Vientiane and Vang Vieng24/05/2011
We arrived in Vientiane with minimal pestering from tuk-tuk drivers, and very little hassle in general, the only alarm bell ringing when we asked a policeman for directions and confirmation about exactly where in the city we had been dropped by our bus driver, and the policeman "didn't know where we were, may be we should get another tuk-tuk". This didn't seem like the honest and helpful response we would like from the police when we arrive into a new capital city but luckily we had met a girl from the US who had a better copy of the map then us and between the 3 of us we worked out where we were and how to get to the hotels so we set off in the right direction and decided not to ask the police for help again.
We found a clean and perfectly nice hotel near the Mekong river in the heart of the tourist district and made ourselves at home in the nearby pizza restaurant selling Belguim beers. This may sound like an odd first stop in a new country but the guide book reliably informed us that Vientiane was not the best place to try Lao food and judging by a short walk around the local area western food certainly seemed like the most popular option for residence and tourists alike.
The next day we hired a couple of bicycles and set off on the "Monument to Mekong Cycling Tour" set out in the Lonely Planet. This took us to a few Wats, a shopping centre and then along the Mekong river for a short distance. In true Amanda and Seth style we were good at following the tour to start with and stopped at, or pointed at all the things we were meant to, but feeling distinctly underwhelmed by much of it we got side tracked by the very drinkable wine and beer at lunch time and raced around the end of the tour until we got to the river which we enjoyed at a much more leisurely pace, and followed for a lot longer then suggested. In the end it was a lovely day exploring the city, but not exactly what our trustie guidebook had in mind for us.
One our third day in Laos we headed north to Vang Vieng, the home of "tubing", and the default destination for most 20 year old travellers who find themselves in Laos. Unfortunately we are not 20 any more and felt a bit old but managed to find a lovely guesthouse with little bungalows overlooking a tributary of the Nam Song (the river that runs through the town). From the safety of our bungalow we were able to enjoy the beauty of the surrounding countryside with its dramatic and beautiful limestone cliffs. After a day of R&R we decided we had to try the tubing so (feeling old) we headed off with an Austrian guy we met at our guesthouse, Tesh, to go and show the young ones how it should be done. Tubing in its basic form involves sitting in a large rubber ring and floating down a river, in Vang Vieng however you also have to add a row of bars on either side of the river, each ready to pull you in to drink their whisky buckets and beerlaos (basically drunk like water here - infact we have been in a restaurant that apologises for not selling any alcohol but has plenty of beerlao available - obviously that doesn't count). We had a great afternoon on the river and enjoyed swinging out over the river and dropping from a great height into the fast flowing river, and drinking the aforementioned assortment of drinks, but it was very very far from a true Laos experience and we felt very strange about the whole thing. In the end we had fun but kind of wish we hadn't really been a part of what is basically a pretty unpleasant thing.
Having experienced the tubing we felt it was time to do something less commercial and try and see something of the actual country and way of life here so we set off with a guide and Tesh on a two or three day trek (to be decided when we were actually there) into the hills. The first day was nice and easy, starting with a trip to a market where frogs and guinea pigs could be bought amongst the impressive array of fruit and veg and coloured plastic household objects. We then walked through a couple of local villages and fields to reach the single most scary bridge either of us has ever had to cross. It was an extremely rickety suspension bridge made of two steel cables and planks of broken and rotten wood. The railings to hold (cling!) to were so low we had to bend low to hold onto them and then take tentative steps slowly across the great expanse of river. After about 10 minutes of this we were all safely across and were able to catch our breath while watching the local kids skip across laughing and carrying their fish in about a minute - not good for our pride.
After this the walk became easy again as we were lead through more paddy fields where the rice was just being planted and villages where we were able to see how the farmers live on their very basic raised wooden platforms with a roof to keep off the rain and sun. Some also had small enclosed areas on the platforms but most of life happened on the outside where everyone seems to be welcome to eat, sit, sleep and rest. A world away from farmhouses both of us knew as children. Eventually we reached the bottom of our first mountain and started to climb to the cave that we had persuaded our guide we wanted to sleep in on our first night. The climb was steep and the path a little slippery after the recent rain storms but the cave made it worth it. It was huge, cool peaceful and full of stalactites and stalagmites. Our guide got a fire going and after sending each of us off on wood collecting missions (not an easy task on a steep slope that is recently wet from lots of rain) we settled down to coffee, a quick explore of the cave, and then a night of chess and cards before a restless sleep on a hard cave floor.
By morning everything we owned was covered in condensation but the fire was still going and we were all in good spirits for the walk ahead. Today we were to continue to the top of the mountain, back down into the valley on the over side, then up and over another mountain before deciding whether to go for a third day of trekking or head back to the town. The climb started off steep but fine through thick forest, but as the day went on the mud on the paths got more and more slippery and dangerous. By the time we finished descending our second mountain we were completely convinced that our guide should not have been taking us on these paths given the recent rain. It's true the local people have to walk these dangerous paths in order to survive, but we noticed very little evidence that they actually were at the moment. While it was beautiful in many ways, the mud removed the pleasure of the walk for all of us (except our guide who seemed to find it funny when anyone fell over - luckily he kept his amusement to himself until we were safely off the mountain when we couldn't help himself any more) and in the end we decided we couldn't face another day like this and headed back to Vang Vieng where we found ourselves a new guesthouse, also tucked away from the main area and run by a French man and his Lao wife who did the best bacon sandwich ever! After a few days relaxing and recovering from tubing and trekking, including enjoying a traditional Lao meal with the couple and their friends (for which of course we paid), we headed back to Vientiane as we had by now decided our next country to visit would be China so we had to go back to the capital to arrange our Chinese Visas.