Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vientiane - recovery and special people

Blissfully exhausted from Vang Vieng we headed to the capital of Laos Vientiane for our recovery. We booked into a nice guesthouse and avoided finding out what the 'sights' were ... we needed a day off from travel, which I have learned is the most important thing. I am on holiday after all and just because the Lonely Planet says I shoudl see something doesn't mean that has to be what reminds me of a place!

So when I think of Vientiane I remember these things
1) Guay - a wonderful young man working at our guesthouse
2) The most beautiful sunset over the Mekong
3)  A Letter to the Editor in the local paper


One of the most echanting characters we met was a young man named Guay (not Kwai as I pronounced it which means Buffalo, while Guay means Banana, which is apparently highly preferable?)
The 29-year old, with the face of a teenager, works at the Villa Manoly  - a mid-range hotel we splurged on, knowing we were headed for another few days of huts and villages and hard travel.

It seemed people speak less English in Vientiane, a small capital which is little more than a stopover for tourists heading further south (or north) in Laos, crossing the border with Thailand or heading to Hanoi in Vietnam.

When we arrived at the Manoly, the young girl at reception just smiled, nodding yes or no to our questions at random, obviously with no clue about what we were asking. She scurried off and returned with Guay, who later told us he is often called on weekends and days off for this purpose.

He speaks slowly, measuredly, thinking and savouring each word before it is uttered in some of the best English I have heard in Laos.
"Excuse me, where are you from," he asks us - the stock question. Dutifully we reply Belgium and South Africa respectively. He begins chattering away about the Belgian football team.
"Man-ches-ter United" he sounds out in the careful yet eager manner of someone keen to practice his English.

He was such a chatterbox we had to carefully extract ourselves from the conversation to get that much-needed sleep!

The next day we asked him where we could rent bicycles, a good way to explore the small city. He eagerly told us about his two private bicycles. One brand new which cost $278 - months and months of saving, he told us. He is now saving to buy a helmet, which at $55 will take at least 3 months. But he is slowly trying to build his business and it's important his clients are safe.

He promises to draw a map to his father's house where we can pick up the bike. His father speaks 7 languages he says proudly, including French, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, English, Chinese and Japanese.

We were wondering what was taking so long and he arrived some time later with a painstakingly drawn map showing his father's house only one street up.

The house, like many, is a small shop in the front with living space behind it. An older version of Guay emerges with a slight limp. The man squints as he looks at the map, nodding his approval at his son's handiwork. His English is good. As we cycle back to the hotel, Guay strikes up another conversation with us.
He learned his English from his dad, one or two hours a week at school is not enough, he says.
But it was someone from Holland who taught him his pronounciation.
"Listen," he says. "some- THing, that is very important, before I say someTing. THird, birTH, THing," he lists carefully, focusing on the TH sound.
He tells us he practiced this every day.
"I practiced in the shower and when my mother walks past she says 'you crazy man'.
"Something else that helped me learn..." he says as he pulls out his cellphone.
We were standing in the reception foyer, expectantly, as the strains of the Beatles Yellow submarine emerge from the phone. We all started singing along.

"In the land, where I was born, lived a m-a-a-an who sailed to sea..."
I am sure we startled the French and German families sunning themselves around the pool.

He then played us "Hey Jude" which we seem to hear everywhere in bars etc.
Guay tells us he plays electric guitar in a band.
Music brought him out of a month-long coma about a year ago after a drunken driver hit his motorbike, killing his friend who was driving.
"I got a second life," he smiles.

Apparently threee weeks in, the doctor told his friends to do something he would like, and they played him his favourite Thai rock band.
"My feet went like this," he said, moving his hands up and down to indicate the movement.
A week later he was out of hospital.

It is hard to meet and get to know people here, with the language barrier, and Guay totally charmed us with his eagerness and ambition in a country where often there are many obstacles to rising above your poor background.

2) Vientiane is famous for stunning sunsets over the Mekong... we raced to catch this in time

3) Sitting in a cafe for breakfast one morning, I picked up a newspaper (something I have studiously avoided doing as a journo on vacation) and was in stitches of laughter over the following letter. Gender Equality still has a ways to go in Laos methinks.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Laos People

One of the reasons I love Laos so much has to be the people. I have never seen such happy, playful kids while the adults are laid back and their picturesque, colourful lives continue despite the growing presence of tourists. Bargaining is fun and even when someone is trying to sell you something it is more of a game, compared to countries where the desperation for the dollar shines through.

In villages, and by the riverside I came across people and scenes that touched my heart. What a beautiful, authentic country! And by authentic I mean... not packaged according to what people think tourists want to see!

We saw children a lot younger than this with babies on their backs

Monks collect alms in Luang Prabang

School is out in Luang Prabang

Fisherman in the Mekong, Vang Vieng

Puppies and children - the world over!

 Vang Vieng

Bath time in Laos, a river affair

Luang Prabang

It's my chicken!!!

And away...

 Washing clothes in the Mekong

Sabadeeeee - high five!!!

Seriously - you wanna buy my rat!!

Children outside Xiang Men temple, Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang




 My bike is big enough for me

Enjoying the Winter years

 Bath time for little girls

oooh not the hair!

And Rinse!


Laughter - beyond language barriers!

Look at the puppy in the basket


Vang Vieng - heading to the countryside for Tubing recovery

While many people get stuck doing "Tubing" aka partying all day for much longer than intended, we decided to head out into the countryside on our bicycles, crossing the river in search of a little tranquility.

However we also found enlightenment:

Ahhhh, so that's what bridges do!!!

It was another steamy hot day, perfect for gorgeous countryside, the breeze in your face and a swim in the blue lagoon. We rented bicycles which turned out to be a comedy of errors. I preferred a mountain bike to the European style pretty bikes, but a few pedals in and I realised my seat was broken and kept sliding back into a very dangerous position. Heading back downhill to return it I also realised the brakes were non-existent. So I got a pretty gearless bike, which it turns out, had a dysfunctional chain..... which meant every ten minutes I had to stop and put it back on.

I quickly became and expert and every time it went clunk thud I cheerfully yelled "Evy!!!" She would stop, come hold the bike and I would fix it - while locals looked on curiously at this greasy Falang mechanic.

Greased lightning!


In line with the fact that it was Thanksgiving Day we were also charged by a rather aggressive turkey who I still maintain deserved to be thoroughly cooked!

I also nearly drove over a rather nasty looking green snake which slithered past my wheel!

We reached the gorgeous Blue Lagoon and I immediately jumped in. I noticed a bit of a commotion by some people outside the water. When I eventually got out to take a look I heard they had seen this snake emerge from the water with a frog in its mouth, and proceed to eat it... slowly with lots of shrieks from said frog.

I am still a bit sore about the fact that no one bothered to tell me I was possibly swimming with the family of this brightly coloured snake!

 Fran trying to pull some clever tricks

Fully prepared for relaxation we pulled out our snacks and books and lay in the sun.... and all those French people in the above photo promptly put on some very loud, thumping music - thus destroying the setting very nicely. So we headed off to a nearby restuarant selling delicious fruit shakes and ended up chatting until sunset.

This made for a rather interesting journey cycling back and fixing the chain in the dark!

Exhausted we ate dinner and were leaning towards bed when again we somehow ended up partying!!! Love Vang Vieng!!

Another day, another bucket!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Tubing" in Vang Vieng - a three-ring tourist circus - but it ROCKS!!!

Everyone you meet north of Vang Vieng is heading there, everyone you meet south of Vang Vieng has been there. The latter are often hobbling, bruised, exhausted and look as if they have had the time of their lives.

I was not sure I was looking forward to this place which tourist guides paint as a three-ring tourism circus that any authentic backpacker worth his salt would avoid like the plague.

We have already established I shun this notion of lifting your nose at things considered overly-touristy and insisting on being a certain kind of traveler (ie the kind who looks at you from behind a mass of dreadlocks and says, horrified, "you have a JOB???"

Anyway, so after discussing it with people traveling north who had been there, I decided to embrace this strange party place and whatever craziness and unpleasant touristy-ness it threw at me with wild abandon and go along for the ride, rather than choking in disgust at the mass of westerners spilling around drunk, ruining the beautiful scenery.

We arrived in Vang Vieng slightly shattered after the crazy drive mentioned in the previous post, booked into some nice river bungalows just outside the centre and I realise my wallet is missing. With credit cards and drivers licence. Most South Africans will appreciate the pain of contemplating having to go to the licensing centre and queue for another drivers license.

Ten minutes later my tuk-tuk driver speeds down the driveway and hands it to me..... I gave him a fat tip, nearly hugged him and decided we needed a drink.

We arrived around 6pm and all one saw is stumbling, drenched ppl walking with tubes down the road in various stages of inebriation. I still did not know what exactly was happening in this town!!!

We went to a bar and found the party already in full swing with half naked people, also covered in paint (raising the mystery further) all over the show.

So we bought a bucket ( self-explanatory... a cocktail.... in a bucket) - turns out drinking dreadful Lao whiskey with 7-up or sprite makes it taste ok - spotted some friends from the slow boat who we run into every now and then and tried to join the party.

Getting into the swing of things

It was fun, one of our friends had practically broken his ankle, but danced on through the pain ( we saw him a day or two later hobbling valiantly through the streets) . Some guy stripped completely. It was crazy.
Hmm what am I in for, I still didn't know how 'tubing' could be so dangerous.

So.... Tubing 101

Firstly, what draws people to this playground appears to be a very relaxed attitude towards drugs common in the region. This is a menu I got hold of very publically displayed in Cambodia, as an example. Happy Pizza, Shroom Shakes, Ecstatic Pizza etc are all freely available.

Then you take the winding Mekong river, with bars scattered on either side, playing loud music, and buckets in the baking sun. Each bar has some attraction, including death defying swings that would probably pass no safety test in any country, zip slides, mud volleyball, mud pits, kareoke etc.

The idea is that you get in your tube and go down the river stopping at each bar. Many get stuck at the first three (like us) while some go the whole whack.

I had such a blast, the music was great. We got two people to a swing and I did some silly stunts flying metres in the air into the river. This is where some ppl get injured. Some guy cracked his skull being too drunk to let go at the right time. I was not comfortable with getting wasted and doing that, so kept the G & T's coming slowly during the day.

I didn't bring my camera but here are some pics from a friend of mine who has a waterproof camera, to give an idea!!!

The stunning limestone crags!

My favourite swing

Climbing up to a jump

Bars, tubes, thrilling rides

Mud Volleyball - I got so hurt and full of mud in this thing I can still taste it!!

Having got stuck at the top bars meeting loads of awesome people, some brightspark decided at 4pm to try finish the tubing which takes two hours, while the sun sets at around 530. So we set off downstream paddling like mad with my flip-flops to get back in time as you lose your deposit on the tube at 6pm.

It was freezing and slow going and we all got rather miserable, jumping out 1km before the end to catch a tuk-tuk.

We were exhausted as lack of sleep, long hours on the road and partying accumulated.
We sat down for dinner at one of the famous "Friends" bars that get slammed and it was actually so nice sitting there watching episode after episode of the sitcom. All the tables face in the direction of the table as battered tubers nurse the days injuries.

It's like you're always stuck in second gear....

I was ready for bed at nine, but somehow we ended up going for a drink, eventually moving to Smile Bar, one of the many bars along the island. Buckets, great people, limbo competition, drinking competition, bonfire and the token bottle-spinning barman who came tubing a year ago and hasn't left.....

Stuck in Vang Vieng....

Fran and Evy.... who kept her green sunblock on her eyebrows...

Me with Jason from Detroit and Maarten from Belgium who we hung out with


I don't know who half these ppl are!

It was such an excellent night.... will follow with day two soon....