IndoChina – Vang Vieng & Vientiane

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Friday, October 29, 2010

"The brothels are cleaner that the hotels, the marijuana is cheaper than pipe tobacco, and opium is easier to find than a cold glass of beer"

Paul Theroux, Great Railway Bazaar, on Vientiane in the early 1970's

As we set-off from Luang Prabang I couldn't quite get out of the back of my mind a couple of paragraphs from the book I've been reading. In Phil Karber's "The Indochina Chronicles" he described how in the 1990s and mid 2000’s anti-government Hmong rebels had attacked vehicles along Highway 13 – the main road we’d be travelling along – in an attempt to disrupt tourism.

We set off at 9 am driving southwards towards the mountains. Shortly after setting off, what looked like a soldier stepped out from the forest by the side of the road waving a red flag. Our driver didn’t stop to find out what the 'soldier’ wanted and drove on. As we climbed, the road become more undulating and more pot-holed. The scrambled eggs I’d had for breakfast were becoming increasingly scrambled in my stomach. Our driver swerved around and weaved between the pot-holes, a task made more challenging by the on-coming traffic doing the same. The higher we got the tighter the turns became and the steeper the drop on the side of the road became. Lower down the scenery had been of rice fields stopping where the forest had started. Higher up the rice fields had given way to narrow strips of banana trees mixed in with the forest

Every so often we would drive thru’ a village hugging the side of road. Pretty much each was the same; a handful of wooden or concrete one-storey dwellings, dogs lying by the side of the road, kids playing in the middle of the street and old men tottering up the road oblivious to any and all oncoming traffic.

After about 3 hrs we stopped off at a sort of road-side cafe. We’d driven up to about 1,200m – one of the group carries a GPS device around with him which also gives altitude – below, the valley was shrouded in mist. Along the road was a street market selling various things to eat including nok ann; whole swallows, de-feathered, gutted, marinated and then fried. I didn’t try.

Lunch over we carried on. With about half the journey done we started the downhill journey. Our driver spurred on by lunch and the fact it was now downhill decided to speed up and we set off at breakneck speed bouncing over the potholes and skimming the edge of the road as we overtook other vehicles on blind corners. The landscape flattened out to wide open fields of rice buttressed by dramatic sheer limestone cliff faces. The villages got bigger and the roads became more crowded with kids cycling home from school and cows wandering aimlessly across the road although the roads stayed persistently pot-holed.

We reached the outskirts of Vang Vieng after about 6hrs. We knew we’d arrived because the beer adverts had started to appear alongside the road and were in English and we were queued up behind a tuk-tuk overloaded with brightly coloured Lowe Alpine rucksacks and westerners clutching dog-eared copies of Lonely Plant Laos.

There’s not much to say about Vang Vieng. One side of the River Song is quiet and agricultural the other is lined with resorts. The main streets are crowded with a motley collection of internet cafes, bars, excursion operators, pharmacies and restaurants. All of which are repeated within a couple of hundred metres of each other. The place is basically set up for back-packers on route to or from Vientiane.

We spent two nights in Vang Vieng and none of us we sorry to wave goodbye to when we set off for Vientiane. The road trip, which took about 3 hrs was a lot less dramatic than our journey to Vang Vieng.  Halfway thru the trip we stopped off for a break. Everyone felt travelsick. The undulating roads, the pot holes and swerving had finally taken their toll. After explaining this to the driver the second half of the journey was slower and smoother with the driver mindful of the fear that he might be clearing up the breakfast of 5 ill travellers.

Just after lunch we arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Driving into Vientiane was no different to driving into any other town in the world. We passed car dealerships, furniture shops, garages and shops, it was all a bit grubby. There was one difference. You don’t tend to see too many Buddhist temples on London’s North Circular.

After dumping our stuff off at our hotel we went straight out. Vientiane is quite small so we were able to cover quite at bit by foot starting off at JoMa bakery for a decent western ham & cheese sandwich. Refreshed we headed off for Ho Phrakeo, one of the oldest and most beautiful temples in Laos.  Pretty much across the road was Si Saket Museum which houses the oldest and most important wat in Vientiane, and is also home to over 8,000 statues of various sizes of Buddha.
For our last morning in Laos we took a tuk-tuk tour around the sights that were beyond our walking distance the day before. We started off by visiting a charity, COPE, that helps people that have being injured by the vast, vast number of unexploded cluster bombs that the USAF dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war(or 'American’ war as it’s called here)  in an attempt to disrupt the Ho Chi Min trail that ran thru’ eastern Laos. 300 people a year still die in Laos from the cluster bombs, many of them kids. The estimate for clearing up the bombs is about US$ 20m pa. The US Govt gifts Laos US$300k pa. Perhaps if Laos had oil and wasn’t still communist they’d get more help, but it doesn't and isn't so they have to make do. COPE helps victims with finding employment, false limbs and education, especially important in rural areas where children might not recognise the bombs as bombs.

After that sobering and thought-provoking start we went all ‘tourist’ and took in Pha That Luang – Laos’ national monument and a symbol of their sovereignty and of Buddhism and the Victory Gate (Patuxai) built in ’69 to commemorate the war-dead prior to the communist take-over. The communists are still in power and Laos might still be a one-party state but walking around, dodging between big Toyota Land-cruisers  you’d not know this for it seems as commercial and as vibrant as SG or KL. Just more run-down and less modern.

As for the brothels and opium dens, well they’ve long seen been cleared out. I’m sure if you look hard enough you’ll find them, but these days it’s easier, much easier, to find a cold Beer Lao than anything more illicit.
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