Here I am...
12th Feb 2012 - 21st Feb 2012
Here I am... dealing with an identity crisis
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to fit the experience of a new country into one post but we only spent 9 days in Laos in the end so I think I’ll be able to do it here. Coming to Laos from the northern border requires you to cross the Mekong river by long boat, a simple crossing that lasts less than 60 seconds. They charged 40 Baht/$1.25/80p which, isn’t a crazy price (not particularly cheap either by northern Thai standards) but it made me realise they could put whatever figure they wanted on that boat ride and people would have to pay, although, like everywhere in Thailand, which I love, the locals pay the same price so if they put it up there wouldn’t be as much trading between Thai and Laos people. The most interesting thing about the border cross was that as a Canadian, Micci has to pay 42$ to get in, Canada is the only country to pay this amount and it’s more than any other country in the world
As soon as we crossed the border, we started to notice differences. Laos is sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam and it seems like they’ve grabbed styles from each of them, in food, clothing and many different things. Throughout our time here, it’s been very difficult to find a trait that’s indigenous. Like I said before, if you buy things in Thailand, for the most part you can expect to be charged the same price as the locals. In Vietnam, you can never expect that and unfortunately Laos decided to go with Vietnam’s idea so we were back on our toes watching out for high prices and schemers. In the countries that adopt this way of charging foreigners more for things, you can’t be annoyed with it because they’re just trying to make a little more money from tourism but every now and then you will find people who will try to confuse you with the exchange rates or charge you an astronomical price for something so you have to get to grips with what costs what very quickly.
The first stop was Luang Prabang which was an overnight bus away from the border. You can rent bikes and explore. There’s not that much to find but we had a good day biking round. The tuk-tuk drivers try to sell you tours to waterfalls but if you ask anyone who’s gone for it, they’ll tell you that the waterfalls are all dried up and it’s massive disappointment especially at the prices they’re asking for. To put it into perspective I was offered a 30 minute ride for 3 times the price as the overnight air-con bus that got me to Luang Prabang.
We saw a poster asking for volunteers to help out with teaching English for 2 hours morning or evening so Micci and I went along to see what we could do. I think after the 2 hours we both really appreciated how hard it was. My first hour was easy because the girl I was with was really good and it was easy for me to explain what a word meant if she didn’t understand it. The second hour, I was with two students that only had a bit of basics in saying the name of pictures of a card like ’cat’, ‘umbrella’, ‘house’, like that. They’d picked this children’s book to read about safari and everything it said ended with ‘just for me’ so it’d say ‘the lion roars just for me, the lion roars on safari’. It turned out they didn’t know what ‘just for me’ meant but how do you explain what ‘just for me’ means using easier words than ’just for me’? It made it even harder because it doesn’t make sense in that sentence, lions don’t roar especially to please a person. In the end, the same Laos girl I was teaching before explained it to them in Laos and also explained that lions don’t roar just for them. It was really good to experience what it’s like to do that and see how eager they all were to learn. The class is not mandatory but a lot come and from all ages maybe 10 -30.
A couple of days there was enough to see it as a tourist and like it most places where you don’t know anyone, it was going to take months to know it much better so it was time to head to Vang Vieng. Now the people reading this from home may not have heard of this place but when you’re travelling round south east Asia, it becomes one of the most mentioned places around. In Luang Prabang, when you see the ‘18-30’ crowd, for most of them it will be either recovering or getting ready for Vang Vieng. The town has been built up for tourists to get drunk and party, I‘ve never known a town being built just for that. The main attraction is tubing down a river in rubber rings with bars either side for you to stop at. Each bar has it’s own thing to offer, most of them offer free shots and bracelets, some also have rope swings, zip lines or slides. Later on some of them have mud tug of war and stuff. It’s a really fun day whether your plan is to get battered or not. The only thing is, everyone who we’d previously spoken to about it said it’s mental and crazy and it’s the maddest thing ever which it definitely isn’t. After about 6 or 7 bars, which do take a while to get through because your chilling out and going down slides and stuff, they suddenly just end and there’s a 2 hour very slow ride down the river taking you back into town, at this time of year the river’s low so getting beached on rocks happens a lot too.
There’s something I’ve gradually come to realise over my time on the world about ‘mental nights out’. I’m perfectly willing to accept that some nights out are a bit crazy but I’ve decided when most people say it was a mental night out, nothing mental actually kicked off and the main ‘crazy’ thing that happened was that everyone got drunk which is a given before the night starts. I’m sure they genuinely believe it was a mental night out but that’s because they were drunk and perceived things to have more importance or gusto than they really have. Having said all that, I am looking forward to a couple of mental nights out in Bangkok.
Vang Vieng’s a hard place to explain because it’s like you’re in between to settings, Vang Vieng is beautiful, with the river running through it and very impressive karsts but if you only want to go to a place for that kind of thing, Vang Vieng is not for you because so long as you‘re there, you will never get away from the loud, drunk party-goers that fill the town. If you’re not travelling to find the places that naturally have a lot to offer, or like us you just want a bit of a break and a good time, then it works.
There are however other things to do in this strange setting, we were lucky enough to catch a ride on a hot air balloon whilst we were here, swim in a lagoon and explore a cave. Now caves, lagoons and waterfalls are 10 a penny in south east Asia but this was the first one we’d been to that wasn’t lit and that you could get lost in without a guide. This local man took us through this cave with torches and if you lowered your torch, it made you realise just how pitch black it is and how lost you really are without him. Micci and I agreed if our torches died, we’d be dead because it would be impossible to find our way back. Sometimes, you found yourself lying down crawling through a part with a really low ceiling or just on the edge of what could be a bottomless pit. The locals have found all of these once hidden gems and in Vang Vieng, you will not be able to really explore because all of the caves, lagoons and waterfalls have been found and there is always someone there charging a small price to see it although I have no idea who that person is because every time it’s a random villager and I’m pretty sure they have no claim to the land that the cave or waterfall is in.
Most of the restaurants/cafes there had huge plasma TVs showing endless re-runs of Family Guy or Friends. I don’t know how came up with the idea but it is genius because they’re probably the two most watchable shows for the age group there. This means no one needs to concentrate too much on them because they already know the episodes and can just casually watch as you’re having a drink. It is unbelievable the time that goes past once you sit down there, and it’s these booths with loads of cushions so you find yourself really comfy just letting time pass watching these shows. I heard from so many people they just sat down and before they knew it 4 or 5 hours had gone. Genius.
Throughout the week, we saw that there was a kayaking trip to Vientiane, the capital of Laos and our last stop before going back across the border to Thailand. It was a great day, not only did it let up from what would have been a very uncomfortable 6 hour drive on dreadful roads, it was a really relaxing and we met some great people there too. The highlight had to be cliff jumping. I’d always wanted to do it and the guide led us to a place with an 11m drop. I’m proud to say that after 2 minutes of staring down at the water, I was the first to do it and I couldn’t believe that it didn’t hurt a bit, hitting the water off some of the slides at the tubing in Vang Vieng, left a sting, but this didn’t, my highest jump yet. We ended up having dinner in Vientiane with the French couple and two Swedish girls that were with us that day. Micci and I hadn’t been educating in Laos food yet. We had fish in a really sweet sauce, Laap which is any meat with a certain blend of spices (can be and was pretty hot), Papaya salad and various other non-Laos but equally south east Asian additions. That meal was a great end to our time in Laos, it was our last night and unfortunately we’d only have the next day to get a glimpse of the capital before catching the overnight train to Bangkok.
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Here I am... wet and wild
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