You have to adjust to very different concepts of acceptable risk and safety on the road in Laos. The bus ride from Vientiane to Vang Vieng was a real education about travelling here, and I can see now why you should only plan to go no more than 200 kms a day here (unless you want to spend an entire bum-numbing day on the move).
For a start, everything moves S-L-O-W-L-Y. The fastest speed our driver managed to hold for more than a minute was 60 kmh; often it was only 30-40 kmh. Why? Because all manner of vehicles from bicycles to scooters to tractors to trucks share the single-lane-each-way road, so half your time is spent behind someone waiting to pass. The road surface is far from perfect, either: even on central Route 13 there were enough potholes and bumpy sections to make high speed travel impossible.
And what is considered normal here is amazing compared to the safety-obsessed culture in Australia… schoolkids riding their bikes four abreast, taking up fully half of the road and ambling along as if down a country lane (not a major highway); mothers riding a scooter without a helmet, their toddler wedged between the handlebars in front of them; fathers riding a scooter without a helmet, with three young kids squeezed behind him in a row; cows and chickens grazing contentedly on the road’s edge; buses so ancient, decrepit and slow that it’s a miracle they can move at all; a child barely three years old riding a toy trike on the edge of the highway without a parent in sight; 10-year-old boys on motorbikes without a helmet; an old man sitting on the apex of a tight bend, oblivious to the buses and trucks passing; cars overtaking buses overtaking trucks, sometimes on blind corners; pedestrians walking along the highway a full metre or two from the verge (ie. on the road itself), not bothering to move over even when an approaching vehicle toots its horn to say “get out of the way”. There appears to be complete faith that faster vehicles will simply go around them, so why bother moving over? Road accidents are a major cause of death and injury in Laos.
Fortunately our driver was careful and we made it safely to the backpacker oasis of Vang Vieng. This place has become legendary since Laos was opened to tourism in 1989: floating down the river in an inflated tractor tyre tube (optionally on any number of drugs) has become a “rite of passage” for Asian travellers, or so says Lonely Planet. It’s not quite as overwhelmingly a “party” town as I expected, though uncontrolled western youths can be found in their natural habitat if you look hard enough. What I wasn’t prepared for is the spectacular mountains that surround the town: jagged forest-covered karst peaks rise up all around you, especially just across the river that runs past the town. Vang Vieng is now the adventure tourism hub for the whole country, and you can take your pick from numerous tubing, kayaking, caving, rock climbing and trekking tours on offer.
I opted for a full day tour that visited some caves, then lunch, then a walk through a local Hmong village, then kayaking 8 kms down the Nam Som back to Vang Vieng. The caves were interesting and the bbq lunch good, but the standout highlight was the kayaking. When I booked the tour yesterday there was only one other person signed up, an American woman called Liz. But by this morning nice others had joined us, however when it came to sharing the two-person kayaks it was natural that Liz and I shared a ride. We turned out to be a good team, and rode the gentle rapids with ease as we floated through the steep sided cliffs and lush green banks. It was a load of fun, most of all when we passed through the launch point for the tubers. Half a dozen riverside bars vied for custom by trying to outdo each other with the volume of their music, rope swings over the water and waterslides, not to mention beer and drug options for those who wanted to float down in every sense of the word. We slowed down to the speed of the current for this, as it was fascinating in its extremity… surely such hardcore partying gets exhausting after a while? Anyway things calmed down after a few hundred metres, and I was glad to have a paddle in my hands after another kilometre or two (tubers are left to the current to get home, and many of them looked over it well before the end).
I wish I had another day to stay here to hire a bike and explore the local area, but I’ve booked a few nights in the temple town of Luang Prabang starting tomorrow night so I must move on. Another long bus journey ahead (230 kms, expected to take 7 hours), then it’s off the mandatory tourist trail of Vientiane-Vang Vieng-Luang Prabang and into the wilds of the north 🙂