Our last night in Vientiane was a big one, as we took up residence at the Billabong Sports Bar to watch the ABs slaughter South Africa. We were expecting the bar to be a lot busier than it was, but it ended up being us, a lone South African and a whole bunch of middle-aged Aussie expats who live and work in Vientiane in the mining industry. There was great banter, but sore heads the next day and the not-so-appealing bus ride to Vang Vieng to deal with. The bus ride turned out to be just fine – a little cramped, but no biggie. The only person really not enjoying it was the toddler in the front seat vomitting curdled milk into a tiny plastic bag held by his Mum.
In the short time we’ve been here, we’ve had some other pretty interesting experiences on the Laos public bus network – there was the driver who made us all wait in the sun for 40 minutes while he and his family had a full sit-down meal when we were only 20 minutes from our end destination, the one-eyed driver who made us sit surrounded by a hundred partially defrosted chickens, the bus with no air-conditioning that drove with all the doors and windows open, the driver who chain smoked for the entire journey and then spat out the window so that it flew back into my face and last, but certainly not least, the man with the semi-automatic rifle who boarded our bus in the middle of nowhere, walked up and down the aisle a few times and then got back off.
We arrived in Vang Vieng with moderate expectations, because we’d actually been in two minds about whether to bother including it in our itinerary. Vang Vieng has a chequered past having risen to fame in the early 2000s for drug and alcohol-fuelled tubing trips down the Nam Sou River. Tourists used to arrive in their hundreds to stay at cheap boarding houses, eat pizzas peppered with magic mushrooms and then tube down the river, stopping at bars on the way and throwing themselves into the river on death-defying rope swings. The problem was that not everybody was death-defying. People started dying in Vang Vieng from overdoses, bad drugs, drowning and breaking their necks, and it was happening regularly. Two Aussies died within the space of a week in 2009, major heat was applied, and the Laos government set to work cleaning the place up.
There are definitely still traces of the mayhem, and people who visit looking to recapture a little of the crazy in Vang Vieng. The most noticeable remnant of the bad old days is the the cafes and restaurants that play Friends and Family Guy episodes on repeat, while hungover backpackers lie on couches eating fries and nursing hangovers. There’s also the charming Sakura Bar – “drink triple, see double, act single”. However, on the whole, the town has rebranded itself as a outdoorsy, nature lovers paradise, and it wears it well – once you get away from the eyesore that is town, Vang Vieng is a beautiful spot surrounded by limestones cliffs and rural life. You can rock climb, kayak down the river, visit caves and waterfalls, go hot air ballooning and cycle the countryside. It was this side of Vang Vieng that we wanted to see, and it was well worth the trip.
On our first full day we hired bikes and rode out to Kaeng Nyui waterfall. It was supposedly a five km ride from town, but distances here are a lit more fluid than that. In reality, it was five kms to the first turn-off, another km to the ticket office, another km to the carpark and a km trek to the falls. It was an incredibly tough ride (Meegan – we should have taken your advice and steered clear of the Vang Vieng roads!), but the pay-off was worth it. There were multiple levels to the falls, which cascaded into small pools that you could swim in. We were close to spontaneously combusting by the time we arrived, so were straight into the water in our clothes and shoes, and it was the best. The ride back to town was nowhere near as bad, given we’d fulled up on Laos energy drinks (straight glucose) and were practically flying.
We closed out our time in Vang Vieng with a kayaking trip down the river. Our guide, Mr Sa, told us in no uncertain terms that just kayaking was ‘not fun’ and that we should be going zip lining as well, or getting plastered on Laos Buckets by the side of the river. Despite the hard upsell attempt, we stuck with the kayaking and really enjoyed it. There were some cool little rapids in the river, which made it a bit more exciting and the current made the 10km pretty easy on the arms too. Mr Sa was a bit disappointed that we smashed the half day trip in an hour and half, but we weren’t too phased. We spent our last afternoon in Vang Vieng drinking fruit shakes and Beer Lao, watching the long boats go up and down the river and the kids muck around on the shore.
Despite having an awesome time in Vang Vieng, it’d be fair to say that we’ve both been feeling a bit blah for the last week, or so. There is definitely a certain level of fatigue that comes with moving around all of the time and living out of a suitcase and (at the risk of sounding like total brats) things can start to seem a bit same old, or same same but different, as the saying goes here. So, it was with high hopes that we boarded the bus yesterday morning destined for Kasi and our trail bike tour with Uncle Tom. We were both really hoping that the trip would be the kick up the pants we needed, and help us feel a bit more energised for the next wee while.
Uncle Tom is a self-described “fat welshman” tasked with teaching us how to ride manual motorbikes, before letting us loose on the Kasi countryside for a trail bike tour. We arrived in Kasi in the early afternoon, where Uncle Tom was waiting to take us out to his property in his sidecar. Uncle Tom has a flat above a workshop full of bikes, which sits on the same section as a guesthouse and restaurant/karaoke bar that is run by a local family. We ditched our gear, hoovered some lunch and got straight into the lessons. Campbell could already ride a motorbike, so he was let loose on a neighbouring paddock to refresh himself, while Uncle Tom set me up on rollers in the garage to get started using the clutch and gears.
It wasn’t long before I was allowed to graduate into a paddock myself and, after an hour of running through the gears and practising emergency stops, Uncle Tom decided I was ready for the road. Apparently I was a very quick learner, although I suspect he says that to all the girls. And with that, we were off. We drove from one end of the village to the other, dodging school children and goats, and then right up into a muddy paddock where I could practice more emergency stops, crash starts, skidding and how to deal with mud and potholes. Uncle Tom and I had helmets with a radio connection, so he could talk me through things as we were on the road. It worked a treat although, as well as tuition, I also had to put up with his singing through the radio, including his personalised version of Space Oddity. Campbell got to spend the afternoon hooning about, and he and Uncle Tom had a bit of a blat on a more technical trail at the end of the day.
We called time after four hours. After a quick shower, we debriefed over a few cold ones in the restaurant. It was after hours by then and a whole bunch of employees from the local bank had settled in for after work drinks. They were obviously a few drinks in by the time we got there, and the karaoke was humming. It took a couple more Beer Lao to convince us, but our table finally joined in. Uncle Tom started us off with a great version of White Wedding, I tackled Wonderwall and Gangsta’s Paradise, and Campbell rounded things off nicely with Jack and Diane. We were shouted a round of beers by the bank manager who especially appreciated our efforts, and got treated to a Laos dancing lessons. It was great to get to know Uncle Tom a little better, especially since he turned out to be one of the funniest people we have ever encountered. His sense of humour ran somewhere between appalling Dad jokes (the ones that make you shake your head, roll your eyes and groan) and the most inappropriate “I actually can’t believe you just said that” jokes. It was a fantastic night, with a lot of laughs.
We were up early this morning to get ready for the formal trail ride part of the tour. Uncle Tom wanted to let the village children (who ride their bikes to school five abreast) clear out of the village before we hit the road, but at 8 am it was time to get started. We ventured through the village and then things started to get interesting – we rode up gravel hills, through a herd of goats, through various villages, through enormous mud puddles, across wooden bridges and through the most exquisite countryside that we have seen anywhere on our travels. We missed seeing the paddy fields in full bloom when we were in Sapa, but we got to see them in all of their glory in Laos. It’s hard to describe how incredible the scenery really was – these photos don’t come close to doing it justice.
Uncle Tom was keen to ensure that Campbell (or Malcolm, as he insisted on calling him (for no apparent reason)) got to do something a bit more adventurous during the ride so, with about an hour left to go, the two of them buggered off for a bit to do a far more muddy and technical trail. Judging the by the state they came back in, it was certainly a challenge. We returned home shortly after that with four hours of ride time and 100 kms under our belt. The sense of satisfaction from having picked up a new skill and then using that to see a part of a country that we would never have discovered otherwise, was something else.
Uncle Tom got us fed and watered and then our time in Kasi was at an end. We were back on the public bus on our way to Luang Prabang. Our visit to Uncle Tom delivered way more than we could have hoped – we can both now ride proper motorbikes, we saw amazing untouched country, we sung karaoke with a Laos bank manager and we have a new lease on life and a whole lot more enthusiasm for the next few months of our adventure.