Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vang Vieng, Laos.

On the 21 hour bus ride from Hanoi, Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos, Judy and I met two girls from the UK. The four of us became quick friends and decided to travel to Vang Vieng and later to Luang Prabang together. So on the final morning of our brief stay in Vientiane we made our way to the bus station and boarded a beater local bus. We were the only foriegners on the bus as most tourists pay a high price for a mini van to drive them up North. The local bus had tons of character and I am glad we decided on this mode of transport. There was one passenger who very obviously was staring at us for the entire 4 hour ride. He seemed curious about Judy, trying to figure her out because she looks Asian but sounds North American. I gave him a smile but he just briefly averted his eyes and then went back to staring. Eventually I managed to get a head nodd out of him, but not even a hint of a smile crossed his lips. Our bags were thrown on the roof, along with live chickens, gasoline tanks and various bulk grocery items. The bus managed the whole trip without breaking down, which is remarkable! It seems most bus drivers double as mechanics in Laos because the busses regularly have issues during trips.
Vang Vieng is nestled in a stunning mountainous region along the Nam Son river. It is a small town that is host to a huge influx of tourists during the dry season. Tourists strut around town in binkinis and swim shorts , drinking beer and smoking. They clearly did not read the section in their Lonely Planet travel guide that addressed Laotian cultures discomfort with public nudity. Or perhaps they just don't care enough to respect the local culture of the country they are visiting. There are even signs around town in shops and on menus telling tourists what is appropriate and what isn't appropriate attire.
Vang Vieng is famous for its river tubing adventures so the four of us rented some tubes and gave it a go. A tuk tuk drove us out of town where we launched our tubes on the river. The riverbank was full of half naked foreigners taking shots of whiskey out of super soaker water guns and handing out tickets for free whiskey buckets to be consumed at that evenings party. Bars, slides and swings line the river bank for several kilometers. The bars all play music at full volume creating obnoxious mash ups. Surely this isn't what we paid $8 for, is it? Luckily we floated through the party zone and found ourselves virtually alone meandering down the slow moving river. Most of the tubers were too intoxicated to enjoy the entire ride and got out where the bars ended.
It seems many transient westerners find themselves in Vang Vieng long term, working at the river bars where they heavily promote buckets. Buckets are served for free until 9 pm and then they are sold for $1.50. The party goes all night until the sun forces the redbull and whiskey saturated patrons to crawl back to their rented beds to sleep off their hangovers. As you might expect, the local youth were not in attendance.
We rented a four bed dorm for one night. It smelled of vomit and no amount of air freshener could tackle the stench. The toilet oozed water out of every crack when it was flushed. Soap was not provided. I suspect the bedding had not been washed since the previous tenants had slept there. It was the most unpleasant place I've stayed in so far on this trip.
Vang Vieng could be compared to a never ending sorority party and I wanted to get away from it, and quickly. We bought bus tickets to Luang Prabang for the VIP bus leaving in the evening. Laos gauges tourists for absolutely everything and we dished out $20 a peice for the 8 hour ride.
The best part of my Vang Vieng experience was when we went for a walk along the river. The water is cooling on hot skin. The surrounding mountains are stunning. Women and young girls were busy fishing and doing the washing along the river banks. I observed some girls looking under rocks and catching tiny fish with their hands, which were then placed in a basket. I tried to mimick them but my fishing skills are not honed like theirs are. Not only did I not catch any fish, but I didn't even see any fish. One girl thought I was funny and flashed me a big smile. I offered her a beaded necklace that I got in India. After taking a close look at it she stuck it deep in her pocket. I waved goodbye and listened to them singing collectively as I walked away.

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