Laos pt 1 – Vientiane and Vang Vieng

After a night in Bangkok (which I’ll write about a bit later) I took a “sleeper bus” to the Thai-Lao border. It didn’t have beds, but the reclining chairs went back far enough for the journey to be bearable. As usual we arrived at the border at silly-o-clock and discovered that there was a large surcharge for paying for the visa in baht, then another one as it was Saturday and they were working overtime. While we were waiting and arguing about this everyone on the bus got to meet each-other. The most vocal was an American exchange student who was taking a break from studying in Hong Kong and claimed, infuriatingly, that the Chinese food was better in LA.
A little later we crossed the Friendship Bridge and arrived in the Lao capital of Vientiane. I couldn’t quite believe we were there. It seemed more like a small country town than a capital. You could cross the road any time day or night and not have to wait more than a few seconds – in fact I never saw an actual queue of cars. Even on the biggest street at what would normally be called rush hour there was less traffic than on your average country road in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t feel like a backwater either – everywhere you could find excellent cafes and bakeries. So all together exactly the kind of place I like to visit, not to say a relief after the chaos of Vietnam and Cambodia.
There wasn’t a great deal to see in the city, for all its charms. I did find the national museum which persistently and hilariously referred to the USA as “imperialist aggressors” on almost every caption, and a few almost-deserted temples. Unfortunately most of the photos I took were destroyed in a memory card virus attack, but these were salvaged:

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While I was there I bumped into a few people I’d met in Vietnam, and went with a couple of them to watch the FA cup final in an Irish pub. The game was rubbish, but the football and politics arguments were a lot of fun. I arrived back at five minutes to 12, which was lucky as I would have had to pay a $10 fine if I’d come back after midnight. That might not sound like a lot, but my dorm bed was only $2.50, which was a good deal apart from the lack of a shower.

The next morning I got the bus to the famous backpacker hotspot of Vang Vieng. It wasn’t an interesting journey, but I enjoyed it by listening to the travel tales of the English girls talking excitedly near me. They dropped us off next to a stupidly expensive hotel, so I turned around to look for a cheap place and was stopped straight away by a 20-year-old man who had a much cheaper hotel, and took me there on his motorbike. It was reasonable and cheap enough, so I ditched my pack and went down to the river to see the “rocket festival.” This was a gathering of a hundred or so people on a muddy strip next to the river watching people set off large homemade fireworks. It was an odd scene, next to crazy jagged karst hills.

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While I was watching teams climb the scaffold I was joined by the American exchange student from the bus, who was with an Israeli girl. We seemed to be the only foreigners there apart from an unwashed old hippy with a telephoto lens.

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The fireworks were large but unspectacular. They would fire into action with a great deal of smoke then just fizzle away to nothing.

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After a bit of action there was a delay while a new team set up their stand. A man in the crowd held their bamboo-and-gunpowder monstrosity and didn’t think anything of smoking a cigarette while he carried it.

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At the top of the frame they delayed for quite a while, then decided, stupidly, to hang the advertisement they were holding on the rocket. When they lit the thing it didn’t take off but instead just turned into a fireball which engulfed the man who’d been carrying it. In flames he dropped into the few inches of water below. Everyone else rushed forward to get a photo, but I couldn’t look, maybe more due to squeamishness than morals. When I’d turned round again his friends were taking him away – he was walking ok, I’m glad to say.
Seeing all this put a bit of a negative spin on my time in Vang Vieng, or there could’ve been a number of other reasons why I didn’t have such a great time there. The idea of a little village that suddenly becomes a backpacker hangout for no obvious reason isn’t too bad, but I somehow just wasn’t in the mood for tubing down the river, eating “happy pizza” or sitting in any of the twenty or so cafes showing old episodes of ‘Friends’ to crowds of backpackers. Maybe I’m actually getting too old for this stuff. Maybe it would’ve been good if it hadn’t been raining most of the time. Whatever the reason, I didn’t have the time to hang around waiting for the good times to start.
Before I left there was a nice bike ride to enjoy around the local countryside. There was a rainbow in the sky for about an hour, though I seem to have lost most of my best photos in the virus attack.

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