Vang Vieng Laos
Tarynne Mingione, November 2 2014
Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Thanks to my Skype interview with a job back in Seattle, we were both up at about 4 a.m. I was done just by 6 a.m. and went to find James pacing around the streets. I grabbed him so I could excitedly introduce him to the morning market before treating him to his beloved omelet at JoMas Bakery and Café in exchange for serving as my official tech support throughout the interview process.
At 9 a.m. a tuk tuk shuttled us and a dozen other backpackers to a bus station where we transferred to a mini bus. James had a panic attack in the far back corner of the over-capacity minivan, which proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to have a fellow passenger volunteer to swap; so with some very vocal hyperventilation, we started the 8-9 hour journey.
If we ever had multiple lives, they are officially exhausted during that van trip.
We arrived into Vang Vieng after 5 p.m. We found the first place we spotted to call home and dropped our stuff and headed out to explore before darkness set.
I think Spielberg envisioned this as the set for Jurassic Park (sorry Hawaii).
Vang Vieng is a tiny place dropped into an overflowing, abundant green landscape. It’s as if someone oil-painted the whole scene but was only given pastel hues to chose from. The emerald mountains stretch their necks into the oceanlike sky and your busy eyes must shift down to view the glasslike pebbles that decorate the Palisade-like river.
This painting was once smeared with a dark and distracting period. In the town’s hayday, over 170,000 drunk, high, overly excited backpackers and in-their-element hippie crazies came tumbling into town every year, transforming the small dot on the map into a wild party town with a reputation to please all brave enough to head there. Dozens of tourists were killed after participating in drunk/high tubing/ziplining and rock jumping. The place was absolutely out of control, and despite the need for tourism, in 2012, the Laos government stepped in an cracked down. Hundreds of bars/clubs were shut down, crowds disappeared and the place cleaned up a bit.
If nobody told me this I would still be able to smell the spilt vodka lingering in the soggy floorboards. The hint of fear and anticipation for mass untamable crowds definitely exists, but I’d like to say all guests remain relatively well behaved. Warm faces are happy to see you, but worry clouds their eyes, wondering if you might bring back the chaos that they so gladly are beginning to finally forget.
We checked the town out (it’s tiny) and ended up at OtherSide Bar cheersing to a successful Skype interview that morning. The green cliffs served as a dramatic backdrop as brightly colored balloons peacefully glided by, and with dollar drinks and Laotian grub, we found ourselves sitting in an absolutely perfect evening.
Wednesday-Saturday, May 7-10, 2014
Our days were perfect and always started with enjoying morning Friends reruns on cushions, pad thai and spring rolls and then an afternoon filled with whatever Vang Vieng had to offer. We rented mountain bikes and cruised to the Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kham caves.
We went tubing, twice.
Off the government record, tubing is still insane. Despite claiming to have settled down, at about 1 p.m. about a hundred people come out of the woodwork, rent tubes, go in a tuk tuk and get dropped at the starting bar (point). Free shots of some home distilled rubbing alcohol are generously served paired with “good luck” bracelets. Word of advice – take the bracelet. You are going to need it for this trip. If anything it’s new jewelry and a dependable reminder of how much you’ve had to drink. Eventually before about 3 p.m. incredibly drunk people throw their overly tanned butts into tire tubes in the Nam Song.
The first bar is about 200 meters and you hardly have time to settle into the tube before some boy is throwing you a string with a water bottle attached to reel you in. The first bar is sweet – there is a sand volleyball court, basketball and soccer fields and plenty of beer pong tables to serve the masses.
There are a few more bars, some more fun than others and the last ones too incredible to remember. Two days of tubing was plenty and we had our share of fun both times.
Friday, May 9, 2014
Ironically, the same day there was a balloon crash in Virginia, we jumped into a basket attached to a balloon at 6 a.m. that morning. I thought it would a romantic, peaceful relaxing morning cruise over the green rice paddies with the beautiful mountains comforting me in the distance as I watched the river snake its way around the mountains.
Well, not exactly. The balloon was a bit worn and our pilot was likely about 15 years old. At one point we came about a feet from a cell tower (wait those have those in Laos?), and if I were to stick my arm out the balloon I could have easily grabbed it.
I don’t think either of us realized you don’t have much control of anything up there, and neither does your teenage pilot. It’s not exactly as tranquil as any scene from UP, and James may have had to change his pants when we landed.
Sunday, May 11, 2014
We made our way to Vientienne – the capitol of Laos via bus.
We both hated Vientienne and feel it doesn’t actually deserve to be mentioned and the camera had no attraction to the grey shipping-yard looking place. Luckily we only spent one night there, which was enough for James to Skype his parents and me to unload my fat backpack that previously gained some Asian pounds.
We walked in the steam-room like weather to the post-office. The post office was massive and despite the hundreds of workers bustling around, nobody spoke a word of English (understandable since we were in the middle of Laos). I felt like I was at elementary school winter wonderland where you walk up to a bunch of tables, hand them some colorful currency and they give you a brightly colored box in exchange. After several sign language exchanges I got my package back and passed it off to the final window.
I quickly snatched it back and mentally totaled up the dozen items. Let’s see – chopsticks, canvas bags, maps, paintings all worth maybe $12. And I was paying $150 to ship it via rowboat home. James convinced me to hand it back over since he didn’t want to deal with it and I said farewell to my favorite Asian souveniers. Little did I know I had another surprise in store for me that day.
Lao Airlines, an airline with one of the worst safety records on the planet and a fatal crash within the past year, took us from Vientienne to Hanoi. Although James promised it would be an A320, I stepped onto the runway and did a 180* when I noticed the A320 looked more like an AT7.
I think I blacked out in panic. The plane definitely shouldn’t have been in the air and James only reassuring words mentioned that if the plane killed us I wouldn’t be able to get pissed he booked this flight.
But, we made it to Hanoi and excitedly settled in while we waited for my Mom to arrive from Seattle!