Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tubing in Vang Vieng

Before even coming to Laos, Nick and I began to hear stories about the infamous tubing in Vang Vieng - a place where backpackers flock to jump in a tube and float down the river, while stopping at bars along the way. But absolutely nothing we would hear could possibly prepare us for the craziness that is Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng is a gorgeous town in northern Laos that is a dizzying 6-hour bus ride south of Luang Prabang through the incredible mountains of Laos. (I believe that it might be one of the most scenic drives on this planet).

 View out the bus window
View from our hostel

We had heard from some people that the river is pretty slow in the dry season and the best way to experience tubing was to do it by kayak, so that was what we planned to do. Unfortunately, our first couple of days in town were overcast and rainy so we were forced to spend two days experiencing another Vang Vieng phenomena – watching Friends at one of the 10 bar / restaurants in town that plays pirated episodes of Friends all day every day.

After two days of bad food, rainy weather, and lots of Friends, the sky cleared and we headed out on a kayaking trip. The first half of the day was spent visiting a cave and having lunch, so we didn’t actually begin kayaking until about 1:00.
By the time we arrived at the tubing bars, the party was in full swing – and I was blown away. I have never seen anything like it in my entire life.
It was like Cancun meets the lazy river – for at least a mile, the river was lined on either side with bamboo platforms on stilts, each equipped with a full bar covered by a thatch roof, and crowded with 20-somethings partying it up. Tubing is an all-day affair and it’s not for the faint of heart - every bar we went to was giving out free whisky shots with any purchase.
It was just one huge party. Each bar had a group of kids working for them who would stand at the edge of the bar with a long rope with a soda bottle tied to the end. When a tuber would float by them, they would throw the rope out and real them in – fishing for customers.

But the most amazing thing about the whole place was the rope swings. Each bar had a platform – either free standing like this one, or built into a tree – that was 30-40 feet above the water level and served as a jumping off point for their rope swing.
Even though it is dry season and the river is very shallow right now, each bar has dug out a huge area around their bar that has to be at least 10 – 15 feet deep, and right above it are rope swings that resemble circus trapezes.
Here’s Nick just before he’s about to jump off

The swings are attached to huge poles extending out over the river and once you step off the platform, it’s just you and the sky… until you decide to let go!
The swings were absolutely wild, but they certainly did a good job of digging out the river bed, because whether people went flying off the end, or fell off the swing right at the beginning, I didn’t hear of one person who even came close to touching the bottom.

Swings weren’t all they had either. There were also a couple of bars that had platforms for jumping and even a couple of zip-lines. This zip-line experience was a stark contrast to the one I had at Jungle Flight in Chiang Mai. Here, there was no harness, no safety clips, and instead of a new shiny shuttle, the thing we used was an old split piece of wood with rusty-looking wheels and nails sticking out of it… certainly not the safest thing I’ve ever seen, but I figured what’s the worst that could happen? I’d fall into the water – which I was planning on doing anyway – so I let ‘er rip.

My favorite bar was the one with the huge tiled water slide that launched you a good 10-15 feet out before dropping you into the water – it was all just insanity!
Well, like I said, the first day we were kayaking and didn’t show up to the bars until 2:00, so we were only able to stay for a couple hours (and a couple beers) before we had to head down the river to finish out our kayaking tour.

But we were so impressed by the whole operation that we decided to meet up with the same people again the next day and do it the proper way – in a tube.
Starting at 11:30 am we went with our new friends to the river 
 and spent the day swinging
And floating
Along the way, we took in some of the other activities on offer, like beer pong and mud volleyball.
It was an absolute circus. I never experienced a real “spring break” while I was in college, but I certainly made up for it in Vang Vieng. This place takes spring break to a whole ‘nother level. I felt like I was on another planet! As the sun was going down and the air was beginning to chill, we all hopped out of the river and into a tuk-tuk
And headed back for showers, dinner, and another party! If you’re looking for traditional Lao culture, Vang Vieng is definitely NOT the place to go, but if you’re looking for a one of a kind, crazy experience – u have got to come check it out.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Luang Prabang

Today, on our second full day in Laos (after the slow boat) Nick and I spent the day strolling through this UNESCO World Heritage city to see for ourselves why it is worthy of such a status. Unlike Ayutthaya, it wasn't immediately apparent to me why this honor has been bestowed on the small town of Luang Prabang. However, after a day soaking it all in, I have to say that I agree with UNESCO on this one.

Luang Prabang is situated on and around a peninsula at the site where the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers meet. Surrounded by lush green mountains, with some great remnants of French colonial archetecture, Luang Prabang is quaint and absolulty gorgeous.

 It was a bit expensive for our tastes and there wasn't too much to do there, but we had a really relaxing day checking out a couple temples, walking along the river, and taking it all in.  

As the sun was setting we headed up to the main temple in Luang Prabang which sits atop a hill over looking the city. The temple wasn't too spectacular, like most in the city it could benefit from some restoration and a face lift, but the view from the top was just amazing.

After two full days in Luang Prabang though, we were ready to hit the road and find some adventure - and that is certainly what we found in Vang Vieng!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

They Call Me Grace

On our first day in Luang Prabang, Nick and I rented two mountain bikes and headed out for a 32 Km bike ride to the waterfall at Tat Kuang Si. I have to say I wasn’t too sure about a long, hilly bike ride, but Nick really wanted to go, so of course I went along.

The ride was certainly challenging at points, but it was an absolutely beautiful ride through the Lao countryside. We were surrounded by mountains and rice paddies and practically had the road to ourselves – except for some huge bulls grazing along the side of the road (I was too afraid of them to take a picture.)

2 hours of bike riding later, and we arrived at the falls, which were gorgeous. Because of the color of the limestone cliffs in the area, the water was this beautiful turquoise color, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before (except maybe in a Gatorade bottle).

We entered the park from the bottom of the falls and took our time walking up towards the top. Every twenty feet or so, we passed clusters of gracefully of cascading waterfalls and deep blue-green pools.

The first place we stopped was this fall / swimming hole

Nick wasn’t interested in getting in – the water was freezing and he’s generally adverse to anything that would require him to expose his skin to the sun – but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go swimming in such a beautiful setting.

As soon as I left the safety of the rock ledges, I couldn’t touch the bottom any more, but I’m a bit of a chicken, so I didn’t venture under water to find out just how deep the pools were. Aside from the initial shock, my swim was quite refreshing and after 5 minutes, I was keen to check out the other swimming holes.

At the next pool, we found an even bigger and deeper pool with a rope swing!

I was so excited! So as soon as the swing was clear, I climbed up the tree to take my turn. Unfortunately, things didn’t go too well for me up there.

I think it’s been about 12 years since I used a rope swing, and I forgot how complicated these contraptions can be. It’s certainly not like riding a bike. Needless to say, my rope-swing technique was a bit unpolished. My first HUGE mistake was that instead of just grabbing a hold of the rope, I wrapped it around my leg, so I wouldn’t fall off (as if that wasn’t the point…)

SO after grabbing the rope and securing it around my leg, instead of pulling the rope taut and jumping off the tree, I kind of just stepped off the tree, the way someone would step off a curb, which caused me to smack right back into the tree before heading out over the water. A bit painful, but trust me, that was the least of my worries.

Once I cleared the tree, I was free flying over a beautiful turquoise pool, and at just the right moment I let go and got ready for the plunge…. And it all would have been perfect, IF I hadn’t wrapped that rope between my legs.

Although my hands let go of the rope, my legs did not. Instead, the rope made its way all the way up to my crotch where I felt every single knot pass between my legs one-by-one until I smacked the water flat on my back.

I now have a rope burn mark on the inside of my thigh and, thanks to the 2-hour bike ride and the rope-swing incident, a very sore crotch. But in the end, it was my pride that suffered the biggest injury. A rather large crowd was gathered to watch and I was absolutely mortified by my most un-graceful descent into the water.

I have to admit it took me a while to gain my composure. After I did we were able to enjoy walking through the rest of the park to the most beautiful waterfall I have ever seen.

And then up to the top…

Steps to the top

Walking along the top of the water fall

The water looks so calm just before it plunges over the edge…

A view from the top.

At the end of the day, my bruised ego was healing (although the rope burns might take a bit longer). Thankfully, after my whole ordeal, Nick was willing to skip the bike-ride home and we threw our bikes on the top of a tuk-tuk and headed home for dinner.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Slow Boat to Laos

Three days ago, we made it to Laos, the third country on our trip across South East Asia and all I have to say so far is – WOW, Laos is beautiful.
But, I’m getting a head of myself here.

Getting into Laos was a relatively simple affair. The night before our border crossing, we took a relatively painless 7-hour bus ride to the Thai – Laos boarder along the Mekong River.

a view of Laos across the Mekong River, from our last guest house in Thailand

So when we woke up in the morning, it was just a matter of a 3 minute ferry ride across the river and there we were – in a new country!

It wasn’t until we were through customs, and had some new nifty visas secured in our passports, that our real trial began. In order to get to our first stop in Laos, Luang Prabang, we had to endure a two-day boat ride down the Mekong River on what is called the “slow boat.”

In my mind, I had pictured something like a ferry filled with mostly Lao people along with some falang, or foreigners, scattered about. But I should have known anything this expensive could not have been a form of public transportation (it cost about $30 USD).

In reality it was a very small boat filled to the brim with foreign tourists – we were stuffed together like sardines in there!

The first day was especially rough because the only seats available on our boat were small wooden benches – like those built for school children when we still had one room school houses. The seat backs were at best 90 degrees from the seat and made it virtually impossible to even approach a comfortable seating arrangement. Needless to say, Nick and I sharing one of these benches for 6 hours straight was less than ideal.

Thankfully we had our books and the beautiful scenery of the Mekong River to distract us.

As we slowly made our way down to Luang Prabang, the Mekong meandered through the countryside, winding through lush green mountains with huge rocks jutting out of the water at unpredictable intervals. Each time I looked up from my book, I was met with spectacular scenery.

The second day we arrived early and were lucky enough to get comfortable leather captains’ chairs – which made the 8 hour ride much more enjoyable. Finally, just as the sun was setting on Sunday night, after three days of travelling, we made it to our destination, Luang Prabang.

Who knows what wonders await us here in Laos, but from what I saw on our way down the river, I have a feeling we won’t be disappointed.