Monday, March 10, 2014

Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: First Night in Town

"And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above"

Pompeii (2012) by Bastille

Vang Vieng Town
Street in Vang Vieng.

Pretty much every hotel or guesthouse in Vientiane can arrange a minibus for Vang Vieng, a backpacker town situated just 3 to 4 hours north of the Lao capital. The town proper of Vang Vieng is little more than a collection of cheap travellers' inns, uninspired restaurants, and tour offices that have proliferated along a stretch of road that happens to pass through some of the region's most amazing karst landscape.

Vang Vieng Panorama from Guest House
The view from our room at the Mountain Riverview Guest House (please click for a larger view). Be envious.

Mountain Riverview Guest House Balcony
Our balcony, from which the above view could be enjoyed.

In just the past decade, it exploded into what travel columnists call the world's most unlikely party town as an estimated 170,000 tourists flock to Vang Vieng yearly, most of them young YOLO'ists who are still far and away from exhausting their birth supply of stupid. It became a frat boy Disneyland - its veins filled with cheap Beerlao, its synapses abuzz with marijuana, mushrooms and opium. Coupled that with the town's number one attraction - riding the inner tube of a tractor tyre down the clear waters of Nam Song, a river that runs beside the town - then you get a whole lot of young foreigners getting injured and dying by the bucketfuls. 27 tourist deaths were reported in 2011 alone (an underestimation, said a local doctor as many fatalities are taken straight to Vientiane).

Hot Air Balloon Evening
Hot air balloons go up thrice a day. Also seen from our balcony.

Aside from the trivial issue of evolution at work ridding the human gene pool of kids who are too dumb to live, the party atmosphere was also taking its toll on the local rural population which, aside from having to bear with the bikini debauchery that the travellers import into Vang Vieng, were losing their own youths to drugs, liquour and petty crimes.

Vang Vieng Biker Girl
Exemplified by this hell-riding toddler.

We met Bonnie and Micke, a Swedish couple vacationing in Luang Prabang, who told us that they have decided to leave Vang Vieng out of their Laos itinerary because they didn't want to add to the sorrows of the local Vang Viengites because of this very reason - something I find odd. The people of Vang Vieng don't hate the infusion of tourist moolah into their beautiful little backyard backwater (in fact, almost all the businesses in Vang Vieng depends on it). What they hate are tourists misbehaving during their visit. I think that they might in fact welcome more tourists who would go there to have nice, clean fun.

Besides, the Lao government have clamped down on Vang Vieng in 2012 and cleaned up the once-hedonistic hamlet of most of its undesirable elements, allowing the town to refocus itself on its healthier adventure tourism aspects such as caving, rock climbing, and kayaking.

Vang Vieng Sunset from Guest House
Sunset over Vang Vieng, as sighted near our guest house.

Cheryl and I reached there by late afternoon and checked into the Mountain Riverview Guest House, a charming wooden cabin-like outfit with a great view of the Vang Vieng limestone peaks and a not-so great view of the Nam Song located behind Wat That (a local temple, not a misspelt enquiry). It only cost us 15 US dollars or 50 ringgit a night.

Mountain Riverview Guest House Bedroom
The spacious air-conditioned room with a double bed and a clean attached bathroom.

On our first night, we just explored the town. The streets were far more sedate than what most older reviews of Vang Vieng have led us to believe. Many restaurants and bars listed in our outdated guidebook were no longer in existence, though every restaurant and drinking hole were still playing reruns of Friends.

Vang Vieng Friends Everywhere
Vang Vieng: the one place in the world where Jennifer Aniston is still relevant.

It seemed that the local authorities have largely succeeded in cleaning up Vang Vieng.

In no time at all, we reached the southern end of the town where we happened upon some kind of fête on the grounds and on the streets outside of Wat Si Suman. There were game booths, shooting galleries, street vendors hawking food and trinkets, and even a giant inflatable bouncy castle for kids to ricochet off each other in.

Vang Vieng Fair Psy Balloons
And for some reason, super-deformed PSY helium balloons.

Vang Vieng Fair Darts
I caught it right before the green dart pierced one of the balloons.

The tourist restaurants in Vang Vieng are infamously generic and unimaginative, with every shop offering identical menus of gentrified Lao food and awful local reinterpretations of Western fare. So that night, Cheryl and I got acquainted with Laotian street eats instead. We had kháo nǐaw (sticky or glutinous rice) cooked in a bamboo segment - which we had to peel like a banana to get to the gooey goodness inside.

Vang Vieng Fair Sticky Rice in Bamboo
Still the best kháo nǐaw we had in the entire trip.

Vang Vieng Fair Sticky Rice in Bamboo Tam Jiak Face
A picture of a smiling Cheryl devouring the kháo nǐaw.

We also shared a piece of incredibly stringy and gristly pîng kai (or grilled chicken) on a stick. Cheryl thought that it must have belonged to a free range village chicken, as the one we would later have on our return to Vientiane was far easier on our teeth.

Vang Vieng Fair Ping Kai
Or at least we thought it was chicken.

Vang Vieng Fair Barbecue
The lady we bought our kháo nǐaw and pîng kai from.

The grill lady who sold us our meal was kind enough to show us two falang how to access our sticky rice when she saw us turning the bamboo segment in our palms in confusion.

Finally, we rounded off our piecemeal dinner by sharing some deep-fried fish balls and sausage bits drenched liberally with powdered peanut and sweet savoury sauce, and garnished with cucumbers, mint and other unidentified fibrous objects.

Vang Vieng Fair Fishballs
A unique spin on the familiar.

The fish ball fry cook from whom we bought it from saw me photographing his work and insisted that I take a picture of him instead.

Vang Vieng Fair Fishball Fry Cook
Yeap, Asians are pretty much the same everywhere.

The atmosphere was so congenial and the people were so friendly that for the first time after I've landed on Laos, I felt welcomed. Vang Vieng had seen more than its fair share of travellers bringing sin and vice into their idyllic karst Eden, and flouting their customs and rules so I wouldn't be surprised that they would have grown a reflexive dislike towards all foreigners by now - but it seems that they still reserve an optimistic acceptance of all their guests. That is heartening to see.

Before we head back to our guest house for a spot of R&R, we rented two bicycles and bought some snacks in preparation for the next day when we intend to strike out into the countryside proper. I had my sights on climbing to the top of Pha Ngeun which boasts what is arguably the best view of Vang Vieng's postcard-perfect mountains outside of a hot air balloon's basket, and visiting the sacred Tham Phu Kam and its very popular Blue Lagoon.

That day trip cured all of Cheryl's inclinations to accompany me on my "adventures" for the rest of the holiday (or as she likes to call them, "torture"), but that's another post for another day.

Vive la Vientiane: Part One
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Climbing Pha Ngeun
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: The Blue Lagoon at Tham Phu Kam 
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Solo Mountain Biking Trip to Kaeng Nyui Waterfall
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Tubing Down the Nam Song 
Veni, Vidi, Vang VIeng: Last Day in Town at Pha Poak and Lusi Cave
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: The Night and Morning Markets
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: Phou Si Hill, Haw Kham and Wat Xieng ThongSabaidee Luang Prabang: Out Alone in the City

Did not help destroy Vang Vieng,
k0k s3n w4i

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