Hold a pen between your toes and try to draw a straight line. Then build a road out of that squiggly line. Put it in the mountains. And drive a bus down it.
We careened back and forth up the hills. I tried to focus on the lovely scenery while my stomach lurched with the bus. I’m not prone to carsickness but this was testing my limits. Thirty minutes into the seven hour bus ride to Luang Prabang I realized that others were feeling ill and, well, let’s just say that it was not a pleasant ride after that. Dramamine should really be included in the bus ticket.
A few days before I had flown from Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane, capital of Laos, to track down my buddies from Koh Lanta. They’d lost one of the Swedes but gained a German gal, so we were a proper mishmash of backpackers. The four of us got the hell outta Dodge and headed north to Vang Vieng.
I was feeling apprehensive about traveling with a group for the first time so I kept saying things like “we’ll see how it goes” and “I might split off in a few days or a week, depending”. It was easier to set expectations low and change plans later, rather than commit to traveling together for a set period of time. I’m flighty like that, I know.
Vang Vieng is a small town on the Nam Song River that attracts tourists who want to float down the river on inner tubes. It used to bring in hordes of backpackers who bar hopped as they floated, but a few too many died from swimming-while-drunk accidents. The government shut down most of the bars lining the river but there were a couple left to attract plenty of backpack-toters like ourselves.
It always amazes me how tourists like us are drawn to fabricated attractions like this. I say fabricated because there is nothing particularly special about this river, the town, or the scenery, at least not to warrant the amount of attention it gets. On the other hand, kudos to the Laotians who found the keys to attracting backpackers to their village: adrenaline activity (bungee jump, zip line, shoot guns, skydive, theme parks) + booze + hostels playing “Friends” 24/7 = tourist hotspot. That said, we had a great time tubing, don’t get me wrong. That’s why we’d come to Vang Vieng.
After a few days of floating, scootering, exploring caves, and swimming in a lagoon, we took that gruesome bus ride through the mountains to Luang Prabang. I’ll leave the details up to your imagination, but trust me that the real story is probably much worse than you imagined. The only reason I made it through the “absolute carnage” (as the Brit called it) was that I could distract myself with friends. One of the benefits of traveling in a group is having company in your misery.
In comparison to Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang had more attractions (like waterfalls) that attracted even more tourists, which in turn attracted more tuktuk drivers. They called “here tuktuk, hello waterfall” every time we walked by, and it got a wee bit annoying. In the end I skipped the waterfalls, which were the thing to do in Luang Prabang, to finish a travel guide. I was more interested in escaping the tourists anyways so we took a ferry across the Mekong and hiked through the woods.