After a long, bumpy bus journey we arrive after sunset and are left to find our accommodation. We had chosen Maylyn Guesthouse as it was a bit off the main strip and away from all the noise. It is a collection of bungalows and rooms set in jungle like gardens, run by a rather eccentric Irishman. Only the next day did we realise how beautiful the setting is as the whole town is surrounded by dramatic limestone cliffs
. We then wandered along the dry river bed and across a ramshackle bamboo bridge to reach the town and find something to eat. Vang Vieng is indeed a strange place, with many tourist restaurants with the same menu and cushions to sit on. In order to choose your restaurant the main decision seemed to be Friends or Family Guy. Instead we headed to the Inthira Hotel for dinner with a bit more of a restaurant setting. We did go for a drink in one of these restaurants playing Friends later on but didn’t stay long as it’s exactly the best place for being social. There doesn’t seem to be a bar/restaurant that is more low key than the beach bars (where you can drink a bucket of pretty much anything) but a bit livelier than these TV bars and so we retreated back to the guesthouse.
Next day is tubing down the river which is the number one activity in Vang Vieng. We picked up our tubes and a tuk tuk takes us out to the drop off point 3km out of town. Then the aim of the game is to float gently down the river in an old tractor tyre tube (as its dry season the river is quite low, I think it’s a bit rougher in wet season) and maybe stop off at some of the riverside bars. All sounds quite sedate. From what we had heard the only problem with this is that the 18-30s type crowd had invaded and made it a bit too mental so we weren’t sure what to expect. Turned out to be a lot more chilled out than expected, except maybe the welcome shot of whisky at the first bar and being told to move off a table as group of 18 year old English girls urgently needed to play beer pong
. So we had a couple beers to start and people watched which was a pretty interesting way to pass the time here. There was a lot of English and Australians that have clearly got stuck here a while partying but there was also a good group of travellers who were just like us and curious to see the place. We then tried out the tubes and got maybe 20 metres before I got abducted by an English employee of the next bar downstream whose job was to swim out and grab people on tubes and bring them into the bar. As I didn’t really have a choice and he did say it was the best bar ever, Jonny had to follow me in to the next bar for another beer. This bar was even stranger as they were trying to get everyone involved in party games but given that it was only 3pm, only a couple of people were drunk enough to volunteer, the rest were staff who were either already drunk or good at playing the part of party people. So we stayed for a little while to watch people make a fool of themselves playing musical tubes and a dance off. In the mean time people are swinging on rope swings into the water and generally having fun. We eventually make some progress, maybe a whole 500m down the river in our tubes before stopping off at the next bar which seemed a bit more family run and they had set up a bonfire to keep you warm when you’re out of the water. As you float past the young guys are the bar throw you a rope and pull you ashore. We then decided as it was only an hour and a half until we had to get the tubes back to town we should make some progress down the river
. Therefore the second half of the journey was a bit quieter than the first half but we floated down the river slowly, looking up at the limestone cliffs around us and realised why Vang Vieng was originally a popular spot. Unfortunately as the river was so low, we begun to run out of time to get back to town and so had to paddle quite quickly. We ignored the tuk tuk drivers that offered to drive us back to town on point of principle. Turns out that they probably weren’t exaggerating the distance to town by too much and so we did end up having to get out of the river and run back to town with tubes to avoid a late fee – all part of the fun. And so we actually quite enjoyed tubing despite the negative press!
By night time we were starving and so went to Whopping Burger run by a Japanese couple who put together some massive and very tasty burgers for us. And in true party style, this was too much excitement and it was an early night for us.
Next day we’re on a bus to Luang Prabang which takes the whole day over bumpy and windy roads through the mountains. Although it takes a while, it is a worthwhile journey as the scenery is fantastic and we see all the villages of the tribes that have moved down from the mountains onto the road side to make a living
. Our bus driver does his bit to support the local community by picking up his shopping on the way including two rat like creatures, still alive, tied to a stick – we didn’t ask what they were for.
After a long bus ride we arrive at Luang Prabang and stay at Rattana Guesthouse after unsuccessfully trying to negotiate the fair price for a tuk tuk from the bus station. The centre of Luang Prabang has been declared a world heritage site and so is full of traditional wooden houses, many of which have been turned into guesthouses like ours. We wander down to the river for some comfort food – a very tasty pizza before having a walk around the town. We stumble across a big night market on the street which specialises in selling tribal handicrafts and so this market seems to be a lot better quality rather than the same old stuff from China. Luang Prabang has a curfew and so restaurants are closed by 10pm, bars by 11.30 and everyone is to be tucked up into bed by midnight. So no late nights for us then.
The other thing that Luang Prabang is known for is it’s cafe culture and so the next day we start our day with bagels and cream cheese from an American style coffee place – can’t remember the last time we had a bagel so that was a welcome change from eggs. We then go for a walk around the town, stopping off at the tribal museum to learn about the different ethnic tribes of Laos. It was a small museum but interesting, telling us about the practices of the tribes and an opportunity to see their traditional costumes as they mostly wear modern clothes now unless it’s a special celebration. We wander past the many temples, monasteries and statues but have seen plenty of temples by this point of the trip
. We then spend the hottest part of the day in a shady restaurant across another temporary bamboo bridge that gets washed away every wet season.
Later on, after a little siesta time we head out for dinner at a BBQ place called Lao Lao Garden where we cook our own food on a BBQ on your table. We cook meat, noodles and vegetables to make a soup and then add spices as we like. It may be a bit of a novelty thing but it’s very popular with the locals and now we know how to do it we can go and eat in local places and pay half the price. This restaurant is also the closest Luang Prabang has to a bar and so we hang around after for a couple of cocktails made from the local spirit. It’s 10.30pm and we’re handed the bill so that’s our sign that it’s time to go and make sure we’re home before curfew.
Next day we manage to negotiate a tuk tuk with a few other people to go to a waterfall that we’ve told is nice. It’s only 30km but in true Laos style takes over an hour. We’re dropped off at the entrance and arrange to meet the driver in a couple of hours. We walk into the park (after paying the standard 70 cents entrance fee) and come across a bear rescue centre which we weren’t expecting. There bears have all been rescued from either poachers or from cages as pets and so are too tame to be released into the wild
. The centre has plenty of places for the bears to snooze in the shade or play – several are sitting in hammocks having a nap. Until feeding time that is, when the staff hide the food in different toys and so we stay to watch the bears find their food. We get to see the bears up close due to a slightly more relaxed Laos attitude to health and safety, however we are still separated from them by a couple fences, there is platforms to we can look over the fences. Jonny eventually manages to tear me away from the bears and we go up to the waterfall. The pools down from the waterfall are so picture perfect, they look manufactured but this is all 100% natural. We go up to see the main waterfall then relax in the cool water of one of the pools. Getting another nature surprise when we realised the fish were nibbling our feet – must be where the Dr Fish idea came from! After a couple hours we head back to Luang Prabang and spend the rest of the day making the most of the market and restaurant culture of the town.
After a few relaxing days at the riverside lodge, we felt ready to tackle Vang Vieng. We had heard all sorts of stories about Vang Vieng, mainly it being a mecca for people that wanted to be completely wasted and so was the party town of Laos (that wouldn't be difficult in Laos though). Many European travellers had also mentioned that it was full of hungover or drunk British people (depending on the time of day) sitting in restaurants watching Friends. This all seemed a little strange especially in Laos and we thought it couldn’t be as bad as expected, plus I was pretty curious to see it!