Well we made it. After all the fuss the bus wasnt too bad. We arrived at the Vietnam-Laos border around 5am and had to wait for teh border guards to open it up at 7am. However that gave us a chance to watch teh sunrise in the mountains which was really awesome. The scenery is stunning in Laos. So lush and green - its hard to think that it is the most bombed county on the planet.
The bus was interesting to say the least. To get there we had to take a 30 minute moto journey from the old quarter of Hanoi to some bus station in the outer city. That was fun, it was in the dark and the traffic was manic but for some odd reason I really enjoyed it. I also recorded a short video of it on my camera so that'll be up on andresworld.co.uk when I get back. The bus itself was a small stumpy coach with not a lot of room for luggage, as we found when a guy decided to bring his TV, mattress and large heavy things in a sack [god knows what they were - Laos border wasnt too hot on customs regulations].
We were glad when it ended as it was pretty impossible to sleep in and most uncomfortable. Its a really horrible feeling when you know you're tired and you know you need sleep but because of the position or situation you're in there is no place to actually fall asleep - most distressing.
We arrived into Vienetiene around 3pm which was a little earlier than we expected and meant our bus journey was only 20 hours rather than 24. Once we'd caught a jumbo into the centre of town it didnt take long for us to realise that laos is a very very different place to that of any other country in South East Asia. For a start we'd arrived in the capital and it was more akin to a sleepy market town than anything else. There was no traffic on the roads, there were no touts hounding is for business, there were few touristy shops and further mroe you could walk across the centre of it in about 15 minutes! I though to myself "I love this place already!".
We checked into a really nice guesthouse on teh river front where the people running it were really friendly and spoke good english. Later on I found this to be quite a common trend amongst all Lao people, and even if they dont speak English they're allr eally nice people. That evening we went for another curry just because we could, and it was cheap - about $4 for beer, water, curry, naan and rice.
The following morning we boarded our not so VIP bus to Vang Vieng. It was advertised as a bus with AC, free water, free towels and DVD movies - which is why we paid the premium of $5 for it. But then I should have realised as with anywhere in south east asia [and now that includes Laos]: what you see is not what you get. AS it happens the bus turned out to be some bog standard coach with crappy air con. Whats more when we stopped for a lunch break it wouldnt start so all the lads had to push start this coach while the girlies giggled and took photos.
By the time we arrived in Vang Vieng Tim had worked out that we'd spent a minimum of 3 hours each day on a bus for the past 7 days - no wonder our bums hurt as soon as we even thought about sitting down on a bus seat! Anyways, it was all worth it because Vang Vieng is stunning [just look at the photos!]. We wandered around in the blistering mid afternoon heat and then found a place run by a austrian or german guy called arnie. We have our own little bungalow perched on the hill side witha hammocka nd bathroom. Its amazing. The only downside is that I have to share a double bed with Tim.
Yesterday we went tubing down the river. Tubing is what Vang Vieng is for and is really one of the only activities left once you remove spending all day sitting in a TV bar watching DVDs of Friends, The Simpsons and Family Guy. Along the river there are a number of bars that you can stop by and have a drink at. Normally the guys running it will throw a life ring out to you and drag you in or extend a long bamboo pole. Once there you sit down and relax with a beer laos enjoying teh days sun and watching the tubers float by. At a couple of places there are rope swings and zip lines. I had a go on them despite my fear of heights [which soon goes with a couple of beer laos]. The best one by far was a cope swing which had its start pretty much at the top of a tree and pivoted on a pole extended above the river which must have been a good couple of telegraph poles in length. You climbed up the tree, braced yourself on a couple of planks thats extended over the river, helf on to the handle bar [of sorts] and jumped. It proper messed me up teh first couple of times but after that I was an adrenaline junky!
The day was going just swimmingly before it all went a little pear shaped. Basically, we'd reached that part of a sun soaked day where I was on my fifth beer laos and was getting a little forgetful and careless. This was clearly evident by my failure to remember the appropriate acronyms for the various parties in the German Federal Political System whilst discussing with a german traveller [speedos included] that the party system had taken a swing to the left since the reuinfication of Germany and the rise of the Greens and the PDS. Added to that I also founf my dancing feet and was getting a groove on on the dance floor with a bald dutch guy [yeeash] and another german [who just LOOKED german, but didnt have speedos]. I was in the middle of a rant about teh centrist politics of the Volkspartei when Tim reminded me that we needed to get back to the tubing place before 6 unless we wished to be fined $2 a tube. We grabbed our stuff and made for our tubes, jumped in them and the river and started our drift down towards the finish. After about 3 or 4 minutes of flowing at quite a pace I realised that we'd both forgotten our life jackets - all $14 worth each of them. I shouted down to Tim and he sort of acknowledged our mistake but kept on drifting. This is when it all went a bit nuts.
I decided to go back. So, I paddled myself over to some reddy march area and got onto the bank and dumped my ring. I found a track running through the bankside jungle and I started to run along it, in just my swimming shorts. In my rather innebriated mind it was a little like the Game Boy scene from "the beach" when De Caprio's character goes bonkers. I didnt really know where i was going, I just hoped that the path led back to teh bar that was rather neatly perched on a cliff face. I ran, and ran a bit more, changed direction, double backed on myself, lost the track, found the track again but my the time I'd run into a couple of barbed wire fences and then successfully smashed up a bamboo fence with my bare feet as I tried to scale that one I realised that I'd have to go back to the river. So I found the river and started to wade back up towards the bar. By the time it got neck deep i started to swim and dragged myself upstream by grabbing overhanging branches, but all the time i was making very little progress. At that point i noticed a boat on teh other side of the river going down stream and I started to wave and beckoned it over in the hope that they'd see and give me a lift. Luckily they did. They picked me up and I tried to explain I'd forgotten my life jacket and also that my friend down stream had money to pay. Thankfully they got the drift of what I was saying and returned me to the bar where i picked up teh life jackets and then went in search of my ring. The boat trundled alongside me while i floated on teh life jackets back down stream. After a while we'd gone so far that I thought I'd lost it but the just round teh corner I spotted it. I waded through some horrible silty mud got in the ring and continued where I left off. After a few metres I spotted a figure hanging onto a tree branch at the side of the river in a tube; it was Tim. He'd been waiting for 45 minutes not knowing where the hell I'd been with only the faintest notion that I may have gone back to get the life jackets. We floated a little further down and found my local heores and paid $0.30 for their troubles - bless 'em.
That wasnt the end of it. As it happened the exit off the river was a lot further down than we'd thought and it was getting dark so we couldnt see the signs for which way to go when the river forked. Luckily a small child at the river bank gave us a a helping hand and walked into the river to show us which way to go, at which point we realised it was only about a foot deep.
After that we dumped our rings and life jackets, luckily didnt have to pay a charge for being late [the whole reason for this farce in the first place!], grabbed our shower and then went for a curry - our 3rd in three days. I blame it on the stress of travelling.
Tommorrow we go to Luang Prabang.