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Breaking the packpacker age limit

I embarked upon my very first ‘solo’ travel adventure after being told that my planned,  and much longed for, annual holiday (and escape from Shanghai) with my husband, was cancelled.  The reason for this was, yet again, an impossible-to-postpone business engagement in Hong Kong, which, naturally, didn’t involve me.  I suppose I could have gone.  I did consider it, though only briefly. The prospect of interminable hours of trying to stifle yawns and force myself, desperately, to appear interested in a person and/or subject I know nothing about, is not featured on my list of top ten favourite ways to spend my time! 

Waiting sulkily in the travel agency while Lance booked his flights, I picked up an English travel magazine and idly thumbed through its pages. I began to read an article about backpackers in Laos.  There were photos of a little village school where lovely smiling children played football with a bundle of compressed newspaper.  There were pictures of stunning mountains, incredible limestone karsts and misty, meandering rivers. Suddenly my senses were prickling….It looked and sounded awesome.  I was overcome with the bizarre thought that perhaps I should go…..soon…just go… alone, while Lance was away.  I was brave enough. I had confidence enough. I certainly had the time.  Young girls, half my age, travelled alone didn’t they? What harm could possibly befall me?
“I’m going to Vang Vieng”, I blurted out loud to a room full of rather baffled and bemused travel agency staff.
“That’s in Laos, a little town in the mountains…..I’m going there…..backpacking.”
Backpacker’s Diary – Day 1
6am Monday morning – Relieved that alarm works I am feeling bright and confident.  My   rucksack is stuffed to the gunnels with essential comfort items, i.e. hairdryer, perfume, good novel, crisply ironed clothes, make-up bag (for coverage of large spot on chin)…and small hip flask of alcoholic substance (for medicinal purposes only…of course)

I’m in Vientiane, happily queuing up in small immigration hall – this is easy, nice short flight, lovely breakfast…. Can’t wait to get going…start my adventure.
“Where entry caht?” 
“Sorry…. (nice immigration officer), I’m afraid I don’t have one.” 
“You go geh entry caht.   You fiw in”.
“Ok, (nice immigration officer), where can I get entry card?”
“On dek.” 
Oh! God…first hint of panic is beginning to stir… did he say desk? Where is the desk?  Of course, it would be, right at the other end of the queue, I should have guessed.  Never mind, do not show that you are feeling first stirrings of alarm…..just fill in entry card and rejoin queue, no problem.
Yes! I have made it through immigration.  First hurdle achieved.  Panic not detectable as far as I can tell.  Now need some money for taxi. 
Laos Kips – I’ll change 300 RMB – that should do to get me started.  In return for my Yuan I am handed an enormous WAD of notes – this can’t be right – 489,000 kips for a few quid! 
Secondary panic stirrings begin. I don’t DO noughts, not this many anyway. Enormous wad of notes will not fit into small, pathetic, girly purse.  Must purchase large wallet or bum bag at first opportunity.

A taxi takes me the short distance to the local bus station. I am directed to the pick-up truck, or sãwng tháew, which will take me on the three hour onward journey to my destination, Vang Vieng.  I am surprised to find that I am the only passenger and I sit back, as comfortably as I can on the hard bench, to relish the new experience. 
We leave Vientiane behind… the views are spectacular – miles of rice paddies – oxen ploughing the fields, mountains in the distance, lovely fresh air and sunshine.  It feels like another world after Shanghai, like stepping back in time….good road – yeah! 
This is cool.
This is easy. 
Backpacking – piece of cake. Should have done it years ago…glad I’m doing it now.

I settle down to read ‘Lonely Planet Guide’ and happen upon an article about bandits, on a particular route, not being too much of a problem these days.
“Travellers should be vigilant in this area, though there is no real cause for alarm”, it reads.  “What road are we on?”  I ask no-one.   
The stirrings return. They more than mildly irritate me. I am convinced that we are on the same road as ‘Lonely Planet’ bandits. Light cigarette and inhale deeply.  Oh shit!  It’s only the beginning of the journey and already I’m in trouble.  Now I’m going to be raped and tortured.   I inhale again….my imagination is seeing bandits on the horizon. 
“Please…..take anything.  Take my hairdryer, my make-up bag, my perfume and my good novel – just don’t rape and torture me.  I can hear my husband’s voice mocking me. 
“Well, if you will insist on embarking on these silly projects.  I told you to come to Hong Kong”. I make very sensible decision to hide ‘Lonely Planet’ out of sight….must concentrate on not thinking about abduction or pillage.

We stop at a quaint village comprising a neat cluster of little houses on stilts. Each tiny home is constructed of bamboo walls, all of which stand surprisingly upright beneath cleverly woven, banana-leaf roofs.   I become aware that I am no longer alone. 
There are now two women hauling their worldly possessions aboard the truck.   Several live chickens, a huge bag of rice, two large baskets of fish, two small children and an old man, now join me on the hard, narrow seat.  The old man perches himself opposite me. He appears to be slightly adrift – he is dribbling and cussing quietly to himself.  I try not to catch his eye.  Instead, and in an attempt to be friendly, I smile at one child who immediately screams in terror and buries her head in her hands. I must have lost my touch with kids, or am really that scaringly ugly?

Three hours have now passed and it is pouring with rain.  I am soaking wet.  The pick-up truck is no longer comfortable, the fish in the women’s baskets is stinking, the child is still screaming every time I happen to glance in her direction – her Mum is highly amused – I’m becoming paranoid! 
The mountains are no longer in the distance and the steep climbs are slowing us down to a crawl. 
I am scared now, certain in the knowledge that the brakes definitely do not work and sliding backwards down the mountainside is inevitable.  I am scared of being murdered by bandits and most of all, terrified of disgracing myself if I don’t find a loo soon.
“We are here.” 
The pick-up driver emerges from the cab.  I can’t see a town.  This must be a mistake. I stay put. 
“We are here.” He repeats.
“Is this Vang Vieng?” I ask.  He nods.  I suddenly doubt the article I had read in the travel agency, which suggested that there were guesthouses, bars and restaurants – I can see nothing at this point except a rather muddy track with a few rapidly thrown together shacks on each side.

Having paid the driver with millions of kips (not even sure how much I paid…it could have been anything) I walk, with my now wet backpack, towards the ramshackle huts, feeling less thrilled at my new surroundings than I had expected.
I am no longer feeling brave or confident as I search anxiously for cockroaches under the bed of room in v. cheap guesthouse – what to do exactly if I find one, I have no idea. 
Unpacking my backpack reveals crisply ironed clothes now soaking mess, creased and stained from the wet canvas and a totally unreadable, soggy novel.  Never mind though. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I still have make-up bag intact, plus hairdryer and perfume for later. I hang clothes anywhere and everywhere around room to dry and set off to search for food.
Have now discovered that the rapidly erected shacks are, in fact, the aforementioned ‘guesthouses, bars and restaurants’ and the muddy track is in fact the main High Street.  I am now seriously asking myself what the hell I am doing here.  Feeling disappointed, tired and a little deflated, I stroll down a narrow wooded track branching off from the main ‘road’. Here I find the answer to my question.  The stunningly beautiful scene that greets me is the Nam Xong River, meandering its way down to the Mekong in the shadow of spectacular, enormous limestone karsts.  I had read about the many caves to be found in this area of Laos and now, along the steep riverbanks, I can see where they are hiding. 
A small restaurant, perched rather precariously on stilts on the riverbank, is invitingly tempting.  Decide to sit and enjoy the view.  Order rather disgusting cup of Laos’s coffee and observe life.  An hour later I am still entranced by the lovely, local people bathing, fishing, washing clothes and ferrying bags of supplies across the river in long-tailed boats.  The sun is beginning to set.  The colours on the mountains are changing every minute, peach, orange, then violet.  The scene reminds me of an old Chinese watercolour I have seen somewhere in a Shanghai art gallery.
They have rooms here – sweet, little bamboo bungalows facing the river.   I decide to check out of v. cheap cockroach-infested guesthouse, before dark (if I hurry) and book into not so v. cheap bamboo bungalow with stunning view and, hopefully, less wildlife. Giving way to such a comfort upgrade is perhaps not in true backpacker spirit, but so what.  You only live once!  I’ve got wads of money anyway.  Got to spend it on something!
Backpacker’s Diary – Day 2
Electricity very erratic last night – it poured with rain – couldn’t use hairdryer so now having a bad hair day. 
Couldn’t use make-up as couldn’t see to cover up very large spot by torchlight and the mozzies love the perfume.  Change of tack tonight – leave hair and replace perfume with copious quantities of DEET.
I have booked myself on a guided tour.  A group of us are going to trek through the jungle, visit two of the caves, lunch at a local hill tribe village and then more trekking.  I am feeling a little nervous as I realise that the average age of the rest of my group is twenty-five – they are going to think I’m a sad, eccentric old bag.  I stand a little apart from them.  I just know they will laugh. I really doubt they’ll even speak to me at all… 
“Hi, I’m Talia and this is Dave, oh!, and that guy over there is Steve, and that’s his friend Paul………”
She seems sweet anyway.
A rusty, three-wheeled vehicle, rather like a Thai ‘Tuk-Tuk’, takes us to the starting point of our trek.  There are around twelve of us and the whole group is admiring the awesome scenery.  
Clicking cameras can be heard amid the “Oohs” and “Aahs” of appreciation, which amazes me.  I always thought that only the ‘Middle Ages’ notice stunning  views or make appreciative comments about them.  I am trying to relax and feel less matriarchal, when we arrive.  Now, I mentioned that it had been raining and, for those of you who are not fortunate enough to live in South East Asia, let me tell you that rain comes in v. large doses here.  Underfoot, at this moment, is reminiscent of a Kent clay quarry.  The mud is ankle-deep.
My plastic flip-flops, totally unsuitable for the occasion, are being disgustingly sucked off my feet and I am now trying to retrieve them with my hands.  Goodbye nice nails!  Everyone is falling over, enjoying the naughtiness of being allowed to get ‘really filthy’ and not get into trouble.

It is v. hot and humid. My hair has stuck to my head, so bad hair day didn’t matter anyway. We climb a steep hill approaching the entrance to a large cave.  Our guide retrieves candles from his daypack and gives us one each.  I am becoming a little anxious.  I don’t DO enclosed spaces.  I have frequently woken up in the middle of the night, in some strange, unfamiliar hotel, and been engulfed by a ‘being trapped in a box’ panic.  Total blackness scares me.  I am overwhelmed at these times by a morbid sensation of being unable to breathe.
But here I am with these young, experienced travellers, all raring to get in there, so, encouraged by their enthusiasm and not wanting to appear miserably inadequate, I venture cautiously into the fearful unknown….and darkness.
The flickering candles are providing just enough light to avoid the huge stalactites and mites as they emerge ominously from the shadows.  All I can hear is twelve sets of lungs breathing shallowly and the squelching of our mud-encrusted flip-flops as we slide our way further into the cave.
I am having an unwelcome episode of nervous panic.  Our guide is suggesting everyone blow out the candles to experience total blackness.  Oh my God!  My biggest dread is about to be realised. I close my eyes, as if this will somehow lessen the effects of claustrophobia….I hold my breath and urge myself to remain quiet and calm.  
The few seconds of total black silence seem an eternity to me and I sigh with relief at the click of someone’s disposable lighter.
An hour later we emerge back into the forest.  I am ecstatic and feeling v. proud of myself.  I didn’t panic and the young group has been very sweet and supportive. 
I am starting to relax and enjoy the day as we trek to another cave – this one, I am told, is even bigger and deeper than the last. 
Ok! So I failed miserably in my attempt to overcome phobia at this cave – well, I was perfectly fine for the first five minutes, (am barefoot by now as I cannot see to exhume sucked-off flip-flop anymore). Then I notice the group ahead of me starting to wade knee-deep through icy water. They have arrived at a point where the cave is becoming v. narrow and v. small. 

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