 2014

Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: The Blue Lagoon at Tham Phu Kam

"In the beginning there was nothing. God said, 'Let there be light!' And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better."

Ellen DeGeneres

Bike Trip Bridge Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon. Bet you can't guess why it's named that.

After our mini-trek up the Silver Cliff, we jumped back on our rickety bicycles and pushed on westward towards the overly popular Blue Lagoon that moats the sacred Cave of the Golden Crab (or Tham Phu Kam in Lao). The Blue Lagoon is what falang (foreign) visitors to the region calls the Ka River waterhole due to the rich cerulean hue of its cool water and that name got so popular till no one remembers what it was originally called.

The site is about 7 kilometres west of Vang Vieng town and if you don't want to ride a tuk-tuk there, it is totally walkable or bike-able. The picture I've shared above may have led you to think that it was a serene isolated spot but the reality of travel photos is that they are often snapped in little opportune moments when the mob randomly thins during the course of a day or when the attraction in question is closed to the public.

Here is what the Blue Lagoon really looks like most of the time.

Bike Trip Bridge Blue Lagoon Party

Throngs of foreign picnickers are strewn about on both banks of the lagoon at most hours of the day. The villagers that run the place have installed many tables and benches, strung up volleyball nets, and erected plenty of wooden huts to cater to the flood of visitors. Of course, they didn't do all of it out of the sweet loving kindness of their hearts - you have to pay a nominal fee of 10,000 kip (1.25 USD or 4 ringgit) at the entrance.

And you know it's a party place when they have signs put up to specifically ask visitors not to gas themselves with marijuana.

Bike Trip Bridge Blue Lagoon Don't Smoke Weed
But cocaine is totally fine.

Bike Trip Bridge Blue Lagoon Water and Fish
There is a surprisingly large population of fish living in it.

I went for a dip while Cheryl laid herself out in one of the waterside huts. The lagoon itself is a perfect natural swimming hole. The water is clean and refreshing, there's no slimy, gooey, swampy gunk to deal with, and it was very deep - so if you can't swim, you should probably stay out of it.

It was precisely because it was so deep that dive-bombing oneself into the water became a thing there.

Bike Trip Bridge Blue Lagoon Top Plunge
A middle-aged man leaping from the top branch.

A large tree grew serendipitously by the lagoon-side and its thick horizontal branches were convenient platforms from which swimmers can kamikaze into the pool. There were two jumps - one from the lower branch that's just 2-3 metres, and another from the higher branch that I estimated at about 8 metres from tree to splash. With so many other swimmers in the lagoon and no lifeguards on duty, one would be considered thoroughly reckless to attempt a dive from the topmost branch and no one with a lick of good sense in them should do it.

Which was why I did it.

Unfortunately, I have no photo or video of my plunge to show you but let me paint you a word picture: The ladder that goes up the tree was wet from all the swimmers who have been doing the stunt all day, and the surface of the top branch was likewise slippery. I, for one, was thankful for the bamboo handrails that they have nailed in place so people won't fall off until they mean to. When it was my turn, I started to freak out a little and I found my legs trembling in anticipation. I was essentially going to leap off the 2nd floor (or 3rd if you are American).

I realised then that I have never free-fallen before in my life (the closest experience I had was tandem paragliding in Manali but I was floating down then). While I love mountains and am completely unfazed by great heights, I discovered in that moment that I have an almost crippling fear of falling - which is a different thing altogether. Then again, isn't the fear of falling normal? Studies into infant animals have shown that it is probably a universal instinct, not an acquired or learned thing.

Aside from that, I was also worried that I might finally hit that bottom of the lagoon or hit the water surface in a bad way, but remembering that no one came out worse from the act, I silenced my screaming cowardly inner voice. If  I am religious, I would probably have said a prayer before I do it but being atheist, I whispered "There is no God," and out I went. It was only 8 metres but it was terrifying beyond all sense and reason. The moment I went under, all my breath was knocked right out of me and I felt the water boxing both my ears. Feeling more alive than I've ever felt in a long time, I thrashed back up towards the light and sucked a lungful of air the moment I re-surfaced.

And no, even dropping straight down, I couldn't reach the lagoon's bottom.

Bike Trip Bridge Blue Lagoon Korean Splash
A Korean girl breaking water. Can't remember which branch she jumped from.

Bike Trip Bridge Blue Lagoon Puppy Swim
A white lad poising to take a puppy for a swim.

After having enough excitement to tide me over for an entire week, I got out of the lagoon, towelled off and found out, to my disappointment, that Cheryl totally did not see my death-defying plummet from the tree. Still, I didn't feel like repeating it in case I bring on a heart attack from the sudden adrenaline surge.

Next, Cheryl and I climbed some rocks to get to the mouth of Tham Phu Kam, which was so named due to a wet rock formation found in it that looks like a pair of crabs. I didn't know this at the time so I wasn't keeping an eye out for it (besides, pareidolia is more of a pastime for people who see faces on Mars and the Virgin Mary on grilled cheese sandwiches).

Tham Phu Kam
The main chamber of Tham Phu Kam.

Bike Trip Tham Phu Kam Chamber
Shrine in Tham Phu Kam.

Bike Trip Tham Phu Kam Sleeping Buddha
A Thai-style bronze reclining Buddha napping in the cave.

Tham Phu Kam's size does not reach epic levels (like the Sarawak Chamber, which I hope to one day visit) but to someone like me with limited caving experience, it still inspired awe. No one had piped electricity into the limestone tunnels so if you venture just a little further in from the cave mouth, you'll find yourself in utter can't-even-see-your-own-hands-in-front-of-your-face darkness. You can rent a headlamp at the base if you like but for me, I brought my ultra-bright laser pointer and it proved to provide illumination enough for me to walk around by.

Cheryl reckoned she had quite enough of climbing up and down rocks for a lifetime that day so she elected to just hang out at the cave entrance and enjoy the soothing chill of deep earth.

Bike Trip Tham Phu Kam Vegetation
The last patch of sunlight before the shadows.

There were no maps, markings or guides so exploration is done at your own risk. I am going to be caving at the Gunung Mulu National Park in a month's time and from what I gather, you can't even pee there without a guide holding your hands - so I am really appreciative of this cavalier attitude towards safety in Laos. Of course, we are talking about Laos here where taking a walk in the countryside means you run the risk of being blown to bits by unexploded ordnances, so it is understandable that they would have gotten a bit jaded over the decades.

Bike Trip Tham Phu Kam Cave Graffiti
A bottleneck in the tunnel where countless inconsiderate retards have despoiled the walls with their names and inanities.

Anyway, I just climbed deeper and deeper down into the belly of the mountain until I have enough, and I turned right back. I had no idea how much further it would go but I wasn't about to try to find out.

Bike Trip Tham Phu Kam Cave Lightning
Long exposure of one of the deeper chambers. The light belonged to some other caver's torch as he was mucking around.

We left the Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kam in the late afternoon faced a 7 kilometres return trip laid before us. I was fine but Cheryl wasn't used to cycling, and the road-like object back to would prove arduous to even experienced cyclists. The offensively noisy Chinese tourists on ATV's weren't helping things with the amount of dusts they were kicking up every time one of them passed us by. We made a quick stop at a convenience store in Ban Na Thong for a drink (where a mentally-challenged boy wanked his willie in full view of Cheryl) and about halfway through, I managed to hail a tuk-tuk to take my significantly-tired other the rest of the way.

I rode my bicycle as furiously as I could and for most of the way, I actually managed to keep her in sight. But then I stopped a couple of times to take some pictures so I fell behind. Even so, I rolled into town just a couple of minutes after she did. I don't know what it is about holidays but I always feel like I can never tire when I'm on one.

In fact, on the morning of the very next day, I undertook a solo mountain biking trip, this time to the east of town, to visit Kaeng Nyui Waterfall.

Vive La Vientiane: Part One
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: First Night in Town 
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Climbing Pha Ngeun
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 

No fear of heights or depths, just of falling,
k0k s3n w4i

No comments: