We weren’t sure our fellow LanguageCorps teachers from Cambodia were going to make the train to Laos. The plan: meet at the Hua Lamphong Train Station in Bangkok on Friday evening, take the night train north to Nong Khai, Thailand, arrive early in the morning and cross the border to Vientiane, Laos.
Well, our fellow Cambodia teachers flew in late. Their only option was to skip the main station and meet us at one of the small stops along the way to Laos. Luckily their flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok landed early (on-time arrival in Thailand! Impressive!). So with the help of a maniac Bangkok taxi driver, they beat us to the last train station out of town and hopped on with plenty of time to spare.
A mini-LanguageCorps reunion, the eight of us snacked on rice and stir fry in the bar car of the train, recounting tales of teaching in our various placements, new adventures in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, and the plans for the next year.
What a great start to our long weekend vacation. Luckily, Thai trains are relatively comfortable. That was some of the best rest I’ve had in a long time. Second class, bottom bunks are the way to go. In the evenings, the attendants come through the cabins and convert the two seats on either side of the train into bottom bunks and flop down the ledge for the top bunk. Viola! It’s like moveable summer camp with strangers!
We arrived at the border of Thailand and Laos around mid-morning the next day. Crossing the border is always a small feat, requiring waiting, standing in line, more waiting, stamps here, double checking stamps there. A bus across the bridge and then more waiting and stamping. Typical for any border crossing.
Once into the lush green scenery of Laos, we spent the next few days in the French-influenced Vientiane, relaxing, getting Chinese-style “cupping” massages, enjoying a little French cuisine, exploring a new country, new beautiful pagodas, and doing a little Thai visa business as well. (A note about the cupping massage: the masseuse uses a flame to heat small glass jars to suction on your body. The idea is to increase circulation and blood flow. The feeling of your skin tightening and being involuntarily sucked into a glass jar suspended on your skin is such a bizarre sensation).
We arrived in town just in time for the Rocket Festival, a once-a-year bonanza of locals setting fire to PVC pipe rockets out in a big field with plenty of onlookers, bites and booze. (Unfortunately, I missed the Rocket Festival, thanks to an unknown edible from the previous night that decided to wreak havoc on my insides. But you can watch Sam’s video of a Third Time’s the Charmer at the dusty festival here.)
On Tuesday we hired a van and headed into the mountains. Four hours of winding mountain roads, gorgeous hills and small villages before we arrived in Vang Vieng. The little burg is a backpacker’s Las Vegas sneakily tucked along the Nam Song River between mist-shrouded cliffs. A surreal oasis where streets are lined with hostels and bars touting “Fish’n’Chips,” “American-style breakfasts” and “Special Menus.” When Spring Break in Cancun gets old, the college crowd heads to this tropical paradise for a different kind of ‘letting loose’.
Well, we skipped the main attraction–tubing on the lazy river–and headed upstream for a similar but more interactive adventure: kayaking. With three guides, we put in the river around 10km away from the beginning of town. A few stops along the lazy flowing passageway let us explore the mountainous caves and hillsides of Laos. We trekked deep into one cave on one stop, where the only entrance required swiming in pitch black and ice cold waters. Armed with plastic flashlights, we climbed past cavernous rooms in the cave where Laotians hid from the threat of bombs during the Vietnam War.
We put out for lunch alongside a quiet spot in the river with a small house nearby, overrun with chickens, ducks and other various roaming wildlife. Our guides built a fire and grilled vegetables with meat on skewers for our lunch. Served with rice wrapped in banana leaves and a loaf of French bread. A feast worthy of such a rugged adventure.
Farther along the river, the banks become cramped with bars. Yes wooden bungalows teetering over the river, proffering buckets of hard liquor and the local favorite Beerlao. Extending from the pulse thumping bars were platforms of wooden constructions barely worthy of being deemed rickety scaffolding. Bare ropes dangled in the water, hammocks hung empty. As we drifted along, our guide explained the scaffolds were remnants of the party-central corridor the river once was. But the government shut down most bars after numerous inebriated and stupid tourists, who clamber up the narrow stairs and launch or slide through a chute into the river, accidentally landed in shallow waters. The rumor was a total of six deaths in May and a few earlier in the year as well, which prompted the government’s action: bad press. Low tide makes the river treacherous for anything other than floating.
Needless to say, the bars along the banks were eerily abandoned. Low tourist season + low tide season + the threat of danger = a very strange and anemic party-atmosphere indeed. I found it somewhat of a relief that the slides were closed. While I probably wouldn’t rocket myself into flowing waters, it’d be a blast to watch other waterlogged folk enjoy themselves. Though I’m glad to err on the side of safety.
Not far from party central, we drifted back into town, into the slow-flowing, channel spotted with sandbars and plenty of locals wading among floating tourists. So we paddled lazily along, enjoying the misty mountains in the background, the soft slooshing of the water around the body of the kayak, and chattering of friends close by.