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Tuesday 2 Jul 2013
Vang Vieng, Laos


We walked across Luang Prabang to meet up with the new people joining the bus today. Our nice little foursome has grown considerably. Quick intro - Josh (Reading, UK), Simon (London), Jill (Dundee, Scotland), Carl-Frederik and Jonathan (Malmo, Sweden) and an American couple who kept themselves pretty much to themselves. Other than the Americans, the rest are all early 20's uni grads who'd been travelling together since Bangkok or Chiang Mai.  Years of French influence means baguettes are a staple part of the diet here still, so I got no breakfast before we had to walk back across town to find the Stray Bus which would be our transport for the next 10 days down through Laos with driver Mr Lu Tong and our new Laos guide Tah.
Nat and I took the first row of seats to avoid the travel sickness that I felt in New Zealand from getting thrown around on the bumpy roads. The bus engine is underneath so we had no legroom under our seats but were able to stretch out in front instead. These seats quickly became coveted as the legroom in the other rows was minimal too. (A Swedish coup moved in after a few days as Carl - all 6'4" of him - could barely fit anywhere else in the bus.)

The scenery in Laos is some of the most beautiful I've travelled through yet. We wound our way through green valleys between limestone karsts and forested hills. Our lunch stop was at a beautiful look out point high over the valleys. The claim to fame of this particular stop was the 'loo with a view' toilet block - a line of open fronted cubicles facing out over the view for possibly the most beautiful pee stops I've ever had.

We arrived in Vang Vieng at 2pm and got quickly changed to go tubing. Vang Vieng has had a mixed reputation in the past. The tubing craze here started when farmers gave their workers a way to cool off at the end of the day. They inflated a load of truck tyre innertubes and floated their way down the river back into town. This lead to tourists wanting to join in and before long a huge tubing culture had built up. Unfortunately, this was augmented with the inevitable drinking culture that follows backpackers and taken further still with people drinking magic mushroom shakes and getting stoned. The bars that lined the river encouraged all of the above and set up platforms and rope swings for people to hurl themselves out over and into the river. As the saying goes, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and people did. Things got quite out of hand and people died each year until the Australian government in particular stepped in and demanded that action be taken to improve safety. Last year, the Laos authorities closed down several of the bars and clamped down on the whole set up. As a result, there is still tubing on the river, but it is not quite the wild party that it once was. Those responsible for the less savoury parts of the culture have no doubt disappeared and will be making their money elsewhere, while the locals whose property borders on the river are left upset at the loss of earnings.
Kye, Krysia and Mike went up to a nearby waterfall for a swim as Kye's foot still wasn't quite healed enough to cope with the dirty river water. Natalie, Josh, Simon, Carl, Jonathan and I grabbed some lunch before going tubing. We were driven a few kilometres up stream and dropped off with our tyre tubes and pushed out into the current. Once in the current, it's pretty much impossible to steer or manoeuvre the tube at all, so each bar has guys throwing ropes out to catch the tubers as they go past, then haul them in to the bank. The first bar was barely 100m downstream so we waved for a rope and headed in. We climbed up the bank and went straight to the bar. We were also given a brightly coloured woven bracelet with each drink - something of a backpacker tradition in SE Asia, the length of time travelling can be seen at a glance by the number of freindship bracelets on a backpacker's wrist. There was very little else going on there so, beer in hand, we jumped back in our rings and floated off for the next bar. I ended up quite a way ahead so I waved for a rope at the next bar to allow the others to catch up, but this bar turned out to be much more lively so we climbed out again. There must have been 50 people here engaged in various games of table tennis, volleyball, basketball (complete with waterjets shooting off the top of the backboard to make the game more interesting) and dancing to the truly awful mix of cheesy music (S Club, Spice Girls and early 90's dance). I reaffirmed that I can't shoot hoops to save my life and table tennis is best left well alone, but made new friends in the process.
After an hour here, we headed on down the river to the last bar with a group of Canadians and set up a game of beer pong.  I'm no better at throwing ping pong balls into cups at the other end of the table than I am at shooting hoops - there is a narrow window in the game during which time my aim is brilliant, but sadly it doesn't last long and I invariably lose the game, but it never stops me playing. Natalie's killer competitive streak showed itself again and she destroyed one of the Canadians. Very funny to watch! We finally set off en masse and created a raft of 27 tubes for the last section of the river. It was a very sociable way to travel as people kept moving their tube around the outside to talk to each other.  The rope throwers had a hard job trying to catch us all at the end of the tubing run. Almost everyone from the tubing ended up in the Irish pub later so we had a great evening catching up and playing Killer Pool. Natalie had bailed early after the tubing so probably had the most sleep and smallest hangover the next day!

To help those sore heads we started our journey with a trip to the sacred cleansing pools. This is a powerful stream of beautiful clear water that rushes out of a natural spring in a cave. My rucksack was buried too deep to get my bikini so I had to be content with dipping my feet and watching Kye, Simon and Carl trying to swim against the strong current to get into the cave.

A long drive through more beautiful scenery brought us in to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. We saw some of the sights on the way to our hotel, starting with the city's art museum, Haw Pha Keow, which is housed in a beautifully ornate temple originally built to house the infamous Emerald Buddha (now in Bangkok). Next to this is the enormous gold stupa of Wat Si Saket with a statue of one of the kings outside. The combination of stifling heat and a long (hungover) bus journey meant none of us had the energy to go inside to see the 2000 plus Buddha statues lining the walls. Next stop was Patuxai, Vientiane's answer to the Arc de Triomphe, which sits in the centre of a wide double boulevard with lawns and fountains in front. It's possible to climb up inside and see the view from the roof. The two interior levels were full to bursting with an impressive array of tourist tat and random souvenirs - everything from fridge magnets (guilty) to ceramic tea sets and large wooden sculptures. Up on the roof, the views were clear in all directions. Unlike other Asian capitals, the city seemed quite modern with only the ocasional stupa breaking the concrete horizons.
We had dinner at one of the street cafes with a big charcoal grill going strong. My ribs were delicious, but a few of the others were less lucky and ended up with mild food poisoning later that night. A few of us went off in search of the night market but after walking around fruitlessly in the rain we eventually discovered it was not on that night. The stall holders obviously had more sense than us and stayed dry instead.
Nat and I managed to find Wimbledon on the telly, watching Murray hold off Verdasco until midnight. Nice one Murray!

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02 Jul 13 | Vang Vieng, Laos

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