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January 29th 2009
Published: February 12th 2009
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Thursday 29th January

Strolled with our rucksacks through the empty streets in the cool of early morning to the Talat Sao (market) bus station (of course stopping for breakfast at the Scandinavian Bakery). We quickly found the local bus and luckily grabbed the last two standard seats which were two rows apart.. It was already full of locals and our rucksacks were piled at the front with the large amount of cargo that these buses carry. There were the usual sacks of rice plus all kinds of goods being transported back to the countryside. Huge packs of bread were suspended from the handrails. The jovial 'conductor' filled the aisles with little plastic stools which gradually filled with people (including a couple of other westerners and a group of five young Japanese (I think) tourists). The bus got so full that in addition to the aisles some people were sprawled on the rice sacks. Then to cap it all a new bicycle was brought aboard and suspended from the roof (above Jen's head). Jen also had to share her two seats with two other women plus a baby. Soon after leaving a baby started squawking and would not stop for about an hour despite all kinds of attempts from breastfeeding to pulling faces to shouting. The most bizarre attempt was when the conductor got the bus to stop by a motorcycle workshop. He took mother and baby and for some reason put a dab of grease on the child's forehead. It must be some Laos superstition. It didn't work. The conductor moved the baby to the front of the bus hoping that the new position would quieten it. Soon after it stopped - I think from exhaustion. Further locals got on and off the bus with associated luggage. The bus was so crowded that at one stop a lady got out of the window rather than fight her way up the crowded aisle and was lowered out by the conductor. He was a very amiable bloke who seemed to enjoy his job tremendously. Collecting the ticket meant passing money and tickets from hand to hand because it was too difficult for the conductor to move down the bus. The hours seemed tp pass quickly because of the interesting things both on and off the bus. The landscape grew increasingly dramatic as we neared Vang Vieng. The karst limestone peaks jut magnificently from the otherwise gently rolling landscape. It was quite a relief to descend from the bus leaving the remaining passengers to continue even farther north. We strolled across what is sometimes the airstrip but which was being used for a market and I think special events associated with the holiday convention we'd heard about. We found a decent looking guesthouse and were relieved to find they had space (albeit at the slightly higher than anticipated price, being 100,000 kip (£9) a night. There is a fine view from the back window out over the dramatic peaks that form the west bank of the Nam Song. We went out on a reconnoitre. The location of the town is wonderful but it has become a bit of a club 18-30 scene which isn't the reason we came to Laos. Many bars have non-stop videos of Friends playing. However this aspect is easy enough to escape which is what we planned to do next day. We found a nice little family run restaurant called the Friendship and had cheap and cheerful noodle dishes for our lunch. We walked the rather cluttered waterfront. It is a bit difficult to get a clear view of the river itself because of the riverfront development. We took advantage of a special offer at a little bar overlooking the river - a big Laos beer and spring rolls for only 15,000 kip. Both beer and spring rolls delicious and the location was fantastic - couldn't understand why we were the only customers once some others left. For our evening meal we ended up at a bar called the Sunset bar and had our worst meal in Laos so far. We both went for fish. Mine was barely cooked and Jen's was certainly undercooked. If it had been the UK we'd have sent it back, but because of the language difficulty we foolishly accepted it and just left most of it. At least the sunset itself was spectacular amongst the sharp peaks and the BeerLaos tasted as good as ever.

Friday 30th
We hired bikes for 90p for the day. Amazingly I had one with working brakes. After breakfast at the organic cafe in town we headed out on the main road to their main establishment called the organic mulberry farm about 3km north of town. They do lots of great community work to support the local village. You can stay there as a volunteer helping raise funds by working at their bar during the day and assisting with English lessons in the evening. They ask for a weeks minimum commitment which unfortunately was too long for our schedule. It's a great place. They've introduced goat farming to the village and sponsor the local school bus amongst many other activities. We tried a cup of their mulberry tea which was okay. The farm is right on the river and its bank is used as the starting point for Vang Vieng's most popular activity which is to float downriver in a big lorry tube stopping off at the numerous bars which line the river so that you are sozzled by the time you reach town. We watched as some of the early starters began their 'journey'. It did look fun but the kayaks going down river looked more fun. (The organic farm sells mulberry based cocktails to raise charity funds as does rather well according to the board recording monthly totals). Spear fishing appears very popular with the local boys who use tiny homemade devices that look quite lethal.The sun was warming up by the time we reached town again so we went for juices and noodles at a very laid back riverfront bar where the staff were perhaps even more relaxed than us. A big group were playing a lively game of cards - I think powered by Lao Lao -the local home brewed whisky. Mid afternoon I cycled out alone to the bus station to check on times and buy the bus ticket for tomorrow. ( I usually buy the bus tickets from the guest house - but I'd had a conversation with the guest house owner - asking the price of the VIP bus - but when I asked if it had a toilet she said no - so I said 'It's not a VIP bus then” - she said yes it is a VIP bus - apparently it had to be a Super VIP bus to have a toilet- so we reached an impasse and I decided to just book the standard bus myself directly at the bus station which was cheaper. On the way to the bus station the police escort made me and a motorcyclist pull over to the kerb to allow through what was apparently some Japanese tourism bigwig judging by the sign on the car. It was a bit galling - I thought I was plling over for an ambulance. (Not that I've seen many of those in Cambodia or Laos. I only recall seeing one fire station and that with a second-hand tender donated by the Chinese. As the afternoon heat abated we cycled over the small toll suspension bridge. It immediately becomes more Lao on that side of the river and the lovely scenery is uncluttered by the town. The paths were atrocious for cycling as we passed through meandering cows until we reached a path through the paddy fields to a cave by a towering rockface. The light was fading so we didn't enter the cave but headed back over the bridge. Small carts pulled by small two wheeled tractors called 'electric cows' are a major form of transport here. Crossing the bridge was one of these contraptions with what appeared to be a ten year old driving - with his extended family in the trailer behind him. We returned our bikes and then walked to our 'special offer' bar and again had BeerLaos and spring rolls and watched the sun set. Again it was empty when several off the more tacky bars back in own were full of people watching the umpteenth repeat of 'Friends'. Peoples tastes are extraordinary. We later dined and our favourite little restaurant suitable called the 'Friendship'. It is very family run - granny sits in the background watching Laos soap operators as mum cooks and the kids and very occasionally dad helps. We were I bit disillusioned by Vang Vieng.It is embarrassing the way that the young westerners behave - there are posters up in many places asking for tourists to dress modestly but on every street you see bare chested youths in bars and even some women walking down the street in bikinis. It's all very sad. We, being old fogeys, went to bed early but well after midnight could hear noisy yobs making their way home. [ Side note : most of the guest houses have a curfew and say you have to be back by 11 or 11:30. This is not normally a problem in most towns as everything closes down after 9pm anyway - but Vang Vieng is not like the rest of Laos).


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