On the bus, to Vang Vieng, I woke to dramatic scenery enveloping us on all sides. We passed sheer drops, blue-hued mountain peaks and small villages before finally reaching Vang Vieng. On arrival, we drove through an old airstrip built by the CIA during the ‘secret’ Indochinese war. Mainly built to accommodate its own airline ‘Air America’ used to smuggle opium and mercenaries around Laos. Now it has a few market stalls and used as a bus depot for tourists.
We walked across to Babylon Guesthouse and settled into a $6.50 en-suite double room overlooking the main road. Nick the eccentric English manager showed us to our room where the house rules are laminated and stuck on the wall “We reserve the right to be rude, be abusive, not care, be obnoxious, bigoted, racist, homophobic, heterophobic, agoraphobic, alcoholic, anti-ginger, anti-Welsh, anti-religion, anti-atheist, and offer poor customer service to the point of physical violence”. I thought it summed it up quite well.
Nick had recommended us to visit the Rising Sun bar, while also informing us of the stupidity tax which is in place. He explained for stupid tourists who wish to smoke the local ‘produce’ in public there is a fine by the police of $500. The bar entices you into a drinking session and soon we found ourselves downing a bucket containing tiger whisky and coke while playing a game of pool. The pool tables are levelled by bits of cardboard on each leg which may have contributed to the fact that I actually won a game.
After a hearty breakfast we decided to walk towards the seductive karst peak mountains. Firstly we negotiated a bouncy bamboo bridge to get to the island. Then we walked up the stony shore of the Xong River to the toll bridge. The bridge is decorated with 2 leftover bombshells at the entrance. They serve as small reminders that this country is the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history. Lonely Planet tells us that for 9 years between 1964 and 1973 “cost US taxpayers around $2 million per day”.
A sign pointing to the caves explained that this was a place of refuge during the war. Following a narrow path through the heavy jungle we arrived at the caves. We didn’t spend too long as it was getting late and more beer Lao was calling. On our return the glowing sunset sky made the landscape constantly change colour. Insects buzzed and jungle sounds echoed from the sheer cliffs. Long shadows followed us on the way back through the dried up paddy fields.
On our return, we were offered a shot of ‘snake’ Lao Lao a rice whisky which is served from a bottle complete with cobra inside, of course I couldn’t refuse. That night the gods put on a show for us, with a spectacular display of thunder and lightening which we watched from the roof of Babylon accompanied by 2 bottles of Beer Lao.
After a recovery breakfast we rented a bike and headed to the hills again. We drove over bumpy stony roads towards ‘Python cave’. As the sunset, it cast a warm hue over the landscape. We crossed a bridge so rickety and skinny I thought it safer to wade through the shallow stream while Ali took the bike across. Smiling kids shouted ‘SABAIDI’ (hello) from all directions as we passed through a small ‘ban’ or ‘village’. Then it was time for our daily dose of the rising sun. Buckets and pool games later we were invited to sit with the stonies on the sofa until the early hours.
To cure the hangover we headed out of town again, this time in the direction of Louang Prabang on Route 13. Towards the Kasi district a sharp winding road weaved through dramatic mountains. In the shadow of the towering mountain, a cool breeze acts as natural air conditioning. Further en route we passed soldiers or rebels perhaps? Carrying AK47’s. However they looked completely harmless just chilling on the side of the road and showing off their guns to 2 giggling girls. We stopped to visit a temple and on the way down a local girl carrying a bag on her head posed for the camera. She was utterly amazed to see herself on the digital camera screen, perhaps for the first time?
After another hard day sightseeing and adventuring at the lagoon, we had another hard nights drinking. We were offered by ‘Toto’ a local tuk-tuk driver to drink green Lao Lao. It would have been rude and wiser to refuse. To add to this, an English regular was passing around beer Lao chasers. Then another local character joined our table and it all went downhill from there. As the clock struck curfew time the music was switched off, much to the annoyance of Toto who was cursing and asking “why no Boom Boom?” After a colossal amount of the toxic green liquor we decided that we needed just one more beer. The next morning I woke in a death-like state and it took a few days of detox before venturing back to the bar again.