Ah, Vang Vieng. What a peculiar place it is. It’s undoubtedly most famous for its drunken tubing scene, but there’s much more to the beautiful mountain setting than getting ripped off by locals and being sick in a river.
Indeed, it’s the binge-drinking idiocy that makes graffiti like “Tourists Go Home” completely unsurprising. It’s a place that sold itself to tourists, but now wants its town back.
We arrived from Vientiane on a happily uneventful six-hour ride on a double-decker bus, and booked into the Inthira, because the room we’d had in their sister-hotel in Savannakhet was so nice. Unfortunately, it was less than spectacular.
The room was ok, and the night attendant was nice and friendly when Swarana managed to lock us out of our bathroom past everyone’s bedtime – he managed to unlock it with a butter knife.
But the electrics weren’t great, as evidenced by the electric shock I took that shot through my arm into my shoulder so hard it flung me back over the bed. I must have yelped, because Swarana spun and shouted “What are you doing?!” – an electric shock – “Oh, sorry. Are you ok?”
For a few days it felt like I’d been punched square in the shoulder by a huge man with iron fists. We therefore put off rock climbing for an extra day or so. In the meantime, we thought, may as well check out the nightlife in this absurd drinking town.
There are a number of establishments in which one might obtain a drink. The “Friends bars” are the most peculiar. Serving bland noodles and beer, the clientele sit in cushioned rows on the floor facing a number of TVs that screen episodes of Friends all day, every day. Non-stop…. Oh. My. God. [canned laughter]
People sit like dribbling morons, chuckling at safe, cosy comedy, munching their way through a “happy” muffin and acutely aware of how frighteningly paranoid they’re becoming, as they suddenly have a desire to leave, but couldn’t possibly move for fear of spooking their mates. They just sit, their eyes flicking to the periphery with every twitch of their confused companions’ faces.
Or… maybe they’re having a nice time and don’t react to marijuana with waves of crippling social neuroses as others may.
Shiny, “happy” people
Either way, drugs are certainly a theme in Vang Vieng – as is the “happy menu”. You’ll find this not-so-secret document in gaudy bars near the river apparently in a permanent state of disco-Christmas. As randomised lights cover everything in an oscillating shower of colour (making pool an art of zen-like concentration), the barman hands you a tiny paper scroll and says, “This happy menu”.
Drinks, muffins, pizzas, shakes – all laced with ‘shrooms or ganja. But what was more strange was that, despite declining to be “happy”, the light show flickered oddly just out of sight and I found myself glancing behind me to check if the movement had been a person, or a dog, or a dragon, hiding under a table; it felt like I was experiencing flashbacks from someone else’s trip, witnessing hallucinatory echoes forever reverberating around this establishment of eternal apparitions.
Bar for the course
A very long and confusing game of pool later, we hunted for something a little more upbeat: we came across what appears to be the only club in town, Sakura Bar. Adopting a slogan straight out of Fresher’s Week – “Drink triple, see double, act single” – this ramshackle bar plays brostep nonsense and serves the worst-quality spirits you can buy for a huge mark-up.
The patronising staff are less than obliging if you politely tell them their rum tastes like piss. They’ll refuse to change it, even though it costs about 10 cents a pour, proudly holding up the bottle of $2 slurry and declaring in a piercing Australian accent, “This is Laos, mate. This is what they drink.”
Sakura looks like it was made in a hurry by a man with no hands, with loose floorboards, uneven platforms, bent nails jutting out and tables that closer resemble firewood than furniture. The speakers are loud though, so they got that right.
Still, it’s popular, and some kids started a game of limbo with a length of pipe they found on a scrap heap by the dance floor. Who doesn’t like limbo?!
For a while, it seemed the party town had earned its accolade – until, that is, the stroke of midnight, when lights, music, action all promptly cease. “Bye drunk tourists, go home now please. Thanks for the cash!” There’s a “Jungle Club” out of town somewhere if you want to continue the boozing, but we ended up at a lock-in over the road at Gary’s Irish Bar.
We had left Sakura before midnight (after the piss-rum debacle) and found ourselves in Gary’s having one last G&T for the road. Swarana must have got talking to the owner, because the next day he called to us from across the street, pronouncing Swarana’s name perfectly and acting like an old friend. Lovely chap! We were glad his name was on the front of the bar or that might have proved more awkward.
Gary’s has a decent pool table, live sports on the TV, friendly staff, good food and – oftentimes – most excellent live music. We listened to some acoustic rap group from the UK one evening; very good indeed.
As patrons inevitably stumble home, the streets are still peppered with food stalls, selling Laos sandwiches and sweet or savoury pancakes. Every little stall has the exact same menu, from the exact same sign shop, in the exact same font, colour, everything. Nice food though.
Next day was a write-off. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re old now, and getting drunk has its consequences. However, we were able to drag ourselves to Adam’s Climbing School to book a trip to the crags the following morning.
What a day! With an early start, we rode in the back of a pickup out of town and up towards the mountains. The scenery is stunning: flat plains end abruptly at karst towers that dominate the horizon for 180 degrees, their reflections mimicked perfectly in a winding river flanked by banks of long-blade grass and evergreen trees.
Our guide led us to one such bank, his calls to the opposite side for a boat echoing around the valley as we waited for a chap to bring a longtail across.
Once disembarked, we were led to the crag we’d be climbing: a stunning fissure in the Earth, about a metre wide, facilitating excellent climbing – in the shade – on two cliffs rather than one.
After a brief belaying lesson, our guide clambered up the crag like a gecko on a plastered wall – I could hardly give him enough slack. Then I brought him down, as he unclipped his carabiners, before it was my turn to gracefully ascend.
I wasn’t awful, truth be told, but the first few climbs were only graded 5a (French system), and Swarana, who had never climbed before, mastered them with aplomb.
The last climb was something like a 6a, and posed a more significant challenge. I’d like to think I’d have done it in one go had it been earlier in the day, but a lapse in concentration led me up a different route and I had to test the belayer’s weight while I took a breather.
The climb in question followed a heavy crevice in the rock, but was more notable for the giant tree root that had made an expedition down from its trunk at the summit, all the way into the earth at the bottom of the cliff. Remarkable.
(Side note: “Remarkable” is an odd adjective – you only ever use it when making a remark about something, rendering it irrefutably true and therefore ultimately redundant.)
It was an excellent day and we vowed to continue to learn upon our return – potentially at the climbing castle in North London. (We have so many castles lying around in England, we have to find elaborate uses for them, like housing a climbing wall.)
We spent our last day in Vang Vieng on a scooter, to explore the nearby mountain caves, countryside and languid lagoons. We found a decent ride, a little more expensive than bikes we’d hired in Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia, but I’d heard the roads were rough and I didn’t want to risk a breakdown – specifically a flat tyre in the middle of nowhere.
I am glad we plumped for the meatier bike – which had affectionately been named Ride On The Cloud – for it handled the scree with ease and never felt like it was lumbering.
We initially rode out to the Blue Lagoon, a popular spot for tourists both foreign and domestic. The serene beauty of the place is marred a little by the thumping techno emanating from the (admittedly impressive) portable speakers of a Korean tour group. WHY?! For heaven’s sake, why HERE?!
There’s a fun rope swing over the milky turquoise water, if you can snatch it from the Lao boys eager to impress each other, and there are several tree branches to hurl yourself from. The river’s cold, though, which is a welcome change to April heat, but crumbs, it’ll have your nips sharper than a 1980s Madonna bra.
There’s also a cave you can climb up to, which is big and nice and typically cavey. It’s also full of people howling for echoes and shoving past you to have a look.
So we ate some fried chicken and watched the older Koreans giddily grasping the mechanics of a zipwire before climbing into the canopy for a squeal-filled ride down. And I jumped in the lagoon a few more times, before we hit the road again.
The next place we stopped was at a farm house, where we had to pay the landowners a nominal ticket fee to visit the cave on their land. We declined the help of a guide (what could possibly go wrong?) and so were pointed in the right direction and bid farewell by the young farmhand girl.
No one else was around – it was lovely. We strode across paddy dikes, over bamboo bridges and skirted the fields until we arrived at the foot of the mountain range, for a cave complex of our own.
With only one torch, however, Swarana decided to stay behind while I looked around inside, on the condition I continued to sing throughout my exploration so she could hear I was safe (I chose Gene Kelly’s classic “Singin’ In The Cave”).
Unfortunately, we had not banked on the enveloping acoustics of the cave: as soon as I was out of sight, I was also out of sound. Swarana, initially angry at my cessation of song mid-verse, became increasingly anxious at my non-response to calls and pleas to reply.
In the dark
Meanwhile, inside the cave, I ducked and shimmied my way to what seemed like a fairly rudimentary single-tunnel system all the way to its unimpressive conclusion: a dead-end and not much to write home about.
On my way back, however, the tunnel I’d come down suddenly ended with a ladder – a ladder I had not encountered on my way in. A ladder that, by its very existence, proclaimed me lost. A ladder of doom, each rung representing a step into an abyss of loneliness, starvation, madness and – finally – death.
So I retraced my footsteps and for about 10 minutes couldn’t for the life of me figure out where I had gone wrong. Thankfully, I managed to keep calm, and attempted to address the meandering shadows and glistening walls logically and methodically.
Light at the end
I soon found where I had erred: a fork in the cave I had passed. In this case, ignorance was not bliss, thank you very much. Being thoroughly informed was bliss. I emerged from the cave, sweating and excited, to find my fiancée missing.
Swarana had run back to the farmhouse to find help, having screamed at the top of her voice into a cave for fifteen minutes to no reply. I found her, a little shaken, returning with the farm girl, and tried to calm everyone down. I did not mention I had become lost in the cave for the next few days.
Still! Makes for a decent story. And that’s why we do these things, isn’t it? So we can tell our mates in the pub, or our colleagues at the water cooler, or our parents over Sunday lunch, when they’d only recently reached the conclusion we’d finally grown up.
Anyway, next time on Right Place, Right Tim, water fights in Luang Prabang! Yaaaaaaaay!
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