SPECTACULAR VANG VIENG IS LAO’S SURPRISE GEM
Trip Start Apr 28, 2010
52Trip End Oct 15, 2010
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We’ve learned now to take the big, public busses when possible which not only go slower but sitting higher in them seems to lessen the motion sickness. We try to position ourselves as far forward as possible and now seem to be able to handle most trips through the never-ending lush landscape of Laos.
Not so lucky one Lao woman and a foreign girl on our trip from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. Yaya speculated that the Lao woman looked pregnant; she was hit surprisingly hard and wound up having to sit on the floor rather than her seat, poor thing
After about five hours of progressively more awe-inspiring scenery, we arrived in the legendary party town of Vang Vieng. These days, its reputation is in tatters unless you happen to be a 21 year old Brit with a craving for buckets of cheap Lao whiskey, 'mud volleyball’ and ‘space pizza’ of unknown origin.
Pulling into town, I was reminded of a carnival, full of attention-grabbing fun-spots. ‘Adventure travel’ shops offered treks to nearby villages, rock-climbing, elephant rides and all manner of ways to float down the Song River; bars shouted their daily specials, liberally using such terms as ‘hammered’ and ‘cheap’; a restaurant we passed was filled with young people all glued to a set of TVs showing reruns of American shows. Well, it was all expected.
Friends had warned us that VV was a party town, a kind of ‘Khao San Road’ in the jungle but, they added, one can get away from the bars and noise by moving out of town a bit
We were simply unprepared for what we saw: enormous steep hills rising up from the jungle floor, through which ran the placid Song River as farmers in the distance tended heart-achingly beautiful fields of neon-green rice. "We found Pandora," I muttered to Yaya, referring to the fantastic planet of “Avatar,” one of our favorite films. She, just finishing a book on Tolkien, thought instead of “Lord of the Rings.” Whichever, it was drop-dead gorgeous, the most beautiful scenery of our trip. God outdid Herself with this place.
We’d been told of a quiet place south of downtown, ‘Jardin Organique’ (reflecting Lao’s heritage as a former French colony no doubt) and found a fine room there for $10 with AC and CNN as well as a nice teak porch for afternoon reads. Views of the river cost five times more so we decided we’d see enough of that at the many riverside restaurants.
One of the delights of backpacking is pretty much everyone follows the same route through the highlights of Lonely Planet. So, after finding folk whose company you enjoy, you can be pretty sure you’ll bump into them again at the next junction. So it was that we hooked up with friends from France, a lesbian couple who, happily enough, didn’t seem to mind the company of men—or at least not mine!
Our dinner with them was at one such simple restaurant, concrete but lined with bamboo huts requiring diners to sit on the floor with pillows
The scenery from the restaurant, perched 10 meters above the Song was superb: the river passing below us, the jungle-encrusted hills soaring thousands of feet just on the other side, clouds scudding through the rugged valleys between them. Only one problem: the *&^#@* noise.
The loud rock music is an odd phenomenon in VV. Odd because the Lao don’t seem to like it but rather simply treat it as a way to entice: the young Western backpackers. I have never seen a Lao person of any age listening to any Western music for his own sake. Unlike Mexicans, who themselves do love their loud music, Laos seem to be a tranquil bunch who seem partial to mushy ballads
But, up til now, youth has ruled VV. Like attracts like and a party town attracts partiers so the place is filled with kids hell-bent on breaking all the rules their far-away parents put upon them. A lot of that rule-breaking, we suspected, takes place at the Bucket Bar, a dump located, alas, on a small island disturbingly close to town. The massive speakers start working at about 8 pm and go til 2, causing our French friends to change hotels the second night, winding up, where else, but also at the Jardin Organique.
The Bucket’s business strategy is a novel one I thought: free booze. Yup, come in before 9 and get yourself a small bucket of Lao whiskey and mixer and settle in to have your hearing ruined. The word from our group was to stay away from the Red Bull mixer as its nothing but caffeine, designed to keep you up partying and, of course, drinking all night, non-free. Another bar next door had a full menu of mind-alterations: ‘happy shake’, ‘mushroom shake’, ‘O-shake’ (which, we assume, was opium) for about $12.
The odd thing was, the crowd at the Bucket, about 40 kids--making me feel, er, just a bit ancient--was astonishingly sedate
What struck me at the Bucket Bar and at other bars along the river we checked out later where the kids went for fun on the river during the day, was that these are not young rebels. I noticed it on the slow boat to Luang Prabang and my feelings are confirmed: these backpackers are decent middle-class kids who are really only interested in what kids have wanted since time immemorial: good laughs, a little music but, most of all, a little action with the opposite sex. There didn’t seem to be much of any of that happening at the Bucket that night.
Now, admittedly, we might have missed the Bucket at full roar; we left at 10. But I just didn’t see too much truly raunchy behavior at any time in VV, nothing like what I was expecting in this little ‘sin city’--which made me wonder if all that loud music was really what the kids wanted
Are tastes changing? It might be wishful thinking but I suspect so. A lot of the kids we’ve talked to on this trip are genuinely worried about their job prospects when they get home and are in no mood to play rebel. They’re more worried about making a future. I’m sensing that what I’m seeing in VV suggests we’re moving into a more sedate and responsible time; no bad thing in my book!
The other factor which I think may be taming VV is the rise of Asian tourism. We’ve been meeting a lot of Korean, Thai and Chinese tourists who seem a bit mystified by all this hard rock music and hard-partying. Obviously, they came for the scenery. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before economic realities diminish Western backpackers’ numbers and increase Asian tourists, making VV a lot quieter place as the Asians ask, ever so politely of course, to please turn the music down.
VV is cheaper than Luang Prabang but no more noticeably so in the renting of motorbikes
Unfortunately, for four of the seven days we’ve been in VV, we’ve been pounded by a tropical storm that dumped a fair bit of rain on all of Asia, even challenging the mighty new ‘Three Gorges Dam’ in China which seems to be holding back deadly flood waters that usually kill thousands of Chinese every year. In our case, the Song River has been raging, flooding a few guesthouses (not ours), but putting a damper on outdoor activities.
But those mountains beckoned and hey, it’s only water, so armed with our trusty $2 Chinese raincoats, we set off on the little Honda to discover the hinterlands. Our first challenge was to cross the river which we did using an antique toll bridge that, as usual, charged foreigners four times more than Laotians. Even young Yaya understood that charging a toll is dumb, suppressing economic activity for villagers on the other side and so discouraging tourism and that government needed to get out of the way. That’s my girl!
But pay we did, and headed west. The rain was intermittent and not unpleasant; the scenery we passed through was stunning. Mile after mile of green fields with the soaring peaks as a backdrop. Villagers carried their goods on bamboo poles; children chased snails and ducks in the drainage ditches. (Why weren’t they in school??) We finally turned back when the puddles we were asking the moto to ford became more than two feet deep
The following day, with the rain abated a bit, we rented bicycles (Yaya’s favorite) and tooled around the small town, making it out to the abandoned airstrip which, I’m afraid, won’t stay abandoned for long. I’m sure regular flights to VV are right now on Air Lao’s planning table….Still, the rapidity with which ‘civilization’ petered out on the fringes of partytown was surprising. One kilometer either way on Lao’s main highway, Route 13, and we were surrounded by jungle or paddies.
The rain made us think of moving on, as had our French friends, but we hadn’t yet enjoyed the traditional VV right-of-passage: tubing on the Song. Sometime in the misty pot-hazed past, a wayward hippy must have stumbled (literally) into VV and gotten ahold of a tractor inner tube and set off. The rest is history. Today, for about $7, you can rent a tube, be transported by tuk-tuk north of the city and leisurely drift back down, stopping along the way at a dozen riverside bars to get progressively wasted until drunk and stupid, you fall into the river and let natural selection take its course. Call it nature’s way of housecleaning.
It’s true, the wild-west atmosphere in VV, although changing, does make accidents a certainty. I have heard on average three tourists drown annually. Just yesterday, very near us, a Lao businessman (who really should have known better), got drunk with friends, jumped off a high platform, landed badly and drowned, leaving behind a six-month baby.
Despite the many horror stories we heard, we were determined to get on the river but figured that kayaks made more sensible craft and offered better value. For just $10, we would be transported much farther north for a day-long ride back, stopping for lunch and visits to various caves. We delayed our trip to Vientiane to sign up.
At 9 am, the van arrived, eight people crammed into a little truck with a mountain of kayaking gear on top. We finally arrived well outside of VV and were given a thoroughly unintelligible safety briefing by one of the four guides who would make sure we didn’t get into too much trouble—we hoped.
The Song River, he explained, was now very high and fast, due to the heavy rains. What would normally be a six-hour trip, we’d be making in three, thanks to the rocketing current
The guide gave us a fairly desultory overview of how to right a flipped kayak but his English was so bad that much was gibberish. Yaya asked me for a translation and I did my best, filling in my own blind spots with plausible advice. Then it was time for us to get our feet wet, so to speak, in a river raging along at about 20 mph. Oh my.
Yaya sat in front which gave me a bit more control. I quickly discovered that I was controlling the kayak basically with my stronger strokes and rear position. It all made good instinctive sense and I found that I was pretty good at steering the little boat as we skipped past driftwood, flooded trees and a few rapids. The trickiest bit by far was when we came around a bend (at what felt like 80 mph!) and suddenly, there were huge pylons looming, to be used for a bridge due to be finished next year. Thanks for the warning guys—not! We slid between them with hearts pounding and managed to pull in to the first village with the only guy in the group with kayaking experience. The fact that we’d been able to pull in where planned earned from him the comment, ‘you look like you’ve done this before’. If only he knew…
The other tenderfoot kayakers had overshot the village by a good bit so we waited a half hour for them to come sheepishly trudging back
The rain was causing serious leaks in the cave and the reclining, standing, beckoning Buddhas, large and small scattered through the small cave were nothing exceptional so we all decided it was time to press on to the other attraction at that spot in the river, the ‘water cave’. We marched in a line past abundant rice fields, dodging water buffalo chips most of the time, wending through other small villages with surprisingly nice homes. No doubt about it, tourism was good for the Vang Vieng area; it was a relatively rich little burg, if one ignored the pigs rooting in the backyard rubbish
A half-hour walk into a small valley brought us to a bamboo shack, adorned with Beer Lao flag, signaling that it was a farang oasis where we laid down the life jackets and helmets the guide had insisted we bring and heard his announcement. Ordinarily, he said, we’d be floating into the cave on inner tubes, pulling ourselves deeper into the cave using a line strung for that purpose. There was no electricity in the cave so we’d have to wear miners’ lights, complete with small batteries. Huh? But wouldn’t the water either short the lights out or zap us poor dumb tourists? Not to worry, we were advised; everything would work as advertised, Lao-style. Uh, OK.
Problem was, with the heavy rains, the water cave was nearly full, making inner tubes an impossibility. The brave souls among us were invited to follow the line, wearing lights, as far as they wanted into the cave just to see as much as they could before the force of the current prevented further entry.
I didn’t fancy getting wet for nothing so waited for the first group to pull themselves across the powerful stream as water gushed from the cave into which they tentatively entered
Hanging onto that line as water from the cave tried to whip us off was a challenge and took a fair bit of strength but we covered the 30 feet to the cave’s entrance in a few minutes. With only about two feet of headroom, we followed the line, pulling ourselves deeper into the cave, the only light bouncing off the rock walls inside from our headlamps. We were pulling ourselves ever deeper into a steadily filling cave with only a few feet of air to move through. Claustrophobia? Nah.
We were all still wearing cumbersome vests and helmets which made our progress slow and awkward. The miners’ lamp on my forehead bit into skin and slipped across one eye but I didn’t dare let loose of the ropeline as the current coming from inside the cave was getting stronger by the yard.. One Korean man announced he’d had enough and was turning back; Yaya stayed with him just inside the cave. I pulled myself forcefully along, fighting the current to catch up with the main group, already about 30 feet ahead. Headroom was down to just under two feet.
I reached the group but they’d stopped and were talking
It had been a nerve-wracking 15 minutes, fighting the powerful and chilly water the whole time so my muscles were in no mood to pull me back across the open stream to the hut but I’d seen the falls just down from the cave and didn’t fancy losing my grip and floating the 50 feet to them and over into who knows what. I held on for dear life and inched my way back to safety.
In the hut, safe and sound, we congratulated each other on our daring-do during our harrowing visit. The whole group was abuzz with an adrenalin high that put us in high spirits, ready to dive into the delicious kabobs that the guides had prepared for us while we were laughing in the face of death….
Bellies full, we tromped back to the river and our waiting kayaks, ready to paddle on down what we’d started affectionately calling our ‘river of death’. We were still in high spirits but I could tell that some of us, especially those who’d seriously overshot our first landing, were beginning to wonder if they hadn’t gotten in over their heads…or soon might be. I was wondering how many unexpected obstacles like the bridge pylons might be waiting for us to careen into. This was no fake-scary tenderfoot tourist romp; people could and have died out there on that angry river
This stretch of the trip, we were told before we cast off, would last about an hour and be the ‘real’ kayaking portion. Sink or swim, I thought. Great. With Yaya again in the front and me planted in the rear like a sack of coal, we slid into the waters.
To avoid misunderstanding, we’d clarified the commands I’d give as the somewhat more experienced kayaker. On our first leg, she’d gotten directions confused when I’d shout ‘right’ or ‘left’ (or ‘derecho’ or ‘izquierda’ if particularly urgent) but I came to realize that she hadn’t understood if I meant ‘go right’ or ‘paddle with your right hand’ (pushing us left). For simplicity—and understanding the need for absolutely clear communications—I told her I’d always say, for example, ‘mano derecho’ which would mean, dig in hard on the right, moving us left. I, of course, would be paddling for our lives the same way just behind her, out of sight.
The first few rapids were manageable and we were having a great time getting splashed by the waves kicked up by rivulets as we plowed through them
Unintentionally, we were in the lead, with a guide beside us and another Korean guy, sitting like a potentate, taking video of us all while the Laotian did all the paddling. Welcome to the new Asian pecking order, I mused….(In fact, we have spotted a surprising number of Koreans here, both tourists and aid specialists, helping reconstruct infrastructure. A disproportionate number of Korean restaurants and signs underscore their presence; no one I’ve asked seems to know why they are here in such high numbers.)
As such thoughts wandered through my mind and the majesty of the cliffs were sliding past on our right mesmerized me, I probably let my attention wane and before I knew it, we were coming up to a sharp curve in the river, turning to the right. I could feel the kayak picking up speed as the channel narrowed slightly and knew we needed to stay in the middle of the river to make the turn. I began paddling on the left…but still we continued drifting left, heading for the shore
Yaya had a tendency to balance her paddling, left, then right, in classic kayaking style which, of course, is fine for moving in a straight line. Problem was, a straight line would take us right into a nasty thicket of flooded trees not 50 feet ahead of us and closing fast.
‘Mano izquierda’ I shouted to get her to paddle only on the left and help me pull us right, back to the middle of the river. She duly began working the left side with me but the current was too strong and our strokes only brought us into the trees faster. Rig for impact!
Of course, any kayaker reading this is thinking ‘this guy didn’t know what he was doing’ and they would be right. What a bit more experience would have made second nature is to swivel the little kayak right, one also can use the right paddle as a brake to both slow and turn. Stupidly, I was only paddling on the left which also turned the boat right, but brought us to our doom even faster.
We plowed into the trees with branches slapping our faces, wedging the kayak into the foliage
We were stopped and stable, however, so that was reassuring. What happened next, I still don’t know for sure but Yaya and I agree that for a moment, the boat was OK as were we, wedged into the trees with the fast-flowing river moving past us.
Then, inexplicably, in what will always run in slow-motion memory, I watched Yaya topple out.
Anyone who’s been in kayak knows how ‘tippy’ they are so when she went over, I soon followed. We were now, both in the water with an upside-down kayak. I could feel the river pulling me downstream. I most definitely didn’t want us floating freely in that monster.
First things first, I clung to my paddle and looked for a non-thorny branch to grab onto. I saw Yaya’s paddle drift by and made a grab for it, adding it to my right hand. I kept the kayak wedged between myself and the shore, the tree keeping it firmly stuck.
But where was Yaya?
In less than a minute, thank God, one of the guides was alongside us, calmly giving us instructions
With Yaya back in her place in the front, the guide slid into the water and told me to enter the kayak on the opposite side as he applied counterweight to keep us from rolling again. I heaved myself back in and with him steadying the boat, we were set once again. Less than a minute had passed since we first crashed into the trees. Without another word, he pulled Yaya and the front of the kayak around so it was heading downstream and we piled back into the floodwaters, just above another set of rapids that made us focus all our energies in keeping the little kayak pointed straight and not letting the waves coming in from the shore swamp us. No time for terror; ‘scared’ would just have to wait.
Up ahead, our group had pulled into a quiet inlet; the looks of worry were clear on their faces until they saw us raise our paddles in triumph. What a rush!
By comparison, the rest of the trip was a walk in the park, another half hour of (by comparison) easy rapids and tranquil bits as the river widened and slowed a little. Our next stop would be one of the many river bars that dot the banks close to Vang Vieng.
I found the stop at the ‘Smile Bar 2’ (sister Smile Bar near the Bucket Bar in VV, of course) unnecessary and unpleasant. Massive speakers belched out a hideous racket while 20-somethings strutted around in as little as possible, showing off their body-stencils of purple-lettered wisdom: “Get fucked” and “Hot and Horny” seemed to be the more popular commentaries. The mud-wrestling and mud volleyball pits were crowded as a young Australian with far too many tattoos and body piercings worked the crowd with free shots of Lai-Lai fermented in bees and caterpillars. Wasn’t bad actually, I’ll have to admit…..he seemed surprised that the old fogey had tossed back the shot as easily as his mates.
After a too-long stay at the bar, spent mostly watching the boys toss lines to passing tubers, dragging them in for their next shot of whatever, we slipped back into the water, only to hear shouts across the river, near one of the 40-foot tall ‘monkey poles’ that encouraged the brave/stupid to take the plunge from the top. The shouts, we learned later, were in response to one dummy, a Laotian, accepting the challenge and landing badly in the raging river. We are still wondering if they ever recovered his body and if so, how far downstream…..
As a free-market and freedom-loving guy, I oppose government telling me how to protect my butt; that’s my personal job. Another person’s noise, however, is very much a government issue as he’s intruding on my space. ‘Noise pollution’ on the river is a serious problem for VV with the river lined with one blasting stereo after another, making an otherwise gorgeous ride a real irritation. It’s an issue that eventually, I’m sure, authorities will deal with, especially as quiet-loving Asian tourists increase in number and start pricing the head-banging Europeans out of the area. Besides, as noted earlier, I’m not entirely sure the kids even like it that raucous. I suspect they like what they think they’re peers expect them to like
The noise-bars petered out as we drifted into the town itself and I marveled at the level of construction with several 50+ room hotels going up along the river. “Elephant Crossing”, probably the classiest resort with bungalows right on the water, slid past us and before we knew it, we’d come to the exit channel, where all kayaks pull in, conveniently right next to our room at the Jardin Organique.
Exhausted, wet and muddy, our group of 8 piled out of the kayaks and hugged each other farewell. Nothing like a little terror to help strangers bond. We arranged to meet for dinner after cleaning up and Yaya and I returned to cogitate on just what had transpired and why.
One of the things that makes her so fantastic on this trip—and in general—is her unflappability. I know of no other young person—and not too many older types—who could go through what we’d experienced and remain unrattled
The highlight of dinner, for me, was a chat with the only one of the six Korean guys who could speak English. ‘Choi’, when I asked, told me that yes, he was quite concerned with the mad dictator to his country’s north but, he said, many of his generation didn’t take the threat seriously since they hadn’t experienced personally the horrors of war as had their parents. We agreed, however, that with Seoul only a few miles from the North’s tanks and rockets, things could get very bad, very quickly if, as he suggested, Kim Jung Il faces political problems and thinks a good war might rally support for his kleptocracy. Choi thought that Kim would do anything, even sacrifice his country, to stay in power, making living in Korea, for Choi at least, a stressful thing. It reminded us of the Iran situation as once again made me wonder what a post-American world might look like. Not pretty, probably.
The next day, we decided it was time to put the beauty and adrenaline of VV behind us, getting down to visa business in the nation’s capital, Vientiane. We’d heard it was a sleepy little city of less than a million and to us, after our last day in party-central, ‘sleepy’ sounded just about right….