Dec. 26th, we left Luang Prabang after 10 days of enjoying that city. We were headed to Vang Vieng, three days on the bike. Three days and countless mountain passes, okay not "countless", but many. Up and down and up and down we went through some more stunning scenery. I know I say this every time, but this really was the most spectacular mountain scenery yet. Pretty light traffic. Sunny clear days, save for one evening and morning of rain and clouds which moved out in a very timely fashion. A couple cheap guesthouses and a night in a dirty junction town with the absolute most uncomfortable bed I've ever laid on. As a matter of fact, if the floor wasn't made of dirty concrete, I'd have gladly slept on it. Then we rolled into the town of Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng is a great place and an awful place all at the same time. The great part is the stunning surroundings and the near endless adventure opportunities at hand. The awful part is, this town reminds me of Copacabana, Bolivia, in that it is one of the world's great hippie backpacker meccas. For more than a few reasons, this place attracts the hippie backpacker community. One, as mentioned before, it is out of this world beautiful, with plenty to do. Two, there is no shortage of drugs to indulge in. Marijuana, mushrooms and opium are so readily available, they are on the menus in restaurants. "Happy Pizza" is way more than just a good slice of pie. Eat one of those and you are bound to trip out for at least a few hours.
In addition to being able to smoke pot and eat mushrooms to your heart's content, the locals have sold their soul to the lazy hippie backpackers and have turned this once quiet and culturally sound village into a stoner's Disneyland. They have bars and restaurants filled with zombie hippies stoned out of their minds and watching endless re-runs of Friends on the TV. I'm serious, all the way out here in the mountains of Laos there are bars, and not just a few but dozens, with Friends on a continuous loop. What is with that? I don't get it? We did find one bar with and endless stream of The Simpsons on their TV and I guess I get that, a little. Not exactly a cultural experience to be had here, but an experience nonetheless. We agreed that at this point in our lives we are, quite frankly, to old to be indulging in magic mushrooms and spacing out on endless Friends episodes (if this had been 12 years ago, I'd have never left that town).
So, we spent a day riding a motorbike to various caves
in the mountains and swimming in the deep lagoons near said caves and spent one day doing what every tourist in Vang Vieng does....tubing down the river. Now, tubing was an absolute crazy river party that went on all day. Bars along the river have been set up with huge rope swings, slides, zip lines, and trapeze lines for some serious high flying water fun.
Just float down the river from one bar to the next knocking back copious amounts of Beerlao, dancing to all kinds of music, flying on high trapeze ropes into the river or zip lines or slides. The slide must have been 100 meters tall and fast as hell. The trapeze would fly from platforms high in trees.
It was a really great time. So great that we were paddling our asses off down the river in the dark, while good and drunk, in hopes that the place that rented us our tubes would still be open. Thank goodness they were, and we did not have to forfeit our deposit. The very next day we left Vang Vieng.
Happy New Year!!!
Well, we've come a long way since last year! Abe has covered the entirety of our trip quite nicely, and I am no wordsmith like he, but there are times I feel compelled to blather on about our trip. This is one of those instances. I must say that our elephant training was one of the coolest, "touristy" things EVER! I've seen those elephant rides before - the ones at the zoo and circus - where you climb on the elephant from a stand and sit in a chair strapped to its back and I never had the inclination to do it. It seemed silly to ride around in a circle for five minutes, sitting in a chair on the elephant's back. This was completely different. When My described the tour and how we'd actually be working with the elephants, learning commands, and sitting directly on their necks, I was intrigued. When she told us we'd actually get to ride them into the river and bathe with them, I was sold! It was so incredible to feel the elephant's skin beneath my legs and hands - so tough and wrinkly with all that bristly hair tickling my calves. And their eyes! Look into those deep black pools surrounded by long arching lashes and you know there is intelligence in there. I can feel good knowing that these elephants are not being caged at night or endlessly transported from one circus destination to another. These elephants may have to work every day, but they are very well cared for. Each elephant has one trainer for life and these guys spend 16-18 hours a day with them, living with, feeding, training and caring for them. It may not be the life of freedom they may once have been able to have, but in this day and age to live free from the threat of poaching is, in itself, a good life I think. So...Christmas was wonderful!
The ride to Vang Vieng was a juxtaposition of breathtaking scenery and grueling uphill climbs.
I know it seems as if we bemoan the climbing through the mountains quite a bit, but don't get us wrong. We learned a long time ago that we love mountains and the views from them, and in order to see those views you gotta get to the top somehow. Plus, the heavenly views are always enhanced by the sense of accomplishment received from reaching them. So, during this ride the views were enhanced to the max!
At any rate, we arrived in Vang Vieng ready to embrace the warm weather and endless water activities.
Abe is correct in his description of the town itself. It has, unfortunately, sold its soul to tourism. But, it does still have it's own allure despite this. For me, that allure was the spectacular scenery and the tubing...I absolutely love swimming and playing in water and this was a dream park for me!
We started out our New Year floating down the Nam Song in inflated tractor tire tubes with a beer in hand and didn't make it 100 yards before the first of the river bars appeared around the corner - complete with a trapeze swing at least 25 feet over the river. 100 yards be damned...I wanted to stop and play! We were pulled to shore by a boy with a bamboo stick who took our tubes and motioned to the bar and trapeze platform. The trapeze swung idly in the breeze - apparently, even though there were about fifteen people around, no one was brave enough just yet to trust their life to a bit of rope tied to a series of ever-farther reaching planks of wood screwed together with bolts. OSHA would definitely not approve. So...in the interest of safety, I made Abe go first! He did a splendid job, and as he didn't die or become mortally injured in the process, I felt it was safe enough for me. I climbed to the top and once there I was ready to turn directly around and go back down. It was waaaaay taller than it looked from down there! I saw Abe waiting patiently to see what I was sure would be my demise, and let my pride take over. I would not be outdone in water fun! So, I grabbed the handle and stepped off the edge into a heart-stopping, arching swing. I passed by Abe and I'm sure I squealed, then I swung back by him again, thinking that I would somehow get closer to the water on one of these passes. Passing by Abe again, I saw him smile and heard him yell, "Just let go," but still I didn't let go. On my fourth pass, I sucked it up and released, splashing deep into the water and inhaling some just a bit. Phew! I lived!! After that first one was over, I was good to go! The first step had been taken and now there was absolutely no fear. Trapeze swings, high dives, zip lines, outrageous homemade concrete slides lined with bathroom tiles - whaddya ya got, Vang Vieng? I'll try and kill myself on it!
Yeah...so, I guess you could say I liked Vang Vieng...