Escaping the tourist package in Vang Vieng I: The failed walk to Pha Phoak

Do what you want today“, said Ek with a big polite smile on his face, “but we’re not renting a motorbike again, khrap.”

He meant it, still tired of yesterday’s ordeal. 

Fair enough, I thought. So what is there to do?

I checked my sources on my mobile for the nth time.

“Well, if we don’t want to go tubing, there’s Blue Lagoon 1 or 3. Number one is supposed to be crowded and basically brown, whereas Blue Lagoon 3 is just too far to walk or bike. There’s also the water cave, I guess”, I added unenthusiastically, anticipating the never-ending hordes of loud Chinese that would inevitably arrive zipping on their 4WD quads.

“Look”, said Ek, pointing at the tour menu published on a poster opposite the outdoor breakfast area of our B&B. “We could go to the water cave in the morning, then Blue Lagoon in the afternoon. It’s quite cheap.”

I sulked. It was hard to explain to Lek the idea that I hated being herded around – that, as uncomfortable as it was, I’d take the muddy motorbike ride to the waterfall any day over any of those package deals. But then I thought of something.

“You know what? Let’s try to get to that summit with a view that’s only a couple kilometers away. Yes…Pha Phoak, I read in Travelfish.org. This is the view…not bad eh?”

pha poak
Pha Poak in the dry season

Ek shrugged. By now he was more than used to my characteristically Western vice: the endless pursuit of happiness even at the cost of great discomfort.

So we got on our way. First, we negotiated to be forded to the other side of the river, as the bamboo bridge that guidebooks referred to was nowhere to be found. Lek diligently asked our skipper. Turns out, it had been destroyed by a swelling of the river the year before.

Leaving the river bank, we navigated our way through the quiet and litter infested backyards of some pretty yet apparently empty bungalows, and eventually started walking toward the hill, which was now in view. The problem: more and more puddles in the trail, until the trail ceased to be a trail and became the mud-drenched unwalkable separation between two paddy fields.

Maybe this is not the way. Let’s go back and ask“, I suggested. Lek asked some farmer we found eventually, and apparently it was the way.

We tried again, to no avail. Our running shoes became soaked in mud, and the high sun beat mercilessly on us.

I was pissed. Pissed at having decided to stay an extra day in VV when all there was to do was either join another bland tour and fight for space in an uncomfortable tuk-tuk, or else get lost and soaked in mud. I cursed myself for not having left for Vientiane, following our initial plan. By this time we’d be enjoying some quiet temple-hopping, and maybe (who knows?) even some decent Laotian food…!

But I tried to hide my feelings and act jai yen, that is, with a cool heart – the way Thailand had taught me to act.

“I’ll take a photo and we’ll head back”, I said, stoically.”Oh and thanks for coming with me on this hike, buddy.”

Ek nodded and attempted another polite smile.

escaping the package tour

Looking at the photo, I feel that  it was a beautiful walk after all – mountain or no mountain reached. But still, it’s nice to be reminded of the pitfalls of independent travel every now and then. Of its discomfort, of all the time that is wasted just finding the places you want to get to. Of the tensions that can arise with your travel companions when the going is not as smooth as expected.

But the good thing is, even the failures have something unique to them that make them memorable. And yes –  you have to try, once and again, cause eventually you’ll catch the gods with their guards down and, against all logic, travel magic will appear then and there.  

Not that day, though, it seemed.

“Go rent a mountain bike and explore”, said Ek when we got to the B&B. “I’ll take a shower and relax. Maybe I’ll go to the riverside bar and drink some Sang Som. Meet you later.”

Wiping the sweat off my brow, I headed for the town centre in search of a cheap rental mountain bike. Where I’d ride it was still up for grabs.

(To be continued)

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