Writing and Riding: To Phou Koun and Vang Vieng, Laos

DCIM101GOPROGuess what we did next? If you guessed “ride bikes,” you are correct! You win your choice of three prizes:

  1. A truck full of pig carcasses (truck not included).
  2. A small terrarium full of land leeches (terrarium not included).
  3. A bag of dried “squid caps.” They’re at your local, SE Asian 7-11!

It’s true, we rode — and for a Phou Koun long time, if you know what I mean. All the way from the one-leech town of Kiu Kacham to Phou Koun, only appearing slightly larger than the aforementioned because of its nifty crossroads locale. And there we kick back, decide which 97 things to destroy at dinner and — hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, we had to:

1.Get up and leave really flipping early again.DCIM101GOPRO2. Climb in the hot sun — and I adore hot weather (I may be alone in this group). However I’ll admit it adds another level of difficulty to already challenging biking, mmmmkay.DCIM101GOPRO3. Enjoy the lush Laotian scenery and tiny villages and climb some more.DCIM101GOPRO

DCIM101GOPRO6. Snap some selfies.DCIM101GOPRO5. Take a lot of snack breaks.DCIM101GOPRO5. Amuse the locals. This duo hung out with us for at least twenty minutes, enraptured by every pocket on our bikes and everything inside (speakers, wrappers, gloves, sunscreen, snacks). The little girl even pointed to Tyler’s bike so I’d open his frame bag for her as she watched open-mouthed. Anne’s cell phone was also a source of endless glee.DCIM101GOPRO5. Find a sweet Chinese guesthouse and spend a little quality time on each porch.

A panorama out the back door…
And sunshine out front.

6. Eat again (duh), this time with the wonderful Chinese lazy Susan to help us.

I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese… I mean, Chinese?

The next day there were six of us: Kate, Anne, Lisa, Tyler, myself and…

The mist!!

Our next destination: the outdoor-tourism hub of Vang Vieng. Outside the guesthouse, we paused at a produce market serving staples like morning glory, tubers and blanabas (bananas — don’t ask why we call them that unless you are prepared to shake your head at us in slight dismay). And other items like bats and a weasel-esque vermin that might better suit a cave or hole than your mouth. DCIM101GOPRO

After an incline just long enough to be slightly torturous to our stiff limbs, we enjoyed a rolling ridge with some of the best scenery yet. A ridge of tall, toothy Karst-formed ridges stretched into the distance. Awestruck, we stopped for pictures way too many times and annoyed Tyler, the only one who ever realizes that we should probably keep moving…

Fwends 🙂

Of course, we had to take the obligatory group jumping photo at a scenic viewpoint right before we started the group dive bomb down to the valley somewhere far below.

And that pretty much sums it up.
Best seat in the house!

Then it was literally down from there — way, way down. We fairly zipped across what had taken us a millennium to ascend, all the way to one of my favorite things in the entire world: hot suh-pings. The water was glorious in the already warm day: not to hot, not too cold, surrounded by Karst meowntains (there’s a cat on my lap) and containing large, dark green, prehistoric gobs of algae. It might be worth noting the same Mesolithic goo was served up as a delicacy from the river in Thaton, Thailand.

Hot diggity!

At the Hotsprings Kasi Laos, Tyler, Lisa, Anne and I ditched our top clothing layers and jumped in. Kate, knocked down by the death cold of the century, pressed on. As Anne and I flitted around, Lisa used her time more wisely…

Tyler and the Scary Harem!!

Unfortunately, we couldn’t linger in the healing waters (and Ghostbusters style algae) for too long — we still had somewhere between 70 and 80 kilometers (44-50 miles) until we reached the riverside locale of Vang Vieng. So we dried off and pressed on.

Again the day was hot and the group became rather splintered after the bulk of the mad descent was behind us. Lisa waited out the worst of the heat in a roadside shop; just before, we located Kater Potater. Her and Anne struck out first, Tyler and I ended up taking up the rear after a lengthy citrus break.

Orange you gonna buy one? I will if you quit de-mandarine I do!

The end of the day summoned the rushing river to our side — and the clearest water we’d spotted yet. We rode through valleys at the solid foundations of the haunting Karst mountains whose jagged heads we’d been admiring in the misty morning.

A river runs through it…

By the time we arrived in Vang Vieng, after about 100 km (60 miles), we were exhausted, thirsty and still needed to find a guesthouse. As Tyler bravely forayed in search of housing for himself and the Merry Harem, the Harem did like every other self-respecting lady would do:

First, we posted up outside a Wat and finished off our snacks.

Wat are you guys doing?

Second, we drank some beer.

Oh, that’s Wat…

But we were back in Touristville and guesthouses were harder to find than a trail without land leeches — or a truck in the last three days that didn’t smell like liquid death. Should I mention? No really, you don’t wanna know…. Well, okay, twist my arm. Earlier in the day, a healthy, sane-looking cow was posted up in the middle of the road  (that’s not the weird part, animals around here routinely nap in highways) licking the trail of pig juice like a Popsicle on a sultry August day in Georgia. You’re welcome for that image. I’m sure it will haunt your olfactory memories as it does mine; the smell of baking bread will be confused with pig juice and so forth.

By the time Tyler came back with the disheartening news that nearly all the guesthouses he scouted were full, the sun was dripping down the horizon like pig juice on a cow’s nose. We moved the party to the center of town, where construction had converted a two-lane road into a motionless snarl of upturned asphalt, haphazardly placed cement blocks and cars at awkward angles like pieces of Captain Crunch in a bowl. Eventually, our tired brains found a way around: walking a crooked line around cars and cement, barely squeezing through and then lifting one bike after another over a massive, unfinished curb, bumping into street vendors’ signs touting sandwiches, roti and smoothies.

Then we threw in the dusty towel and secured a guesthouse within blanaba-throwing distance of Snarls Barkley Avenue. Come to find out one room had no hot water (Lisa’s), and one had enough water pressure to maybe fill up a glass of water in about three days (ours — but we managed to get a bit of money returned to us). Kate’s and Anne’s fared the best with heat and enough pressure to fill up a glass of water in an hour or so. It really made us Westerners seem pretty dang lucky, with our large bathrooms with large showers spewing hot water like crap out of Donald Trump’s mouth.

Lisa saved our hungry lives by haranguing a small army of meaty chicken wings with a tantalizing aroma and flavor of Kaffir lime. These disappeared promptly so we sought out more and devoured them — like the last batch — on the ground outside Lisa’s room. On the second foray, a group of drunk Western girls in bikinis careened down the street, loud and barefoot (with complete disregard to the modest, Laotian culture). As geckos squeaked and ran around on the ceilings, we discussed (with Lisa’s prior recollections of a much mellower place) how Vang Vieng felt discovered, soulless — a bit like Cancun or other destinations for tourist debauchery. We were “scheduled” to spend the day and one more night in Vang Vieng, but we’re bike tourists, we do what we want.

Nonetheless, the Karst mountains peeked above the half-finished buildings, reminding us beyond town, natural beauty beckoned. On the next installment: will Tyler and the Merry Harem remain in Vang Vieng to discover its elusive soul or will they press on to greener, more authentic pastures?



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