Sunday, December 5, 2010

Vang Vieng

The next spot our in our trip in Laos was Vang Vieng. The town itself is kind of a touristy, backpacker party town with the entire downtown catering to western tourists, making it not the ideal place to go to see the "real Laos". All over the town there are rows of restaurants with beds at the tables that you can lounge at with TVs blaring with American TV shows, primarily Friends and Family Guy. Most places in Laos are required to close down at 11:30 pm or earlier, but in Vang Vieng there is a party island that can stay open all night. When we were there, it was during the rainy season and fewer tourists were around, making it less of a wild place to be. Despite all that, there is some pretty amazing scenery outside the small town center making it worth a visit.

As in most places of our trip, most of the backpackers were British, Australian, Dutch, and other assorted Europeans. We definitely met a lot fewer Americans on our trip than expected, especially considering the US has a population of 300+ million, whereas Holland has only around 16.5 million. Maybe Americans just don't venture out as much, or when we do most people head to Europe. Or maybe Americans just don't get as much vacation as Europeans. Either way, we were definitely underrepresented.

Most Stable Bridge in Laos 

The Passage to Party Island

 Party Island

The main draw of Vang Vieng is tubing on the Nam Song River. On the main stretch of the river there is a huge party scene the likes of which might not exist anywhere else in the world. As you float down the river, there are rows of bars that will be pumping music and having people lasso you on your tube and reel you in. Each bar has some kind of a swing, zip line, or huge slide going into the river. The whole thing is pretty crazy and definitely unsafe. To make things worse, before we arrived in town we had heard about an epidemic of pink eye spreading around the town from all the people swimming in the river, but fortunately by the time we got into Vang Vieng the infected crowd seemed to have moved on.

We spent a day on the river hitting all the big swings. One of the funniest things that happened during tubing was at the first place we stopped, which had a big zip line. The guy didn't really give us any instructions before we took the zip line down, so when Phil went first, he held on until the end of the line, which ended up being a really hard stop instead of a cushioned landing, leading to him involuntarily doing a back flip while flailing around before landing in the water. Fortunately he didn't get hurt and my only regret about it was that I didn't get it on camera.

I Disapprove of This

 Wes on Swing

 Tubing Stretch of River

Slide Bar 

 Phil Going off Swing

 Wes Catapulting off Slide

 Tubing Down River

Phil Tubing 

Beautiful Mountain and River Scenery

With the tubing experience off our checklist, we spent the next day exploring the areas outside of the city. There are lots of beautiful mountains, rivers, caves, and places to go swimming. We rented bikes and ventured out, but due to some heavy rains the night before, several of the country roads were flooded. While it might have slowed us down some, we took note of the locals who didn't let a flooded river ruin their journey and continued on our way. It was surprisingly beautiful in the countryside and we enjoyed riding around, stopping at local shops to get a fruit shake, and wading through the flooded roads with the locals.

 Morning View from Hotel

 Nobody Seems to Understand the Nature of the Project

 Flooded River

 Not Much of a Swimmin' Hole

Vang Vieng Countryside

 Cows Up in Our Business

Planting Rice

Muddy River

Sunset Over River

Despite the debauchery that is normally associated with Vang Vieng, our stay was pretty mild because of the slow tourist season, heavy rains, and our ventures into the countryside. Regardless, we did have a lot of fun hitting the swings and slides on the river and the scenery outside the city is pretty amazing. We also made it out of the city without any pink eye, although we did get a stomach bug that stayed with us for quite awhile from a rather suspicious late night bacon, chicken, and cheese crepe. Despite that, I still chalk this visit up as a success.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Nong Khiaw and 100 Waterfalls Trek

From Luang Prabang, we took a side trip to a small town called Nong Khiaw. The main purpose for us to go there was the 100 Waterfalls trek, which has purportedly only been explored since 2008, meaning it is still somewhat off the main tourist routes. The town itself ended up being incredibly beautiful with great river and mountain scenes. There were a lot fewer tourists there, although still enough to get together a nice group for the trek and enjoy dinners along the river. After arriving, we took some time to walk around the town and the side alleys to explore a little.

Main Street Nong Khiaw

Heidi (from Austria) at Local Shop

 Our Bungalow ($8/night)

Local Hut and Backyard

Blue Sky, Green Mountains, Muddy Mekong = Laos

Nong Khiaw River View 

 River View

During the hottest part of the day, we had to relax in one of the restaurants near the river to stay out of the heat. When the evening started setting in and the sun started coming down, we went out along the river area and it was really beautiful. By chance, there was a small wedding party going on and the groom's brother came over to us and talked to us for awhile so he could practice his English. A lot of the local kids were curious, too, and came by looking to play games or take a look at our cameras.

Wes and Phil with Groom's Brother

Xue'en (from Singapore) Drawing Portraits for Kids

 Welcome to Laos

Cute Kids 

Sunset over River

 River Activity at Sunset

The next day, we set out for the 100 Waterfalls trek. To start the trip, we took a boat along the river to a nearby village. We spent some time walking around the village and meeting some of the locals. Our guide, a local Laotian named Home, took us to some of his family in the village. Home's Dad also came along for the trip and provided a lot of colorful commentary along the way. Home spoke perfect English with a slight British accent and was one of the best guides we had during our two month trip.

 Cruising on the Boat

 Passing Some Locals

Village Area

The Local Village Paddy Hat Maker

We departed from the village and hiked up to the 100 Waterfalls area. It took a couple hours, but we saw a lot of beautiful sites along the way. When we were hiking, Home's Dad would show us a lot of interesting tricks using items from the jungle. He showed us leaves that would turn into a dark red dye when you rubbed them together, how to make a tuning fork type instrument with bamboo, which herbs could be eaten, and how to make other various crafts. He provided a lot of entertainment despite not being able to speak much English.

Water Trail

Home Leading Way up Mountains

Local Micro-Hydro Power

 Walking through Rice Paddies

 Planting Rice

The Power of Natural Red Dye

 Home's Dad Demonstrating the Red Dye as Lipstick

How to Make a Water Buffalo from Bamboo

The actual "100 Waterfalls" part of the trek is a one hour hike up a series of waterfalls. Most of the falls are small, but they stretch on for a pretty long while. Surprisingly, it's a pretty smooth hike up and the rocks aren't slippery or anything. It's a lot of fun climbing up and there's a nice payoff at the top with a bigger waterfall to take a rinse in.

 Hiking up 100 Waterfalls

A More Difficult Stretch

 Phil, Home, Home's Dad, and Wes

 Shower at Top

At the top, Home and his Dad prepared a traditional Laos meal, served on large leaves and including sticky rice, Laap, egg, and vegetables. You eat it by rolling up some sticky rice and grabbing some of the other food with the sticky rice between your fingers. We really enjoyed the Laap, which is kind of a spicy minced meat dish, throughout our time in Laos.

The Lunch Spread

 Digging In

After lunch, we headed back to Nong Khiaw. We were planning to catch the bus back to Luang Prabang that night, but missed it. Staying another day in Nong Khiaw wasn't so bad, but the next day was extremely rainy and we weren't able to do much in our remaining time there. We did have some nice views again in the evening and through the rain. Phil took some great pictures that I'll share below.


 Evening Time in Nong Khiaw

  Sunset Over River

 Heavy Rains near Bungalow

Rain and Fog on River Bend

Not everything was perfect in Nong Khiaw. Bullfrogs staking out territory in our sink, big spiders in our bathroom, and an incredibly packed ride back to Luang Prabang made the trip more interesting, but for the most part our time in Nong Khiaw was amazing and was well worth the visit. It's such a picturesque town full of friendly people that I would recommend it to anyone traveling through Laos.

 Be Careful Before Sitting Down

18 People Packed into a Small Bus 

Thanks for Coming!