OYOP: V is for Vang Vieng & Vientiane, Laos
The rest of our travels through Laos were as laid-back as they began. From Luang Prabang, we headed a few hours south to the small town of Vang Vieng. For such a small town, I was surprised by its share of college-age backpackers passing through for a day of river tubing and a night of drinking. I shouldn’t have been since I knew that just a few years ago, Vang Vieng was a notorious out-of-control traveler hub with a drug and alcohol party scene before all of the illegal establishments were shut down in 2012. The party-goers still lingering today are easy to spot. They all sport matching neon tank tops handed out at the local bar with the adorable slogan that only a college kid could love “drink triple, see double, act single.”
The average age of the backpacker in Southeast Asia is nearly 10 years younger than we found in the long-term travelers we met South America. It’s amazing how old you can feel at 29 when surrounded by these young travelers, evidenced when I turned down the opportunity to also sport a free neon tank top for just the purchase of two vodka drinks! Still, I am impressed that so many travelers are starting at a young age, on a grand adventure to see another side of the world. It was certainly not where I was at that age. Even with the younger crowd, Vang Vieng today is mostly quiet and relaxed, with a dozen or so streets filled with markets, baguette stands, and charming guesthouses.
Vang Vieng is worth passing through for its scenery. This is a small town where rice fields and green hilltops lie amid miles of stunningly dramatic cliffs. Better yet, these cliffs house an endless number of caves, allowing for an adventurous day riding around on a scooter and partaking in hours of spelunking.
From Vang Vieng, we went further south to the capital city of Vientiane. Though it lacked a certain charm I found in Luang Prabang, its cafe culture was the perfect way to lay low for a few extra days while we planned the next leg of our trip. At any time of day, you can find strong coffee, sweet pastries, creamy shakes, and a wide range of food at small, delightful eateries throughout the city.
Here, we also learned more about the challenges still faced by the Lao people because of the unexploded ordinances (UXOs) that threaten the livelihood of people throughout the country, mostly those whose families already struggle with poverty. Because of the UXOs, they are further hendered from building up communities, schools, farm land, and even clean water supply systems because of the looming threat of UXOs underneath the ground all throughout the countryside and in villages. We learned about efforts of teams to clear UXOs, and I could not help but feel grief for a country that was put in such an even poorer position than it started because of the doings of my own country. It certainly made us think twice before haggling aggressively with hard-working people like tuk-tuk drivers, trying to make a living for themselves and possibly their whole families back in a village, trying to get $1.50 per person instead of their $2 per person asking price. Even Man, our guide in the village trek, lost 3 friends when he was a child from explosions.
Upon leaving Laos, we are at nearly the 8 month mark of our travels. For me, this is a point in the trip where it feels that the end is both near and yet so far away. It is easy to get tired and homesick, and it is just as easy to get excited and rejuvenated about all that we have yet to experience.
In the beginning of our travels, we had most of our route planned out. We booked flights on fixed dates from points in South America that gave us a solid route and allowed for only some flexibility in between. As time has passed, our approach to travel has also changed. Gradually, we started to reach a point where we were minimally planning. Instead, we began making decisions on where to go, how long to stay, and what to do more or less as we went along. The change is partly because back in South America, we needed to ensure that award points flights were available in advance to travel long distances across the continent. The change is also partly because we realized that the beauty of being able to stay longer or leave sooner requires a lack of planning too much ahead. Still, we had a big picture plan to travel throughout all of the countries in Southeast Asia, and we were sticking to what we originally planned even though a part of us was yearning for a change to feel rejuvenated again.
Then, it suddenly occurred to us that we could change our big picture plan if we wanted. It was so obvious, and yet not something we had really considered. It reminded me that in general, we often make big picture plans for our lives and regardless of if we are happy with those plans, we forget that we can change it, no matter how big it may seem: our career, our lifestyle, our location. It is still all in our power to change, no matter how impossible it may originally sound.
We decided that although our introduction to Southeast Asia through Thailand and Laos in the past month have been incredible, we did not feel that, for us, it would maximize our remaining time to stick to our original plan and travel through Cambodia and Vietnam right now. I know these places are probably wonderful, and I do hope to experience them one day, but we were just looking for something different, something new. So, we decided that after we traveled through Laos, we would embark on entirely new adventure: India.