It was difficult to find a reason to do so, but eventually Luke and I departed idyllic Muang Ngoi and headed south for the world heritage listed city of Luang Prabang. Set on a peninsula where the Nam Khan flows into the Mekong, Luang Prabang is overshadowed on all sides by misty, green mountains and dotted with many Buddhist wat (temples) in varying states of disrepair and rehabilitation, most of which date back several centuries. Daylight hours are best spent exploring these relics while walking the wide, clean streets, which are lined with several picturesque French colonial buildings. It is when the sun sets however, that the town centre really comes alive, centred around the Hmong night market where one can find any number of hilltribe handicrafts and other souvenirs.
Lining the main street in front of the market are the ever-present baguette stalls where Luke could be found buying 5,000 kip (60c) chicken salad baguettes from the same woman, “because she puts so much chicken on and she loves me,” for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In a laneway opposite, a busy food market selling everything from donuts to sausages to deep-fried bananas does a roaring trade. A favourite among tight-ass backpackers, Luke and I included, was the 5,000 kip buffet where everyone was forced to do a balancing act after stacking their plates so high that they could not carry another noodle.
In light of a six-month hankering, I just had to buy a fat sausage, whack it in a baguette, cover it in tomato sauce and have myself a ‘sausage sanga.’ A couple of days later I came down with a brutal case of salmonella poisoning that stayed with me for the best part of two weeks. Luke accused my sausage as being the culprit, but we will just never know. In any case, it was worth it.
Too crook to make the three-day, very hilly journey south, I caught the bus, with the King Brown riding on the roof, to Vang Vieng. The six-hour, painfully cramped trip only strengthened my conviction to travel in the manner that I do, as I passed through 250kms of Laos that I could neither smell, hear, taste nor feel. All I could do was watch it pass me by 50 square centimetres at a time.
Set in a beautiful location, Vang Vieng is a must-stop for any backpacker travelling through Laos and subsequently, the town itself has become a bit of a gimmick; restaurants are defined as ‘Friends’ or ‘Family Guy’ establishments depending on which of those two shows they play on constant rotation; the only street food available is overpriced pancakes and drunken poms flood the street of an evening.
It is the areas outside Vang Vieng that the real beauty of the place is revealed, which can be fully exploited through a wide range of activities including kayaking, rock climbing and caving. There is one activity however, that makes Vang Vieng one of a kind; tubing. The concept is fairly simple; you catch a tuk-tuk 3km upstream, jump in an old tractor tube and float back to town. Sounds relaxing, right?
However, this is tubing Lao-style so a few measures have been taken to liven things up a bit. Rickety bamboo bars line the river where one can pick up a whisky bucket or a beer and either mingle with some of the other 200+ like-minded tubers, snap themselves on the water as they are launched from huge flying foxes and trapeze-like swings whose structural integrity is questionable at best or take their beverage as a roadie and enjoy it while drifting beneath the enormous limestone peaks to the next stop in this mobile party.
In just my fourth week on tour, I met an Aussie traveller who declared that tubing in Vang Vieng was his “funnest” day in SE Asia and I would have trouble disagreeing with him.
Not 100m from the launch point, Luke and I grabbed the bamboo pole thrown out to us and we were reeled into the first bar. About half-way through my beer, I decided to attempt a horsie from the flying fox platform and inflicted upon myself what would be the first of many painful encounters with the Nam Song. Following some more drifting and refreshments at several bars including a techno-pumping beach bar and an inconspicuous hut from where one could buy such delicacies as chocolate space cake with cream and locally grown mushroom shakes, we arrived at the heart of our aquatic pub crawl.
Over a large area along the river bank, Luke, I and a couple hundred others spent hours moving between the bar, the beach volleyball courts, and the massive swing, at the front of which was a not so reassuring sign that read; ‘Swing at your own risk. Nearest hospital: Bangkok.’
The many bamboo platforms lining the edge of the river were a favourite place to meet new people while watching and wincing as travellers with too many buckets under their belt (or perhaps just the right amount) lost all sense of self-preservation and flung themselves into the river from a great height, hitting the water with painful slaps.
As the sun moved behind the peaks we forced ourselves back into our tubes and floated to our last stop; a chilled out bar with a more sedate swing and a campfire, around which worn-out tubers had a drink, passed the doobie and laughingly reflected on the day that was.
The final float back to town took the best part of two hours during which darkness descended and I found myself alone, bucket in hand, once again taking in the beauty of my surrounds that were softly illuminated by the warm glow of the moon.
The following morning, despite waking up feeling and looking like I’d gone six rounds with Mike Tyson during which he had been kind to me and only dealt me body blows, Luke and I had a hearty breakfast and did it all again.
Unfortunately, our time together came to an end soon after and following a strong embrace and warm wishes, Luke and the Red Walrus cruised off into the horizon in search of white sand and sparkling, blue waters on the distant beaches of southern Thailand.
I can’t describe how good it was to have Luke around for the seven weeks prior. After six months alone on the road, it was a blessing to have someone to eat with, drink with, hang out with, have a laugh with, talk shit with, discuss life with and of course, share the cost of a hotel room with, even if it did mean being pushed out of bed and having the blanket reefed off me every night.
Thanks for coming Luke, it’s been an absolute highlight and I look forward to doing it all again sometime in the future. Christmas in India, 2008!!
After a long time apart, the King Brown and I were reunited to undertake the two-day ride to the Lao capital of Vientiane. Having not eaten very much over the past week and having only drunk whisky buckets for the previous two days and given that my torso was covered in bruises through which I received stabs of pain for every bump I rode over, it is safe to say that I wasn’t in the best of form for this journey. Nonetheless, I made it in time to meet my little sis, Al ‘Bundy,’ who was at the tail end of her southern Thailand party tour, although her partying capabilities had been somewhat limited owing to a case of dengue fever.
Sitting on a major bend in the Mekong, Vientiane is not overly attractive, but is a very relaxed capital city. The massive island of Don Chan, which varies in size according to the season, is a favourite place for locals and falang alike to find some space of an evening and watch the sunset.
Al and I had a very enjoyable four days together visiting the local sights, shopping at the expansive market, eating cheap cookies and having long breakfasts at our favourite bakery cafe. In the evenings we would retire to our luxury hotel that came at a cost of a whopping $30/night, but was more suited to Al’s tastes than that which I’m used to staying in.
Our time together peaked on Al’s last night when we went on a Valentine’s date, which began with a delicious burrito at a Mexican restaurant. We followed this with a couple of games of ten-pin bowling where Al was pleased to find that the lanes weren’t so old-school that she had to walk down and pick up the pins herself after knocking them over.
Beside us were two Lao bowlers who had a lane each and two very unique, but effective styles that one would only see in a sport that has been introduced from the developed in to the developing world. After each good bowl, they would flash huge grins, beaming with pride, to the Lao girls watching on from behind.
After a few late-night street donuts and many more laughs, we ended a hilarious evening and I farewelled my sis the following day, rendering me solo once more. It was fantastic to see another family member and I feel blessed that three have made it over to visit in only eight months. It allows me to truly catch up with them and ensures that I don’t become too disconnected from what is happening back home.
Thanks for coming Al.