Laos: Same Same but Different

On Saturday evening, March 24th, Diarmo, Ella and I flew into the great city of Bangkok once again. It had been a year since we’d left after a magnificent 4 months in South-East Asia and arriving back on Khao San road was one of the greatest moments of our 18 months on the road. This city had become like a home away from home for us. We had planned to finish our travels in style and we had could have traveled home across North America, South America or even Europe. But something called us back to South-East Asia. That’s the effect this wonderful part of the world has on you, you don’t just come and visit, you become immersed in it. And although some may not like it, those who love it will always cherish it and always yearn to be part of it once again.

The journey from Christchurch to Bangkok was not exactly pleasant. Christchurch to Melbourne; 4 hours in Melbourne; Melbourne to Singapore; 2 hours in Singapore; Singapore to Bangkok. We met Ella in Singapore airport who had just spent 10 days there and flew together onto Bangkok. Walking down Khao San road and the tiredness we should have felt disappeared, we were just so happy being back. We checked into the lovely Rikka Inn which we knew all too well and hit Khao San Central for a good old beer tower. The majestic avenue buzzed just as we remembered it; street sellers everywhere you looked, the smell of Pad Thai cooking, Ladyboys offering a ‘good time’ and all walks of life both weird and wonderful from all over the world wandering around.

The following day we rediscovered living like kings. A massive breakfast followed by a beer tower or two, shopping a plenty, stocking up on shorts and singlets for Vang Vieng and the islands and of course, a nice Thai massage. Unfortunately we were on the road again that evening, a grueling journey north to Vang Vieng. We were used to night buses. The main issue in this journey is the border crossing. Border crossings in South-East Asia are miserable procedures and flying between countries is a must if the funds are there for it. This crossing involved a stop at a restaurant for 2 hours to ‘sort out’ the visas, 2 more hours at the border and several bus changes.

We arrived in Vang Vieng around 1.30 in the afternoon and checked back into the unique treehouse where we had spent a brilliant new year in 2010, Spicy Laos. Every kid dreamed of having a treehouse when they were young; this was the dream treehouse, 3 quaint bunkhouses not exactly in trees but situated amongst exotic palm trees with a nice common area, $3 dollars a night. We had a much needed nap and went out for some good old buckets that evening, down at the river bars. Not much had changed around Vang Vieng, although it was a bit quieter this time around.

The next day, tubing was imminent but we realised Spicy Laos disappointed us. There were two main reasons we loved it so much the first time round. 1. The beer fridge; It stood in arm’s reach of the common area and instead of paying for beers, you just wrote it on your tab and paid for the lot at the end. 2. We had an awesome group of treehouse tenants, Andy, Byron, Guy, Hannah, Ben, Carlos and several other mad characters. So the beer fridge had been moved to reception as they explained to us, people weren’t honouring their tabs. If I had encountered those people, they would receive a roasting from Diarmo and I. And as for the group, our room mates this year were not so extroverted and there was no dynamic like before, mostly Dutch people who were a bit clicky. Nonetheless we made our own fun.

And so we ventured down to the deadly river, tubeless of course (we knew better). We were at the first bar only 5 minutes before we were playing Beer Pong with an English guy, while the music blared and people danced like idiots. It was good to be back. Unfortunately the flying foxes we had enjoyed so much the previous year had been taken away. Granted, they are highly dangerous considering the jagged rocks underneath the river, but the river bars lost some of their soul as a result.

On the river in Vang Vieng, there are 20-30 bars along a stretch. We never made it past bar 4 this year. The party was electric in the first few and there was no need to venture further. On that first day we danced and drank without a care in the world and before we knew it the sun was setting. On our way back to the treehouse we discussed plans for the evening. By 7.30 pm the three of us were fast asleep. We awoke at 10 the next morning. Much needed. One of the great things about Vang Vieng is that every single restaurant shows Friends and Family Guy all day long. So when tired/hungover you can lie in comfort and laugh away, somebody definitely told the locals exactly what we Westerners do back at home after a night out.

The river bars had a lot of party games this year, I remember several times jumping in and out of tubes and running around in circles. They also had a strip olympics competition between the four  main bars, which involved a lot of nudity, both male and female. Ella got some pretty graphic shots. The evening time in Vang Vieng was pretty good but our old age was telling, we couldn’t handle all nighters when the day was spent jumping around river bars.

The last day tubing was the best, we found a good replacement for the flying foxes, a diving board in the 4th bar. We watched several people dive into the river without dying, so we knew it was safe. It’s an invigorating feeling falling through the air into the cool fresh river while the sun sets in the distance. There was something a bit sad about that last day, this could be our last time in this crazy place drinking disgusting buckets, not a care in the world. I can’t imagine us returning to Vang Vieng at 35.

On the last day we visited the lagoon, the three of us absolutely exhausted, Diarmo actually was the worst of us, Vang Vieng had taken him. We chilled out on the grass for a couple of hours and looked forward to returning to luxury the following day; luxury being living indoors again.

Over the last 2 days in Laos, we met two people who really put Vang Vieng into perspective. In a tuk tuk through town, a German guy came aboard and began talking to us about how much he despised Vang Vieng. He said ‘It isn’t real Laos’, ‘People just come here to get drunk and party’, ‘There’s nothing else to do but go tubing’ and he was absolutely right. The second guy we met was on our bus to Vientiane. He was going to the border to get a visa extension, he’d been in Vang Vieng a month. He was coming back for more.

The first guy is an example of what not to expect from Vang Vieng, yes it’s not real Laos and yes everybody just comes to get drunk and party. Why come then to complain? Surely any traveler would have done a tiny bit of research before coming. Diarmo was quite taken aback, truthful or not, ‘if it isn’t your cup of tea, get out’, he said. The second guy is an example of the other extreme. His eyes were bloodshot, his clothes were dirty, his hands shook yet he wanted more. Vang Vieng is a sinful place really, absolutely fantastic to experience, but not to live. Laos is a beautiful peaceful country, there is a curfew of 11 pm everywhere else, Vang Vieng is Laos’ biggest mistake but hey we all make mistakes now and then.

We took a nice short ride to Vientiane along the infamously bumpy Laos roads and surprisingly really enjoyed our 24 hours in the capital. We had really thought little of it the previous year, it is probably the quietest capital city in the world and there was little to do. We had a lovely dinner and walk through the markets along the Mekong. We picked up some Laos tea for the families and had one last Beer Lao for the road. What a relief it was to be flying back to Bangkok, well worth every penny of the 120 euro ticket. I was a bit sad we did not get to see more of this amazing country as we had the previous year but we had big plans ahead in Thailand, with Charlie, Byron and Andy arriving in Bangkok that afternoon too.

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