17.11.2010 - 19.11.2010 32 °C
After an early morning start to pick up our Vietnam visas, we were picked up from our hostel by a Tuk Tuk and taken to the nearby bus station. Here we boarded a 'mini van' destined for Vang Vieng. The van was extremely cramped for space and the prospect of a seven hour journey in it was not a pleasant one! The organisers were not letting the van leave until all seats were full, despite an advertised departure time of 10am. We had read that transport in Laos was unreliable and that buses were likely to break down, run late etc. The organisers asked three Aussies to leave the van next to us to switch to our van to fill it, however their van was more spacious and when they saw the state of our 'funbus' they refused to move. Some more Tuk Tukes arrived with new passengers and with ten persons were on board, the roof visibly strained by the weight of the luggage placed on the roof rack, the organisers then decided to start loading the belongings of a local who was moving house inside and pack them around us. At this point Chris clambered out of the van and remonstrated with the organisers that there was a lack of space as it was and that there was no way the household belongings were being loaded. As Chris demanded our bags to be unloaded, the organisers took the house move belongings out of the vehicle and promised that our van would leave at once. We had heard that the road from Luang Prabang through the mountains was very windy and slow going and it turned out to be exactly that. The scenery was fantastic, very 'Swiss mountains like'. Our driver was very good, he didn't try to go too fast and although he did like to overtake on blind bends (something we noticed that all of our drivers in Laos tended to do, but then again there weren't many 'straights') he saved our lives on more than one occasion. Although the mini-van had been advertised as having air conditioning, the windows were all wound down for the duration of the trip. One one occasion as the van climbed a winding mountain road, we could hear the screeching of tyres but not see what was causing the noise. Next minute a large 4x4 came flying around the corner on the wrong side of the road and swerving all over the show, completely out of control. Our driver pulled off the road to the side as much as he could without us crashing into the side slope and the 4x4 slid towards us. At the last minute the 4x4 swerved past somehow just missing us!
After a short lunch break at a mountain village we had a slight change around in seating arrangements as a French girl had been feeling very sick. An Aussie guy and his German girlfriend volunteered to move from the front of the van to allow the travel sick girl and her friend to sit up front instead. This couple turned out to be Simon and Sajia who we spent the rest of the journey chatting to and swapping travel stories, they had travelled in Africa and Indoneisa earlier in their trip. Prior to travelling they had lived in Hamburg for five years and after travelling they plan to live in Melbourne.
We past through several mountain villages on the journey and saw glimpses of how the Laos villagers live. School kids walked together along the road to and from school and home, in other areas streams of kids were cycling together amongst the traffic. Ladies carried foods and produce in large baskets, some using the long wooden balancing carriers with baskets hanging either side. Mopeds, bicycles, tuk tuks were all loaded up with people, animals, product and some were carrying huge loads. Traditional Laos wooden houses were visible in all of the villages, with farm animals roaming free around the grass verges and on several occasions we would come very close to hitting a cow, or cows that had strayed into the road. As well as cows we saw water buffallos in the rivers, chickens, a wild boar and pigs. We also heard a pig squealing (like a pig) as it was bound up by locals, clearly for them it was going to be 'roast Pork' for dinner!
We arrived at Vang Vieng bus station, which once again was outside of the centre of town - which guarantees work for the local Tuk Tuk drivers who eagerly await the arrival of each bus. We shared a Tuk Tuk with Simon and Sajia having agreed that we both wanted rooms in a quiet part of Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is known as a party town, with the centre and 'island' being known for loud music, drinking and drugs which attract all sorts of characters and we definitely didn't want to be staying in the thick of the nightlife. Vang Vieng isn't all Ibiza ruined though and the town attracts tourists for rock climbing, caving, trekking, mountain biking in the astounding local mountain and river scenery. We found a guesthouse in a quiet part of town and the four of us went for a curry in the centre before taking a look around the bars. Most of the bars were fairly quiet in terms of customers, but very loud in terms of music - maybe we were a little earlier than the late night party animals for which the town is notorious. Free shots of Laos whiskey were being offered in many of the bars and a couple of bars were starting to get busier as we left the centre.
The next day we headed for Vang Viengs main tourist attraction 'Tubing', which consists of being given an inflatable rubber ring each, being driven 4km up river in a Tuk Tuk and then, well then it's very much up to the individual. If you prefer a quiet float down the river, get up early and get tubing in the morning before the masses of party tubers arrive. We had been incorrectly informed that tubing did not open until midday (because that's when most people start Tubing) and therefore we arrived just shortly before the party animals. As we left the Tuk Tuk we were offered free shots of whiskey and on entering the river in our tubes, we could see several riverside bars close by. The first was already packed with tubers drinking and relaxing in the sun. We floated down and stopped at the second bar which had added entertainment, including a water slide in which you drop from a great height into the river, a high zip wire and a 'swing'. We had read and heard about 'tubing deaths' which are apparently common on this stretch of the 'Nam Song river'. There are warnings in the Lonely Planet book that the river is fast and has under currents after the rainy season, claiming at least one life per year. However we had also heard about and seen people limping around or showing off bandaged limbs in the town centre from plummeting into water that was too shallow. The bar owners encourage tubers to drink and use their slides, swings and zip wires yet there appears to be no consideration of health and safety. Only in one bar did we witness any safety advice and that was being given by an English girl, who was explaining to adrenalin junkies not to let go of the zip wire until at least half way as the water for the first half is too shallow.... so don't slip then hey! It's not all bad, many of the tubers we saw were enjoying the slides and zip wires etc. without any injury to themselves, but we adopted a 'safety first' approach and stuck to the tubing. Many of the tubers congregate at the first two or three bars and never make it down the river back into the town, instead taking tuk tuks back after dark. The music was blaring in the first three bars creating a bouncing din, so we escaped floating down the river and stopping for a bite to eat at a quieter bar. In the afternoon we floated down further, enjoying the sun and mountain scenery. We stopped at 'last bar' and got talking to some rock climbers over a couple of beers, before floating down for another couple of kilometres back into the town centre. Once we got away from the first few bars, the tubing was much as we had hoped, very relaxing and enjoyable with great views.