BootsnAll Travel Network

Vang Vieng: The Hills, They Are Alive

After 5 great days in Luang Prabang, it was time for Bec and I to move on. 5 or 6 hours south, on the way to the country’s capital, Vientiane, lay the town of Vang Vieng. Seen in the backpacking world as a love it or hate it place, I thought it was a bit of both. But before I tell you about that, first we had to get there.

A little before 10am on January 15th, and Bec and I watching our bags being attached to the roof of a minivan, along with those of 14 other travellers. It wasn’t a large minivan, not much bigger than the people-mover we hired in Lubeck at Christmas, and into which 8 people fit snugly. But on the 6 hour ride to Vang Vieng, 15 people squashed into the space like contortion artists.

As we passed through the outskirts of Luang Prabang, the roads turned from bad to worse. Every few minutes the bus would slam on the brakes to go through a massive pot hole, or simply veer onto the wrong side of the road to avoid the ditch. I looked down to the side of the road we were meant to be to see holes big enough to swallow a couple of crates of BeerLao. Thankfully the roof of the minibus wasn’t too low, as any lower and the driver would’ve had to issue helmets. The first half hour or so was spent in an almost constant state of tension, as my muscles seized up anticipating the next big bump.

But once I began to relax, and was able to stop my eyes spinning in my head like cherries on a slot maching as we bounced along, I became enthralled by the scenery. We drove over huge, tree covered mountains, along narrow roads that snaked through valleys, and up over peaks. We climbed up into the hills until my ears popped, and then kept climbing some more.

We drove through tiny villages, consisting of a single row of huts made of bamboo and grass; single room houses in which whole familes would live. The huts sat precariously on the edge of the mountainside, the rear of the structures hanging well out over the edge, the supporting columns holding lazily too the dirt at their base. Barefoot kids as young as two ran along the side of the road, dodging chickens, with an area of maybe six feet between being run over by a minivan full of tourists, and falling off the side of a mountain. They didn’t seem too worried though. The oldest kids we saw though were barely 10 years old. The oldest of these, shit, even the young ones, were put to work though. We passed groups of kids collecting grass from steep hills beside the road, grabbing clumps of the stuff, a couple of feet long, and bashing them into the ground (I presume to remove the dirt) as though beating out the devil herself.

Occasionally we would come to a slightly larger village, with a couple of shops where we would stop for a drink and a stretch of the legs, standing in the dust, shielding our eyes from the bright sun.

The drove through the mountains like this for 4 or 5 hours, all of it mesmerising, before finally levelling out closer to Vang Vieng. Here, the scenery turned flatter, with rice patties beginning to appear, in the shadow of huge limestone rocks that sprang up out of the ground, extending hundreds of feet straight up. And it was here, at the foot of these haunting peaks that the town of Vang Vieng rested, beside the Nam Song river.

In recent years, the town has laid itself at the feet of backpackers, providing everypossible convenince travellers could seemingly want. Although whoever decided that travellers want to watch endless reruns of Friends, shown in almost every single restaurant in town, blasted from big screen TVs at ridiculous volumes, has got me flummoxed. These TV bars line the main street, each like an oversized loungeroom filled with Westerners sipping milkshakes and eating pizzas. Not exactly the authentic Laos experience.

And the number one attraction for these travellers is, as I’ve heard it wonderfully described by another traveller, the ancient Laos art of tubing. This invovles sitting in an inflated tyre tube and floating for hours down the river,s topping at bamboo bars set up on the banks specifically to serve the tubers. Sounds like not a bad way to spend an afternoon, until you see sunburnt young things stumbling out of the water, tubes carried awkwardly over sunburnt shoulders, a beer in one hand being sloshed about as the trip over the sand. And with my whiter than white skin, four hours in the baking sun didn’t quite sound as appealing.

Instead, Bec and I hired some bikes, and rode over bamboo bridges across the river to a cave buried deep in one of the limestone cliffs. We rode along a stony, rocky, bumpy road, which put even the previous day’s bus ride to shame. It was like having your bike seat attached to the end of a jackhammer, and rammed at your backside for half an hour.

But we made it to the cave, climbed a short, but frightfully steep 200 metres up the limestone cliff, and entered the enormous cave. It was empty, but for the statue of a gold reclining Buddha, resting solemnly under a small canopy erected inside the cave. We sat for a while, glad to be out of the sun, before heading back down to the foot of the cliff. Down here was a small, lagoon like creek, with the bluest of blue water filled with hundreds of fish, and served by an overhanging tree with a couple of rope swings.

I stripped down to my shorts and Dunlop Volleys, and swam about for a while. Sheer bliss. But be warned that when I post photos, you will see me with my shirt off. Sorry.

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