Robin & I have been in Laos for a while… we spent 2 days in Vientiane, 3 in Vang Vieng, and today we’re heading to Luang Prabang.

The journey here was good. We took the sleeper train to Nong Khai and then a short connecting train over the Thai/Lao border. This train is neat: they close the Friendship Bridge to car traffic and run the train straight down the middle. It stops in the Vientiane suburbs at Thanaleng, so we shared a van with some other climbers we met at the train station into town.

The country is very laid back and friendly. It’s also noticeably poorer than Thailand, even in the areas that see a lot of tourist spending.

Vientiane is a nice place to spend a few days or even longer. The food is great, mostly thanks to French colonial influences. There’s lots of good, real cheese, the coffee is usually excellent, and fresh baguettes are everywhere. Actually, this goes for Vang Vieng as well. I’ve had excellent bacon at least once a day here :) They also serve the favourites from Thai cuisine and a few local dishes.

Some highlights from Vientiane: we visited Patuxay, a monument that my guidebook said was based on the Arc de Triomphe. "Inspired by" would be a better description. At its base, the most honest tourism sign I’ve ever seen:

Honest sign

I also made it to the Buddha Park, the morning after my failed attempt to reach it by bike. It’s pretty cool – there are several concrete safety hazards sculptures that you can climb, including a reclining Buddha that’s become a local object of worship. Unfortunately, I was too early for monks to be climbing the Buddha.

So onto Vang Vieng. Now this is a strange place. The town has more or less grown around the "needs" of the party animal type of backpacker. The locals have named the main street "TV Road" because every second building houses a restaurant or bar with televisions playing Friends, The Simpsons, or Family Guy. Many bars have a "happy menu" offering concoctions based on pot, mushrooms, or opium. And of course there’s booze, sold in buckets with straws, and Lao Beer (which is excellent.)

And then there’s tubing. The basic idea is to rent a tractor inner tube, take a tuktuk a few kilometres up the Nam Song (river), and ride the gentle currents down. The real attraction is that there are many bars along the banks of the river selling beer, buckets, and "happy" things. It’s basically spring break with tubes.

When I read about this, I decided I should visit and try tubing once. What I didn’t realize is that people make a lifestyle of it, tubing every day for a week or more. They get up around noon, hit the river until dusk, then shower and head to one of the many bars in town. Many of them also get a lot more drunk (or stoned) while tubing than I would consider wise, and there are one or two drowning deaths every year :(

Fortunately, there’s also climbing here. It’s not as well developed as in Tonsai, and I wouldn’t recommend visiting without a partner (unless you’re willing to hire a guide), but you can rent ropes and a few crags are bolted. I climbed with Robin for a day, then climbed with some people we met on our way. It’s about the same kind of climbing as Tonsai: heavily pocked and featureful limestone. The routes are dirtier because they’re climbed less, but on the upside they’re a lot less crowded and it’s about 10°C cooler at this time of year. I managed my first 6c lead (it was short and well protected) but I stopped about halfway up the 6c+ that shared the top anchor because the top holds were full of spiderwebs.

One of the cool things about the crags here is that they’re actually in the jungle, so you get the things you’d expect: big spiders, huge anthills, seed pods the size of your fist, weird spikey vines, and dense vegetation anywhere off the trail. No weird animals; it’s still too close to civilization. There are goats and ducks living near one crag though.

And now: onto Luang Prabang, then we’re flying to Chiang Mai on Lao Airlines.

Vientiane photos

Vang Vieng photos

(Entry written March 23)