Misty dawn, Vang Vieng
The original schedule for the tour had us driving from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, a six hour journey through apparently stunning scenery where we would pass through numerous Hmong villages. Before we'd set off from Britain this had been revised and the drive replaced with a short internal flight - I'd wondered about local banditry or an outbreak of some exotic tropical disease but the truth was much more prosaic, there was an international conference taking place and security would be tightened along the road route. Several in the group were upset by missing out on the scenic views but having experienced a lot of Lao roads the prospect of a long drive along them didn't seem like something to yearn for.
Roadside police checkpoint, outside Vientiane
So instead we had another early start and a short drive to the local airport. We'd been given bottles of water but soon realised that we wouldn't be able to take them onto the plane so instead most were donated to our minibus driver. The flight was short & uneventful and once in Vientiane we were introduced to our new Lao guide, piled into yet another minibus and set off for the drive to Vang Vieng, now approaching it from the opposite direction.
The outskirts of Vientiane were bustling with new development, lots of warehouse-style shops and car (& truck) dealerships going on for miles with the by now inevitable cafés and small shops in amongst them. The drab utilitarianism of the warehouses was further emphasised by the huge, colourful temples that we periodically passed, a reminder that this was a Buddhist South East Asian communism rather than the grey Eastern European version.
At one point we were flagged down by an official of some kind for a check of our papers. I was expecting an inspection of our passports & visas but the police seemed solely interested in our Lao guide, taking him off the bus to check through his folder of paperwork and making copious notes while doing so. The impression was that they were checking for unlicensed tour guides rather than miscreant tourists. We were stopped in more or less the same spot on our return journey so it seemed to be more of a bureaucratic process than a randomised spot check.
As the road rose from the plains into the hills we stopped by a village where market stalls lined either side of the road, all seemingly selling the same selection of dried fish products. This turned out to be exactly the case, the village was situated by a large lake from where the fish were caught and the villagers had an agreement to all charge the same price, consequently there was no competition amongst them or any attempt to cajole the potential customers to any particular stand. This pattern seemed common throughout the region, we'd often drive through a village where all the stalls had identical goods, frequently in the same packaging.
Driving into town, Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng markets itself as an activity holiday centre, a deliberate rebranding from it's earlier reputation as a drink, drugs & wild party destination for backpackers. The town itself was a bit of a disappointment, lots of places to eat & drink but not very much to see beyond the admittedly scenic setting of distant tall hills and wide, slow river. After the delights of Luang Prabang it was nice but not much more.
A short excursion to the edge of town brought us to the Tham Jang caves, a series of caverns high up in the hillside where Lao forces fled to hide from the overspill of the Vietnam war - a US airstrip was built beside the town which now serves as an oversized car park. The area at the foot of the caves had clearly been modelled as an extensive holiday park but the faded signs and gently crumbling buildings showed that it hadn't found its target audience, somehow this actually gave it a shabby charm. Inside the grounds we came upon a string of snack stands including one selling Lao Spirit - distilled rice wine, usually packaged in repurposed plastic water bottles and often containing a large insect or small reptile 'for potency'. Not actually that tempting.
We had two night in Vang Vieng which, in hindsight, was probably one too many. There weren't many planned excursions and not much chance to sign up for the various activities on offer - kayaking, ballooning, boat trips, etc. Instead there was time to explore the surrounding area - wide flat fields framed by the dramatic hills and cut through by the broad river - and the quirks of the town. On my wanderings I discovered bomb casings used as bridge decorations, a Thai-German restaurant, Mad Max-style off-road buggies, the 'Chinese expedition force restaurant', 'GO HOME TOURIST' graffiti (on a hotel construction site) and lots of other weird & wonderful sights. A large sign in glorious pidgin English promised a route to two caves by following a series of flags and although the path petered out before any such caves were found it provided a nice stroll through the farmlands and, eventually, through someone's market garden.
Mobile café, night market, Vientiane
One lingering consequence of the town's wild history was the noise - it felt like whenever I sat down for a relaxing meal or drink by the riverside there would be a bar on the other side pounding out lame techno music or the seemingly inevitable Bob Marley track, clearly the patron saint of backpackers the world over. On investigation these bars would be unfailingly free of patrons, presumably the music was played to advertise their existence to the mass of young, thirsty tourists that patently didn't exist. Sigh! To add insult to injury a powered paraglider would periodically buzz up & down the river like a giant, diesel-engined mosquito or airborne lawnmower. With the number of big hotels being built through the town I would assume these annoyances are on ]their way out, sadly this hadn't quite come to pass.
After Vang Vieng we retraced our minibus route back to Vientiane, the capital. This was a full city and much less inviting than the much smaller towns we'd visited during our previous time in Laos, the roads were filled with traffic and required considerably more attention to safely navigate. We were taken to a couple of large temples and a big government building but at this point several of us were a bit templed out and I found that it was more rewarding to just wander around on my own, ignorant of the history & details, and soak up my own impressions. I had to smile when I came across a monk taking selfies on his smartphone, not quite an image of selfless contemplation.
Our short walking tour of Vientiane ended at he Patouxay Monument, an impressive arch set in ornamental gardens at the centre of the city. An information plaque on the side was less complimentary and described it as a 'monster of concrete' although it didn't mention that the cement used in its construction was unashamedly hijacked from a US project to build a new airport for the city. Walking up to the top gave some great views over the city and revealed tourist shops on each of the internal floors.
The Revolutionary Monument, Vientiane
That evening we assembled in Chao Avouvong park to watch the sun set over the Mekong and Thailand on the far bank. As the sky darkened the night market was starting up but this was quite a different affair from Luang Prebang, virtually everything on sale was western branded (or at least claiming to be) and wouldn't have been out of place in a shop anywhere in Europe or America. Very disappointing.
Next morning was free before we drove out for our afternoon flight to Vietnam. My wanderings led me past a very relaxed exercise group in the park before I discovered the enormous day market - a huge, open-sided warehouse roof with endless stalls stretching off into the distance below it. Most of the area was taken up with food sellers but there were clothes, household goods and pretty much anything you could carry away available somewhere or other. Like the other markets I'd seen there was raw meat & fish displayed with no refrigeration which was a bit unsettling but I had to assume that hygiene was being maintained otherwise half the city would be laid low.
On Rabbit's advice I visited the COPE centre, an organisation working to clear and alleviate the problems caused by the masses of cluster bombs dropped on Laos during the recent wars. The information & photographs were harrowing but the general approach was refreshingly positive & practical, looking forward towards solving problems rather than backwards to allocate blame. People are great. I left with a t-shirt, pack of sponsored coffee beans and an unexpectedly rosy outlook.
A tuk-tuk ride across town led me to what promised to be an interesting collection of buildings. The Revolutionary Monument was a gleaming white edifice that managed to combine the look of a religious structure with friezes of collective proletariat action around its circumference. Oddly there were No Entry signs around it despite no obvious sign of work or cleaning going on. A short stroll away was the Thatluang Stupa temple complex with several huge, colourful temples and giant Buddha statues. A wonderfully photographic moment came when I spotted a single orange garbed monk walking across a wide, grey car park outside the National Assembly building, he gracefully accepted my request for a photo and smiled broadly.
People's Security Museum, Vientiane
My last stop was the strangest, I visited the People's Security Museum, a name I couldn't resist. After finding my way in through the one unlocked door I was assured that there was no admission charge, instructed to place my daypack in a locker and warned that there was No Photography Allowed. The walls had a selection of photos, mostly of officials sitting at desks or giving speeches, and there were a small number of objects on display - a radio set, a collection of caps & uniforms, a set of guns from venerable muskets to modern(-ish) rifles, and so on. I was the only visitor and although one of the attendants made a half-hearted attempt to subtly watch me it was painfully obvious and she gave up once I went up to the next floor, enabling me to grab some surreptitious pictures. As I left I noticed the machine guns framing the entrance and the display of vehicles out front - no tanks but an armoured personel carrier, a couple of militarised trucks, a police car and a strangely painted motorbike. Very odd. Shame there wasn't a gift shop.
After our high dose of temples it was fun to see that That Dam Stupa was just a stone's throw from the hotel. Sadly it wasn't interesting enough for a photo.
Out at Wattay International Airport we said our goodbyes to Rabbit and our Lao guide, quite protracted ones as our flight was delayed by an hour (although the departure boards gave no indication of this). This gave me time to discover that my Laotian Kip notes could only be exchanged within Laos (something I think one of the guides should have mentioned) so I took the opportunity to swap my hundreds of thousands of Kip for $17. Still, Vietnam had an even larger exchange rate and I'd soon be a millionaire again. Before too long we were in yet another aircraft and heading for yet another country, after the surprises of Laos I wondered what Vietnam would bring.