Travel Journal

Vientiane to Vang Vieng, 3/1-3/9

(Wednesday 16 March 2011) by Joanne Chang
Hard to believe it's been 8 days since Lisa and I arrived in Vientiane. Even at Laos-speed (ie, slow), the days pass quickly. The first couple days are an adjustment; I'm still mellow and introspective from the Vipassana and shaking off back-to-back nights sleeping on a bus; Lisa's starting her travels and getting over jet-lag. Traveling with someone after being alone for so long takes some getting used to, but it's also really nice to have her with me, and she's a great travel buddy -- laid back, an experienced solo traveler and we've done this before -- I can't believe it's been 13 years since Australia. She's also a pro-budget traveler which is my reintroduction to hostels (guesthouses), local buses, and the lonely planet. The guesthouses are places Drew wouldn't have spent two seconds in, but it's good and in some way liberating. I need this.

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Vientiane is called the sleepiest capital city in the world, but it's actually a good balance of tranquility and chaos. In the city center women push fruit and vegetable carts down the street, men take afternoon naps in the back of their tuk-tuk, and little restaurant stands pop up at night along the Mekong river with pillows and low tables lining the sidewalk. On bicycle we discover a few intense main thoroughfares with a non-stop flow of cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, bicycles and food carts, but these are intersected by streets that instantly return you to the countryside of Laos -- winding roads, bamboo huts, kids playing in the street. Biking gets crazy at times, but you really feel like you're a part of the streets -- where I would have been scared, I'm psyched to be in the thick of things, and I thank George for giving me this strength. On our ride we visit Patuxay, Laos' version of the Arch de Triumph, the Laos national symbol Phra That Luang (too late, it's closed), and a (very) locals "mini-market" filled with all sorts of dried fish, meat parts, and gigantic bowls of rice. We also visit a wat and are greeted by a young monk who asks us to pick a wooden stick out of a jar. Each stick is numbered and corresponds to a "wish", written in Laos. He doesn't know how to translate, but I make a small donation before leaving and later find out that the wish says, "If you make a donation, you will have good luck in your work, your home, your healthevery area of your life". Cute.

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One evening we visit the night market where locals buy prepared foods to bring home for dinner -- lots of things on sticks (Laos people love food on sticks!), salted fish, whole chickens and ducks, and bowls of things that nobody can describe for me. In the middle of the night market there's a little carnival for the kids with rides and games, and a bouncy ball gym with a Santa Claus head. Eclectic! By the third day we've got a little routine going. We have our favorite fruit place for shakes, our favorite cafe for wifi, and our favorite beer garden for a BeerLao nightcap (the best national beer ever) which also serves yummy curry and tom yam soup. We have the tastiest spring rolls on the planet at a riverside restaurant, sitting on sidewalk pillows, watching the sunset and evening traffic flow by. An awesome introduction to Laos.

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After Vientiane we go north to Nam Ngum, a lake created by a dam not too long ago. There are many (hundreds of?) islands that used to be the tops of mountains when the river flowed through there. The tops of trees still stick out of the water, and we see a herd of black cows migrate from one island to another, underwater, undeterred by the water that has flooded their land. The journey to Nam Ngum is a fun one -- we are the only non-Laos people crammed into the oldest bus I've ever been on for 2.5 hours, stopping at every village on the way. Two locals and I are crammed three to a seat, but I'm lucky to have a seat at all thanks to Am, the girl next to me who I exchange emails with, but chances are we'll never meet again. From the bus we take a truck to the lake and check into the only resort we see, with gorgeous views of the lake, that has rooms for 180,000 kip (~$22), more than twice what we paid in Vientiane. We ask for something cheaper and end up staying in their last room typically occupied by the hired help for 50,000 kip. The room doesn't have a key and we discover a serious termite problem in our bathroom (imagine a blanket of black termites exploding through a hole in the wall -- eeeek), and the non-English speaking staff are irritated by our non-Laos speaking selves (this is a locals destination, no tourists here!), but the views from the restaurant are beautiful, we are the only people here, and there's wifi. We battle the termites and stick it out for a few nights.

The next day a group of people from Laos TV come to film the resort for a travel show. Slowly we start losing the place to ourselves but I'm still able to do yoga on the balcony, sleep 13 hours straight and enjoy the slow pace. My mind and body are adjusting...to something...experiencing periods of low energy and fogginess, but I'm trying to observe it and not get wrapped up in it. It's understandable, I've been continuously changing environments and experiences over the last couple weeks and inevitably am a little overwhelmed. I know it will be fine, like everything it will pass.

Before leaving we get taken for a ride (literally and figuratively) on our own private slow-boat to an island several miles away for "swimming", I have my first salted Mekong grilled fish, and we have a lovely breakfast at one of the local food stands while witnessing an intense yelling match between our food stand lady and the other food stand lady about something personal. It's interesting to hear the sounds other cultures make while fighting. For these Laos women it's a lot of whooping and high-pitched tones, a sound you might make if an army of termites took over your room.

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We take a covered truck to Vang Vieng, touted as a backpacker's town at the base of these gorgeous limestone mountains on the Nam Song river. The scenery alone is worth a trip. The town is definitely backpacker style, and there are ladies with sandwich-banana-pancake stands every 10 feet, but I would never compare it to Bangkok's Koh San, as many guidebooks do. The scenery is so beautiful that everyone's super laid back and stoked to be kayaking or tubing, or rock climbing. The vibe is good and it's surprisingly quiet, even at night. Our first night we settle into lounge chairs at an outdoor restaurant, spike our banana-coconut shakes with Sangsom rum, and appreciate the things a tourist area has to offer. On day 2, we go tubing in limestone caves and kayak 5 miles down the Nam Song. It brings me back to kayaking on the American River, I remember how much I loved it, and get excited about doing it again when I get back. The last stretch of the river is a trip -- this is where you wanted to be when you were 18. Lined with makeshift bars selling buckets of booze, with American music blasting to people playing mud volleyball and tug-of-war, and jumping into the river off zip-line swings. Right before you hit town there's a separate set of canopies on the water where locals hang with their kids, playing electronica music and drinking and chilling. On a Monday afternoon. Reminds me of San Francisco :-)

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Our place in Vang Vieng is called Popular View, and it's awesome for 60,000 kip. It's a new family-run place and our room has two big comfy beds and ceiling fans, and the wife does our laundry, 4 kilos for $3.50. Next door is a restaurant with a menu the size of TGI Friday's serving yummy breakfast and curry, and across the street we fall in love with tofu and mushroom laap -- a traditional Laos salad minced with mint, lime, chili and herbs. Pair that with a spicy tofu curry and yummmmmmy. We get massages where the Laos girls literally jump on your back and dig everything they have into you, visit the locals market selling all sorts of blinged-out fashion and household items (I buy a toothbrush and dust mask), watch ladies press fresh sugar cane into juice, and after two short but perfectly sweet nights in Vang Vieng we hop a bus to Luang Prabang.

  • termites? by Virg
    • yeah, right? by Joanne Chang


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