And so, temporarily leaving Thailand behind, it was an overnight journey on the 'VIP' bus up into Laos. 'VIP' means you get a toilet; they don't half push the boat out in Thailand. There was an interesting old fella called David sat in front of me loudly supping some beers he'd brought on board to pass the time. I say loudly as the guy was almost totally deaf and so spoke at a volume as if everyone else was. He liked to talk and was quite an interesting fella, which is just as well as he couldn't really ever tell what I was saying in return, so I stopped bothering after a while. Like many people on the bus he was on a Visa run, a 3 monthly fact of life for anyone who lives in Thailand without permanent residency. Spend a day in Laos then come back basically.
In the morning we arrived at the Friendship Bridge which spans Laos and Thailand. It's here that you get your first look of the Mekong River, in all it's chocolate brown very wide fast flowing glory. Another short bus ride took us to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Probably one of the least capital-like cities in the world; all leafy laid back streets with the odd café followed by a temple, and repeat. Laos people are very laidback and friendly, believing hard work causes stress. Amen to that. They also believe that to raise your temper over anything is deeply embarrassing, so the best option is to smile whether you're happy or mad and you'll probably get your own way in the end.
It's become a bit of rule with me now that a traveling day means the rest of the day after arriving anywhere is a beer write-off. A reward for traveling on long distance buses is essential, especially as the only way I can sleep is horizontal with a pillow not sat bolt upright, meaning I always arrive everywhere knackered. A few girls from the bus and me and David sat by the Mekong and drank BeerLao for the rest of the day. Laos is so nice they named everything after it. BeerLao, Lao Airlines, Lao Lao (their whisky equivalent), Lao (the natives).
As the beers went down and drunkenness/tiredness/irritability took equal footing, David began to become a bit annoying. As he couldn't make out any group conversation he would just randomly and completely off point start talking about something else, forcing everyone to listen so as to be polite. I kept having to turn away to stop me bursting out laughing when I noticed any of the girl's expressions become catatonic at one of his monologues.
After a couple of uneventful days in Vientiane, it was another bus hop to Vang Vieng, which someone had told me was one big club 18-30. That's a shocker when you realize your five years past the sell by date… Vang Vieng is a pretty characterless town aimed completely at Westerners but set in spectacular limestone mountain and river scenery. At it's worst you can sit and watch back to back Friends in a bar all day, whilst hearing different episodes being played in the bar next door...Okay, okay, if it had been The Simpsons maybe i wouldn't find it so objectionable...
What was surprising was the complete ease with which it is to take drugs here. And I'm not talking from some dodgybackstreet dealer but just about any café! Any food with 'Special' in front of it on a menu means you get added cannabis added to your ingredients. That's useful guide book information to know before you wolf down your 12" pizza. And why have a normal milkshake when you get one laced with Opium…A friend told me it wasn't that great actually, bit like taking aDiazepam. Said the friend.
Nothing but nothing in Vang Vieng however compares to the sheer astounding fun of a day tubing. Sit yourself on an inner tube and float gently down a 3km stretch of river. This would only take about 45mins, if it wasn't for the collection of ten open air bars that line the stretch of the river, which ends of taking all day.
When I first heard about it, and saw one or two people walking on crutches through town, I nearly passed as I imagined it being dominated by annoying drunk 18 year olds, all hormonal and everything. Wisely I changed my mind, and had one of my best days ever. Floating all Armada like with a few of you to the first bar, some small local kid throws you a rope and pulls you into the side! Grab a BeerLao, listen to some music, then notice the 10 metre high rope swing where you can be tarzan for a few seconds before you let go and crash back into the river. Rope swings, rip lines, free jumps, muddy volleyball, it was all there at various bars, with anincredibly friendly atmosphere from everyone. So much opportunity to hurt yourself but over 150 of us made it through unscathed, wading home just as it was getting dark in torrential rain. But no one cared, everyone was drunk and it was an amazing day.
I know people who went tubing day after day for a week they loved it so much. I don't blame them there wasn't much else to do in Vang Vieng, so a couple of days later still with a hangover from two days previous and never one to dabble in drugs I headed up to what will turn out to be my last stop in Laos, Luang Prabang. This was another full bus day of left right in your seat around mountain roads and was the deciding moment for me that I was NOT doing any more traveling in Laos!
Luang Prabang is a pretty picturesque world heritage town on the Mekong, with some nice but expensive restaurants and a daily night market with a plentiful supply of overpriced bargain priced tourist crap. Like most of Laos at 11:30pm everything closes curfew style, but on another beer write off day with a couple of bus blokes, and courtesy of some knowledgeable Tuk Tuk drivers the British prevailed and found, of all things, a late night ten pin bowling alley serving booze full of locals. Very strange!.
Being travel journeyed out has resulted in my choices of escaping from Luang Prabang being pretty limited. Two days on a bus on a buttock clenching hazardous mountain road to Vietnam, or two days on a hard wooden seat on a slow boat up the Mekong and then a day on a bus to back to northern Thailand. Hmmm.
Or alternatively, a flight on the airline that no travel book recommends, Lao Airlines direct into Siem Reap in Cambodia to see the Angkor Ruins. As someone who would usually rather walk than fly, you can appreciate how traveled out I am taking this option! Well, it's a mere 3 hours of 57 seater terror, and conquers another terrible journey to Siem Reap which is a pot holed road notorious nightmare in itself. And besides they apparently don't crash as much as they did in the 90s. Also, I have a secret weapon. Get yourself to a Laos chemist where you can buy Valium over the counter. Ah that's better…