Jeff's Mid-Life Crisis goes Round the World (RTW)
About Me (1)
HONG KONG (2)
* ST. ANDREWS
* FROM TRAVELER TO TOURIST?
* HONG KONG
* BANGKOK TO HONG KONG
* BANGKOK TO PHUKET
* PHNOM PENH
* ANGKOR AND SIEM REAP #2
* ANGKOR AND SIEM REAP #1
* CHANGES IN LATITUDE CHANGES IN ATTITUDE
* VANG VIENE
* LUANG PRABANG #2
* LUANG PRABANG #1
January 25, 2005
Tonight is January 25th and I am still in Saigon. I have decided to leave Vietnam for now and head to Cambodia and tour around the Angkor Wat temples near Siem Reap. Angkor Wat is one of the most unique places in the world, it is a series of temples of the ancient Khmer Kingdom with many over a thousand years old. Angkor Wat is on many "top ten in the world" sites along with the pyramids of Egypt, Macchu Picchu and the Taj Mahal (for example...)
So I am excited about spending a few days checking out the area and am excited about going to Cambodia, especially with it's very recent history of war, unstable governments and genocide. Cambodia is safe now but only just recently became a place where travelers were comfortable going.
This blog entry is about a crappy little town in Laos called Vang Viene. I'll explain below why I think the place was crappy. Also I want to do a PARENTAL WARNING on this entry as there is mention of drugs.
After five relaxing and fun days in Luang Prabang I figured it was time to leave and head south. I really didn't want to leave and could have easily hung out a few days longer but I got the itch to see more of Laos so I set up a trip to go to Vang Viene.
Vang Viene is just too convenient for any traveler in Laos who is going between Luang Prabang and Vientiane (either way, north-to-south or south-to-north) as it is about half way between the two towns and going straight though without stopping in Vang Viene means an 11 hour bus ride which is no fun.
I left Luang Prabang on the 9:00 AM bus (be there at 8:30 AM just in case they told me) and we left promptly at 10:15 AM. It was a 6 1/2 hour trip over about 140 kilometers (kilometers to miles conversion is 1 mile = .62 kilometers) or 87 miles. Now take the 87 miles and divide that by 6 1/2 hours you get approximately 14 MPH as an average speed. To be fair this included a toilet break and a quick food stop.
The road was VERY WINDY and STEEP and went up and down many, many mountains. The views were spectacular ad would have been even more special after a rain storm or with less "slash-and-burn" agriculture (as discussed in my previous blog entry). It was, unfortunately, very hazy. The slow pace of the bus was dictated by the many hills and hair-pin curves as well as the constant need to slow down to avoid big chickens, baby chickens, pigs, piglets, cows, water buffalo, dogs and people (cats are too smart to be wandering near this road). Also, the road is not in great shape. It was only recently paved and much of this pavement is full of pot holes and many sections are "works in progress" and are still dirt roads.
There were many villages along this highway (Highway 13) and most were perched literally on the edge of the cliffs with the doors to their homes and stores within feet of the roadway. These villages are a long way from any town of size and therefore must be self sufficient in all that they do. All had farmland and such renewable resources like pigs and chickens. The farmland was incredible. This area of Laos is mountainous and the mountains are steep. I think they all grew rice (and probably other stuff too) but their fields were all on the sides of hills. They have been doing this for centuries so they must know what they are doing but that has got to be the hardest, least efficient and most dangerous way to farm I have ever witnessed.
I was talking on the bus to some other travelers, remarking on the villages and their lives and one person said something we were all kind of thinking, "What do these people do for a living?" Once I thought about it I felt stupid trying to put western thoughts into Laos culture. What these villagers do for a living is live. They spend their days not trying to get ahead and save money or figure out new investment or business schemes, they work for food, clothing and shelter and for love and the betterment of their village. These are the basics of life and are the focus a sustinence existence that is prevalent throughout most of the world. What we do in the west is by far in the minority of how life is lived in the rest of the world.
Another interesting thought occurred to me on this bus trip. There are soooo many chickens in Laos and they are everywhere and they have lots of baby chickens and they are everywhere too. These chickens like to hang out on the roads. As the bus barrelled through villages he just kept his hand on the horn and slowed down a bit for the animals and I thought for sure he was going to nail some of the chickens. I kept looking back behind us after each close call expecting to see a dead chicken on the road but never did. I asked the bus driver later if he'd ever hit a chicken on the road. He said very, very rarely do they get hit, they are very quick near the point of impact and always just manage to escape. I figure if one did get hit then it would be dinner for some family that night.
Another interesting thing about Highway 13 between Luang Prabang and Vientiane is the occasional presence of bandits and anti-government guerrillas that operate in the area. Most of this activity has been stopped but every bus does have a gun-toting rider along to dissuade any bad guys.
That's enough of the trip to Vang Viene. I enjoyed it, the scenery was cool and the glimpse of village life was priceless. The windy, bumpy, slow road.. well that's part of traveling in Asia!
So we make it to Vang Viene, a town of 25,000 to 30,000 people set in a beautiful valley next to some spectacular mountains and a nice river. The area I stayed in was the backpacker area in the center of the small town where the bus dropped us off. There must be much more to Vang Viene than I saw but what I saw was crappy.
The Lao people are smart to take advantage of the traveler's dollars and have created something that may be a backpackers paradise if you are into that thing. The center of town is really only a couple of small dusty steets (half paved, half dust) with dozens of surprisingly nice (and cheap) guesthouses and an equal number of places to eat.
The guesthouses were mostly in the $3-$8 range with a few higher end ($20+) places on the river. The place I stayed was $5 and included a warm (not hot) shower and a clean comfortable room and bed. The bed was hard though but I am now used to that (an occasional massage works wonders!).
The restaurants in town were so similar that at first it was funny. They are all open-air, have a bar, have tables where you sit on the floor on cushions (not chairs) and all had TV's hooked to DVD players. While some showed bootleg movies there were about 6 or 7 places that all played a DVD of the TV show "Friends". It was surreal walking down a street in Laos and hearing Chandler, Monica, Pheobe, Rachel, Ross and Joey talking and carrying on (all the volumes were on high). I love Friends, it's a great show but to see it on numerous TV's in restaurants (different episodes - at first I thought they might all be connected to the same DVD player) is just weird.
The other thing I noticed was a bunch of scaggly guys and girls laying around inside of these restaurants sleeping, vegging, drinking or just staring into space. I would figure out why later.
The restaurants all had virtually the same menu and very similar signage out in front. All served some sort of pizza and the guy who manufactured the pizza signs must have made a few dollars. Everything was western food with some Lao food possible to find at the back of the menus.
I didn't figure this out until I left town and was talking to a few people on the bus to Vientiane but each of these restaurants served food (mostly pizza and shakes) laced with pot, hash and/or "magic" mushrooms. I was shocked. I'm not naive, I've been around this activity before and maybe if I was traveling in my early 20's I would have partaken in these activities. Now I guess I'm getting old and less hip because I didn't even realize that this was going on when I was in town. I do recall at dinner one night seeing a sign that advertised Mushroom Shakes and Extra Mushroom Shakes and all I thought "that's gross, who would drink a mushroom shake?" and really didn't give it much more thought until it was explained to me.
Once I realized what was going on the whole town made much more sense to me. The people vegging out, staring into space and sleeping in the restaurants.... Also, I was told that there is quite a bit of opium available here too and some sort of Lao speed. The things you see and learn on the road!!!
The lifestyle many backpackers lead is not for me and if they choose to take drugs that is up to them. But buying and taking drugs in Laos just seems crazy to me. Taking drugs and vegging out in front of a television and eating pizza is probably what many of these people do at home, why come all the way to Laos and do the same things you do at home?
What also amazes me (in retrospect) is how open this drug use and drug selling (by businesses!) was. This is Laos, not Amsterdam. Laos is a communist country with strict laws and behavioral expectations that are enforced by a diligent police force and army. How does this happen in Vang Viene????
That's mainly why I think Vang Viene is a crappy little town.
Now for the good parts and there is alot of cool stuff here. I only spent 1 1/2 days and 2 nights here but did get to see some of the country side. The two main things to do here (other than getting stoned) is to hike to the caves and tube down the river. The river was bit low (and cold) so I didn't do the tubing thing but I did go on a great hike to various caves around town.
The pictures here (and my photgraphic skills) just can't do the beauty of this country side justice. The mountains look like Yosemite, it is that spectacular. The caves were a miles from town so it was nice walk. In one of the caves I took a nice spill that had me on my butt sliding down some rocks. That hurt but I was okay until the next day then the stiffness set in and stuck around for a few days. Cool bruises too!
I gotta go, it's dinner time and I'm hungry!
Thank you for reading this. I hope to make this blog both interesting and entertaining. Please post a comment and let me know your thoughts, observations or counsel. Hearing from readers and knowing I have an audience is a great motivator and will be a great morale booster during down times on the road. Don’t forget to bookmark this site and tell a friend! Please feel free to e-mail me at “JeffMichie at Yahoo Dot Com”
Posted by Jeff on January 25, 2005 05:06 AM
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