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A Tale of Two Cities

Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang

sunny 28 °C


Now when you meet anyone who has headed to Laos they tend to have the same itinerary, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Both have their assets and their attractions and after our exploration of the South we decided to get on this tourist trail and see what everyone raves about. It is clear why that this route is followed by the traveller, easy transport options, airconditioned busses and pleantiful guesthouses at reasonable prices. Each location is packed with all the facilities required to 'make easy' the travellers day; cheese and ham toasties, cable television, stalls selling Pantene and internet cafes. However, both have embraces the term 'tourist friendly' in very different ways which, in turn, entice a different kind of traveller.

There are many types of traveller treading the route in South East Asia but the by far most frequent found in Southern Thailand and Central Laos is what we have termed 'The Tubing Victims'. Other types of tourists in the area include 'The Rich French Retiree' and 'The Sex Tourist' which may appear in this blog somewhere in the future...

You can identify a 'Tubing Victim' by a series of signs. If male, they are generally wearing a vest which is emblazened with either 'Full Moon Party' or a local brand of beer. Their wrists are full of bracelets and bangles which you are sure they would never wear at home and will probably remove very quickly when they have to go back to the office or the pub with their mates to avoid ridicule. They generally have have had a terrible tattoo in a 'tribal design' when have been trashed on the Thai Islands somewhere. And, with few exceptions, each is headed to Laos "to go Tubing in Vang Vieng" or has just had an "awsome time Tubing in Vang Vieng". As with all steriotypes this is a very simplified view of what can be very complex and interesting people and on the otherside what can also be pissed up idiots who are generally unaware of what country they are in at the time. Now the 'Tubing Victim' can be found in their greatest numbers in their very unnatural habitat of Vang Vieng and the best time for spotting these interesting specimins is either at sunset when they go out in search of food and drink or at sunrise when they lollap home to sleep through the heat of the day.

After meeting a large number of Tubing Victims we were naturally quite sceptical when heading to Vang Vieng to try and understand this Tubing phenomenon. Tubing in Vang Vieng can be summarised as floating down a river on a giant pumped up tractor inner tyre. Lining the river are wooden bars on stilts accompanied by a young chap with extroadinary hand eye coordination who can throw a plastic bottle on a rope with brilliant accuracy to you as you float to catch to be pulled into his bar. The town itself is very set up for this type of tourism, and as such is a combination of bucket bars and guesthouse restaurants playing endless reruns of Friends DVDs.

However the grotty town centre is set in an absolutely fantastic scenery as floating down the river amongst mountain cliffs rising up above you on both sides cannot be matched. The ride itself is fantastic and can be seen from either boat, kayak or tube. As we were on the job to fully understand this tubing malarky we decided to get fully involved and partook in the stopping at bars, the free food and shots as you jump out of the water onto the deck (or if you are Annie, fall out of the tube into the water, splash to the deck whilst nearly losing tube entirely and then scramble without any grace at all onto the deck side). Andy was very enthused with the multiple rope swings, zip lines and giant water slides that accomany some of the bars and teaming up with a Kiwi couple we didn't see the blokes that much as they ran from getting out of the water back to the top of the water slide for another go. Andy was less enthused with this the day after when he was covered in bruises but maintains he has no regrets!

You drop your tube off as you go into the bar at the 'tube park' and then pick one up on the way out. My highlight was Andy getting left 'Tubeless' at the final bar and having to float the next 3km down the river on a childrens tube which rather than lazily float on with enough room to hold a beer, he had to fit the bottom of his bum in the middle and adjust his balance to avoid being captsised all the way down. It gave people on the shore a good laugh as well.

After the decadence of Vang Vieng and its water adventures we took to the road to Luang Prabang. Suddenly the Tubing Victims were no longer the major force on the street. This town in the stronghold of the Rich French Retiree which means less Friends DVDs but an equal amount of Cheese and Ham toasties (le croque monsier is the national French fave after all!). Where Vang Vieng is all about convenience and crass, Luang Prabang is set up for pure class. Listed as a Unesco Heritage Site, Luang Prabang is famed for its Oriental and French architecture and meandering boulevards set along the Mekong River. The city oozes character with mahogany pannelled and floored colonial villas set against palm trees and beautiful decorative temples. Luang Prabang is also home to expensive resteraunts (by Laos standards) and posh bars. Both are things I did not expect of Laos at all.

After exploring the streets of the city by foot, we wandered up to the peak to look out over the town and see the Buddha's of the Week. A Buddha for each day lines the walk to the summit and all were impressed by the view. NB. Not all were impressed with my rendition of Craig David's 7 days edited to include Buddha... "Buddha went for a drink on Monday, Buddha took me for a drink on Tuesday..." and so on. Relaxing in a herbal sauna after our walk around the city we planned our next day's activity to head out to the Khon S Waterfall.



Now Andy accuses me of being a waterfall sceptic. He says that since I went to Iguazu Falls I am unable to appreciate any falling water without being dissapointed. However, the waterfalls outside Luang Prabang are beautiful and impressive without being the overwhelming and powerful force that was Iguazu. Wandering into a 'jungle water park' we were unsure what to expect but any park that involves walking through a bear sanctuary before arriving at the main attractions has got to be a winner. There are about 15 black bears who have been rescued from poachers and cruel captivity kept at the sanctuary by donations. The waterfalls almost fell by the wayside when we started watching the bears who incidentally have a great love for lying in hammocks, much like me and Andy!

We dragged ouselves off to the green-blue pools and drops of the waterfalls and spent the day basking in the natural coves and pools created by the water. The effect of sitting under the waterfall as it bumps into the small pools is a bit like being in a cold jacuzzi. Luckily we could always retreat back into the sun to warm up. Hearing splashes and screams Andy went again on search of a jumping point or rope swing (in the excitement his Vang Vieng bruises went forgotten) and he was not dissapointed to find a swing right out into the heart of the natural pool. I missed the first attempt on camera so whether he liked it or not, he had to go again to get this shot!



All in all, both Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang are orientated by the rivers at their heart. Where in Vang Vieng this is for decadent recreation, Luang Prabang it is for quietly sitting by at sunset and sipping a cold drink. Andy took up his pencils and paper to capture the peaceful river scene as we prepared to leave and get back off the beaten track to Phonsavan and the mysterious Plain of Jars....

Posted by Annie Thornton 04:48 Archived in Laos Tagged waterfalls rivers sunset laos luang_prabang tubing vang_vieng Comments (0)

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