Info on buses through Laos was a bit sparse before getting here. Discounting the horrid-sounding bus rides going all the way to Hanoi, there were two options for getting to Vinh in Vietnam. We decided on the direct route because the stop off on the route via Phonsavan didn’t appeal to us so much – we’d had out temporary fill of ruins and the like. To see a little bit more of Laos we took a detour to Vang Vieng.
The mini bus collected us from the hostel after breakfast of French toast and pancakes. We picked up a few more around town but one fellow didn’t fit. Another overbooking. The fellow next to me was Korean, presumably half the rest of the bus was too. There’s Korean BBQ about the place and other Korean restaurants around. The fellow on the bus explained that Laos is popular with Koreans because it’s close and different from home. Kind of the equivalent of Australians and Bali I think.
For the first two hours from Vientiane homes and businesses lined the road almost without break. They may well have been only one layer deep. Then a pit stop at the equivalent of a road house, complete with an old photo of the owner standing proudly beside his new car in the field and another, perhaps from a long past family holiday, of elephants mating. Anyway, onwards and upwards.
Scooters and cars were replaced with what I can only describe as tractorised go-carts. The buildings gave way to paddy fields, green space, spectacular views and small villages. Somewhere in Thailand the paddy fields changed from being huge unbroken expanses to being partitioned into small plots by what I suppose are dykes. As we rose into the hills, plots were squeezed in single file along the bottom of gullies. The houses of the villages were a mix of traditional woven walls and concrete blocks, sometimes both. I remember red tiled roofs and red rusted tin roofs against layers of green, layers of hills, white clouds against grey and, as we approached Vang Vieng, lightning.
Since we got to Thailand I’ve been questioning how I imagine what it’s like to be poor in a developing country. When the people are well dressed, riding scooters with a mobile phones in their back pockets, I have to re-picture things. I guess it’s really about security, debt to income ratios, access to services such as health, education, waste and clean water and so on. Though the barest glimpse of the villages through the bus window – the Laos that is not Vientiane and Vang Vieng – where it looked as though people really didn’t have much of much, makes me wonder what I’m misinterpreting and not seeing…
Ben said Vang Vieng was like a ski village. It’s a tourist town (in)famous for ‘tubing’. So there are hostels and other accommodation, bus and tour companies, bars, restaurants and food stalls, massage places, laundries, and ah, that’s about it. Oh, and scenery. A river, more of those steep jagged hills jutting upwards, and greenery. We chilled out for the rest of the afternoon with high hopes for our half day kayaking tour the next morning.
The roosters crowed. Chickens clucked and looked like real chickens with their long strong legs. Cow bells tinkled. (Ok, so I didn’t hear the cow bells in town, but they were around.) The sun came out. A stunning day. Three of us got away a little earlier than the main group of 22 who were probably still sleeping off the night before. The river was fast flowing with small rapids to keep things interesting. Only our guide fell out. We swam in a cave! One part was the sleeping cave where locals sheltered during the intense bombing by the US during the Vietnam war. Our guide said it was a long time ago. But unexploded ordinance from that time is still a huge problem in the country. It’s why I’ve said greenery in describing the landscape. Much of it doesn’t look like forest, but it doesn’t look like crops either, and I wonder if it is unwillingly abandoned and overgrown land.
We were out on the tour for less time than we expected and I’d felt we were being rushed along. So it was great, but I was also a little disappointed. I’d have liked to have seen more of the caves in the area but we weren’t back quite early enough to fit that in. Also, it turned out that our waterproof phones weren’t as waterproof as we’d thought.
For the trip back to Vientiane we were collected in a very broken mini bus which luckily was only taking us to the bus station in Vang Vieng. A touch of reality on the way seeing a van and scooter that had been in an accident, with something mangled under the van which turned out to only be a box of Beer Lao. The mother and daughter from the scooter seemed ok, though scraped and shaken. The big bus to Vientiane was hot and on the grotty side. Nearly everyone pulled the hot pink curtains across the view and being in an aisle seat I didn’t get a vote. I did get someone falling asleep on my shoulder which was kind of sweet and weird at the same time. We had to get a songthaew from the bus back to the hostel. The traffic was pretty friendly but I still hung on tight.
Back to the same vegan mock-meat place for dinner tonight to get something nice and easy. We hope to get out and see a bit more in Vientiane tomorrow before catching the overnight bus to Vietnam. We’re a little apprehensive about that bus because of what we’ve read. Mostly in regards to the comfort level and true length of the trip. All part of the adventure though, right?!