Easy Rider

At the the age of 28, I rode a motorized vehicle for the first time in my life. I chose Pai for a maiden voyage, because of its low trafic, excellent roads and scenic views. I was tempted to ride a motorbike on Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, but poor condition of roads, extremely hilly terrain and a high number of accidents put me off. I did not have a chance to explore the islands (taxis are expensive there), but personal safety is far more important. Learning process was surprisingly easy. The first attempt: an automatic bike, a crash course into basics, extremely slow driving. On the second ride I drove more than 100km in one day and the third rida was a nighttime driving with a passenger on the backseat. On the fourth try I switched to a manual gear bike and rode in somewhat busy traffic of Chiang Rai. Much more intense than sleepy roads of Pai, but nothing extraordinary. The learning curve for a manual gear bike was a little bit steeper, but essentially it is just like a bicycle with gears, except that you do not have to do all the hard work. Then I had a chance to test substandard Laos dirt roads with a passenger on the backseat too. That followed by an 185km ride from Tha Kaek to Kong Lor cave and back the next day with a passenger on a backseat. And finally a three day tour around Bolaven Plateau. The highlight was riding 71km on a dirt-road after heavy raining the night before. It took almost four hours of very intense and cautious driving. When we hit the paved road and I thought the hardest part was over, the final 45km ride to Pakse proved even more intense than the dirt road part. Darktime driving, crappy light, millions of wasps aiming for the eyes, wandering dogs, a very agitated snake on the road and finally busy traffic of Pakse. At some point it started feeling like a computer game progressing from one level to another and ever-growing intensity. The weirdest thing was three people on a tandem bicycle appearing out of the blue. No accidents nor near-death experiences.

I remember reading an article about Saudi women and how they were not allowed to drive cars. Saudi women have been trying to obtain rights to drive in the recent years, but the Saudi patriarchy resist these motions, as the right to drive is closely linked to freedom of movement and subsequently emancipation. Having learnt to drive a motorbike, I can fully relate to that. Being independent from public transit, overpriced taxis or own physical capabilities is truly liberating. Distances which are too long for walking or cycling are easily doable with a motorbike. After a couple of days on a motorbike in Pai, I rented a mountain bicycle just to see how it was. The lesson I learned here was that going 6km uphill in the +30C heat was not an enjoyable task by any means. A similar thing happened in Vang Vieng, I had a chance to compare to a) a crappy bicycle b) a less crappy bicycle c) and a motorbike. The motorbike came out as a winner here as well.

The bizarre Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng is a bizarre place. I hated it when I arrived there, but the more I stayed the more I enjoyed. Planned to spend two days, but ended up doing six days in total. Felt guilty about it too. The town itself is like Had Rin (the Full Moon Party capital on Koh Phangan) of Laos. Very undescriptive, touristy and messy. Full of chavs, very quiet in the daytime and blooming in the night-time. The main attraction of Vang Vieng is of course tubing. Party like there is no tomorrow, starting in the morning and going on until the sunset. Very full-on and very messy on the verge of being dangerous. In fact a girl was found dead in the river, while I was there. Not really surprising considering the river, free alcohol and zip-lining. This is partying Jimi Hendrix style – party hard with no handbrakes until you drop dead. Thankfully the tubing site is some 6km outside the city, so you are spared of the horrors of tubing in the daytime, unless you are up for it. I went there twice only to realize that it is not my thing by any means. Instead I attempted to swim down the current, which frankly was a bad idea, because of the low muddy water and rocks. The result was bruised knees and funky body odor.

Around the sunset time Vang Vieng loses its sleepy atmosphere with tubers getting back into town. It is truly a remarkable sight to see tuk-tuks packed with wasted tubers getting back into the town. Very surreal. Despite the initial skepticism I found the nightlife in Vang Vieng itself very enjoyable. The place to be is Q-Bar with decent music (crazy baila extravaganza and occasional house) and good atmosphere. People are undoubtedly wasted, but in a good way, no drunken idiots. Partying is full-on, take no prisoners type, but as everywhere in Laos it ends up early around the midnight. On the other hand people compensate the early end by starting early, so the net result is more or less the same. The after-party is at Sunset Bar, which goes on till 3AM, but no music at all.

Vang Vieng surroundings are a whole different story and is the main reason why I stayed so long. You go across the Nam Song river, walk 100 meters and you find yourself in unspoiled countryside, full of rice fields, mountains and caves with little signs of development. It will undoubtedly change at some point. Hotels, minimarts and roads will be built and the tourist infrastructure will spill onto the other side of the river. But for now it is such a contrast to the busy life of Vang Vieng. There is Blue Lagoon, one of the major tourist attractions. Not technically a lagoon nor that scenic, but a fine place for swimming and spending a day at. There are a lot of caves and the ones I went to were truly remarkable. Tham Hai was especially awesome – a dark and long tunnel, which just keeps going inside the mountain. Almost like a prototype for a subway. Most hills are unclimbable with the exception of one. Not a very high one, but it was challenging to climb nonetheless, especially considering very basic infrastructure, flip-flops and the dusk time. The mountains also sports a 10000 kip entrance fee and is locked for the night. That is Laos.

The second reason for the extended stay was the accommodation on the chill side for the river. If I did not find it, I would have left much earlier. Banana Bungalows, 30000 kip (slightly less than 3 euros) for a bungalow with no bathroom and some kind of dust falling down from the roof all the time. But the atmosphere was lovely – very Pai-like, tranquil and peaceful, plus amazing people. A bunch of californians, two Israeli guys who pretended to be twins, a magician with anger problems and Pai/slow-boat crew. Vang Vieng is bizarre indeed.