Specials, Spelling, and Sauce

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Van Vieng is a different world (or dimension, some would say), where your kayak guide's name is Sauce, "Friends" plays in competing TV restaurants all day, and menus at the Sunset Cafe are called "Happy and Funny for You."

(Mis)spelling on signs and menus sometimes seem purposeful...

For example, unspoken animosity about previous French colonization means that every restaurant has a French fried on the menu. That might explain why French tourists always seemed more wary than the others and often disappeared around dinner time.

Dirty clothes? Get la nudry service for 5,000 kip per kilo (fifty cents, but seems like a fortune; in Laos it's easy to be a millionaire).

Are you good at Mosphere?

What?

The small neon and dirt road riverside town is one of those literal tourist traps, the traps being: "Friends," western foods with comfortable seating, kayaking, tubing, trekking, white-water rafting, rock climbing, caving, motor scooters, high speed internet, discos, bars, and a variety of other specials, such as Mr. "O" Hot Tea, magic mushrooms, and places called "One Joint Mr. 'O' Hotel."

I'm sure some people don't leave until their visas expire.

Lucie and I began our first day renting a couple of motor scooters, which were the perfect form of transport for Laos, as everyone has them and they don't putter along like those little mopeds back on Martha's Vineyard. Unfortunately, mine broke down throughout the trip and we were given short tanks of gas. Still, we biked out to a group of caves.

Lu went ahead while I ate and relaxed in a rice field, then I found a guide and went into a deep cave, a mile long. At the end, the guide and I swam in the cool dark waters.

I remet Lu at the next cave, which was filled with water. We took inner tubes into the caves and floated around for a while.

Biking around after caving, I gave a young monk a ride to the nearest village and stopped to watch the late afternoon light shining over the surrounding mountains.

On the way back, my bike ran out of gas, but the Lao people are so helpful, it didn't take long for someone to come by and bring some gas back. The bike was breaking down about every 20 to 30 minutes and, about nine kilometers from town, the bike refused to start. I told Lu to go on to the bike shop and began walking the bike, but got it started again going down a hill, pistons moving. The bike owner gave me some money back for my troubles and it all felt good in the end.

The next day, we went tubing down the Nam Song River. Along the river, shacks and hang-out spots blare U2, Limp Bizkit, The Doors, Jack Johnson, and Bob Marley. "Beerlao!" the workers shout as they hand you long bamboo poles to bring you to the shore. At these shacks, you can relax in bamboo lounge areas on the riverside or try out the water trapeze or zip line, both of which were great fun. On the way, I met a couple of ethnobotanists from Sweden, Germans, Australians, and Chinese.

On the third day, we woke up at the Riverside Bungalows, checked out, and headed on a kayak trip to Vientiene, the capital of Laos on the Mekong River. Lucie and I happened to get the world's worst "kayak," if you want to even call it that. The boat leaked water and became tipsy after about a half hour of paddling. At every rapid we were capsizing, with really little chance of surviving: "I give us about a 1% chance of making it through this one," I said before the next rapids. We even capsized on flat water about five feet from the bank.

Our river guide, wearing jeans like a plumber, was named Sauce and taught us about kayaking: "ok, safety is important and the rapids are dangerous...turn left, paddle right...turn right, paddle left. Ok?" That was our safety and paddling instruction for the day. I was happy there wasn't a test at the end, because I might have forgotten all that. Sauce was a good guy, but didn't even work for the paddling company, if there was one, and had no training. There also was no liability waiver, but the relaxed atmosphere is a welcome change from the often over-litigious western world (I think there are only fifty laws in Laos).

Thusly, we escaped the tourist trap of Van Vieng with a leaky boat and a guide named Sauce.
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