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Joe and Sarah's Adventures

Vang Vieng and Vientiane, Laos

LAOS | Saturday, 1 December 2012 | Views [1112]

After such a wonderful time in Luang Prabang, we were excited to explore some other cities in Laos. Namely, Vang Vieng and the capital, Vientiane. Turns out Laos is a bit of a mixed bag. In contrast to picture-perfect Luang Prabang (LP), which feels like a forgotten fairy tale land of elephants, waterfalls, and markets, both Vang Vieng and Vientiane are a little lacklustre. Not that they aren't beautiful as well, it's just that it was hard for the others to live up to our now very high standards.

The six-hour journey from LP down to Vang Vieng (VV) was a perfect example of the blend of good and bad we experienced in Laos. While the country has come a long way in recent years as far as developing roads and other projects, they still have a long way to go. We were lucky to be in a decent van, not too over-crowded and with a bit of air conditioning. Our driver blasted Lady Gaga and Backstreet Boys as he raced around hairpin curves and incessantly honked at oncoming vehicles, people, cows, dogs, and whatever else was in the road. The word "road" is used loosely here, because in most places it was just a muddy one-lane strip that wound its way up around mountains and down into valleys. We were rocked, bumped, jolted and ___. Every time we came to a narrow curve with no way to see what was coming towards us from the other side (which was quite often) the driver would just lay on the horn. Instead of slowing down, he'd swing us over the dividing line (if there was one) into the oncoming lane. I lost count of the number of times we came within inches of a head-on collision. It was not the most pleasant of rides, to say the least. Almost everyone in the van suffered from motion sickness. The driver wasn't phased one bit. As we mentioned, though, there was a good side to this ordeal. The view. As we zoomed through the jungle-covered mountainous terrain we took in a landscape that looked like something out of The Lost World. It was just like what we'd seen in Vietnam, but even higher, greener, and covered in mist. Here and there we'd pass little villages of no more than a dozen or so wooden houses- mostly in the style of the Hmong people who live in the highlands. People would quickly get out of the road and stare as the van raced past. Unfortunately it was hard to capture any good video or pictures of this journey, but it was still a memorable one.

Passing a hill tribe village in Laos
Passing a hill tribe village in Laos

When we pulled into Vang Vieng (VV) it was already dark. We were left to find a hostel on foot, in the dark, which we managed to do after a couple of tries. VV used to be a forgotten, out-of-the-way backpackers' haven. Not anymore. Today it is the "Las Vegas" of Laos, but instead of flashing neon lights and massive hotels/casinos in a desert, it's comprised of tiny wooden hostels and muddy lanes along a muddy, winding river. About 25,000 locals inhabit VV, and most are in the tourism business, running the numerous hostels and bar-restaurants along the main strip. Every bar serves "American" or "European" breakfast all day, in addition to numerous other Western food options, with some menus reaching 30 pages or more! Almost all of the bars were set up in the traditional style of raised platforms onto which you climb after removing your shoes, and then scoot around to sit or lounge on large cushions around a low central table. On top of all this, EVERY bar, with the exception of one, played non-stop episode of Friends. All day, everyday. (The one that didn't play Friends played Family Guy instead). The lounging, TV, and junk food came in handy for those visitors who partook of the town's most famous activity and an international tourist draw: tubing.

Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng, Laos

For those of you who have never been tubing it is pretty straightforward: you float down a river in an inner tube. On a hot sunny day with lots of friends this can be enjoyable. However if this doesn't sound like an activity that you would travel to a mountainous jungle on the other end of the world to partake in, that is because it isn't for most normal people. Which is why Vang Vieng doesn't offer just any tubing; it's more like super tubing. Imagine this scene: At the end of the main street is a storage facility stacked high with tubes. You fill out a form (read: sign your life away), they hand you a tube, scrunch you with as many other people as possible into the back of a tuk-tuk (in Laos the "tuk-tuks" are more like mini pickup trucks with benches down the sides so you ride sideways and face the opposite row in the back), and drive you several miles out of town to a designated spot on the river's edge (the Nam Song river to be exact). Then you are off! Floating and splashing down the river in your tube with trees and birds all around and mountains rising out of nowhere in the distance. This serene experience last for about 5 seconds. After that, you are accosted by shouts and waving arms of men along the bank, standing on a dock that leads to their river-front bar. You wave back at them and smile, thinking, "Wow, those guys are friendly", and suddenly you see them swinging some sort of object by a rope around their heads, lasso-style. You wonder, "What on earth are they doing?" and before you finish that thought, they've launched this object straight at you, with the attached rope trailing behind, one end still in their hands. It hits you on the head or in the stomach, or it splashes into the water right next to you- their aim is incredible- and you realize it is a 2-liter plastic soda bottle, filled with a little bit of water for added weight. The men on the dock are screaming at you and still waving, so you grab hold of the bottle and link arms or legs with the rest of your group (forming a tube chain of sorts) and within seconds you are pulled, against the current, straight up to the dock of the bar. The men now laugh, pat you on the back and point you towards the bar before they turn around and start waving/yelling wildly at the next set of tubers floating their way. The bar is blasting dance/pop music, young drunk Westerners in bikinis and signature Vang Vieng neon tank tops (sold in all the stores in town) are dancing and playing Beer Pong, and some friendly employee of the bar decides you are his or her new best friend and gives you free shots and shows you which are the best drink specials. Without fail they are the "Buckets." These are, literally, buckets that they fill with ice, your choice of alcohol (usually vodka, whiskey or rum) and your choice of mixer (coke, sprite, red bull, or OJ). These buckets cost about $2 and are the equivalent of about 4 drinks in the United States. Yikes.

Nam Song River
Nam Song River, Laos

Repeat the scene we've just described about 15 times. That's approximately how many bars lie along the tubing route and each was a variation on this theme. Men pull you in from the river, people sell you cheap drinks or just give them to you if you look like you can handle it, and everyone dances and has an awesome time. At the end of the day, you float back into town, drop off your tube, and go get dinner at one of the Friends bars.  In a perfect world, that's all there is. That was pretty much the time the three of us had (Joe, Sarah & Sam)- no, we did not stop at all of the bars as many were closed due to it being the off-season. It was grey and rainy and the water was cold, but that didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits and we were out all afternoon. However, there is a darker side to tubing in Vang Vieng. Namely, when you combine copious amounts of alcohol (or drugs) with a fast-moving and unpredictable river, accidents are bound to happen (and do). Since it was the rainy season the river was a churning, muddy, raging mess. A journey that would normally take a few hours to complete now took 30 minutes- you are zooming with the current! Getting pulled against this current via coarse rope into the bars is agony on the hands. And submerged boulders, tree branches, and other unseen obstacles are now potentially deadly. Many of the bars are famous for their various rope swings, zip-lines, or towers from which revellers can jump into the water, however these were all closed because of the high water. As one bartender explained, all of the boulders and things that one can normally see when the water is low are now submerged so you could zip-line yourself straight into one. We decided not to point out that the dry season sounds just as dangerous because yes, you can see the boulders, but now the rest of the water is low! Even so, we watched as one young girl decided she was going to swing in anyways- no one stopped her, or even really noticed. She didn't appear to have hit any boulders (thank goodness) but she was quickly swept, tubeless, down the river and out of sight. The party continued. On average one tourist per month dies here while tubing or from drugs. This has attracted the attention of plenty of authorities, but so far the Lao government hasn't made any major moves to put an end to it and the tourists keep coming so the locals keep it up. After we left Laos we heard of a major raid on the town and the tubing, so maybe things will change in the near future. For now, those who don't mind having some drinks amidst swarms of raging teenagers can actually have an enjoyable time- just be prepared to pay for all that cheap liquor with your hangover the next morning. That's where the breakfast food and Friends come in handy.

From Vang Vieng we continued on south to the capital of Laos: Vientiane. To be honest, this town was a little lacklustre compared to the natural beauty of Luang Prabang and then VV, however it had a few perks. It was a bit of a catch-up-on-sleep and slow-down-on-life kind of place. The people were friendly enough, and the city still had the no-hurry, no-worry pace of life that the smaller towns displayed. We stayed in a nice, cheap, centrally-located hotel and spent a lot of time here just relaxing, watching the London Olympics on TV, and eating French food in the many restaurants and sidewalk cafes. To top it off we finally found a bar that served legitimate "Western" drinks without charging more for them than they do in the States. We also fit in a bit of sight-seeing, visiting both day and night markets, as well as some of the bigger monuments in town. The first, the Patuxai or Victory Monument, appears to be a crude replica of the Arc de Triomphe. It was built in 1969 with cement donated by the United States for the construction of an airport. Instead, they built this massive arch to commemorate Lao who died in prerevolutionary wars and for about $1 you can climb up to the top for a view of the town (not much to see, to be honest).

Laos' Arc de Triomphe
Laos' Arc de Triomphe

View from the Arch
View from the Arch

We also visited Lao's national symbol: the golden Pha That Luang or Great Sacred Stupa. It is the most important national monument in Laos, appearing on their national seal and money. Apparently it was started in the 3rd century BC to enclose a piece of the Buddha's breastbone. Construction resumed in the 1500s and several temples were built around the stupa, one of which is the residence of the Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism. We walked around the stupa quietly, trying to stay out of the hot sun, and after about 20 minutes we moved on-- there was not much else to see. We visited one of the nearby temples and watched some monks play frisbee with an old metal plate. The rest of the monks seemed to be setting up and decorating for an upcoming festival because they were hanging brightly-colored cloths and little garlands everywhere, but they did not speak much English so we moved on once more.

National Symbol of Laos
National Symbol of Laos

After seeing the sites and relaxing a bit more, it was time to say good-bye to Sam and go our separate way. He was continuing on to southern Laos and down into Cambodia. We were headed across the border to Thailand to see what new and exciting adventures it had to offer! More on that next!

Tags: laos, patuxai, pha that luang, tubing, vang vieng, vientiane

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