Thursday, 1 July 2010

Get your rocks off

Everybody, at some point in their life needs to purchase an Ornamental Samurai Sword, or a Tazer, a Machete, a foot long gas lighter that shines a picture of a naked woman on to walls, or possibly a gas Mask. At least that's you what you'd think looking at the shopping options in Vang Vieng.

There is definitely a direct correlation between how many pissed people there are in a square kilometre and how much utter crap is on sale - and there are a lot of pissed people in Vang Vieng. Probably one of the other main indicators in South East Asia that you are in the vicinity of a dense population of inebriated people, are Beer Vests.

Anybody who's been to South East Asia knows what these are, and for anyone who doesn't, I will explain - no, they are not a clever and novel way of transporting beer around on your person in warm temperatures, they are simply a cheap cotton vest which proudly displays the logo of the most popular beer in the country on the front and back in large letters. In Vietnam it's Saigon Beer, Cambodia it's Angkor, in Thailand it's Chang and Laos its Beer get the picture. Basically it conveys to anyone passing this sophisticated message: "I like beer and I am holiday in this country".

Now I don't wish to appear like a grumpy bastard about this (I now own a beer hat, bought for fishing purposes only obviously), but the mass-wearing of Beer Vests does add an element of Zombieishness (is that a word?) to any place where wearers can be found in large herds. They are not unlike football shirts. In fact, close field study of Beer Vest wearers shows behaviour almost identical to the domestic football fan, and leads one to believe that the Beer Vest may in fact be a substitute for a football (also often rugby and American football ) shirt whilst abroad. Other common characteristics also re-enforce this hypothesis. Migration in large, predominantly male groups being an obvious one, a strong desire to fit in at all costs by doing stupid stuff, being sick in flowerbeds and shop doorways, high volume purchasing of aforementioned useless crap and, my particular pet trait favoured by the American breed - Hi-Fiving! Desmond Morris would have a field day.

Anyway, you may have thought this was rapidly turning into a tirade against the moronic behaviour of large groups of Westerners abroad in Asia (Sam can tell you I do have moments when I turn in to my Dad, and tend to get bit vocal about the sheer retardedness of tourists in foreign lands), but I would be a massive hypocrite if I told you we didn't behave like total idiots and enjoy pretty much every minute of our few days in Vang Vieng. It's a bit like going to a theme park - you know its going to be a totally plastic consumer culture experience, full of chavs and you are likely to return home having spent way too much money, but nevertheless once you're in and on the rides, you end up having a ball.

Vang Vieng itself is a smallish town in North East of Laos and lies on a beautiful stretch of the Nam Song River surrounded by hugely impressive limestone karsts. At some point in the last twenty years a farmer must have been changing a tractor tire by the river bank and slipped and fell in to the river with it. After a few moments of intial panic he realised that he was actually having quite a nice time bobbing down the picturesque rapids in the afternoon sunshine, waving to people, and thought, "if only I had about twenty five beers and half a bottle of free Tiger Whisky and some rope swings and a marker pen to draw dumb stuff all over myself, then this would be perfect", and so Tubing in Vang Vieng was born. And yay, the Tourons came in their droves.

I had been told by a friend that Tubing was "about as much fun as you can possibly have", but nothing actually prepares you for the chaos that awaits when you arrive at the first river station. Pulling down a dirt track from the town with the tubes tied to the top of the jeep, you head straight into a massive party on the riverbank where house music is belting out, and a couple of hundred half-naked people are dancing and chatting on a wooden platform with a packed bar loaded with beer and serving free whisky. In front of you is a huge zip-slide swing with people somersaulting off it every thirty seconds and landing practically on top of each other. Looking downstream is a view resembling a Bachanalian version of Neverland - wooden tree house style platforms hang from the banks filled with people partying, while painted kids attempt to lasso tubers with bottles tied to ropes, trying to pull them out of the current and into the bars to join in the carnage. All this set to an almost mythical backdrop of towering mountains and stunning countryside. Like much of Laos, you really couldn't make it up...

Anyway, without going into all the gory details, we had, as expected, one of the funniest and most mental days we've ever had. The pictures below pretty much say it all. I don't think I've ever seen as many grown adults behaving as immaturely or having such a good time. You cannot fail to meet stacks of people on the way down the river too, and by the time we'd reached the final station in the hazy late afternoon sun, we had assembled a small hyperactive tribe with whom who we headed back into town and then on to party early until the next morning at the rammed, notorious Bucket Bar.

In total we were in Vang Vieng for four days, which by the end was enough. There are seemingly only two states in the town, drunk or hungover and its gets a bit repetetive after a while. So, Sam, Sammie and I grabbed a minivan to Luang Prabang, in Central North Laos - a winding but straightforward journey that should have taken six hours or so had we not had a weirdo driver who insisted that he stop three times in the creepiest places possible in the middle of nowhere, because "I very tired now please, sleep sleep". We would have argued, but decided on balance it was probably best not make a tired man who was bad at driving anyway keep going in the dark, along roads that had five hundred foot sheer drops down one side...

If there is an antidote to Vang Vieng, it is Laung Prabang. It's by far one of the most chilled out and serene towns you could imagine. After travelling through the rest of Laos which is ruggedly beautiful but sparse in places, it came as a real surprise - it was far more sophisticated than we expected, with some beautiful shops, restaurants and galleries. The word Boutique (which is now officially used on everything ever) springs to mind, but not in bad way, and although the town has been classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site (which can easily turn somewhere into a living museum) it still feels pretty authentic and isn't too over-commercialised.

Much of its charm lies in its location on the banks of two unbelievably picturesque sections of the Mekong and Khan Rivers and its architecture is fascinating too - a combination of Colonial French and the tradional Indonchinese style. Many of the old houses have clearly been bought up by wealthier Asians now and are immaculately decked out inside, and with most people leaving thier doors wide open it's hard not to be nosy...

We spent four days in and around the town - there are plenty of little places with hidden gardens and terraces with views over the Mekong you can hide away for the afternoon with a book and a decent glass of wine (the best of these being the Utopia Bar which is well worth finding if you go). There are also some excellent places to eat (which we did a lot of as usual), many of these in the superb evening market which takes over the main street in the town. You really can pick up some amazing handmade things very cheaply and we both decided we're coming back to do some serious house shopping once we've topped up the bank account and er, have a house...

As far as adventures go Luang Prabang was more civilized and low key than the rest of Laos; we did however do a few trips out of the town - one to the pristine Kuang Si waterfalls which were shockingly blue and and refreshingly cold, and one too the Pak Ou caves which are famous for holding thousands of statues of the Buddha. This actually turned out to be well over hyped and somewhat traumatic. The entire journey down river consisted of the three of us in a small boat with an overly excitable twenty stone American woman who kept going on about Lady Gaga, the X-Factor and Kelly f*cking Clarkson, and a tatoo-covered, seemingly mute Eastern European Neo Nazi who looked like he was ready to murder one of us at any minute. By the time we'd reached the caves we were more terrified of the American woman than we were of the Neo Nazi.

Climbing two hundred steps to stare at a load of old Buddhas for half an hour did little to help too, and things only got worse when we re-boarded and the American Nightmare nearly capsized the boat. She then gave us all a ten minute lecture about why should couldn't make it up the steps (Hockey injury my arse), and promptly proceeded to grab my hand and plant it firmly on her bare sweaty varicose knee, stating "Can you feel it?! That's my knee cap honey, it's totally detached!". Its not often I am speechless, but this was definately one of those times. It certainly made me wonder what the hell had happened to the Neo Nazi before we got on the boat anyway...
View our pics here:
Vang Vieng

Luang Prabang

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