Saturday, March 13, 2010

Vang Vieng - Party Capital of Laos

A few hours bus ride north of the Laos capital is the little town of Vang Vieng. Visually, it is quite interesting; karst hills jut from the landscape like moss covered teeth. The streets are also interesting if you're looking for fun.

During the Vietnam war, the US built a runway in the valley and used it as a supply depot. Today, it sits unused, testament to troubled past. Instead of airmen, the town is frequented by backpackers looking for the opposite of war. The town is full of guest houses and funky restaurants where visitors lounge away the day watching DVD's of American TV shows or prepare for expeditions into the nearby countryside. The beach-town feel to the place is heightened by the numerous young people decked out in in shorts, sandals and t-shirts.

It's not the airstrip or hills that attract them, but the river. Vang Vieng is now the inner-tubing epicenter of Laos. In the morning, trucks loaded with tubes, kayaks and party-goers head up-river to release their charges into the river. A few hours, and quite a few drinks, later, they arrive back in town, wet, sunburned and happy ... and nearly unable to walk.

The river is on the far side of town. It looks quite peaceful during the dry season, but during the rainy season it can move very fast. In response to the popularity of the town with visitors, the locals have expanded by building guest houses on the far shore; while some distance from the "action," they tend to be more quiet. A rickety bamboo bridge facilitates the crossing.

The far side of the river is rural farmland. The rice paddies are dry, but cows and water buffalo make the most of the minimal grazing opportunities.

Of particular interest to me were the obvious shell craters in the middle of fields, another reminder of the country's recent history.

A terrific place to chill out for a few days, Vang Vieng is an ideal stop over between more adventurous places in Laos.

See larger photos here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Vientiane - Capital of Laos

I had visited the capital of Laos once before, but I was not impressed. A lot of people really like the place, but it doesn't do much for me. However, flying in from a cold week in China, I was just happy to be somewhere warm with good food. I hung around the airport waiting for another backpacker heading into town so we could share the cost and swap stories. Unfortunately, the flight was full of business people or package tour types and everyone was being met at the airport. I met a Scandinavian couple on their way to their flight when they realized that they left something important back at their guest house. We jumped into a cab and they told me about their experiences. They thought, as I did, that Vientiane was not particularly interesting. I vowed to stay only a single night.

It seems that Vientiane had taken on a new popularity after the trouble in Bangkok. There were many new shops and restaurants open. Most of the guest houses were full, but I did manage to find one after a few interviews with other backpackers.

That evening, I attended a local dance troupe's performance. A group of about twenty young dancers put on a show to demonstrate Laos dancing and music. The auditorium is a large open room where everyone sits on makeshift seats and where the stage is just the polished wooden floor in front of the seats. Backstage is just the area behind a heavy red velvet curtain, the theater's most notable decoration. Before each musician or dancer takes the stage, a young woman reads from a cue card in faltering English to explain the next act. The performers are quite talented and give it their all despite an audience smaller than the troupe itself.

After a few weeks of buses and trains and taxis, I was ready for some personal transportation. The next morning I outfitted myself with a rented motorbike and scooted around town to take in the sights. Even with the new development, it was still somewhat run down, but pleasant enough. Now, there are a lot of interesting and unusual things in Vientiane, but I was not particularly inspired on this trip and the typical snapshots just don't do the place justice. For example, Laos most sacred pagoda is in Vientiane, but it's not very interesting looking and makes for a lousy photo. Really. Just look at this. I can't work with this.

Now, I have seen good shots of the place, but they were at night during important Buddhist ceremonies but I wasn't planning to stay that long.

I checked out the used book store, visited the market (that was slowly being converted into a western-style mall), checked e-mail and ate some good food. As I paused on one street, I noticed a typical street dog confronting a kitten on the sidewalk. The kitten was puffed up and hissing and spitting for all it was worth. I decided to rescue the poor thing from it's assailant. The dog quickly backed away as I approached and I scooped up the kitten. I didn't think it was possible that it could get even more frightened and angry, but it cranked up the hissing and spitting a notch. Then it bit down on my thumb. Hard! The little hellion drew blood - if it wasn't hanging on by fang and claw I might has dropped it as I suppressed a scream. I extracted myself from its grip and set it up on a short wall out of the dog's reach. The dog was looking at me with a "better you than me" look. The kitten, now safe, never let up on the hissy fit. I squeezed my thumb to draw out more blood, ever so wary of infection. One thing I noticed about the cat was that it was awfully skinny. I had no food and there was nowhere to buy anything close by. This one would have to be satisfied with what little sustenance it got from me when it tried to eat my thumb.

While I was slightly concerned about infection, it didn't occur to me until later that that would be a minor inconvenience. I started wondering why that kitten was so angry ... mad even. Mad? Was it rabid? You must get a rabies shot within a certain number of days of being bitten. I didn't know how many days, but I knew the shots were hard to get and very, very expensive. I lost sleep calculating the slim probability of being infected against the very real probability of suffering physically and financially as the result of getting shots (even if I could find a clinic who could provide the service). I took the chance ... and survived!

After my tour of the town, I rode south along the river through villages that rarely see foreigners. I didn't stop for much other than photographic opportunities like a group of monks being invested into the community monastery.

Local fishermen catching the tiny riel fish from the shore using an ancient technique.

I was most interested in seeing the Buddha park somewhere south of the city. I drove down the highway, past numerous industrial parks making everything from cement to beer, until I found the bridge to Thailand. I knew the place was somewhere nearby. I found a train station (I didn't even know Laos had a train) then I discovered something with a wall and gate that looked like it could have been a park. It was closed, however. There was a narrow side gate that was open, so I drove the bike through and entered the lost world.

This was not the Buddha park some sort of theme park that had long ago been abandoned. Little theme restaurants were scattered about large picnic grounds with cement cast tables and benches done in a rustic wooden motif. There were several buildings outfitted as traditional Laos dwellings, one for each of the major ethnic peoples, and the shell of a exhibition center that was suppose to represent a palace or ancient wat. It was all so very Laos. What I saw next really took me for a loop.

Seeing those statues, there was no doubt that I was not in the Buddha park. Although a bit corny looking, I have to admit that the work was pretty impressive. That monster on the right was a good four meters tall.

The park had a pretty heavy investment in it, obviously, but I never learned what happened. I never found the Buddha park, either, but my lost world was plenty interesting.

Back in the city, I decided to spend one more night. The thing to do in the evening is grab some supper on the river and watch the sun go down on Thailand. There are a dozens of little outdoor restaurants on the Mekong bank. They all have the same view so you base your choice on what they've got cooking. I placed my order and stretched out on the bamboo mats.

The next morning, I did manage to get a nice shot of the presidential palace.

Vientiane is a nice spot for lounging, but there's a much better place just north of the city. I made plans to leave for Vang Vieng that afternoon.