“No meat, sorry.” The woman says with an apologetic shrug, pointing at the chicken sitting in an old sticky rice basket in a corner of the kitchen. The bird that would have made a delicious addition to your lunch bobs its head nervously and takes a peck at one of its chicks.
“This, okay?” She holds up a hunk of cabbage with beak-sized pieces missing from the edges.
You turn around and see that the French group sitting at the other worn wooden table are all eating either cabbage fried rice or cabbage fried noodles. Feeling rather like the decision was made for you, you opt for chef’s special (cabbage) and take a seat, nudging a large puppy out of your way.
The little restaurant-cum-menagerie sits at the base of one of Vang Vieng’s soaring karst peaks, within which is hidden a cave large enough to explore. A swimming pond is just visible at the bottom of the grassy hill, and the breeze brings the jumbled splashes and shrieks of the village boys as they throw each other into the milky-blue water up to the balcony you’re sitting on.
In the kitchen, the chicken launches itself at the woman as she takes a handful of rice. A small portion of your lunch disappears down its balding throat and without missing a beat the woman picks it up and throws it out of the window, sending the chicks into a chorus of panicked cheeping.
She notices you watching and smiles sheepishly: “Very very hungry all day,” she says, shaking fish sauce into the pan and turning up the heat.
The rice was very good, though the bottle of chilli sauce on the table exploded upon opening like a low-tech chemical weapon.
Lunch dealt with, you set off on the short rocky walk up to the cave. At the mouth, three little boys with hair still dripping from the swimming pond hand you a torch and point at the little step ladder going inside.
The dripping innards of the cave hang like jellyfish tendrils. The boys prod you deeper, leading you through a small tunnel and then out into a giant cavern, the earthy coolness a salve to your sunburn and exhaustion. You haven’t ever been inside a large animal, but the pink ribbed ceiling made you feel as though you had been swallowed by a whale.
You almost hated Vang Vieng. Everyone around you was half naked and halfway to smashed, and you with your low alcohol tolerance and culturally appropriate shin-length skirt and covered shoulders didn’t fit in at all.
However, the scenery is compelling and mountain bike rentals aren’t too expensive (20,000 kip): make sure you check the brake lines and the tires, and also be prepared for a very delicate bottom afterwards- the road is fairly flat but painfully bumpy. Also I didn’t manage to find a bike for my height and couldn’t touch the ground with both feet when stationary, which made for a few knicker-wetting moments (like when I started rolling backwards after failing to make it all the way to the top of the bridge ramp- have you ever tried riding a bicycle backwards?).