Published: March 11th 2008March 11th 2008
My name is Ben, you don't know me. I have been asked to ghost write this blog by Scott, whose acquaintance I made not three days ago, here in Vang Vieng. The reason that this should be so? Well, that's a little hard to explain. Scott likes to say that he's experienced a "temporary aberration of cognitive reasoning" but, in less overblown language, one could say he's basically lost it. To Scott I have been a confessor of sorts, a repository for the darker tracts of his troubled mind and it is for this reason - indeed I believe that this was his plan all along - that he has asked me to write this blog.
Over the past four nights we have discoursed at length on his time in Laos, many long hours slipped soporifically by as I listened to his sonorous voice charm me with his adventures of the past two weeks. Due to the ravages and transitory nature of memory and, more correctly, to alcohol's innate ability to obfuscate and confuse, what I am about to relate may not be entirely correct. For example, though I remember each episode with relative clarity the chronology may be a little out; it is also entirely possible that some scenes may have had a little added or subtracted without my knowledge. Lets just say that the story, yes, probably best we call it a story, that you are about to read contains, without doubt, some kind of truth and that most of what you will read actually happened. Some, however, will be entirely fictional; I shall leave it, my dear readers, in your hands as to what to believe and what to laugh off as fallacy.
Enjoy - Ben.
p.s. Scott also gave me his camera and left the choice of pictures to my discretion. I believe I have selected the best but no doubt when Scott reads this he will disagree: tough. As with the words, I add here a little disclaimer; the captions for the photo's may not match the images and some names I may just fabricate, we'll see, but I think the pictures should lend a degree of credence to the story I'm about to relate. Oh, finally, whilst looking through Scott's camera I came upon some of his - how shall I say? - more artistic images. I had a crisis of conscience as to weather to place them on this blog, in the end I decided against for I did not wish to flatter Anny nor, and this was the hard part, embarrass Scott. In the end I kept them close to hand, so to speak.
It is six in the morning and for the past two hours Scott has been awake. He is not in the greatest of moods. The reason for his severe annoyance? The constant, repetitive squawking of cockerels. Scott was now so frustrated that the anger broiling inside him was becoming equal to, if not stronger than, the heavy lassitude and weariness that this hour commonly engenders, especially in Scott. He seriously considered putting some clothes on, going outside, and sacrificing one of the noisy cock's to appease, or at least quieten, just one of the God's that cluttered his tortured mind but reasoned, intelligently I feel, that were he to let the blood from the necks of all the chicken's in Laos, the crimson river produced would still be insufficient to sate his legion of false Idol's. Besides, he couldn't really be bothered.
Anny, who until recently had been sleeping
the peaceful sleep of the just and pure, was now awakened by Scott's unintelligible mutterings and invectives. Rolling onto her side and, with a practised hand, calming Scott, she concurrently looked deeply into his eyes and smiled. Scott knew all about this particular smile, exactly what it meant and where it, were he to let it, would lead. Due in no small part to his weariness and in some large part to his perceived ineffectuality under stress, he contemplated trying to arrest Anny's monstrous attention and divert her purpose elsewhere. But he knew it was not to be, the effort involved in such a daring subterfuge would be greater than that of the act itself so, hardening himself for battle, he conceded to Anny's desires.
After such a stressful morning (for Scott anyway) our intrepid couple decided to go get breakfast at a restaurant across the river. Crossing the bridge over the Nam Ou Scott and Anny paused to contemplate the incredible scenery that was just now making its presence known by thrusting itself out of the thick morning mist. All around them towering limestone peaks were slowly revealed as the mist was burnt away, the remaining tendrils of
cloud creating pockets and holes through which the thickly forested, emerald peaks could be appraised, as if through a spy hole. Anny's face, already radiant and glowing, coloured some more and broke out into a tremendous, joyous smile and, with a shriek of joy, she turned and through her arms round her lover. Scott reciprocated and, as earlier, made all the right noises but his heart was not entirely in it; his thoughts were still of the murderous type and mostly directed at the large red cocks that had troubled him so last night but, despite this, he could feel a slow quietening in his mind and, arm in arm with Anny, he shuffled slowly across the bridge.
At the restaurant Anny sat herself down and began to study the menu, slowly. Anny has many excellent qualities and her virtues are too numerous to recall but, unfortunately, making decisions are emphatically not one of them. A simple decision, like selecting what clothes to wear, even when from the necessarily limited selection of a backpacker wardrobe, can take half an hour and cause much distress, not least to Scott, but when faced with the almost insurmountable choice presented on
a menu card things can get, well, long. They had been sat there for almost a hour and on several occasions it seemed that a decision had been reached, but each time as the waiter, pen poised expectantly above notepad, leaned in to take the order Anny would baulk at her decision and return, with furrowed brows, to further contemplation of the menu. Scott suggested at one point that he would perhaps order his food and then go home and pack, but the look he received was enough to still any such notions. Instead he went back to his attempt at affecting a look of studied calm and nonchalance, even trying, for added emphasis, to throw in the odd relaxed smile. Unfortunately his attempt failed; he ended up looking like a man suffering from debilitating constipation who occasionally grimaced at the pain and this, coupled with the nervous bouncing of his leg and the distracted scratching of his ear, gave one the impression of a man generally very ill at ease. Which, sad to say, was the case.
Breakfast was eventually consumed, the usual (oh how this frustrated Scott) banana pancake and fruit shake was ordered by Anny and
Scott had egg's on toast with some very strong Laos coffee. Suitably fortified they made plans to leave Nong Khiaw on the slow boat up the river. The journey, though cramped, was stunningly beautiful and all Scott's tension dissipated in a strange synthesis and joining with the scenery. The soporific lapping of the waves insinuated themselves deep in his soul, the quiet, strong mountains leant him a little of their eternal power whilst the calm wallowing of the lazy buffalo that were to be viewed along the banks, lowed him into a state somewhere close to bliss. Anny was already there, but she found it no less beautiful.
Arriving in Muang Ngoi they sauntered off to find themselves a cheap guest house and after ten minutes a simple bamboo hut with thatched roof was found. It was located spectacularly on the banks of the Nam Ou with fantastic views of the towering mountains beyond. This was to be their base for the next three days and, save a few unsavoury moments that we shall not divulge here, their stay in Muang Ngoi was a very pleasant one indeed. At the end of the small, dirt street there was a
small sauna with herbal shower that was used by Scott and Anny every night. After a day's walking they liked nothing better than to retreat into its smoky, fragrant depths for a thorough cleansing, even though sometimes they ended up getting a little dirty before they eventually got clean. This aside they had never felt so thoroughly scrubbed, and doubted they ever would again, as when leaving the small makeshift sauna.
One glorious morning, inspired by the stunning sunrise, Anny and Scott took an early breakfast and set off into the surrounding hills for a hot, but satisfying, walk between two or three villages. Muang Ngoi and its environs are only accessible by boat which negates the need for any form of motorised transport and hence makes any journey that much quieter and relaxing. Strolling across small paths that criss-crossed the rice fields Anny and Scott walked hand in hand through some of the most impressively beautiful vista's that either had seen. They passed and explored a couple of interesting caves and eventually stopped for lunch in a small but incredibly beautiful, riverside village for lunch. Anny, thankfully thought Scott, was not hungry so he wasted no time in
ordering his food; chicken Laap.
Laap is a traditional Laos salad consisting of minced meat flavoured principally with mint, chilli's and lime - amongst other things. Scott was starving but very happy as he was able to order so quickly. Unfortunately he got a little bad news, the proprietor of this restaurant (the only one in the village) informed him in broken English that the meal may take a while. Through a series of mimes and the odd recognisable word Anny and Scott ascertained that the reason for the delay was that the cook had to kill, then mince and finally cook the chicken to order. Scott was asked to select the poor unfortunate that was to become his lunch but he deferred to the owners better taste and judgement, not himself being an expert in these matters. It was absolutely delicious when it did come and so cheap to be almost embarrassing. This coupled with the ubiquitous sticky rice gave him the energy to stomp the couple of hours home.
Upon leaving this relaxing and quiet place Scott and Anny, but Scott in particular, were a little worried as to how they would adjust to their next
destination - Luang Prabang. To get there they repeated their river trip of a few days ago, only this time in reverse and on arriving back in Nong Khiaw they caught a local bus to the afore mentioned, and beautifully named, Luang Prabang. This journey took them six hours, time enough for the volatile Scott to get irritated and irrationally upset at various inconsequential occurrences but not, sad to say, long enough for Anny to decide what she was going to wear that evening. She had heard that Luang Prabang had a distinctly European air to it and she wanted to dress appropriately - all breezy and elegant - but the six hours were not enough to come to a decision so, as she so often does, she chose to procrastinate. This is not entirely true, Anny had heard that their was some good shopping to be had in Luang Prabang so she decided to buy herself a new dress, thus adding to her selection and, in her mind at least, making the eventual decision that much easier.
Scott was also aware that Luang Prabang had a clear European heritage, he had heard that it was a Unesco World
Herritage sight, set up so as to protect the distinct architecture that is to be found there. What he didn't realise, and what was to prove quite a shock when he found out, was that this little corner of Europe in a small Laotian field; was actually French. The horror. Once Scott had calmed his nerves and settled into this new knowledge a strange sensation overcame him. Perhaps it was the beautiful period French buildings, perhaps it was the smell of fresh baguettes and coffee, or maybe the accordion music lilting to his ears from the pavement cafe's but whatever the reason Scott was assailed by an overwhelming urge to go shopping. This was truly music to Anny's ears and so,without waiting for the retraction that must come, she asked Scott for three day's money, received it, grabbed him tightly by the hand and leaped, blissfully happy, into the depths of Luang Prabang's night market. Scott realised very quickly that he had made an awful mistake, but is wasn't to be for another three hours until he realised how large when, back at the guest house, laden like a pack mule with gifts and absolutely shattered, Anny turned to Scott,
her face radiant with pleasure and flashed him one of those smiles. It was to be a long night. I apologise for breaking into the narrative like this - it will not happen again. The final part of this story is coming up, perhaps now would be a good time to go make some tea or something, come back refreshed for the final, short I promise, instalment of this little yarn. The reason why I interject at this moment is to place a further disclaimer at your feet, my good and patient readers. The last part of this tale concerns Scott and Anny's time in Vang Vieng. For those who know this place no explanation is necessary but, and here I'm extrapolating from given facts, I'm assuming the majority of Scott's readers to be entirely innocent of the particular charms afforded by this strange place. Scott, when talking of his time here, refers to it as "the catalyst" or, when particularly angry, "the bastard son of Satan." What is clear is that Scott believes that it is Vang Vieng, or more correctly the type of pleasure to be found there, that is responsible for the fracturing of his fragile mind. Without putting too finer point on it, and not wishing to affront those readers who are perhaps unaware of Scott's baser predilections (I'm thinking family here) I'll keep the language abstract and therefore hopefully protect the innocent. Or perhaps not. Shall I just say that if a child of the younger, more experimental generation were, on their way to Amsterdam to get horribly, irretrievably lost and end up by some fluke of aviation in Vang Vieng that they would not be disappointed. In fact I would go so far as to say that the stunning scenery, beautiful river and amazing people would bolster and add to the pleasures they that had initially dawn them, and gotten them lost in the first place.
So, to my disclaimer. Because of the kind of place this is (have you guessed it yet?) and due to the disorienting nature of the pleasures to be found within, the facts of this part of the story will be less factual than perhaps those to be found in part one. The order would have undoubtedly been wrong had I attempted a correct chronology, but I didn't (or rather I wont). Instead you shall receive the salient facts (such as they are) and the blatant untruths all sort of bundled together, a kind of experiential soup for your slathering, hungry minds.
Flowing through Vang Vieng is the mighty Namg Song, a slow lazy river that cuts its slow swathe through some dramatic scenery. Vang Vieng is situated on the banks of this river in a wide flat valley the edges of which, however, rise in towering, crenulated limestone towers and ridges. You can walk for hours across the rice paddies along narrow raised paths and never seem to get any closer to these behemoths until, suddenly, you are craning your neck to try and see the tops of the imposing cliffs. The mountains are all covered with thick forest, the only parts where you can see the exposed limestone is on the vertical cliff faces themselves. Viewing them from a distance one could imagine them to be small rocks in a field, the trees climbing impossibly steep valleys like so much lichen but, up close, their size and power truly astounds.
The town itself is so different to anything Scott and Anny had experienced thus far in Laos.
There were hardly any Laotian homes (in the centre at least) to be seen, only endless rows of guest houses that were all very same-same but not at all different. The only difference being which episode of Friends they were showing. The other thing that there is a lot of in Vang Vieng is bars, and it was to one of these that Scott and Anny took themselves on their first night and many times subsequently. Music, bonfires, hammocks, seating by the river and hordes of white people did not really differentiate this bar from others they had been to, the menu, however, did. Upon receiving it Anny mentioned to Scott that many of the items had the prefix "happy", she wandered how so many of the items, such as Pizza, coffee and shakes, could be described as happy. Very reasonably Anny considered most of her food inanimate and non sentient and therefore incapable of emotions. Being a seasoned traveller now, Anny shrugged it off as another strange occurrence and continued to peruse the menu.
Anny likes fruit shakes, actually it would be fare to say that she has something of an obsession with them, but even she recoiled
at the thought of a mushroom milkshake - what a strange ingredient for a shake she concluded. Soon afterwards, in fact directly after she read what they could put in the coffee, Anny realised exactly what kind of establishment she was patronising; it also went a long way to explain the behaviour of a couple of strange individuals who had been staring intently at the fire now for longer than is usually normal. Always up for trying the local specialities, Scott and Anny leaped with typical abandon into the madness that was "smile bar" only to emerge some days later thoroughly confused (for Scott read broken) but strangely enlightened. Anny saw it, sensibly enough, as a sort of holiday within a holiday and rationalising it thus she proceeded to take it for all it was worth.
Save the bars, and there were many, and besides the occasional restaurant or the odd short trip to go caving, the main attraction in Vang Vieng, one which Scott and Anny indulged in several times, is that of tubing. This involves, very simply, floating four Kilometres down the river in an inflated tractor's inner tube pausing, as often as one likes, at any
one of the plethora of bars that line the river. These will all vie for your attention and once they have it throw a rope to haul you in. Some guy's here are employed, full time, as human fishermen. Most bars have either a death slide or huge rope swing to allow drunken westerners to hurl themselves into the river. Some of these were so high (as, dear readers, were our protagonists) that Scott and Anny were falling, stupefied and limp, a good eight meters into the water. They have the bruises to prove it.
Scott and Anny loved it so much that the first time they went they got so carried away in the bar's and on the swings that that come five O'clock (the tubes had to be back at six) they had only gone about three hundred meters! They had to crawl out of the river, hack their way through some fields until they found a road and were able to get a tuc tuc back. On their second attempt they were much better prepared. They arose early, imbibed heavily with breakfast and got to the drop off point before ten. This allowed them to enjoy
longer in each bar and, incredibly, make it out the water some eight hours later to return the tubes on time. The standard drink on this river journey is the cheap and fortifying "bucket" which Scott and Anny attacked with abandon. It is, exactly as you would imagine, a large bucket full of strong alcohol and several straw's. Once a drink had been bought, especially at the second bar, the owner would start offering free shots of Lao Lao or whisky. On one trip, at eleven in the morning, the owner gave Scott and Anny so many shots that she finished over a bottle of whisky; the swing, for Scott particularly, back into the river was very hazy indeed.
There are more photos below