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.

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