Friday, August 6, 2010

Vang Vieng - The Laos Party Town

Our bus to Vang Vieng was scheduled to take 6 hours to get there from Luang Prabang. Jenni and I believe that the people here in Laos must not know how to use basic physics formulas like velocity = distance / time which every high school student would know can be rearranged using simple algebra to give time = distance / velocity. If they do know the formula, they must simply ignore the fact that the bus driver decides to drive his bus at about half the speed as what is expected, because like other bus trips we taken in Laos, we arrived very late to Vang Vieng. Fortunately the bus route through the mountains was spectacular with the green rolling hills.

A 45 minute pit stop at the very top of the mountains didn't exactly help either. On down the road, about a kilometer from where we pulled over, one side of the road was in such a poor condition that the traffic passing in the other direction could not drive on it. Thus, people driving in the opposite direction were using our side of the road. Usually when something like this happens, regular people can sort themselves out to allow the people driving in the opposite direction to let a handful of cars around the bad patch of road, before taking your turn to drive around. Not here in Laos it seems. We, along with all of the other buses and trucks had to wait all that time, just for a policeman to drive up to the top, stand at the 10m stretch of poor road to direct about 30 cars moving in both directions!

When we finally arrived in the Vang Vieng town centre, the first order of business was to find somewhere to stay. Like the places we visited in southern Laos, there was not many online booking facilities available for accommodation in Vang Vieng. The first place we went to was listed in the Lonely Planet. Upon arrival, we stood there for about 5 minutes with staff mulling about the place, completely ignoring us. We loudly announced to each other that if the staff wouldn't pay us any attention, we would happily take our business elsewhere, so we did. The next place we tried didn't have any rooms available, but the nice lady at the front counter recommended we try a new guesthouse around the corner and kindly marked it on our map. The place recommended ended up being a good find. The only drawback to it was the fact that it was located right next to the veranda and the rain leaked in under the door on the last night of our stay. Fortunately, we had already packed most of our gear and luckily the water avoided everything we left on the floor.

Vang Vieng is very different to most other towns in Laos. The centre of town is mainly set up to cater for the drunken shenanigans of the young backpackers visiting the town to go drunken tubing down the river into town. Scattered around town are clothes shops selling boardshorts, bikinis and waterproof bags to hold your money and camera while tubing down the river, western-themed pubs and restaurants and chill-out bars with small beds and large plasma TVs screening episodes of 'Friends' and 'Family Guy' all day long. This all sounds like a blast, but we felt that it was a bit embarrassing seeing all of the young foreigners, stumbling around town completely wasted EVERY NIGHT, only wearing their boardshorts or bikinis, shouting and carrying on and having little to no respect for the locals. 

Nonetheless, on our second day in Vang Vieng, Jenni and I joined in the romp and went tubing down the river with all of the other drunken lunatics. Tubing in Vang Vieng basically involves a massive party at a series of riverside bars along a 500m stretch of river about 3km upstream from Vang Vieng town centre. Each person is issued a large inflatable tube which you use to float down the river from bar to bar, eventually passing the last bar and letting the river float you all of the way into town where you get out. We took a tuk tuk with a whole bunch of other people up to the start of the tubing area. We had been warned in numerous travel guides that the tubing activity is actually quite dangerous because the river's current can get quite strong at times. This mixed with stacks of alcohol is a recipe for disaster and leads to a handful of people downing each year. While in our tuk tuk, we heard from one of the other passengers that a local guy had drowned the day prior because he had swung off a rope into the river, landed in the water awkwardly, winding himself and was swept downriver in the current. As expected, this raised a few eyebrows in our tuk tuk. Jenni and I had previously agreed that we weren't going to go too crazy with the drinking and were going to avoid doing anything stupid like trying to do a backflip off a 10 metre high rope swing.

We are glad to report that we stuck to our guns and enjoyed the day partaking in a couple of drinks and did not do anything too stupid. The mass of people joining in the tubing party seemed to stick together, with everyone moving en masse from pub to pub down the river. Jenni and I were more keen on having only a couple of drinks at a few of the pubs scattered along the river, rather than getting completely blotto at the first one like everyone else. We stayed at the first bar, enjoying just one drink each while watching a stack of people swinging off the huge 10 metre high rope swing into the water.

After finishing our drinks we felt like we were ready to start our bar hopping down the river. As you float down the river toward a bar on the side, a person will throw out a rope with a plastic bottle attached for you to hold onto as they reel you in. On our first attempt to tube down the river to a bar about 100m down, Jenni somehow managed to fall out of her tube while attempting to catch the rope being thrown to her. The river's current was actually quite strong and quickly pulled her and her tube downstream. Luckily, she managed to keep hold of her tube to keep herself afloat and I was able to quickly paddle downstream to her to help her back on her tube, narrowly missing a couple of small rapids in the middle of the river. Jenni managed to catch a rope thrown to her by the nearest bar and pulled herself onto the decking.

By this stage, Jenni was very shaken up due to her ordeal and not too keen to jump back in the river. For the next half an hour, our mood was very solemn as we were a bit annoyed that the whole debacle had taken us so far downstream and past the majority of the busy bars. However, by the time we finished our drinks we convinced ourselves that we hadn't really missed out on anything because we weren't there to act like a bunch of idiots, drinking to the point where we could hardly stand up. There was a still a few bars left further downstream for us to visit that we could pop into on our way and a whole 3km float down the river into town for us to look forward to. During our float back to town, we stopped in at a bar run by 3 kids, none older than 12 years old. They were selling all manner of booze, not to mention marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms! Only in South East Asia! Jenni regained her confidence on her tube and we both thoroughly enjoyed the 30 minute float back into town. Upon reaching town, we lucked out, taking the correct fork in the river, allowing us to exit at a muddy bank, right near the drop off point for our heavy tubes. 

The following day we went on a trekking, caving and kayaking tour. We were joined by 2 hilarious Korean guys. One spoke impeccable English after having living in Australia for a few months, while the other spoke only Korean. The communication barrier with the guy who could not speak English did not stop us from having a great time with him. His wacky antics, including creeping up to buffaloes for a photo, just to be chased down the road screaming was enough to let us know that he was a real character.

Our small group trekked through a village to some caves. The first cave was quite small, a large cavity in the side of a huge rock with a large Buddha statue inside. We trekked a short while to reach the second cave, the deepest of the three that we visited. All of us were issued lights to illuminate our way through the pitch black. Our group went 250m deep into the cave before reaching a deep pool of water that prevented us from going any further. Unlike all of the caves for tourists in Australia all of the caves we visited did not have lit up walkways with safety railings built for you to walk on. The cave was pitch dark and the floor extremely slippery due to the combination of fine dirt and water condensation creating a slick mud over the floor. Our guide was only wearing flip flops and actually slipped and fell over on two occasions, painfully landing in a rock pool of freezing cold muddy water on one occasion.

The third cave we visited was only a short walk from the second. This cave was not as deep, but had two very large cavities inside. This cave was even more slippery than the first. To get into the back cavity, we had to climb up a steep slippery wall of rock, with a large deep drop only a few feet to the left. Jenni not quite feeling up to this challenge, elected to wait in the first cavity for me and the other guys to clamber up the rock and see the cavity within. A series of large rock pools in this cavity had created a very unusual look to the floor of this cavity, resembling a snake twisting around on the floor. On the way out, we could see Buddhist scriptures written on the ceiling of the cave. In both this cave and the one prior, our group was surprised to encounter an odd inhabitant of the caves, a dog! Our guide told us that he is actually from one of the nearby villages, but often follows tour groups to the caves and runs around in them. He looked like he was having a ball, jumping up on the cave walls to sniff things and diving into the muddy water in the rock pools. The slippery mud on the floor and the lack of light did not seem to phase him in the least!

After lunch, we all trekked a couple of kilometers to a cave that was submerged in water. The plan here was to all get into our swimming gear, jump in a tube and going tubing through the cave. We all stripped of into our swimming gear and jumped into the water. Each of us was handed a headlamp to light our way through the cave. The headlamp was powered by a large car battery which was hung by a rope around our necks with the wires all exposed and hanging in the water. Then we all jumped on a tube and used the guide rope to pull ourselves across the current toward the cave opening. We all managed to get into the first small chamber, but unfortunately the water was so high in the cave that we could not go any further without needing to dive under the water and reemerge a few meters in the cavity ahead. Our group all decided that this sounded far too dangerous and elected to give it a miss. It was a real shame because it looked like a lot of fun. 

After drying off, we trekked another couple of kilometers to the main road. Along the way we passed through a small village where a bunch of angry geese chased Jenni, myself and one of the Korean guys down the road. As mentioned earlier, a buffalo also chased the same Korean bloke down the road, after he tried to get a bit too close for comfort for a photo.

From the main road, we were picked up and driven to the nearby river. It was actually the same river we went tubing in the day prior, but an extra 6km upstream. From here we were to kayak downstream into town where our tour would finish. Jenni and I were placed in one kayak, the 2 Korean guys in another and our 2 guides in a third. The river was actually moving really fast where we first entered the water, with some sizable rapids less than 50m downstream. Without much notice or instruction, our guides pushed Jenni and I straight into the river before anyone else. With the quickly approaching rapids only a few seconds away, we did not get much time to find our feet in the kayak. As a result, we were quickly swept downstream, right into the heart of all of the rapids. We had lost control of our kayak and the river was spinning us in all directions. Seeing that we were in trouble and very likely to flip over, our guides started screaming instructions at us and frantically started to get themselves in their kayak to come and rescue us. Jenni and I had attempted to gain control of our kayak right up until the first set of large rapids without success and we were bracing for the inevitable. Jenni stopped paddling, preparing for the huge wave of water to hit us from behind (we were actually travelling backward down the river at this stage). I drove my paddle into the water and managed to steer our kayak to face forward into the rapid with about a second to spare. To Jenni's and my amazement I managed to navigate our kayak safely through the first set of rapids. We managed to find a calmer section of water a little further down the river and waited for our guides and the Korean blokes to catch up. Unfortunately, the Korean guys weren't as lucky as us as they managed to tip over going through the rapids. Happy with Jenni and my progress, the guides left us to our own devices and split up the Korean guys between the two guides.

The rest of the paddle back to town was a piece of cake in comparison. We had no problems with any more of the rapids for the whole 9km back into Vang Vieng. We even passed through the tubing area to see everyone carrying on at one of the bars along the riverside. The calmer waters along the way enabled us to safely pull out our camera and take a few nice photos too. About 45 minutes later we pulled into Vang Vieng. We said our goodbyes to our guide and the 2 Korean blokes and headed back for a good shower. Our was one of the most enjoyable experiences we have had on this trip.

1 comment:

  1. The Avon Descent is this weekend and there's hardly any water in parts of the river, it would be a piece of cake for the two of you after this!!!
    Love mum xx