SE Asia by Innertube: The Vang Vieng Story

Monday, May 26, 2008

As most of these stories start, I stepped aboard some form of transportation; in this case, it was a minibus. The trip du jour was from the Laotian city of Luang Prabang, a world heritage listed city of temples, to the Laotian town of Vang Vieng, a Lonely Planet listed town of tubing. It may not sound like much of a tradeoff, but tubing is consistently one of the things backpackers talk about when they rant on the wonders of southeast Asia. Just a six hour trip and I, too, would be among those floating down the Nam Song river. That should be enough time to make a serious dent on a new book, or so I thought. Instead, my eyes would be glued to the windows the entire trip, which lasted closer to eight hours than six. Stepping on the bus, I was comforted to see that I knew pretty much everyone – in varying degrees – aboard. A Swiss couple that had been on my slow boat from Thailand, three Germans I was supposed to have drinks with last night (they were late and I wound up having drinks with other friends, assuming they weren’t coming). Perhaps my situation would’ve been helped had I had a drink or two with the Germans, instead I was tired, slightly off-balance, and about to do some of the most winding roads in all of Asia.

Nausea, sleep-deprivation, uncomfortable seating, winding and narrow roads, none of that really mattered in the end. It was hard to dwell on anything besides the breathtaking views on all sides once we got out of Luang Prabang. Minibus experiences vary with driver and vehicle. They are usually packed full (even if they must delay extensively to do so) but some may have air conditioning or comfortable seats while others might have a broken seat requiring a volunteer for the floor. Our van was great. Sometimes drivers fill the van with their smoke, are perpetually grumpy, crank the bad music up (and/or sing along), or drive as though in training for a new land-speed record. Our driver was great. His name was Doi, he was very friendly (even making photo stops!), and he played good local music at reasonable levels that we all agreed was very apt to a road trip. So it was a great trip with breathtaking scenery and good company. Aside from photo stops, we did stop at the usual snack points. The first was largely a collection of fruit and sandwich stands, and I bought a bit of each. There were a bunch of local kids around, not begging, but definitely wandering from person to person looking sad and hungry. While I’m not really up for giving out money, I gave each of them some fruit and saw a few others doing the same. The rest of the stops were ordinary, which, if I didn’t mention, was fine, because the scenery was anything but.

Yes, it was a beautiful trip. I’d heard good things about Laos, but never the beauty of the country. So it was a surprise bonus. Maybe now I’ve ruined it, maybe I’ve oversold it, but I don’t think so. Maybe it was one of those days where you just wake in the right frame of mind, where you see miracles everywhere you look: in your life, in your fellow man – family, friend, or perfect stranger – and out every window. Yes, maybe it was just one of those days where you shake your head, put your problems in perspective, and appreciate what is good in the world rather than worry about what’s not. I can’t decide if I’d rather believe this was and would forever be someplace magical that I could always come back to when my perspective needed correction. What I do believe is that this perspective adjustment shouldn’t be necessary in the first place, that there is certainly a way of training ourselves to accept things as they are. I suppose I’ve been hanging around in Buddhist countries too long, but I do wonder if unhappiness is the result of seeking happiness. And following that line, I guess I’ll have to disturb some meditation to ask the difference between seeking happiness and contentment.

Philosophy and scenery (and did I mention perfect skies) behind us, we made it into Vang Vieng and the adventure drive was over. Until we got on a tuk tuk, that is. We’d all agreed we’d pay no more than 5000 each and they wanted 10, so we walked. 20m later, they came after us and had agreed on the already over-priced 5. I’d had Champa Lao guesthouse recommended to me by a neighbour in Pai, and when he asked where we were going, that’s where we asked to be taken. Why he asked is beyond me, as he took us to a completely different guesthouse that was expensive and doubtless paid commission. We insisted that we’d paid to go to Champa Lao, however, and he was pretty good about taking us there without argument. Finally. The guesthouse overlooked the river and was quite reasonable at 35000 per night ($4). It looked very relaxed and was quite well located and I definitely recommend it. They had a room for me and a room for Nicky and Micha (my German friends).

The three of us wandered the town and looked for a place to have dinner that wasn’t playing Friends. Really, you can’t walk around the town centre at all without hearing the guitar riff at various points in the show (commercial breaks, intro, etc). Almost every restaurant is playing it, though a few are trying other shows like Family Guy. You have to be here to experience the all-encompassing spectacle of it. We found it difficult to find decent food places anywhere near or around the town centre, and while walking back to our guesthouse in defeat, I noticed some locals having a very Laos-looking dinner and thought that whatever they were eating, we wouldn’t have found it in any of those restaurants back there, and to me that was a shame. I must have been staring a bit as I tried to figure out exactly what they were eating, for they smiled as only people from Laos or Bali do and bid us a good evening. We returned the greeting and by way of explaining my gaze, I told them their food looked “seb lai” or quite delicious as we kept walking by. They invited us over to try their food, and I wondered if I’d sounded like I was hinting instead of just passing a compliment. We didn’t want to eat their food, but we did take a closer look at it and they insisted that they were finished and wanted us to try it. Instead, we asked where they’d gotten it (mostly from a lady across the street) and went and grabbed some food to join them. BBQ fish, various spicy vegetables, we all shared some food, drink, and conversation.

The next morning, I had breakfast at my guesthouse – sticky rice with mango! They did a great job of it that rivaled Thailand. Yum! And of course, a fruit shake, apple-mint. Micha (I called her Michelle) and I went tubing at around 10:30 that morning and hopped a tuk tuk with a few assorted others… a Canadian, Irish, and three Canberra Aussies. The number written on my hand was 10, which meant that I was only the tenth person on the river that morning. I would later discover that the bulk of the crowds come around 1-2 PM, so we pretty much had the river to ourselves. So there I was, finally, tubing in Vang Vieng, one of the deciding factors in my trip to Asia. And let me tell you, it’s nothing like what I expected. First of all, it is actually anything BUT tubing. Yes, you get on a big tractor inner tube and float, but literally 50m down the river, you’re off and grabbing a drink at the first bar. We actually missed it this morning, but were pulled into the second by staff on hand to help tubers escape the current. There were drinks (by the bucket as needed) and there was, in this case, a flying fox dumping you unceremoniously into the river.

Every bar has its gimmick. The first bar has the highest swing (trapeze style) into the river. Get a good go at it, and you’re looking at a 10-15m drop at the highest point. Of course, if you don’t drop at the highest point you’ll have a good deal of horizontal velocity when you hit the water, so a high drop is usually a good idea. Other bars have volleyball, badminton, free shots of Lao Lao (local moonshine-whiskey), anything they can think of to get you off your tube and off your wagon as well. As we were a small group (which wasn’t so bad, as they were friendly) occasionally joined by other drifters, we didn’t have to wait at all for drinks, swings, jumps, badminton, or anything. It was a quiet, relaxed, journey back into Vang Vieng from where the tuk tuk dropped us and we enjoyed the scenery as we made our way down. The trip itself take two hours floating it, but with stops, we spent about 6 hours floating home. Back at the guesthouse, I had dinner – Massaman curry. It was as good as any I had in Thailand, and perhaps even better! I would have this dish several times more before leaving. Then, in contrast to our quiet day, a night out at the Smile Bar, the big club across the river that closes every night with the “Na na na nas” of Hey Jude. We had ourselves a hut there and, with Nicky back among us, finished a great day.

Nicky and I went rock climbing the next morning with Adam’s. We found a cheaper price at Green Discovery, but we thought we’d get more climbing time with two of us and support a local guy rather than a chain. A mistake, and I suspected as much, but Nicky was fairly adamant and I do like the idea of supporting the locals. In this case, however, the locals brought us to the same place as GD (we knew this in advance) and because we had a joiner in the morning, we had as many climbers per guide as they did. Not that it mattered, both of us were too out of shape to climb straight through the day. Plus, the others had a more fun group and in the end we all hung out together. I made pretty good friends right away with James (English) and chatted with Molly (Sweden) and Grace (English). As for the climbing, it was a beautiful place for it. Not only is the view over the valley quite pretty, but the rock is littered with handholds. That didn’t make it a cakewalk however, not by a long shot. The entire wall is an overhang, which sheltered us from rain but took its toll on our upper bodies. And the handholds were not always where you’d want them to be. So we did a 5C, 5A, 6A, 6A+, and a 6B. I couldn’t do the 6A but finished the 6A+, which was a thrill. But I was too far gone to even attempt the 6B so only four climbs in the end and soon we were all out sitting at a Friends bar. I’d simply meant to meet outside the Green Discovery office with everyone, but the first arrivers decided to sit. Fair enough, I’ll have dinner and drinks at the Friends Bar. Part of the VV experience, I suppose.

It was a good night and people trickled out, leaving James, the German girl I’d been chatting with, and myself at the end. She was a bit of an enigma. I thought her quite unfriendly climbing, talking to nobody except James unless directly queried and then a short answer, but as I was at one end of the table and segregated from conversation by a talkative English-Indian girl on my side and the German girl sitting quietly on the other side, I struck up a conversation as best I could. She turned out quite friendly to my surprise, and even though she had a boyfriend (who was traveling separately for a month?) both James and myself left thinking that their separate trips were perhaps more separate than we had imagined. Nevertheless, the three of us had made a plan to meet in the morning for kayaking if we awoke in time and if not, to meet at 11:30 for tubing.

I was beginning to feel the constriction of my timetable. How I was to do the rest of Laos, Cambodia, Borneo, Philippines, Vietnam, and China in two months was beyond me. I knew I’d have to cut countries from the itinerary, but I still didn’t want to waste a day doing something I’d already done. So I dragged myself out of bed for kayaking, but the other two did not. I tried to go anyway but I was too late in the morning to join their group so my decision was made for me. Then I thought to rent a motorbike and explore, maybe go to the Organic Farm for some mulberry pancakes, but they drain the gas from the bikes before they rent them, leaving only enough to make it to the gas station. And the power was out again that morning. I passed the remaining time in the Friends Bar (without power, it was just a quiet place to have a fruit shake and wait) and met up with James – no sign of the German girl so perhaps we were victims of wishful thinking. The power came back, as did Friends, and breakfast too. Then a bit of internet and we were on the river around 1:30.

What a difference from my first round of tubing! First, we had to wait in line to get a tube and then again for a tuk tuk. Secondly, I was now 178 on the river. Thirdly, I had a drinking buddy instead of a German girl and a loose confederation of tuk tuk crew. We went to the first bar and I ran into – for the third time – Naima, a French girl I’d hung around with in Pai. We sat with her and her friends for a bit but they didn’t seem especially interested in us joining and then we ran into Molly, the Swedish girl from climbing and her friend. They were much more amicable and we finished our Beer Lao together before James and I took the biggest swing on the river; High, scary, and good enough fun to do again. I don’t advise running off the edge though. If you don’t lose your grip as the rope tightens and plummet straight down face-first then you’re in for a LOT of height at the other end. I recall yelling “It’s too high” to the many spectators as the swing hit its peak and begun moving backward. And then deciding I wanted to let go on the first pass and dropping. Not a pleasant landing, though James had a worse one. You can always tell a bad landing by the fact that the jumper swims in with his back to you. Don’t let them see you cry or something to that effect.

We had our next drink at the next bar, I a vodka-watermelon-banana shake, James a rum and coke. Everytime I went to this particular bar they tried to short change me, I should add. We met up with Molly again and then also ran into Grace and Jenny from climbing. As well, two girls we’d seen denied a tube for some misdemeanour the previous go-round (their 6th, apparently) magically appeared, I suspected on their own via tuk tuk. Which meant that there would be a shortage of at least two tubes by the night’s end. Still, we had another round of vodka shakes, which we toasted and chugged while flying down the flying fox, each with one arm on the handle. An Aussie girl and her friends were impressed with our coordinated cheers and we chatted with them for a bit before realizing that the slowly dwindling crowd had turned into noone. We were last left and two tubes short. So floating down was the order of the day, though I hung on to the Aussie girl’s tube. I owe her one and I can’t even remember her name. I actually don’t think I saw her again after the next bar, but we did receive a warm reception for our method of navigation and made some new friends as well as running into old.

It was now James’ turn to buy. He came back holding a bucket of tiger whisky (ugh!) and coke. We resolved to finish this crime against nature quickly so that we could drink something palatable again. And I don’t remember quite which stops we hit after that. I do recall that James, myself, and the Swedish and Norwegian girl visited for quite some time. I’m pretty sure we stopped at the volleyball bar and I lost James and Norway. And I know that I got back after dark because I remember thinking that I didn’t at all care for floating down the river in the blackness. At least that way, nobody could see just how little my stomach liked the Tiger Whisky, and I had the river to wash away the evidence. A baguette and some water and I awoke laying sideways in my bed at 2:30 in the morning, unable to fall asleep as the hours marched their way towards 7:00. Yes, I didn’t feel great, but I was going to go kayaking today and I could pay my penance properly for being an idiot the day prior. I got there at 8, booked my kayak trip for 9, and went to the Organic CafĂ© to finally try one of these mulberry pancakes with honey. Good. Really good, I’m sure, though my stomach was indifferent at best, but not so amazing as I’d heard. Clearly, all these people raving about them have yet to try Saskatoon berries.

I made my way to the kayaking place and sat to wait. There were a few others sitting, but I recognized noone so I sat on my own and waited. About 30 seconds later, I recognized Grace and then Jenny as the ones I’d kind of looked right at and then sat down away from. Oops! Explain that one, and now they were in the middle of a conversation with two people I’d passed in the street uttering, “Disgusting!” and the like. Such was my state that I wondered and worried that they were talking about me and regretted not looking more carefully in the mirror that morning. Honestly. Maybe something on my trunks? In my hair? Anyway, we were all on the same trip together and I’d soon put my mind at ease that they were not discussing me at all. Because they spent the entire rest of our trip complaining about food and, well, everything. And they wouldn’t shut up. The guide couldn’t even introduce himself at the beginning of the trip because he didn’t want to interrupt their ‘conversation’ and they didn’t stop to breathe.

No, I’m convinced they had some sort of special lungs that allowed them, by speaking negatively, to convert all that discontent to oxygen. As long as they were whining about something, breathing was not necessary. And now I’m in danger of whining about them, but at the risk of hypocrisy, I am hoping you can understand just how hard they tried to ruin a beautiful day. In addition to food complaints (and the woman was a bit larger, but not large enough to merit food discussion every 30 mins), they allowed no one else to really speak unless through them. I was hoping to chat a bit with Grace and Jenny and apologize both for not recognizing them instantly that morning and also about tubing the night prior, but then SHE’D butt in with her opinion on tubing and then turn to ask her really dumb (well, he’d have to be to marry her) husband his opinion which he would then expound and she would harshly critique. There was no room for entry at this point. They pirated conversations! It was quite ingenious actually; because they’d made themselves a part of your conversation, you felt rude ignoring them and starting or resuming your own, so you were stuck sitting and listening as she somehow turned the conversation back to bad food and sending it back to the kitchen and how her palate was so much more refined. WHAT THE ARE YOU DOING HERE?!

Anyway, there was nobody to rant to, and if a guy can’t rant in his own journal, then where? So the kayaking trip passed with the guide and I exchanging bemused glances at times, a constant source of noise from them (we always kept a good distance), and little chat with or by anyone else. But I wouldn’t let it ruin the trip, it just required effort (a lot) to put aside and focus on what was good. The scenery, for one thing. Sure, it’s the same VV scenery I’d been surrounded by for a couple days, but in the morning the clouds wisp across and there’s something about being in a kayak on the river viewing it that is magical. We also did two hikes into caves, which were just challenging enough to cease conversation. And the caves themselves were pretty cool, we lit candles and swam through and looked around. Lunch was also decent; shish kebab and fried rice. I finished my first spear of vegetables and beef quickly so that I would be ready to spear one of the loudies should the food complaints arise, but instead they remarked in an uncomplimentary way that it was probably the best food they’d had in Laos. And then the food complaining started and evolved into complaining about Laos in general. I secreted apologetic looks to our two guides who were polite enough to sit there and endure all this farcical criticism of their country.

In the afternoon was our second cave, hidden between bars on the tubing circuit. As well, we stopped at the Organic Farm and had a look around. Goats, tropical fruits (especially mulberries), and a mud house greeted us. Then we were done and walked back. I came across a few locals at a stand having some soup that looked quite nice and sat there for forty minutes chatting with the two ladies that ran it while eating my soup. The conversation was about many things, but turned to children and family as the one woman who was mostly listening started feeding her baby. She was bottle feeding and as they brought up the topic of breastfeeding first, I felt it okay to wonder aloud that it must be difficult to do so in a country that lives on spicy foods. And this got the quiet woman talking about just how difficult it was and telling stories of back in the village and also the things she’d have to do to maintain decent nutrition while staying away from spicy foods. And she also talked about others who thought it made the baby stronger and just ate what they ate. This was one among many topics but I think it underscores how the conversation was not just the usual tourist-talk stuff.

I still didn’t feel great that night and it was an early one. I’d meant to pack but couldn’t find the energy. I’d do it in the morning and catch a bus out to Vientiane. Except that I slept in. OK, so the afternoon bus. I packed, showered, and went outside for brunch, a shake, and to sit in the hammock and read, something I’d still not done in this wonderous guesthouse. I ordered breakfast and my shake and grabbed a hammock but wound up chatting with a Dutch girl who looked Spanish and admiring the view rather than reading. I did get the hammock though. Then my breakfast came, I ate, and I returned to the hammock where we talked a bit more. Another fruit shake later and I moved to the triangle mats on the ground then James randomly showed up (he had no idea where I was staying and was just looking at the view from our guesthouse). I decided to just sit and enjoy the day. This was Vang Vieng, relaxation central, and I hadn’t just sat around and done nothing yet. James ordered the Massaman curry for lunch at my suggestion, then I had some chicken and veggies and yet more shakes. We sat and discussed the tubing for some time and then philosophy and travel and were rejoined by Evita, the Dutch-Spanish girl with a name from Argentina. And the day was one of relaxation and eating, and a night of dinner in a quiet restaurant where the family slept in booths and took turns being ‘on watch’ for when customers like us arrived for late dinners. It was a beautiful dinner, a beautiful day, and we said our goodbyes as I wandered back to my room to sleep a last night before continuing my journey south to the Laos capital and the Chinese Embassy.

Vang Vieng Photos


Fellow Canadian said...

So after reading your Asian Travels - I need to ask you what you thought was the most beautiful location in Thailand? I know Krabi gets a raw deal because of the hospital experience...but I was just wondering. Planning a trip in November to Thailand and using your info to pick the best spots! Thanks ........

Dean said...

I think all of Thailand got a bit of a raw deal, to be honest. Some of the supposedly most beautiful parts in the centre - the waterfalls and jungles around Katachumba (sp?) for example - got missed in my haste to cross a border.

Of what I did see, despite the dengue, I'd have to give the medal to either Hat Ton Sai (Ton Sai Beach, Krabi) or else Pai in northern Thailand.

Ton Sai/Railay has those magnificent karst formations and amazing sunsets on the water with nearby islands casting brilliant silhouettes. It is a place that's easy to love not only for the scenery in the area but for the atmosphere.

Pai was pretty, not beautiful. Set in a valley on a river, it also had a lot to offer in terms of nice photo ops and atmosphere. Rent a bike and zip around.

From what I missed, there's that national park, there's Ko Phangan, and maybe Samui. Ko Phi Phi is often cited as the most beautiful place in Thailand or even on Earth. I think Ton Sai is just as beautiful but less overrun with hotels.

Anyway, long and winding answer but I hope it helps. If you want sheer natural beauty I would recommend a flight to Vientiane instead and work your way up to Laos' beautiful northeast. Just to throw a wrench into things. But I loved Thailand too, you won't go wrong! I'll be waiting for YOUR blog. :)