Stray Laos: New Year's In Vang Vieng
Once little more than a bus stop on the long haul between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, it has managed to become a destination in its own right. Still not much more than three streets and a bus station, the main attractions are the river, laid back countryside and cave-filled rock formations. A couple of kilometres upstream, the pulsating music, drinking games and drug-fuelled debauchery of the increasingly lively riverside "tubing" bars starts at lunch-time. The atmosphere of the town itself is one of lethargy by day and debauchery by night: tourists sprawl out in the pillow-filled restaurants, termed "TV Bars", watching re-runs of US sitcoms, Friends and Family Guy episodes until the sun goes down, and then party heavily until the early hours.
Well, after traveling through culture-rich parts of northern Thailand and Laos for the last month, the stop in Vang Vieng was a breath of
fresh stinky air of a tourist hell hole. Still, that was what we needed to celebrate the New Year's (Lao New Year is celebrated in April so not much is happening on December 31st) so almost everyone hopped off the Stray bus to spend three and a half days here.
New Year's Tubing In Vang Vieng
Being the activity that Vang Vieng is most famous four, I was looking forward to a leisurely afternoon of tubing down the river to celebrate the New Year's. Having done a few float trips down the river in southern Missouri, I expected this to be a similar affair with a few bars located on the riverside. Instead, the setup in Vang Vieng makes the actual tubing unneeded - all the bars are concentrated at the beginning of the trip and then there is nothing along the way for the whooping one hour float to town (which nobody does anyways, instead opting to get out at one of the last bars and take a tuk tuk back). Heck, one does not even need a tube - all bars are just a few steps away from each other and there are a couple of bridges to cross the river.
That said, it was just a different type of party. There were a ton of people at the first couple of bars by the time we got out there around 3pm. Right away I saw Kenny, the Canadian I met in Penang and then did the Gibbon Experience with, as well as an Australian couple from our Gibbon Experience treehouse. We also ran into a few guys from the previous bus that we played soccer with in Luang Prabang. I decided to stick to beer Lao for the day to keep my sanity for a bit longer and to avoid any sort of 'happy' cocktails. Overall, it was good fun, with the most time spent at the first three bars, drinking and dancing to a mix of Top 20 and the songs I am used to hear at Cedar Rapids RoughRiders hockey games, rather an interesting combination.
Once back in town, we cleaned ourselves up a bit and headed out to grab some food while watching some Friends episodes (they really do play them at all restaurants here, well, except for the three that played Family Guy). Then it was onto Q Bar for the rest of the night. While I managed to stick to BeerLao and refuse any bucket offers, having about just as much beer as I had at Oktoberfest (but not nearly as good) killed the night for me. With just half an hour left before midnight, I went back to the guesthouse to use the bathroom and then had a bright idea of catching a 15 minute power nap. Needless to say, I woke up the next morning - the first time I slept through New Year's since I was 12 or 13. Still, from what I have heard, it was not much of celebration anyways, with the highlight being a few balloons dropped from the ceiling at midnight.
After spending the next day recovering from our Laovers, Michael and I decided to sign up for half day rock climbing 'tour'. With so many limestone cliffs around town, it is a prime spot for climbers in Laos and at 150,000 kip/$18, it was time for me to get hooked on another hobby.
When we reached the climbing site, it looked a bit disappointing - the walls were no more than 60 feet/20 meters tall and just were not that impressive compared to all the large cliffs around. However, once we actually started climbing, I could see why we were there - it was still a great fun and took the entire three hours or so for five people in our group to go through four different climbs - 5a (the easiest), 5b, and 6a+. The couple easy ones were a lot of fun but I struggled at the end of 5b and barely made it past the first half of 6a+ climb as my shoes were just too slippery to be of any use on a vertical wall with no openings to stick my toes in (not surprisingly, they did not have climbing shoes big enough to fit me).
Hot Air Ballooning
Another must do activity in town and touted as the cheapest ballooning in the world at $70 for 40 minutes to an hour ride. This one has been on my to-do list for a while now and it looked like I will finally get to cross it out. Still, prior to signing up for it, I decided to go watch them take off one of the evenings and that immediately changed my mind - I saw one get off the ground, then sink and head straight at a guest house near the river, frantically working the burner. It did manage to clear the guesthouse, but I decided to wait for a ride in Albuqurque instead. Aparently, the next morning, another balloon barely cleared another guesthouse prior to crash landing behind it causing the poor passengers to be the first customers of the drinking establishment nearby (at 7am). To be fair, Michael and the Swedes did go for a ride and had a great time (but also had some stories to tell about barely clearing treetops and power lines).
The town itself is really nothing impressive. After it became the party place it is now, the only thing it caters itself to is the tourists so the streets are dotted with guest house and restaurant signs, all shops sell the same ridiculously colored t-shirts and muscle shirts reading "Tubing in the Vang Vieng" (why 'the'???). Right at the edge of the town the streets become rich in potholes and dirty dust that flies everywhere. With that being said, there are still areas where the real Vang Vieng is alive and kicking. One of the evenings I crossed the river and went wondering through the dried up rice paddies to enjoy the views of the mountains and stumbled upon the 'real' Vang Vieng.
Food And Food Poisoning
While there are plenty of restaurants (all playing either Friends or Family Guy reruns), I found the food to be complete opposite of Luang Prabang - expensive, poor, and completely lacking any local fair. Even the 'locals' place serving noodles and chicken noodles had the worst noodle soup. As if that was not enough, I managed to get my first real food poisoning on this trip - either from the noodle soup or the really crappy expresso from a posh looking bakery (which also was on par with Switzerland as far as prices went). The only decent food I found were the two ladies with grills celling chicken and pork kebab skewers with fruit/veggies for 5,000 kip/$0.60 each. They were a few minutes walk up the street running next to the river, just to the west of tube rental place.
On our way to Vientiane, we stopped for a brief tour of Jang Cave just south of Vientiane. A local developer was granted the cave rights by the government and did some major work to make the cave tourist-friendly with passages that looked more like a palace than a cave. After climbing 164 steep steps to the entrance, we were rewarded with some nice views of the town, but otherwise, I did not think the cave was worth the admission price they charged (as usual, the price was different for 'over-seas' people... lame).