So, enough of Luang Prabang. Next stop Vang Vieng, which is on the road down to Vientiane. The road to Vang Vieng is wickedly twisting and turning, so again sick bags are vital, and put to good use. The road winds its way into the hills, then back down to Vang Vieng in the valley below. Vang Vieng is set to a backdrop of towering limestone cliffs and hills - classic karst scenery. There is some of the best climbing in south east Asia here, together with caving, kayaking, and one of the must do activities in Laos - tubing down the Nam Song (river Song) on tractor inner tubes.
The scenery is spectacular, but the town of Vang Vieng is surreal. It's more like something in Phuket (so I'm told, I've never been to Phuket) or the nastier beach towns in Thailand. Bars, restaurants, massage parlours, and "happy" bars/restaurants - where you can order food that is laced with various drugs and hallucinogenics, and then sit watching reruns of the Friends television series. I had read about this in advance, and found it difficult to believe. But it is true - all of the happy restaurants (and there are a lot) - play Friends, one episode after another. Unreal. Pascale and I used to watch Friends in Bermuda some ten years ago. Seeing a bunch of drugged up students and backpackers doing so in 2009 is bizarre.
I must be getting old, but I was also appalled by the number of young people running through town in bikinis (girls) and swimming trunks (shirtless, boys), shouting and screaming - they've probably just finished the tubing and are both drunk and high. Very out of place for a country like Laos, where the norm is very reserved behaviour and no nudity (aside from the nursing hill tribe women). There are no police in Vang Vieng, I think the locals view it as a money making enterprise so don't care as long as they are making a living. Which is pretty sad.
I stayed in a great hotel - Elephant Crossing - right on the river at the end of town. The owner was positively apologetic, cringing when she described "the people at the other end of the town". Don't bring your children here......
I did the must do activity - tubing down the Nam Song on a tractor inner tube. Basically you rent a tube, a truck takes you and 9 other people four kilometers up river and drops you off, you put your tube in the water and start paddling down the river. At least that's the theory. In practise there are a number of bars at the drop off point, and along the river at strategic points. So when I pushed myself off I was quite literally the only person on the river. Everyone else (98% students and backpackers) was in the bars, or on swings that launch you into the river from a pretty decent height. I enjoy a beer myself, so I can't criticise overly, but it is a good river journey well and truly spoiled. Which pretty well sums up Vang Vieng.
So I paddled down the river - no choice, since this is the dry season and if you don't paddle you don't get anywhere. Beautiful scenery, a few rapids - very shallow to the point where you need to be careful not to scrape your back/backside on the rocks. After about an hour I caught up four people on the river, the only other tubing people I saw in a three hour journey. Again, pretty surreal. Picked up some nasty friction burns on the inside of my arms with all of the paddling, but I am glad that I can say that I completed the trip.