Tripping the Mekong fantastic

Trip Start Sep 01, 2012
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Trip End Mar 03, 2013

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Vang Vieng has always been seen as a notorious spot on the backpacking circuit in Laos – known especially for its hedonistic river tubing activities. Tales of drunken Aussies flinging themselves into the river in a drunken stupor, only to get themselves killed by landing on hidden rocks, were rife. Times have changed though and the government has cracked down on the heavy drinking on the Mekong, closing most of the bars and leaving Vang Vieng a rather idyllic river village, which we found ourselves in after the 6 hour bus from Vientiane.

There are just a few main roads in Vang Vieng, which can be easily visited on foot, and it was with great delight that we settled in to our glorious river view bungalow and explored the town that is fast becoming the adventure tourism capital of Laos.

We spent the first day just walking around town, checking out the day tour options and taking in the rather strange sight of backpackers glued to their bar stools, watching old episodes of Friends. For some reason this trend developed some years back, although no one can really say why, and you find numerous bars dotted around town offering up reruns of Friends (while others have branched out to Southpark and Family Guy). With such beautiful scenery (just take a look at some of the pictures) we could not quite figure out why this was so popular and left that option well alone.

This particular stretch of the Mekong is stunning and we were very keen to get out on the water. It did not take long and we were soon packed into the back of a Tuk Tuk, with a few other backpackers, heading off on a kayak expedition. Of course, this is South East Asia and what would any expedition be without a visit to a cave. After a quick glance at the unimpressive elephant cave – where we really squinted and tried hard to see the apparent resemblance of an elephant in a piece of rock -  we happily readied ourselves for some tubing. Although it took place in yet another cave, this was a vastly different experience to anything else we had done before. Basically we all hopped onto tubes, grabbed on to some rope that disappeared into the darkness of the cave mouth, and started hauling ourselves along. We entered and pulled ourselves deep into a very dark cave, with only the glow of our headlamps to see what was going on around us. A spooky but undeniably amazing experience.

After we emerged back into the light, we readied our kayaks and started down the river. As we floated passed some tame grade one rapids, it was a perfect day. We gently pushed ourselves downriver back toward town, with the high limestone cliffs, fishermen and occasional water buffalo to keep us company.

Vang Vieng's past did show itself occasionally as we drifted passed derelict riverside bars where thousands of backpackers would drink themselves stupid while floating down the river on tyre tubes. As mentioned, the government has recently shut these all down as a high number of youngsters were washing up dead. That, and I am sure they just don't want to become like Thailand.

We also managed to meet up with an old friend from our days in Mombasa backpackers in Kenya and had a great evening catching up and hearing stories of opium laced pizza – it seems there is less 'happy' and more 'trippy' on Vang Vieng's gastronomy circuit.

We could not get enough time on the river and the next day, after first visiting the Blue Lagoon area (a small swimming hole just outside of town), we rented some tyre tubes and jumped on a Tuk Tuk to head a few kilometres out of town. Since the bars had been shut down, we just took a bag of beer cans along with us and let the river keep them cool as we soaked up the scenery and drifted slowly back to town.

We had hooked up with Steph, who met first met in Vientiane, as well as two other Canadians who happened to be in the same current as us so it was great getting to know some new people on the river. That night we all decided to hit town and got stuck into the local whiskey – Lao Lao. Having previously been used as paint thinner (we suspect) it quickly took its effect on us. In what seemed like a few minutes we suddenly found ourselves in some bar where a beer pong tournament was going down. Of course, true to fashion, we were crowned Laos beer pong champions to add to our existing title of Kenya champs. A great night, but Lao Lao whiskey is still the only alcohol that has managed to produce a two day hangover with symptoms of not only nausea but also a slight fever. We might not be bringing a bottle of that home.

The next day it was back on the bus again to head to Luang Prabang. It was not a great trip for Hayley as she had me on the one side in day two of my hangover and a poor Laos girl who (like all locals) suffered badly from motion sickness. It is not uncommon in Laos to have a few people being sick into plastic bags on the bus. Truly revolting. 

The scenery on the way up the country was spectacular. Lonely Planet describes it perfectly by saying that if a careless God had to crumple a piece of paper, its contours would look like that of Northern Laos. Twists and turns and deep dips into lush green valleys left one breathless and more than one almost-spiritual moment was had by looking upon such natural beauty.

Luang Prabang sits on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is well known for its Buddhist temples, waterfalls and caves. The population of the town is 50,000 and it is not hard to just explore it on foot, which is exactly what we did. For most of the time we were content with just taking in the quaint French-influenced street culture as well as some epic temple watching. Soon we were getting restless and signed up to go and visit the elephants. It turned out to be a great day as we first stopped off at the Pak Ou cave, which contain thousands of Buddha statues seated throughout the dark pathway. Before finally getting to the elephants, we also stopped at one of the villages where they make Lao Lao whiskey (blurgh) and we sampled (against our better judgement) some more of the local rice whiskey. This all before lunch, which was perhaps not the best timeline for the trip.

As I was over the legal limit, it was probably not a good idea for the elephant trainer to let me drive but he did anyway. It was great being on top of an elephant but we had chosen the hungriest one and he kept barging off into the bush to eat more. Eventually I retreated to the safety of the seat and we continued on our trek though the forest on the back of hungry elephant. Surprisingly, he was still hungry when we got off and we had great fun feeding him (and the rest of the herd) bananas and avoiding their curious trunks. The perfect day ended with a visit to the Kuang Si waterfalls which forms a number of pools that are strikingly blue and very refreshing to swim in.

We avoided it for as long as we could, but eventually on our last day in Luang Prabang we woke up at 5:30am (apparently quite common in the working world) to see the morning ritual of 'Takbat' or 'Alms giving'. This is what Luang Prabang is best known for and involves the monks from the various temples walking in line through town to receive offerings of food from the locals. It has become a bit of a tourist hotspot but we managed to find a great corner with less people to take in the amazing sight. Despite the touristic aspect of the once sacred ritual, it was still quite awesome to be standing on a corner in Laos at first light, watching these mysterious men in saffron robes go about a ritual as old as time.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect country. Laos has certainly been our favourite country in South East Asia (and one of our top to date) and we will certainly carry the memories of its smiling people, spectacular scenery and relaxed vibes with us for a long time.

Tonight we head off on a tough 24-30hour bus journey all the way to Hanoi in Vietnam. There we will meet up with the rest of the Alfers clan for 'Alfers Fest: Hanoi Edition'. If the previous 'Alfers Fest: Oman Edition' (aka Mother's 60th) is anything to go by, it should be a right hoot.
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Comments

Shannon Mclaren on

Well, this certainly has been one on my highlights to read as well. Beautifully portrayed by the author. I see the Journo degree has been worth every cent :) Well done guys, genuinely enjoyed this blog. I closed by eyes and could vividly imagine Laos through your words. Thank you. Enjoy Vietnam!

Helen on

I agree with Shannon - beautifully written and the pics are breathtaking. It looks like Laos is definitely worth visiting. So looking forward to seeing you soon - all of us from our different corners, coming together for Alfers Fest Vietnam. Yay.
Shannon, we'll drink a toast to you - absent family!

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