June 26-27, 2009
From Luang Prabang we took a minivan south to Vang Vieng.
Gorgeous mountains everywhere as we approach Vang Vieng:
Vang Vieng is situated along the Nam Song river. Nearly all the accommodations are on the east side of the river, but there are a few on the flip side, and a few on a small island in between. Pnina and I ended up staying on the island because it was the only place where we could still find an available bungalow. The price was 50,000 kip / night ($25), which was a little more than we paid elsewhere in Laos, but it was a unique experience.
We stayed in the bungalow to the right of the bridge:
By this point we’d been in Laos for only a few days, but we were already getting the impression that Laos is kind of like Thailand but sleepier and more laid-back. It has all the backpacker-friendly conveniences (English-speaking locals, internet, cheap hotels, etc.) but without the thick backpacker crowds and without the over-the-top party scene you find in, say, Khaosan Road, Bangkok.
But then we arrived in Vang Vieng and our impression was totally shattered. Holy crap, this place is southeast Asia’s party central. It’s certainly not as big as Bangkok, but in Bangkok at least some people spend some time visiting temples or whatnot, whereas people only come to Vang Vieng for one reason: to party.
During the morning, people hang out in restaurants around town, eating and recovering from the prior night, watching TV sitcoms that play in an endless loop (Friends, Family Guy, Simpsons…). In the afternoon everyone goes tubing. This tubing-vang-vieng thing has become a “right of passage” for backpackers doing the southeast Asia circuit. For 55,000 kip ($27) they drive you upriver and set you off in a big tube. Floating downriver is just part of the shtick – the real fun is that you can pull over in the various bars along both shores. The bars are set up like MTV spring-break: sand volleyball, mud-wrestling pits, huge swings over the water, and of course lots of drinks. Most people get stuck at the first bar and forget to tube the rest of the way downstream to Vang Vieng (which means that they have to pay extra to catch another tuk-tuk ride back). People who actually tube their way back generally go straight to one of the in-town bars to keep drinking.
You probably gathered by now that Pnina and I are not really into this party scene. Also, the 55,000 kip price sounded like highway robbery (for what? a tuk-tuk ride and a tube??). There really was some kind of cartel set up in town because no other shop had inner tubes, not even for sale. We met a couple of girls that got around this barrier by purchasing toy-like inflatable fish and using them as floaters 🙂 And actually, we later heard a rumor that this so-called cartel was actually set up to distribute the backpacker-tubing money among the town’s locals. If that’s true then I guess it’s cool, but the big winners are definitely the people who own the bars along the river!
Aaanyways, instead of doing the standard tubing trip, Pnina and I signed up for a kayaking trip. Our trip was much cheaper, it included lunch, and it included stops at a couple of caves. On top of that, the last part of our kayaking trip was down the same stretch of river where the tubing people go, so we had a chance to stop at one of those bars after all. All in all, it was a pretty good choice for us.
Pnina getting set to kayak downriver:
First stop was at the Elephant Cave, which gets its name from a supposedly-natural elephant-looking formation up above. This is a view of a different end of the cave, showing some of the Buddha statues inside:
The second cave was much more fun. We hopped onto inner tubes and pulled ourselves using ropes upstream into the cave. After a while the water became too shallow, so we beached our tubes and continued walking another 50 meters or so. There were a few stalactite formations here and there, but mostly it was just cool to be floating on a tube inside a cave:
Shahaf at the cave’s entrance:
Back to the kayak:
The first of the river-side bars; as you can see, most of the tubing people got stuck here:
We started cheering for the people in the bar, they started cheering back 🙂
We stopped at a place called Smile Bar 2, which was kind of empty because everybody was stuck at the first bar (above). Our bar had a muddy tug-of-war pit, and after eyeing it for a while we just had to try. It was awesome:
Me celebrating a muddy victory (though two minutes later my team got sunk pretty bad).
Right around this time it started raining and the wind picked up, so all of us were shivering pretty bad (Pnina’s lips were blue). This was the first and only time we were actually cold in Laos. But even though we were cold, we had to try the big swing…
You climb onto this platform (which is probably 2-3 stories above the water), grab on, and swing away. After a couple back-and-forth, you let go and fall down to the water. Then the bar people (who are all sober) throw you a life-saver and pull you ashore (the current can sweep you away if you don’t pay attention). This is Pnina just getting started:
A final group shot as we all reach Vang Vieng again:
This was one of my first attempts to shoot a macro video using my little Canon Elf camera:
In the News
On June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson passed away. This was just weeks before he was set to start his first concert tour in more than a decade. The coroner decided to treat Jackson’s death as a homicide, blaming Jackson’s personal physician for the toxic cocktail of medication found in his body after death, but no official verdict has come so far.