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Andy’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 04 Jan 2007

Location: Vang Vieng, Laos


Ruth and I left Vientiane by minibus. The bus departed according to Lao time, i.e. when the driver desired. For an average westerner Time has long been commodified and clocks are simply another master to be obeyed, but we were slowly acclimatising to the legendary Laotian patience (which is arguably a product of their beliefs of reincarnation). For an hour or so we baked in a rusty, cramped pile of metal on wheels before trundling off at a relaxed pace for an unremarkable journey through lush green scenery.

Our destination was Vang Vieng. We were dropped off, but not before the driver and his companion handed us cards for their preferred guesthouse (read - the one that paid him the highest commission). Haggling for a tuk tuk to our hotel of choice involved the usual faux eye-rolling and gasps of disbelief before a price suitable to both the driver and us was established. We found a room for a reasonable eight dollars a night in Orchid guesthouse which was situated right on the banks of the river. A newish place, if a little tatty, but it was fine for our purpose - sleeping. The only problem was the double bed. I would always wake and find my eyes unable to focus because Ruth's nostrils, earlobes or other parts of her face would be pressed up against my eyeballs. We have slightly different views on personal space.

Now, depending on your backpacking 'raison d'etre' Vang Vieng is either paradise or purgatory. Some travellers find lazy days morphing effortlessly into lazier weeks. Others beat a hasty retreat as soon as possible, shaking their heads in bewilderment and quietly muttering words like "soulless".

What do you prefer?
1) Looped episodes of Friends instead of festivals?
2) Movies over minority villages?
3) Tequila (or the local moonshine 'lao lao') rather than temples and tradition?

If you answered the former to two of the three then it's likely Vang Vieng would not faze or disappoint. Don't expect much, if any culture here. The centre of the town mainly consists of bars serving happy herb pizzas and opium tea, restaurants playing endless runs of Family Guy, Simpsons and cooking gargantuan amounts of (admittedly delicious) banana pancakes, and the ever mushrooming internet cafes and guesthouses. All crave their fix of the tourist dollar. Most have grossly overestimated the influx of backpackers. Half the places were constantly empty and clearly financially inviable. The town has a surreal, deserted feel; a Khao San road with no crowds. And yet backpackers still appeared to outnumber locals.

At night the bright lights on the main roads stop abruptly, swallowed by the darkness of the empty countryside and conveying the sense that this community (in its current manifestation at least) is artificial rather than organic.

The town is an unattractice and charmless place. Why then has the town become the backpacker Mecca of laos? Why is it an unmissable pit stop on route from Vientiane to Luang Prabang?

The answer lies with the surrounding landscape. Vang Vieng is a small town nestled in a picturesque valley flanked on all sides by magnificent and imposing limestone mountains running for many miles and which rise up from the edge of the town and its flat rice paddies. The beautiful Nam Song river winds its way through the valley, hugging the base of the cliffs. It is this natural environment that provides the scene for many adventurous and exciting activities and lures backpackers from around the country - including Ruth and I.

It was time to hang up our culture vulture jackets for a few days.