What to do with an inner tube and a happy shake...
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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Anyway, if the fast boat from the border was the equivalent of a six hour shot-over jet funride, then the bus between Luang Prabang and Vang Viene was the rollercoaster of this crazy theme park. Seven hours in total through some pretty hair raising terrain which had most of the locals on our cheap as chips local bus hurling out the window, or hurling into plastic bags and then hurling them out the window (like some gruesome water bomb game at said fun park). The five tourists on board were made of sterner stuff, although you couldn't help but feel a little quesy as the driver screeched around sharp corners with nothing but precipice to plunge into below.
We passed many a jagged limestone peak as well as my first APC (Armoured Personnel Carrier) of the trip. All this coupled with the mercenary force guards (armed with AK-47s) helping to patrol a stretch of road toward our destination from rebels, made for a sleepless but generally comfortable ride down. I was also glad the driver hosed down the steaming breaks when he stopped at the appropriately named Kasi (see pic with machine gun and steaming wheel).
With all that excitement you could expect that we wanted the bus to just drive on forever. Not so, with new mate Jody (from Canada), we reluctantly got off in the darkness at Vang Viene, made our way down to the river area and found a functional room to crash for the evening. And weren't we pleasantly surprised awakening the next day, with towering rock formations overlooking and absolutely spectacular valley-scape, compliments of the pristine Nam Song river.
So impressed in fact that we couldn't resist hopping on our bikes and heading for the hills. After a bridge toll or two across various arms of the river and some rugged mountain biking over seriously pebbly roads through rolling farmland, the Paukham cave complex hove into view. The cave was a mission to get to, requiring a solid fifteen minute climb up some pretty vertical and pointy terrain that you would not want to fall on, but the cavern itself was pretty impressive with some great formations and a nice little reclining Buddha as a pleasant centrepiece. These would have to be some really devoted local worshippers however to keep this cave temple going and many a prayer for a safe descent would be made each visit.
More attractive by this stage was the blue lagoon water hole adjacent to the cave - very inviting indeed. Very clean and beautiful, with crystal clear, deep and o-so chillingly refreshing water. A few jumps and swings top it off, so we spent a good hour or two lolling about in or around the pool. That's me in mid air so thanks to Jody for some expert camera-work. In combination, the cave and lagoon make a good day out so if you visit Vang Viene, make an effort to get there.
Another highlight of this stop was the 'Tubing' - an afternoon of drinking, swimming and floating on large inner tubes down this spectacular river. It has become somewhat of an institution in the South East Asian backpacker circuit and with the relaxation and amenities available whilst you do it, it's no wonder. For $3.50, the local tubing cartel will hire you a tube, fill a tuk-tuk full of like-minded tubers and take you a few kilometres up the river. Then all you have to do is float down (paddling optional) and stop off at any or all of the many river-side bars that take your fancy.
Some bars are basic affairs, no more than a wooden platform, a place to park your tube, and a 'Beer Lao' sign to state the obvious. Others are a little more substantial, with large swings, zip lines (flying foxes) and platforms to ensure the more daring or foolhardy get as wet a possible, as spectacularly as possible. If you take the current down and don't stop the journey is a little under two hours, but most strand themselves at a bar or three and take longer. Just don't stay drinking too late or you might have to navigate the rest of the way in the cold and dark!
And when you do make it back, with such imposing landscapes there is naturally some pretty impressive sunsets to enjoy too. The snaking arms of the river make an excellent backdrop and the passing local traffic on the connecting bridges is great to watch. Couple that with hapless drunken tubers getting caught in the bridge supports or flailing about trying to make it back to shore and you have hours of entertainment.
Vang Viene itself is pretty non-descript, a rectangular grid with pot-holed semi-paved roads that fill with huge puddles of water each time it rains. It's a delipadated tourist town and a variety of bars, travel agents and internet cafes line the main drag - including three or four 'Friends' bars that compete to play the most consecutive episodes of the annoying sitcom, probably 24 hours a day (not sure but possible) and to an unfortunately large audience in each establishment (whenever you pass by). Glad you guys made it all the way here to watch TV.
Still, if you head to the river there are some great bars and bungalows overlooking the broader landscape, without a TV in sight. One of the really pleasant aspects of the restaurants and bars here is the raised table platforms, with cushions for seating and (usually) a low table atop to rest food and beverage upon. Get horizontal, relax and watch the view or passing parade. And maybe have a happy shake or two - pot and magic mushrooms seem to be in good supply around here and the locals like to blend it into the cuisine. Watch out!
Next entry -> skipping Vientiane and heading to Pakse
Technotrekker's Travel Technologies - part 2
Because you're a curious bunch, in the Chiang Mai entry I told you all about my little Sony Vaio (T series) laptop and its integral role in bringing these spiffy entries direct to your mailbox. Without it I'd be like an articulate and composition-conscious beached whale, floundering with words and visions wanting to burst from my blow-hole but without the means to actually burst forth.
Anyway, two other characters have also been essential in this quest, and should now be recognised for their bravery under fire, their chic and alluring nature and their small but important contributions to the humanity of this particular dimension. I give you the Pentax Optio S4 and the Fuji FinePix F10, two great cameras that did the hard work these past five months to bring you the 600+ images so far in this journal, some of which a number of you have complimented so generously.
The 4 megapixel Optio S4 brought you everything up to Singapore, which was a substantial body of images. Now in reserve (for dangerous and wet missions), this is a hardy and dependable camera that's starting to show wear but will hopefully see service in a few exotic locations yet. It was almost a casualty of the tubing here in Vang Viene, but after drying out for a little while he's back in action as if there was never a pool of water at the bottom of that dry bag.
The 6.3 megapixel Fuji is the new kid on the block and is performing admirably so far. Much better for portraits, fast shooting, video and night shots, but I still have to work on improving the contrast and resolution for sunny day shooting, as the blue in the sky or the greens of the landscapes sometimes elude me unless I destroy the shot composition. Practice makes perfect and if I don't freeze to death in the wastes of Siberia, you should see some great pics and videos of pure white snow (especially at night).
In the end, a camera is a camera, but the technologies continually get better and these guys have been great travel companions, particularly impressive in the sturdiness department.