Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Journey South Part 1 (Luang Nam Tha, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng) - Laos

Quite a lot of time has passed since the trek in Muang Sing.  We took a day to recover before heading back down to Luang Nam Tha opting to stay in a cosy bungalow room overlooking the rice paddy that we spotted as we were leaving the town last time we were here.

From inside the Bungalow way too early in the morning

Our view from the bungalow

We bumped into Christophe and Maywene from the trek or rather they bumped into us, successfully creeping up behind and scaring the sh*t out of Kate whilst we were lost in thought doing our relative blog and journal updates in an open air internet cafe.  The next day we woke up early and bleary-eyed, after collecting some much needed clean laundry whilst even the cockerels were still waking up we flagged down a tuk tuk to the bus station and made the eight hour journey back to Luang Prabang.  The bus journey can be summarised as uncomfortable, smelly and slow.  We had to stop a couple of times where roadworks were being done which was frustrating.  After plenty of overtired trudging between guest houses attempting to find a good deal we eventually found a nice room, opting to stay in a different part of town closer to the night market and bars as we now knew the area a little better! 

I love Luang Prabang.  I can understand how people who have been before may say that the place has changed for the worse and there is no doubt that it is now a tourist hub for those who want to experience Laos without having to compromise on their home comforts.  Yet for me Luang Prabang is still comprised of the best bits of Laos including value and quality food, amazingly friendly atmosphere (it is impossible to not make friends here) all for just a slight premium on accommodation.  It is as 'authentic' as you want it to be.  Whilst we didn't opt to sip red wine in any of the chic candle-lit bohemian bars, who's to say that wouldn't be our preference in ten years time upon returning with a bit more cash and having all this travel penny pinching out of the way?  For now, we delighted in spending every night drawn to the night market to fill up on chicken, pork, entire fish on sticks and colossal mountains of vegetables, rice and noodles for less than the cost of a Friday night high-street Kebab.  The UNESCO enforced city curfew and 11:30pm kick out keeps the embarrassing western louts away or at least encourages them to move on rather quickly.  Seeing a drunken chav's  frustrated reaction to the lights turning on at eleven whilst halfway through sipping his bucket cocktail filled me with glee and the waiter's gentle tap on the shoulder no doubt did him a favour too judging by the slurring "Whyav the eff*in liights turned on?".

Even if you have met a group of people a little too late on in the night and you want to keep the party going (as we also found out), there is even a nightclub just a short tuk tuk ride away.  One night we happened to have accumulated a fair few people together to watch a fashion show, which was more of a 'tradition' show with nervy Asian models showing off all kinds of various tribal attire on a very competently designed catwalk in Hive bar.  This entertainment was followed by an excellent display of breakdancing... why not?

Fashion show

Some excellent breakdancing

Well we were all up keeping the party going and between the Aussies, the British, a couple of Kiwis and a very large Norwegian (who famously starred on their version of Pop Idol singing Ol' Man river although I'm yet to find it on Youtube) we filled up a tuk tuk and ended up in a big and busy sweatbox of a nightclub with a twist.  It was some kind of promotional night for a pop group and we witnessed the worst lip syncing and choreography that made me feel like I was part of a Top of the Pops audience in the nineties.  Being a bit tipsy, we all made the most of it and didn't have to work hard to make our way to the front of the crowds and with our arms outstretched managed to shake hands, high five, grab and fondle these strangers who were perhaps Asian stars in the making.  We harassed them enough afterwards to get a photo taken outside the club as the kids rode off half-cut on a sea of mopeds.  I gave my Man United fixture list to a random Laos guy outside the club as he had a fake club shirt on, unfortunately he seemed to translate this as a job opportunity (perhaps he thought I worked at Old Trafford and this was my card?) and with much embarrassment on my part he followed our tuk tuk back into town in order to provide his email address so I could get him that break he so desperately wanted.

In the tuktuk to 'the' Nightclub

The celebrities

Our 'fifteen minutes'
Another 'must see' in Luang Prabang is Kuang Si waterfall.  It is about a forty minute tuktuk ride from town.  It is pretty special and even has staggered pools that you can swim in.  There is also a bear sanctuary on site and there even used to be tiger sanctuary but the sign was crossed out so perhaps it is now a tiger cemetery.  We were lucky enough to see some elephants on the journey there and back which was a great bonus although we didn't try riding them again.  The main sight is a huge waterfall in the middle of a small forest although there were plenty of people there including us who spent the best part of the day relaxing or swimming in the stunning blue pools of the smaller cascading falls that occurred further downstream.

The Black Bears

Kate getting a bear hug

View of Kuang Si waterfall from distance
Up close
Further down Kuang Si waterfall
About to take a dip in a pool at Kuang Si falls

On the way back we were made to visit a 'Hmong tribe' village as an unexpected stop which turned out to be an awkward sales opportunity.  The village looked like others we had seen, but upon entering the children had been trained (to the extent where it might be fair to say 'brainwashed') into waving their arms up and down slowly above bracelets and other souvenirs whilst saying simultaneously and somewhat scarily, "Ooonly fiiive thooousaaaaaaand" and we really don't think they knew what they were saying.  Kate, having taken a picture of a baby was then hassled for compensation by a girl no older than seven.  Needless to say we couldn't get out of there quick enough and we didn't buy anything!  To finish without going into any more detail as no manner of words can ever equate to experience, the charm of Luang Prabang will live in my heart for a long time.

Overtaking the elephants in our tuktuk
The weird child exploitation village
Probably the youngest Hmong salesperson in the world
A young girl attempting to make a sale
Cute, but after the photo we were asked for money

Our next destination was to be Vang Vieng and we had certainly received our fair share of preamble from other travellers who had already visited.  Other than the immense beauty of the hilly surroundings, the major pull for visitors here is tubing which basically involves floating down a river on an inflated donut, the kind you can attach to the back of a boat and be flung around on the wake, whilst riverside bars toss ropes hoping to lure you from the current and into their establishment (hut on stilts) to have a few drinks.  "Do not go tubing", "tubing is amazing" "tubing is lethal", "I heard eight people have already died this year..." I had never heard such diverse opinions on the same activity from the traveller demographic.  The place is a bizarre exception in Laos and geared to tourists, or more so to the school leaver, 3 week binger or gap year jolly seeker!  With people spending their hungover days in bar/restaurants that are looping episode after episode of "Family Guy", "Friends" and countless modern films we could have been anywhere in the world when in Vang Vieng town.  It is certainly not my favourite place in Laos and has more than its fair share of louts but it is fun in its own way and definitely worth experiencing.  Upon arrival we did the guest house trawling with heavy backpacks until we found a good value room with a balcony overlooking the river!  It was noisy until late in the evening but the view was great.

Sunset view from the room
That evening we happened to eat in a restaurant which also doubled as a prime location to watch wasted Westerners (who in the most part seemed to be Australians on this occasion although I'm sure the Brits and Yanks can be just as bad) return from tubing in tuk tuks, sometimes with people riding on the top and almost always with someone swinging off the back all wearing nothing but swimwear (it's pretty cold at night) and the body graffiti bestowed upon them by fellow drinkers and bar reps.  Trying my best not to sound too hippy like, having experienced the tranquillity and harmony between cultures in the rest of Laos the only word for this was embarrassing.  Pissed up Falang were flashing, swearing and being sick in the middle of roads combined with being extremely rude to the habituated locals, their shock was minimal and their ambivalence made it only more distressing.  The worst example of western misbehaviour was when I saw was a group of Aussies dismounting their tuk tuk with no less than three of them relieving themselves in and around a Temple in full public view.   I honestly couldn't imagine a worse insult to the locals.  We wanted to experience tubing for ourselves but after that first night we promised that we would not reach such lows no matter what temptations and 2-4-1 offers lay ahead of us.

Trying to hide in a TV dinner restaurant without success!
Whilst dwelling on the negative (and why not get it all out in one go if I promise this does end on a high), I feel as though I have to mention an unfortunate incident which happened on the journey to Vang Vieng, as it helped reassure the decision that Kate and I had made to date not to rent a moped to date.  The journey was extremely hilly and windy, we had opted to go by minivan as they tend to stop less and therefore get you there quicker albeit with zero leg room and no comfort factor.  It was inevitable that the carefree, drunken or irresponsible moped riding that you constantly see when combined with such awful roads and even worse car drivers would be witnessed eventually.  I must admit that my reservations towards renting a bike were starting to wane until this particular journey as it can often be a convenient and cheap way of getting about; for many people it is and they have no problems. 

Yet on this occasion a young man, who I presume was Laos and probably no older than sixteen sped past the minivan in typical boy racer style, for us only to pass him a couple of minutes later underneath his motorbike and not moving with what looked like (for the second I could bare to look), his neck broken and more than possibly dead.  He had a helmet on which could have perhaps been his saving grace but we didn't stick around, our driver barely slowed down without a hint of shock on his face as we carried on.  I was surprised that we didn't stop but the road was busy enough to have more capable hands to see to him, even so the nearest competent hospital is in another country and I can imagine his aid would have consisted of little more than being placed in the back of a truck and driven to the nearest clinic.  It really puts things in perspective as to how lucky we are to have expert medical assistance so close to hand back home and how much more fragile life can be out here.

I digress somewhat, because our tubing experience was due to begin and all we needed was a nice day! The day after we arrived was overcast so we walked around the town to see in the most part same same but different bars and restaurants.  There were some nice places to eat and I would be lying if it wasn't good to have a bit of a veg out and watch some new Family Guy...  We bumped into another friend we had met in Luang Prabang, a Frenchman called Maxim, only this time as he limped up to us he was sporting a big cast on his foot. "Tubing is great but make sure you wear shoes" was his opinion.  We had a good if not slightly gallows humour laugh about the basic hospital facilities he described to us and went our separate ways, resigning ourselves to go tubing the next day.  As time passed, our eyes opened to the large amount of injuries and walking wounded around the town which served as a pretty good warning for what was to come!

The next day wasn't amazing weather but we rented our tube and tuk tuk up the river and made our way to the first bar which as a matter of fact was a fair bit of a walk up the river from where the tuk tuk driver dropped us off, the cheek!  Tube in arm, we strolled riverside until we reached what looked like the start and went for a beer in the first bar just after midday where the party was already in full swing!  We had to cross a bridge to get to a bar and one of the first things we saw was a big fat bloke lurking in the water.  It turned out he was waiting for kayakers and to the roars of the watching crowd tipped a couple of Asian people from their kayak dunking them into the water.  I must admit it was pretty funny albeit bad sport.  We sat away from the crux of the crowd and watched drunken party people, donned with neon string round their wrists, patterns on their bodies and obscenities scrawled across their backs drink and shout and hurl themselves unconvincingly from high rope swings and slides into pockets of water deep enough to take their fall, meters away from shallow water and the lurking jagged rocks.  EVERYTHING here is at your own risk and I think that the failure to appreciate this is behind lots of the injuries we saw and heard about.  This is not a nanny state.  You can't sue or blame here.  If you want to go down a "Death Slide" there is no Alton Towers irony in the name.  There is a good chance that depending on the level of the water that day that you are in fact risking your life.
Before the alcohol could affect our judgment too much, for the first time got into our tubes with a new friend, an older guy also called Paul (from Ipswich) who we nicknamed 'dad' and floated down river away from the masses.  We only went a hundred meters or so down river until we reached another bar that tickled our fancy.  The rope was thrown and we made our ways ashore.  A free shot awaited us and we bought a beer before making our way to the beach volleyball which was great fun.  This eventually ended and we made for our tubes again.  We had already heard, and by this point it had become apparent that the first three or four bars were the busiest and after these the day took a completely different turn.  

The immense contrast with the hustle and bustle of the day so far compared with us now floating down river without a care in the world aside from having to lift your bum up now and again when the water gets more shallow or the rocks more prominent, the view of the hills and the ability to chat in this surreal situation was serene.  We stopped at another bar owned by an Australian, he had recently bought it following his post-travel-crisis and had a chat with him about how he was finding working in Laos. To cut a long story he was generally very optimistic about business going forward.  As we got back in our tube, the bars became more and more makeshift so we opted to float until the sun began to set and we stopped off just before it got dark at a bar in order to get our tuk tuk home.  Unfortunately we lost the disposable camera we brought with us so no pictures, many perspectives of tubing can be found on Youtube if you're further curious. We really enjoyed OUR experience of tubing, it is possible to make it your own and if anything I would have started earlier and visited fewer bars.  The best bit for me was enjoying a nice bottle of beer whilst floating down the river and having a good old fashioned chat.  Because we lost the camera Kate has created an artist's impression of our day...

Our next stop was to be Laos' capital city of Vientiane which we were greatly looking forward to.  It would also serve to allow us to renew our Visas which were due to run out on the sixteenth of January in order to give us time to make the journey further south down through Laos and into Cambodia. 

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