The Van to Vang Vieng


After three days in Luang Prabang I hadn't done anything important.

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely because it has plenty of intact, historic Wats. I can attest to the presence of important Wats, even though I am not a Wat sort of fellow. I walked by one, agreed that it indeed looked suitably historic, and then I continued on my way to find some lunch.

Besides Wats lines and lunching in Luang Prabang, the other principal activities are day trips to a wonderful waterfall and day trips to some nearby caves.

I did neither.

I found a delightful French bistro and occupied much time by eating apple gallettes and drinking ‘Slurpee-like’ fresh lemonade “shakes” at 40 cents a pop. It was about 85 degrees and very humid, so I drank plenty of those and sweated it all out immediately.

If this keeps up, I’m afraid that there may be kidney stones in my future.

Eventually, I decided that I should either actually do something worthwhile or leave town. I had lost track of the days in Luang Prabang, and as much as I enjoyed the resident geckos and the lovely view of coconut trees outside of the guesthouse window, it was time to move along.

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I spotted a sign on a travel agency and I impulsively bought a minibus ticket to Vang Vieng without first checking around for a reasonable price. The words “Air Conditioned” made me blindly reach for my wallet, and so I overspent the going rate by $2.00. I was shamed almost immediately by a young German female backpacker pal; she had bought her ticket for only seven dollars. As she was munching on an whole roasted fish on a stick down at the night market, she laughed and said: “Joe, you should travel with me, you’ll save money”. We tentatively agreed to meet up down the road at Vang Vieng, where presumably I will be taught to be more thrifty.

A Hyundai minivan came to my guesthouse the next morning at 8:30, (a half hour early) and effectively caught me with my pants down. I showered and packed hurriedly, then jumped into the half-empty van at 8:45. Our smartly-dressed Lao driver downed two bottles of M-150 energy beverage immediately as he drive off down the highway. Judging from its effect on my driver, a couple of large snorts of bathtub speed would have been more relaxing.

The road south out of town is very scenic, it climbs high into the mountains, away from the heat and urbanization of Luang Prabang. I wished that I could have spent more time in those towns, it was ‘set your watch back 500 yearsville’. We drove at unsafe speeds through countless quaint villages, slowing occasionally for children and errant farm animals.

Come to think of it, the road was entirely cluttered with free-ranging livestock.

Bright, colorful chickens, light brown cows, assorted ducks, turkeys, and goats seemed determined to stand in our way and would not move along out of the way. As we carreened down upon thse animals at high speed, our driver honked quite often. The pathetic Hyundai horn had little effect on the animals, not counting the one rooster who met his maker under our left front tire.

The road was twisty-windy up into the mountain mist, and the road (Highway 13) is surprisingly well-paved, compared with the roads in Cambodia. This is the same highway where several foreign backpackers were murdered when a similar vehicle was ambushed by a group of 30 armed insurgents armed with AK-47’s less than two months ago.

The killings occurred merely 5 km. north of my destination, Vang Vieng.

With the hope of reassuring the remaining tourists, the government has stationed young men armed with AK-47s along the route at random intervals. These men are left to wander around during the day, protect the busses and turcks from insurgents, but most of the time they have little to do. They depend on the generosity of passing drivers for amusement. Sitting in the front seat, I would be gazing off in the distance at the remarkable view of limestone mountains, tended banana groves and teak forests, and then I would spot short men in camoflage fatigues, carrying AK-47 rifles that were just about the same size as the soldiers themselves.

Our driver would spot them also, slow down to 60 kph and toss out a few unlit cigarettes to them. The soldiers would wave as we went by, and then scramble to pick up the smokes. After this happened a few times, evenutually I got into the spirit of giving and started tossing out free cigarettes whenever I saw guns.

It was sort of like taking part in a Mardi Gras parade float, but with an added touch of emphysema.