Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Recoup in the Capital

Vientiane Temple Riverside Temple
Climbing onboard yet another bus, it was time to leave Vang Vieng and chug it to the capital city, Vientiane. We jumped on the VIP bus for only 40,000 kip. I bet you're thinking 'how fancy, VIP!' Take my word for it, there is no VIP in Laos. VIP means at you get at least half a seat to perch on, perhaps an open window and maybe, if you're lucky, a bathroom stop. But VIP or not there's no stopping me drifting off. BEX FYI: Get your sleep while you can.  

When we reached Vientiane we had expected a whole lot of commotion and hubble, just like Bangkok, and the noise and shenanigans, just like Vang Vieng. Instead we arrived to a land where you could easily believe a mass exodus had take place and we had missed the memo. 

The streets were eerily quiet but lined with flowers and regal, white buildings. There were quaint restaurants and, as usual, the rows of travel agents, but in general it was totally serene , like an exotic garden meant only for observing and not for playing. Vientiane was a welcome site for a bit of recuperation after Vang Vieng’s wild ways.

Myself, Jenna and our new travel buds- so popular thank you very much- we settled ourselves in a central hotel. I know, I know, what happened to the hostels. Well after a few hours of wandering we found zero and almost every hotel we came across was full. While I would always encourage a 'just turn up approach,' in Vientiane apparently that doesn't seem to work.  

Now on more civilised ground, we stripped off the Beer Laos t-shirts that just didn't seem to cut Vientiane trend, and got out the maxi dresses. They'd been dying to make an appearance and Vientiane was certainly the most classiest place we'd hit so far... 

We heard people grumble that the city was a little too quiet with not enough of that required backpacker action. I agree that were no death slides or wild parties, but as an oldie at heart I was up for a few days of pretty walks, long lies and the odd museum. 

The History Museum topped the list and provided a bit of culture to our Laos expedition. The trip so far had mostly consisted of exploring the nightlife and wild activities. Our culture vulture heads had been somewhat abandoned so this was the perfect opportunity to put them back on and learn about Laos.

That's not to say that we didn't explore the nightlife too...well it would be rude not to. We sampled some of the finest street cuisine and slurped on the sweetest riverside smoothies. It was here that locals recommended a bar that 'we just had to go to...'

Hello Samlan, our Vientiane top hotspot. 

By this point in the trip myself and Jenna had become accustomed to the odd stares and open pointing, but in Samlan it wasn’t us attracting the looks. Girls surrounded our table and threw themselves at our male companions. Jenna and I were left to shake our stuff in peace while the boys had trouble shirking off the over-enthusiastic Laos ladies. It was only a little while later that we realised the nature of Samlan. Yep, most males here were looking for a bit of Laotian loving and we had failed to realise. This gave Jenna and I a few giggles but the boys not so much.

In Vientiane of course there are the usual temples and monuments to also see that sparkle and shine. We wandered around each and posed for some Mulan-esq photos. But really that is what Vientiane is all about- having a wander and soaking up the culture.Vientiane was a pretty haven and the perfect stepping stone before we hit the next wild zone.

Friday, 4 October 2013

It's called 'having a death wish...'

Tubing on the Nam Song River

Seven hours, torrential rain, spew-worthy roads, deathly cliff drops, a rusty van, 10 people and a whole lot of blasphemies.

Vang Vieng was designed for people who love an adrenaline kick and adventure rush. If you survive the harrowing journey up to the town, which trust me you may not, you can then launch yourself into a  a dodgy looking river. But, there is a way to make it through. BEX FYI: be safe, use your head, avoid the booze and you’ll be fine.

Vang Vieng has had a notorious reputation among backpackers as being the alternative party zone for those wanting to shun the stigma of Thai island parties- in my case I did both. 

It became the most unlikely party town hidden away in the hills of northern Laos. But it wasn’t the raving DJs or bucket cocktails that drew in the travellers,  it was the tubes... Hundreds of half naked, bronzed bodies grabbing a rubber ring and heading to the Nam Song river for a day of wet and wild fun. 

The potential 40 minute tube downstream turned into an all day activity not to be missed. Locals pulled in each rubber ring, and its occupant, from the fast flowing river and kept them entertained boogies and bucket beverages. 

The town itself is relatively small with everything you need in walking distance. This includes the many restaurants that show back to back episodes of Friends and Family Guy- a much needed home comfort. After months of no TV a little bit of Gunther is a welcome sight.

Back on the water with our boat buddies, Jen and I bobbed along listening to the R'n'B beats and avoided the electro shacks. We made our way downstream visiting the best of the watering holes as we went. Like Londoners on a bus we hopped on and off our tubes bypassing and overtaking while mingling with the locals. 

With sunshine in the sky, pumping music and a few games of volleyball (yes, I tried it again) the hours quickly tumbled away until sunset when it was time to clamber back into the tubes and float to the end of the line. 

With our new friends, the Dutch fishermen and American dudes, we linked up and bobbed down together while enjoying a game of “I have never...”(you’re never too old). The last remnants of our water adventure petered away to a backdrop of breath taking mountains and a colourful Asian sunset. Another of of those surreal “am I actually doing this moments” right there; a bunch of international strangers floating in rubber rings through a Laotian valley to a golden sunset, unreal.   

On the river there were no systems or safety measures, no lifeguards and no limits, which is probably why it is also no longer. It turns out that water slides and alcohol are a toxic combination and, after roughly 27 deaths during 2011, it was time to close down. So, two years on, the riverside bars have gone and the town's tubing industry is no more. 

Nevertheless, if a Laotian party scene is what you’re after, Vang Vieng can still be considered a hotspot. The town’s best bars, Smile and Sunset, still offer an outdoor chilling experience that’s perfect for supping on a Beer Laos

There’s also steep mountain ranges outside the town that are perfect for rock climbing, high rapids for kayaking and deep caves for exploring.

In true Asian style accommodation is cheap but only if you opt for a back alley guesthouse and avoid the main street rip offs.  A private room for two people costs on average 40,000kip (£3.25) per night. 

Van Vieng may have lost its former glory as the best outdoor party scene/best place to get some serious injuries, but it’s still got outdoor adventure to offer. After being so distracted by the tubing I may just have to go back to explore the rest...