Friday, October 16, 2009

Vang Vieng In the tube

Katlijn grimaced when the old crone offered to take her empty plastic lychee bag and throw it out the window. Chucking one another's trash into the country-side is both socially approved and a Laotian birth-right. The crone eyed my empty Styrofoam curry box curiously, completely unable to fathom why we insisted on carrying smelly junk all over her country on our vacation.

"LAOS… HAS… NO… GARBAGE… CANS,” I tried to explain. She looked at me slightly amused and slightly sad- the way I suspect she might look at her local village idiot. I opened my backpack, “YOU… SEE ? MY… BACKPACK… IS… FULL… OF… GARBAGE!”

Astounded by my bizarre other-worldly mannerisms, she re-doubled her efforts to unload my garbage onto the highway. For several hours, the crone and I locked horns in a battle of will as I guarded my Styrofoam curry box, sometimes with force, from the old crone’s anxious littering hands. Fortunately, by the time we had arrived in Vang Vieng, she had finally learned to accept my obvious lunacy and was snoring soundly my shoulder.

Peering outside the confines of our musty bus, it was clear that we had arrived in a stunningly beautiful part of the world. A panorama of imposing limestone cliffs shrouded in the soft green camouflage of jungle growth, while the Nam Song river wound its way through the karsty portrait. Outside, I could see restaurants serving pesto pizza, happy backpackers milling about, and cheap guest houses boasting air conditioners, hot showers, and even tiny waste-paper baskets.

I pried the old crone off my shoulder, grabbed my Styrofoam curry box, and set off into paradise.

Vang Vieng amid the jungle.

It doesn’t take more than a few hours for Vang Vieng’s superficial charms to fade into distant memory. Contrasting harshly with the idyllic landscape is a sprawl of cheesy bars serving under-dressed foreign girls curiously potent “happy” meals, while brain-washing them with an arrangement of clunky television screens each running a different Friends re-run at full volume. Laotian Pesto is in fact a disgusting blend of spinach and ketchup, and the backpackers weren’t happy at all, they were stoned. This place wasn’t paradise, it was a strange and unnerving Kafka-esque dystopia populated entirely by hippy freaks and college drop-outs.

Hoping to escape this disturbing reality, Katlijn and I met up with a local guide for a tour of the country side. Like most Laotians we met, Phose cheerfully guided us into the steep slippery slog that is Laotian jungle trekking, inexplicably oblivious to the various hazards this might entail. He brought us to what he called the “Nam Song river suspension bridge”: a dangerously dilapidated crossing high above the Nam Song river cobbled out of loose cables and a sparse smattering of slippery bamboo strips. Unable to comprehend our concerns, Phose dexterously tip-toed his way across.

To my surprise, Katlijn threw caution to the wind and took a few courageous steps towards the nearest length of water-logged bamboo before emphatically declaring this endeavor unreasonably dangerous.

A group Laotian toddlers giggled mercilessly at Katlijn as she desperately negotiated the cable’s precarious sag. They gingerly swung around her and skipped across in their thonged feet. Moments later, their pregnant mother lumbered behind, murmured an apology, then meekly made her way across leaving Katlijn dangling sheepishly in her wake.

“Break your bones not possible,” Phose refrained with an astonishing sincerity. He lit up a fag and began bouncing on the bridge. To the frustration of our guide, and the great amusement of the local villagers, we found a kayak and paddled to the other side.

The Nam Song River suspension bridge.

Phose leads us between giant karst formations deep into the Laotian jungle.

A community of Laotian farmers crosses the Nam Song suspension bridge regularly to access their wild rice fields. With an amazing machine-like accuracy, they manage to throw grains of rice into tiny holes in the ground without bending over.

Trekking through rivers and mud.

A picturesque jungle farm where Phose roasts us up a well-deserved lunch.

Butterflies in the jungle.

Laotian karst is home to some of the world's best spelunking. Many of the caves, like this one, are best explored in swimming trunks.

After a thoroughly muddy but enjoyable romp through the gorgeous jungle, we continued our tour by kayak down the Nam Song River. Soon, Vang Vieng’s strange hippy world announced itself once again with an array of bars setup along the river in thatched stilt huts, each of them selling ridiculously cheap booze to a goateed clientele drifting languidly down-river on tractor tubes. Long-haired yahoos were swinging high over the river from ropes, then jumping off with a reckless abandon proportional to the number of consumed lao lao shots and doobies.

Typical Vang Vieng river bar.

Katlijn, shortly after polishing off a Vodka Bucket.

Andrew, with bucket, considering the rope swing.

By nightfall, in a drunken stupor watching three simultaneous “Family Guy” re-runs, Katlijn and I had reached a new cultural low in our world travelling experience, shamefully assimilated into the happy-shake-for-breakfast universe of Vang Vieng.

It's actually kind of fun.