25.12.2012 - 13.01.2013
If you've ever floated down a river in the inflated inner tube of a tractor tyre, off your face on mushrooms, while drinking a bucket of whisky and Red Bull, you've probably been to Vang Vieng. Until recently this little town in central Laos was a notorious centre of backpacker hedonism, due to the remarkable availablity of various drugs in bulk, and unbelievably cheap local booze. Our Vang Vieng-bound bus was full of prim middle-aged French people: it was clear the days of drug-fuelled debauch are now well and truly over.
Late last year the local authorities decided that they'd had enough of these irksome foriegners' squalid idea of fun and without warning one day had all the bars on the party island boarded up or wrecked. When we arrived it was an eerie wasteland. Although I usually like eerie wastelands, Vang Vieng town was the most charmless place we visited in Laos, ruined by tourism, with no remaining character of its own that we could discern, just strips of endless burger bars and souvenir t-shirts. Fortunately escape was just a ten minute bike ride into the lush surrounding countryside, with caves, secret lagoons, forests, butterflies and silence. The local people were surprisingly friendly, despite the years of moronic visitors they have endured. While out for a bike ride, a helpful man advised me that I needed to attach my bag to my bike more securely. 'People in forest!' he warned, making a snatching motion. 'VIETNAMESE people.'
From Vang Vieng we headed south to Vientiane, the Lao capital, intended as a functional stop to arrange visas for Burma. Thanks to the leisurely pace of Burmese visa processing and the new year holiday, we were there for rather longer than expected. As Vientiane turned out to be absolutely lovely, this was not a problem in the slightest. There's nothing much to do, apart from admire the numerous wats, wander the quiet streets, and hang out on the riverfront promenade with the rest of the population to watch the excellent sunsets. Oh and visit the Burmese embassy several times, for a taste of the grindingly slow and archaic bureaucratic processes we can expect when we get there (eg first question on the visa application form: father's name. Sigh.)
Vientiane's charms for me lay in its curvy low-level 1950s and 60s architecture, the sleepy pace, and the little container gardens on all the streets that people clearly tend with a great deal of care, which give this peaceful capital an even more village-like feel. We 'd seen and loved these in residential streets in Tokyo a few years ago and are a wonderful thing for many reason: it means neighbours talk to each other and passers-by while they're out tending their plants; it makes the streets feel very safe - because you are trusted not to damage or steal anything; dull rows of bland buildings just look a whole lot nicer, plus birds, butterflies, bees, all that. The mini-garden outside the guesthouse we stayed in was tended by a lovely eccentric old lady from Cameroon of all places, who was a permanent guest/self-appointed manageress there. But that's another story.
The city exploded into life - well, mild excitement - for New Year's Eve. There had been a greater number than usual of people riding around in pickups randomly shouting 'Aiiiiiiiiiiiii' but otherwise it seemed to be a low-key family occasion. For those of us without families available, and/or who just preferred beer, there was a big noisy Beerlao-sponsored event in the centre.
The festivities were in full swing when we arrived, ie huge amounts of beer were being consumed, terrible Lao pop was blaring over the PA and a good time was being had by all. Shortly before midnight the deputy prime minister took the stage and made a long and evidently profoundly dull speech to which no-one paid any attention at all. Then the countdown to midnight, culminating in mass beer spraying and shrieking to see in the new year. A man shouted 'Enjoy your life!' at us as we left, which we liked very much. New Year's Day saw the sleepy capital of this sleepy country take sleepiness to new levels.
Not exactly an obvious tourist attraction, but we visited the COPE Centre, which provides bomb victims with prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs. (See the previous post for context, if you missed it). Ghoulish as it sounds, in fact the exhibition was unrelentingly positive and upbeat, with nice touches of dark humour (Hello Kitty t-shirts reworked with the bloody removal of a couple of limbs as Hello Cluster Bomb for instance). We've been struck time and time again by how resourceful Lao people are, and their ability to construct just about anything from a combination of bamboo, branches, palm leaves, string, and whatever reusable bits and bobs come to hand. But here we saw the ultimate in recycling. People whose legs had been blown to pieces by lurking unexploded bombs created artificial legs for themselves - out of bomb shells.
Our final week in Laos was spent on one of the thousands of tiny islands in the Mekong close to the border with Cambodia. The river is miles wide here, with rapids, falls, and bizzarely, a colony of very rare Irrawaddy dolphins, which we naturally didn't get to see. Some islands are just a ridge of sand with a tree and a few bushes, while some also have bars, cafes, little $3-4 a night riverside cabins to sleep in, and thus backpackers - the chief of these islands being Don Det, where we of course headed. There is very little to say about this section of the trip, other than hammocks featured prominently, as did Lao mojitos (huge shots of cheap cheap LaoLao whisky instead of rum, no problem). There were some bike rides and walks, but really not the most culturally meaningful few days - idyllic in some ways, frustrating in others - but a defining moment in finding out what we want from this trip and from travelling generally. And some more amazing Mekong river views and sunsets.