Friday, October 28, 2011
Laos Part 5 - Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng
Our driver was booked to pick us up at 9am for the 5 to 6 hour drive south to Vang Vieng. After another comfortable night sleep, we were up at 6:30am to get in a last breakfast in town before we had to leave. We chose the Scandinavian Bakery, as our ‘boat people’ friends had recommended it. And it didn’t disappoint. Beautiful, fresh baked croissants, juice and good coffee. The town was waking up with shops beginning to open their doors as we walked back to the guesthouse for the last time. Like the previous mornings, the day was bright and sunny. In my mind’s eye, I took many mental photos, as I had absent mindedly left my both my cameras back in our room.
We were packed, showered, checked out, paid up, and ready to go by 8:30am. Our driver arrived slightly early so we set of. Actually I was a little embarrassed. The van our driver had was an immaculate, white, brand new, Toyota minivan that comfortably carried 9 or 10 in the back, and of course a driver and two more passengers at the front. For this trip, it was just J and I. We joked about having a row of seats each. It felt truly opulent. For a moment, I considered asking the driver to take us into town to see if we could find any other travellers wanting to go to Vang Vieng to share the huge van with us. But it was totally impractical. So we loaded our bags, took a final photo, said our last good-byes to our friendly guesthouse hosts and Luang Prabang, and we set off.
Along the way, not far from town, we passed the turn off to Tad Sea waterfall before the road became more windy and slowly climbed a large hill. There were some lovely look out points around some of the bends, and I asked our driver to stop at a good spot so I could take some shots. But he knew a really good spot so drove on. Though I could see so many viewpoints, I just waited until we pulled over. And then I was knocked out by the spot. Sala View point overlooked the Mekong, with Luang Prabang barely visible in the far distance. It was basically a small clearing on the roadside, with a sign and look-out spot. All around were rolling hills with the morning mist just lifting and beginning to burn off to reveal the clear blue sky above. Some locals were having a picnic under a shady tree where a wooden bench had been installed. Our driver joined J for a cigarette in the shade as I lapped up the view with my camera.
Further along the twisty, windy, road was another superb view point. This one had a small restaurant, a few stalls, and a dozen or so toilets. Many of the tourist buses stopped here to allow passengers to refresh and maybe pick up some supplies. When we arrived, there were a couple of large buses and half-dozen minivans parked, with many people wondering about. Two men patrolled the toilet area, collecting a 10,000 kip fee to use the facilities. I managed to get a quick look inside one of the tin clad stalls and instantly decided I would hold on. They were rank. Now, I’m not scared of a squat toilet as long as it’s relatively clean. Clean, these toilets were not; disgusting however, they definitely sure were. These road side cans were the only bad toilets I encountered during our whole trip.
The road was full of twists and turns, switch backs and tight corners. In many places, we could see evidence of landslides that had occurred during the wet season. Before we left for Laos, I had read that the road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng had been cut. A few of the slips were fifty metres wide or more, leaving large, wide, brownish-red scars on the green hillsides. Many villages dotted the roadside. Some houses were so close to the road that their walls sat against the edge of the bitumen, with blackened smudges along the side from all the exhaust smoke. Some villages comprised of no more than a hand full of simple wooden huts. Their walls were made of woven bamboo that must have been paper thin, letting in all the noise and fumes of the road. Other towns were more substantial, with shops, schools and temples. The larger towns seemed to have more modern style, brick houses, some with large balconies and fenced yards. Dogs roamed everywhere, with chickens, pigs and the occasional cow grazing among the buildings.
After climbing many rises and passing through lots of lush green valleys, the road finally crested and we seemed to be on the other side of the vast range of mountains. There were far more straight passages of road. In the distance, we caught our first glimpses of the ragged, carst, limestone mountains of the Vang Vieng area. Out of nowhere, a road house appeared precariously perched on a hillside in-front of a magnificent view of a jagged mountain. Phukoun Pieng Fa Restaurant was doing a roaring trade. The car park was full of many vans and busses. A paved path lead up to the top of the hill where there were two buildings; one with a restaurant and dining area, and the other more tables and benches. In front of the buildings was a clearing that afforded a suburb view of the distant mountains. We ate the baguettes and fruit that we had brought for lunch with a cold drink purchased from the restaurant. And, unlike the previous road side stop, there were clean and free toilets. Hanging from the roof near the men’s toilets, J found the most hilarious sign; LED lights depicted a man peeing, and flashing lights animated a large arc of his stream, like a little fountain. Most amusing.
From the roadhouse, the road slowly descended and straightened out, but became more and more dusty and bumpy. The villages were larger and closer together. Vang Vieng wasn’t too much further. The surrounding landscape was stunning. After more than six hours in our luxurious van, I was getting pretty anxious to get out. Unlike our boat trip where I could walk around and stretch, these hours of just sitting were starting to wear thin. Though I never tired of the views and ever changing scenery, I was tired of the inside of the vehicle.
Finally, we arrived in VV at about 4pm, after the roughest, bone-jarring, super potholed and rutted final stretch of road of the whole trip. Hotel Vansana was very welcoming and we were promptly shown to our room – the executive suite. I loved it! Yes. It was spacious. Yes. The view was fantastic. Yes. The amenities were great with large bathroom and shower, lots of cupboards and seats. But oh - the decor; it was so kitsch. The only things missing were seventies-style, flying ducks on the wall. I so loved it! The only thing that concerned me was the thin mattress on the retro-style, wooden bed base (which I needn’t have worried about as I slept like a corpse both nights).
With my feet itching to get out and check out the town, we dumped our bags and headed out to explore. Vang Vieng is a fairly large town, but the main tourist area comprised of a couple of blocks lined with bars, restaurants, and internet cafes, interspersed with many guesthouses and backpacker hostels. We did a lap of the main block, finding many of the much read about (and complained about) bars with large TV screens playing ‘Friends’ and ‘Family Guy’. A few stoned looking backpackers sat propped up against the low lounges, slowly devouring a large bowl of French fries.
As we walked around, we found the town very quiet, almost empty. Only a couple of the TV bar/restaurants had anyone in them. There were very few shops, but an inordinate number of pizza places, each claiming to be something better or different than the others; pan pizzas, wood fired pizzas, deep dish pizzas, authentic Italian pizzas, healthy pizzas. So J and I decided not to have pizza in this pizza loving place. At least most restaurants also had a Lao food section on their menus.
So, after walking the few main blocks, we found ourselves at another Aussie Bar. The signs out front claimed the best hamburgers, bangers and mash, fish & chips and meat pies. The afternoon sun was sinking so we chose an outside table in the shade. Steve, the owner formerly from Perth, was sitting bare-chested at one of the front tables, beer in hand, watching the street. Once we ordered our beers, he turned to us and asked where we were from, where we’d been, etc etc. So another chat with another Aussie bar owner over a beer or two. He was very friendly and gave us a few tips of places to see and things to do. He also recommended a tour operator to take us out to see some caves. We also chatted about the endless re-runs of Friends in the TV bars. He was at a complete loss as to why they were so popular. Taking a gulp of his beer, Steve commented further adding he couldn’t understand why they all showed the same program. He had suggested to one of the bar owners to at least show something – anything – different; Sienfeld, Simpsons, or even 90210. But, it seemed that the locals had concluded that these were the only shows that the backpackers would watch, and if they played something different, no-one would come in. For this reason, he purposely only showed sports on his couple of screens, and had a satellite feed from somewhere. He even managed to get an AFL match (Australia rules football) once a week.
We chatted for an hour or so over a few beers and some delicious fat cut potato chips. Knowing we had only two nights in VV, which meant only one full day, we took some of Steve’s advice to do a half day tour with a tour guide to see the water cave, and leave the afternoon open to explore on our own. It was starting to get dark as we walked over a block or so to the Wonderful Tours shop front to make our arrangements. They guys were very friendly and we told them that Steve sent us. Admittedly they did try to sell us the full day tour that included kayaking and bar hoping down the Nam Song river. But J and I negotiated a half day trip, with lunch included, for a good price (can’t recall now but I think I figured it to be about $15 or $20 or so each).
With receipt in hand, we headed back to our room to re-fresh before returning to the Aussie bar. Steve was again sitting at the front table, and a few tables inside were now occupied. We chatted more with Steve, and heard some of his stories about life and laughs in Vang Vieng. He was very proud of his ‘Huge Aussie Burger’, complete with two home made beef patties, egg, bacon, beetroot, salad on a toasted sesame seed bun. As we watched, two of these huge burgers were served to a table near-by. No exaggeration, they stood six inches high, surrounded by a sea of fries. Steve boasted how many young blokes came in specifically for his burgers. No doubt, they provided great replenishment after a big day tubing, or kayaking, or whatever.
So, J ordered a burger, but not the huge double whammy, and I also ordered a vegetarian burger after Steve told me that they made the veggie pattie themselves on site. The bar had more people now the sun had set. Many more crazy young people were wondering around, many with bruises and bandages undoubtedly from tubing accidents. J was ready to head back to our room, but I wasn’t. So I set off to check my email and enjoy some of the crazy vibe of the town. I passed many young people, many in bikinis or short, short skirts, half naked and bare foot. Though only early evening, many looked like they only just got up, while others were already on the way to drunken oblivion.
The first internet cafe was cheap, but the keyboards had been used so much that the letters were no longer visible. So I left after trying to type some emails and soon found a slightly more expensive internet place, with much newer computers that also served beer. My kind of place. From where I sat in front of my pay by the minute PC, I could see the fun and fames unfolding on the street as I tapped out some notes to my friends and family back home. I had deliberately chosen not to take my laptop travelling so I could enjoy the trip more, rather than the hassle of finding internet connections and feeling like I needed to log on all the time. This was the first time I checked in electronically and I relaxed with a cold beer in hand while writing a few lines home about how much of a wonderful time I was having and the wonderful sights I’d seen. From the amazing view I’d seen from the hotel room, my appetite was wet, ready for the next full day in this amazing place. - k