We spent two days in Vang Vieng in the Lao hill country. It’s a bit cooler than Vientiane with forested mountains and rivers. The town has grown rapidly from a sleepy hill town to a tourist town with young people crowding the bars, kayaking and inner tubing the river, and exploring the limestone caves nearby. We understand that this last year the local authorities cracked down on the raucous bar scene and drinking along the river, so it’s pretty tame right now. We went on a long-boat powered by an irrigation pump motor up the river to get a view of the nearby vertical mountains. The air quality is so bad that everything is quite hazy. The only passable view of the mountains is first thing in the morning in low light. We rented a motorbike and visited one cave. It was a serious climb up to it, but pretty interesting inside. Afterwards, we dunked in the “blue lagoon”; though we didn’t use the swinging rope to drop into the water. It’s definitely a young person’s scene. Personally, I wouldn’t go back again. (Deni: Well, I liked the area much more than Coop did. We stayed at a great place right on the river. We had a little bungalow and in the morning I could sit on the porch and drink my coffee and watch the river scene – kids on their way to school, cattle coming down for a drink, boats chugging by. And the food at the hotel restaurant was quite good. And he forgot to mention that we went to an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day to sing Irish songs and eat fish and chips. I thought that was fun.)
The six hour bus ride to Luang Prabang took us over the tops of many mountain ridges on a twisty road. A Lao lady and her kids threw up most of the way. The rest of us just hung on. The route took us through hill villages perched near the tops of the ridges. It would be interesting to visit some of them at a more leisurely pace. Massive deforestation is going on in the mountains. Whole hillsides are being cleared and burned for planting banana and sugarcane on extremely steep slopes. The runoff during the rainy season must be terrible. The burning is contributing to the poor air quality throughout the area.
On the map the routes between cities don’t look like it’s very far. But on the twisty mountain roads it takes forever. The extended travel times by bus have caused us to modify our route. We’ve had to skip the Plain of Jars. And we’re going to fly from Laos back to Thailand this weekend. It’s just too far to retrace our steps back to Bangkok by bus without undergoing a real ordeal.
We’re both happy we’ve come to Luang Prabang (LP). It’s the former royal capital. The U.S. didn’t bomb in this area, so the central city still has many charming older buildings. Interspersed among all of the guesthouses and restaurants are modest sized Buddhist temples. LP is on the upper Mekong River with a tributary entering the river through the city. It’s a lovely location with the tall forested mountains all around. It’s a tourist town, but there are many things to see and do around here. The days are a bit cooler than further south. The mornings are actually quite refreshing.
We were able to learn more about the four main Lao ethnic groups at a small museum here in town. It is very well done with costumes of the different groups and information about marriage customs. This area has a lot of ethnic diversity, which is reflected in the local craft markets. There’s a lot of good food both in the restaurants and at street stalls. There are very few U.S. tourists. It’s mainly Western Europeans and Japanese tourists. Some of the Western European young people are giants. Even I feel short when surrounded by them. (Deni: Why are all the Swedes beautiful? Do they drown the ugly ones at birth? Although Americans are few here, we did meet two American couples at a restaurant last night. One of the couples had spent six weeks in India in ashrams before coming here. The other couple was a little taken aback by some of what they were experiencing. The wife was so funny – they took a trek to a village and she didn’t quite understand what the trek part meant. When she got to the top of the mountain where the village was, she refused to trek back down. She hired a tractor (!!) and rode it down the mountain, waving regally to all the children as she descended. Way to go!)
After visiting the craft markets and touring some of the temples today we’re ready to go to the outlying areas to visit waterfalls and villages and spend some time with elephants. We’ve ridden horses and camels. So now we’ve got a chance to ride Asian elephants which are much smaller than the African elephants we’ve seen on safari.
(Deni: I’ve discovered a very good thing – Lao vodka, lime juice, and honey. Yummy. Last night we went to a great restaurant and had a sampler of Lao food including crackers made from river weeds. They were OK, but probably won’t become one of my favorite things. The restaurant has a special Friday night group dinner with lots of Lao traditional food – so we’re doing that tomorrow after our return from a river trip to some Budha caves and a van trip to a waterfall. Saturday we’re spending the whole day with elephants. We’ll learn commands, ride them through the forest, feed them, and give them a bath. Cool!)