A little schizophrenic...but in a good way...

Trip Start Oct 04, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

At the foot of irregularly beautiful mountains filled with caves beside a delightful river filled with playing children, Vang Vieng just chills out. Though the place is filled with backpackers looking to go tubing down the river by day and sample the special menus by night, it is also a bustling little Lao community. When walking down the main dusty street one is bombarded with the 'Friends' theme song blasting from the tv bars that play the sitcom all day. The only things interrupting these havens for couch potatoes are internet cafes, guesthouses that all look the same, and travel agencies offering basically the same services. But then, venturing off the main backpacker road there are little neighborhoods pretty much devoid of falang and all the kitschy things that go with them. Here there are children playing, chickens scratching away at the ground, old men smoking pipes while watching the day go by, and women working at open fires. The houses here are wooden and on stilts in the Lao style. There may be a bicycle or a motorbike out front, or a little stand selling water. Go a little farther, a little out of town, across some rickety bridges and you reach the other, more sedate guesthouses that seem to be where the two worlds meet. Beside the river, Lao kids play while falang tourists lounge in bamboo huts while contemplating the world. There are no 'Friends' episodes playing here. Needless to say, Vang Vieng is a little schizophrenic. And, fittingly, I both loved and hated it.

I arrived in Vang Vieng on March 31st with five days to kill while my Chinese visa was being processed in Vientiane. Moaning a little about having to stay in one place for so long, especially when there was so much to see, in truth I was exhausted from the non-stop moving around of the last month. I told myself that the rest would do me good and with Betty and Shannon in tow, an English girl and a Canadian I had met in Vientiane, set out to do some serious relaxing. Immediately rejecting the in town atmosphere, we headed out in search of a guesthouse in the Lonely Planet (aka The Bible). After walking about fifteen minutes around and outside of town, crossing some sketchy bridges in the process, we finally came to terms with the fact that we were lost. Hot and tired from lugging around our packs, I asked directions at a place called the Smile Bar (a place soon to be very near and dear to our hearts) where I was told that we had gone the exact opposite direction of where we had wanted to be. But never fear, the backpacker gods were smiling own on us that day, for there, only one sketchy bridge away was the Riverside Bungalows. For only $3.50 a night you get your own rickety bamboo hut, very comfy matress on the floor with mosquito netting, outside bathroom with broken water heater, and killer view of the mountains. As far as the three of us were concerned, it was perfect.

The next five days went by in a wonderful haze of laziness. I spent a lot of time laying in one of the Smile Bar's open air bamboo huts reading, sleeping, sunbathing, contemplating life, or merely wondering why those gorgeous mountains were so oddly shaped. I decided that maybe they weren't, that it was just me who thought so, since no one else mentioned them. It was as if the energy and will to move for any reason was just sucked right out of me. I felt that I could stay at the Smile Bar and Riverside Bungalows for forever, and I couldn't decide if this were a good thing or a bad thing. Shannon left after two days, but Betty stayed the entire time, keeping me and my laziness good company. Sometimes we would venture into town in order to check email. One night, tired of the Smile Bar food and special menu, we decided to have dinner at one of the tv bars. Six 'Friends' episodes later we stumbled out bleary-eyed and dazed, promising ourselves never to do that again. There were only two things that we did in Vang Vieng that required effort, one was doing the required tubing trip and the other was riding bikes in the countryside.

Making the trip down the river in the provided giant innertube takes three hours if you don't stop...but everyone stops at some point, and during the dry season the water levels are low, so we're talking about an all day odyssey here. To make things a little more interesting, Betty and I decided to split a "happy shake" before heading out. Plopped in my tube and feeling much like a turtle on its back floating helplessly down the river, the world was in a whirl. At first things were pretty calm, we splashed each other and took pictures, enjoyed the lovely surroundings. Then we approached the main stretch. All along this part of the river were bars with bamboo huts, rope swings, and zipwires into the water. The sun was out and so was every other traveller in Vang Vieng. The whole scene took on a lost boys of Never Never Land feel. As I floated, people splashed into the water all around me, drunken and high screaming cannonballs. Unable to focus on anything, the craziness felt magnified to the point of Dionysian madness. I was relieved when it was all left behind and the quiet of the mountains restored. From what I remember of the next bit, it was long and boring, requiring a lot of paddling - something I had difficulty doing. My tube was so big that in order to reach the water, I had to lift my body up on top of the raft and back paddle while awkwardly laying on the top. I could only stand to do this for a couple of minutes at a time before sinking back down into oblivion for awhile. In the end we ended up taking a tuk tuk back the last mile due to the cold, dark, and monotony of the floating. Let's just say it was an experience...one I won't be doing ever again.

However, the next time we decided to actually leave our bamboo hut at the Smile Bar was a much more pleasant experience! I re-learned how to ride a bike! Yes, that's right, the truth finally comes out...I had forgotten to ride a bike. When I was in Brisbane I had tried to go for a ride and discovered to my horro and embarrssment that I had forgotten how! I know the saying as good as anybody else, but I guess I'm just special. I hold the distinction of being the only person on Earth ever to forget to ride a bike. So Betty and I set off yesterday morning, after having bravely travelled on my own for six months trying new and adventurous things, to master the skills of bike riding. Now, it may be that because I've been visualizing being able to ride that I picked it up so fast, you know mind over matter, or maybe I'm just that good, but I was up and pedalling in no time. My steering was a bit shaky, the three cars that passed us sort of freaked me out, and stopping still gives me a bit of trouble, but I could balance and pedal! I can ride a bike again!!!

So there you have it. Vang Vieng. A bizarre, schizoprenic place. I loved it...and I hated it. But it will always be an experience!
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dadofdivaboots on

Happy Shakes
Loved the images of your tube trip---happy shake and all. Sounds like Vang Vieng was indeed a bizarre mix cultures and feelings. Can't wait to hear about your next adventure in the jungles

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