27 November to 7 December 2011
After leaving the north of Laos it was our intention to have a couple of lazy days in the lovely town of Luang Prabang in the centre of the country and then take a slow boat down the Mekong to the capital, Vientiane which is just a hop, skip and a jump from Thailand and the overnight train to the pleasures and comforts of Bangkok. A good plan indeed but unfortunately modernisation has even reached lovely, lazy Lao and the demand for slow boats that take at least two days has been outstripped by ‘super’ fast buses that do the same journey in eight hours. Actually, it isn’t strictly true to say that the boat has stopped completely. If we had been prepared to hand over $1500 in cash then we would indeed be able to enjoy the delights of the mighty Mekong but given the bus (our preferred option, well only option really) costs $20 and a flight about $80 we have decided that modernisation can be the victor on this occasion.
So we found ourselves with a few extra days on our hands and given that we have already been to the ‘hell’ that is Vang Vieng (*), a natural place to break the journey between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, our choices were limited to more time in Luang Prabang or more time in the capital (**).
Vientiane is a pretty nondescript place with poor accommodation offerings and not a great deal to see whereas Luang Prabang is located on the Mekong, awash with Wats (temples) and colonial French architecture and is one of the most charming towns in all of Asia so the decision wasn’t too hard to make.
We settled in quickly, finding a nice little guesthouse for $10 a night, a place selling cold beer for 8000 kip ($1) a bottle and an authentic curry-house with naan bread to die for. So all in all we were very happy and whiled away our days taking walks along the Mekong (how romantic!), watching the sunsets (even more romantic!), temple-bashing, drinking beer, eating good food and simply relaxing. We even caught the opening day of the Luang Prabang film festival and watched a very enjoyable film called ‘On Safer Ground’ (***). Before we knew it the week was up and it was time to leave and head down to Vientiane on a bus that took eleven hours rather than the advertised eight, surprise, surprise!
We did plan a few days in Vientiane as we needed to get a visa for Burma and it seemed as good a place as any to get it sorted. The embassy turn around was four working days but from experience we have found that these smaller, more out-of-the-way embassies can often be ‘persuaded’ to issue visas slightly quicker. So we posed the question to the nice man who supplied us with the application forms; ‘Sir (mandatory usage when dealing with these fellows!), is there any way we can get the visas back on Wednesday morning rather than Thursday afternoon as we are meeting our parents in Thailand that day?’. ‘Let me see’ was his reply and off he skips to the back office. ‘Indeed there may be’ was the response we got after five minutes of consultation. ‘Jolly good’ was our reply. ‘I am selling calendars’ he points out, ‘oh really’ we gasp with excitement, ‘we would very much like a couple of those’. ‘Well, as luck would have it we are selling them for $5 each’. ‘A bargain’ we cry and hey presto we get our visas one day early. An alternative, shorter version of the same conversation could have gone something like this;
Us; ‘hello, we want two visas for Myanmar’. ‘
Visa man; ‘OK, $20. You get can pick them up on Thursday’
Us; ‘Can we pay you a bribe and get them back on Wednesday?’
Visa man; ‘yep, $5 should do the job and I’ll throw in a couple of crappy calendars into the bargain’
Us; ‘OK. See you Wednesday’
Here endeth the lesson in how to deal with embassy bureaucracy.
So, all visa’d up and ready to go it’s back to Thailand where we need to fix our camera (it’s broken at the moment), visit Boots (deodorant, mosquito repellent etc), pick up our Macs and dose up on Thai curry before heading to the ‘Golden Land’ that is Burma.
(*) Vang Vieng is a funny place. Scenically, it is one of the most stunning places in Laos but it has grown into a backpackers centre where said backpackers act like buffoons (+). There are plenty of ‘legitimate’ activities to keep you busy in Vang Vieng such as rock-climbing, mountain biking and kayaking but by far the most popular ones are taking copious amounts of drugs, drinking and drinking combined with tubing. The later involves driving about 5km up river (Vang Vieng is located on the picturesque Nam Song) and floating down stream in an old tractor inner-tube, stopping at any one of (or indeed all) the 12 odd bars along the way and ending up thoroughly hammered by the time you get back to Vang Vieng. Doesn’t sound too bad I hear you say but in-between these bars are plenty of death-trap rope swings and slides and the more you drink, the more you think they are a good idea and before you know it you are hobbling around town with your leg or arm (or both) in plaster or at the very least some severe and very colourful bruises. This in itself doesn’t worry me, people can do what they want, but it winds me up that the broken bones, bruises and cuts are almost seen as ‘battle scars’ or ‘stripes’ by the foolish young backpackers (and believe me it is always the young ones) and in my day (OK, OK I am know I am sounding old now) you earned your ‘stripes’ by taking a three-day bus journey across China or the like, not by whacking into some great big rock because you are too pissed or stoned to steer an old inner-tube in the right direction. Anyway, rant over but I will say two things; 1) I tried the rope swing, albeit sober (see enclosed video clip and check out the angle of the slide in the background on the Vang Vieng II video – so dangerous!) and 2) if any of my nieces decide to go there in years to come I will certainly have something to say on the matter!
(+) what a great word, it should be used more along with other classics such as shenanigans and kerfuffle.
(**) those of you paying attention may wonder why we didn’t just cross into Thailand early if we were kicking our heels? Well, we would’ve if we could’ve so to speak but unfortunately you only get 15 days gratis when you enter Thailand by land without a visa and our onward flight to Burma is not until 20th December which means we couldn’t cross until 6th December. Get it, good?
(***) Directed and narrated by an English guy called Stuart Ryan, ‘On Safer Ground’ documents the story of a Lao amateur football team from Xieng Khuang Province that head to Sweden for the Football Youth World Cup. Although Laos was neutral during the Vietnam conflict, Xieng Khuang was one of the most devastated areas of the whole war and to this day there is still loads of UXO (Unexploded ordnance) littering region and Stuart Ryan links this into the film, making the overall result very poignant as well as very sad and very funny at times. If you can get hold of it , we can recommend it. We visited the region some ten years back and found it to be very interesting. I will always remember it as we had a hard night of drinking with the British contingent of the Mine Advisory Group (MAG). How anyone can go out and look for UXO on a daily basis is incredible to me and I take my hat off to them. No wonder they get caned every night.