Saturday, 11 February 2012

Laos - Vang Vieng

We left Vientiane and had a bumpy mini bus ride deeper into Laos, to Vang Vieng.  We were fortunate to have boarded early enough to secure “real” seats.  The vehicle was packed and latecomers had to sit on make shift, fold up mini seats that were placed in what would normally be reserved for aisles.  As rough as the ride was, the scenery was beautiful with the mountains getting more and more pronounced as we rolled along.

Vang Vieng is well known as a place for backpackers to drink and drug themselves into oblivion whilst swinging off ropes and floating down the Nam Song River.  There may be no where else in South East Asia that tallies up the tourist death count on such a regular basis.  We heard that the week before we were set to arrive two partying Aussie’s met their end, one in the river and one in their hotel room. Just two of a much larger number.

So what on earth would take us to Vang Vieng? It is arguably one of the most magnificently scenic places we have visited in SEA.  It is also on the way to what is perhaps the premier destination in Laos, Luang Prabang.  We were careful to book a place that promised to be well away from the bohemian backpackers scene.  Our place did not disappoint.  We were right on the river and our bungalow offered up one of the best views of all of the places we have stayed so far on our trip.  To watch the sun drop behind the jungled mountain peaks across the Nam Song was divine.

There was not a backpacker in sight and there were more folks older than us than there were younger.  Most nights we fell asleep to the incredible sounds of the crickets and cicadas and not to the sounds of inebriated tubers.
I was in heaven watching life on the river. To the right of our bungalow was a rickety wooden “toll” bridge (4000 kep/.50 cents to cross) that carried traffic to the villages on the other side of the river and to the left was a bamboo bridge that carried foot traffic to a tiny island. 

Kids seemed to play underneath, on top of and around these bridges all day long.  It was wonderful watch them have such fun.  In Vietnam it was hard for us to see so many kids working like adults often doing back breaking labor. In Cambodia we saw lots of kids begging and working the streets pedalling trinkets to the tourists.  Finally, we were seeing kids who seemed to be having a childhood.  The pillars of the bridges, which for the kids acted as diving and climbing platforms towered many meters above fairly shallow water.  The water depth did not stop the kids in the least and I have to admit to having a few moments of anxiety just watching the antics.  In addition to being a huge playground for the kids the river also served as a giant bathtub with many Loations enjoying communal cleaning on a regular basis. 


Although I could have just stayed put and watched life happen we did venture out and about Vang Vieng.  One day we rented bikes and set off across the river to find an infamous “Blue Lagoon” swimming hole.  As we rode over rough and rutted pathways, joined by meandering cows, chickens and children in picturesque villages, Eric found it particularly challenging to find his happy place in the sweltering heat of the day.  To make matters worse every branch in the “road” seemed to have a sign pointing to a “Blue Lagoon”.  Enterprising Loations have found various ways to capitalize on the natural attractions of the area and luring visitors to local caves or “Blue Lagoons” and charging small admission fees is common place.  “Attracting” means painting a sign and sticking it at a curve on the path.  We had no idea which Blue Lagoon was the one of our destination but somehow we made it.

Our pit stop for 7 11's in this country!

We had lots of company on the way to what ever blue lagoon we got to.

Once we got to the Blue Lagoon the boys were so annoyed that they would not even tackle the rope swing and go for a plunge.

There was a shack on site that was serving as a make shift restaurant and we ordered a smoothie hoping that would be our refresher.  Unfortunately, the smoothies didn’t resemble anything similar to the kind of drinks we were looking forward to and were used to.  We passed on the smoothies and headed back to town.

Since Vang Vieng is famous for tubing we thought we should at least give it a go and we figured that if we went early enough we would beat the party crowd.  We were amongst the first to set out on the river and as a result we pretty much had the waters to ourselves.  It was an interesting ride.  We rented the tubes in town and then were transferred by tuk tuk to the starting point on the Nam Song.  We had only just started our “float” when the first of numerous stopping points came into sight.  Although it was not yet noon, music was blaring and the folks manning the bars were ready for action.  Before we knew it plastic bottles attached to long ropes were being thrown in our direction for us to grab onto and be pulled onto the “attractions”, the first one being a diving platform that towered many meters above the river.  There were many drinks on offer and to get the day off on the right foot, if you jump off the platform you get to swig a shot of locally made Loation whiskey.  We declined the whiskey as well as the dive.  The kids love plunging off high cliffs but there were too many risky looking rocks close to potential landing spots to make this one seem safe. 

As we proceeded down the river the plastic bottles kept coming, being thrown from the ramshackle wooden bars that line the shore.  We checked out most of the options and once deemed safe the boys enjoyed a few the rope swings and jumps. 

 The drink menus along the way are likely to be the most remarkable menus we will ever see.  In addition to regular soft drinks, beer and spirits, there were also happy shakes containing cannabis on offer as well as things like opium bombs and mushroom shakes.  Considering that getting caught with drugs in Laos can result in the death penalty, one can only marvel at the corruption that is obviously present for this sort of thing to be able to happen.  Apparently the local police force is full of not so nice but very wealthy men.

It actually did not take long to float past the line of bars and once we did the ride down the river was very serene and subdued.  There were a few sets of relatively tame but fun rapids but other than that we spent about 3 hours enjoying the river and the limestone karsts towering above us.

We escaped the drunken debauchery of the tubing scene on the day that we actually went tubing but unfortunately we did not escape it all together. We planned to visit an organic farm and restaurant that sounded lovely but after paying a tuk tuk to take us there we discovered that it neighbored the start of the tubing scene.   Pulsating music and screaming party goers was not what we had in mind when we were thinking of touring a serene organic farm and enjoying the splendid views.  The trip did allow us to get a glimpse of the Vang Vieng we had heard exists but we decided to forego the farm tour and dinner.  We took a quick look and jumped back into the tuk tuk to make for quieter ground.

The town of Vang Vieng itself was pretty charmless with dusty streets and non descript shops and restaurants catering to the tourists.  The surrounding landscape is really what makes the place so special. 

Rob and I enjoyed some runs to the other side of the river through the amazing countryside.

The town itself did have one major attraction for the boys.  Numerous restaurants played rerun after rerun of Family Guy, an off limits show at home.  Sitting in front of a screen and eating is almost unheard of in our house and doing so with Family Guy running was certainly "special." They loved it!  So much for experiencing Loation culture here.     

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