Vang Vieng - a love/hate relationship

Trip Start Oct 16, 2009
Trip End Nov 15, 2009

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Where I stayed
Bansuan Bungalows (recommended!)

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Viangchan,
Monday, October 19, 2009

19th October - giving party place Vang Vieng a chance
After arriving in Laos in its capital Vientiane, I did not stay there but immediately took a 4 hour bus ride to Vang Vieng. In guidebooks and on the internet I had already read  lots about this place and wasn't so sure whether I'd like it... but the scenery is supposed to be amazing so let's give it a shot!

Bus falling apart
The bus was something else... even in Africa I have never seen a bus in such bad shape. There were litterally holes in the floorboard through which I could see the road. Little  pieces of black undefinable stuff kept falling on my arms and legs, at first I thought it was just rubbish from outside flying in through the window. Later I discovered they were  little pieces of rust falling from the ceiling of the bus. With each bump the bus protested violently, clattering on all sides and shedding some of its ceiling onto the passengers.  The seats were big enough for two small kids, or one adult with short legs!
The first few hours I enjoyed this very primitive ride, to see the other people on the bus (a mix of locals and tourists), and the scenery. A family of English mom-dad + two kids  was getting off somewhere in the middle of nowhere and from their conversations I gathered they were meeting up with someone who lived there.
Laos was quite different from the little bit of Thailand I'd seen from the train. More mountainous and with darker green. After about 3 hours of clattering teeth and joints the ride  seemed to become endless and I'd had enough. But after 4 hours we were in Vang Vieng.  Added to the night train it might have been a bit much but I don't want to lose  precious time idling in some place I don't want to be.

Party place for drug heads, or beautiful scenery?
Vang Vieng is turning out to confirm all the things I read about it, and is giving me mixed emotions. It is as if someone advertises: "Hey, are you young, and from Europe,  Australia or the US? Do you want to get drunk, stoned and party till you drop, walk around in bikini, make lots of noise and make an ass of yourself, not caring about the local inhabitants or their  customs? This is the place!" If you want you can pretend not even to be in Laos and eat pizza and drink beer, dance to western music, watch 100 episodes of Friends or Southpark in a restaurant, all for close to no money.
It shows in the attitude of the locals. In 'the land of smiles' these people don't have a lot to smile about anymore.
But at the same time Vang Vieng is based alongside the nice river Song with a view of dramatic, beautiful mountains, and is a great base for bike rides, walks, kayaking in the  amazing scenery, and there are caves and waterfalls to explore.

Footvolley game kataw, Laos

Here is a video of people playing the national game kataw, some sort of foot volley.

Private bungalow
The first night I stayed in a guesthouse called Le Jardin Organique which used to have river view... until a competitor used the plot of land inbetween and built lovely  bungalows right alongside the river, blocking Jardin's view. Too bad for them but I moved to those bungalows for my next night: Bansuan Bungalows. (Only 80.000 kip / about 7 euros per night for a private bungalow with river view!) The owner there was more friendly too.

During that first night a thunderstorm raged over Vang Vieng. There have not been many times in my life when I've heard such loud thunder! It also rained very hard and in the morning there were puddles everywhere. I love the sound of thunder and heavy rain on the roof when I'm inside and safe.

20th October - bike ride in countryside
I had breakfast in one of the restaurants that still has a river view at this point. A cat held me company. Next year the same view will probably be blocked by the huge building they're building in front.

Vang Vieng doubling in size
Vang Vieng is booming... everywhere new guesthouses and restaurants and
bars are being constructed. I think 5 years from now it will be twice
as big and even more touristy. I guess in a way it is good for the
local economy, all those construction workers and people in the tourist
industry having jobs... but what kind of jobs, serving loud and rude

Mixed emotions and confusion
This whole thing has me confused and thinking a lot though. Am I not also an intrusive tourist, doing all kinds of activities the Lao people don't do for fun, like kayaking, biking, getting massages? Are not more and more tour agencies and western restaurants popping up because of people like me who visit this country? Is that a bad thing?
Oh well, I try to travel as impact-free as possible, try to respect the local customs and rules of politeness, try to spend my money wisely so it goes to the small businesses and not the big international ones... but it always feels weird to be rich by comparison, just because of the currency value, and to do all these fun things in a relatively poor country. At the same time tourism is a major source of income and people can make an honest living off me...
And I live in the touristy city of Amsterdam myself, the centre always filled with tourists from all over the world, richer or poorer than me, taking pictures of everyday nonsense, going on canal boat rides and windmill tours that no Dutchie would ever do... just as I am doing here. :-)

Bike ride in the countryside
In order to escape Vang Vieng and its Beerlao bars and Friends/pizza restaurants, I rented a good mountainbike and did a ride in the countryside. The road was a mix of dried mud, small rocks and water puddles. The bike was really good so I enjoyed the ride a lot. I came across small settlements, unbelievably green rice fields, more of those dramatic limestone carst mountains, rising vertically up into the sky and with dark green trees on them. The goal was to reach a certain cave after a 6km ride, but when I got there two French guys warned me that it was not really worth the steep climb up a mountain. It was just a small dark cave, you needed to crawl through a narrow tunnel first (hmmm claustrophobic!) and then there was some buddha statue inside but that was all. I decided to skip it and take a dip in the stream instead. The current was very strong from last night's rains so I did not let go of the tree roots. It was nice and refreshing!
I could tell that the tourists who passed through these villages before me, were the same noisy rude types. Most of the villagers did not smile or greet anyone passing, rather they seemed a bit annoyed.

On the way back I came across some kids playing in another stream, and two tourists as well. I went for another dip myself. The kids were doing some really dangerous stuff by the way... jumping upside down into the water from all sides (no matter how undeep), and going through a 50 cm wide sewer canal being transported to the pool below! No adult was there to supervise them. I wonder how many accidents happen...
Further down in the wide river Song kids were also playing, letting themselves be swept away by the strong current and grabbing each other just in time. Dangerous stuff...

1 hour traditional Lao massage for 3 euros
That evening I indulged in a massage at one of the massage parlours in Vang Vieng. I chose the one that looked most tacky and not the very slick / western one. An old lady with bad eyes was sitting outside, the madam of the house... I was told to put on one of their knee-length surf shorts. With those surfer shorts on I got a one hour traditional Lao massage by a 20 year old girl named something like Chum. She was a chatty little one and we chatted and giggled about all kinds of stuff: she was from the north of Laos but had travelled down to make money; about the Netherlands, about the bars and the loud tourists, about her learning English, and Thai by watching soap operas on tv. Occasionaly she foulded me double in ways I didn't think were possible but were a nice way to stretch the muscles. I joked how she would do that if it were a fat hairy guy and she said it was difficult! Lao massages also involve some of the sitting on top of you and using their weight to press down.

It was quite funny how they made me wear the shorts and then massage underneath them. And all the while there are no sheets / walls between you and other customers so you are struggling with the towel to hide your upper body. :-)
All in all this was a pleasant massage and it only cost 40.000 kip, just over 3 euros which is kind of ridiculous when you think of what it costs back home (at least 35 euros, more likely 50). Even tipping feels ridiculous: I gave Chum a 10% tip but that comes down to 30 eurocents! But I think tipping more would be inappropriate and a precedent for price increases, making massages unaffordable for locals as well.

21st October - exciting day kayaking and tubing
For this day I had booked a kayaking trip through a local agency. For only 90.000 kip (about 8 euros) you get a full day: transport in a 'sawngthaew' (multiple person tuk-tuk) to the starting point, a kayak and guides, lunch, and tubing through a cave with the lamps they provide.
This was an exciting day! Not only because I had a near-death experience.

Safety instructions
Together with about 9 other tourists and about 6 guides we were stuffed like sardines into that big tuk-tuk-like truck. Some of them got off halfway and went hiking. Most of them were on the kayaking trip though. We got instructions at length, paddling dry practice, and instructions on what (not) to do if your kayak capsized or you fell out. But it was going to be quite a mellow part of the river without any serious white water rapids (I'll save those for Europe where the health system is somewhat better organised! Over here the advice is: "if you've got something serious, get repatriated to Thailand!").
We started out by merely crossing the river to the other side to go to some cave. We walked a bit through a tiny village and people's gardens to get to a cave, with some lovely pool in front which was good for swimming. We had to wait a bit for another group to come out of the cave. There were some nice people in my group (from the UK, and two French speaking Belgians and their 7 year old son who live on Bali, and 4 Chinese) and the guide was nice too so we chatted a bit.

Tubing through a cave
We then received our tubes (inflated tractor tyres) to sit in, and the mining lamps to put on our heads, and into the cave we went! Sitting in our tubes we pulled ourselves along a rope into the cave that was filled with water. It was rather low at the start so you had to watch your head. It was pretty amazing to float on water inside this cave, turning corners and seeing higher ceilings and stalagmites and -tites, and sometimes a piece of sky through an opening. We went upstream so it took quite some clumsy flapping of the arms to move forward, and at some points there were ropes to help you. At other points you needed to get out of the tube and walk alongside it, luckily I had put on my Timberland sandals (sort of Teva-like) and not my flip-flops, because the bottom consisted of small, sharp rocks and sometimes the current tugged at your feet, so I think flip-flops would have been hard to keep a hold of.
The guide sang a mournful song all the while which echoed nicely and sounded almost like a gospel.

Pitch dark? No thanks
At the end of the cave the guide asked us if we wanted to see how pitch dark it was and to turn off our lights. But the English girl seriously didn't want this so we didn't. I've experienced it once in a cave in Brazil and it can be quite spooky, you feel like you've gone blind. Especially when you're floating in a tube with a risk of hitting your head on the low ceiling I guess this can be frightening! I was not bummed out about it not happening.

Scary experience!
We then went back the same way, this time downstream so it went faster. We got to the point where you had to walk alongside your tube. I forgot to hold on to it for a second and off it went. I swam to grab it, but then suddenly felt myself being pulled sideways by a strong current, into a pitch black part of the cave to our right, I could not see what was there.
I completely panicked and yelled HELP! and swam for my life. I think I let go of the tube. The English girl was able to grab my hand and pull me out of that current, which pulled my legs from under me one last time but I was clinging to this girl and someone else for the dear life of me. Luckily I didn't pull them into that current. Finally I was able to scramble up and stand amidst the group in normal water.
I was quite shaken up by this scary event and to this day I don't know where that current would have taken me: just via another dark curve coming back to the group, or someplace else entirely?? A narrow part of the cave where I could get stuck? A waterfall?? I tried to explain to the guide that that was rather a dangerous spot but his English was pretty bad and he laughed it off. I don't think he was near when it happened or even saw it.
When we got out of the cave the other people who'd seen it asked me how I was and said that that was some pretty good swimming. I suppose I did cover about 3 meters up against a strong current.

The power of water
In life my biggest fear is always of water and the power of water. It's one of the reasons I sometimes find snorkelling scary (when I no longer see the bottom) and haven't considered starting diving. This mishap confirmed my awe of the power of water. It also made me think of floods and tsunamis and what a terrible way that must be to die. You are completely powerless in the grip of a strong current.
Anyway, it might all have been nothing big even if it had swept me away, it may have taken me back to the group further down. But it was an experience I will take with me and I don't go swimming just anywhere under waterfalls and such, no matter how many other people do it.
And all this while I was fussing over taking the mellow kayaking trip without rapids and risk of hitting my head on a rock. But it also makes me think back of how I almost tripped and fell, while 'safely' at home, one day before departure. I just caught myself, if not I'd probably have been injured nastily. I guess danger is everywhere.

Serene kayaking
Anyway, after this we had a really nice lunch of barbecued vegetables and fruits, and rice and chicken. And I had time to settle my nerves.
We then went kayaking! This was amazing! I love gliding through the water, surrounded by the most wonderful mountains: again those dramatic mountains pointing straight up, covered in green. We went at a leisurely pace because we were going downstream so even doing nothing we still moved. I was in a boat with a guide.
Every once in a while we put some more energy into it, and held little competitions. We also had lots of water fights with the others in our group, which was a lovely way of cooling down.

Rescuing others
The kayaking took about 3 hours to get back to Vang Vieng and took us across beautiful mountain scenery, rice fields, villages, rickety bridges, and a few minor rapids which were easy to navigate although one couple managed to tip their boat over. My guide and I paddled back upstream and came to their rescue. There was no real danger of them hitting rocks or anything but they were having a tough time climbing back onto the kayak.
Later we also came across another group of kayakers, one couple of whom had managed to hit the pillar of a bridge, which was quite an achievement since the current takes you between them, not up against them! Again we helped out and also rescued a lost shoe.

Serenity brutally disturbed
So there we were, almost dozing off in our kayaks, it was all so serene, sunny and pretty... until suddenly we reached the starting point of "the tubing" and were hit by extremly loud westernised music, the sight of many bars, and extremely drunk / stoned, half nude, white people, dancing and screaming to the loud music, throwing things in the water, kissing in public, at 3 p.m.

I was in utter shock and it almost made me cry. It was so very much the opposite of everything Laos is.

Tubing (sitting in a tractor tyre) down the river Song for about 3km to get back to Vang Vieng, all the while passing bars (and getting shitfaced at them), apparently is THE thing to do when you're young and on a South East Asia trip. And indeed the tubing itself seems like fun, almost the same as kayaking except you go very slowly.
But those bars!
Like I said I was really shocked. There I was, experiencing Laos as a country of delicate, smiling, gentle people, who always speak softly and act politely. (And by the way, showing affection in public is a no-no, let alone kissing in public.) And a country of serene scenery. This orgy of westernised loud drunken parties in the middle of the day... to me was an ugly, festering scar in Laos.
All of our group just sat in our kayaks and watched, stunned. Two guys apparently liked it and wanted to go there. The rest was just as shocked as I was. We had all heard about it but the extent of it was beyond our imagination.
I had a look at my guide, searching his face for signs of what he thought of it all. He did not look happy.

Luckily we did not stop at one of the noisy, crowded bars, but continued downstream and stopped at a bar with no other people yet. There were also big slings that people could propel themselves into the water off. And mud volleyball. I guess all these things can be fun, but after seeing the type of drunken, rude and loud behaviour that tends to come with it, I decided it's not for me. Anyway, we had a drink, I played some (non-mud) volleyball with a few Lao guys, and on we went in our kayaks, ending in Vang Vieng, concluding the trip.

The Lao's opinions
This was the night I was most confused about travelling in general.
I tried to speak with some of the Lao people about this phenomenon, asking them what they think of the general tourist that visits Vang Vieng. Most of them are non-commital though... a bit evasive, not wanting to respond at first, then stating that it's good for economy. Some mentioned that they don't like the loud music but it's far out of the town anyway and "it's good for some people, to make money".

It was time for me to leave this town. I hate parts of it, and love parts of it.
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