London Underground? Thanks, I’d Rather Catch the Tube

What a great decision! Riding through Northern Lao on a bike allows us to experience more of its beauty and learn more about the country than we may have doing bus tours. It’s simply the best way to travel, FULL STOP! Even if you take buses to main hubs and then ride out on day trips from there it’s possible, but chances are you’ll get a scooter for about 150000LAK/day and the ride will be VERY bumpy.

Lao is about the size of Britain with a population of only about 6 million. It’s lush, it’s green and rocky mountain faces pierce vertically through the ground, absolutely breathtaking! There are lakes, caves and rivers (the main one being the Mekong) and all over the place you’ll drive through little villages, often mere bamboo huts, where women (those not in the field) laze around and children play and wave with excitement as you pass by – really stirring; they’re so sweet and innocent; poor yet happy.

People are very poor here. Laos is one of the 20 poorest countries, corruption is rife, and its more powerful neighbours are apparently taking more and more control over the economy. They were bombed to smitherines during the Vietnam war – the US dropped more bombs here than on any other country, ever. Apparently more than were dropped on Germany and Japan during WW2, or all bombs dropped on Europe combined, which equates to about a half ton for each member of the population, thank you very much. The worse part is that an estimated 30% didn’t explode; thus cluster bomblets, warheads, grenades and mines (so called UXOs) are buried all over the place and to this day sending kids and farmers up in smoke. Also these UXOs are keeping the country in poverty because they prevent people from using a huge amount of their arable land. It’s amazing that in the face of this these people are so welcoming and friendly.

Where did we learn this? There’s a group which deserves much admiration called MAG, which is doing the risky business of finding and defusing this stuff so that land can be reclaimed. Many of them young local women. Check them out on the web; make a donation perhaps; or even better come here, visit their centre in Ponsavan and do it there by buying a T-shirt or some postcards or something.

Our bike ride takes us up highway 10, then 12 to Vang Vieng. The journey takes more than the estimated 4 hours and this leaves us riding in the dark for an hour or two, definitely something to avoid down here.

Vang Vieng is best known among backpackers for its excellent TUBE infrastructure! It’s a small village with one main street and is basically a large cluster of guest houses, restaurants and bars. It seems this place has been built primarily to accommodate the tube system and not the other way round, but this has its reasons – more about that in a minute. The atmosphere is as can be expected – loud and full of drunk young travelers looking to burn the midnight oil. Hotels are pretty reasonable – we had a riverside room with balcony and great view for 100000LAK/night in the Grand View guesthouse. We travel by tube the next day; not very cultural I warn you, but still much fun and not to be passed up if you’re here already.

Basically here’s the procedure:
1. You pick up a truck tyre tube in town (50000K + 60000K deposit), catch a tuk tuk a few kilometres up-river where you’re greeted at the first riverside bars with free Whisky Lao, pumping music and as much drink behind the bar as you desire.
2. As you tire of one place, you just hop into the river with your tube and float downstream until you grab on to a line thrown from the next bar that takes your fancy and get pulled ashore for the next party. Hilarious! And the scenery is stunning!
3. At the end of the day you hop on your tube and either float all the way back to Vang Vieng or come off early and take a tuk tuk back. (Don’t forget your tube!)
4. At night there are a few late night bars and plenty of restaurants for good chow. Party on until you’ve had enough.

(Sadly no photos of the tubing as the dry bags are not always reliable and our camera is very dear to us!)

We leave the last bar at about 5PM and an hour later find ourselves slowly downstream drifting in the dark, a drunken French lass who’s lost all her friends latched onto our little convoy. We should have left an hour earlier to make it back to Vang Vieng by tube during this low water season, but we decide to come ashore where we hear some tuk tuk drivers offering a ride. Great decision: because they’ve got a little fire going and as we’re drying off at the fireside, waiting for any additional passengers to float by, they share some of their LaoLao (moonshine) and buffalo hide with us, which is a treat! The hide looks like finger-thick strips of powdery rubber; it goes straight into the glowing embers and after a few minutes when it’s all crispy the ash is beaten off between a couple of stones and it’s ready to eat. Try it if you can.

Aside from tubing (which will probably cost you a day plus a morning due to hang over) there are loads of activities around here: kayaking, climbing, caving, trekking… did I mention drinking? Just a few kilometres out of town you can visit caves, waterfalls and the Blue Lagoon which you absolutely MUST visit but make sure it’s the real one (7km from town).

On our last evening in VV we meet Sam, a Hawaiian bloke, long-time traveler of these parts. After many successful years spent in a less than reputable trade in the USA, he’s now seeking to establish a new venture in Lao, but this time one from which prosperity will flow to local workers as well as his business. We have a really good night; he’s a really decent and intelligent bloke and it’s great talking to him. It turns out he’s also traveling by motorbike, but in the opposite direction so, sadly, we’ll be parting ways. The next morning we meet up at the bakery in town for the Fruit-Yoghurt-Muesli breakfast Sam recommends and say our good byes.

Sam, thanks for the tip. The breakfast was excellent and kept us riding for the rest of the day. Good luck with your project and hope to meet you again!

– Go tubing in Vang Vieng but try not to make a nuisance of yourself back in the village.
– Keep your brain on: during low water people have broken themselves by swinging or diving into rocks; during high water drunken people have been dragged under and away in the muddy rapids (your friends can’t swim that fast to save you).
– Visit the Blue Lagoon near Vang Vieng & take your cozzie.
– Take at least one decent torch along if you’re visiting caves or you’ll have to rent one (though this isn’t expensive)
– Though drugs are available and a lot of people are looking for them here, it’s probably not a good idea: We heard a few stories of tuk tuk drivers or dealers in bars selling to travelers and tipping off the police moments later; at the time we were there a couple of girls took magic mushrooms and got caught, and while they were spending a night in a cell and paying hundreds of dollars in exit fees, the room at their guest house was being conveniently stripped of their belongings.
– You can buy buffalo hide at the Luang Prabang food market if you want to take some with you.

SEE PHOTOS OF “LAO 10 Days Bike Ride Part1 Vientiane-Vangvien…”

SEE PHOTOS OF “LAO 10 Day Bike Ride Part 2 Vangvien Nongtang…”