SAME SAME, BUT DIFFERENT
Vientiane, Laos, in a lot of ways reminded me of Cambodia, in particular the dusty town of Koh Kong, but not as nice. Being a border crossing town there were a lot of farang, but these ones seem to have decided to set up shop, it is an odd site to see westerners in suits walking around dusty streets and crumbling facades, purchasing hamburgers, pizza and ladyboys (I done seen it with my own eyes).
It’s not really that there is anything wrong with Vientiane, I just didn’t like it very much (ditto Laos in general), it is true we didn’t see a hell of a lot as we were sorting out our Thai visas (which by the way is easy as, even if everyone there is trying to wrought you), as well as escaping from a bed bug ridden guest house in the middle of the night, but what I did see of it was a bit underwhelming.
I enjoyed an evening walk around Vientianes sights. The black Stupa which was supposed to bring good luck to the town, and the replica arc de triumph which sits at the end of a road and has a few fountains around it, I in particular liked the plaque on the mini arc which basically said it was never finished and is even more shit close up than from afar (although I thought it was the highlight of the city).
Apparently from the city there are a few cool things to see, but I always felt like I was getting overcharged, for tuk tuks to the consulate (about $12 return for a 10min journey), for rooms with bed bugs, or the last place we stayed with cat faeces adorning the ancient red carpets and mounds of dust as a feature in every room, and for food which really was not very good, I mean this is Laos for Christs sake, it should be cheap.
From the above you might surmise I did not have a good time, well you have surmised wrong, fact is I didn’t have a great time, but I did have a good one. We are in a new country with different things to see, and strange encounters to be had, we laughed a bit, moaned a bit, and watched an episode of “The Voice- season 2”, what more could you ask for?
YOUR LODGINGS GOOD SIR
O.K. so our first hotel was over run with bed bugs, but, somehow we didn’t get bitten, and yeah sure the coffee at said hotel was shit, but it was free! And after fleeing in the dead of night from the noisy air-cons and bitey little bastards (which by the way I have had to endure for months when I lived in London). We found a much more accommodating pit to rest our weary, hard done by, gainfully unemployed bodies at.
We fled to a huge hotel that would once have been amazing, but now had the feeling that doors were only opened if someone stayed there, and that that didn’t happen as often as it once might have. Despite the previously mentioned dust mounds, it was quite interesting to think about what once might have been here, what kind of people would have danced away the evenings in the ballroom (now a place to openly store unused furniture), how might the wallpaper and crimson red carpets have looked before they started peeling away from their respective surfaces, and before cleaning them was considered a lost cause. 4 floors of enormous rooms were coming to their end, but some bastard just would not let this place die. And lucky for us, or it might have been the streets for an evening.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
After picking up our visas and dropping another 80 000 kip for the journey, we booked a bus for the following day and waited with baited breath for the opportunity to leave. At about 11am the following day, around an hour late (seems to be the norm, and once your prepared to be late, being late doesn’t seem as bad), we were on a bus to Vang Vieng, Laos, and aside from the murder of umpteen mosquitos and watching the scenery get better and better, it was a somewhat uneventful bus ride, we arrived only a couple of hours late in VV, got chucked on a tuk tuk into town, and after navigating through the sales pitches sat down for a sprite while we decided what to do.
I wasn’t holding out much hope for VV, I knew the scenery was supposed to be beautiful, but it has a reputation for young tourists renting tubes, floating down the river, and getting hammered at the bars which drag you in every few meters, or so it seems. Sarah had done a bit of research and found an organic farm on the outskirts which sounded lovely. with natural food on offer and a bit of peace away from the maddening crowd. With this in mind we decided to rent our own scooter straight off the bat and make our way to the guest house. 50 000 kip later we were piling our bags on the bike any way it would fit, and precariously making our way down some pretty treacherous roads , with baggage threatening to overbalance or get stuck in the wheels (to be fair they are perfectly good roads for about 100meters, then washed away for about 20, then great again).
Somehow, despite Sarah ( my better travel blog half) gasping for fear every 10sec, we made it to the guest house. Here is what they don’t tell you, they charged about double what our current guest house in town charges, for a room that is not as nice, and also that the tubing misadventures start about 50meters away, this last i found out by looking in the direction of the 3 hit party songs blaring out of the bars at the same time, awesome.
So with heavy hearts we made our way back to town with our expectations lowered, our fear of crashing heightened and disappointment firmly in place. What a nice surprise it was then when about an hour later, we were checking into our room for half the price, away from the noise, and, surprisingly, in town. The hotel is “Sanachai” and for about $10 we get a good size room with ensuite, a T.V. (with only local channels, but it helps me keep my entertainment addiction in check), aircon, and a wake up call from the local roosters. Aside from the bed being the hardest thing I have ever had to sleep on, score!
THE WATER CAVE
Today was our first real day to explore Vang Vieng, Laos, so we took the motorbike along some hairy roads (not so bad when you get used to them though) out of town to see the “Water Cave”. after 20-30km we hit the turnoff and followed a rocky little road down toward the river, we parked the bike and for 5000kip were assured it would be looked after (after this solemn vow the guy wandered off to god knows where, hmmm). We crossed a little bridge for another 5000kip each (bridge fee), and started walking in what we assumed was the right direction. I asked a local lad who seemed to be going the same way, which direction to the Water Cave, he divulged the information and we continued to walk, upon going straight he corrected us to turn left, I thought, “ah this is handy, he seems to be going in the same direction!” It became apparent a few minutes later though, that somehow this youngster had become our guide, oh well, we would probably need one to find the place anyway.
After taking us on a round-about route so as to potentially sell us on seeing some other caves (we declined, how much caving can you do in a day), we arrived about 20 minutes later at the “Water Cave”. Beautiful, crystal blue water leads up to a low hole in the Carst (apparently the name for a limestone mountain thingy), you can see straight away that the water is going to be cold, and fresh, which is great when you have spent the day in the sun and dust that is Laos. So we paid 10 000kip each for the entry, and then were pointed to the tube and headlight people, who we paid another 10 000kip to (do you see a pattern emerging here?).
Eventually we were told to leave our stuff with the cafe, and after disrobing, jumped on our respective tubes…YEEOOOW, that’s some cold water! I pre-dipped myself so as not to be scared of splashes, we jumped on our tubes, and then being led by our guide pulled ourselves along the ropes leading into and through the caves. It is a wonderful experience, cool and so refreshing, in places the water is several meters deep, and without the head torch you would soon be in complete darkness, the limestone walls are smooth and in some places cut high up into the mountain as cavernous cracks, all up I would guess it to be about 500m into the darkness, with other small tunnels splitting from ours every now and then.
At some places you walk and at others paddle from your tube, you suddenly reach the end and the water just stops, we hung out here for awhile, switched off our torches and enjoyed the absolute darkness, listening to water running in from the cracks. As I said, a marvelous experience.
We left the tunnel, had a swim at its entrance in the cool clear water, and then headed back to our bike, the only disappointment here was when our 17 year old guide, who was friendly enough, but really had not done or said much, requested 200 000kip for his “expertise”, that’s almost $25! Sarah being pretty good at the whole bargaining thing pretty much said no, and we ended up giving him 100 000kip, still probably too much considering it only cost 20 000kip to enter the cave. He of course was disappointed, but who isn’t when they get caught out with daylight robbery, be warned, ask how much first.
In retrospect, you don’t need a guide, as long as you can get yourself to the cave, which is not too hard, going into the cave ourselves would have been great, with no one to rush you you could spend ages in there soaking up the ambiance.
After the cave it was back into town, past a procession of monks, and to the cafe version of the organic farm, and 2 fresh goats cheese baguettes later I had to say, bravo VV, you have surpassed my expectations with your natural beauty, french styled cuisine, and blueberry shakes.
We have a few more days here in Vang Vieng, Laos, and I am quite looking forward to seeing what we can see, and without the T.V. I have started to read again, which I love to do. The only potential hazard I can see coming up, is this concrete slab they call a mattress, but hey, at least no bed bugs.