Bus trip to Vang Vieng
Staying at the Organic farm
Our bus to Vang Vieng left at 8:00 AM, which left us enough time to eat breakfast after Alex watched the morning alms procession. We indulged again in the best thing left over from French colonization: le baguette. And toasted with butter and jam and a nice cup of tea – oh it was a breakfast we’d be happy to have every morning. After breakfast, we tuk-tuk’ed to the southern bus station and boarded the bus – no problem here. What we didn’t realize is that the bus from here to there has quite a curvy mountain road to follow which made most of the Westerners and many of the Lao passengers car sick (really sick!!). I usually have a solid travel tummy but this time I had to pull myself together not to feel too bad. Alex somehow, who usually is the first feel nauseous, was fine! Regardless, we both were happy when the bus finally arrived about 6 hours later.
Since we had reservations, we didn’t had to go through the stress of finding a place to stay. (For us this was always the least fun part about travelling and learned long ago that we do better if we minimize that exposure). Of course, as always when arriving at a new place you pay a little “learning” money. In this case we paid double the price we should have to get to the organic farm (about 4 km outside of town). To put this into prospective: instead of paying 10,000 KIP we paid 20,000 KIP per person. Which is roughly the difference between $1 to $2. So not a big deal, but it is always surprising how fast one adopts to the local price levels and how one is quite persistent in paying the correct amount even if you are talking about 20 cents. In this world it’s not “just” 20 cents.
The moment we arrived we felt immediately that we made the right decision. We got a nice room (small cabin over-looking the mulberry fields) and were greeted by mulberry iced tea handed to us by the son of the owner. After lunch and a walk around the property we actually experienced a very pleasant surprise by having Emma and Jon show up at the farm. We told them where we staying but weren’t sure we’d see them ever again. It was really nice to see that they came here and we ended up spending quite some time together. In the evening we went to town, had a great dinner and arranged our tubing trip for the next day. Later we ran into the Germans and later even Andrea (all from the Mekong boat tour) in this small but touristy place. When I say touristy I mean young backpackers heaven. You could tell that this place was loved by the younger traveling crowds. The most peculiar phenomena was what was called the “TV bars” – not that different than in the US only that they had comfortable bed tables to lay on and were exclusively playing the TV Show “Friends”. Not only that, but they where packed! So here you are on a trip through one of the most amazing countries in SE Asia and all you can do is spend your time watching repeats of “Friends” in a bar/restaurant. How does that work? It made absolutely no sense to us. Later a local Lao person told us: Vang Vieng was not made by the Lao people into what it is today – it was made by the tourists. The next day we would learn how true that statement really was.
Tubing in Vang Vieng
We had strategically convinced the tubing company to bring us our tubes to the farm. It was the entry point for the infamous float down the Nam Song river, and seeing that it was s few kilometers outside of town, we saw no reason why we should have to travel back and forth. We started the day slowly, with the obligatory mulberry shake and mulberry pancake with honey and then waited patiently until noon to see if our 4 tubes would arrive.
And sure enough, a few moments after noon, a songthaew arrived carrying 8 other passengers, their tubes and 4 extra tubes for us. We grabbed the gear and off we went. We passed the first chance for alcohol, the small farm bar that was set up…hooking travelers with ‘drink for the children…your money goes to the school’. We figured with the rest of the bars down river, we would have more than enough opportunities to consume. The local children helped get the falang onto the river, with a gentle push downstream. Some even became castaways for a few meters until they somehow got bored and made their way back up stream. And before we could go 500 meters, the first touts for “beerlao, beerlao” could be heard. A bamboo reed tied to a rope was thrust toward us and all we had to do to get ashore was hold on. And there we were: at a bar on the river, with 50 other travelers all basking in the warm sun. This bar happened to have a zip line as entertainment, which Patrick and Jonathan both tried. Emma and I stayed docked in the water and watched from below…we figured we’d get out at the next place. After a few more zips and a beer to go, we were on our way.
Around the bend, the real story began. Each new bar presented a new form of aerial play, louder music and alcoholic options. The swing at this second bar was high and we watched as one falang after another attempted to enter the water without doing a belly flop. It was terribly entertaining. You never had to pay for the zip lines or the swings, but it was evident that you were expected to buy something from the bar. Again, Emma and I watched…I had the excuse that my cold was not yet gone and it would be better to keep my head above water. No one argued with me.
So this is what Vang Vieng is all about….floating, swinging, jumping and drinking. The building of new bars is in full swing, though with the existing bars already competing for business and the loudest music (the music was blaring so loud that the speakers couldn’t handle the sound), we wondered if it was a wise business choice. But the backpackers keep coming and most end up staying longer than planned. For the 20-something traveler, this might just be paradise.
For us, if we didn’t think about it and disregarded the obnoxious behavior, the scenery and the lazy floating down the river was reall quite dreamy. And so we floated and watched and took it all in. Emma took some amazing photos with her waterproof camera that we hope to get a copy of when we visit with them in Japan. At one point the kayaking trips converge onto the river and when you look back upstream you see a sea of black tubes and red kayaks. Every once in a while there is someone motioning you out of the way because you are in the spot they want to jump, but the rest of the journey you can travel quite undisturbed, if you choose to.
We did find Andrea at the bar she was “working” in – she was given the task at getting tubers to stop. She seemed completely in her element and so we chatted a bit with her. The menu her contained “happy” garlic bread and other delights, something our guide book had warned us about. You can imagine what might be making it happy. We kept going, past the very big bar on the right bank that was supposedly the place to be. A bit farther down we actually found the better place to be. The concrete tables were placed in the river, the food looked fantastic and we were the only 4 foreigners in sight. There was no menu, so we simply ordered 2 fish, 2 chicken and one fried rice and it was amazing. The whole fish were salted and grilled and served with a plate of greens, noodles, peanuts and sauce – each bite was better than the next. When your fingers got too sticky, you just reached into the river to clean them off. We made friends with the locals next to us, who said they were visiting from Luang Prabang. We are sooo very grateful we stumbled onto this special place.
During the meal, the sun set behind the mountains and it became cold fairly quickly. We still had a long way to go before reaching the end. We did make it to the last bar where Patrick and Jonathan couldn’t get enough of the swing. We heard “One more time” perhaps 6 or 7 times. We aren’t actually sure how much of the river we did not see, because after leaving the last bar we floated for another 30 minutes and followed another group of tubers out. A songthaew was waiting and for 10,000 Kip it would drive us into town. Moments later we were returning the tubes and anxious to do it all again tomorrow, though we agreed to leave earlier. Somehow we couldn’t get the same delivery deal as we had this morning, so we agreed one of us would come into town tomorrow. We returned back to the farm, where we showered, ate and were asleep earlier than any of us expected.
Lazy day at the farm and river
Today we had planned to go tubing again, simply because it was so much fun. However when we woke up even I was kind of wondering if I was ready to go at it all over. My body was quite sore from the repeated abuse of being dropped into the water from either high points or at high speeds. My arm muscles were tired of constantly having to counter the effects of the centrifugal forces of the various swings. But boy it was worth every little bit of soreness I was experiencing this day. But with that soreness came along slowness today. Alex and Emma had already signed-off for today’s attempt at tubing and I was swinging back and forth. So we just let today be one of those days where you just let time flow by. We had breakfast at nine, followed by feeding the baby goats on the farm. This was by far our cutest animal encounter as these freshly born goats (3-7 days old) were looking so forward to us feeding them. This was via a bottle of their mama’s milk that had a nipple for sucking on the top and Alex made sure that all goats got their share of milk as she fed the animals. The goats were too young to have all the muscles under control so when they got excited the would literally bounce, trip and jump arround in spurts of energy. An offered finger to a goat would be rewarded with gentle suckleing, as it was hoping to get some milk this wa). It was so cute to watch for they had no fear of humans what so ever, though we wished they could be fed by their moms. They were removed from their mothers in order to get the momthers used to hand milking and milk production…that is just life on a farm.
The remainder of the morning was spent reading, chatting and trip planning until we realized it was already time for lunch. By that time it was too late to go to town to get the tubes, just to get back to drop into the water by the farm. Jon and I however still wanted to hang out by the water and a few bars, so we decided to just walk down the river to the first bar, which was only about 300 meters (yards) away. In that area there was a cluster of 4 bars with either a swing, a zip line, or lounging area and that was plenty of playground for the reminder of the day. Jon and I had a few Beerlaos and took to the swings in rapid succession. About an hour later, Alex (who was working on the computer writing some text) joined us and we hung out together. We contracted a young Lao boy to take Alex from the first bar (zip lines) to the 4th bar (lounge pads) on the other side of the river in a kayak (tied off by one of the tour groups), allowing Alex to get there dry. Sadly this bar was fresh out of the ingredients to make a mojito for Alex so I swam across the river to bar number 3 (High Swing), ordered the drink, swung one time, dropped into the water, swam back to number 3, picked-up the drink and swam back to lounge bar (no. 4) while keeping the glass above water at all times. Tough life, huh? No really, this was one of the few times on our trip where we actually felt like we were on vacation, rather than traveling and we milked it.
The sun was slowly progressing towards the mountain range, throwing its shadow closer and closer to our current bar. Therefore, after finishing our drinks it was time to go back to bar number 1 at it would have sun for the longest time. This time it was me who borrowed a kayak from a tour group and ferryied Alex back to the other shore and we enjoyed the most beautiful time of the day in the warm afternoon sun. By this time all tubers had left, having to get down the river (in the shade the water became rather cold) and so we had the bar to ourselves...well almost to ourselves because we were joined very soon by the local kids of the neigborhood (incl. Kip and Han, children of the owners of bar no.1) that wanted to talk to us. Alex had a few stickers with her which where very swiftly distributed among the kids around us. The nice thing was that some of those stickers were fruits and so we could ask the kids to tell the Lao name in exchange for the English ones. We were surprised by their willingness to speak English and their level of skill. But even this lovely time was finding its end when the sun went down and the shade got to us. This day concluded with meeting fellow SF travelers Amy and Paul and a dinner in town, followed by a mediocre Lao oil massage. My guy answered his cell phone 3 times while massaging me but hey, what can you expect for 40,000 KIP (~$5)/hour. Looking forward to our next and last day in Veng Viang, we went to sleep.
Playing with Amy & Paul
The night before, we had met Amy and Paul at the farm and had discussed meeting them here again at 11:00 AM. Honestly we weren’t sure if they would show up or not as this double date was sort of set “on the way out” but it really didn’t matter to us as we were quite happy to just be at the farm. So we sat at the deck read books and waited. Well, sure enough a little after 11:00 AM Amy and Paul showed up and sat down with us. Somehow we didn’t make it 5 minutes without ordering a mulberry shake…I am not sure how many of those we drank a day. We spent quite a bit of time just talking because they are doing a similar trip as ours, just in the opposite direction and they are at the beginning of their travels as we near the end. Swapping stories and recommendation, soon enough 3 hours had past. We ordered lunch and after, decided it was time to hit our favorite river spot again. This time we started with mojitos at the bar of the farm itself. All proceeds of this bar went to support the local school so it was a place where you could drink for charity. How nice it that? We spent the afternoon talking and chatting and had very much the same program as the day before. Even our local kid friends showed up again. They even accompanied us back to the farm and we all visited the baby goats and pigs together…laughing and learning new words the whole way.
We had to say good bye to them as this was our last day and you could see that they were rather sad about it. They asked us when we would come back again, and having to tell them not for a very long time was not easy to do. Today was also the day when Emma and Jon, our British friends, had started volunteering by teaching English at the local school. This was something that made perfect sense for them as they were on their way to Japan to become English teachers in linguistic schools over there. It was a great way to practice, while doing something good. We wished we had time to do the same...our short but precious moments with Hip and Han would have to be enough for now.
In the evening we met with Amy and Paul again for dinner, which was a local place right by the river. It turned out to be a bigger group and we met some more interesting people from all over the world. Knowing we would have to get up early we felt like going home early and said good bye – at a time we thought was early – but this was Lao and it was already after 11:00PM which proved quite troublesome for finding a ride back to our place. There were no tuk-tuks on the road no matter where we looked. The national enforced curfew is midnight and while foreigners have some wiggle room, locals can be heavily fined if they are put past the cut off. A drive to our farm and back would put them close to that time. We finally started asking at every bar and restaurant and finally found someone willing to take us. However, the price had quadrupled since the night before (because of the time) and it took some serious negotiations to get the price to reasonable levels. We envisioned having to walk the 4km back to the farm in the dark, so when we climbed into the truck we started to look forward to our bed. We were tired. Our bed however had to wait a bit longer for us to arrive, because at about the half way mark the truck decided to completely shut-down leaving us stranded at the side of the road. Our driver immediately reached into his jean pockets and to add insult to injury, realized he had forgotten his cell phone when he got unexpectedly had to get out of the bed to drive us. We felt terrible but couldn’t do much. He knocked on a stranger’s door (really it just looked like a shack on the side of the road, surrounded by only dry rice fields), said something in Lao and suddenly he was on a cell phone, calling for back up. “You wait 20 minutes...okay” and sure enough his friend showed up minutes later and took us to our place and presumably went back to help out the other truck. We ended up paying their initial asking price…it was the least we could do, because now they were for sure out past midnight. We on the other hand were in bed minutes later, grateful for cell-phones and the kindness of strangers.
For information on the organic farm follow the link...