The Lowdown: Laos

The Lowdown

The trip: 4 days, Bangkok to Vang Vieng via Vientiane

How did I get there?

Living in Bangkok I have a slight advantage, meaning I don’t have to fly halfway around the world to get there, but the unfortunate part of my trip to Laos is that it was over a big holiday weekend here in Thailand.  Normally I would choose to take the train so I could get a nice sleeper compartment.  We waited to long to book so those where gone.  My second choice would be a VIP bus then a first class bus.  Those were gone too.  We ended up traveling on a second class bus from Bangkok to Nong Kai.  It wasn’t so bad except the bus stopped quite often to pick up passengers and drop others off and from about 1 am onward the aisle was filled with people.

Getting from the Nong Kai Bus station to Laos you have a couple options.  You can take the international bus to Vientienne.  Tuk Tuk drivers will try to tell you that foriegners can’t but that’s not true.  We actually ended up taking a Tuk Tuk to the Thai border because we had just missed the international bus and the next one was in two hours.  If you’ve ever traveled on a trip with limited time (for us 4 days) you know that every hour counts.  On our way to the border our driver pulled over at a travel agency where some men ran out and tried to get us to buy our Laos Visas through them.  I inquired about the price.  The number they told me was almost 500 Baht more than the price I had looked up!  No way Jose!  I told them this and they explained it away, “oh it’s because it’s a holiday weekend,” “your price is old price, ” etc.  It took a few firm NO’s then finally the driver got the picture and just took us to the border.  To get from the border gate to across the Friendship Bridge to Laos you can take a bus for about 20 Baht.  It’s a long bridge so it’s worth the money.

Now how did we get from the border everywhere else?

At the Thai border we met a van driver who was willing to take us to Vang Vieng for a good price (I beleive it was around 3000 Baht total for 7 of us).  Even though a bus would have been cheaper we decided since our time in country was limited we would go with the driver so that we could have comfort and we wouldn’t have to take all the extra steps to get to Vang Vieng, and overall we were really happy we did and our driver was great.

Shelter

During the summer, even though it’s the rainy season it’s also a tourist season so Vang Vieng was packed and we hadn’t made arrangements for lodging beforehand.  Getting all 7 of us in the same hotel/guesthouse was out of the question.  Our driver drove us around to several different locations and finally we were able to get two rooms relatively close to each other.  The hotel I stayed in was called Villa Nom Song.  It had about 8 rooms, a restaurant and it was right on the river.  We could look right across and see gorgous cloud enveloped karst mountains.  So beautiful.

The Fun

Vang Vieng is a tourist hub in Laos for a couple reasons.  The first is the cave filled mountains surrounding the town which you can go and explore.  The second is the act of “Tubing down the Nam Song.”  Which, for most tourists means lounging on an innertube and stopping off at all of the makeshift bars along the rivers edge.

My first two days were spent falling into rice paddies and exploring caves.  The first time we went was pretty spontaneous.  We paid the small fee to take the bridge across the river where you can leave the town behind and enter the true Laos countryside.  We were walking down the dirt (or more like mud) road, avoiding cow paddies from the free roaming cattle and some 10 year old girls came up to us and asked if we wanted to see a cave.  The first time we said no but when we saw the sign I guess we had a change of heart.  It would be an adventure after all right?  The only downfall was the girls had us in their grasp and demanded money from us to go.  It wasn’t expensive, they guided us barefoot on paths through the muddy rice fields (we may pay for this with parasites later) and carried our shoes for us.  Honestly we probably wouldn’t have found the cave had they not taken us.  It was hidden back in the Jungle (ala LOST) and then a short sweaty hike up part of the mountain, which did offer us a beautiful view of Vang Vieng.

On the second day we attempted to find what was reffered to as the “Blue Lagoon.”  Long story short we didn’t find it but we did find some other caves.  To bad we forgot to bring flashlights (the girls had provided them for us the day before) so in a way we wasted the long, wet all afternoon hike, although we did have fun and it was quite an adventure.

As I mentioned before Tubing is the IT thing to do in Vang Vieng so it was a highlight on our list of things to do.  However, we didn’t anticipate the rainy season and a swollen river.  Tubing wasn’t even allowed while we were there because it was  “to dangerous.”  Not willing to give up quite yet we decided to look for alternatives and we settled on rafting down the river instead.  Now, it wasn’t really white water rafting because that would require white water.  There were a few rapids but because of the rivers swollen state they weren’t nearly as dramatic as they could have been.

For most of the rafting trip we were able to just relax and enjoy the beautiful, indiscrible scenery but soon we hit the tubing zone as I like to call it and makeshift shack bars took up nearly the whole shoreline.  Obviously, because there were no tubers the bars were pretty empty.  As we floated by the owners would bekon us in.  Our guides however were driven, they had a specific bar they wanted to take us to, which I assume is because they are like the rest of Asia and get a comission.  Known as the Sliderbar for it’s gigantic slide, it’s one of the bigger bars on the river and offers many activities, such as the slide, a flying fox, a swing and also volleyball.  You have to buy a drink to do these of course.

Now we’re at the sliderbar and all the activities look like so much fun and I felt compelled to do them.  I must tell you, I have this terrible fear, not of heights exactly, but of falling from heights.  That put aside I decided I must tackel the swing or I would deeply regret it later.  About 30 feet up above the river you climb up this pole like thing to a platform where, you will stand over a big hole and, if you’re not 6 feet tall will be forced to cling to the swing with your fingertips while a boy holds on to it as well and counts down from 3, when he finishes you’re off flying because there’s no way you can keep yourself on the platform.  I was maybe 8th in line so I was able to watch quite a few people go before me.  They would scream on the way down then swing back and forth a few times like a pengulum.  Some would plop gracefully into the brown murkey water, others would flop themselves in.  Little boys on shore would prompty throw out life rings to drag you in.  The current was a little to swift to be able to do this yourself.  Then came my turn.  I don’t quite know what happened.  I think once I left the platform my brain shut off because I remember seeing water approach and then being in the water, no swinging back and forth.  My friends said everyone on shore let out a HUGE gasp.  Being in that water was the scariest feeling.  Because of the way I hit the water I didn’t know which way was up or down.  I just swam.  Thankfully I was wearing a life jacket because I really thought I was going to die.  When I broke the surface everyone clapped and cheered.  No more swing for me.  I did however try the slide.  That was a much more graceful and enjoyable endeavor 🙂

The Eats

One word “Friends.”  Ninety nine percent of the restaurants in this town are playing friends on at least one TV.  The others are either playing “family guy”, one was playing sports, or they weren’t playing anything at all (like the ones at hotels). We thought it was funny that you can either choose a restaurant based on the food they offer (which is pretty much the same everywhere) or by the season of “Friends” they’re playing.

There is also some great streetfood.  I highly reccomend the “Pancakes” for desert.  They arn’t like breakfast pancakes (elsewhere they’re called Roti), they’re little peices of fried dough with your choice of topping.  My friends really like chocolate and bananas, my favorite is Nutella.

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