We were all up, showered and ready to head out at the agreed 0830. We went to Wang Wang and picked up our bikes.
The bikes had about 30,000+ kilometres on the clock and looked in good condition. Both breaks worked, the lights and indicators worked and the bike moved between gears mostly smoothly (I had a slightly sticky second gear). We drove slowly to the petrol station whilst everyone got used to their bikes. Abby driving for the first time with a passenger on the back and Camille on the manual for the first time. We went and grabbed some breakfast at the Travel Lounge, had some breakfast, studied the Tip Book and met another nutter who travels the world in the silliest most comfortable shoes.
Then a quick stop at the petrol station where we filled the tanks to the top.
With a full tank and a practice run under the belt we raced off. Celine led the way having studied the Tip Book and map; she had plotted our route for Day 1. Camille followed second, Sinead and Abby third and with the First Aid kit in my bag I tailed at the back. Everyone was safe drivers by the looks of it so I was being perhaps overly cautious, but with the experience in Pai I wanted to make sure we could respond quickly to any emergency so I’d decided to ride at the back for the four days.
We raced through the motorway and quickly reached the open motorway. The road was beautiful, with a continuous back drop of layers and layers of mountain and forest either side of us.
The first stop was a lake. It was quite small and secluded but pretty nonetheless. Not the biggest or best lake any of us had seen, but still nice.
So after a little walk along the river banks we quickly set off again towards the Tham Nang Ene (Cave).
The cave had a spectacularly wide opening. Once past the lip of the mouth we could see intricately carved stairwells that ran up, down and across the cave. Many led to paths, but some led up towards cave walls to a dead end. Sinead and Abby likened the cave to something out of Harry Potter. I would have chosen a comparison to the Mines of Moria from Lord of the Rings but for the first time in my life I’m just being a children’s fiction snob.
The cave had various stalactites and stalagmites some of which formed shapes that raised even the most innocent eyebrows.
We followed the path ascending to the top most point; then explored some of the other well lit areas.
We descended down to the start of a long lake.
There were four boats tied to the side. In the Tip Book we had read you can go for a boat ride through the caves, though they would charged over the top for it mostly ran the service in the morning. As we contemplated whether we’d go back outside to ask about the boat trip, three boys (young men) came past us giggling, untied one of the boats, jumped in, then started paddling furiously with their hands. We looked at each other and 4 out of 5 of us thought the same thing.
Nobody said anything else until we all read each other’s faces…then all eyes turned to Camille and she broke the silence in her beautiful french accent “I guess I’m the only one who disagrees with this”, then led the charge to untie one of the boat. Celine jumped in after her. At the same time I untied another and held it in place whilst Abi and Sinead hopped in. We gave a big push off from the edge and used our flip flops to paddle. Very quickly we became the attention of all the tourists who were looking down at the lake. Like paparazzi, their cameras were out in an instant and they multiplied in numbers; the combined clicking of their camera’s shutter speeds echoing around the cave. We paddled fast towards the rocky wall for some cover, then paddled around the corner, sneaking out of sight.
The water was still and the rocks rounded so we all felt comfortable and safe that little could go wrong. The cave was narrow and curvy and well lit. After 25 minutes we decided to turn back, we weren’t sure how long it would take to get to the end and most the cave looked similar. The big concern was whether some of the staff in the cave had spotted us and would be waiting when we got back. We paddled fast and kept quiet, as we turned the penultimate corner we lost the cover of the rocks and saw an impressive audience of tourists with their cameras at the ready. We quickly steered the boat to the end, got out and secured the boat to the side. Then, we ran.
Apart from one other cave which we hadn’t had time to visit as we left a little later than expected in the morning, we had visited everything we wanted to. The next planned stop was the Sabaidee Guest House in Thalak. It was about 2 hours away. Celine asked if we had any requests for any picture stops. Having been in Laos for about two weeks now and not having seen any real Laos I asked that we stop off at a village. It was time to depart briefly from the trail and the comforts that had been developed for tourists, ride through some bumpy roads and see what life is like for Laotians not in the service of Tourism.
We didn’t have to wait long. Less than half a kilometre up the road we saw a village and turned into it. We were greeted initially with suspicion and confusion. Having all travelled a fair bit we knew what to do, we put on the biggest smiles we could muster up and gleefully said “sabaidee” (hello). After a split second we had broken through the initial animosity and the local villagers smiled back at us. The children were a little shy at first but as they became comfortable with the cameras they started posing and playing with us. Within minutes we had all of the villages’ children running towards us.
After a while we said goodbye and continued with our journey. We stopped off at the next village. The second village repeated the same motions of nervousness, smiling then opening up.
As I walked down the street in the village a local man was playing with his baby outside. I shouted “sabaidee”, he replied “sabaidee” then motioned for me to come over. He was happy for me to play with his little baby.
Most of the women in the villages were picking a particular flower from a tree. They would curl them around metal rods creating a twirl shape. Once set they dry them out in the sun before removing the rod and cutting them into smaller pieces to dry further. We tried to find out what it’s used for but the furthest we got is it’s not edible and you may be able to burn it. Apparently the Vietnamese pay a lot of money for it.
By then, the sun was low in the sky and we guesstimated we had about 1.5 hrs to get to our destination before the sun set.
We drove aggressively through the curved mountains; the journey from Pai to Chiang Mai was ample training. The scene and colours as the sun crept lower and lower in the sky were phenomenal; unfortunately we couldn’t stop, we needed what little light the sun gave us to drive back.
We arrived about 30 minutes before the sunset. I was greeted by a lightly drunk man saying “Lao Lao” at me. He poured me a shot of wasp soaked whiskey. I motioned that I wanted to see him drink it first even though the empty bottle and his demeanour suggested that it wasn’t going to kill me. He took a shot and instantly poured me one…down in one…followed by drunkenly laughter from the man and his friend.
The sun disappeared behind the mountain behind us creating a cooling shadow across the valley. Some of us agreed to wake up to watch the sun rise noticing that given where the sun set the sun rise should be right above the lake.
We sat around the camp fire for the rest of the evening, eating a BBQ buffet and making new friends. [Edit: The buffet was really good, as Laura described it, it was “The best fucking food I have ever eaten”. She’s sitting next to me as I write this and has both hands around my neck at the thought that I would spare only a fleeting sentence to the barbecue. I should explain, she’s Australian and they take the barbecues really seriously.]