Laos: Vang Vieng

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January 8th 2009
Published: January 13th 2009
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Vang Vieng is not big enough for an airport so the only way to get there is by bus, we chose the most expensive option (ha ha expensive being about $30NZD) to get there hoping it would be the most comfortable. The “VIP” bus was not the most comfortable way we’ve ever travelled though, with seats with no leg room and so forth…. And the road was incredibly windy. Don’t know how we missed that important piece of info before leaving Luang Prabang! The bus wound up and down huge mountains for several hours and there were quite a few queasy looking people on the bus! We managed to see 3 accidents with trucks having slammed into cliff faces, and one truck having somehow wound up on its side and right across both road lanes spilling its roofing tiles everywhere. The roads could be pretty treacherous with a bad driver (of which there are plenty in Laos)- With steep cliffs on one side the majority of the time! Our bus driver was pretty careful though, tooting his horn around corners and slower than others but fortunately after only one stop for some included local lunch at a place in Kasi we made it in one piece to Vang Vieng after 6.5 hours. We took a tuk tuk from the bus station to our new guest house and again were really pleased with our accommodation.

Vang Vieng is a small village that has somehow become a backpacker haven. It is otherwise fairly off the beaten track though so accommodation standards in general are not very high. However, our place was pretty gorgeous, with a great bungalow metres from the river’s edge overlooking the river, and the mountains and limestone cliffs that encircle Vang Vieng. Once again, the scenery is spectacular. It was really warm on our arrival and so we instantly dropped our bags and plonked down in the deck chairs of our balcony, it was definitely a relaxing place to be. Within minutes we wanted to extend our stay there so we went back up to reception and extended our stay from 3 to 4 nights. Our days spent in Vang Vieng alternated between reading, relaxing on our deck, eating local pancakes!, and wandering around the town. The funniest thing about Vang Vieng is that somehow the local restaurants have decided that the “Friends” tv series are the most popular thing ever. There is restaurant after restaurant with a tv in a corner showing Friends episodes. Martin couldn’t stop laughing at the Americans all sitting glued to the TV! and we soon established among people staying in the town that it’s all one big joke. People would say “oh yeah I visited here, went to here, hired a bike, oh and of course watched a few episodes of Friends before going off to here….” It was so funny! (there was were also a few ‘specialty bars’ one called The Simpsons Bar, another was The Family Guy Bar… anyone spotting a bad theme here??)

On our second day there we booked a minivan to Vientiane, deciding maybe this transport option was better than the “VIP” bus service and also a trip to take in a lot of Vang Vieng’s attractions at once. We spent most of the day chilling out, Martin resumed his quest to try as many international beers as possible and Kristi tried to soak up all the sun she could before we head to the UK!!! We visted a movie bar - which offered you a choice of illegally copied block-busters for your viewing pleasure (hey it beats Friends!) They also gave us a special laminated menu offering a range of illegal drugs - in shakes, pizza, garlic bread etc - completely whacky! There were mushroom options, opium, cannabis - you name it. The key thing to remember is that in Laos the police love nothing more than raiding these places and cheerfully handing out US$500 instant fines - or jail. Needless to say we just watched a movie!

The third day we went on our trip, starting at the Buddha Cave we learned about a few of the myths of the statues and buddhas there and then headed off to the Water Cave. This is where you get into tubes (the river was not very warm….!) and floated into a water cave which went back into/under the cliff face about 200m. That was quite a surreal experience, just bobbing along in the dark, with just small head torches for lights and our guide singing local Lao songs which would echo around the cave. Some of the time the cave roof is only about 50cm above your head and so you try not to think about the millions of tonnes of rock above you and it really is quite a surreal experience. After leaving the cave we were given a fantastic local lunch of fried rice, and skewers from the fire wrapped in banana leaves with crusty French bread. It was delicious ;-) After drying ourselves out and warming up in the sunshine we headed back across some small rice paddy fields and took a small truck to a point further down river. Here we jumped in “tri-yaks” and started down the river back to Vang Vieng. We paddled 6km before we hit the first riverside bar.

Now, we don’t know if we will accurately be able to portray the “Vang Vieng Tubing Scene”…. But we’ll try! Apparently (we obviously did not do enough research before we left home!) Vang Vieng is famous for its tubing, and we don’t mean tubing just as in floating down the river in an inflatable rubber ring and relaxing to the sound of nature: aka what we did in the Amazon last year. No, this is more like a pub crawl by tube. There are dozens of riverside bars along the river and people (literally) float from one to the next. The most popular bars vie for attention by having rope swings and massive slides into the river. Not always the safest looking contraptions! ;-) Every bar is a HUGE party, the free shots are pretty much limitless and there are young people from all walks of life having a great old time on the river bank. Ahhh yes, point to note: bikinis and drunk girls don’t always go so well together…. Especially the drunker they get, jumping off rope swings and trying to get in and out of big rubber tubes at each stop! ;-) It was one of the craziest, most surreal things we’d seen! Probably more so as we arrived completely sober and at first were watching the big parties in quite a shock ;-) Apparently THIS is what a lot of tourists, particularly Aussies we noticed, come to Laos for! Crazy!! Each bar would throw long sticks and ropes out to passing “tubers” who would grab the end and come on in - bar owners literally fishing for customers!! ;-) Loads of people come to Vang Vieng and work in the bars for a couple of weeks in return for free accommodation and all the alcohol/food they wanted before moving on. We met a guy from Wellington who’d been there working so far for 2 weeks and a Canadian who’d been there for 3 weeks. We met a British girl who has a friend that works at the Australian embassy in Vientiane, apparently the number one activity for Australians getting injured or killed in Laos is tubing in Vang Vieng! Coming across this unexpectedly in the middle of beautiful, scenic, peaceful Vang Vieng was incredibly surreal! So anyway we had a really badly made Mojito before Martin reverted back to Beer Lao and had a few jumps off the rope swing, then headed on our way. (we figured that drunk kayaking would be significantly less fun that drunk tubing!) There was bar after bar and the river was littered with out-of-it tubers! Including this one blonde girl who just didn’t even seem to see our kayak…. Until it was on top of her tube …. but that’s another story ;-) We headed off down river not stopping again as we were feeling completely overdressed…. You know, wearing boardies and t-shirts, I mean! And overtook tube after tube on our way back to Vang Vieng. It was a great day with a few surprises along the way! The whole “tube scene” makes no sense (as one our Portugese friends pointed out) Why Laos? Why Vang Vieng? Why tubes? How did it all start?? One of the deeper mysteries of the universe… still, when in Rome!

After one more day of doing a whole lot of nothing…. And it was great! we were off on a minivan to Vientiane. The 3.5 hour minivan ride turned out to be a much better and more comfortable way to travel, though also the cheapest! Bizarre….

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