Monday, September 27, 2010

Tubing or not tubing, that is the question

The drive from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is probably the most spectacular bus ride I’ve ever taken. It’s spectacular both in terms of the scenery which is magnificent but also as an insight into the state of this country. Because most of this country is covered in forest and jaw-dropping mountains, only about 10% of it is arable land which is very little to feed a lot of people. As a passing traveller this makes for life affirming rides through, clichéd as it may be, the land that time forgot. Roads in Laos are the equivalent of secondary Irish roads at best (think driving from Boyle to Tulsk), and for a country that has a lot of unexploded ordnance from the recent past, it seems as if some of that UXO has been used to blast craters in the country’s roads.
Genuinely though as you drive through the countryside - and Laos is practically all countryside - you can’t help but feel a sense of guilt as you ride through countless roadside settlements - where poverty is writ large everywhere - in your air-con minivan on your way to a town where most will drink themselves silly on a river whilst attempting to navigate yourself in a bicycle tube. Genuinely, it feels as if it could be 1965 in this country. Amazing. If you do manage to build up some speed on the road, you immediately have to slow down because of the roving herds of cows and water buffaloes who wander the roads untethered, carefree and unconcerned.
The town of Vang Vieng is a dump dressed up as a shitheap masquerading as a sewer. Seriously, it’s that ugly. It’s a place which long ago sold its soul to the thousands who descend upon it each year to tube or kayak or whatever you’re having yourself down the river which flows through it. And who can blame them when money’s clearly too tight to mention? It’s filled with bars showing re-runs of Family Guy and Friends on a loop (seriously, who watched Friends first time round and then needs to see the fucking thing again whilst they‘re on holidays?) It’s populated year-round by different troops of backpackers shit faced on Beer Lao, flouting polite requests to respect the local population - a pissed up troupe for whom Johnny Borrell is Shakespeare. Ah but I'm just getting old of course.
Getting genuine Laos cuisine is not going to happen here but it could be argued that if I've come to VV to experience Laos cuisine, then I’m the one who needs to get out more. But I haven’t. Almost everything here revolves around the river or the caves which are found not far from the river. Got myself on the Nam Song today as a group of us kayaked down a 15km stretch - perfectly easy going, stunning scenery, quiet….until you reach the bars. 90% of people are here for the tubing and it’s easy to see why. Basically the idea is that you rent a large tube into which you sit and float downstream, stopping off at a variety of different bars where you can drink to your heart’s content, throw yourself into the water from a great height with gay abandon, play mud volleyball or just dance to the risible shite they blast from the speakers. And when you’ve had your fill at one bar, pop yourself back into your tube and float to the next one right next door. And it all looks like bloody good fun, apart from dancing to the risible shite they blast from the speakers of course.

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