Rivers run through them: some northerly destinations in Laos


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Asia » Laos
November 16th 2020
Published: November 16th 2020
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Midway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang on the Nam Song River, Vang Vieng is situated amidst gorgeous karst scenery. Although for some fifteen years or so at the turn of the millennium the inter-spliced limestone hills, their isolated monoliths and associated caves, the patchwork of rice fields and profusion of meandering streams, were not its primary attraction. That lure was the abundance of drugs, “happy menus”, sand-castle buckets of semi-free liquor and the opportunity to prematurely end your stint on this mortal coil.

The “must do” activity during this period was to hire an inflated tractor inner-tube and be whisked several kilometers up-stream from whence you could float back towards town. This genteel sounding practice was spiced by the river banks being lined with bars who would throw you a line and haul you into their establishments. Here, spurred on by employed western provocateurs and thumping sound systems, you could consume outrageous volumes of alcohol at negligible prices before being encouraged to leap back into the water from poorly contrived and dubiously constructed towering erections. In the dry season individuals broke everything from ankles to necks, whilst in the wet season – with the deceptively strong current - they drowned.





We were here back in that day and the number of hobbling, bandaged and maimed casualties about town was astounding. Indeed during our brief week-long stay in 2011 there was a fatality. They were only too common, notably among those renowned sensibles: the Brits and Aussies. In 2012 the Australian government had had enough and pressure was exerted to persuade the Lao authorities to clamp down. Almost overnight the riverside bars and their platforms of death were closed. Suddenly there was a superfluous glut of backpacker accommodation: Vang Vieng was no longer on the young hedonists’ short gap-year “circuit”. The new clientele, whilst still hardly aged, would be hiking, biking or kayaking before embarking on their happy meals. There was a growth in more exclusive boutique hostels but many simple establishments were forced to close.





And then you turn up in October 2020, eight months into the Covid pandemic. It was, and is, shocking. The streets are largely deserted, certainly of western visitors. All tour operations, most bars and hotels/hostels/guesthouses and many restaurants are temporarily or permanently closed. Everywhere there are signs advertising land, premises and businesses for sale. Far more than our adopted rural home of Tad Lo with its low grade tourism, Vang Vieng is suffering greatly.





We checked out our old riverside guesthouse (still open) although, equally, it was still run by the same ancient Norwegian lush (yes, I know that’s rich coming from me) who’s lack of privacy boundaries made it a pain to endure even when he was the cheapest option in town. He no longer is, but does remain as one of only three expat hostel “owners” who have survived various foreigner clean-outs over the years (they all have Lao wives).





Without realistic budget competition stands Magic Monkey whose name spanks of those bad old days and yet it boasts an idyllic bucolic location with private en-suite garden bungalows surrounding a decent sized pool (Ali regularly clocked 100 laps/day) and excellent west-facing seating looking out over rice fields to the not so distant karsts… for… $92/month. That includes drinking water, toilet paper, soap, towels, coffee/tea, free off-road bikes, and a guest-use kitchen complete with fridge/freezer. During lock-down they actually let people stay for free in the dorm. Even in early October the place was packed, with some two dozen staying. I suspect that half of all the backpackers in town were in residence, as were we and four Tad Lo chums who were poised awaiting their repatriation flights back to Europe. Their profit margins must be negligible, but many small profits…





Anyway, we can’t let the month of October pass without a wee cheeky comment regarding the bigot-in-chief. Yes, beautifully karmic, following a series of potential super-spreader events the nay-sayer came down with the virus. Sadly (and I certainly wasn’t hoping for a terminal resolution: think Pence) he lived to regale how benign the experience had been (with the aid of a bunch of therapeutics not yet available to others… Regerneron’s antibody cocktail may well prove to be a truly powerful treatment akin to immediately effective rabies immunoglobulin, time will tell). However, enough of him for a while as no doubt I’ll be waxing lyrical as November 3rd approaches. The first presidential debate, pushing through Supreme Court Justice Ami Coney Barrett, “turning the corner” on covid infections? We’ll not even go there.





Things at Magic Monkey were, initially, a little cliquey – many had been in residence for months. However, one night a bonfire was lit in the garden and an impromptu party ensued. Incredibly our relative sobrieties saw us happy to chill pool-side and it wasn’t until on returning from a beer run that Ali was hauled into the dancing melee by a dreadlocked Colombian. Somewhat later said Colombian was no longer able to stand, indeed sit and Ali positioned his prone body into the recovery position. Just in time as he was soon vomiting in his semi-comatose state. As others looked on horrified, Ali cleaned it and him up then sat beside him until he was stable; the partying staff were certainly grateful. And then, with just a few diehards still present (Ali had recently retired), someone observed that he had somehow managed to drop his lower apparel and was naked from the waist down, his pants and trousers around his knees. He was still out of it on his side but directly behind him lay a pile of faeces. As those remaining retreated further I dragged Ali from her slumber and she went into full bottom cleaning, modesty re-establishing, floor sterilizing, nurse autopilot. The drunken were astonished and our place (well, Ali’s at least) within the community duly cemented. We’re not entirely sure how informed of the night’s developments he subsequently was (we certainly didn’t enlighten him) but he was (hugely embarrassed) very appreciative the following day.





Like Sipasert’s Lucy, mum at Magic Monkey had also relatively recently pupped and two boisterous chubsters, Roger and Dave (named by the somewhat eccentric English Amy), had been retained. Antonio, another - not the – Colombian, doing miscellaneous work at the hostel in exchange for free board regularly spent an hour with each, painstakingly removing the dozens of ticks making home in their ears. Thankfully, unlike their American (potentially Lyme disease carrying) brethren, Lao’s abundant examples seem to have zero interest in human hosts. As I was about to discover this is not the case with the nation’s leeches…





One day a hostel-wide barbeque was planned and Japanese Say (who has his fingers in a multitude of local pies) announced that he’d been “growing up” a number of piranha-resembling fish in a small local lake belonging to his friend. They are excellent to eat and we could go catch some; indeed there are also
other, more sizable, species present. So, with my bottles packed, off we cycled. On arrival it was apparent just how pathetic this year’s rainy season has been in the north: the lake’s water level was incredibly low, maybe little more than four feet in its center. Hell, this should be like shooting fish in a barrel thought I. Say produced a rod and, bankside, satisfied himself with casting out into little more than eighteen inches. Along the bank I walked out to a thigh-depth position among the last of the peeping weeds and (feeling rather Chris Yates like – that’s one for Simon and Iain) plopped into the most active, likely looking spots. Nada, not so much as a knock, the worms were not even being touched. And yet, feeling a slight tickle on my calf, I lifted a leg to reveal a bunch of rapidly engorging leeches, each some seven inches in length. After three hours of inaction and maybe half a pint lighter, with dusk already pushing and Ali getting bitten alive by mosquitoes, we called it a day. We’d have to make do with chicken.





Although there are the odd few establishments still open selling burgers, pizza and other western desirables we discovered a diamond little locals' eatery just up the road. Here the ladies knock up huge servings of great Laos/Thai dishes at bargain prices: the pork laab and chicken gapow are particularly good.





Extremely sweetly we’d been receiving daily messages and/or video calls from our children and extended family back at Sipasert: when were we returning?





The free use of bikes was a major boon (although our unaccustomed nether regions begged to differ), providing access to more distant viewpoints where upon scaling a karst you are rewarded with magnificent 360 degree views (the two in the header actually join up).





A bunch of staff and stayers decided to have a day’s excursion kayaking. Whilst kayaking was involved it was really just an excuse for a boozy social and a great volume of beer was consumed as we mostly drifted downstream. Mid-way we stopped at a sand island for some swimming and a lunch barbeque. To the diminutive island’s rear was a shallow stretch of turbulent water that was, grasping your life jacket to your chest, perfect for surfing down. Although maybe it wasn’t so ideal and Mishel emerged with a gash, his belly having scraped across a particularly sharp rock. Amazingly there was little blood as the two inch long wound was a good centimeter in depth, much like a proper surgical incision. Even more incredibly, a month on, he reports back from Barcelona that Ali’s later steri-stripping skills had left it not only healed but also scar-less.





Not being able to read local scripts occasionally has a personal impact and we are still enduring a salty germaline flavoured Colgate.





The road up from Vang Vieng to Laos’ Unesco Heritage listed “Pearl of the Orient” Luang Prabang is, still, abysmal: little more than 100km taking almost six hours. Word-of-mouth targeted guesthouses proved somewhat of a disappointment but Nalin, not quite on the Nam Thar River, suited us just fine.





Luang Prabang itself, with the sleepy, tree shaded old town projecting finger-like between the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Thar, remains as beautiful as ever; there are no high rise developments, the old colonial buildings sit grandly amidst green havens
and a wat with milling saffron robed monks lurks at every turn.





November arrived and with it the election. Never before have we been so invested in an outcome, although never before (certainly within our lifetimes) has a western election had such global import. Surely those disenfranchised experimental voters of four years ago could not countenance another virulent term of division, hatred and ineptitude? The polls were oh so promising, but, equally, they had proved so untrustworthy last time around.





As the night of the 3rd lengthened so our bemusement and horror deepened. Trump was outperforming predictions and a petulant stand-off avoiding landslide was not materializing. Yes, those millions of mail-in, slow to tally, (massively Democrat favouring: they encouraged the practice whilst Trump decried it) ballots remained to be counted, but that was all playing into his much touted narrative of voter fraud. And then at 2.30am EST there was an unprecedented speech from the White House in which Trump stated: “Frankly, we did win the election”. The Florida result – really Hispanics? – was not a total surprise, but his claiming of Wisconsin and Michigan (both later to prove false) and the daunting Democratic deficit in our old stomping ground of Pennsylvania (approaching 600,000) sent us to bed in grim moods: the promising swings in Arizona and Nevada might not suffice.





We rose in the silent pre-dawn silver light to view the snaking lines of monks collecting alms and then, with just baked chocolate croissants in hand, returned to a vat of Lao coffee to brave the latest developments. Mercifully the situation appeared far brighter and as the AP called States so Biden’s share of the Electoral College votes steadily increased. By the 6th it was inevitable: the remaining progressing counts everywhere – with the possible exception of Arizona – would only extend his lead. Less encouraging, whilst the monster had been evicted, the Senate had not (and likely would not) be won. Still, a form of sanity would, soon, be restored and America could once again strive to regain a modicum of respect around the world.





Feeling far more chipper we wandered over the bridge to the far side of the Nan Thar.





Here, years ago, we had chanced upon prime undeveloped riverside land for sale "Sabai dee" Laos. Local inquiries had led to an impromptu discussion (phoneless we had to borrow one) with the owner in Vientiane, although his refusal to include the last ten meters abutting the river for the advertised price rapidly curbed our enthusiasm. Nevertheless, during our investigations (among which Ali chatted at length with various neighbours, one of whom, clearly destitute, and following Ali’s easy ability to placate her crying newborn, offered it to her), we did stumble into a most bizarre unmarked (hidden) drinking establishment directly next door. The premises comprised a dozen or so raised thatched gazebos amidst a jungle-like garden. Not so unusual; but what was surreal were the clientele: they were young girls, in school uniform. And there were many girls, bleary-eyed drunk girls, sitting in groups of three or four assembled around low tables thick with beer bottles as they played cards for money (dollars, not kip), lolled or monitored their regularly bleating phones. There were no males present. None. And, staff aside, absolutely no one seemingly of legal drinking age. Intrigued (and inspired by the beer prices), we took up residence in one such available gazebo and over the course of a number of
hours, an inordinate quantity of Beerlao and a fine Tom Yam we – discretely – observed. Anyway, I ramble… Sadly it did appear that they were working girls who’d pick up a gig by phone, complete and then return for more of the same. Meanwhile, we spoke to the bar’s owners who stated that they would also consider selling their land, if the price was right. Again, we didn’t pursue.





So… fast forward to 2020 and what awaited us had changed, markedly. The undeveloped land was gone, as was the dodgy bar, and in their place was the stunningly tasteful My Dream Boutique Hotel. Looking horribly out of place we ambled in through the tunnel of trained bamboo. An immaculately presented and charming young woman greeted us and insisted on a tour. Thus we viewed their whole range of stylish rooms, villas and discrete swimming pools set amidst a respectfully landscaped and tiered wilderness of greenery that led to nostalgia inducing gazebos overlooking the Nam Thar. Wow. Yet, given the current situation, there was no one staying. Prices had been slashed by more than 60 percent and a very private villa, including breakfast, was now – only - $30.





Two days later we were back, as guests. And what a pampering treat it was.





Unfortunately (fortunately, financially) the main dining restaurant was - not surprisingly given the dearth of custom – closed, but we lucked out in finding a very pleasant establishment just along the street. Here there were a gaggle of locals chatting around a large table whom we were duly invited to join. It materialized that they were the proprietors’ extended family, who all just happened to speak incredibly good English. In chatting the reason became apparent: they also owned an English school. And, as the beers flowed, we were easily coerced into joining the following evenings’ lessons. Never before had any of their students, some six simultaneously run classes each of 20-odd children, actually conversed with a native speaker. Our visit would be a revelation. Well, steady on… Oh, and could they possibly photograph and video us as we went about our interactions? These would greatly aid their future recruitment of students…





Of course our three hours at the school passed in a flash. The charming children were both terrified and elated in equal measure, whilst, come home time, the collecting parents appeared most impressed with our presence (Ali had worn a skirt for the occasion). Thus, with all teachers and administrative staff in tow we headed back to the restaurant for a boozy feast.





Even in the most restrictive of travel environments you really do not know what is around the corner.





And so we – slowly - head back to where we currently consider home, Tad Lo. For how long it remains as such and quite what we’ll do there upon our return still remains to be seen. Our packs, emaciated with jettisoned winter garb on departure, are now bloated with a myriad of rurally non-available western staples and will soon be accompanied by those returnee essentials, wine boxes. It will be great to see M&M, clan Sipasert, Fa and indeed all of Tad Lo again, but what truly gnaws is whether Pak Dam will still remember us fondly.



We’ll see…


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16th November 2020

Thank you!
I am SO enjoying reading your blogs while unable to plan any travel of my own, and you have inspired me to go back to Lao and explore further. Looking forward to the next instalment.😊
16th November 2020

Do.....
Hi Rachel, many thanks for your kind comments. Yes, we really haven't wandered much this time - in almost nine months - but wandering or sitting, it and the Lao people are a delight. Who knows, maybe we'll still be here and could meet up. Although if we do happen to be gone we have plenty of delightful people we could forward you introductions to. I'd certainly recommend another visit. Best wishes, A&A.
16th November 2020
Mekong at Luang Prabang

Nice
Lovely photo! Beautiful framing:)
17th November 2020

NIce to read your story
When I sit here at home in semi-lockdown I sometimes think about how different life must be in many of those places I go to when I travel. Thank you for writing about it and telling me. Also, you stories brought back some fond memories from when we were in Laos a few years ago. /Ake

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