Having spent a week in Luang Prabang, I decided it was more than time to move on.
Next port of call: Vang Vieng.
How to get there? Bus.
Big question ~ Was the bus going to be better than the boat?
Time would tell...
The bus was significantly cheaper than any other mode of transportation... and I’d recently heard horror stories of the security on the train.
So... the bus it was!
As it turned out, it wasn't really much of a bus at all. It was more like a minivan. A small, very overcrowded mini van.
This particular mini van was designed for a total of 14 people maximum... but we somehow managed to cram 21 of us inside. It was a squeeze. 'Over capacity' at its finest... on Laos’ most horrendous mountain terrain.
The luggage was strapped to the top of the van, then covered with a tarp... and tied at each side of the van with bungee cords. Although the driving couldn't be categorized as anything apart from unpredictable and hazardous, the luggage-tying down skills were outstanding. We hit an obscene amount of bumps along the way and didn't manage to lose any baggage along the way.
None that I know of, anyway.
The road (and I use that term loosely) was rough, bumpy and dusty. There was more than one occasion that I went flying off my van back bench seat, smashing my head on the roof of the vehicle. At one point, completely astonished by the rugged route, I had a look at my Google Maps, but the road we were on didn’t even register.
We had gone rogue.
The van did stop a few times for food and toilet breaks, but it was almost too much bother trying to wrangle yourself in and out. There were seating stools literally blocking the van walkways. It was not easy clamouring over them, hunched over, grasping all your belongings.
Despite the questionable roads, littered with potholes, sheer cliffs and reckless drivers, I made it to Vang Vieng.
There was nothing particularly boutique about Vang Vieng. Compared to Luang Prabang, it was much dustier, much dirtier... and much grubbier.
Vang Vieng sat on the eastern bank of the Nam Song River and boasted some of the most incredible scenery I've seen. The town was surrounded by impressive limestone mountains, like soaring towers of rock and vegetation, disappearing into the skyline.
I'd heard rumours about Vang Vieng. Big rumours.
I'd heard that it was once the prime location for reckless backpackers to come for wild and excessive parties. After a few too many deaths due to drugs mixed with intoxicated tubing down the river, the government got tired of the toxic reputation and decided to clean things up. Much like Boracay in the Philippines, I'd imagine.
They shut down some notorious bars affiliated with the destructive scene and made positive steps forward to ensure there were other adrenaline filled activities to tempt travellers less intent on participating in cataclysmic entertainment.
When I arrived, I did notice the town was decidedly calmer and quieter, but one could still sense the underlying party vibe. You couldn’t walk five feet without being at the front entrance of another bar.
I can’t really attest to the underbelly of the area, as I’m now much too old to be brought in on the nitty gritty of the secret party scene. Plus... by the time full swing had swung, I was usually curled up and asleep in my hotel bed,
I spent the entire first day getting to know Vang Vieng. I explored every street, every alleyway, every river path and I crossed every bridge. I must have walked 20 kilometres that day. The dust got to be a bit much, especially when passed at full speed by the variety of vehicles on the dirt road; the moped, motorcycles, go karts, trucks and cars. It was unbearably muggy... quite sweltering at times... and there were a few moments the heat shot straight through me. I will admit, occasionally I was tempted to just give up my exploration and head towards air conditioning and a nice cold beverage, but I soldiered on. I was delighted to run into Maia and Dawson again. They told me of all their recent adventures since leaving Luang Prabang and even advised me on visiting a couple local restaurants for a delicious and inexpensive meal.
Upon their recommendation, I considered renting a bicycle for the next day, but after my first hand walking experience and the excessive amount of dirt and dust, I decided against it and opted for a moped instead. I figured it was the safer option, though the moped did nothing to help combat the grit and grime of the local roads.
I had the best intentions of waking up early and hitting the roads at a semi-decent hour, but I was Laos laid back & lazy... and idled the morning away at a more leisurely rate than I really should have. The first few moped shops I tried were completely sold out and one place even had the audacity to tell me that there were no more rentals left in the whole town.
Demonstrably not true.
That comment did manage to leave me a little disheartened, but I pressed on, confident that I would find one eventually.
Which I did.
The shop owner must have noticed the desperation on my face because he charged me a little bit more than he rightfully should have. Usually a 24 hour rental would run you around 120,000kip... but I was forced to agree to 150,000 for only a few hours. I was obliged to have the contraption back by 6:30pm. No exceptions.
I didn't really need it beyond that anyway...
I was also required to hand over my passport... not my favourite thing to do. At all. As I think I might have mentioned in many blogs before this one, I am not super confident in trusting strangers with my passport. Yes... there are scary things to consider, such as identity theft... but I'm more concerned with my passport getting lost. Giving up my passport is one of my least favourite things to do and once I'm away from it, I can't shake the nauseating feeling in my gut until it is back in my possession once again.
I begged him to take care of it... and he agreed... wholeheartedly, I might add.
From there, separated from my beloved passport, my traveler's treasure, I headed out into the mountains and countryside of Laos for the day.
I'd pinpointed a variety of blue lagoons in the area, as well as a bunch of small villages... and I was determined to see them all. The moped gave me the freedom to explore the countryside on my own, away from any tours or groups and I was free to make my own itinerary for the day. I was intent on visiting ALL the blue lagoons in the vicinity, but after the first one, I changed my mind and decided that was more than enough. I was envisioning a natural lagoon, a garden scene... but what I discovered was a more commercial style amusement park instead. There was a 20,000kip entrance fee and once beyond the barrier, it was not exactly the natural oasis I had imagined. With the amount of traffic on the dirt roads with me, I really should have known better.
One of the high dive structures was even sponsored by Somersby Cider.
That was odd.
Not a very family orientated beverage, if you ask me... but who am I to say?
Looking back, I should have ventured on to some of the more remote lagoons that were characterized as having more charm and less tourists, but too late, smart. I decided to stick to the more remote routes and villages instead.
Despite the dirt that accumulated on my shirt, my helmet, my visor, my moped, my face and my teeth, it was a spectacular day. I pulled over a few times to dust myself off and at one point, I could literally write my name in my shirt.
Heading back from my day on the road, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t pinpointed my moped rental location on my Google Maps.
Where was it?
Shit… I couldn’t remember.
I knew it was on that main road, but after that... I had no idea where. The main road was pretty. long, so this was a little concerning for me. I had their moped, but more importantly… they had my passport.
My fear didn't last long, as the gentleman from the shop recognized me and ran out into the road to wave me down. Seemed an odd thing to do, but it certainly helped me out. They were out there waiting for me. Hmmmm.... Once I was parked and I had collected all my personal belongings from under the seat, it was time to retrieve my passport.
Ya... it should've been a simple process. Easy peasy.
It was not.
He scoured through his top desk drawer searching for my passport but each one he pulled out was not mine. Each and every single one. There were passports from Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Australia... but nothing from Canada.
There were about 11 or 12 passports thrown into the drawer and not one of them was mine. Not one of them.
My heart began to pound. I'm sure everyone within 10-20 feet could hear it. Panic was fully setting in and I felt like I was on the verge of having a heart attack. My entire body went into full convulsion. There was a sudden tense pressure in my chest, I had a shortness of breath, my palms became sweaty and I was quickly overcome with crippling nausea. If it wasn't a heart attack, it was definitely a severe panic attack.
My passport was gone.
I pushed the shopkeeper away from the desk and started grabbing at the random passports in the drawer, praying that one of them was mine. I could hear myself saying things... words... but I wasn't thinking rationally...
"Did you give it away to someone else?"
"Did you hide it somewhere?"
"Did you LOSE IT?"
The man had a nervous laugh and kept telling me to calm down...
'Calm down' is not something one should say to a person who is facing the possibility of her passport having disappeared.
While we were both scouring through the drawer, he was yelling to his wife. I had no idea what he was saying, but I can only assume he was asking if she'd seen my passport.
She looked equally as confused.
Finally... it was found...
... but it took a good ten minutes of searching every drawer.
Not the most secure system he was running here.
I grabbed my passport immediately and bolted out onto the street and as fast as my legs could take me, I put as much distance between me and that ridiculous moped shop as I possibly could.
It took a good half an hour or more until I managed to stop trembling.
It was awful.
NOT a good feeling.
Highly not recommended and I will NEVER give up my passport again.
I was in Vang Vieng for New Years and I really tried to do something.
I forced myself out into the streets to try and join in on the festivities... and I did enjoy ONE cocktail at a local bar before heading back to my room at 9PM.
I knew I had a big day of travelling ahead of me.
The next day was going to be very long...