Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Laos Continued: Vang Vieng & Vientiane

Continuing our beautiful but somewhat bizarre trip through Laos, my new friends Kate, Lydia, and I boarded a small minivan along with only one other tourist, bound for Vang Vieng.  We thought we had gotten a great deal, booking with a travel agency who needed to send a van down south to pick up a tour group, getting a nice discount on a seat with only a few other people in the van.  Unfortunately our driver wasn't exactly the most friendly, as his response when we asked if he could turn on the air conditioning was simply, "no".  We were fine opening a window, but it marked the same pattern of sharply negative treatment we had been receiving as tourists.  

He also stopped for a long period of time to have breakfast, then picked up a bunch of random locals, stopped again for them to go shopping at a roadside market, then finally turned on the air conditioning once it started raining and we had to put all the windows up.  We finally arrived six hours later in tiny Vang Vieng, and I was actually surprised when, just as I had been warned, every single open air bar in town seemed to be full of young backpackers watching old episodes of Friends!  We wound up finding a cheap triple room at a spot called Malany Villa and spent the rest of the afternoon at a nearby cafe called Bamboo, one of the rare spots that did not show Friends!

That evening, we got a bit dressed up and ventured over to a nearby restaurant for tasty stir fried chicken and a couple of local beers, then met some new friends over at Central Backpackers, one of the main hostels in town, to hang out and wait out a sudden rain shower with rounds of Jenga.  We finally made our way out to a spot called Fat Monkey, a dive bar full of backpackers, where you can get a free tank top with the bar logo for a couple of strong vodka drinks.  I stuck to beer, playing a round or two of beer pong and feeling a bit out of my element, surrounded by people who had spent all day tubing down the river to the handful of bars that remain, earning bracelets for the number of shots they had taken.  When the bar closed, the entire crowd of people migrated over to the local "club", which was more like a cement rec room with a makeshift bar, colored strobe lights, and a DJ.  I didn't stay long, opting for a delicious street roti with peanut butter and banana and some sleep.  As much fun as everyone was having, I couldn't help but feel like it's this exact scene, this mass of partying backpackers, who could have turned the locals from warm and friendly to resentful and ugly.  Or perhaps I just kept meeting the wrong locals.

The next morning, after a tasty breakfast at Bamboo, we planned to venture out to see the "Blue Lagoon" on mopeds.  Due to some technical difficulties and a lack of available automatic bikes, Kate and Lydia wound up on regular bicycles, and I took the lazy way out on the moped.  We made it through town and crossed a long, rickety bridge out to the dirt roads that would take us to the lagoon.  As bumpy and awful as the roads were, I'm not sure if the bicycles or the moped was better suited!  Despite the roads, the drive was absolutely gorgeous, past tree-covered rock karsts jutting up out of the surrounding farmland and flooded fields of rice that reflected the sky.  

At one point I took a wrong turn, an obvious scam, as a sign noting the "Swimming Lagoon & P---- Cave" had been posted at the turnoff, whereas the actual sign (at the very next street) says "Blue Lagoon & Poukham Cave", and a couple of locals had set up a small gate where they collected an entry fee for the bogus lane.  Granted, there was a small cave - a tiny hole that myself and the Irish guy who was unfortunate enough to take the same path discovered after climbing a steep, overgrown, slippery path to find it (which was treacherous on the way down).  And there was a swimming hole.  But it was completely empty, and quite small.  Confused, we took a few photos and left.  Once we had gotten back out to the main road, a little boy in his underpants who was playing in some water looked at us, pointed up the road and said "Blue Lagoon!"  And that's how we realized we were definitely in the wrong place.  The boy, feeling the need to be rewarded for his hard work, walked over and pointed at my sunglasses.  Sorry, kid.  Then he started yelling "pens! candy!" … tourism, sometimes I hate you.

We continued along, finally finding the actual Blue Lagoon, with a near identical road sign, but with roadside vendors and an official ticket office, a deep pool of turquoise water with a massive tree where tourists were leaping into the water, and a handful of swings.  A bit disheartened by my little detour, I found Kate and Lydia and hung out for a while, having a snack and not even getting in the water.  We did decide to explore the actual cave though.  The climb up was fairly easy - while steep, there were clear stairs and a hand rail, so even my blown out flip flops didn't give me too much trouble.  When we finally reached the top and peered inside, we realized the cave itself was enormous!  We tiptoed in, removing our flip flops and attempting to slippery rock with our bare toes, moving between massive stalagtites and stalagmites until we circled down and around to a Buddha image in the center of the cave.  The girls climbed down a bit further, exploring the depths of the cave until it was too dark to venture further.  The cave was truly massive, and pretty wondrous to behold - I was so happy I had joined them up there! 

By the time we had returned, we found Adam, Darrell, and our friends Rob and Sara who had also been on that initial long boat into Laos.  Kate wasn't feeling well and left a bit early via tuk tuk, and Lydia and I ventured back separately given our different modes of transit, taking our time to soak in the gorgeous surroundings and dodge packs of water buffalo on the road as the sun dipped lower in the sky.  

Once we had all returned and cleaned up, the whole group met back up for a fantastic meal at a Korean BBQ and Hot Pot restaurant on the main road.  We ordered plates of chicken, beef, and "streaky pork" (basically bacon) to cook on one of two massive metal cooking contraptions in front of us. They lit the coals under the metal bowls, rubbing fat over the middle of them so the meat wouldn't stick as we cooked it.  We also poured hot water into the trough surrounding the bowl, filling it with herbs, noodles, and a cracked and whisked egg.  As we cooked the meat, we filled our bowls with the resulting broth, hungrily gobbling it and the resulting meat up quickly.  When we had run out of meat and noodles but were left with plenty of broth, we ordered sticky rice to form into balls and soak up the remains!  

From there we ventured over to an Irish Pub next to the guest house to catch the USA-Germany World Cup match, an exciting back and forth game in a room full of travelers representing both countries.  At halftime I ran next door to our room to use the facilities, stopping at the front desk en route to pick up some more toilet paper.  The front desk attendant was lounging, cigarette in hand, watching TV.  When I asked for more toilet paper, he replied, "no".  Oh come on now… this isn't air conditioning on a bus, this is toilet paper in a hotel room that I've paid for!  He shrugged.  No, he didn't have any.  There wasn't any at the front desk.  No.  No.  Finally I reached down and turned off his TV and told him he had better get up and find some.  He took a long drag off his cigarette and chuckled, finally sauntering off towards a supply closet to retrieve a roll of toilet paper.

The following morning, we waited around for an hour after breakfast for our minivan that would take us to Vientiane, our final stop in Laos.  We were the very last ones picked up, so the girls wedged themselves in the front while I squeezed into the crowded back seat in the very middle.  The next 3.5 hours were swervey and bumpy enough to bounce me up out of my seat a few times - it probably wasn't a terrible thing that I was far enough in the back to not be able to see the road!  Once we finally arrived, we checked into Vientiane Backpackers, into a dirty looking 16-bed dorm that only sort of had air conditioning.  I was very thankful to only be staying there one night.  I quickly set out to find a cafe, settling on an upstairs spot called Benoni Cafe on the main road where I had lunch and coffee and tackled my latest annoyance - a broken Kindle.  More on that later.  

Finally, I met up with Sheila, who had arrived the day before, having skipped Vang Vieng.  We picked up Kate and Lydia, as well as another guy from our dorm, and made our way to a restaurant Sheila had recommended called Douang Deuane one street over from where we were staying.  The dish I ordered was okay (I ordered a Laos dish when I apparently should have gone for one of the French or Italian dishes, I later learned), but the atmosphere was just amazing.  We sat outside, with little napkin towers that resembled temple spires, as a man sat at a piano inside, softly filling the air with beautiful music.  There were also a few small chalkboards propped against the walls, with French and Italian dishes scrawled onto them in chalk.  I ordered one of the decadent French desserts, a chocolate tart with creme anglais, that was absolutely amazing.  After a quick stroll through the riverside night market, it was back to the hostel for a surprisingly good sleep, despite the circumstances of the room.

The next morning, my last in Laos, I met back up with Sheila to do a bit of exploring.  We walked to the Patouxay Monument, the Laos answer to the Arc de Triomph, which looks mostly like a solid concrete arc, but does have a number of details (though it does remain unfinished), including a set of stairs up to the upper levels, which provided a nice view over part of the city and the pavilion below.  

From the arc, we continued up the road, passing a large gong with labels representing a variety of religions, towards a large stupa we wanted to visit, though we quickly learned it wasn't the most scenic of walks.  Passing another Joma cafe, we ducked inside, taking in the much needed air conditioning and having refreshing drinks - mine was a mint lemonade that was reminiscent of Buenos Aires.  Once we left the cafe, we arrived at a sprawling complex, at the center of which was the Prathatluang Stupa.  The gold structure was fascinating simply because it was shaped differently from every other pagoda / stupa / temple I had visited up to that point, much more narrow and geometric. 

We had kept bumping into an American man who teaches in China, so he joined us for the rest of our explorations, wandering over to some of the other buildings in the complex.  A thin, golden reclining Buddha, a pavilion-like temple with incredibly detailed paintings - imagery that seemed to combine Buddhist stories with Hindu and perhaps others.  After taking in the images, we made our way across the complex to a massive building, bright and gleaming and imposing on the outside, though the interior was a bit disappointing.  It looked more like an unfinished space being used for storage, though there were a handful of paintings.  We left moments later, catching a small tuk tuk back to the area where we were staying.  The three of us returned to Douang Deuane, each ordering an incredible goat cheese crostini and salad, after a brief chat with the owner - the paino player from the previous evening.  He is French, but has Italian family, and now lives in Laos, hence all the influences on the menu!  I also ordered a dark chocolate mousse this time around, just for good measure.

Just as soon as we finished, I dashed back around the corner to meet up with Kate and Lydia, as well as Rob and Sara who had just arrived, as all of us would be traveling together that evening to Hanoi.  It was bittersweet to be leaving Laos after such a short time - it was a place that I truly wanted to like, that had so many beautiful wonderful things to offer, but was such a challenge to get past how we were treated so often.  Surprisingly, so many people had told me how dull and boring Vientiane was, but I found it to be a city where I could have easily stayed a few days just to hang out in cafes and sample the food.  But perhaps that's part of why we travel - to discover for ourselves whether what we've always heard is true.  And now it was time to move on, to Vietnam, a place I was very much looking forward to getting to know.

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