And on to Laos! I was a bit dubious about the safety record of Lao Airlines but apparently they haven’t had a crash since 2000. So that’s OK then. Siem Reap airport was very modern and kind of hi-tec, a stark contrast to the rest of the country. I discussed this with Simon, a guy Id met on my 2nd trip to Angkor and who happened to be getting a flight the same time as me but to Vietnam. I had thought about getting a long distance bus to Pakse and to go exploring the 4000 islands and coo at Irrawaddy dolphins but that wouldn’t really leave me enough time to see the rest of Vietnam. No. Flight straight to Vientiane would be more convenient.
And it was, it was very pleasant. We didn’t have to fly up too high so I got a great overhead view of Cambodian rice paddies and rivers. They gave us food. A ham and cheese sandwich and a doughnuts filled with green cream. I chucked the ham. The green cream was good. I like the sugary bread here but boy oh boy I am going to suffer. Wheat+sugar=VERY BAD TUMMY!
We landed in Pakse after an hour. Here, we’d pick up more passengers and go on to Vientiane. I like the name Vientiane. It looks nice written down but you say it veen-chan.
Upon landing, Japanese guys bounded off the plane and as they ran down the stairs onto the concourse, they shouted really excitedly, “Ohhh LAOS!”. They were funny. Then this guy at the bottom was checking if we were stopping at Pakse or going to Vientiane. They didnt understand what he was after so I explained to them “Oh. This isnt Vientiane? Where are we?” Funny boys.
I had to get a visa on arrival which cost $35. Aussies get it for $30 as 2 Aussie girls pointed out to me. Damn it, I was 4 dollars short. One of the girls offered it to me (the milk of traveller kindness) but turned out you can pay by card so I did. On the last leg to Vientiane, they gave us food. A ham and cheese sandwich and a doughnuts filled with green cream. I chucked the ham. The green cream was good. Yes.
Arrival in Vientiane was OK. You pay 55000 kip for a taxi to the city centre. Apparently if you walk 500m to the airport gate you can flag down a tuk tuk but I couldnt be bothered with my big backpack so I paid the equivalent of $7 (and probably the most Id ever pay for a ride that wasnt long-distance) and got in with the nice taxi man. Now here’s something: I didnt book accommodation!! I just asked the taxi to take me to the best spot. And he did. He dropped me outside quite a smart guesthouse which I later found on tripadvisor had 4 or maybe even 5 out of 5 and was smack bang in the middle of cafes and bars and between the Mekong River and the main drag. Result. Well worth paying that 55000 kip. I got a great night’s sleep there and bed bugs became a worry of the past.
Had a nice wander around the city and eventually made it to the river for sunset. It made me happy being at the Mekong; it made me feel not so far away from Cambodia. Oh and they have daily displays of dance exercise!! It’s brilliant! I saw a couple of westerners at the back. Great stuff. People would buy snacks from the adjoining night market and sit on the grass and watch. I felt a bit bleurgggh after all that sugary bread so had a really simple supper of a rice fritter and some barbecued prawns on a stick for under £1. Bargain! Later on, I sat at a cafe round the corner from my guesthouse and got talking to a really nice English couple who’d been teaching English in Korea. They were having a quick holiday before flying to Madrid to teach English there. We chatted until we were thrown out – at 10.30pm! Vientiane, as many other Laos towns apparently, has a curfew. Everything shuts down by midnight and a lot of guesthouses lock their doors. Rah!
On my second day in Laos I started to experience some weird feelings in my tummy. Not sick or cramping. Like butterflies. Except every wave of butterflies was making me dash to the toilet! Oh god, oh god, it was really bad. Maybe the malarone was kicking in? Maybe it was the sugary bread? It wasnt nice. I visited the national monument and climbed Laos’ equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe, the Patuxai. I really hoped the views would be fab but the city’s quite flat so the view wasnt that interesting. I also read about UXOs in Laos. Apparently Laos is the world’s most bombed country. The Cope Centre rehabilitates those who have been maimed by cluster bombs. I wanted to check it out. I walked for ages and was quite far out of the city but really couldnt tell where I was going. I stopped with some locals and through mime and pointing they worked out where I wanted to go. A nice man offered to take me on his motorbike. I was hesitant. He was able to tell me it was only another 500m up the road. Oh yeah, OK, why not, so got on the back of the bike and off we went. The ride was OK but Im still pretty nervous after that accident so many years ago now. Never will be my preferred method of transport again but there you go.
The Cope Centre is housed in a pretty courtyard and some of the staff are English. Its really informative and there are loads of films you can watch about people who’ve had legs and arms blown off but who, thanks to this place, have learnt to walk and rebuild their lives. I met a young boy there called Peter Kim. He had lost his hands and was partially blinded too. He was really chatty and told me he wanted a girlfriend. When I told him how old I was to his 20 years, he asked me to have children quick, a daughter that he might be able to date, haha. The thing that struck me about this place was how upbeat everything and peoples’ stories were. A big contrast to S21. I guess those Cambodians have lost their lives. These Laotians can still make a go of things. I liked it and I felt privileged to talk to Peter and also privileged that I live in a country without the daily fear of running into a bomb.
OK… so Vang Vieng… I’d be warned off going because it’s touristy and has no culture and is full of kids getting drunk. Looking at my trip so far, I guess it’s been rich in learning about these countries. It hasnt exactly been a party. But as I said to Simon at Siem Reap airport, I think it might be time for a bit of fun! I got picked up at my guesthouse and chucked in the back of an already packed songthaew. We went round the streets and packed a couple of more people in and then we stopped in a car park by the river. The driver got out, came round the back to us and said quite simply, “Get out!”. So we did. We stood in the car park, bemused, all looking puzzled at each other surrounded by our bags and the songthaew drove off! He came back about 10 minutes later with another load of people. We hoped that the main bus would pick us all up from here. About 20 minutes later, it did. It was already full of people though and the crew offered plastic chairs to 2 unfortunates who didnt get a seat (WHAT!) until a nice couple offered to seat their 2 youngsters on their laps. For 4 hours. Fab.
I slept for a lot of the journey and firmly plugged my wobbly tummy up with buscopan. Apparently this is a secret weapon against stomach cramping although its sold to relieve IBS. Had I known about this years ago I might never have suffered another bad period. I was given it to counteract any cramping I might get from the malarone (which Im on for at least another fortnight). Side effects: constipation. Perfect for a long bus journey where I might need to make a dash for it.
What I saw of the countryside looked pretty. Not sure, I didnt get a window seat and the windows were tinted. Shame because I hear Vientiane to Vang Vieng is a pretty drive. What I did notice was that suddenly I was surrounded by mountains. Huges karsts. Amazing! We arrived and were given vague directions to our hotels. I had booked beforehand this time as I had heard of a really cute hostel with puppies and I really wanted to stay there. A girl who had been on my songthaew in the morning ran up behind me and asked if she could come with me. Sure, I said and off we went.
Champa Lao did not disappoint. It’s set on a road just off the main drag and just a little set back from the river. Again, a perfect location. I had booked a really cool bamboo hut. It was basic but it was brilliant. Luckily my new friend bagged the last room! And the puppies? yeah, they were there and sooooo cute. I cuddled them but they were more interested in sleeping.
I had decided that unless something major happened I only wanted to spend a night in Vang Vieng. I was most keen on going tubing and wasnt really that up for kayaking or caving here although you can do those things if you don’t want to get loaded. It’s a pretty enough town without having to “do teh touristy thing” if you dont want to. And if you’re lucky enough to stay in a cool place then all the better. My new friend, Jiang, from Shanghai, decided to stay a few days purely based on our hostel and she’s definitely not up for getting wrecked.
So I sorted myself out and dragged Jiang off to go tubing! We didnt get going til 4.30pm or so and we hadnt even got in the water before we were being encouraged to down shots of whisky! Basically you have bars set all along the river and you just tube down and get pulled in to drink at each one. We set our tubes down in the river and Jiang managed to let go of hers. Id already floated off. I managed to get people drinking at the next bar to stop her ring from floating downriver and I got out to wait at the next stop which wasnt too far. I was greeted by an Aussie who then tried to pur whiskey down me. Some Lao guys were encouraging him! Definitely a change from the demure. Jiang caught up with me and we set off again. Except, I floated off and Jiang just sort of… sat there.
I floated off and watched cows drinking from the river, Lao girls going crazy dancing on platforms and our very own stumbling drunk onto decks to try the aerial slides; 2 Aussies have died here very recently. Just saying innit…
Stopped at the Fluid bar which was quite a way down to get some food. I hadnt actually eaten all day out of fear for needing the toilet on the bus, haha. They had a fire roaring outside and though it wasnt cold and teh river wasnt cold, it was really nice to stand next to it for a bit. I finished my sandwich and Jiang showed up! She’d made it, but she’d had enough and was going to find a tuk tuk home.
I continued to float on my tube. Sunset came but the river was still busy. About 2km from the end point, people started to get out and jump in tuktuks back to town. I wanted to keep going. It was still not that dark and I could see a couple of people ahead so I kept going.
About half an hour later, I realised that everything was very still. Lizard chirping was very loud. It was dark. It had just suddenly happened. I called out, “Hello..” but no reply. I called again and the 2 girls who’d been ahead called back. OK they were still there. They shouted back to keep going, it was only as far as teh lights in teh distance. Hmmn, that didnt seems so bad. So about 10 minutes later I got there and realsied it wasnt the end. The girls were on the banks negotiating a ride back with some tuktuk drivers. I joined them. Water is weird in the dark.
When I returned my tube I was surprised to be asked where “my Chinese friend” was. Where was Jiang? I wasnt too worried given that she was always somewhere behind me. It turned out that she had got a tuk tuk but refused to pay the fare as she thought it was too much and had got a ride with an Italian guy on a bike. She didnt want to carry her tube so had let it go and in doing so, lost her deposit so she’d thought, sod it and gone for a drink with the Italian. Funny girl!
We met the Italian, Giovanni, for dinner after playing with the puppies for a bit. After dinner we went to check out the parties that Vang Vieng is “famed” for. The main town observes curfew; all the partying goes on on the island in the middle of the river. On the way there, we watched people stumbling back to town drunk; bit like Croydon on a Friday night. Yep.
The parties were full of buckets. It was like Full Moon Party on Koh Pha Ngan except nobody seemed to be over 25. It didnt feel as inclusive as the Full Moon Party. Drunkies jumped through a hoop of fire, the Lao boys kept dousing it in alcohol so the flames got higher and higher each time. An old guy tried it and hit the rope. Everyone cheered him anyway.
I had a good sleep under my mosquito net. I didn’t mind that I could hear music drifting across from the island as I fell asleep. I also had a good breakfast overlooking the river to look forward to in the morning.