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Sabaidi Pi Mai Lao 2556

Vang Vieng, Laos
Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Deep breath, phew, we arrived in one piece. We had heard stories about the bus services in Laos before but until we experienced it for ourselves we thought it was just another travellers tale. We left Vientiane with a full bus load of people but that didn't stop us picking up several other people along the way who had to perch on plastic stools in the gangway! The first couple of hours on the journey was fairly mundane and then we got to the mountains where our driver turned into a rally star. Phone in one hand chatting away we raced through the mountains with the gearbox screaming and driver overtaking everything in sight. If bus rallying ever becomes a sport, expect to see an upcoming star from Laos making the headlines.

Happy New Year 2556 in Vang Vieng

One of the most unlikely locations in the world for a party town. 150km North of Vientiane in the foothills of a beautiful backdrop of karst mountains and beside the Nam Song river the quaint backwater has well and truly made a name for itself on the backpacker map. Tubing down the Nam Song River in a tractor tyre inner tube with Beerloa in hand, stopping at the makeshift bars along the way has become backpacker folklore.

Unfortunately we know all too well in the West that alcohol and swimming don't mix and statistically the town has become the most dangerous place in the whole of South East Asia to visit. Yes Mum, when you were worrying about potential war zones we might be travelling through this one slipped past the net. With over 27 tourists deaths in 2011 mainly from jumping into the Nam Song after one too many Loa whiskey's the statistics are simply frightening. The makeshift river bars suddenly disappeared and rumour has it the UK and French Government said enough was enough and paid off the Laos Government to stop the party. We have no idea if this is true but seeing how little they regard health and safety generally in South East Asia it wouldn't surprise us if it didn't take some intervention from the West.

However the authorities are not stupid and have realised if you take away the party the backpacker scene will move on. Apparently to compensate for closing down many of the river bars they are hoping to push the party into town with later opening hours etc. This hasn't happened yet and we visited whilst the town is undergoing the transition. When we arrived with noticeable fewer backpackers around than we were expecting, we thought we had arrived after the party had left town.

Day 1 - Pi Mai Lao 2556

Call it Pi Mai, call it Songkran, call it the Buddhist New Year it's all the same for tourists, one massive water fight. We were lucky enough to visit Thailand for Songkran a few years ago and after spending 3 days in a mega water fight we have always wanted to go back to Asia for another New Year. After our abrupt ending in Thailand we were both worried that the Loa New Year wouldn't live up to our expectations and initially we were right to be worried. New Year's Eve is traditionally the day to wash away the evils of last year ready for the year ahead. In Thailand the party had already started by New Year's Eve so when we only saw a few people on the streets and only throwing water over each other, we were concerned that it would be much smaller than what we had previously experienced and was only a celebration for the locals so there would be little/no interaction with tourists.

So on New Year's Day we decided to head out of town and go tubing. We left town at about midday and there were a handful of people on the streets throwing water at everything that passed by including us. Normally having a bucket of ice cold water poured over our heads would really annoy us but in the searing heat we were both quietly smiling that we had finally been involved.

We arrived at the tubing centre to be greeted by another splashing of water and everybody in sight merrily drinking away. It was only midday but most of the people 'working' were already worst for wear. We duly filled out the disclaimer and so we didn't sign our life's away we both opted for the free life jacket. We handed our forms over to the decidedly drunk guy who appeared to be running the show and he replied 'you don't need a life jacket you tourists are too worried about dying!'

He did then go on to explain that at this time of year the water isn't that high but having read the shocking statistics before coming we would have preferred a life jacket!

After a 10 minute tuk-tuk ride we arrived at the tubing drop off point and were given an inner tube, shown the river and were left to our own devices. We soon discovered the river was very shallow and in many parts you could stand up (well Ross could anyway) and after a few minutes we were glad we didn't bring a life jacket as they would have just got in the way.

After approximately 20 minutes of complete tranquillity we could hear some music in the distance. It took a while to get to the source of the music but when we did all of our preconceptions of a Loa New Year were luckily dispelled. We had just floated into a massive water fight in the middle of the Nam Song river with hundreds if not thousands of locals of all ages joining in. There were food stalls, bars and a seriously precarious stage which had been constructed on the river playing live music. This was everything we were looking for and we had just floated right into the middle of it!

After getting some food we got stuck in and apart from a handful of other tourists we were the only Western people to be seen and when the locals realised we didn't object to being splashed we seemed to be the target.

After about an hour we decided to float on, which we quickly regretted as there weren't any other bars open :-( We wished we had stayed for longer but as the river was very slow flowing it took us nearly 5 hours to float the whole distance. So although we could have spent a little bit longer we couldn't have stayed for much longer before the sun went down. With a distinct lack of Health & Safety and no search party we wanted to abide by the warning 'be off the river before darkness this isn't Disneyland'

Day 2 - More of the same

Since we had such great time on the river yesterday we decided to head back to the bar and restaurant area where we knew the party would be in full swing! We bought two water guns and a bucket for good measure and set off towards the tubing centre where we hoped to grab a lift to the river, luckily we didn't have to wait long as there was a tuck-tuk ready and waiting and for a small fee the diver was willing to take us after he had finished drinking his beer! Eeek!

It was only a ten minute drive to the river but the chances of us staying dry were pretty slim, in fact we didn't stand a chance. The locals were out in force and lined the streets with barrels full of ice cold water. They were armed and dangerous and ready to shoot us from all angles but that was fine because we were having none of it and we were just as brutal! Between us we managed to soak a good number of people and we were all smiling and laughing in the process. We were pretty wet when we arrived so after having our first beer we waded through the river and within seconds we were both completely drenched.

We had an amazing time dancing along to the local music, splashing everyone in sight and being splashed right back. The best part was when the little kids came after us. They simply loved to make us jump and as we were often outnumbered we lost most of the time but we still had smiles on our faces. We met some lovely Lao people who were happy for us to join them for drinks and as soon as they knew our names we were part of the group.

At one point we sat at the end of one of the many tables in the river, on the opposite side of this table were several people steadily getting through two cases of Beerlao. Ross disappeared for a few minutes and one of the girls asked Sonya to join them, not wanting to seem rude she agreed. The girls obviously thought the answer would be 'no' because whilst making her way over to their side of the table the girls erupted into laughter and one of the girls got so excited she actual fell off her chair into the river!

It was a very comical moment that had to be seen to be believed. Seeing their friend sprawled out in the river made them all burst into laughter which continued until the DJ put on one of their favourite songs. At this point they decided to teach Sonya to Dance 'Lao style' Ross was back by this point and had the camera poised and ready. It was a great laugh and they loved the fact that Sonya was willing to try, the spiels of laughter that followed her attempt at dancing 'Lao style' tells you how well she did.... or not! :-)

All in all we spent about five hours out on the river and we really enjoyed ourselves. We were like two big kids but who cares when you're having fun.

Day 3 - The West Loop

We hired two mountain bikes with the full intention of cycling the 'West loop' a 33km bike ride taking in some fantastic scenery with stop offs at various caves along the way. As we noted with the tubing, Health & Safety doesn't seem to exist in Laos and the caving is no different. You are able to freely wander around the caves by yourselves by torch light, unless you give in to one of the 10 year old children who claim to be official tour guides at the entrances. Having seen many caves throughout China and Vietnam we decided to head straight to the Blue Lagoon approximately 6km from the town. Very different to the Blue lagoon we visited in Iceland a few years back and not really worthy of the grand title as the water was a murky brownie green colour. As we cycled down the dust track towards the lagoon we could hear music blaring away in the distance and as we approached we realised we had stumbled upon another New Year party, with live music, dancers and lots of people taking a dip in the lagoon.

We made the 200m climb up to the cave which was impressive. We only ventured into the main chamber which was much bigger than we were expecting and saw the reclining Buddha before heading backdown to the lagoon.

Ross took a quick dip before trying out some local food. We don't recommend the chicken/duck feet but you have got to try the local cuisine if only once, which we can assure you it will be only once!

After food we enjoyed a few Beerloa's before deciding it was too late in the day to complete the rest of the loop so we headed back into town. We were duly greeted by several more drenching's of water.

Pi Mai vs Songkran

A completely different New Year to what we experienced in Thailand. Although smaller and more low key in some ways it was much better as we felt part of it. When we experienced Songkran there were approximately 60% tourists and just 40% Thai as it has grown to be such a massive tourist draw it is now the second busiest time of year to visit Thailand. This was the complete opposite and it was more like 5% tourists to 95% Loa which made it very special. Admittedly this time last year might have been completely different with Vang Vieng being a prominent place of the backpacker circuit, and maybe just maybe we have experienced it at its best when the city is in its transition stage. Who knows? We suppose the only way to find out would be to come back another year, but if we did would we choose Vang Vieng or Thailand where we know the party will be in full flow. Tough decision.

Hotel Review

We stayed at Pan's Place. We opted for a double private room. Vang Vieng is so small everything is accessible by foot so hotel location is not really an issue. However Pan's Place is ideally located only 300m from the town centre which makes everything accessible within a 5 minute walk but is further enough away from the nightlife not to be disturbed. As expected the room was very basic but perfectly adequate for what we wanted. The room was supposed to be 'mossy proofed' but we would question how affective it is with a massive gap under the door! We have had some dodgy electrics in recent hotels but there was something seriously wrong with our room. The circuit breaker tripped out multiple times a day, mainly when the shower was on. We would have paid extra for air con but unfortunately no rooms at Pan's Place had it fitted. The most amazing thing about the hotel was the value for money, we paid approximately £5 per night, yes just £5! for a double private, unbelievable. A great budget stay, great value for money but let down by the shoddy electrics.

5.0/10 Revised 2013.05.18

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