Vang Vieng & Vientiane

From Nong Khiaw, we were heading right down to Vang Vieng which began with an hours tuk-tuk ride to the main bus station. The journey involved stopping countless unexplained times for the driver to do something at each, and 1 stop just before we went down a steep corner on a hill, freewheeling, so that he could ensure I was on the same side as him & Claire was on the other ensuring we stayed upright!

We arrived at the bus station, met by slightly confused looks from the locals – this bus obviously isn’t much of a tourist route. As we sat down in the waiting area to pass the time watching a rerun of whichever world cup game had been on the night before, a young monk came over to ask tell us it was time to start boarding. He was clearly keen to practice his English and started asking us where we were from along with a couple of other basic questions which were about the limit of his prowess.

We hopped on & discovered why people had mentioned buying 2 beds if you were a solo traveller – the space was extremely limited with each ticket buying you half of a plastic clad mattress of around 5 foot wide by something noticeably less than 6 foot long. The locals by and large had little issue with this, but my frame was not what it had been designed for! As there are 2 of us we could share the bed, but had we been solo we’d have been getting very cosy with someone we had never met before.

Sleeper bus Nong Khiaw to Vang Vieng
A tight squeeze.. Not the best photo, but it was pretty cramped on the bus!

Regardless, it was quite entertaining – the monk, who had settled in nearby, kept working out questions he could ask us 1 by 1 via much googling of how to say certain things. He did a good job, but the nature of the conversation meant that he couldn’t really understand our answers nor could he make anything of our follow up questions. Clearly our charades skills are lacking!

The bus took the now expected start of picking up various people from nondescript villages on the way out of town. Somehow, the locals can seemingly turn up whenever they fancy at a random road crossing and the bus will happily sit there until they arrive. I still haven’t quite worked out how they arrange this, but in a country where nobody is ever in a rush it seems like a nice way to do it.

Eventually, after a stop at a petrol station where the male passengers decided to forgo the toilets in favour of simply spreading across a nearby bush, we got going properly. The sunset as we wiggled our way through the hills was beautiful, though nobody seemed to care in the slightest with most passengers instead opting to settle down to sleep, despite it only being about 7pm. Soon, the sun went down & we began to work out the logistics of how I could fold myself into the bed without dangling over the narrow walkway, while still allowing Claire enough space to find some kind of comfort.

We just about succeeded, and as we headed back down the road we had taken from Luang Prabang up to Nong Khiaw, past the massive Chinese dam & over the many potholes, we managed to doze off a little.

Side point: That big dam is baffling. It’s going to do all kinds of damage to the ecosystem down river and mess with all the villages & towns that rely on the river for their livelihoods, notably in Cambodia but in southern Laos too. It’s also going to be pretty bad news for the Irrawaddy Dolphins that are listed by the WWF as having 92 individuals left, so are about as close to extinction as you can get. More on those guys in later blogs.

Soon, the bus pulled into Luang Prababng for what turned out to be a dinner stop at a Chinese restaurant. Claire decided she was peckish, & the little shop was selling wafer biscuits so she went to buy one. When I next looked up, she was walking up the bus towards me with a massive bag full of 50 of them.

“She said I couldn’t only buy 1”.

We then set off again, stopping off every so often to drop someone off as we just about managed to stay in our upper level bunk while occasionally nodding off for a few minutes at a time. Long sleeper busses through the hills of northern Laos are not something I’d recommend!

At about 3.30 am, we pulled into a stop & the driver shouted “Vang Vieng” down the bus. Both of us had managed to actually fall asleep just before, so were in a bit of a daze but managed to realise that meant we had to get off. We swept our stuff into our bags, hoping nothing remained on the bed, hopped off into the pitch black outside, picked up our big bags & took a minute to work out what on earth was going on.

We had expected to arrive at about 6.30, so hadn’t bothered with accommodation for the night. It being so early, we weren’t ready to call it morning just yet, so went to the hostel we had booked for later that day to see if we could crash for a few hours. After managing to explain that we had a booking for that night, but not the night we were currently in the middle of, we were told there were no vacancies so set off walking around town in the early hours looking for a bed. After finding a couple of hostels which did not have the 24 hour reception they advertised, we came across one where someone – but not the guy sleeping behind reception – pointed us toward a room we could have to rest our weary heads.

You’ll notice most of this article is about getting to Vang Vieng, rather than about the town itself. That’s because, after we awoke later that morning, it proceeded to rain heavily for 3 days solid. It’s an activity town with a cleaned up history of being a party destination, but we couldn’t see the supposed magnificent setting nor could we really partake in any of the river-focused activities due to the fast flow that naturally follows much heavy rain. We even stayed an extra night in the hope that it would clear up. It did not.

My highlights of the town were:

  • An entertaining night out after the England vs Panama world cup game.
  • The load bang that was the sound of an electricity box exploding & taking out the power to half of the town.
  • A genuinely excellent pizza in a restaurant run by an Italian man who now lives in Laos.
  • Wandering around the old US airfield which the town surrounds, and now uses as a hangout spot for the locals.
  • Sipping beer while relaxing in a hammock at Smile bar.
It’s hardly a surprise they have power cuts when the electrics come from inside a puddle!

Disappointed to have missed out on some of the activities, we decided to move on to the capital city, renowned for having almost nothing to do  – Vientiane.

We took a mini van to get us there & were amazed by the ability of Lao people to have extraordinarily long conversations with people they have never met at totally unnecessary volumes given the usually quiet nature of the people. The driver did not lack for conversation for the entirety of the 3 hour journey, with the 2 other passengers & his 2 phones keeping him busy the entire way.

Vientiane itself was essentially just a big, funcitional city. We had an excellent Pho for lunch & had a little look around a few of the sights, but largely we were just there to get to the airport for our flight south to Pakse the following day.

It had been a slightly disappointing few days, but to be expected when deciding to travel around in monsoon season. We’d managed to catch up on some admin & plan the next section of the journey so all was not lost & the very south of Laos promised much.


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