Losing it in Laos: An adventure in Vang Vieng that almost went down the tubes

 

It's tough to recall after almost 10 years what posed the greatest risk in the flooded cave in which I'd become hopelessly lost: the darkness or the snake that patrolled black pools of frigid water. I was in Laos and a place I would later regret visiting. Vang Vieng used to be a sleepy river village in country known for its calm and natural beauty. Then came tubing. Every day, scores of feckless backpackers in bikinis and boardshorts float down the Nam Song on tractor inner tubes, turning pink as they guzzle cheap beer and leap off rocks. As the activity boomed, so did the number of 'happy' pizzas and vomiting teenagers, helping to turn the town into an ugly scar on the southeast Asia traveller trail.

But I was still young and stupid and, during a break from a teaching job at a university in eastern China, Vang Vieng seemed like a fun diversion as I headed south to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The day I went tubing, in 2004, a local man suggested halfway down-river that I visit a cave. For a small fee, he would provide an old torch connected by a frayed wire to a brick-like battery. Using what looked like a pre-war contraption, I could then explore the cave by myself, wearing only flip-flops and shorts. This, too, seemed like a worthwhile diversion to a 22-year-old fool (I only know now that more than 20 backpackers die tubing every year) so I set off with an Australian I had met that afternoon.

Adjusting our eyes, we noted the absence of any paths, signs or lighting, or any of the features of the caves I remembered visiting on family holidays to France. As the tropical sunlight coming from the entrance faded, we had only our makeshift torches to guide us, which illuminated the muddy floor, unremarkable rock, and our own gormless faces.

As we wandered deeper through vast caverns, stooping under the narrow arches that connected them, we were becoming lost without realising it. The Australian then slipped in the mud and dropped his battery pack, ripping the flimsy cables from the terminals and leaving him in the dark. With my torch our only guide, we turned in what we thought was the direction of the entrance. We had been warned that in places it would be necessary to wade through long pools left by old underground rivers. So when we reached one, we happily stepped in, unable to see what might have been lurking beneath the surface.

As the water got deeper and deeper we had no choice but to swim through it, me trying to hold the torch and battery above the water while kicking frantically. Twenty or so metres later we reached a rocky cul-de-sac and with nothing to hold on to, we were forced to swim back to ground, tiring quickly as we progressed.

Breathless, cold and up to our ankles in mud, we were then plunged into the kind of darkness that can only be appreciated underground. My torch had failed. Worry turned to something approaching panic as I fumbled blindly with the battery's terminals. After a minute or so, the torch flickered back to life, threatening to go out again at any moment. We backtracked, desperate to see daylight.

Some moments later, I saw in the distance the reassuring beam of another torch and shouted after it. The man who had sent us here had come to look for us and lead us back to the entrance. He was unmoved by our plight and I later suspected these 'rescues' were commonplace. Perhaps he expected a reward. His insouciance vanished, however, when, just metres from freedom, he froze. We all held our breath. Rising from a small puddle in the middle of the narrow path ahead, its head set back and forked tongue extended, a snake blocked our way out.

I had more or less kept my cool until this point, but faced with a big snake which looked determined to prevent us from leaving the cave, I slightly lost it. I don't like snakes. Nor did the local, who called out to a friend he had been talking to outside.

He arrived with a stick. He threw it at the snake, giving us a second or two to dash through the pools and leave the cave, almost two hours after we had ventured in. As we retrieved our tubes and continued down-river, more soberly than before, I wondered how many other serpents occupied the pools I had gamely waded and swam through just minutes earlier, and how quickly I could get out of Vang Vieng.

Extreme holidays

* Head to the Yukon for a quintessentially Canadian experience. Trips come with remote hiking, white-water canoeing, glaciers, bears, Northern Lights and flight-seeing over Canada's highest mountain, surrounded by the world's largest non-polar ice fields. travelyukon.com

* Colombia's jungle, for a long time off-limits thanks to drugs wars, is emerging as the next Amazon destination. Take a local guide out to small tribal villages and sleep wherever you can string your hammock. originaltravel.co.uk

* Take a trip to Kamchatka, one of the world's most remote regions. Russia's far east, home to the erupting Plosky Tolbachik volcano, offers heli-skiers, wildlife lovers and fishing enthusiasts some of the most pristine, isolated adventure holidays around. intouristuk.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...