Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Panic, Chaos and Culture Shock: Welcome to China

The bus heading for the chinese boarder swelled with tobacco smoke, half the passengers smoking at any one time, the other half biding their time before tagging in when the air cleared a little.  I buried myself under my filtrating face mask with my window wide open, much to the distress of the smokers who insisted often that I close the window due to frigid gale force winds. Refusing to sacrifice the only source of fresh air circulating through the bus I ignored them, to which the man behind me responded to by closing my window himself.  It wasn't until Julian took a stand that my request to keep the window open was respected.  The bus had left three minutes prior to scheduled departure, a shock to the system when used to 'Laos time'; clearly the Chinese keep to a slightly stricter regime. 

My mind swirled with memories and emotion of profoundly enriching moments in Laos and my heart soared, yet tempered as our 20 seater local bus bumped and wound its way up and down the partially paved mountain passes in the northernmost reaches of the country.  Laos had managed to get under my skin in such a way that only a few places have and I felt similarly to leaving the rockies of the Canadian west, flying out of New Zealand, or taking the bus through Glen Coe out of the Scottish Highlands for the last time.  The smiling hearts and patient ways of the local people had calmed my mind after the chaos of Vietnam and Cambodia and mouth watering selections of local foods and dramatic mountain landscapes have nourished my body and mind; the simplicity of beautiful lives has left its mark on my soul.  

Five hours after departure the bus pulled up in front of a large golden archway stretched across the road marking the Laos / China boarder.  Upon receiving my passport the Laos boarder official asked me where I was from, slowly and carefully repeated after me, "Can-a-da, Can-a-da".  I repeated it again for him, my heart warming with fondness for the laosians as he stamped me out of the country.  We soon approached the square, white, very official looking building that marked the chinese border with a passport check so formal and regimented.  X-ray machines and lines to stand behind, we may as well have been going through an airport security process rather than crossing a land border.  The chinese official hardly said a word as he looked me up on his computer and stamped me into the country.  The difference was immediate, a contrast so profound it was stimulating.  The roads were seamless, a perfectly manicured flower garden down the central median and modern multi story buildings lined the road.  Tunnels have been dug through every mountain, eliminating the nauseating, winding mountain passes but in turn taking away some of the magic of the journey, cutting travel time down considerably but bypassing the contours and topography of the mountains.  The Roman alphabet all but disappeared, the artful chinese characters adding to this overwhelming different world leaving us in no doubt we had left SE Asia and entered one of the worlds superpowers. 

We arrived in the town of Mengla early, the bus driver waving away our questions about onward travel, unwilling to take make the effort to attempt to overcome language barriers.  Our intention was to catch the next bus out towards the Yuanyang rice terraces, considered to be one of Chinas most spectacular examples of mans resourcefulness overcoming natures obstacles; terraced rice paddies scaling the mountainsides, but first and most importantly, we had to get local currency (the Chinese yuan (RMB) impossible to obtain in Laos).  A newsagent, noticing our bags, asked if we would change money with him to which we quickly refused, cautious of the low exchange rate offered on the black market.  Our Lonely Planet guidebook informed us that buses only left early morning, so we followed its advice by heading north behind the bus station for convenient accommodation.  The women took our 100Y, wrote a receipt in mandarin and refused to give us our 50Y change.  Language barriers in full effect, she raised her voice until she was almost yelling at us, repeating herself over and over again until she stormed out, refusing to take the time to make herself understood and hoping in vain that if she talked louder and slower we would understand.  Her young daughter was more patient with us, using a basic on-line translator until finally she helped us to understand that 50Y would be kept as a deposit and we would receive our change upon checkout. 

The following five hours were spent stomping around the city in a desperate attempt to obtain local currency.  Residents would often stop dead in the tracks to stare at us as we walked down the street and when we greeted them with smiles and the all purpose 'Ni Hao' their blatant stares turned to shock and were abruptly averted as they continued on their way, turning back every so often for another glance.  None of the ATMs would accept our cards and bank upon bank turned us away, simply shaking their heads at our debit card, credit card, travellers checks and american dollars.  Early evening was upon us and and we had not eaten since 7am and our water supply had run out hours ago.  No attempt was made to explain why they would not change any money for us until finally, after an emotional outburst from me towards a clerk behind the plexiglass (in a room full of onlookers) a security guard took us aside and using numbers, we learned that no foreign exchange was available at weekends.  Outraged, hungry and overwhelmed we gave in to the newsagents awful exchange rate and changed over US$50, loosing about US$13 for his commission.  Defeated and drained we found a shop off the street with pictures on the wall, the only place with a menu we could decipher. I pointed at a dish which appeared lush with green veggies and Julian selected his own. Our chef was soon stretching freshly rolled dough into long noodles, dropping them into a vat of boiling water and we were shortly presented with our noodle delights.  A disappointing lack of actually containing meat of vegetables but with a satisfyingly lush broth which I spiced to taste using the dark mixture of crushed sun dried chill peppers swimming in oil.  We were in bed by 2100, though woken often throughout the night by the large german shepherd which was caged in the car-park outside in a space just large enough for him to turn around in.  

At the bus station the following morning we were staggered at the high bus prices and somewhat overwhelmed as we began to realize that our $30 per day budget wouldn't even cover the costs of transport around the province.  Only cash is an acceptable means of payment and to purchase bus tickets today (being Sunday) would mean exchanging more of our US dollars at the awful exchange rate, increasing the cost considerably.  We opted to forgo the rice terraces of Yuanyang, having had an exceptional experience in northern Vietnam, and make our way towards the provincial capital of Kunming in an attempt to conserve funds.  At this rate, we would be in and out of China in a quick two weeks!  As we went to visit the newsagent to trade more dollars we were stopped by a man who asked "Kunming?  200Y?".  A good 105Y ($15US) cheaper than the prices at the terminal. We stopped short and counted our money in hand.  We had just enough to cover the cost with about 20Y left over.  Knowing we would be able to obtain local currency in Kunming, we decided to go for it, with just enough left over for a bowl of rice with spicy meat and veggies for breakfast before our departure.  Our saviour joined us, picked out our meal and treated us to a glass of very carbonated, white chinese beer.   As we ate, he sat beside us and lit a cigarette, tearing off the filter and sticking the tobacco into the bowl of a large bamboo water bong.  About four minutes and four bong hits later the tobacco had been consumed and we sat in a haze of smoke.  I remember the first time I smoked a cigarette, the intense head rush which absolutely floored me and wondered how he could possibly still be in a conscious state.  In awe, I watched wide eyes as he insisted Julian try.  Initially refusing, our friend was persuasive and soon Julian attempted to get his mouth around the large opening in vain, unable with his thin face to create the seal necessary to smoke from this bong.  I wasn't too disappointed. 

After our meal we sat on the street with him, engaging in conversation barely understood by either yet which was had in good humour.  Passers by would stop on the street and natter at us in mandarin.  We would respond with something comical to which they would reply and this sort of interaction went on for a good hour with random characters on the street. eventually one particularly encouragable man was more than enough for our host to take and he escorted us away from the scene into the comfort of his wife's pharmacy, where she and her five year old daughter tended shop.  Soon, the young girl had a notepad out and was teaching us mandarin pronunciations.  Going to use the squat toilet out back I found a room with five beds in it, three of which contained people hooked up to IV's and I realized that this was not only a pharmacist but also small hospital of sorts.  At 1400 we were taken on the back of a motorbike to the side of a highway to await a bus coming up from Vientiane and were soon squashed on the back five seats with six people and broken air conditioning.  The seats were in fact fully reclined beds upon which we were suitably uncomfortable for the first nine hours of the journey.  When we stopped for dinner our empty wallet forced us to forgo a plate of food and instead, we went to use the conveniences which provided our first experience of 'open concept' squat trough style toilets; two foot high walls providing 'privacy'.  As we waited, those with full stomachs came out, smoking cigarettes and hocking phlegm up from deep within their throats and nasal cavities, repeatedly. Babies are dressed in clothing without fabric covering their genitals and whenever nature calls, they are held out to do their business on the streets, diapers non existent here.  We were surrounded by about 60 people doing this and I found myself disgusted with this side of Chinese culture.  The spitting doesn't even stop whilst on the bus, the woman beside me regularly clearing her throat and spitting into a plastic bag.  The four we were sharing the seats with got off at a stop three hours short of Kunming and we were left with a king size bed to sprawl out upon for the rest of the journey. Mercifully, the left a bag of six packaged cream cakes and two sealed bottles of water.  Dinner. 

As the lights turned on at midnight and the bus came to a halt, a good majority of the passengers got off.  Asking the driver "Kunming?" he confirmed and shooed us off the bus.  We were met by taxi drivers and hotel owners who offered us a bed for the night.  Turning down a hopeful rate of 100Y per night we quickly bargained down 50Y and were soon whisked away in the back of a very plastic, very chinese MPV.  With no city in sight, he drove down the dark alleys, an impression of space on either side until, negotiating his way around piles of bricks left at the roadside we wound into a very quiet section of concrete buildings.  A man wheeling a cart of pink roses was the only person in the streets as we checked into our room.  It appeared we were in the outskirts of the city, and with no definite idea as to where we were and still with no money in our pockets or food in our stomachs, we slept. 

Julian left before dawn in search of the nearest ATM.  I woke some hours later; outside, transport trucks noisily ground in and out of a factory complex and I concluded that we must be in the industrial part of Kunming.  Exceptionally hungry and thirsty I did yoga to try to calm my mind, showered, and still Julian had not returned.  Anxious and concerned that he may have gotten lost he finally returned six hours after he had left, still with no money in hand.  His wanderings had taken him around modern retail complexes, housing estates, shopping streets and the grounds of a huge athletics stadium. The Bank of China (the only bank in China where our debit cards will work) was prominently represented with a 25 story building and broken ATM's. Eventually he had found a swish hotel with an english speaking concierge who advised him he was still several kilometres off our Lonely Planet map, to the south west of Kunming, our abrupt bus driver had apparently let us off a stop (or two or three) early.  Having not eaten in 24 hours now we were both at our wits end as we walked to a bank he had noticed down the street in the hope we might be able to exchange more of our limited US$. To our dismay it had closed 20 minutes prior to our arrival.  Tears welled in my eyes and we approached the hoteliers hoping they might take US cash as payment; our final resource.  Our proprietor sensing our situation motioned to us to pack our things and took us to the nearest Bank of China.  Finally with cash in hand, we handed him 100Y, expecting 50Y change and the situation quickly heated as he demanded 200Y for the room and the transport he provided.  Shocked, we spent a good half hour drawing pictures in an attempt to communicate.  Our 50Y hotel room had now tripled in price and we were unwilling to give in.  Finally, we both compromised and he drove away with 100Y, leaving us at the local bus station.  Distressed and exceptionally hungry we found the first buffet style meal we could and finally ate, some 29 hours after our last meal. 

Certain that the nearby bus station would provide means of getting us into the city centre of Kunming we were unable to decipher the Chinese writings on the wall.  Several local people refused to help us, shaking their heads and turning us away, refusing to attempt to understand what we were asking.  Finally, we gave up and got into a taxi and realized on the ride in that we were not even in Kunming to start with.  20km later our driver took a roundabout route into the city. Despite our protests, with our map and compass in evidence and knowing full well he screwed these lost, unknowing tourists, he dropped us off, an hour later, in the centre of Kunming.  Our heads clouded with stress from the previous few days all we could do was give in to the nearest Starbucks, a homely comfort we had not seen in months, and use the internet to form our next plan of attack.  The prices in Kunming were a shock to the system and upon learning that two beds in a eight bed dorm room would cost us double what we had been used to paying for private, en-suit we decided to catch the overnight train out of Kunming to Dali.  The walk towards the train station to buy tickets included my first taste of Chinese architecture in China. Whilst the majority of the city is a modern bustling metropolis we found one road, flanked at either end by the East and West Pagodas. Between these centuries old structures lay a building the purpose for which we never did establish (maybe a hotel) that looked like a medieval Chinese castle and to either side rows of shops with beautiful traditional style curved roofs. 

At the railway station we were surprised when we were asked for our passports, which until this point we had never carried around with us. Unable to purchase tickets without them were told it would be no problem to return that evening, buy tickets and board the train.  We enjoyed a few hours exploring the city and later that night, loaded with our bags, we hiked the 45 minutes to the station. To our extreme discouragement were told tickets had been sold out.  Out of my mind I insisted we give up on China and demanded that Julian book the next train south to Bangkok which he appeared to consider, yet refused, unwilling to give up one of the most anticipated parts of his journey.  Exhausted I succumbed to my emotions and tears flowed freely.  The first few days in China had been so absolutely overwhelming.  In the seven years since I left home I have never been so run down and overwhelmed in a foreign land.  It wasn't until the next day that I admitted to having been consumed with culture shock so completely and that it clouded my head so intensely that I felt a similar mental state comparable to that of going through a crumbling relationship.  Not only had the situations been overwhelming but the treatment of the local people and their refusal to take a moment to understand us, especially after the relaxed generosity of the laos, was so baffling and discouraging.  We considered laying out sleep mats in the station and spending the night with the other waifs and strays on the street but finally gave in to the high prices of a dorm room and I slipped into restless dreams. 

FInal Days of Rest and Tranquility; Nong Khiaw, Laos

Our local mini bus weaved away from Luang Prabang and north,  up the familiar winding broken asphalt surface we were becoming accustomed to.  When we arrived in Nong Khiaw the magic of the place was immediate and infectious as we looked up at steep limestone karst, considerably larger and more dramatic than that of Vang Vieng.  Our lonely planet guide suggested heading west of the bridge spanning the (??) river, where the majority of guesthouses and restaurants catered for the tourists.  It wasn't far down the road before a man greeted us, offering us riverside accommodation for a price which suited our budget.  We stood in our second floor spacious en-suite room with large bed and beautiful, even wooden floorboards; a beautiful yoga space, which opened up onto a shared balcony overlooking the river.  Long boats were being paddled down the river, people fishing for an evening meal.  Music played from the neighbouring school where laughing children played in a courtyard, enjoying a two day party in honour of their teachers.  It was here that Julian decided this place had potential to be a new favourite. 

We pushed aside the gate with bunches of bananas growing overhead and followed the narrow lane way alongside the school yard, greeting the children along the way and headed towards the bridge spanning the river.  A woman sat at a loom in a small room, open to the the street, working on a sarong or table runner as other families tended to shops out of homes. A ridge line swept beautiful overhead to the highest of the surrounding karst, some 300 meters overhead as the sun dipped behind them, relieving us of the afternoon heat and dropping temperatures into a comfortable, warm evening.  Crossing the bridge we admired the dramatic karst and watched the locals in the process of building vegetable gardens along the banks.  Using pieces of bamboo they dug holes, erecting fences to surround the produce in the process of being planted.  This was clearly a new project in the making, each of the many gardens being in the same stages of development and we later learnt the banks of the river had only very recently been divided between the village and each family allocated a plot to use as they saw best fit. 

We followed a dirt road alongside the river in hopes of coming across a path which may lead us up one of the mighty karst and offer potential for a hike.  We knew it was possible to climb the peak adjacent to the village, having been offered a (paid) guide or few during our meander down from the hotel, but the only paths we found lead up into vegetable gardens, and we realized we would have to seek local advice for the hiking trails.  The clouds glowed a brilliant pink, the sun set and we retuned to the main road for dinner, passing guesthouse accommodation from the bargain basement to the ridiculously expensive along the way.  The feel on this 'other side of the bridge' was considerably different than where we were residing; clearly here was developed to suit the needs of people travelling through, whereas the other side was exclusively residential.  The place was all but void of tourists though, the majority of restaurants tended by bored proprietors.  We chose between two places, the deciding factor being the Wi-Fi which was offered in the Indian restaurant.  We were greeted by a Tamil man who spoke exceptional english and I was shocked when Julian went for the Indian menu once again.  He picked between two of my suggested dishes and was soon served a sweet curry with nine vegetables, lush with sultanas and bananas accompanied by a garlic roti.  I watched his every move as he inspected and tasted, his eyes widening in content surprise.  Our new Indian friend has just successfully served Julian the first Indian dish he has ever sincerely enjoyed.

The following day we were eager to find some hiking trails but the tour agents in town refused to tell us where to go, insisting that we must have a guide, a full day excursion costing us 180,000 kip (US$24) each person.  Unable to justify the cost of the guided trek on our $30 budget, we simply enjoyed walking around town, resting in our riverside guesthouse doing yoga or reading. We joined others at our guesthouse for a meal with our same Indian chef; our table ended up being a lively group of ten, the majority of whom were regular holiday-makers but our number included a Swiss couple currently in the process of riding recumbent tricycles from their home to Malaysia and about to tackle some of Laos steeper terrain as they headed south. 

Hiring a pair of single speed city bikes (which were in pretty rough shape) the following morning we ventured west out of Nong Khiaw, up and down a considerably steep road.  I found myself pushing my bicycle (though Julian was far more determined and persistent with his) uphill more often than riding it and found myself feeling ill multiple times from the intense heat of the sun.  We passed a couple of villages where local children would run after our bikes with smiles and waves as as passed.  It was clear that these villages had been functioning the same way for centuries and was the least developed of any villages we had seen in Laos.  There was no evidence of running water and there was certainly no electricity.  A man dug out a bowl by hand from a section of tree trunk some 20cm in diameter and perhaps 30cm deep, already there was another lying beside him, the outside just requiring some shaping and finishing before being put to use. For what purpose the bowls / vases were for I cannot say, but the work must have taken days to complete with the simple hand tools he used, sat upon the ground in the shade of a tree, the piece gripped between his knees.

As we paused on a bridge a couple of local youths pulled up beside us and sat upon the railings.  They spoke to us in the little english they knew, "Good morning teacher, 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 6 - 8- 10", repeating this a couple times before time before taking off up a mountain track.   A path on the opposite side of the road and some 2km further on led towards a river far to inviting to ignore and as Julian sought out angles and compositions with his camera, I was drawn towards it.  Easing myself into the river (fully clothed) by some large unearthed tree roots the cool water was a refreshing shock to my pores, the karst rising steeply above me into clear blue skies. Julian soon joined me and we swam against the current before allowing it to carry us downstream.  As we retuned to the bikes a trio of young girls approached us asking us for the three main items foreigners give children here; pens, candy and money.  Often reading advice discouraging tourists to give such things to the local children as it encourages a begging culture, we refused. We had no pens or candy on us and we are unwilling to part with our money as always. As we left the river path, we happened upon the children's guardian sitting out of sight, just four or five metres from where the girls had approached us, the lesson obviously having been learnt even in this quiet backwater, that innocent faces and small hands are more likely to receive gifts from 'farang' than a woman of advancing years.

We cycled the rest of the way home to find women had emerged from the woodlands that lined the majority of our route , their sarongs, blouses and headscarves filthy with dust, long knives hanging by their sides and bundles of firewood across their backs, as they walked home to the next village, chattering to each other or calling greetings to ourselves as we passed. They refused our offer of a lift on the back of our bikes and we continued back to Nong Khiaw for a shower and dinner at our favourite Indian restaurant.  Three evenings in a row Julian ordered Indian dishes, thoroughly enjoying one and realizing the other two were tolerable; not as awful as his preconceptions had given him to think. As we sat eating, during the quiet, warm evenings, we watched the eldest son of the house opposite spend every spare hour he had to weave himself a cast net for fishing in the river shallows. Whilst we never saw his task completed, we admired others and their usage, the peace and the pace of Nong Khiaw and the surrounding villages made a deep impression upon our hearts and it is reassuring to think amidst the hustle and bustle of the modern world with its jet planes and hyper-markets; fast food, fast internet and fast pace, such a place as Nong Khiaw exists towards the end of the line.  Our host at the restaurant sincerely eased Julians trepidation about travelling through India, especially the northern part of the country where the food is apparently quite mild and we plan on spending the majority of our time.  He turned out to be an exceptional chef, with exquisite and subtle taste and our time with him was invaluable, easing Julians fears of starving in his homeland and allowing us to look forward to that leg of the trip even more.

We stood on the balcony on the last evening watching the fisherman with large lights wade through the river seeking, what we assumed was a nocturnal species, and listened to the chatter of our neighbours in the houses that surrounded our digs. In the morning we packed after four idyllic, restful days on 'Laos time' and returned once more to the world, via bus.

Our final two days in Laos was spent in transit, heading north en-route to the Chinese boarder at Mohab.  We broke the journey up in Odoudomxsy, a decidedly typical, dusty boarder town void of any real point of interest.  We checked into a musky room with squat toilet and hose coming out of the wall into a bucket acting as both a shower and sink, along with the most uncomfortable bed thus far.  We wandered the city in quiet reflection of our time in Laos, one of the most serene places I have ever been.  Any and all preconceptions I had of this country has been discarded.  As one of the most impoverished countries on the planet what I found in Laos turned to be the most beautiful examples of simple living I have ever seen.  Void of mass consumerism and the constant desire to have more, bigger, better, faster things.  Where flaunting material items as a show of social status is far from anyones mind. Where basic needs are met, even if it means an entire village having no running water and venturing down to the river to bathe or wash clothing.  The most peaceful moments of my life were those spent trekking through the New Zealand backcountry with my home on my back, living in just this way.  This is a place where family is of upmost importance and entire communities work together to ensure a successful crop.  The physical beauty of the country with its patient, open hearted people have captured my soul, this month passing so quickly and despite very much looking forward to China, I sincerely didn't want to leave Laos.

My thoughts were interrupted on our way back from dinner by two youths on bicycles who pulled over for a chat, asking us where we were heading.  Upon learning we were aimlessly wandering their streets, they asked if we would like to come practice english with them.  Of course, we were happy to join them and were soon lead down an alleyway and through a set of doors where we found about 50 students waiting.  We were greeted with curious smiles from everyone and moments later led into a classroom and invited to find a space to sit.  We were soon surrounded by youths eager to practice their conversational skills. Soon, their teacher came to stand at the front of the room to begin the evening lesson and upon completion called upon us, asking us where were from then relating to the class both in english and laos that we were native english speakers and to come forward with any questions they may have.  He then asked if we would come to the board to go over todays lesson so the students could hear our pronunciation.  I urged Julian to go first, and as he looked out onto the 50 onlookers he stated, "Oh, Im all nervous now, I've not stood in front of a classroom in over 20 years" which the teacher translated and got a good giggle out of.  As he read over the writings on the wall the class repeated after him.  The teacher had made a few grammatical mistakes and was happy to have Julian correct him.  I thought I was off the hook but as Julian sat down I was called to the front of the board to repeat the procedure.  They looked up at me with their almond shaped eyes expectantly as I looked back at them, a varied group of individuals ranging from 13 to 17 years old, male and female, some dressed in casual western clothing, others in lovely sarongs and blouses and another group of practicing monks in long orange robes.  It was satisfying, standing before them, having them repeat after me and making sure they knew the differences in meanings between two very similar spellings.  When the hour class had ended a small group of them walked us out gradually dwindling to a couple who walked us all the way home, eager for every and any opportunity to practice their language with a native speaker, knowing full well the opportunities the skills they learn today may present them with further down the years and aware also I think of their compatriots in Vientiane that have many more opportunities for both practice and employment: their competition in a changing world as much as anybody.

The rest of the evening I was buzzing with the energy from the experience.  I can't think of a more perfect conclusion to our time in Laos, considering the opportunity we have been offered to return to do exactly that (which, I have just realized, I completely forgot to conclude with in the Vang Vieng entry.  That cliff hanger ending was not exactly intentional, have to admit! I guess thats the problem with not being able to upload for so long.).  The man with big ideas for the future was someone who comes from a very poor family in a village one hour south of Vang Vieng. As a child, he went through the coldest months of the year with no shoes, sweater or jacket, attending class in just a T-shirt.  His family was looked down upon through the eyes his peers which today, seems to inspired him.  He has opened a successful restaurant in Vang Vieng and has changed the path which his family has followed for generations.  Next, he aspires to bring tourism to his village, but in order to do so, the villagers must know at least a little english.  He offered us a piece of land to build our own bamboo hut, in return we would become a part of opening an english school and teaching the residents (particularly the children) english.  In Laos, tourism is an important source of income and to be able to get a job in the tourism industry changes lives. 

To have a little taste of what it feels like to stand before a class was like a little push, or reminder, of the future that could await us here.  The intimidating thing about it though is that village has had no prior experience with the language, where as the class this evening had a base understanding.  How do you introduce and language to someone for the first time?  There are classes offered in southern Thailand we could take which would introduce us to the concept of teaching english as a foreign language, which would be invaluable should we choose to do this, and ideal since we intend on spending some time there climbing.  I have never really felt like I can make a difference in the world but on that evening, thinking about bringing english to a village which has never seen westerners before in hopes of creating a future with opportunities opened up to the inhabitants should they choose to embrace them: perhaps we could have an impact on a small part of it.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Second Impression of Luang Prabang, Laos

(Makes me crazy that I can not put as many pictures in and position them as I would like using this VPN connection!!)

At first glance, when we passed through Luang Prabang a few months back en route to Vietnam, our expectations differed drastically from the reality.  Knowing Laos to be the poorest of the SE Asian peninsula, coming into Luang Prabang felt very surreal with its french colonial architecture, beautifully lit high street (by the shops and restaurants rather than street lighting), vibrant night market and considerably higher prices for meals than we had been used to in Thailand. Having now travelled the length of Laos from south to north we were looking forward to returning to a city we both knew our way around and we were wondering how our perspectives may have changed since our last visit.

We arrived late (which we expected, now being well accustomed to 'Laos time') and after getting suitably ripped off by the tuk tuk drivers from the bus station we returned to Sok Dee Residences where we were offered the same room we had last time.  As we unpacked, we heard familiar dutch voices from above and were pleased to find our two friends, Simone and Dieuwka had taken our recommendation and were residing in the room above us.  We spent the evening with them and an American traveller engaged in fabulous conversation over dinner and Beer Laos (which is cheaper than a cup of tea) at a roadside restaurant on the Mekong. 

The following morning as we walked around old town with a new sense of perspective we realized that Luang Prabang is indeed an accurate part of Laos identity, or at least the side effected by the French. Laos falls into two distinct halves; that that the French built on and that where they did not. Apart from the introduction of the coffee plantations that litter the Bolaven plateau, the influence of the colonists (read protectors) has to our eyes been minimal. What architecture there was, was flattened by the US carpet bombing of the region during the 'secret war' (where the Ho Chi Minh trail never ran through Laos and which America never bombed) and as with other rural areas we visited, in the villages the houses are still of traditional stilted design and bamboo construction. Within the larger towns, especially the important centres of Pakse, Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the buildings of course reflect the presence of the westerners in ornate, multi-story construction with balconies and rooflines in keeping with the period and a decidedly more delicate appearance than the contemporary work of the British elsewhere upon the peninsula.  Despite the lovely vibe I still felt impartial and not overly fond of the place.  These days Luang Prabang feels entirely devoted to tourism with not much 'local feel' in the Old Quarter and not much advertised to see outside of that.  The only people seen eating in the restaurants or shopping at the night market were the tourists; local residents were hardly around other than the shop keepers and market vendors.  Of course it's the high prices which keep them away and it took delving a little deeper to get a better sense of the place.  

We climbed up a set of stairs to a hill top temple offering a panoramic view, where a golden stupa overlooks the city.  From this birds eye view I found the city was much larger than I expected, residential areas stretching for miles nestled in amongst the trees in a basin that stretches for some distance to the north and east of the Old Town before steep, towering, green slopes reach up to ridge lines and mountain tops in the middle distance. From here we picked a route over a bridge spanning the muddy waters of the Nam Kahn river. It is at Luang Prabang that the Nam Kahn joins the mighty Mekong and the junction in the waterways the purpose behind the towns presence, wealth and strategic importance as junctions in trade routes tend to be.  

Leaving the Old Town we found the local families going about their lives and were greeted with the usual smiles.  As we wandered, enjoying the local feel of Luang Prabang 'proper' and finding much lower prices for necessary toiletries (tampons were a shocking US$10 for eight in the old town!) my heart warmed towards this place.  Local fruit and vegetable markets were swarming and live music pulsated through the air from a wedding ceremony in full swing.  The stunning, formal silk sarongs the women wore took my breath away and I couldn't help but wonder how I could pursued Julian into agreeing that adding a few more to my collection was a good idea.  Simone and Dieuwka passed by at the perfect moment, breathless from cycling in the heat. They had just returned from a ride out to a neighbouring village, home to the local weavers.  They were all smiles with satisfying purchases at considerably lower prices than those offered at the Old Town night market and Julian and I were soon convinced to hire out bicycles the next day. 

The heat was suffocating as we pushed our rickety, single speed city touring bikes across the hilly terrain.  6km down the road we came to the village and it took some careful examination of the buildings to find the weavers market in a whitewashed concrete block resembling a community hall.  About 25 women were sprawled out across tables snoozing away the afternoon heat but our arrival in the otherwise empty hall quickly brought them to life as they began arranging their handicraft for our perusal or sewing works in progress, all the while calling to us in turn to come and admire their wares, to buy a scarf, sarong or shirt.  Julian sat down and purloined himself a cup of tea from the ladies and left me to it for a while as I wandered from stall to stall, admiring their work and pleased with their prices, starting at less than half those quoted in the night market back in town.  Looms were set up in the back room with a few women working on exquisite silk pieces with intricate patterns they seemed to know by memory.  Luckily for me, Julian found all this just as interesting as I and was happy to spend a few dollars.  He pointed out some particularly beautiful cotton sarongs though much to his amusement he did nothing to help me with the bargaining (Her purchase: Her problem…… Ed)  I find it rather uncomfortable, haggling with women who have far less than I, over just a few dollars, but its all part of the game and in the end, I ended up with two beautiful cotton sarongs for US$17.  The Laos sarongs are absolutely my favourite articles of clothing that I have come across in my travels and am pleased with my varied collection of four.  One particularly stunning green silk one (at US$50), two comfortable cotton ones (at US$8.50 each) and one exceptionally cheap polyester one (at US$1.75) which have been sent home to be properly cared for and await our return to Canada. 

Our final evening was spent with Simone and Dieuwka at a restaurant of their choice, a nearby Indian place, before they caught they night bus to Vientiane.  Julian was less than eager but I was impressed when he went for an Indian dish over the Laos selection, knowing full well that India is in our near future and exploring their culinary delights perhaps a wise call.  We have become quite fond of the dutch girls by now and sincerely enjoyed their company one last time over a meal which the three of us enjoyed throughly and Julian survived.  

After a few weeks back on the main tourist track, spending time in Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, we were more than eager to get away from it and into more remote reaches of the country once again. A slight deviation from our northward course would take us to to small village of Nong Khiaw where we would relax a while and enjoy all the finest we find in Laos before entering the cultural chaos of China and testing everything we have learnt over the last few years to our very limits and beyond.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The 'Once' Party Capital of Laos: Vang Vieng

(Formatting going to be an issue for each entry we post using VPN unfortunately.  Not going to be a pretty as the others but at least its less time consuming for me!  Enjoy!)

A tuk tuk picked us up from our guesthouse in Vientiane, drove around the city for an hour picking up another ten others before dropping us of an easy walking distance away from where we had started.  A 16 seater mini bus was waiting and we left promptly on (Laos) time 45 minutes after scheduled departure.  We have come to understand that generally two hours can be added to predicted journey times and can fluctuate between 1-6 hours in difference (though we have heard stories from others which added an additional 12 hours).  One thing we do have though is time and arriving any time before dark gets a thumbs up from us.  I enjoyed the views to be seen on the road as we drove out of the city;  women dressed in beautiful colourful sarongs with jet back hair hanging at the lower back.  School children in uniform; girls in traditional blue and white sarongs with white blouses and boys in grey trousers, white collared button down shirt and red neckerchiefs, either walking, or cycling with younger siblings sat on a padded rear seat.  Various means of transport teetering full of fresh produce, people or chickens; massively overloaded as par for the course, mopeds carrying as many as 6 or huge oversize loads, the little 110cc engines groaning under the strain.  All this activity kicked up a thick cloud of dust, people drove motorbikes wearing face masks covering their nose and mouth (which I have taken to using` myself while on motorbike).  

As the city dropped away behind us the air cleared as we headed into small hills, the unpaved rocky road winding up and over a pass offering views of the valley below; limestone karst rising and growing in height into the valleys beyond.  We drove through villages where all the women wear stunning, intricately woven sarongs, with bamboo baskets on their backs full of leafy green vegetables and young children care for babies securely wrapped against their bodies in colourful cloths.  A communal tap is their only source of running water; children wash their own clothing, women bathe under the privacy of a tube sarong and men, women and children carry plastic containers full, home for cooking.  A clean river flows closely, a nice change from the murky brown waters of the Mekong.  My eyes grow as much as the karst in the countryside and I am at a loss for words as a serenity engulfed me, in awe at their humble, simple lives. 

A few karst in the distance are noticeably larger than all the rest and I can only hope the bus is heading in that direction.  It is not long before we are deposited at a village directly in front of these majestic, mystical peaks.  I shake my head in attempt to take in the experience of one of the most beautiful yet most bumpy and nauseating ride bus rides I have ever been on and am already sure that this is one of the most visually striking places on the planet. The climbing possibilities alone on the fractured faces of the karst are limitless, even at first glance.  We are soon lead across a questionable, rickety bamboo bridge of worrying structural support to a small island to check into a basic riverside bungalow with en-suit wet room for 80,000 kip (US$10) per night.  We explored the main streets of the village, baffled to see that each restaurant and guest house were playing old episodes of either Friends or Family Guy.  Normally such a thing on our travels would be avoided (despite both enjoying Friends) but having not seen a television in months and Friends in far longer than that we settled down and enjoyed a few episodes over dinner.  The sound of bass pumping in a nearby pub kept me awake (which of course Julian easily fell asleep to) until the law enforced shut down time of 2330. 

We woke up at the same time as each other for a change and instead of my usual morning yoga I opted to join him on a walk before breakfast.  We wandered through our tropical surroundings where banana trees hung heavy with fruit and a bright purple banana flower dripped with early morning dew.  Red, yellow and purple flowers in bloom gave off a sweet scent as we warily clambered over a gap in the fence owned by an army of large red ants, marching confidently and with good reason; their sting just as bad as that of a wasp (which we found out the hard way back in Penang).  Clouds sat low around the base of the karst as we approached the shallow river, flowing swiftly.  The air was cool in comparison to much of the peninsula but the promise of a refreshing dip in the river was too much to resist and when I noticed we were alone at this small island I stripped to my underwear for a quick dip.  The water is cooler here than anywhere else I have swam and I decided my feelings and instincts from yesterday were confirmed.  I loved this place. I stay submerged when a tour group in motorized longboats roar past, breaking the silence of the morning.  When the coast was clear, I dressed quickly and we returned to the hotel for our inclusive meal of two eggs and a french baguette. 

Vang Vieng is famous amongst tourists for its tubing down the Nam Song river which used to be lined with bars, rope swings, jumping planks and human catapults.  This has resulted in a history of excess drinking and drug use which unfortunately has been linked to the cause of six deaths last season.  Prior to arriving in Vang Vieng I was more than happy to bypass this part of the backpacking trail but by the time we got there we were quite ready for a bit of socializing with other tourists where no language barrier exists and conversations are easy.  We explored the villages that day, getting a feel for the place and exploring options and prices.  What had our attention right from the start far more than tubing was getting into or on these limestone formations.  Once again cursing the fact that we had left all our climbing gear in Bangkok we looked around for rental gear and debated over the high cost of US$35 per day, considerable expense for us on such a tight budget and we spend two days deciding whether to splurge or not. 

That evening, as we ate a great meal from a quiet vegetarian restaurant, the establishment next door was in full swing.  On the menu they offered pizza, tea of brownies laced with your choice of marijuana, mushrooms or opium.  Combined with cheap beer Laos (US$1 per 750ml bottle) the westerners were in rowdy form; a young blond girl in short shorts and tube top danced suggestively on the table while singing I Like Big Butts and I Can Not Lie while guys cheered her on.  I shook my head at her misconduct and clear ignorance to Lao culture.  The local woman operating the restaurant next door shook her head in distaste and I felt ashamed to be associated with this side of western culture.  Is this the only side of the west that these local people see?  These people who often are unable to travel 50km away from their home?  The drinking, the consumption, the distasteful social conduct and spending more money than these people earn in a week doing it?  Using my Cambodian shawl to cover my shoulders wearing a long Laos sarong I shake my head and look apologetically into her eyes despite having nothing to do with the scene, and we returned to our bungalow to rock back and forth on our hammocks as a baseline penetrated the air.  Julian managed to fall asleep and he looked so peaceful and happy I could not bear to disturb him.  I draped a light blanket across him to which he stirred and murmered 'thats a big butterfly' before drifting off to sleep once again.

I was woken the next morning at 0700 by loud music pulsating strongly enough I could feel it through my mattress.  Exceptionally distraught from having been kept awake the previous two nights and now once again woken by an even louder beat at such  a ridiculous time in the morning I went for a walk out to the river on my own wondering if the bass beats were going to wake me every morning.  A team of about 12 Laos rowers paddled a dragon boat with ferocious energy down the swift flowing stream and I remembered what it felt like to have a strong rowing team, when each and every person rows in sync to conjure the feeling of soaring above the water like a sea eagle stalking its prey.  The morning air was heavy, smoke carried on the wind from southern China where they are now burning rice stalks leftover from the harvest. The sun penetrated through the smog and it felt unusually warm for this time in the morning as I headed back to our hut to await Julian, unable to commence my morning yoga practice as the heavy bass prevented me from reaching the necessary state of peace. 

It turns out a local festival for honouring ancestors was upon us and the Laos had attended dawn services at the numerous temples around Vang Vieng and then promptly commenced partying on the island in anticipation of the dragon boat races.  We joined them on the island where people were fighting for space in the shade on the riverside drinking Beer Laos and enjoying freshly caught BBQ river fish or chicken, dried squid and roasted grasshoppers.  It was hard for me to believe that we were two of the only four westerners in sight. Vang Vieng is known as the party capital of SE Asia yet most tourists seem to have found other things to do.  For me, this kind of stuff is exactly why I travel, to participate in local life and these types of celebrations are always a welcome surprise (despite the rude awakening).  We mingled with the Laos, some of which were in a rather inebriated state come early afternoon. It was a pleasant shock to see the Laosians partying it up for a change, getting just as rowdy as the tourists do on a nightly basis.  Walking along the banks of the river we found our two Dutch friends whom we had shared the bus ride with, Simone and Dieuwka. We enjoyed the energy of the dragon boat races as young children chased each other around our feet, and soon agreed to meet up for dinner that evening after a siesta.  

I was able to fall asleep by using ear plugs covered with noise cancelling headphones and was at least able to choose which beat I listened to.  At 1800 we met the Dutch at the bridge slightly late and went in search of a place which would serve us the group meal we kept seeing the locals eating.  Unable to find it on any of the menus we inquired with a hostess who had just served the winners of the dragon boat races the exact meal we were looking for.  Apparently they don't offer this on the farang menus and we were pleased when they agrees to serve it, at what I assume must have been local price at 50, 000 kip (US$6) between the four of us.  They set up our table with a charcoal fire burning within it.  A convex steel grill was placed upon it with chunks of pork fat used to grease the surface.  Pouring water from a kettle into the circular 'moat' around the bottom we spiced it ourselves with fresh coriander, basil, mint, garlic, ginger and lime (with some hot peppers on the side).  Carrots, cabbage and thin rice noodles soon followed, the fire cooking it into a broth as we placed thinly sliced lean beef along the grill, the fat from the pork dripping down into the broth.  A fabulous dish to share which satisfied both myself and Dieuwka but Julian and Simone, found it a satisfying appetizer and were ready for a main course at a different restaurant. 

The next morning, after falling asleep to the beating of drums in the distance (which had persisted for 17 straight hours), I mercifully woke on my own accord without the assistance of a break beat in the distance.  Relieved, I endured an interesting yoga session on the slanting and uneven floorboards of our hut before breaking fast, followed by a hesitant decision to spend a small fortune on renting out climbing equipment for the day.  Our renters discouraged us from visiting the crag of our choice due to wet rock but an online guide suggested the rock was almost always dry, so we took a motorbike out of town, north through small villages to see for ourselves.  Our PDF file guided us through vibrantly green rice paddies (the harvest time not yet having reached here) and across a overgrown jungle trail.  Finding a locked gate which we expected may at one point have been the point of entry our nose suggested why climbers were discouraged from coming to this crag at this time of year, the scent of marijuana coming in waves in a heat strong enough to see.  We found an alternative route, and Julian valiantly crossed two leech infested rivers before finally arriving at the foot of the crag, leaving me behind to 'protect the bag'.  The rock was indeed dry, if perhaps a little overgrown, and he was inspired to see the bolts in the rock, confirming at last we had found the right crag.  We aspired to visit here the following day. 

We rode our dog of a bike (no back brake, dodgy 2nd gear and metal-on-metal front brake) back in the direction of 'home', passing by Vang Vieng and continuing onwards towards the Blue Lagoon.  School children were heading home on foot or bicycles as we drove through the local residential areas of Vang Vieng, our area on prime waterfront and town centre locations clearly reserved for guesthouses and restaurants.  The bumpy, rocky, dusty road lead us all the way to the end where we paid 10,000 kip each (US$1.25) for the privilege of hiking up to the cave and swimming in the stunning 'lagoon blue' waters, heavy with silt from the limestone, deep enough to jump from the upper branches of a mature tree 9 meters above.  Local men stood on the bridge opposite, eyeing the silly western tourists dressed in skimpy bikinis and once again I found myself shaking my head in disapproval.  We climbed the steep path up to the mouth of the cave, hired out a head lamp between us and ventured inside.  Uncertain that the headlamp was necessary in the big open mouth of the cave we were soon proved wrong as the caverns lead deeper and deeper into the womb of the earth and daylight all but disappeared.  The cave had been left entirely natural, no cement pathway or flood lighting was used as we had in Ha Long Bay.  The rock was wet and slippery with moisture dripping from stalactites which dropped from the roof of the cave and it turned out to be a profoundly humbling experience, venturing into the depths in a lightless solitude. The only other sign of life here were the dark shadows of bats glimpsed in the reflection of our head torch.  We both agree that caves are not a personal major interest, having been in a few over the years, yet this was perhaps the largest we had explored, and to be inside in complete darkness and silence, and to have it completely to ourselves, was overwhelmingly beautiful.  Back at the mouth of the cave we paid our respects to the Golden Buddha before heading back down towards the blue lagoon, eager to jump in and rinse the sweat of this exceptionally hot day from our pores.  Late afternoon had given away to evening and all the tourists had fled from the pool, allowing us the opportunity to enjoy it to ourselves.  The water was a brilliant blue, so very rare in this part of the world, and almost cold.  It was the coldest stream I had submerged in since leaving Canada and it was so profoundly refreshing, and so overwhelmingly beautiful; the water, the rice paddies, and the towering limestone karats in the distance, that I decided in that moment I could definitely spend an extended period of time here.  I feel in love with Laos all over again.  We were soon joined by four Chinese who had gone up to explore the cave after we had emerged from it, and they watched, declining to join us.  The water is far too cold for them.  Finally, the middle aged women took advantage of the rubber tubes and eased herself in.  The slow yet steady current took hold of her and she drifted downstream as we dried and dressed to leave.  It was soon clear that she was unable to swim and in a slight panic, drifting further and further downstream.  I got ready to jump in after her but one of the young men staffing the place, jumped in and saved the day. Her 10,000 kip was well spent. 

The following day we collected our climbing equipment and opted for checking out the local crag instead of venturing north to the spot we had spied the previous day, in hopes of a easier and more direct approach and less time on the bike.  We parked the moto' at the side of the road just as three women climbed out of a deep, overgrown irrigation ditch, their sarongs drenched with muddy water and checkered headscarves with sweat.  They carried sharp digging tools and mesh bags which may have been filled with snails, grasshoppers or fronts and I soon realized that this is how these women source lunch.  As we followed a dry, narrow dirt path through the brilliant green rice paddies I pictured them, wading through muddy, stinking hot irrigation ditches running parallel with our path and was once again thankful for the life I lead.

Quick explanation of climbing terms used in the following paragraph: 
Sport climbing is the main style of climbing in SE Asia, where the route is bolted, and the climber clips into the set bolts using quick draws top protect the climb.  The climbing can be more strenuous than the traditional (style) climbing I got used to in Scottish Highlands, where there are no bolts in the rock and placing wire and titanium nuts into cracks, then attaching to it with a quick draw, protects a fall.
Top rope climbing is often used in the beginning stages of teaching one to climb, where the rope is attached at the top of a climb and comes from overhead into the harness.  Should someone fall, the rope from above catches immediately and the distance to fall is very little. 
Lead climbing is when a climber is being belayed from the ground, and in the instance of sport climbing, clips into the set bolts on their way up.  Should they fall, they could fall a considerable distance, double the distance to the last bolt they clipped into.   

The karst rose steeply before us and I was thankful that Julian had the heavy equipment on him as we clambered up a very steep, rocky path towards a crag developed with sport routes. The heat was unbearable to me, sweat running into my eyes I wondered how I was going to manage on the rock. A couple groups with guides were already at the crag and we found ourselves what was apparently a nice easy warm up route.  After refreshing my memory on how to rig up the rope when reaching the top of the climb I opted to lead it, got onto the rock and immediately the sharp rock pierced my skin.  Getting up to the first bolt was torture on my hands and upon clipping into it my raw hands let go and I swung, already defeated.  The soft skin of my hands nowhere near as tough as they used to be, my body no where near as strong and the additional body fat I have accumulated not doing me any favours, I opted to belay Julian as he lead the climb.  It was a nice lead up the sharp, juggy(big) holds and I was happy to give the route another go on top rope rather than leading it.  The rock tore at my hands so badly took me a good 45 minutes and still I couldn't bring myself to get up to the second bolt. Frustrated, discouraged and uninspired I insisted we have a go at another route further along the wall which Julian picked out without being able to check the graded difficulty.  He followed a crack up the rock face and along a beautiful seam in the rock before getting to the first crux up and over a awkward bulge.  Clipping into the bolts set into the rock he continued up, facing another two crux's of increasing difficulty, cursing through his strain.  It was an impressive accomplishment I must say, in our current state of fitness.  Reaching and clipping into the last bolt, I was certain that he was about to have his first proper fall on lead but alas the bugger held on with little more than grit and bloody mindedness and I lowered him back to terra firma on the belay.  I then attempted the route on top rope and was pleased to find the rock was considerably smoother than the previous route, and much more fun!  Still, I was unable to get over the first bulging crux, in fit of giggles as I swung back to the ground.  I did not get to the top of a single route that day which taught me two things.  Falling is one of the funnest parts of sport climbing and I learn by failing!  Evening upon us we unfortunately had to return the bike by 5pm, just as the heat of the day subsided.  I was both discouraged and inspired.  The amount of strength I have lost is absurd and I want nothing more than to get back onto the rock to get it back.  That's going to have to wait a few months though, until we get to Ton Sai.  At this point, all I want to do is get fit again; apparently daily yoga is not enough to counteract being forced to eat out for every meal, sometimes having only the option of rice or noodle soup when in remote places off the tourist track.

Upon arriving back at out hut that evening Julian went into the folder where we keep our money, passports and other important documents.  Anticipating travel through Myanmar in the near future, where they accept only crisp, uncreased US hundred dollar bills, we had withdrawn US$500 in Vientiane before we left.  The folder is always kept out of sight in the pockets of his backpack and we were appalled to find US$300 missing.  Quickly mulling over the possibilities, we concluded that it had certainly been taken out of the room and could only have been done by someone with a key as the room had been locked up and to all appearances, left exactly as we had left it each day.  We concluded that US$200 had been left, in hopes that we wouldn't notice until after we were many kilometres away.  Julian growing increasingly enraged, we went up to confront our hostess and were soon speaking with the young man left in charge.  Naturally they denied responsibility and pointed us in the direction of the tourist police office which would re-open the next morning.  At 0800 Julian went in a wrote a statement, leaving with an appointment to return at 1400 that afternoon, along with the manager of the hotel. That afternoon, we sat in an office where I read over Julians statement and took a moment flip back through the book at other statements left by tourists.  I was discouraged to read about many similar situations of guests accusing staff of stealing valuables from locked rooms, along with other accounts of local people stealing phones, iPods, or computers from restaurant tables when left unsupervised.   Once the young man from our guesthouse arrived, we went over the situation with everyone involved and still, understandably, denied responsibility.  We never expected to get the money back.  We just hope that perhaps going through the motions with the police would prevent them from doing it again.  Or perhaps, should it happen again, there would be a report which would help give evidence of the guilty culprits. The owner of the hotel was conveniently away for a undetermined period of time and as Julian insisted he was unwilling to pay them for the duration of our stay, the young man in charge got the owner on the phone as the police wanted nothing more to do with the issues.  Now an internal matter, and after a discussion with the owner, he finally agreed to let us check out immediately and leave without paying another penny.  At least in that agreement we got US$50 back in our pocket. 
Later that evening, I left reviews for Champa Laos Bungalows on booking sites and found that we were not the only ones to have something stolen from a room.

We were both unsure of how to feel about the situation.  After many unsettling situations in Cambodia leaving us with a tainted view of the country I dearly hoped this would not change the love I feel for Laos.  We were both on the verge of leaving the following day until we had a few Beer Lao too many and were convinced to stay another night to finally get on the river and participate in what this village is best known for.

The following morning after a full english breakfast to ward off the hint of a hangover we rented out tubes and were soon in a tuk tuk with three frenchmen who had 18 large Beer Lao in plastic bags.  Tubing down the river is supposed to be a social occasion but we couldn't get away from their loud and boisterous nature fast enough.  We pushed out into the water on our inner tubes and drifted away from them into the silence of the meandering river, admiring the stunning landscape surrounding us.  Bars closed down, rope swings and jumping boards dismantled and even a half destroyed human catapult were evidence of the decision to dissuade dangerous behaviour based on the deaths the years before. Our gentle float was accompanied by the sounds of sledgehammers breaking up re-enforced concrete as the party in Vang Vieng comes to an end no doubt to spring up in the islands of Cambodia or Vietnam. Pai is little more than a memory, Phuket now way too overpriced for the backpacking crowd, Vang Vieng is being reclaimed by the inhabitants but the  party will continue, no doubt. Quite frankly, I much prefer the peace and quiet of being with nature to the loud, drunken shenanigans of almost naked tourists that I can find at home.  We enjoyed the relaxing drift down the river but Vang Vieng is so much more than the reputations it holds. The striking beauty of the place, in our eyes, exceeded that of Ha Long Bay, with the fabulous climbing potential it is somewhere we have already discussed coming back to in the future.  It was a conversation we had on our last evening where we were further inspired by a local, ambitious man with big ideas for the future.