Our entry in Laos was through Nong Khai which is was a long way round from Chiang Mai but a whole lot cheaper and more comfortable than the slow boat along the Nam Tha. So we hopped onto our bus at 8pm at night and was treated to Thai Karaoke for the first 3 hours of our trip which was played at an astonishingly loud volume. All the songs were kind of similar and in the same tone and looked to be either about love, heartbreak or cheating Thai men! We finally arrived at the Thai / Laos border around 8am the next morning after a surprisingly good and comfortable sleep. Out katoey (ladyboy) conductor woke us up with fresh towels and water in preparation for the crossing into Laos over the “friendship” bridge. The border crossing was amusing and typically Asian to say the least.
When we arrived we had to go to window number 2 to collect the correct paperwork, then onto window number 3 to to hand in said filled in paper work and then back to window number 1 to pay 30 dollars and to collect our visas. And as in Asia one windows was no where near the next and the queues always long and the number of Asians queue barging amazing. Maybe I am too British and have to much respect for queues over here! We then entered no hands land and 2 hours later of more queuing to get into Laos we finally arrived. We had acquired some fellow American friends over the crossing that were heading the same way as us up to Vang Vieng.As there were now 6 of us we hired out a minibus to take us 3hrs up north to Vang Vieng, as this was only slightly more expensive than the bus and would mean that it would take half the time.
There is no public transport of such in Laos , there a few VIP buses (I don`t think VIP here means the same as in Europe) and most take forever to get to any destination due to the poor infrastructure in Laos. There are no motorways and most of the roads are very winding and take the longest route from A to B. The first thing you notice in Laos is the attitude of the people, you pretty much have to wake people up to get things done! the second thing you notice is the beautiful scenery that surrounds you which is mingled in with the poverty of the citizens. The average Laos family (2 parents and 2 children) can survive on 250 dollars a year and most families live in wooden shacks with no electricity or running water. We went through a great deal of villages like this on our way north. The other thing that our taxi driver was keen to point out to us is the level of corruption in the country not just by the Laos mafia (that runs a great deal of tourist activities) but also by the government who take backhanders for pretty much everything.
After 3 hours and a few Laos beers (the national beer, which is advertised every 10 meters and is sold everywhere) we arrived in the sleepy town of Vang Vieng, famed for tubing and caves. the town itself has been built up on tourism alone and has no other attractions as the aforementioned activities. We managed to find a nice little guest house called Villa Vang Vieng which was 5 mins walk from the main bars and restaurants. Little know to us though it was right next to the largest collection of chickens in Laos, or so it seemed at 4.30am the next morning when 500 cockerels told us it was time to wake up!!! bar the chickens it was cheap and sufficed with the aid of earplugs and a few beers!!
That night we wandered around town to get to know the town and the area. The majority of the bars were laid back affairs which were playing either Friends, Family Guy or the Simpsons. After a beer or 3 and a quick sample of the local cuisine (Larb – minced meat with mint, spring onions and coriander – delicious) it was off to bed as we were off tubing the next day.
Tubing is synonymous with Vang Vieng (and also a cartel run by the local mafia) and if you have ever been to SE Asia you`ll notice the hordes of travelers sporting the tubing t-shirts. The activity involves floating down the Nam Song river on a big inner tube whilst stopping at the many bars along the route to have a drink or two. It is meant to take 3 hours from start to finish but we never met anyone who completed the journey, mainly due to the fact that past 800meters from the start there are no more bars to stop at and during the dry season the river runs pretty shallow. The day is great fun as each bar you stop off at has its own rope swing and / or slide, so there is plenty to keep you occupied. The main concern is entry and exit into the river as one too many beers and this can become a lethal combination as we saw many tourists with bandages, cuts and bruises.
We took it steady and enjoyed the day and enjoyed many beers and just floated aimlessly down the river. That night we hit the town to celebrate making it down alive! The next day we had a nice and relaxing day, enjoyed a good long sleep (again after a morning wake up call by our feathery friends next door) and had a late lunch and catch up on the Internet and chilled out.. The next day we decided to hire out some motorbikes to view the various caves around Vang Vieng as this was much cheaper and more fun than hiring out tuk tuks. Normally I would be wary of hiring a moped in SE Asia but there was little or no traffic in Vang Vieng so we were confident.We started the next day following a 48 km route as suggested by the lonely planet that took us to some of the best caves and lagoons in the area.
The riding in the most part was on dirt tracks (which was bone chrunching in most parts) but the surrounding scenery was beautiful. Massive limestone cliffs that shot out of the ground in which most of the caves were located was breathtaking and you had to stop yourself from looking at the surrounding scenery and look at the road ahead. The caving itself involved hiring out a head torch and a local guide to take you through the caves. We ended up doing around 2 tours each lasting a around 30 mins each which took you through some stunning settings and in some instances we had to crawl through very small tunnels to get out!! All very enjoyable and thrilling!! The trip took us through some very small villages where we had our first taste of Laos poverty but also our first taste of the lovely Laos smiles and hospitality. We arrived back in Vang Vieng later that night dusty and tired and ready for bed!
The next 2 days were spent booking a way out of Vang Vieng and another days tubing. You can easily get stuck there and the amount of British backpackers there is unreal. It was almost like being back home for the amount of British accents you heard around the town. Vang Vieng is a great little spot to stop at for a few days but it has nothing appealing apart from the tubing, rock climbing (which we didn`t trust wholly) and the caves, next stop however was further up north and Laung Prabang and old French colonial town 8 hrs north of Vang Vieng.