Beautiful views and a nearly severed toe in Vang Vieng
Aug 30, 2005
|We chose a local bus to make our way up to Vang Vieng, a mere 150 kilometers from Vientiane. We had missed this kind of travel after feeling a bit like cattle being herded up the coast of Vietnam in tourist buses which lacked any authentic culture or pulse. Sounds strange that a dirty, hot, rickety bus whose seats are crammed to their capacity and then some could be at all enticing. But it is just so exhilarating, and it makes a 4 hour bus ride, that on a tourist bus could be 2.5 hours, seem so worth it. Luckily we got to the station early, and were cordially directed to the correct bus (no tricks, no scams, just friendly Lao people helping out skeptical Farang) where we plopped ourselves and our packs in the back seat, and then for 45 minutes, sweat straight through our clothes in the unforgiving midday heat. Other passengers trickled on with big bags of produce, others had enough belongings that they could have been moving to Vang Vieng. Mothers came on with their small children and found spaces for themselves that they somehow managed to look comfortable in. A group of young Israeli travelers came on just as the bus was reaching seating capacity, tried to find space for themselves and large luggage, and then decided, we think, that it was too much. Disadvantages of traveling in a group.
As the bus started its old engine, the small ceiling fans began to blow their 10-year dust, and gave a brave attempt at their job of cooling the passengers. Windows were opened to their capacity, some crooked with one side stuck, others falling off their tracks and opened far more than they should, others only halfway. Dirty pink curtains hung between each window, their knots so tightly drawn by age that they now served no purpose, but added greatly to the decor.
We stopped at many a small village along the way, picking up a passenger here or there, watching the wide eyes of naked or nearly dressed children emerge from their small homes to see the event of the bus pass through town. The villages displayed poverty that we had yet to see in our travels, evident in the small straw shacks clumped together in tiny communities seemingly miles from nowhere. Families huddled under stilt houses, avoiding the sun, and passing the time. Cows, chickens, dirty pigs roamed through these small villages as if they were members themselves.
The road winded around beautiful mountains and over green valleys, and gave us a glimpse of the central highlands of Laos. One little 2-year-old boy sitting on his mom's lap next to Jon was not happy with the winding roads, and spent over an hour throwing up the soy milk he had just drank. Poor little guy was so sad. Jon sat with his mom's small bag of produce on his lap the entire way, (as there was no room for it elsewhere) and attempted some conversation with her with the aid of our S.E Asian phrasebook.
It is these interactions, and sitting with a family's dinner on your lap for 4 hours that make the local bus so invigorating. The heat seems not to defeat you like it could when deprived of air-con on a tourist bus, and the dirtiness goes somewhat unnoticed.
Being only 2 of very few other travelers on the bus was really nice, and a refreshing change from what we had been accustomed to in Vietnam.
Vang Vieng is a darling little town beneath looming cliffs that border one side of the Mekong. We arrive nearly at sunset, and are pleasantly surprised at the town's charm and beauty. We enjoy and (somewhat) cold BeerLao and a sunset on the little balcony of our guesthouse overlooking the Mekong, while watching several tourists tubing down the river. From our guidebook we had learned that Vang Vieng was known within the backpacker scene as the place to go tubing... and also, very strangely, the town where all the bars and restaurants showed 'Friends' episodes incessantly on their tv's. After being there for only one day, we witnessed both of these occurances. Tubing companies were everywhere, and all the little cafes that did not have Friends blaring from their t.v's were unfortunately empty. Funny thing is that they seem to be all clumped together, and you can hear one episode from the neighboring rest. while watching another one. Quite bizarre, and something that can only be blamed on travelers themselves who support it.
We opted not to watch Chandler and Monica while in Vang Vieng, but did find ourselves in a few restaurants showing movies- and spoiled ourselves with a couple movie nights.
The village has not that much else to it other than this 'backpacker' scene. It is humble in its appearance, and is mostly 5 small dirt roads scattered with restaurants, bike rental places, internet cafes and modest guesthouses. Pleasant, yet a bit strange as well.
On to the 'severed toe' portion of this entry....
We decide to rent bikes for the day and ride the 13 kilometers out to a cave where apparently you can paddle yourself through on a tube. Why I even convinced myself that this would be an OK destination, I have no idea. Really, we were searching for something to keep us occupied, and it was less the destination and more the 26 kilometers we would spend on our bikes that day, exploring. We arrive, finally, after several turn-arounds due to rain, a 30 minute stop while Jon eagerly attempted to help a group of Laos men push out a Red Cross truck from a deep tranch of mud... to no avail, and several stops to take photos and say hellos to small kids along the way. We arrive at the river, and realize we must pay to park our bikes, then pay to go the 30 feet across the river in a small boat. Bogus. But, we had come all this way, so we just decided to go ahead with it. The walk towards the cave proved to be the turning point for me, as we walked through the nastiest muck I have seen. While trying desperately to avoid the huge mounds of pig and cow droppings, and appear (for both mine and Jon's sake) that I'm enjoying this little adventure, feel drops of liquid splattering my face, and look to my left, and only inches away a large cow is releasing gallons of urine. Splattered by cow piss, I get flustered, and then manage to step in a warm pile of cow shit. I have had it by this point, and my mood quickly changes... especially as I realize that the destination of this journey is a dark cave in which I know I will not be able to breathe, and may have a claustrophobic disaster.
To make a long story short, we get ourselves all the way there, Jon trying to coax me out of my bad mood, we decide not to go into the cave, and simply decide to walk back through the muck we just have, get back on a boat, back on our bikes, and back to town. No problem.
Except when Jon, balancing on small make-shift wooden planks that offered somewhat of a passageway through the mud, water and shit, jams a large splintered piece of wood into his little toe. The look on his face was sheer agony, and the blood started flowing right away. But, with no decent place to plant ourselves, or put his foot down, for that matter, we make like frogs and hop quickly to a semi-clean spot to look at the damage.
It's bad. The bleeding has ceased (strangely). But the cut is quite deep, and we both look at each other worriedly, knowing that we couldn't be much further from medical care. Jon braves his way through it all, of course, and the pain doesn't seem to be that bad. Jon sits, with a nearly severed toe, while I go and try to attempt to find us a way to get back across the river and to our bikes. I see no boats, however, and the few people I find in this tiny village speak absolutely no English.
It could have been worse, and the emergency more of an emergency, of course, yet it was still worrying and frustrating, unable to take control of such a situation.
The small motor boat ended up coming shortly to take us the 30 seconds across the river to the other bank, to our bikes. Jon braves the 13k ride back- which was exceptionally beautiful. We rode quicker this time, and as we caught up with each other and rode side by side at times, we discussed how we would handle 'the toe'. The guidebooks had suggested that we 'avoid the medical clinic in Vang Vieng at all costs'- so, we decided to heed the advice, and just see how Jon felt after we cleaned it out well. Found a good clean little pharmacy and purchased some key items... antibiotics, antiseptic, bandages etc., and avoided the medical clinic. Our only main concern was that that large piece of wood may still be lodged in there...We rode home with a bit of apprehension (me a bit more than Jon, I believe).
It was our first brush with a more-than-small bodily wound with less-than-OK medical establishments...and all has gone fine since. No worries, Queally family, it is looking great, there is no wood lodged in the foot, looks clean and healing rapidly.
and brother/son Jon will return home with a fine looking little toe and fond memories of Vang Vieng.