Tag Archives: Vang Vieng

Massage Road (Lao Redux)

19 Oct
Vieng Vang, Laos (2014)

Vang Vieng, Laos (2014)

I woke up on a chilly late December morning in Vientiane. I was headed to Luang Prabang and had booked a spot on a bus that I was told would do the 390km (240 miles) journey in about 7 hours. That was cool with me. I would get to see the Laotian countryside and have some time to nap along the way. I was picked up outside of my hotel by a tuk tuk-like vehicle with a flatbed carriage. After the driver crossed my name off his list, I hopped on. I was the first person, so I had the carriage all to myself.  The driver spent about 30 minutes careening through the narrow streets of Vientiane in order to pick up 9 more people from other hotels and guesthouses. The sun was starting to rise, and since we were sitting in an open-air carriage, everyone was shivering and trying to bundle up. So, there wasn’t much conversation going on. As we neared the bus station, our driver suddenly pulled into a gas station and we were told to get off. Needless to say, we were confused and a South African amongst us asked the driver what was happening. The driver pointed to a small minibus that was parked in the gas station and said that was the “bus” to Luang Prabang. Everyone one of us was expecting a standard-sized bus and had seen photos of this when buying the tickets. Now, here we were at the crack of dawn — freezing — and being told our ride was half of what we were expecting. I could only laugh to myself. “Here we go again,” I thought as my mind flashed back to my experience in Cambodia nearly 8 years earlier [See post “Massage Road” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-HF%5D. But, I was strangely composed and nonplussed by the situation. I was going to roll with it and not get frustrated by what would surely be another aching and arduous trip. Not everyone shared my mindset though. The South African chap angrily demanded that his bags be returned to him and he quickly hailed a taxi and went directly to the bus station to find his promised ride. I looked around and counted 16 people: 2 Aussies, 2 Brits, 3 Poles, 8 Russians, and me — the token American. We each slowly piled into the minibus. Since I was one of the last ones on, I got the middle seat in the back row and that turned out to be the worst spot because I had nothing to hold or brace myself on for the entire journey.

Welcome Sign - Vang Vieng

Welcome Sign – Vang Vieng

As the minibus pulled out of the gas station and onto the one road that led north out of Vientiane, things initially began smoothly because the road was paved and the land was flat. But, after about 45 minutes or so, the paved road gave way to crumbling gravel and there were holes and chewed off pavement. The minibus popped and lurched along. On one of these pops, the young girl next to me vomited in her hands. I had to get her mother’s attention who was sitting a few rows ahead of me. Next thing I knew, I was handed some kind of barf bag to give to the girl along with handwipes. Her father got the driver’s attention and the minibus stopped. The young girl slowly waddled off and continued to throw-up outside while her parents consoled her and cleaned her up. When she got back on, the driver seemed to adjust his driving so that it was a bit smoother and we did not stop again until we reached Vang Vieng — the adventure capital of Laos with whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and lots of partying by tourists. At a guesthouse-cum-restaurant stop there, everyone piled off the minibus, stretched their legs, and had some lunch. I wandered around the streets of Vang Vieng and immediately tuned into the hippy-esque vibe of the place. There were hookah bars and places branding themselves as offering “natural” and “organic” foods. Hammocks were slung off the rafters of porches and there were rows and rows of adventure tour vendors.

Pensive Enchantment - Luang Prabang, Laos

Pensive enchantment – Luang Prabang, Laos

On my way back to the minibus, I bumped into a man who I recognized was part of my traveling group. We started chatting and he told me his name was Matthieu and that he was from Montreal. He had been traveling solo through Thailand and Laos for the last 3 months. He was married, but his wife had chosen to opt-out of his trip. He didn’t seem to mind. He appeared to be in his early 60s, but his eyes had a childlike quality and allure to them. I’ve seen that look before in others who come to Asia on extended journeys. It’s a look that smacks of being carefree, yet it is tinged with some kind of reclamation. Like getting back or returning to something that has been forgotten or lost in that person.  I would bump into Matthieu twice — both completely random — in Luang Prabang over the next few days. The first time he and I passed each other while walking our bicycles through the night market in the old town. We were so excited about what we each had seen that day that we talked over each other and I don’t remember at all what he said — except he had bought an exquisite Laotian silk scarf that was tied smartly around his neck and I knew I had to get one too! Our second meeting was at a French cafe located in the far end of the main road. He was having a cigarette and sipping an espresso at a table outside. I came across this cafe out of an instinct to find a good source of caffeine and as soon as I pedaled up to it — there was Matthieu waving at me. It was as if he had been waiting for me to arrive. We ended up having the kind of unabashed and honest conversation that only 2 strangers with no agendas can have with one another. There were no preconceived judgments or fears of any reprisals. Just exhilarating talk accompanied by savory cafe au lait and pan du chocolate. Then, we both got on our bikes and headed in opposite directions. His last words to me: “Enjoy life”.

Novice monks doing chores at monastery - Luang Prabang

Novice monks doing chores in their monastery – Luang Prabang

From Vang Vieng onwards, the road climbed and climbed with turn after turn through mountainous passes. Huge stone karst formations shot up around us. The views were amazing but the drive was so bumpy and shaky that it was impossible to take photos. We did stop a few times along the way, but all I wanted to do when stepping off the minibus was to try to regain my balance. Because I had no seat or anything directly in front of me to hold onto, I had to clench my entire body in order to lower my center of gravity and prevent myself from falling off my seat or hitting my head on the roof. The road had 2-way traffic, but was only wide enough for one car to pass at a time. I remember Matthieu making a joke to the effect of: “the French and Lao engineers must not have liked building tunnels because there were none.” He definitely was right about the lack of tunnels during the drive. The road kept snaking the long way around each mountain pass. So, while the distance between Vientiane to Luang Prabang when measured in a straight line was not too far, the actual drive time had no relation to that distance.  At one point, our driver stopped the car, and we didn’t know what was going on. It turned out he was ogling a small house built into the hillside which was in the process of collapsing and falling down. There was little patience among us for this kind of rubbernecking, so we barked at the driver to get on with driving.  On another turn, we came to a full stop and saw an overturned tanker on the road.  As our mini-bus had to inch around this steel carcass, we saw people standing around the tanker smoking as they waited for help. I guess the risk of the tanker blowing up due to their cigarettes wasn’t an issue.

Evening prayer at temple - Luang Prabang

Evening prayer at temple – Luang Prabang

Finally, after 11 hours, we pulled into Luang Prabang — and even then there was some dodginess. We had been led to believe that the ticket we had purchased would cover us getting dropped out off at our guesthouse. So, we expected that a smaller vehicle would be waiting for us at the bus stop.  Not the case. Instead, the minibus pulled into an area near the old city of Luang Prabang and we were told that we had to get our own ride from there to our guesthouse.  After nearly half a day of being jostled about in a tin can, I wasn’t in the mood for another long ride. I had been studying a map of the old town of Luang Prabang and because it was bisected by 2 rivers, I felt I had an easy sense of orientation. I knew my guesthouse would be off to the right-side of the old town and along the Nam Khan riverside. As soon as I got off the minibus, I put on my backpack and made a beeline through the old town night market and got to the main drag of Sisavangvong Road.  After a few blocks, I turned right on a small side avenue and walked down to where I got to the road overlooking the Nam Khan river. From there, I walked north and found my guesthouse on the left-hand side.

Novice monk studying - Luang Prabang

Novice monk studying – Luang Prabang

I entered my room, took off my pack, and plopped on the bed. I was exhausted. The long drive had sapped me of my strength and the walk to the guesthouse was farther than I had expected. I mustered up what little energy I had in order to connect my tablet device to the WiFi of the guesthouse and booked a ticket on Lao Airlines for my return to Vientiane in 3-days’ time.  I wanted to be sure I had reserved a flight because there were only a few flights from Luang Prabang back to Vientiane and this was the peak travel season. I  just couldn’t have my body and mind absorb another grueling half day overland journey. I had endured the nausea of the girl next to me, the rollicking of the minibus, and a severely tensed up back and neck. I put down my tablet after getting the confirmation for my plane reservation and then stumbled into the bathroom. It was close to 9pm, so I was only planning to do some reading and then falling asleep. I needed to recharge my batteries because I would be getting up early the next day and would be hopping on and off my bicycle going to all the sights around the old town.  I went to the sink and turned on the faucet for the cold water. I splashed the water over my face a few times and when I looked up at the mirror, I noticed a flash in my eyes. It was that look — same as Matthieu’s from earlier that day. As if I had ingested some tonic, my road-weariness shook itself out of me. I was in Luang Prabang — one of the best-preserved and most beautiful cities in Asia. Rich in history, lavish temple art, home to hundreds of monasteries, and surrounded by stunning geography and landscape. It was enchantment. The adrenaline coursed through my body. I quickly threw on some clothes and shoes and was off into the night. No doubt Matthieu was already there.

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