laos 2: vang vieng, a backpacker’s and non-backpacker’s paradise

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Room with a view
Vang Vieng’s main claim to fame is the view from my hotel room. It is beautiful. The blue green karst hills towering over the Nam Song river is like a Chinese silk painting; the mountains most dramatic and spectacular at sunrise and sunset when the mist and blackness of the night lift to reveal nature in all its pristine beauty.

Vang Vieng’s other claim to fame is as a backpacker’s paradise. There are thousands of young Americans and Europeans whiling away their days here, floating endlessly in hollow tubes down the river and downing countless bottles of beer along the way. There are so many of them that they form their own little commune, watching reruns of ‘Friends’ at the restaurants, chatting on the internet, and partying late into the night, high on cheap whisky. It is not a pretty sight—a foreign self-absorbed world totally unconnected to Laos or the Lao people. But maybe I am just old fashioned in my ideas of travel … 🙂

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Vang Vieng Resort—the setting for the Tham Chang caves
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An effigy of Buddha in the Tham Chang caves

To be kayaked
Daybreak the next day, and I am off to visit the Tham Chang caves. They are in an idyllic location, just off the Vang Vieng resort, with very many steps and superb views. The afternoon was the more interesting part of the day. I went kayaking down the Nam Song river. Or to be more correct, I was kayaked. I have never gone kayaking before and I can’t swim to save my life. So my kayaking guide paddled away whilst I sat like Cleopatra, beaming at my world around me. I did try to help him out. Picked up the paddles and moved them here and there, but eventually was told quite firmly to “sit still, and NOT move please”. So instead we chatted about his life and he sang local Lao songs for me.

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The local petrol station
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Top-to-toe grooming, barber-cum-shoe-shop
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Babies taking care of babies

Giving back a bit
Laos was ranked 135 out of 177 countries in the 2004 Human Development Report and is the most underdeveloped country in the Mekong region, ranking even lower than Cambodia and Vietnam. More than 75 percent of the population are subsistence farmers and only 10 percent of its villagers are anywhere near a road. Nearly one child in 10 dies before its fifth birthday. Over one-third of the population aged above 15 cannot read or write, the diet is inadequate, sanitation poor and only a quarter of the population have access to safe drinking water. Weakening and fatal diseases, from malaria to bilharzia, are endemic in rural Laos while health and education systems are limited.

As we travelled north through the country to Luang Prabang, we bought stationery, posters and footballs to give to the children in the primary schools along the rural roads. Most of these schools receive no funding from government or otherwise and are community based projects.

It was a touching experience, seeing the children lined up outside their shack like classroom, barefoot and dirty, beaming from ear to ear at their newly acquired pencils and notebooks. Incredibly hungry to learn and exceedingly grateful for being given a chance.

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All roads lead to Ban Sam Gnek; a small town at the crossroads of Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Phonsavan

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