Hello from stunning Vang Vieng - easily the most beautiful town I have visited in Asia. We arrived here 3 days ago from Vientiane after a 4 hour bus journey where at times it looked as if the bus was certain to break down! The driver had immense difficulty getting the public bus into gear, which was a slight problem when we were going up steep inclines! We arrived at about 3pm and I wasted the remainder of the daylight hours eating out (which takes a while in Asia when you're with a group of 16), and then taking advantage of what is remarkably the fastest Internet I've used in all of Asia to upload some photographs to Facebook. It is remarkable because Vang Vieng is a pretty isolated rural town with a population of just 25,000. Tourism here has exploded in the last 10 years since the government managed to quell some civil unrest in the region. Many Lao people left this area during the Vietnam War to escape American bombing, and since returning many years later the government did not grant them their land back as other people had claimed it. But all is well now and there has been no trouble in recent years. Laos was badly hit by American B52 bombing during the Vietnam War as the Ho Chi Minh Trail (which was a supply trail to get weapons from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong fighters in the south) ran through the country. More bombs were dropped on Laos during the conflict than were dropped on Europe the whole of World War 2, and unexploded bombs, as well as landmines, remain an issue here.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective), the boom in tourism here in Vang Vieng has turned a sleepy rural village into a somewhat sordid backpacker mecca. The main street is crammed with bars, massage parlours, internet cafe's and restaurants. I cannot imagine how different it must have been 15 years ago and it makes you wonder how tourism impacts on local cultures and life. On the one hand tourists bring a lot of money and employment opportunities to the region, but on the other you wonder whether young people here will start to rebel from such local traditions as getting married at 15. Laos is not as developed as Vietnam and has not yet felt the full force of globalisation. Still, the main street does not detract from Vang Vieng's location, which is set at the foot of some huge tree covered limestone mountains (see blog pic). They form an amazing backdrop to the town and are the basis of a lot of outdoor activities you can do here.
One activity in particular has been central to Vang Vieng's popularity. "Tubing" has really taken off and literally everyone who comes here seems to participate. Our group was no exception. Basically you sit in a large rubber ring and float down the river stopping on route at some of the many riverside bars which offer cheap drinks (and in some cases cheap drugs). The weather yesterday was perfect for our tubing excursion, which started at 11am and ran until sunset at around 6pm. A tuk-tuk ferried us 4km up stream to the start of the tubing course, and from there we got on our tubes! Being dry season parts of the river were very shallow, and I now have numerous cuts on my lower back and feet as a result. It is at least much less dangerous at this time of year, with the wet season usually claiming at least one life (often down to drink or drugs). In spite of the occassional discomfort I still had a great time sat on the tube and I found it to be very relaxing and fun. There was always enough current to take you along without you having to paddle.
We didn't cruise for long before we stopped at the first of three bars. This was the first place where I tried out a rope swing, which almost every place seemed to have. It was kind of like a trapeze and you jumped off a wooden ledge and then swang back and forth until you lost momentun, when you would let go and drop about 2-3m into a deep section of the river. People must get injured doing it at some of the bars but the swings we used were always above deep water and there was no danger of breaking anything no matter when you let go. The bar also had a mud volleyball court, which was a lot of fun, as well as hammocks and benches for you to relax on. After an hour or so stopped there we got back on our tubes and sailed the short distance down to the second bar, which had even more fun stuff to try out! There was a waterslide which tapered up at the end, shooting you out across the river, and also a zip line which was my favourite. You had to let go before the end otherwise it would flip you, and some unwitting people fell victim to this and landed rather badly! We had lunch at this bar and spent most of the afternoon there. By the time we arrived at the third and final bar it was getting close to dark, and disappointingly we did not have time to complete the full 4km course and had to abort after 2km and take tuk-tuks back. After an afternoon of drinking in the hot sun some people were a little worst for wear and short tempered by the end, and very few people had the energy or will to go out that evening! On reflection I had an absolutely fantastic day of pure fun filled madness and I would love to go tubing again! There was a fantastic vibe at all the bars and everyone was there for a good time. I had so much fun using the swings and slides and it felt great just to be able to let your hair down and have a great time. If only there was tubing in England!
Today I recovered in time to be up early to go mountain trekking - the first and probably last such opportunity I'll have in Asia. Me, Courtney and Genevive all went with our own personal guide, who spoke good English. We were dropped off in a Hmong (an ethnic group here) village at the base of the mountains, which offered a glimpse into genuine Lao life. Its always interesting to see their primitive houses and always fun to see the local kids playing in the streets. Unfortunately some of the kids were going a little overboard with their playing, throwing large rocks at a pregnant pig! We couldn't tell them to stop because we didn't speak their language and nor did our tour guide. From the village we walked across some fields to the river, which we had to cross on what is certainly the last stable bridge I've ever used. It was a cable rope bridge and the rails you hold onto were about my knee height, so I had to crouch very low. It was a long crossing and we had to go one at a time as the thing was so unstable! It real did feel like it might flip you off but we all made it eventually. A group of 16 must take ages to cross it, as with just 4 of us we were there about 20 minutes!
We then started the climb up into the mountains, which was very energy sapping given the hot sun. Once we got into the jungle further up it became really humid and I was sweating unbelievably. Unfortunately because of all the trees we never got a good view over the town, but it was still impressive to look up at the sharp rocky peaks above us. We stopped for a BBQ lunch at a cattle station in hanging valley. There were hordes of butterflies about, as well as tonnes of large ants and the odd spider! We had to sit on a wooden porch to escape them! From the cattle station it was only about a 30 minute uphill climb to reach a small waterfall hidden away in the jungle. As we climbed we were passed in the opposite direction by a succession of locals carrying wood which they had obtained from further up in the mountains. I don't know how they all did it given the heat!
Our tour guide said we could escape the heat by taking a swim at the waterfall, but once we got there I saw that the pool at the base was only about 3m across so I didn't see the point. Our guide however did swim, and also decided to jump into the small pool from near the top of the waterfall - a move which I felt was suicide given the small safe landing area and 15m drop. He made it though, although not without scaring all of us lot into thinking he was dead by staying underwater for ages! I was just about ready to jump in after him! From the waterfall we took a very similar route back most of the way we had come, which was a little disappointing. The one deviation we made was to walk through a cave, which saved us a climb over a large rocky ridge. Our guide intended to light the way using flaming bamboo sticks, but he simply could not get any to light up! It was very damp in the cave, which I suspect was the root of his problems, and instead he had to produce his pathetic mobile phone torch! He went at the back of the group and gave me the torch to shine the way, telling me when to go left and right as the torch offered next to no light. The phone only had about one third battery left and he told us we'd be walking for 20 minutes. I honestly did not think it would last and we had absolutely nothing else to light the way. I really wasn't comfortable with the situation at all as being stuck in a low roof cave with no light is just about my worst nightmare - especially as it wasn't exactly straightforward where we were meant to go, and there were a choice of routes. After a couple of minutes we were overtaken by another wood carrier who had a marginally better torch and I decided to race and keep up with him, much to the amusement of the girls who thought I was a total loser! Thankfully we made it to the exit in 5 minutes rather than 20, which was lucky as the phone battery was already considerably drained. Our guide was very apologetic about the whole situation and thought he had done something really bad! This is a common trait amongst Asian tour guides, and he's not the first we've had to make a small mistake and beat himself up about it.
From the base of the cave we walked through more fields, back through the river (which was very painful on my bare feet), and back to the start of the tubing course, where a tuk-tuk picked us up. I was absolutely knackered at the end of the day and treated myself to a traditional Lao massage to recover. The young girl gave my muscles an extreme workout, bending my limbs and boby in ways none of the other masseurs have. At one point I felt she was close to ripping my groin, but I felt a bit better afterwards.
Despite the sordid, touristy feel of Vang Vieng town itself I've really enjoyed my two days here and would recommend this place to anyone who comes to South East Asia. Tomorrow we depart on a 7 hour bus ride north to the former capital Luang Prabang, which I think is also set amongst beautiful mountain scenery and I expect is less commercialised. We have 3 nights there and I hope to update then.