Laos: Vientiane

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August 10th 2012
Published: August 10th 2012
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Dear All

Greetings from the tropical rainforest – literally! The last time I wrote I was also in the rural wilderness, near Luang Prabang, in a fantastic eco-lodge which looking back on now from this place feels more like a bubble of comfort and tourist luxury surrounded by the rainforest. This one I am writing from another eco-lodge (again listening to the Avatar soundtrack!), but wonderfully much more rustic, and feeling like I am actually in the rainforest itself. It is raining and has been doing so since I arrived yesterday afternoon, a constant downpour rather than the typical tropical outburst of heavy thundery rain. Last night I made serious use of my mosquito net, as the whole hut after nightfall seemed to be crawling and flapping with all manner of insect life, especially around the one light bulb burning in the middle of the room (there are walls, but between these and the roof there are open spaces...!) Meanwhile, the rain continued to hammer outside on the roof and sides of my hut, a welcome wonder that no leaks sprang inside, and the cloudy and moonless sky meant that I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face when I ventured out onto my hut’s terrace for a few seconds (short time as my mind played no end of tricks on me as to what might be lurking out there in the jungle, what with all the unfamiliar noises, creaks and the like). In short, an amazing time, and this journey just seems to be holding so many unique and different experiences for me, I feel honoured to be here.

So yes, last I wrote from Luang Prabang, about to board a “VIP” bus, though still minimal air-conditioning and no toilet, reluctantly to the notorious travellers’ party destination, Vang Vieng. As mentioned, I first wanted to stop there only to break the long 12-hour journey to the Laotian capital, Vientiane, and to keep my head low as I’d heard so many bad stories about the place. The fact that most travellers go there just out of school on gap-years, not fully knowing what drugs and alcohol are, but finding that these are freely available in the town, getting bladdered and drugged-up, and then taking tubing rides on the fast-flowing waters of the Nam Song River (tubing involves floating down the river on a large inflated inner

15cm long, Ban Pako Forest
tyre tube). Naturally, the two activities don’t mix well, and I have heard that there have been anywhere between 27 and 50 travellers who have died there as a result of such stupidity over the last year alone. So in all honesty, not a place I wanted to hang around, and this was felt as I was one of only 4 people (of a coachload of 30 plus tourists) who descended the bus when we arrived in the place – I felt rather embarrassed to be getting off to be honest.

But lo and behold, I absolutely loved the place! I of course avoided the mayhem that happens in the centre of town, as after a 5-minute cycle around there I passed by two drunk Aussies rolling their tubing tyre crazily through the streets and shouting and whooping, and two English girls running and shrieking bare foot to catch a local tuk-tuk. The local people were laughing quietly at this, but I couldn’t help feeling such shame and embarrassment on behalf of my country, and really wished I could express this to them. But I stayed out of town in a fantastic little place, the “Vang Vieng Resort”, which felt like a retired Butlins holiday camp, albeit with only 9 chalets and myself being the only guest, about 2km south of town and right on the banks of the river – deliciously serene and quiet. My full day there I borrowed a bicycle from the place, and did a cycle-tour of the farmland area immediately west of town. The most stunning scenery I think I have seen on my trip so far, as I cycled past paddy fields with friendly locals who waved and didn’t mind my camera, surrounded by karst mountains and hulking great limestone cliffs of gigantic proportion, each one riddled with unexplored caves, waterfalls and spring-fed pools. It was magical, and I ended up cycling 6km to the Tham Phu Kham cave, at the foot of which was a lovely, clean pool referred to as the Blue Lagoon. The cave itself I was advised to take a guide into, and was so glad I did. It was just like the caves we have back home, which have concrete paths, wooden steps and lights everywhere, but without any of this tourist-assisting stuff. It was a cave full of stalactites, stalagmites, and weird and wonderful rock formations, which could only be seen with the help of a torch – otherwise, it was pitch black, and without my guide I would definitely have either gotten lost, or fallen down one of the numerous black holes which led down to further depths. I also heard the story of a recent Argentinian guy who went off on his own exploring one of these caves, and never came back. Not sure how much of a travellers’ myth this is, but the Lonely Planet does state that people have been known to disappear without guides in these caves… But thankfully, an hour later, me and my guide both emerged intact, and I went off to wallow in the luxuries of the Blue Lagoon, along with another cool rope swing!

But Vang Vieng did also bring about the first of my three minor mishaps which have happened to me since I last wrote. The trip is going extremely well so far, and these things are of course part and parcel of a trip in unfamiliar territory, but I will regale them here to get a load off, as they say.

Minor mishap number one: arriving by bus in Vang Vieng, I unwisely took the first tuk-tuk which approached me, which I normally don’t do as the insistent ones are normally the dodgy ones – I usually head for a main road and flag one down, or wake one up who’s sleeping, as they’re less likely to pull a fast one. But for some reason I took this guy, and agreed on 20,000 Kip for him to take me to the Vang Vieng Resort (about US$3). After a few minutes, he pulled over and gave me the commonly-heard spiel that in actual fact, the place is closed – they will say this so that they can take you to their “brother’s” hotel, which is “a lot cheaper” but is invariably dodgy, and for which the tuk-tuk driver will also earn a commission. I feel like I have travelled enough to not take any of this rubbish, so I just calmly got up and started to get out of the tuk-tuk, ready to hail another one. Upon which he immediately said “ok ok, Vang Vieng resort”, and carried on driving. When we got there, I paid him the 20,000, to which he immediately responded “no, no – 30,000”, which again I wasn’t taking so
Vang Vieng ResortVang Vieng ResortVang Vieng Resort

View from my bungalow
walked off. He then grabbed my backpack and what ensued was a veritable tug-of-war with my bag, to which I responded more and more loudly “get your f*&ing hands off my bag”, eventually wrenching it off him. I shouted to the two reception staff to call the police, actually managing somehow to get my phrasebook out and point to the translation in Laos. But this I was very disappointed at: the main reception girl just stared at me, half-shocked and half-afraid, as if I was the bad guy and I was going to try something next on her. Since that time, she always looked and dealt with me with caution, which I still feel rather an injustice about. But the worst thing was in the distance there was a spineless fellow-traveller who was near enough to do something to help me, but actually just watched the whole thing and did nothing. Later I saw him, he said to me jokingly “not the best arrival for you”, which I then told him he should’ve done something to help me instead of just watching - the weak wimp. I’d certainly like to think I’d do something to help a fellow traveller in a difficult situation. I wouldn’t know until the situation happened I guess, but once in Hoi An I did physically get a local’s hands off a Chinese travelling girl and saw him off, as he just walked up to her and starting touching her up. But anyway, it always depends on the situation I guess.

After about 10 minutes the tuk-tuk driver finally drove off, but not after ringing someone on his mobile phone which actually worried me somewhat, and I tried, unsuccessfully, to ask the reception girl not to tell the guy which room I’m in if he comes back… I resigned myself to the fact that if he did, and for the sake of a pound and my pride, I’d just give him the extra 10,000. But alas, nothing more came of it, and as mentioned, the rest of my time in Vang Vieng was just amazing.

On Monday morning, and for the first time rather reluctantly to be honest as it was a great place, I left Vang Vieng on a minibus bound for the Laotian capital, Vientiane. Pronounced more like “Vang Chang”, the modern alliteration is down to the French understanding of how the city should be written, as as with Vietnam, Laos is a former French colony originally forming what was known as “French Indochina”, comprising Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The French influence is notable today by the abundance of baguettes, crepes and croissants in the local cafes and restaurants, as well as the numbers of French tourists, who seem to insist on speaking in French both with the locals and other travellers, for some reason, even though both can communicate much more effectively in English. I say this rather hesitantly, but always like to say what I feel, despite knowing that some French people will be reading this, but to me the French are not the best travellers, down to their overly-nationalistic pride about being French, and I have gathered that Laotians would also agree with me on this one.

But anyway, a great little capital city, even though not booming, bustling or frenetic in any way as its other south-east Asian counterparts such as Bangkok or Saigon. A pleasant little place, punctuated by lovely little temples and the stunning riverside setting along the Mekong, opposite which sits Thailand. I had a lovely day yesterday hiring a bike from a local
Tham Jang CaveTham Jang CaveTham Jang Cave

Vang Vieng
hotel and cycling around the place. You may have noticed from the photos uploaded this time that I have gone not for taking the overall cheesy pictures of temples and pagodas, but looking for more detail and quirkiness in what I photograph. I think after three weeks of temples, pagodas and Buddha images, I feel it’s time for something different – hope you like the photos.

On my day of arrival in Vientiane, however, I encountered minor mishap number two, which happened to be the lovely lady on reception at the Hotel Khamvongsa on the west side of the city centre. Having emailed the place a few days earlier, a number of times back and forth, I gathered that I had reserved two nights for my arrival, and then another night preceding my departure from Laos on the 11th. The first two nights were fine, but apparently she had not received my final email about the last night, and told me only a double room was available costing US$5 more. Now I know at this stage, along with the US$1.5 issue which caused the tuk-tuk problem previously, I’m going to sound a stingy old Scrooge, but for me it’s the principal of the thing, and if you agree on a price, you need to stick with it. If you accept a bit of cheating, it’s not only going to make it more difficult for you, it’s going to make it more difficult for tourists who suffer from the same price increments in the future. So I stood my ground and made the point that I should really have the room for the single-room price for the last night, as it wasn’t my mistake. The dragon of a lady was having none of it, and amidst her whingeing, shrieking, whining and what have you, with a number of variants on the phrase “not my fault, not my fault”, I checked out the other hotels in the vicinity and found out they were all fully-booked. I had to seriously bite my tongue and forget the lady’s abominable customer service, and sign in… The next day, a stunningly beautiful young lady who I found out later what was the hotel owner’s sister who had witnessed our little exchange, apologised profusely for her behaviour, and as a compensation for also losing 2 and a half pairs of my socks I had given for
Me and a Lao GirlMe and a Lao GirlMe and a Lao Girl

Tham Jang Cave
laundry (!), offered to charge me the single room price for my last night. I then told her I wasn’t going to write the stinking review on Trip Advisor which I had previously promised little Miss Receptionist, and realised just how much a little bit of customer service in a place really does for it. Checking the Trip Advisor comments for the hotel, I noticed a number of guests had previously written about the “dragon in reception”, and now having got the email address of the hotel’s owner from the owner of the eco-lodge I’m staying at right now, feel it right that this little issue should be brought up with the powers that be.

And finally, minor mishap number three: the worst haircut I have ever had! I should have known, entering a lady’s beauty parlour on Tuesday with only a small section of the “menu” dedicated to men’s cuts and very little English spoken apart from “haircut” that this would be a disaster in the making. After trying to indicate “short back and sides” with a razor action on the back and sides of my head, the first lady who “cut” my hair actually gave me a mohican-cut on the sides, with nothing taken off the back, and a proper solid line between the shaved and the not-shaved. I nearly had a heart attack, and after lots of words exchanged in Lao between the hairdressers, another more seemingly-experienced lady came along and made a few alterations, which gave me the shaved bit at the back, but still couldn’t get rid of the pronounced line. It was also not a straight line, and then she spiked it on top using some gel. Rather than risk anything worse, I paid up and quietly had kittens about trying to pass through immigration in Burma on Saturday whilst looking like a punk rocker. Fortunately, the hotel where I rented my bike from, after looking at my hair half in sympathy, half in shock and gasping, pointed me in the direction of a French-Laotian guy just back from Paris who’s set up a good place nearby. Again, after looking at me with the same look, and breathing in through his teeth “eeehh!”, my saviour performed a minor miracle on my hair and now I have a proper soldier’s cut as he had to shave most of it off to make it look decent again. But what a relief!

I apologise as I know that thus far, my blog entry is much less about historical and geographical fact and more about me me me, but these have really been the main events of my last few days.

Of course finally though, what I have to finish this update on, is this amazing place I’m at right now and how I got here. The Ban Pako Eco-Lodge, I’d found out about in the UK before coming here and had already been in touch with the owner about staying here. A great Swedish guy called Chris, looking affectionately like a cross between Father Christmas and a Viking, met me in Vientiane to take me in his minibus only an hour and a half’s drive from the capital, but to this lush, splendid wilderness on the outside meander of yet another amazing Laotian river. On this side of the river, the forest is secondary, having recovered only recently from local slash-and-burn agricultural techniques, but the opposite side from what I can tell, the side which I’m looking at right now, looks primary, with vegetation about twice as tall as over here, and just waiting to be explored. I am the only guest here right now, actually staying in the only bungalow which apparently doesn’t leak. Chris has got big plans to develop this place in time for the next tourist season come January, having only just bought this place last year, and I can already see the new kitchen unit, bar area, dormitory and other buildings taking shape. But right now it’s ramshackle, and absolutely fantastic! Upon my arrival yesterday, I took the lodge’s self-guided jungle walk surrounding the camp – an hour’s trek through the jungle. After 20 minutes though I got a bit disorientated due to a misprint on the map, and also encountered a herd of what I thought were deer, but apparently turned out to be only cows, but I got a little bit worried being out there on my own. I actually managed to phone (!) Chris to send someone to me to point out the way – he came, and left me with a machete to hack my way through the jungle-growth, and I felt so much more secure with it. The machete not only helped with cutting the way through the dense vegetation, which made it very tricky in parts, I also felt more protected against anything I should encounter. A sweaty 40 minutes later, feeling right in the middle of an episode of “Lost”, my journey having included traversing a small stream whose bridge had been submerged due to the current rainy season, I arrived back in one piece. It was seriously only then that Chris told me about the three leopards who had recently been sighted in the area, one often sleeping in Bungalow Number 11 (!), and the fact that the last person to do the hike did it 5 months ago in the dry season, hence the proper amount of hacking and chopping I had to do to make it round. What an experience, which I certainly wouldn’t have done if he had imparted this information prior to my hike! Chris had also asked me in Vientiane whether I minded snakes, scorpions or spiders, which I actually do but it was too late to turn back then, but fortunately I haven’t encountered any yet – what a place!

And tomorrow, a team of archaeologists from Australia will also be arriving to survey the area, as the lodge is apparently built upon the remains of an ancient temple!! One of the archaeologists is a lady called Marian, who is apparently the actual person who Steven Spielberg based his whisky-drinking heroine on in Raiders of the Lost Ark. She and Chris have planned a drinking session when they arrive, which he expects to be completely drunk under the table by (if you have seen the scene with the Nepalese guy falling down sideways with a huge grin on his face in the film, she must be one heck of a drinker!). I’m hoping to be able to meet her.

So, tomorrow, back to Vientiane (by any means possible, as the current wet weather might actually make the main road impassable, in which case it will involve a boat ride…!!) for one more night with my little friend at the Hotel Khamvongsa. And Saturday will be the big one – Burma!! I am so excited about the place. I will open up my packet of dollars on Friday when back in Vientiane, and if still in pristine condition (I am hoping they will be, as they have additionally been wrapped in two sellotaped pieces of paper and a plastic bag) will mean I will still have the funding to take me through the country. A word to note here about Burma and my potential incommunication there: aside from there being no international banking networks to speak of, there are also no international mobile phone connections (so I will be unreachable by that method for 2 weeks as of Saturday). Internet I have heard should be ok, but of course if I don’t manage to update for any reason, I’ll still be writing and will update after I get back into the international community on the 25th August.

So it is with great wonder and amazement at being in such a beautiful place that I will sign off for now, and upload onto my blog on Friday when back in Vientiane. Hoping everyone is well, and well done to Team GB on such a great performance so far! So proud to be British!!

Big hug


PS The rain seems to be easing up a bit now - I might shortly make that trek into the primary jungle on the opposite bank of the river (with a guide this time…!!)

Additional photos below
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The Blue LagoonThe Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon

Tham Phu Kham Cave

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