Thursday, 22 December 2016

VA VA VANG VIENG

14th -15th Dec 2016



Off by bus for a 4 hour trip north to Vang Vieng. Quite a full bus-load with the last two rows occupied by a group of about ten American and Aussie student types. By crikey did they witter on. Loudly. Non-stop. One American talked like a runaway machine gun and almost every other word they uttered was 'like', interspersed with inane giggling and shrieking. It was like really like getting on my nerves, like. Where on earth do they pick up this irritating verbal tic? Some young Brits do it too. I would not employ someone who spoke like that. I couldn't have understood what they were banging on about even if I was, like, interested which I was, like, definitely not. We stopped for a pee and coffee break about half way and so the 'likes' could recharge their batteries. 

I hadn't realised it until I got here that Vang Vieng is the epicentre of the backpacker and 'Gap Yar' student route. It is a fairly unkempt town (pop. 35,000) with pot-holed and gravel roads in the valley of the river Nam Song surrounded by stunningly beautiful limestone 'Karst' terrain. Same sort of geological features as at Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. This view (left) out of my window gives a rough idea.

The town consists predominantly of guest-houses, travel offices, massage parlours, bars and restaurants catering for the adventurous and thirsty backpacker/student. There were innumerable lodgings to choose from and none seemed fully booked up. Indeed the place did not appear to be very full of tourists at all. Virtually every third shop was a small tour/activity agent all offering the same menu of options namely 'tubing', kayaking, caving, rock-climbing, rafting, trekking and a visit to the 'Blue Lagoon' as well as bus trips mainly to Vientiane and Luang Prabang. You could pick and chose 'a la carte'. I don't know how all of them make a living.....unless they are all owned by the same company.
No problem finding lodgings. I chose a small guest-house called the Orchid and, at $13 per night, was  excellent value. Comfortable bed, air-con, wifi, decent bathroom and a pleasant balcony overlooking the river towards the mountains. As said there seemed much more capacity than needed and this is, apparently, the high season for tourists. Indeed many of the dozens of bars and restaurants were  almost empty. Boringly most of the restaurants offered exactly the same menus catering for western and local tastes (full 'American' all-day breakfast etc.).

Anyway, 'when in Rome....just go for it' as the saying nearly goes. The next day I went to the nearest tour shop and picked zip-line, tubing and Blue Lagoon off the menu for my entertainment. I had also noticed that Vang Vieng has a small airfield from which hot air balloons, micro-lites and powered parachutes were operating. I made a note to investigate these later as they were constantly floating or buzzing overhead and looked rather fun.





It was all very efficiently organised. The back of my hand was marked with 'Z T B' to indicate the order of where I was going. I don't know what sort of marker pen was used because, a week later, I can still read Z T B on the back of my hand. An open backed camionette went round the town collecting other punters who, mostly, were marked with Z K B (K being Kayaking). Z was first for all and we set off to somewhere up-river. We were kitted out with harnesses, a helmet and glove and ferried across the river to walk up the other side. Initially we were taken to a spot where we were given a demo and instruction on how to do it. Then a hike up to the start point.





Left: Our zip-wire team. There were seven of us in our little group; a 70 year old retired Thai lady doctor (living in New York), her nephew from Singapore, a young Cambodian engineer and his very sweet Lao girlfriend, a Korean chap and a girl food-science student from Switzerland. 

The final leg to the starting platform was up a very steep rocky climb. We all made it OK. This, of course, would immediately contravene 'elf  'n'  safety' regs in the west. Indeed most of what you can do here would be closed down in nano-seconds if regulated by the nanny 'Elf 'n Safety' Gestapo in UK.

The zip line involved eight stages, platform to platform, of distances ranging from about 200 to 500 yds. We were all getting rather good at it by stage 3. I think the total distance covered was about 3 km and some of it a long way up from terra firma and occasionally zipping scarily close to trees and foliage.




Our two guides were excellent and slick. We were always hooked onto a safety line. One guide set off in front to meet us at the next platform. The other acted as the dispatcher. The zipping bits were interspersed with walks over wobbly log bridges and, by far the most unnerving parts, were when lowered on an abseil from one platform to a lower one. The final abseil to end it all was about 100ft to the ground. Lowered slowly for about 20ft and then free-fall to a couple of feet from the deck. This caused not a few screams of panic....especially from me.



Right: The plucky wee Lao girl who was thoroughly enjoying it.













Left: Back across the river on a raft to a hut for lunch. This was an unexpected bonus. A delicious lunch of hot kebabs, rice and fruit plus, much appreciated, a couple of cold cans of Lao beer.









Next on by camionette to the launch point for 'tubing'. I was the only 'T', the others were all 'K's.
Tubing, a rite of passage for any self-respecting gap-year student, has gathered a rather unfavourable reputation. I read that in 2011 there were 27 'tubing related' deaths. I think these could more accurately be described as 'alcohol related' deaths. As I think I have mentioned previously, 98% of incidents and fatalities amongst, especially young, tourists i.e: falling off balconies, getting robbed, being beaten up and especially drownings have occurred when the victim is drunk or under the influence of drugs. I have no issue with people getting plastered but, especially where deep water is involved, it is moronically stupid. I think the Darwinian Theory of the Survival of the Species applies here. The moronically stupid are likely to perish.
There is nothing dangerous about tubing per se. In fact I found it a rather relaxing and soporific way of drifting downstream. One merely lies in an inflated tractor tyre inner tube with your arse hanging in the water. The rest of you stays perfectly dry. Admittedly this is the dry season and perhaps the river was not flowing so fast as in the wet, but the problem was that there were dozens of 'drift-in' bars positioned along the riverside. The irresponsible yahoos who got hogwhimperingly drunk within the first half mile were asking for trouble. The water varies from deep, calm and sluggish to shallow, ripply and fast running. The shallow ripply bits conceal rocky protuberances, as I uncomfortably discovered with some surprise as my arse was hanging in the water through the tube, and hidden tree roots. These can cause the tube to tip. If sober, no problem. If pissed you might fall in.
I say there 'were' dozens of draft-in bars along the riverside. These have been greatly pruned due to the problem they caused. There are now many fewer.

There were few of us intrepid tubers on the river that day. I joined up with an amusing German couple (right). We were also escorted by a guide in a kayak. He proved most helpful in steering us to shore for a couple of pit-stops and also pulling us along on a tow rope when the current got really slow.

As you can see, there was no problem in taking a camera. We were given sturdy water-proof bags to put our possesions in. The whole tube ride, including a couple of 15 minute refuelling stops, took 2½ hours and covered a distance of about 3 miles. If it hadn't been for our trusty guide in the kayak towing us through some of the slower bits it would have taken considerably longer.
We were overtaken on several occasions by the Kayakers, including those from our Z party. The kayaks mostly had a 'guide' at the back end. You can guess who was doing most of the paddling.
Left: The Thai/New York ex-doctor and her nephew passing by in their kayak.









Right: At one of the refuelling stops.














Left: I was fascinated to see a full sized snooker table here. I think it might have needed a few repairs; just bare slate and Hurricane Higgins must have whacked a few balls through the corner pockets, but what a strange place to find one in any condition.










Right: My German companions and our helpful guide/escort/tug.






Left: Also sharing the river were these speed boats. They were not much more than surf-boards with powerful long-tailed engines. I believe these have been the cause of a few disasters. I mentioned the hidden 'just' underwater rocks and roots? Say no more.









The journey ended in the centre of the town. The camionette was waiting to take us on to the next port of call, 'B', the Blue Lagoon.












That will do for now. The Blue Lagoon and other highlights to follow. Bet you can't wait.......







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