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Published: November 17th 2017
Vang Vieng’s Limestone Mountains
This was the view from the first guesthouse I stayed at.
Be advised that there is some description of irresponsible behavior in this entry. Do not read if you are easily offended.
My initial plan after Luang Prabang was to take the bus east to Phonsavan, and then take another bus southwest to Vang Vieng and then finally to Vientiane to catch my flight back to Singapore. During my last day in Luang Prabang, I walked into a travel agency and asked about flights between Phonsavan and Vientiane, and the agent found a one-way ticket for less than half of what I could find online. So, I made a snap decision to head south to Vang Vieng first, then bus it to Phonsavan, then fly to Vientiane. This would reduce the time I would have to spend on buses. I contacted my friends from the slow boat - who had left for Vang Vieng that morning - to let them know I would arrive the next day.
Flashpackers Behaving Badly
The minivan ride to Vang Vieng took about four hours, much of it on a winding mountain highway. Parts of the highway had sheer drops off the side due to landslides. I arrived in Vang Vieng around 11am and located
This was the number assigned to identify me. I didn’t bring my camera or phone on this trip as I didn’t want them to get wet, even with a dry bag. So, if you’re looking for photographic evidence of what I did at tubing, sorry, I didn’t take any. You know, plausible deniability.
my guesthouse - about a 15 minute walk from where I was dropped off - quite easily. The guesthouse allowed me to check-in early. My first impression of Vang Vieng was the amount of Chinese and Korean signage around - usually a sign of mass tourism. As I was hungry, I told my friends I was going to eat. Just as I was tucking in to my lunch, they ambled along.
Earlier that morning, they told me they planned to go tubing on the Nam Song River that afternoon. I was a tiny bit surprised that they - all flashpackers in their 30s - would want to do this. A little background might be in order here. Tubing the Nam Song is one of the legendary activities on this part of the Banana Pancake Trail. It involves floating 3.5km down the river on a tractor inner tube, and stopping at various bars along the way for alcohol and other forms of debauchery. One journalist famously described the scene as “what the world would look like if teenagers were in charge”, or words to that effect. As an added benefit, the scenery is beautiful. This activity has been cleaned up
As seen during the kayaking trip. The scene will become far less sedate in the afternoon when the tubing contingent shows up.
since 2012, when a spate of backpacker deaths led the government to close down most of the bars save four. They also banned the sale of other substances. Anyway, I was up for tubing just to see what the fuss was about.
My friends confirmed their plans with me while I wolfed down my sandwich. I then headed back to my guesthouse to grab some stuff I would need, and then rejoined them. After eating, we walked towards the tubing shop, pausing to buy supplies (dry bags, whiskey, coca cola) en route. When we reached the tubing shop, we paid for the tube rental and also a deposit, signed a waiver, and then piled into a sawngthaew
for the short ride to the start point. We walked into the cool water, and made our way across the river to the first bar which was a short ways downstream. I couldn’t quite make it across the river in such a short span, so I grabbed on to a rope a bar employee tossed at me. At this bar, we had some drinks, played some drinking games, and listened to some music (there wasn’t much space to dance). Apart from drinks,
Official End Point of Tubing
As seen during my walk around town.
I noted that balloons containing laughing gas were also available for sale. We saw one naked guy at that bar. We then got back in and floated to the second bar. The second bar was open air and we sat there and drank some more. There was more space to dance here. Macarena seems to be a language everyone speaks, as well as Despacito, and House of Pain. And Beyoncé. It was a lot of fun. We saw another naked guy at this stop and began to wonder if this was a trend.
It took a while to get to the third bar. Along the way, a bunch of English speakers floated together and played a silly game. At the third bar, we downed a big bucket and had more silly time. Macarena played again. We didn’t see any penises at this bar. Along the way, the karst landscape was just beautiful. We also saw plenty of abandoned structures where the old bars used to be before they were shut down.
Not long after we got into our tubes to get to the last bar, we saw a sign that said 2km to the end. Crap! It was
This was one of four rambling pages about drugs. On the first page, Space Bar states that drugs are illegal in Laos, and then it seemed to claim that it was a safe space for people to use. I was quite confused by the claims.
already past 5pm and we would get back in the dark and potentially lose part of our deposits (the refund amount reduces at 6pm and no refund is given after 8pm). We floated along as fast as we could. At sunset, a couple of hot air balloons passed over us. We also saw lanterns floating up into the sky - apparently there was a lantern festival going on. The fourth bar was close to the end, and there was a misleading sign that said “end tubing”; turned out it was at the bar. We had gotten separated by then. Three of us got out at the bar, and the other two went on to the real end point a little farther down. The sun had set by then and we trudged back to the shop in the dark. Mercifully, they gave us our full deposits back.
After the float, I went back to my guesthouse to change because my sandals had come apart. The rest of the group went to a nearby hostel for free whiskey shots. I joined them after changing and showering. We drank some more, and then stumbled out for food at a place called Space
Korea Pyongyang Restaurant
I couldn’t independently verify this, but I suspect this is one of a series of restaurants the North Korean government owns in various countries which South Koreans frequent. These restaurants earn hard currency for North Korea, while South Koreans get to connect with their communist neighbor. Per an article I read, the North Korean staff are sequestered from the people in their host countries. I briefly considered dining here for the novelty factor, but then I decided I didn’t want my money landing up in North Korea.
Bar. It was well past 9.30pm by the time we finished eating. We called it a night and went back to our guesthouses.
I woke up the next morning feeling a little rough, and sore all over. How was it possible to get this sore floating in water and dancing badly? I also had some scrapes from the rocks. Anyway, I took it easy that day and mostly just lounged around. I did go out for food, supplies and binder clips to temporarily repair my sandals. It was surprisingly difficult to find binder clips.
So, how did I feel about this activity now that I have done it? I won’t lie. This was one of the most fun days I have had traveling. I was relieved that none of the bars appeared to be within sight of the local villages, as some of the behavior on display would be considered offensive in any culture. It’s more likely that the locals give these bars a wide berth, and it is sad they have to do this in their own hometown. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for them to see this scene explode a decade ago.
Placing a hunky mannequin in front of your store is one way to entice people in.
They seem to have pushed back; apart from the government crackdown, there are also signs at the tubing rental places illustrating acceptable behavior and attire. For their sakes, I am glad it has been cleaned up. I have, in other blog entries, bemoaned the impact of mass tourism. Well, sometimes independent budget travel has ill effects too.
Yes, it is stupid to mix alcohol and rivers. Don’t try this at home, kids. But, for a few wonderful hours, I got to behave like a twenty-something again, and it was fantastic.
More Riverine Shenanigans
After recovering from the tubing, I went out looking for kayaking trips. Only one operator seemed to operate kayaking trips on the Nam Li River, and because no one else had booked that trip for the next day, the cost would have been prohibitive. So, I had no choice but to book a kayaking trip down the Nam Song. Maybe it would look different when I am sober. I opted for a kayaking, caving and blue lagoon package.
The next morning, a sawngthaew
came to get me. In it, there were around ten people, mostly Westerners. I was stoked to have a
small group. At the start point (which was north of the tubing start point), I groaned inwardly when two more sawngthaew
came with package tourists. I groaned even more when only seven people indicated they had kayaked before. I used to kayak competitively, but I also signed up for this knowing that these types of tours catered for the lowest common denominator. I wasn‘t looking for any kind of intense workout, but this was going to be really slow going. Only doubles were available, and so I paired off with a Korean girl who had never kayaked before. We capsized within minutes of setting off. In years of kayaking, I had only capsized twice. We both managed to right the kayak and get back in. After that, it was smooth sailing. At some point, we went past the start point of the tubing route, and past the first two bars without realizing it. I guess I didn’t notice them without loud music (tubing generally takes place in the afternoon so these bars probably weren’t open yet). Our lunch spot, as it turns out, was the third bar on the tubing route - Neverland Campsite and Zipline.
It turned out
One could jump from the tree. I didn’t want dozens of eyes on me so I didn’t do it.
that most people in the group had signed up for ziplining in addition to the other activities, and that the non-zipliners (mostly the westerners) had to wait while they did this activity. I wasn’t pleased with this piece of information. We sat there for over an hour waiting for the ziplining be completed, and then we ate lunch. After lunch we went caving. The cave - Thamnone or Sleeping Cave - was at Neverland. We first got into inner tubes and pulled ourselves on a rope into the cave. At the end of the wet part, we got out of the tubes and followed a trail through the cave. Now, this cave was well worth visiting. There were cool stalactites and stalagmites (here’s a mnemonic device to help you remember which is which: "when the mites go up, the tights come down"), including two that were almost connected. The guides also pointed out butterflies and spiders. Unfortunately, the guides banned photography in the cave; the reason they gave was that they needed us to be focused on where we were going.
After caving, we got back into the water and kayaked into town. Our end point was a little
bit past the tubing end point. There, we were put in a sawngthaew
to go to the Blue Lagoon, a swimming hole. There are several blue lagoons in the area and unfortunately we were brought to a very busy one. It was loud and the swimming hole wasn’t really that impressive. I found a quiet corner to soak for a bit, but I soon got annoyed when some Chinese tourists joined me in that spot and were literally screaming into my ear.
Not long after I came out of the water, we all trooped back to the sawngthaew
and went back into town.
Taking a Splurge Day
Unfortunately, I built in a little too much slack into my Laos itinerary, and even more slack creeped in when I decided to fly between Phonsavan and Vientiane. The slack, however, wasn’t sufficient to squeeze in another destination. So, I declared today a splurge day. I booked a room at a river side guesthouse. I took a walk along the riverbank, wrote this entry, and enjoyed good wifi (my first in a while). I made the most of my riverside veranda after the sun went down - it was too hot
Clouds at Sunset
As seen from the balcony of my hotel.
in the afternoon. Tomorrow, I will head for the mysterious Plain of Jars.
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