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Vang Vieng

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We didn’t expect to like the town of Vang Vieng, and so it came as little surprise that our highlights were getting there (twice) and getting out. The journey began like every journey in Laos – sitting at the bus station and wondering when the transport would leave. This day was unusual though. Not only were we getting an actual bus, rather than a converted truck, but it even left on time. It didn’t cost any more than the truck, or take any longer, but for some reason we couldn’t fathom, no Lao people took the bus. As the bus full of foreigners wound through the countryside, it felt as though we were on some kind of coach tour.

By Lao standards, the road was good, and the scenery as we wove through the mountains was spectacular. The rolling hills with their tree-covered slopes undulated all the way to the horizon. We passed green fields incongruously studded with the telltale blackened stumps of slash-and-burn agriculture. The landscape grew more dramatic with every mile, the picturesque slopes giving way to jagged limestone peaks, as though we were journeying from Hobbiton to Mordor.

There was a sudden commotion as a Dutch bloke frantically gesticulated towards the sky. All the windows were flung open and heads were stuck out as everyone tried to find out what was happening. An amazing sight greeted our upturned faces. A huge dark halo surrounded the sun, covering much of the sky. “Stop the bus, stop the bus, we want to see!” we shouted, and everyone piled out to gaze in awe. The aureole only strengthened the feeling that we were driving straight into a fantasy novel. Although I fully expected the elves to appear at any moment, they didn’t, and we arrived in Vang Vieng without further incident.
The next morning, we retraced our steps 25 km back up the Luang Prabang road. We had hoped to rock climb, but despite our having arranged things in advance, the local guides were unwilling to take us out until they’d cleared it with head office. We turned to Plan B – kayaking.

At first we were nervous of the slightest ripple, but we built confidence as we progressed and were soon paddling with skill and control through white churning rapids. Well, staying afloat through beginner grade white water.

Where there’s limestone, there are caves, and we stopped to explore. Floating on oversized inner tubes, we pushed and ducked our way into a flooded chamber. In the dry season, visitors can wade in, but when the rains come the water level rises to 2 metres, almost submerging the mouth of the cave. Our faces were only inches from the roof at first as we delicately manoeuvred our way inside. What little sunlight entered the cave refracted through the green glowing water, illuminating the subterranean gloom.

Later, we stopped at a local house for some papaya salad. Knowing how falang just can’t handle spicy food, our guides made a special batch for us with only two chillies. Two fiery hot chillies. Our noses ran, our eyes streamed, and our companions laughed uproariously as they tucked into their 15-chilli salad.

Paddling, lunch, trying to “tightrope walk” on steel cables and even sampling organic starfruit wine filled our day. We arrived back to Vang Vieng tired, wet, elated and looking forward to the next day’s climbing.

Calling into Wildside, we were disappointed to learn that they had failed to make contact with head office that day. Turning up as instructed the next morning brought no joy either, and we sulked our way through the day. Our spirits rose that evening when we spoke to again to Wildside. This time we dealt with a different member of staff - there was no problem, we could go climbing the next day.

We were woken in the early hours of the next morning by claps of thunder and bright flashes of lightning lighting up the whole room. Our hopes of climbing faded.. We couldn’t believe our luck when at 8am the rain stopped. We readied ourselves for a muddy day and headed down to the Wildside office.
There, once again, we were presented with bad news. After the rains of the night before, the climbs were inaccessible. This was plausible enough, but our overall impression was that these guys didn’t want to take us climbing, whatever the conditions. Annoyed and disappointed, we decided to cut our losses and leave for Vientiane, with its decaying colonial ambience and fine French restaurants.

Having decided to leave, we were impatient to hit the road as soon as possible, and elected to take the next pick up truck rather than wait two hours for the bus. Besides, while the bus is usually more comfortable, it is rarely as interesting. We knew we were in for an entertaining ride when we saw our driver helping a fellow passenger load his luggage on the roof – a motorbike.

The trip was short, only four hours or so, and there were many stops as people got on and off. A former refugee, whose family fled during America’s “secret war” in Laos, shared her story with us. Caelen stepped out to ride on the tailgate (to get a better view of the scenery, he insisted, not because he thought it made him look like a 1920s gangster riding the running board of a mobster’s car). He lost his seat within moments and spent the rest of the trip outside.

A local woman got on with a small basket of goods to sell at the market a few miles down the road. Other passengers poked around the basket looking for anything that took their fancy. A rodent of some description, halfway between a rat and a squirrel, was the delicacy of the day. Not long dead, its furry body still limp, it changed hands for the princely sum of 7000 kip ($0.70). Some vegetables and cooked sweetcorn fetched about half that amount, and the woman’s basket was nearly empty long before she reached the market and we reached Vientiane.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of an amazing aureole of the sun Vang Vieng Laos Travelogues
Photograph of our bus Vang Vieng Laos Travelogues
Amazing aureole

Laos bus

Picture of local loading a truck Vang Vieng Laos Travelogues
Photograph of Vang Vieng Laos Travelogues
Loading cargo on the songthae

Vang Vieng

Picture of the bus station Vang Vieng Laos Travelogues
Photograph of Vang Vieng Laos Travelogues
Busy morning at the bus station
Threatening weather