Sadly, it was time to leave Luang Prabang and head over the mountains to Vang Vieng. The town is primarily a backpackers haunt, where we'd been told that the must do activity was tubing but, viewing some photos it looked quite tame. Scott and I, being used to white water kayaking and rafting in Australia and New Zealand were thinking we might give this a miss. Luckily Steph, who is a fountain of knowledge on all things Loatian, filled me in via email.
But more on that later...
We said goodbye to our fabulous local guide, Tui, at Luang Prabang. He was off home to see his wife, who had delivered their second child while we were cruising down the Mekong. We also picked up our new guide - the "crazy karaoke" guide, funnily enough also nicknamed Mr Tui. He had a tough gig (and a tough audience) as I guess it was his job to keep us entertained on the 7 hour drive to Vang Vieng. If we thought we were going to get a nice quiet nap on the way, boy were we mistaken! After he introduced himself, raved about how happy he was to have
us visit his country, explained how world peace starts with a smile, made us all give a short autobiography, and then taught us a secret handshake, he burst into a welcome song. I think he might tear it up in the local karaoke bar, he tried to get us all to join a rendition of Celine Dion - My Heart Will Go On. We drew the line at that....now if he had only started with Abba.......
Eventually he settled in for an animated discussion with Molly and our driver, leaving us to read, gaze out the window at the passing scenery, listen to our iPods, or catch up on much need sleep (even with the curfew I think Dave, Paul and Tiger Ted managed to stay out past 2am) Another popular method of entertaining ourselves was by casting an upcoming film by Paul, based on the extensive notes he was making in his travel journal. We had been debating the merits of various actors on most of our longer journeys. It was turning out to be a very expensive ensemble cast. Paul, the starring character would be played by George Clooney (though Richard was quite keen to have
George play him), Ewan McGregor was naturally cast as Dave (Irish, Scottish..aren't they all the same? Or as we are in Asia....same, same but different), Scott was to be played by Jason Statham (I think it's the hairline although Scott would say the Abs), Catherine Zeta-Jones was to play me, Helen Mirren was an obvious choice for Jackie, and Lucy Liu would make a great Molly. Johnny Depp was to play multiple minor characters (because every movie needs a sexually ambiguous pirate).
I've read numerous complaints about the "highway" between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. Clearly these people have not travelled any roads in Cambodia, particularly the one that runs from Siem Reap to the Thai Border. While slow due to the windy mountainous nature of the route the road is in comparatively good condition. We took a lunch break and "happy room" break at a mountain cafe with some breathtaking views. It was amazing just to sit and soak it all up, eating a freshly prepared local meal overlooking the gorgeous patchwork scenery of such an undeveloped countryside. Sometimes we just have to pinch ourselves and appreciate how lucky we are to have these opportunities.
Molly, however, was not having much chance to enjoy it. A phone call from the Intrepid office in Bangkok advised her of a large typhoon named Megi, that had devastated the Philippines and was headed towards Vietnam already causing wide spread flooding and landslides directly in our path from the Vietnam border to Hanoi. She was busy organising 8 seats at short notice on the one flight a day that left Vientiane for Hanoi, no doubt in competition with hundreds of other tourists who were taking the same route.
We finally arrived at our guesthouse, eager to have a look around the town. As we headed into the center of town a number of Jumbos (local taxis - a utility truck with facing bench seats in the back) were headed in laden with tubes and very merry backpackers. We settled down for a BeerLaos in one of the many bars, lit up with gaudy Christmas lights, and full of backpackers on lounges watching re-runs of Friends. The bars in Vang Vieng play either Friends, The Simpsons or Family Guy, and this is where most of the backpackers lounge the day away if they aren't on the river. The menus
at many of the main street bars advertise food and drinks (mostly sandwiches, pizza and shakes) that come in "happy" or "special" varieties. This basically means that a key ingredient is either marijuana, magic mushrooms or opium, all highly illegal in Laos, yet openly promoted!
We hit one of these bars for dinner, a little place called OohLaLa and had yet another brilliant meal. In order to compete with the dozens of other bars in Vang Vieng, OohLaLa offered free buckets if you bought a starter and main. Tacky cheap plastic buckets full of alcohol are available all around Vang Vieng and are usually very strong because Lao whiskey is actually cheaper than soft drinks. A bottle of Tiger Whiskey retails for 10,000 kip, so around a third of a bottle goes into your bucket, normally with a choice of 7up or pepsi, lime and redbull.
After dinner we cornered the pool table, Paul heading up a team with Richard and Molly and Dave heading up a team with myself, Scott and Jackie. We trounced Paul's team 3 to 1 (although in the game they won, they sank the black on the second shot so
technically it was ours too - buckets had not made us competitive at all!)
The next day was free time for an optional activity. Molly seemed quite keen on dissuading us from tubing, however having been filled in on what to expect we had unanimously decided it was an activity that just had to be done. Unusually, Molly decided that she would join us on our optional activity, something she generally never did. Hmmm... she was definitely trying to keep an eye on us.
As it turned out, she couldn't join us for a couple of reasons. She was still waiting on further news from Bangkok regarding Typhoon Megi and the state of the roads in Vietnam, and secondly, and much more interestingly when we woke in the morning we were missing one member of our group. Dave and Paul had consistently managed to stay out till the early hours of the morning every night since Bangkok, so far without incident (though I suspect if I got either drunk and pressed for details, or could sneak a peek in Paul's carefully guarded journal, I'm sure I'd uncover something!). As we were waiting for our guide to take
Is That a BBQ I Smell?
Aussie music and Aussie smells blasted out from this small bar. A little piece of home.
us to the river for tubing we noticed Dave was missing..not unusual as he frequently slept in and had to be woken. When asked if he was still asleep, Paul, who was his roomie, went bright red and mumbled that he didn't know, which I though a little odd. However, it dawned on me pretty quickly that he hadn't come in. Paul, to his credit, was very bashfully tight lipped about where Dave might be and assured Molly he was no where in the vicinity of the riverbank when he was last seen. The whereabouts of Dave that night remains a closely guarded secret, however if Paul's plan to turn his travel journal into a blockbuster motion picture come to fruition we may yet find out. His adventure did keep Molly occupied for the morning though as she had to check the police station, local hospital and even the river banks to see if he'd passed out at one of the many bars.
So it was off to tubing without Dave or Molly. Tubing down the Nam Song involves hiring an inner tube from a tractor tyre, and floating slowly down the river. Sounds like a bucket of fun!
Start of the Tubing Run
The tubing run is really just a pub crawl. You get to each pub by floating down the river on a tractor tyre tube.
The four kilometre stretch of river is actually lined with local bars though some are very dubious looking, little more than shacks that wouldn't pass even the most lenient building inspections. Each bar has some sort of theme and many offer free shots or free buckets, often for no apparent reason. Bar owners and patrons throw plastic bottles attached to ropes to pull tubers into the bars where there are slides, flying foxes, swings, zip lines and mud pits to provide entertainment and ingenious ways back into the river. Never be the last to leave a bar though, some freeloading backpackers will walk down to the bars and grab one of the tubes stacked on the side of the river while you are drinking and you could find yourself with no way down the river!
It's not all drinking and tempting permanent injury or death though. The karst scenery is spectacular and there are many hidden caves, though it is not recommended to enter them with out a guide, lamps, or if you have been drinking (too much). We took a side trip and with a short overland hike carrying our tubes found a small stream that entered
Off we go
Not sunburnt, drunk or injured....how will it all end?
a cave. Being full of bravado and liquor we hopped back on our tubes linking ourselves together and paddled through the cave barely lit from the lights of our head lamps. Scary but fun!
The final stop on the river was the Bucket Bar on the infamous Island. We pulled in at The Island, where we stopped at a much needed "happy room" though we discovered they were best not viewed in daylight. Then we pulled up a hammock to enjoy a quiet bucket. Unbelievably it was in this very suspicious looking "bar" we found the best mojitos we've ever had... anywhere... ever.... (and trust me, we've tried a lot).
Vang Vieng certainly showed us a different aspect to Laos, still laid back, but a hedonistic backpackers paradise set in a stunning location. There is no where else in the world you could do this... there is no where else in the world you would be allowed to!
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