CURRENT LOCATION: Vientiane, Laos
Upon arriving in Vang Vieng we dumped our gear in our room and hit the streets to wander around and get a feel for the town. Despite its seemingly sleepy small-town feel, it was surprisingly occupied and busy. There were a ton of people out and about; coming home from work, getting dinner, tourists like us wandering around, having drinks. It was a nice place to be. One thing that stood out for us was how stunningly beautiful Vang Vieng was. It's situated right on a river and surrounded by huge limestone cliffs. The river itself was clear and flanked by quintessential SE Asian stilt housing. There were a number of children swimming and playing in the river, while adults came to clean their motorbikes, fish and go for a dip.
For dinner we stopped at a row of women with food carts. All selling the same thing. Six of them. Screaming out for our business... To avoid a punch up Sam and I decided to split our business between two of them. We both ordered the same thing just to be on the safe side: beef, bacon, cheeseburgers. The ladies got to work making our burgers and almost immediately gave us a free sample of their famous battered chicken. Holy moly, this was some of the best chicken we've ever eaten. We very rapidly asked if we could add some of that to each of our burgers and they obliged. Surprisingly, they added this free of charge! We found an abounded picnic table and tucked into some of the best snack burgers you can buy for $2.50! We were not alone - within about 30 seconds all the neighbourhood dogs were cuddling up to us in the hopes of getting some scraps. No luck doggies, these burgers were just too good! We continued to walk through most of Vang Vieng after dinner as the sun was setting, excited to hit the ground running the next day.
On our first full day in Vang Vieng we were going to do the much anticipated, incredible so hyped, constantly talked about tubing adventure. A bit of background to this... In 1999 the occupants discovered that there was some serious tourism cash to be made by hiring out tractor tyre inner tubes to adventurous 19 and 20 year olds, setting up an endless row of pubs, bars and clubs on the riverbanks, and encouraging them to stop at each one along the river. This very quickly became a big draw card for young backpackers in South East Asia and the attraction blew up! Thousands upon thousands of excitable partiers were turning up each year. Naturally the bars and clubs along the river banks needed something in order to stand out from the rest of the bars. They started to build water slides, zip lines, Tarzan swings, diving platforms as well as dance floors, mini golf courses and designated drinking game areas. This was a drunken Valhala, a mustdo for everyone coming to Laos. As in all good biological systems though, it didn't take long for natural selection to kick in. Copious amounts of booze + drugs + testosterone fuelled boys + girls in bikinis + zip lines, waterslides and cliff jumps + water, aka the potential for drowning, makes for a super sized recipe for disaster. And disaster there was. By 2009 the bars were fully developed with their rivalling attractions and the chaos resulted in an average of 20 tourist deaths per year! Not surprising, but still shocking. This was not a deterrent for the tourists and they continued to turn up, get wasted and kill themselves in horrible ways. In 2012 the Laos government stepped in and couldn't turn their back/accept any more bribes and the whole operation (virtually) was shut down. The bars were closed and the extreme activities were destroyed. In the months following the government intervention the river was virtually uninhabited by tourists, but the bars have been slowly creeping back one by one. They aren't allowed to have the huge slides, swings and zip lines but they can serve booze. So in true 'if you build it, they will come' fashion, the tourists have again started to flock to Vang Vieng. The insane, out of control party of old is well and truly gone, but the beat and bass line have started up again and it's picking up tempo.
Now our experience was rather different to all that. As mature, tea-drinking adults we were not in the market for the inevitable 72 hour hangover that would result from drinking all day in the sun, so we took it easy. We were mostly interested in the cruising down the river, looking at all the villages, and marvelling at the skeletons of the attractions that were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people. All this situated in the breathtakingly beautiful setting that is Vang Vieng. And float we did. You hire the tube from in town, then they drive you about 4km up river and you jump in and start your float. Within about 2 minutes of entering the water we were bombarded by a man and younger boy throwing filled water bottles attached to ropes at our heads from the banks. They were yelling, "Come in, first bar! Free whiskey!"
Oh for god's sake. 1. It's eleven thirty. 2. We've been in the water for like 2 minutes. 3. Really, whiskey? That's what you're going to try and entice me with? Needless to say we continued on down the river. A few hundred metres farther downstream and more water bottle line projectiles. It was at this point the 6 younger tourists who arrived with us could not resist the offers of cheap beer and free whiskey and they parted ways from Sam and I.
Now this was serene. We were literally the only ones on the river. The setting was stunning. The water was cool. The sun was shining. This is the life. *doof doof* ....*doof doof*....*doof doof doof doof doof doof doof DOOF DOOF DOOF OF DOOF DOOF OOF DOOF DOOF!!!!!* From upstream came a group of about 40 kayakers, one of which had a giant 1m tall speaker strapped to his kayak and it was blasting the hippest, hottest, raddest, baddest beats! They cruised past us, a few cheekier ones splashing us as they paddled past. And with that they faded off down river.
We decided we should probably stop at the next bar and have a beer. To really embrace the experience. So about 40 minutes into our tubing cruise we guided ourselves into Fluid Bar. It was a pretty cool set up. A big bar, dance floor and the remains of mini golf course they had made by poured concrete, fake grass and beer bottles. Unfortunately it was out of order as they had built a building over the top of it. But we could imagine what it was like in the glory days. We bought a couple of beers and played some rounds of pool. The music was blaring and we made up 66% of the patrons in the bar. Hmmm. Ah well, we had fun. After a few drinks we hit the river again.
The temperature was really heating up and the black, rubber inner-tubes were excellent conductors of heat. Within seconds of being in direct sunlight the rubber would heat up to like a billion degrees and scald you should you be audacious enough to try and reposition yourself on the tube. Mastering a sort of 1/2 arm paddle-splash to cover your tube in cool, third-degree-burn preventing river water was an essential skill. An alternative was the press-yourself-up and bounce-up-and-down-to-submerge-your-tube technique. Both efficient burn prevention strategies. We carried on down river encountering more playful kayakers, some local fishermen, and some friendly local children. It seems after Fluid Bar there were no more bars. It took us about 2 more hours to reach the end of our tubing journey where there was a man with a megaphone and a big sign that read, "Tubing end here". The man shouted something incomprehensible at us as we awkwardly splashed ourselves towards shore. However, the end point was situated at one of the fastest spots on the river, the current was seriously strong. This made for a hilarious and ungraceful exit by both Sam and I. It was pleasing to watch the next wave of tubers also struggle and make a bigger mess of their tubing termination than us. One girl almost lost her tube, hat and sandals! We returned our tubes and waked a block into town to get some more of those delicious burgers we had the night before! And yes, we went to two new food stalls to ensure everyone got our business. Sunburnt and exhausted from our relaxing day on the river we called it a day.
The next day we hired some cruiser bicycles to head to the blue lagoon and Tham Phu cave. It was to be a 7km ride and we had received intel that it was easily doable on bikes. To save money (about $2.50NZ) we hired the cruisers in place of the kitted out mountain bikes with full suspension... Bad move. The road out to the cave/lagoon was more pothole than road. And it was pretty busy. Groups of people constantly riding past on their ATVs, quad bikes, motorbikes, dirtbikes all having a great time. The worst people were the ones who had hired dune buggies! They looked like they were having sooooo much fun! And they were barely sweating. Here we were, in 39°C heat, peddling away on our shitty second hand bicycles. The brakes were more for show than anything, in order to slow down you had to kung fu grip them so tightly that your blood pressure would spike. The gears shifters, as it turned out weren't even attached to anything. So forget about gears. This was especially useless when attempting to go up an unpaved hill... Sam's rear wheel was so badly bent that even when she was riding straight it appeared as though she was completed drunk. I found this whole scenario to be particularly adventurous and amusing. Sam, not so much. A bumpy, quiet, hot 45 minutes later (with one meltdown thrown in for good measure, I won't say who from. SAM ADDIT: my bike fell over, that's all. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.), we arrived at the lagoon/cave. It was teeming with people and it looked pretty cool. Worth the effort we would find out.
We decided to improve our moods and blood sugar levels with some soft drinks, explore the cave and then treat ourselves to a nice, refreshing swim in the lagoon. The cave was a steep 250m climb that nearly claimed Sam, but we soldiered on and made it to the top, where I promptly smashed my head on the cave entrance. Now we were both pissed off. Great. This grumpy slump was rapidly cured by the awesomeness of the cave. We bouldered over some slippery rocks in order to gain access deeper into the cave. Armed with our flashlights we ventured further and further into the dark. We were surrounded by vast caverns, huge stalagmite and stalagmite formations and the cave resonated with every drip of mineral rich water. As we got further into the cave we heard some bats squeaking n the ceiling. It was awesome to walk through a narrow corridor that would open up into a huge cavern. We were rather brave and explored a good 400500m into the cave. Very cool! Oh, and all those people swimming in the lagoon, they stayed there. It was just us! Very cool indeed. The frowns were turning upside down.
We headed back down to the lagoon, which was full of people. Mostly tourists and mostly Korean. About 150 of them. There was a big tree that you could climb and jump into the green/blue water of the lagoon and crowds of life jacket-wearing Koreans hooted and cheered as their friend and countrymen/women made the plunge from the top tier of the jumping tree. Some acrobatic individuals were even brave enough to flip off the branch to the extreme amazement and joy of the gathering crowds. The water was inhabited by hundreds of medium sized carp who were very friendly. They were not hesitant to come and check out if you had any food for them/nibble your toes... A little creepy but kinda hilarious at the same time. The water was refreshing and cool. We watched the excitable crowd, had a couple of swims and then went for lunch at the local restaurant which doubled as a karaoke bar, as so many establishments do in SE Asia. The ride back to our guesthouse that afternoon was much more pleasant and without incident.
On our last day on Vang Vieng we visited another cave that was much more touristy and set up but equally as impressive, went for a swim with an obnoxious local boy, and had a bit of lazy day to sort out our depleting finances, future travel plans and make some tough decisions. Now, I don't want to go on about this too much as it places a somewhat negative light on our situation, and by no means is that what you are reading this blog for. However, we have been honest the whole time whilst writing this and I don't intend to stop now! Traveling for a long time is not always easy. Don't get me wrong we have had and are having the trip of a lifetime. We have done soooo many amazing things that we will remember for the rest of our lives. We have experienced so much and we both have talked about how, during this trip we have been affected and even changed. But some days, it's just difficult. With our money running out, we've had change our plans a number of times, and this was one of those times where we needed to be realistic. There's so much to consider and there are tons of questions and things that run through your head: we've come all this way, it would be a shame not to... We don't want to be completely broke so we can't do anything fun when we get home.... What if? How can we make it work? We would regret it if we didn't do it... All of these things make it extremely difficult to know what the best decision is. The list of pros and cons are equally long and can be stressful. Again, I want to reiterate, I'm not complaining, I feel for all of you who have been at work for the last 5 months while we have be travelling, fancy free! I'm just being honest. So rather than go on and on, I'll just sum up what we decided. We are going to Myanmar. It might not always be open to tourists (especially with upcoming election later this year). We are here. We have our visas. We're doing it!
This decision got us thinking about how well and how much we've done. I'll share some of that with you now. Today marks day 140 away from NZ. We have been married for 151 days. Of the 140 days away we have only been apart from one another for about 10 hours. We did some rough calculating... Since getting married we have spent 97.5% of our married life in each other's company! Wow! And guess what... We're still married! This has been such an affirmation of our relationship (and marriage) as well as a true privilege to experience so intimately the countries we have visited. It is a luxury not many people are afforded and we are grateful for all the support we have received from our friends and especially our family! So thanks! At the risk of this tuning into another groom's speech (sorry about that everyone who was at the wedding) I think I'll wrap it up.
Lots of love,
Z & S
(Original post date: 3rd July 2015)