Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Luang Prabang, via Vang Vieng, Laos

Posted on May 5th, 2005

One of the nicer views of Vang Vieng

Though I did my best to seek out a VIP bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, all that was available to me was the rickety “local bus,” which is the kind of bus with no windows, the back five rows filled with cargo and chickens in bamboo cages and filled with people to double capacity. The Laos roads, which were all-dirt, spine-jangling horrors not too long ago, are now mostly sealed, but the work is so shoddy that the ride is still about as smooth as a state fair roller coaster. The sudden dips repeatedly separated my ass from the seat and the tight turns combined with the speed at which our driver was going made performing desperate writing work during the ride an exasperating challenge. I had to type with one hand, while the other hand kept my laptop from flying out a window. Those were four hours that I won’t soon forget.

In truth, aside from pleasing mountain surroundings, Vang Vieng is pretty much devoid of true tourist appeal. Lonely Planet described the main drag as a “miniature Khao San Road” (dreadful tourist trap street in Bangkok, with nothing but substandard guest houses, tour touts, street vendors and happy hour specials) and by Joe, that’s exactly what it was. It was uninterrupted, identical guest houses, Internet cafes, tour offices, restaurants and bars. The only difference was that there weren’t and Starbucks, KFCs or Hard Rocks Cafes.

You may be wondering why I would waste time in a place like this. Well, it’s simple, my next objective was a roundly hailed city six hours further north called Luang Prabang. If I had done the run to Luang Prabang all at once I would have probably gone insane. Most Laos buses run only during the day (probably because the roads are so precarious that to travel at night would be suicidal) and the daytime heat compounded with the physical pounding of 10 hours on a bus was enough to convince me to make the trip in two stages.

Less worrying, but still on my mind was the safety issue on Route 13. Don’t tell my mom, but as recently as 2003 (the time of writing of my Lonely Planet) Route 13 which connects Vientiane to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang was still a lawless stretch of road where armed marauders regularly attacked, robbed and killed people on buses passing through the area. In uncharacteristically grim language, LP goes on to warn that anyone thinking about making this run should carefully monitor recent events, avoid government owned bus lines and, if possible, simply fly. I hadn’t heard a peep about problems on Route 13, so I decided to take the risk (domestic Laos flights have their own host of safety issues), but I was still a little edgy. The only real advantage I saw in taking a clunking local bus was that undoubtedly the bandits would know that this type of bus would be mostly, if not all locals without a heck of a lot of valuables and let it go in favor of a glistening Rube Tour bus coming along behind us.

Vang Vieng’s main offerings, aside from drink specials, are tubing on the Nam Xong river, kayaking on the same and some notable caving 20 kilometers out of town. My feelings were, I didn’t come all the way to Laos to go tubing, the caves that I was intent on seeing further north in Sam Neua were infinitely better and, well, I just didn’t wanna kayak in a muddy river.

Tubing stop

I thought I might salvage the stop by staying at the Riverside Bungalows, reportedly way off the Khao San Road area, reasonably priced, equipped with air conditioning and offering unobscured views of the river and mountains. Well, I was dropped off at Vang Vieng’s “bus station” (an American built air strip behind the town) and by the time I had huffed to the center of town, leaving a lavish trail of sweat behind me, and saw that I still had 700 meters to go to the Bungalows, I gave up and steered right into a place that had an open-air restaurant out front, blasting a DVD of “Friends” – The playing “Friends” in the front social area is a Vang Vieng guest house mainstay. Even while watching an episode at your own guest house, you could intermittently hear the “I’ll Be There for You” opening credits song kicking off somewhere across the street and down the road every few minutes. The rooms at Ngeunpanith Guest House were fan cooled, like everything else on the strip, with bucket flush toilets (many toilets in SE Asia, are manually flushed by you pouring repeated buckets of water into them from a barrel of water off to the side) and sinks that emptied right onto the floor, but they were spotlessly clean and much cooler than one would think at that time of day and it was only US$3 per night, so I checked in.

As I dutifully ate my first meal in the restaurant fronting my guest house and watching three episodes of “Friends” I took in the Vang Vieng scene. The people drifting around definitely looked like they were on the Laos Party Tour. It was all shirtless, unshaven, filthy guys wearing clothes one step up from rags and girls in bikini tops and mini skirts. Everyone was either drunk or hungover and distinctly partied out. Vang Vieng also has a sub-reputation for recreational drugs. LP addresses the widely available “Happy Shakes” and “Happy Pizzas” without actually mentioning what’s in them and I’m too much of a drug dumbo to figure out what it might be, but apparently the active ingredient in these products can pitch you into a paranoid tizzy and keep you that way for days. I will never understand why people even mess with that stuff. Lonely Planet says that drug crackdowns have been more frequent in Vang Vieng, but apparently that effort has dried up because my guest house restaurant had a full page on the menu dedicated to “Fun” drinks that didn’t appear to have any alcohol in the ingredients. This facet of Vang Vieng probably explains why some many of it’s residents can sit and watch the same episodes of “Friends” for 10 hours a day. They simply don’t have the cognitive capacity to do anything else. Great way to spend your vacation folks!

The Khao San Road-like main drag

This modern five story building was so oddly out of place among the one story shacks that I had to take a picture

So while Vang Vieng wasn’t completely offensive, it certainly wasn’t doing anything for me. I bought a ticket to Luang Prabang the next morning. I had high hopes for this bus ride. I had finally managed to purchase a true VIP bus ticket. I was told that the bus would have air con, comfortable seats, complimentary food and a bathroom. Well, this was all true except for the food and bathroom part, but hey, I was still sitting in air conditioned, comfortable seats! Well, I was sitting in air conditioned, comfortable seats until the bus broke down less then two hours into the drive.

Our broken bus and the crap on wheels that we moved to behind it. Dig the guy in the foreground with the gun slung over his shoulder.

There we were, on the side of the road on a lofty mountain pass in northern Laos, on the most notoriously bandit-filled stretch of Route 13, with pieces of the engine laying on the ground and a thunderstorm brewing (goodbye hot season, hello monsoon season!). The only thing keeping it from being a perfect day was predatory fire-breathing dragons hunting us to feed their young. We were stopped next to a small settlement consisting of a dozen thatch huts and there was a guy pacing back and forth packing a semi-automatic rifle. I couldn’t work out if he was guarding the settlement or just waiting to be picked up by his bandit buddies, but he left us alone. A second bus pulled up behind us and the driver and assistant both jumped out to help. After nearly two hours the rain started coming down in droplets the size of carburetors at which point the guys decided that this would be a perfect time to shift all of us and our bags to the other bus and keep moving. If you haven’t caught on, I carry a backpack with me containing nearly US$4,000 worth of very un-waterproof, digital equipment that allows me to do my job and be a raging geek all at once. Even the 30 yards between the doors of the two buses was more than enough time for that driving rain to transform my accoutrements into US$4,000 worth of useless plastic and dead circuits. I waited until everyone had clamored onto the second bus until I made a run for it. I must have looked like a lunatic, trying to run while holding this giant bag under my t-shirt, but I managed to cover the distance with minimal moisture touching the bag. Whew!

Our new bus was a 5th class, US$1.50 a seat junker from the Paleolithic Era, half filled with bags of cement. We groaned through the mountains to Luang Prabang in five hours and, this being Laos, no one even thought to offer anyone a partial refund.

Luang Prabang is Laos’ star city. The environs are beautiful, the colonial French architecture is unmatched (in Laos), gorgeous wat and temples are plentiful and life is simple. So, of course it’s overrun with more tourists than Florence, but it’s so charming that it’s hard to complain.

Luang Prabang from the top of the hill at Wat Chom Phet

As we had arrived nearly three hours late, the daylight was just starting to diffuse as I visited four guest houses that were either full or absurdly over-priced. I finally settled on a large clean, fan-cooled room at Seng Phet Guest House, on a quiet street of wall-to-wall guest houses, several blocks from the objectionable main drag. I dropped my bags in my room and immediately went scrounging for food as all that I’d had to eat that day was a small plate of eggs and a coffee that morning. Luang Prabang’s night market was just getting underway and it instantly became my favorite night market of all time. Rather than the usual thundering noise of blasting stereos, vendors screaming and grabbing at you as you walk past and a blinding assortment of shoddy items displayed left, right, above and below you, it was church-quiet, with goods modestly places on tarps laid on the ground, with single light bulbs hanging above each tarp on the otherwise darkened street, overseen by women and girls, some seemingly as young as five, sitting quietly, frequently not speaking unless spoken to first. It was surreal and comforting. Though I never bought a thing, I ended up strolling the night market each evening while I was in Luang Prabang just to soak in the serenity of it all.

My first full day in Luang Prabang was dedicated to walking and random discovery. There’s a two block stretch of Phothisalat Street, the town’s main drag, that is nothing more than a canyon of overpriced restaurants, Internet cafes and tour offices, but on either side of this eyesore, there are seemingly wat or religious shrines of some sort every few dozen steps for the length of the city center. Although many of these aren’t prominent enough to earn a dot on the Lonely Planet map, the sum of their collective presence is lovely. When you add in the friendly monks and apprentices that lounge around and chat amiably with the visitors, you can see why LP advises people to simply wander around town in favor of a concrete itinerary.

Scenes from various wat in Luang Prabang

After passing through several wat, I stumbled on Phu Si, a respectable hill in the center of the city that features a few ho-hum contemporary temples on its slopes, but more importantly offers priceless views of Luang Prabang from the top. There’s a 10,000 kip fee to make the short but grueling climb and it’s worth every kip. It’s impossible not to like Luang Prabang from that vantage point.

Luang Prabang from the top of Phu Si

There's a Russian anti-aircraft gun next to the wat at the top of Phu Si.

My next stop was Wat Xieng Thong, on the northern tip of the Luang Prabang peninsula and easily the city’s most grandiose wat. There are several buildings with impressive wood carved, painted decor and colorful inlaid tile murals. Construction started on Wat Xieng Thong by order of the king in 1560 and like every other royal asset, it was relinquished in 1975 during the communist takeover and royal exiling – none of whom were heard from again. The main temple is showing its age, but nevertheless stunning both inside and out, particularly the gold painted murals on the front which are so engaging that it makes one forget about the low overhang at the top of the steps and causing one to bang their head on it (twice). Across the courtyard, the huge funeral chapel has creepy royal urns and a giant 12 meter (39 foot) high funeral chariot, which must not see much action with the logistics of getting it through the two meter high door, with a compelling exterior covered in carvings of erotic scenes from Ramayana (don’t look at me, Google it if you really wanna know, this is a family travelogue people!). And here I thought that the “Thong” in the title was only an unfortunate language coincidence. By this point the afternoon heat was settling and so was the sunburn on my neck and shoulders, so I returned to my room to work and generously sweat all over a chair.

With my sunburn and a new round of insomnia dogging me, I took it easy over the next few days, relaxing, sending out more bleating emails to airlines in the hopes of not having to swim to Hong Kong and Sapporo and watching a few of the pirated DVDs I picked up in Kuala Lumpur (“Robots,” “Sideways” and “Ray”). My only tourist outing during this time was to cross the Mekong River to check out the wat, limestone caves and throw-back village on the opposite bank. I paid far too much to charter a boat because it was late in the day, we were a good kilometer downriver from where boats are supposed to launch (I was too lazy to walk up to the jetty) and little did the captain know that I intended to take my own sweet time while over there. Racing the sunset, I first climbed the hill to the abandoned Wat Chom Phet which, despite being in unsightly ruins, has a 5,000 kip entry fee (it was so late in the day that no one was around to collect this), but it makes up for this shortcoming by providing a priceless view of Luang Prabang and the river. I was never able to locate the limestone caves containing Buddha images that have been left homeless by burned or neglected wat, as Lonely Planet erroneously reported that the caves were at Wat Tham Xieng Maen when in fact they are a good kilometer away at Wat Long Khun. By the time I got wise to this (it took a lot of confused wandering and a good 10 minutes of me miming my desires to a collection of monks) the sun was down and I would have been stumbling in utter darkness if I had tried to seek them out. Instead I chilled with some villagers for a while before returning to my boat.

Yeah, there's a whole city hidden back in there somewhere.

Chom Phet

From Luang Prabang, I intended to hit Sam Neua in northeast Laos which is yet another dazzling mountain town within striking distance of the Vieng Xai caves, but upon seeing the appalling 16 hour direct drive time from Luang Prabang (local buses all the way), I decided yet again to take mercy on myself and split the trip up with a layover in Phonsavan.

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