South-East Asia: Gently down the stream, Laos
Posted Date: 7/11/20133:25 AM
Laos might be quieter in most senses than neighbouring Thailand, but at night it’s a symphony of fauna – the roosters compete with fighting dogs, screaming cats, chirping geckos and the buzz of mosquitoes – all of which manage to rise above the clunk of the struggling air conditioning system in my guest house. I’m in Vientiane, the Laos capital.
Although Vientiane has a functioning airport, I journeyed from Bangkok by overnight train, saving on travel costs and a night’s accommodation. No trains cross the Thai-Laos border: instead a combination of tuk-tuks, buses and taxis are employed to take travellers to the Thai border, across the “Friendship Bridge”, and from the Laos border into Vientiane itself. The process is needlessly confusing and takes far longer than any border I’ve encountered in my travels – welcome to Communist Laos.
Perched on the banks of the Mekong River, Vientiane doesn’t offer much in the way of unique attractions – there are the usual markets, temples and culinary delights – but Patuxi, Laos’ take on the Parisian Arc de Triomphe is worth a visit. It was built as a monument for those who fought the French for independence, funded by US aid intended for an airport.
Coming from Bangkok, Vientiane’s greatest gift was a chance to relax: sitting down for a drink, watching the sun set across theMekong, free from constant interruptions from wandering street vendors. Later, walking along the dusty city streets without tuk-tuk drivers harassing us to take a ride, or sex workers offering, well, much the same. Yes, the drivers still advertise their wares from the street corner (“tuk-tuk?” during the day becomes “weed?” after sunset), but there’s no hassle.
With a population of just 200,000, Vientiane is a sleepy capital. After dark the riverside food stalls come alive for a time, but nightlife is pretty limited. After a few days in Vientiane, it’s time to head north.
There’s a well-worn trail from Vientiane, to Vang Vieng, and up to Luang Prabang, but the two stops couldn’t be more different. If you’re looking for a romantic or family-friendly destination, forget Vang Vieng. There are only two reasons for coming here – tubing and partying. The latter is self-explanatory, hundreds of backpackers in various states of inebriation and undress, all trying to do their bit to expand the global gene pool. The tubing however, is unique, and has a lot to do with the state of the backpackers later in the evening.
There’s a lot to be said for reclining on an inner-tube, gently floating down the Nam Song river, admiring the huge limestone cliffs to one side. Add to that the makeshift bamboo bars every 50m or so, enticing you to stop for a cold beer, a flying fox or rope swing, and a shot of home-made Laos-Laos (rice whiskey), and there are definitely worse ways to spend an afternoon. Towards the end of the ride (which could be an hour, or several, depending on how many bar-stops you make), a pumping bass beat grows ever louder. Rounding the bend is the biggest bamboo bar yet, with every backpacker who has preceded you dancing around bonfires in their swimsuits.