Vientiane: Traveling Down the Me Kong in a Kayak
Trip Start Sep 24, 2008
77Trip End Jul 21, 2009
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Traveling Down the Me Kong in a Kayak
Everyone (Neil, Brad/Esther, Sarah, Mary and I) had to make their way to Vientiane, the capital of Lao, in order to split off onto our various travel paths. For Brad, Esther and me, it would be a sad end of the Sunshine Gang touring through Southeast Asia as they would be off on their way to Cambodia and then to England.
While there is a road that connects Vang Vieng to Vientiane, there is also the mighty Me Kong river. Running in low season where the currents are safely passable, we all opted to kayak our way downstream to the capital. We had some stellar guides who spoke great English and provided for an interesting discussion on the past and future of Vang Vieng
After a long and extremely uncomfortable songchaiew journey to the dropoff point, we were off in our rubber duckys. The beginning of the river was fairly calm and we spent our time navigating the boat and enjoying the breathtaking scenery of the fields backed by limestone cliffs all around us. The usual river antics quickly transpired as boats were splashing each other and making plans for capsizing or hijacking. At one point, I decided to jump into a large pool in the river for a quick cooloff. In trying to get back in, both Mary and I were putting all of our weight on the same side of the boat and we were instantly capsized. At least we both got cooled off.
The main rapid, a class 4 in the low season and a 5 in the high season, is called Not Big, Not Easy. Formed in a boulder bottleneck in the middle of the river that creates a narrow and whitewater chute, the rapid capsized many boats. Brad and Esther were such victims. With the end of the rapid out of view, we had to wait for one of the guides to give us the all clear signal before proceeding through the water. Brad and Esther were the first boat to go and were gone for a long time. I asked the guide if everything was ok and all I got was an awkward look on his face and an indication that it was not clear
The location of the rapid was stunning and everyone laid out there stuff and went clamoring over boulders for great views and some relaxation before a tremendous grilled kebab, curry and rice lunch prepared by our guides right there on the rocks. As I was climbing some rocks, looking for the next OCR (Obligatory Contemplation Rock) photo site, I came across a man going number two. Whereever you are, I'm still sorry for barging in buddy. As we were sitting on the OCR, we noticed one of the guides jump into the rapid... without a boat. Thinking this was a wonderful idea, we set up Mary and Sarah with two cameras at different angles for footage purposes and soon Neil, Brad, Esther and me were thrashing our way through a rapid... without a boat. High on endorphins, we indulged in our meal and I chatted with one of our guides for some time.
He said that Vang Vieng had changed dramatically in the last ten years
Enjoying the Luxuries of Vientiane
After lunch, we continued downstream, stopping at a mammoth 20m cliff jump before eventually pulling out of the river for a short songchaiew journey to the heart of Vientiane. Back in the friendly and familiar confines of Vientiane, I set off to find a guest house as the rest of the crew relaxed at JoMo's Bakery for some creature comforts. If you'll remember from my Vientiane entry, the town feels like Paris in SE Asia as there are sidewalk cafes, markets and restaurants that offer all of the comforts of home
After we dropped our bags off at the guesthouse and showered, we discovered that we had a balcony terrace on the roof with views of the Me Kong, Thailand across the river and the riverside street markets of Vientiane. Feeling nice after a couple of beers, the entire team made their way to the main fountain in town to visit the restaurant that I loved, Le Provencal. Just as described above, we all indulged in wine and cheese plates, pizzas, veal, steak tartare, foie gras, pastas, garlic break and all sorts of other delicacies we'd been longing for. Full to the brim and after some nostalgia at what was supposed to be our last night together, we stayed up late with carafes of wine on the roof. Brad, Esther and I, in particular, had spent the better part of a month and a half on the road together and it was an extremely sappy affair. I should have remembered from previous episodes that you don't say bye to Brad and Esther until you have confirmed you don't see them the next day.
The next day, Jan 6, Mary, Sarah and I found out that the bus to Chiang Mai, Thailand was sold out and we would have to stay another night in Vientiane. Both Neil and Brad/Esther were there for another night, so the entire nostalgic affair of getting dinner and staying up late drinking received an encore. We were joined on the roof this time by Brad/Esther's friends from the Gibbon Experience, Pam, Guy and Lee. After a great meal at the night market on the river, in which we seriously contemplated swimming across the river to Thailand to avoid the visa restrictions, we all re-congregated on the roof of our hotel
We capped off the night with some of us heading out to a swank cocktail bar that made some ripping martinis. We met the bartender, a kid named Joy who is 24, learning English and hopes to complete his engineering studies. Fitting for my last night as he delivered the consistent message I'd heard throughout the country from the locals. The government (a socialist "people's" government) is the main thing holding back the country as they have draconian and rigid laws, are incredibly corrupt and stifle any real innovative growth that doesn't benefit the government and the Lao Lum people directly. This is one of the great challenges to Lao going forward as it expands its tourism industry and works to become the battery and firewood store of SE Asia
January 7 would truly be everyone's last day together and I spent the better part of it blogging and at a cafe before the three of us were off on a 16 hour bus journey to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. I had been frantically looking for the latest edition of the Economist since arriving in Vientiane a couple of days earlier to no avail and just before leaving I saw a "Foreign News Magazine" office by the main fountain. Confidant I would walk out with bus reading, I was shattered to find an empty living room and not even any remote possibility that this place was a storefront that sold magazines. Just before leaving, Esther purchased gang bracelets for all of us, official markers of the CURDS (Completely Utterly Retarded Dogsh*t), which we were trying to start as the next "Bad" or "Wicked" or "Bada$$". Esther paid me and my parents a great compliment as we were hugging and kissing goodbye and she said she wanted to call my mother and tell her what a great job she'd done. I love those guys. Can't wait to see them again in Sydney. With a waving Esther fading into the distance, Mary, Sarah and I were off in a songchaiew to the bus station to cross over to Thailand and then make our way via a long afternoon/overnight bus to the Land of a Thousand Smiles.
On the Bus to Chiang Mai
Mary and I met an older Canadian teacher, traveling with his wife, on the bus, who had spent time teaching in Nigeria
There had recently been a political war in the country that led to protests blockading the Bangkok airport in December. On one side were the Royalists, those backing King Rama IX and with the support of the police and the army, and on the other side were the Thaksin supporters, those backing the prime minister and ruling party that was founded by the deposed and exiled PM Thaksin. By the time we had reached the country, there had been a coup and a Royalist-backed government had been put in place. Because of the political and violent tumult, Thailand changed their immigration policies to restrict on arrival overland tourist entry visas to 15 days from 30 days. If you land in a Thai airport, you can still get a 30 day visa and if you apply at a foreign Thai embassy, you can get longer visas. Not certain of my plans, but looking to bomb through Thailand (as I feared it was overdeveloped and wouldn't blow me away like Lao/Cambodia), I figured I'd be through the country in two weeks
Two main topics consumed my reflective thoughts on the bus once we had crossed the border. The first was my deep sadness at leaving Brad and Esther. They're utter dogsh*t. The second were my reflections on my time in Lao and the future I saw for the country I had fallen in love with. Despite extreme levels of poverty and a gross inequality of wealth (divided mainly across ethnic lines), there is forward direction for the country, prospects for growth and prosperity and the country benefits from a wealth of forests and farmland and a small and young population. Unlike their Cambodian brothers who suffered during the time of the Khmer Rouge, there is no hanging social and psychological stigma on the country of erased future generations.
Even though they don't have a star attraction like the Temples of Ankgor or Macchu Picchu, tourism in Lao has a positive future. We saw many French families traveling through Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang and the amenities provided in these places are first class. Lao's culture is rich and steeped in a Buddhist tradition that should attract visitors from all over the world
On the flipside, the government, whose coats are lined with money from exported timber and hydroelectric power, completely stifles business, investment, innovation and growth of its people. If you are not Lao Lum, but of another ethnicity, you will face obstacles in infrastructure and proper economic incentives to reach higher levels of society. In a one party system, as Lao has, there is little prospect of political change, particularly since those of influence, wealth and clout are of the same Lao Lum ethnicity as the ruling Pathet Lao government. The government is racist, corrupt, and condones preferential and unequal treatment of its citizens and development of its country. There is complete repression of the problems in the country as well as an article found on our departure date in the state controlled paper lauded the development of a village (to be fair, there was a great deal of good done) as a model village, including the mandatory party propagana brainwashing that goes on in this Lao Lum village. You don't find adjacent articles talking about the complete lack of resources and infrastructure in the hill tribe villages of the North.
These thoughts and more were on my mind as I curled up next to Mary and drifted off asleep to wake up in Chiang Mai, the old royal capital of the ancient Kingdom of Siam.