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12 ตุลาคม 2550
 
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Vang Vieng Trip Part I

1/2 written on Friday evening, a bit more added on Saturday, Then, just finished now... Camera card is currently screwed, but, once its sorted will stick the piccies on multiply.

Am now sat in an internet cafe in Vang Veing, a small town in the mountains, 1/2 way between Luang Prabang and Vientinenne.

It's a place I like a lot. This is my 3rd time here. It's Thai equivalent is probably Pai (sandwiched midway between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son.) Like Pai, it's a backpacker town surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. Pai's all rice fields and rolling hills. Vang Vieng's got rice fields too, but it's main attraction is the huge limestone cliffs that lie on the edges of the town. It's almost as if someone took Krabi or Pang Nga Bay and decided to move it a couple of hundred kilometers inland.

It's a great place to chill out. Quiet, friendly, but also, a bit of a party town too. It's almost a year since I last came here, and the first thing I noticed when I jumped down from the bus, and walked across the old air strip that doubles as the bus station was how much the town has changed.

It's started to go upmarket. Thai businessmen, familiar with the latest backpacker trends on Khao San and in Chiang Mai and Pai are moving in, and exploiting the town's tourist potential. There are now over 50 hotels and guesthouses within 5 to 10 minutes walk of the river. Almost every house on the main strip is a restraurant, internet cafe or travel agency. Swish looking, glass fronted i-Pod download shops and photo developing stores now complement the older, family run internet cafes. Everyone claims to have ADSL. Fast internet, they claim. Fast being, in 1 case, a 56k modem that can be heard squawking away in the background. 300 kips per minute is the going rate. Prices are fixed. There's no discounts.

Priceier hotels, and more exclusive riverside resorts are being built, luxury on the cheap; a world away from the typical 2 and 3 dollar crashpads. Damp, but quaint looking bamboo huts are being replaced by fancier riverside bungalows. There is construction work going on everywhere. Almost every street has a cement mixer parked somewhere along it. Many locals have already moved out. Few people unconnected with the tourist trade now live on the main street. My bike map showed that the real 'town' of Vang Vieng is in the process of being moved a couple of kilometers uphill, out of sight of the 'tourist' area.

Every travel agency offers the same kind of tours; trips to caves and nearby hilltribe villages to see women weaving and to taste 'lao lao.' For those that prefer water to dry land there's tubing, kayaking or rafting on the nearby rivers. Tubing, floating down the river in a giant black rubber ring, and stopping off at bars and restraunts to eat, drink and try out an assortment of rope swing and jumps is seen as a must do on most backpacker's itinaries.

I compare a few tours. They all go to the same places. Same, Same, but different as they'd say in Thailand. They're all equally cheap too. I barter with a couple of the guides. The ones I ask about are all set to go on Saturday. They already have the 4 or 5 people needed to make them pay. I'm pure profit. Special price, 350baht (for a daytrip kayaking on the Nam Som river) I'm told. I'm tempted, but, in the end am too lazy to go back and book it for sure. I enjoy talking to the guides. They are friendly, outgoing and seem to like speaking English. They laugh when I try and speak to them in Thai.

Vang Vieng's reputation amongst most backpackers is of a wild west town that appears, almost out of nowhere in the middle of the mountains. The wild west look is rapidly disappearing. The main strip now has a tarmac, rather than a dirt track road. There's pavements, and most streets now have kerbs too. The wooden shacks along the roadside, the original bars and chill out areas are being replaced by shiney new concrete and glass buildings. Their Thai Loas oweners have become more used to backapacker culture too. You no longer need to take your shoes off before entering them.

Prices have shot up. Sure accomodation and tours are still dirt cheap (even when compared to Thailand) but food isn't. A 10 baht roti in BKK costs almost 40 here, and the roti women are everywhere. It's impossible to walk down the street without someone shouting 'pankcake, you want pancake, banana pancake, very good.' French bread pizzas and garlic bread are 3 or 4 pounds. A bargain to a westerner but, to someone used to Thai baht, a bit on the expensive side. And Laos food isn't quite what it promises to be. Order laab (minced meat salad) and the meat can, sometimes, still be raw. Pad Thai turns out to be mama noodles (the same kind of dried noodles you get in a pot noodle) fried with a few soggy looking pieces of cabbage and onion, and 1/2 a tomato sliced as a garnish. It's disappointing to look at, and its taste. There wasn't one, at all.

Bagettes are good. Real, French style bagettes, the kind that are hard to find in Thailand. Cakes are too. The Luang Prabang bakery is a real treat. So is the organic farm cafe. It's food isn't that great but its fruit shakes and hot herbal teas (leomngrass, ginger, mulberry) are out of this world.

But, most people don't go to Vang Veing expecting gormet food. The main backpacker must do, as far as food and drink goes it to try the 'happy' or 'spaced' cocktails and pizzas. 'Happy' and 'Spaced' meaning added mushrooms, or hash. You need to read Thai, or ask the waiter to find out which you'll get. The combination of mushies, beer laos, and cocktail buckets has a legendary, lethal reputation. None of that for me though. It's still Khao Pensah (Buddhist Lent) and I agreed to give up beer for 3 months. It's nothing to do with Buddhism or religion, just a silly bet with a friend back in Bangkok (who didn't think I would be able to go so long without a drink) and stubborn determination on my part, not to give in. I don't miss the beer that much, though Friday night, wandering down the strip, I feel a bit lonely. It's like there's a big party going on and I want to, but know I can't be part of it.

The 2 times I've been here before, I've been with friends. Not exactly good friends, just people I met in Luang Prabang or Vientienne who, when they heard my travel plans, wanted to tag along too. We shared a room and hung out together for the night. Beers, movies, pizzas and friends. Friends being the TV Series as well as the other people we met at chatted to.

Watching Friends is a major pastime here. 6 restraunts have it on big screens. They show repeats all day, every day. Some also do requests, Any episode, any series. If they have it (and they almost certainly will...) they'll show it for you. They've heard of 'smelly cat' and all the classics. Vang Veing is probably the 'Friend's' capital of SE Asia, one of the few trends that hasn't moved on here. Watching friends is a cliche but also another must do. Having your own axe pillow, eating in a restaraunt where you sit cross legged and seeing your first episode of friends in months, is one of those things that everyone laughs about. How tacky it is to be sat, thousands of miles away from home, watching re-runs of 10 year old american sit coms. Everyone jokes about it, but almost everyone does it too. I had my hour and a half Friends sess just after sunset on Saturday night. I found a spare table, a comfy cushion, and sipped my way through a lemon shake. As soon as I heard the theme tune, the Rembrants 'I'll Be there,' I knew it would be stuck in my head for days to come. It's still in there now. It won't go away.

I got my TV friends fix but, the other sort, the real sort, the people sort? None for me. This time I'm on my own. It would be easy to walk into a bar, find an empty axe pillow, order a beer, tag onto a group, and find out their names, where they're from, where they've travelled to and where they plan to head to next. But, without beer, it's a daunting prospect. Better to be alone, to mill around and see what else is going on. I meet the pancake women, then another then, a pancake man. I can now say 'No - I don't want one, thanks' in 3 languages, Thai, Laos and English. It has no effect. They carry on 'you want pancake?, very good. 10,000 kip. You want banana?, you want chocolate?' Their shouts echo down the street.

I walk down to the river, crossing the rickety wooden bridges to the sunset bar. The party's in full swing. An odd mix of reggage and chill out music. Couples lounging in hammocks and sat cross legged in little wooden shelters overlooing the river. Another place where beer is a necessity. I go back across the bridge, stop half way and look up at the sky. It's beautiful. So many stars. Something I know I won't see back in England. I follow the river downwards, then look over towards the towering limestone cliffs. Even at night the mountains still dominate the town. Their jagged black outlines loom in the distance. It's getting late, and becoming chilly, but I don't want to move. A couple of people walk by and think I'm stoned. If I'm high, it's a totally natural one.

I think of people back in BKK that I would have liked to invite to come with me. I know people who would love to be here, staring at the view, gawping at the drunken foreigners staggering into or away from the bar. But, I know none of them have the money. They can't just take time off work.

Like Pai, Vang Viengs an unhurried sort of town. No one rushes around. You see the same faces wandering down the same streets. People smile, and say hello. Foreigners grin and shout 'sabai dee' at each other, half mocking half copying the friendly, laid back Laos style.

Having seen it and done it, I had to buy the T shirt, a light grey, extra large sack with a bright blue 'Sabai dee' printed across its front and back. It cost 80 baht but turned out to be priceles. I biked to a couple of nearby villages. People read it, said it, laughed, then tried teaching me how to read it too. I tried speaking some Thai. They told me that they found it funny that the foreigner could understand, but not speak Laos. Laos people are 'ying gwar' (a kind of odd way of saying better than) Thai's and the English they say. Thai people understand only Thai, English only English. Loations can understand Laos, Thai and, sometimes English too.

Listening to Laos is strange. It's almost like Thai. The grammar, and maybe 30 or 40 percent of the words are identical but some of the sounds are different. Thai rolling 'R''s become Laos's slurred 'L''s 'Ch' becomes an 'S' Chang - elephant - becomse Sang. 'Chow' - morning - becomes 'Sow', ' Sow, in a different tone is 20 too. Cheur' - name - becomes 'Seur.' In Thai 'Seur' is to buy something. Everytime anyone asks me my name, I can't helping thinking 'but I haven't brought anything ??? why are you asking me that.' It's easy to get confused. After a day or so, it becomes easier to listen to, but it's still impossible to try and change the sounds when replying. People tease me. 'How come you can speak Thai but not Laos?,' I can't really speak either, I'm just trying to get by.

Saturday morning I sleep in. Wednesday night's 16 1/2 hour train journey, Friday morning's early start and Friday afternoon's 5 hour bus jounrey have finally caught up with me. By the time I've woken up and ate breakfast its gone 10am. The tours, and the one I'd half heartedly agreed to book have already left. I walk around the town and decide to hire a bike again. This time, I go for a mountain bike. The man in the bike shop give me a bike. I change gear. Its fine. I try the brakes, The back one is bare. I choose another. It's the same. They're all the same, but at 15,000 kip (around 60 baht) for the day I can't argue. I won't be going that fast anyway. I choose the one with the best looking front brake. It makes a horrible squeaking sound but, when pressed down hard enough, it sometimes works. I ask for a map. There isn't one. I go back to my room to pick up my map, and work out where to go. The elephant cave and the lagoon look good. I head out towards the river, cross the swing bridge and follow the same dirt track that I'd ridden along the evening before.

I met 2 girls yesterday. They said they were 12 years old but they were tiny. One even said that her (nick) name was 'teeya,' Thai for short. They were stood by a rice field, next to a sign showing the way to a nearby cave. They wanted me to visit 'their' cave, a kilometer and a half away from the road. It was almost 6pm when I saw them. I didn't fancy visiting a cave at sunset, or walking back through a rice field on my own in the dark.

Their job was to guard bikes and motorcyles belonging to the tourists who visit the cave. They were on their last bike of the day, waiting around for the owner to return. They had nothing to do, and, once they realised I no interest in visiting the cave started calling me a stingy foreigner. 'I'm not,' I said in Thai. 'I don't want to walk through the field in the dark' 'Why not' They asked. 'I'm scared of snakes' 'and ghosts' I said too. They laughed. We chatted for around 20 minutes or so, and everytime I said anything in Thai, they taught me the equivalent in Laos. They were great teachers, insisting that I repeated everything until I could pronounce it, Laos style. They were bright, bubbly and fun to talk to. I took their photos before I left. I wanted to give them something. Candy, pens, spare cash. But I had nothing.

I promised to go back around 10am on Saturday morning, to say hello and to see 'their' cave.. I'd got some candy - just 10baht bags of crisps to give to them. I'd enjoyed talking to them, and I felt a bit guilty that I'd nothing to give them in return. I hoped they'd be there, but guessed that they wouldn't be. They're probably used to foreigners and broken promises. They weren't just as I'd thought, though there were plenty of other children eager to take the candy and crisps that I had. I felt sorry for them. Most were dressed in little more than rags, running around in the dust. Some carryied firewood, buckets to fetch water from the stream or their younger brothers and sisters.

I cycled about 6 kilometers. I passed a few villages, poorer versions of their Thai equivalents. Wooden houses on stilts, bamboo frames, the richer members of each village having 1/2 built concrete and brick replcaments standing nearby. The poverty's shocking but at the same time, the scenery's beautiful. Rice fields creep up to the foot of the mountains. Women in wide hats, and multicoloured tops walk through them, or work, cutting grass, or looking for crabs. Most wear traditional Lao skirts, long prices of cotton with a silk, embroidered sash at the bottom.

I pass one woman weaving, on a old style loom, in front of her house. She's about 1/3 of the way through weaving a large peice of silk. I asked who taught her to weave. She taught herself. Her mum can't weave. It takes her a day to set up the loom, and the threads and 4 or 5 to make each peice of silk. They're beautiful. I wished I'd brought one. She introduces me to her kids, playing in the nearby dirt. I wish her good luck and move on. I'm heading to Phachom Cave, famous for its buddah statue, stalagtites and its 'blue lagoon', an emerald green coloured pool near the entrance. I pass a couple more villagers, abd a couple of foreigners who ask for directions. They're heading for elephant cave. They took a wrong turn. I show them my map and get back on my bike. There's still a few kilometers to go.

To be continued..


Create Date : 12 ตุลาคม 2550
Last Update : 16 ตุลาคม 2550 0:00:45 น. 0 comments
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