Laos – Vang Vieng, Backflips & Motorbike Accidents
After saying farewell to Vietnam, it was time to say a very apprehensive hello to Laos. Before arriving, I had not read anything about the country, so I had no clue what to expect, and to be completely honest, the capital didn’t blow me away. I was feeling a little unwell after the flight, and when we landed in Vientiane, it was a short bus ride to our hotel and, with luggage dumped, dinner.
In every hotel we had stayed in so far on the trip, there had been the option of leaving valuables behind reception in a safe, and that night was no different. However, when I returned to the hotel after dinner and asked for my money bag, I was told I could not have it until the morning. I was poorly, grumpy and agitated and flipped out at the poor guy until he went and woke up the boss for the safe key. Not my proudest moment.
Vientiane was remarkably unremarkable, and I was all too happy to leave the following morning for the four hour minibus trip to Vang Vieng, a tiny tourism-orientated town on the banks of the Nam Song River. Street vendors sell pancakes, corrugated iron shops stock touristy clothes and the bars are heaving with visitors from across the world. Vang Vieng is formerly the most popular tubing site in Southeast Asia. For those who don’t know, tubing is simply floating down the river in an inflatable rubber ring stopping at every bar on the way.
However, all the bars were closed midway through 2012 because deaths on the river rose to two per week, with rings bursting on the rocks and their inebriated inhabitants drowning. One can still rent a ring and buy a six-pack of beer, but not many people do.
We hired bicycles upon our arrival and pedalled the two miles or so to the Tham Phu Kham cave system, also known as the Blue Lagoon because of its rich, milky-blue coloured waters. The site is beautiful; a tree with two major branches stretches over the lagoon, allowing visitors to climb up to either level and jump, and a rope swing has been added in addition to the bar and huts that surround the area.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Blue Lagoon, meeting fellow travellers and swimming in the sun-warmed water. It may sound daft, but I quite enjoy jumping off of things, so it was the perfect playground. As the karsts blocked the sun from view, we cycled back to the town.
With our bicycles returned, we ate a large dinner before heading back to our quaint lodge accommodation. On the way, though, it was only right to buy some very short shorts (most probably designed for women) with the Vang Vieng Tubing logo inscribed on the front, as a memento.
The next morning, we were up bright and early and on our way about ten kilometres out of Vang Vieng with a trailer loaded full of kayaks and paddles. We soon stopped and lowered our kayaks into the clear water, pairing up as we did so. I shared with Joaquin, who is very well-built and has a lot of experience kayaking and rafting down rivers with higher grade rapids than the Nam Song would offer. I, on the other hand, am positively weedy and had no experience, but it was a stunning day and we got the chance to mess about on some of the platforms left over from when the banks were populated by bars.
It took us a couple of hours to paddle our way back down to Vang Vieng and after a quick lunch were ready to head back to the Blue Lagoon to finish off our last day in this picturesque little town. Instead of hiring bicycles, we opted for motorbikes. After all, we had used them in Vietnam and there had been no issue, and the fact that we weren’t supplied with helmets wasn’t a problem; this was Laos! What could possibly go wrong?
After a pit stop at the garage to fill up the tank with fuel (less than US$2), we were on our way down the gravelly road to the Blue Lagoon, overtaking Tuk Tuks carrying tourists and crossing bridges, under which local kids were swimming in the streams. There was not a cloud in the sky, and arriving at our destination without incident, we enjoyed the next few hours larking about in the water and playing volleyball in the sun.
As the sun was getting lower, we left to drive back to town. This was when Johan, a loveable Swede, came off his bike in spectacular fashion. He had sped off ahead and rounded a corner too fast, his front wheel sliding away from him, bringing him crashing to the ground. He had sustained some pretty serious cuts to his knees, shins, feet, elbows, back, stomach (he wasn’t wearing a T-shirt), hands, chin and nose but had quite amazingly avoided hitting his head or causing anything but surface damage. The worst injury was a sizeable stone that had found its way under his skin and was lodged quite firmly in his heel.
With Johan and his motorbike loaded into the back of a Tuk Tuk and the driver instructed to take him to the hospital, we drove our bikes back rather more steadily and stayed with him whilst his wounds were cleansed with iodine, the stone was plucked out with miniature forceps and he was bandaged up to such an extent he started to look like Hargreaves’ Mr. Bump.
The men from the bike shop came to the hotel to wish Johan well and claim the money for the bike repairs; he had not only injured himself, but also punctured a tire, burst the fuselage, torn off both mirrors and broken the front headlight. He paid the US$150 and we left him to rest, paying a brief visit to the Irish bar in town to show off our new short shorts. The kayaking had taken it out of me, so I left before it got too late and walked back to the hotel.
In the morning, we were due to drive the five hours to Luang Prabang over one of the most scenic mountain passes in the world…