Our next stop was the capital city of Laos, Vientiane for a quick 1.5 day stop over. We took a big bus to Vientiane and it was SO smooth and direct, nothing like the first Laos bus episode. When we arrived we checked into a beautiful little hotel, though, in the running for the smallest room we've stayed in yet-like a foot on each side of the bed. And a bit more expensive than we liked to pay but so goes Vientiane. To counter, I went out to a random street food restaurant and ordered shrimp and basil. Most meat in Asia seems to come with heads and the shrimp were no exception. Not sure if they were actually edible or mostly just there to add some extra shrimp weight as my meal shrank in size dramatically once removed...
Turns out, Vientiane was bad for our relationship because Bridger and I fought so I did a full day of sightseing by myself while he went to the bar all day or something. So again, lacking his perspective here!
Trying to save money I decided I was going to walk to all the sites today instead of taking a taxi. My first stop was to a giant grey concrete monument in the middle of the city (well actually my first stop was one of Laos endless bakeries which was a dream since I spent the first few countries searching for chocolate and cheesecake). Apparently the dollars that built this monument were given by the US to build a new airport runway but instead Laos decided to create this. And then I guess they still ran out of money because it's unfinished and the the sign at the bottom of the monument said something so boastful as: "when you come near the concrete monster it is even less impressive up close"! And it wasn't impressive-just a giant concrete slap with no art, design or originality at all but cool to see nonetheless. I went up top and got some neat views of the city below.
My next stop I was pretty excited for because it was a giant golden Wat/temple. From far away it looked really beautiful but as I got closer I realized that it was actually just painted yellow and a bit grimy looking so a bit less impressive in reality!
As I was walking to my next stop there was a big group of locals having some sort of a party on a balcony/tent on the street which had clearly been going on for awhile already because they were not a sober bunch but definitely an incredibly happy bunch. The music was blaring and the BeerLao (Laotians LOVE their BeerLao!) was flowing steady. Sure enough they insisted that I join them and I thought "what the hell" so I did. And immediately they poured me a giant cup of Beerlao...with ice. So now I'm faced with some choices--offend the eager hosts by refusing entirely, drink questionable ice and possibly maintain my record of being sick in every country so far or try to choke down this giant glass of beer (which I already don't drink) warm!!! I chose to gamble with the ice and it's a good thing because it actually made the beer taste kind of good which was especially good because there were about 5 more after that! When I turned my head I was full again, when I had my hand over top laughing to leave me alone I still got full again, when I politely declined I still managed to be full again! Haha there was definitely no English spoken at this table so we communicated in BeerLao, over the top gestures, rowdiness, smiles and laughter, all the universal languages. Eventually obviously word got around of the white girl at the party because a younger guy who spoke English came over to chat and translate between everyone. I stayed for awhile and the group kept cheers'ing me and trying to get me to chug the beer and then dance....dance!! Are you kidding me?! Reserved me, the only white girl in the place, getting up an dancing in front of everyone all eyes on me?! No way! Not to mention thatat first they kept insisting that I just go dance immediately andjust leave my unfinished drink on the table with them...that was definitely not happening. Most of the time these things will be a great experience and nothing bad would happen but then there's the odd time where you get screwed, much like our friend Simon who went to a locals house for dinner on invitation in Cambodia and ended up drugged, robbed and dropped back off at the hotel! Haha well...managed to glug down my beer and keep my cup empty and then yes way...somehow they managed it and there I was doing some crappy dance moves with a few locals to a guy singing live music while the rest of the locals watched on! Everyone was loaded and having a great time. From what I could gather it was a party to celebrate the kickoff to Laos new year though that didn't start from another month so not sure...maybe just an excuse to party?! It was an unexpected, amazing, kind, authentic time but of course I'm cognizant that I'm a girl alone, nobody knows where I am and I'd been drinking. So after one too many beer I made up a lie about how my boyfriend was waiting for me at the hotel and I was already late to meet him so I had to go. Though they were reluctant about my leaving, it worked and I continued my walking journey down the street.
After this lovely, totally unexpected afternoon party, I went to the COPE visitor centre, an agency that supports UXO clearance and support of those impacted by them...unfortunately this is also on the corrupt memory card so no photos here either. It was an amazing exhibit that provided some really good history all for free but donations were accepted. Found out that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world because during the Vietnamese war, tons of cluster bombs were dropped along Vietnamese supply routes which happened to be everywhere in Laos, even though Laos was not directly involved in this conflict. The problem was that SO many of them didn't detonate, essentially leaving live bombs littered throughout Laos. Given that Laos is such an agriculturally based country, the farmers have no choice but to work their fields as the need to feed their families/make money outweighs the risk of detonating a UXO. Also children pick them up and play with them out of curiosity. Because of this, there are still many killings and maimings every year. Further exacerbating these dangers is that the scrap metal trade has become a lucrative endeavour so many people actively search for the UXO's (i.e. Scrap metal) to trade for cash, again, the many poor people perceiving the risk worth it in the pursuit of survival. Much like Cambodia where landmines, literally intentional killing machines, are scattered through the country (Cambodia remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world) I was struck by how horrific it is that people across the world have to make this choice! Luckily there are agencies in both countries actively clearing areas and providing support through prosthetics to victims. A worthwhile cause that we plan to make a donation to once employed people again.
Over the course of the day I must have walked like 10 km's, didn't spend any transport money, saw all the main sites I wanted to see in Vientiane and then joined a party so was feeling pretty good! Not typically a fan of big city tourism, I was happy to move on to Vang Vieng the next day.
Since Vang Vieng is only like 100 km away, the trip was supposed to take about 3 hours. The minibus (gah!) picked us up outside our hotel room and again we were the first on the bus at about 9:00 am. At 9:45 we were back at our hotel picking up someone else go figure. I guess we should have slept in a little longer. We drove around the area forever, not only picking up more people from hotels but when we were full, kicking people who'd already gotten on the minibus out of the minibus into some other vehicle. Two hours later we were still blocks away from our hotel...hadn't even started the trip yet! We didn't pay too much money so we were supposed to get dropped off at the big, cheaper bus but once on the road the bus never stopped moving. Just as well because it was faster anyways and we paid a cheaper rate!
The bus dropped us off at a bus stop outside of town and a "free" bus came to pick us up. As always I wonder what strings "free" comes with but this time, it just dropped us outside a particular hotel, of course, with the owners out inviting people in. Many people said to us that Vang Vieng was disgusting and dirty and everyone gets food poisoning and we should just skip it so we had best intentions to head just outside of town for quieter more peaceful accommodation. But at this point, as always, we were done with transit, sweaty and just wanted to be settled so we stayed at this hotel. We dropped our stuff and went exploring...not that far. Now Bridger has this "incredible" gift of somehow, no matter where he goes in the world, finding the one and only Irish pub around. Vang Vieng was no exception. I'd say within 10 minutes we were in Gary (from Kerry)'s Irish pub for a free drink which turned into expensive Irish dinner (with vinegar!) and several other 3 for 2 drinks which turned into more full price drinks all with the backdrop of a violent rain and lightning storm. Turns out there was a guy there who we had asked 1 question to on the bus to Tha Khek. We didn't remember him but he remembered us, he says, because of "Bridger's hair and because we moved seats so many times on the bus" (we did-we tried out about 5 different places before eventually settling on the first one)...that right there, the stuff legends are made of.
We visited Vang Vieng at a time when it was getting a massive image overhaul. It has a reputation as a hard partying town and that's it so had very low expectations based on reviews from others. Actually, even though the dusty town itself was nothing to write home about, the surrounding scenery was spectacular as the town sits at the base of lush mountains and cliffs with a beautiful little river running through the middle. And it was pretty quiet and peaceful...nothing like the off the hook party scene we had heard so much about. Interestingly, here is the story of Vang Vieng.
Sometime in the recent past Vang Vieng was Laos' premier and only party destination because of the river tubing. That's the only reason people came. At this time the river was lined with endless bars that lured young partyers in with free shots, music, tarzan swings, slides, young drunk socializing, basically clubbing on the river. There are endless stories from backpackers who passed through Vang Vieng at this time who rave about the incredible party scene. As it turns out, alcohol and rivers don't go well together because people started dying or getting seriously injured...like alot of them in alot of different ways. Plenty of drunk people died by drowning by falling off their tubes or being swept away by the fast river current. People died or were injured by blunt force trauma from smashing their heads against docks or rocks while diving, flipping or falling into the river etc. Or worse, by being at the wrong place, wrong time like the story of two people severely injured by someone else landing on them after jumping off a Tarzan swing. Or there is even stories of accidental poisoning from poorly brewed local booze. This was all compounded by the fact that there were no (and still no) adequate medical facilities nearby so many people had to be transported to Thailand. From the sounds of it, people starting dying at an astronomical rate of like 2+ people per month until the Laos government eventually stepped in and basically crushed the party scene by closing all but like 2 of the bars and tube rental companies and imposing a curfew. Today there are plenty of eerie, overgrown and abandoned reminders of Vang Vieng's party history.
There were also some pretty clear residual signs of disdain for drunken asshole tourists from the locals.
Shockingly enough, once the government cracked down, tourists actually stopped coming altogether. At the time we were there, Vang Vieng was trying to rebrand and cultivate itself as a paradise for serenity and outdoor adventure which there certainly seemed to be an abundance of, from hiking to caving to sober river tubing. I actually wondered how this beautiful place with seemingly so much to offer turned into the partyer zone that it did in the first place.
Actually the Laos government seems to have a really tight grip over things in the country. Now, Laos is still one of the only remaining communist countries in the world. I'm going to preface this by saying that I am quite uneducated on the topic and communismmay or may not have something to do with its tight control over things and it may actually be a bad and/or oppressive thing, I'm not sure, BUT to be honest, it was actually a little bit impressive how they actually step in to take significant action to make sure that things don't devolve to an undesirable level much like other countries in the region. When they saw that Vang Vieng was getting out of control they shut it down, to stop Laos from being a party destination they imposed a curfew, I heard they cut giving out permits for hotels to focus on quality over quantity. What is remarkable is that they acted in spite of the negative impact that it had on tourist numbers and therefore, incoming tourism dollars. Where Cambodia unfortunately sells everything to get cash in hand, the Laos government will actually make calls that sacrifice dollars to preserve ideals that it considers of value.
Unfortunately while we were in Vang Vieng it pretty well rained the entire time :( We had one nice day where we walked around and enjoyed the natural scenery and exceptional Laos sunsets but after that it rained, kept raining and was otherwise miserably cold. It was hands down the coldest I had been since Korea. Obviously while sitting there in my two pairs of pants and 3 shirts with my scarf, jumping on a tube down a slow moving river under the clouds and rain for many hours didn't sound like an enjoyable endeavour. We even extended our visit there by a few days in hopes of sun and being able to lazily float down the infamous river but no such luck. Luckily, for some reason pretty well every restaurant and bar in Vang Vieng plays season discs of "Friends" on rotation for, from what I can gather, 24 hours a day, so we ended up spending alot of time eating and watching Friends.
On one of these rainy days we were sitting eating breakfast and a Korean guy sitting behind Bridger tapped him and said "excuse me". Before he had even turned around fully his girlfriend had already snapped a picture of Bridger and the guy together haha. Man, the attention that Bridger and his golden locks attract is truly spectacular!
We tried to take advantage of the rain by trying to set up a blog but the download speeds were off the charts slow so we gave up. We also discovered an utterly incredible bakery in Vang Vieng. So obviously we fell off the healthy eating bandwagon hard in Laos. I swear I ate at the bakery 3x per day and not food but cakes, cookies, squares, breads...It got to the point where I couldn't pass it without buying some sweets or Bridger would think I was going to the internet cafe (which I was!) but would find me at the bakery instead!
The weather did cooperate enough to allow us to do one incredible thing in Vang Vieng...take a sunrise hot air balloon ride up and over the town, mountains and karsts. It was a big splurge at $80 USD ea. but it was exponentially softened knowing that at home the same trip is essentially unaffordable at double to triple the price. So given that we had never been in a hot air balloon and would never get the opportunity to do it at this price again, we went for it. Now here's a life lesson: one thing you should never do is look up tripadvisor reviews for something only offered by one company (i.e. no choices) that you have decided that you are going to do anyways. The reviews for this particular adventure were split between "breathtaking/perfect/best thing ever" and "terrifying/tree and power line dodging/crash landing". We got picked up at 5:30 am and taken to the field where they were blowing up our balloon. Ourselves and 4 other tourists and the pilot pile in to the basket,
I jump when the first fire/air is blown because it's so so loud and we were off, hovering just above rooftops at times and passing metres by taller buildings (I'm not quite convinced you can really steer these things!).
Eventually we lifted straight up until we were looking down on the cloud covered mountains/cliffs with the sun rising over the surrounding mountains. The view was so spectacular that I (almost) forgot to be afraid.
We were up for about 30 minutes when we started our descent, the part where I had come to terms with the possibility of landing in a tree but was really nervous about the alternatives. No problems...didn't even see any powerlines and the landing was pretty good considering that we're ultimately landing in a wheel-less basket in a bumpy field being dropped by an inflatable unsteerable balloon. Well worth the $80! We went home for a one hour nap that turned into being in bed for half the day before going to write in a peaceful, quiet little restaurant balcony over the river for a few hours while Bridger went, surprise, back to the Irish bar. In our little quiet moments both together and separate we've really noticed how a lot of tourists don't even acknowledge or look at staff when they serve them, or worse people who yell or snap rudely to get staff attention. We cringe every time we see this because it just comes across as so terribly disrespectful (no wonder local people eventually become disdainful of tourists) and promise ourselves that we'll always make effort to stop what we are doing, make eye contact and smile or say thank you.
The next day we went to the bakery for breakfast and a snack and then later, another snack and then Bridger brought me a chocolate bar. Haha I started to feel really shitty about my total loss of control over baked goods consumption! Somewhere between bakery visits we found a little kid wandering down the street who didn't seem to have any adult with him. We watched him for little while to make sure he wasn't lost even though his level of concern very much indicated that he wasn't--he just casually wandered up and down the streets coming and going and laughing hysterically as he grabbed and bent Bridger's finger backwards and then ran away. Eventually he found some sort of an adult who seemed to equally casually know him so we considered ourselves lucky that we didn't have to figure out how the Laos missing children's programs works now that we had clearly involved ourselves!
After so many days of cold and rain, we were ready to get out of Vang Vieng, thouhh it really was a pleasant surprise. We were so happy that they culled the party scene as the quiet, laidback, no party scene, shut down at 11 or 12 pm Laos is really very much more charming.