"Real backpackers" are philosophers and connoisseurs. They want cultural immersion. They want new tastes and new sounds. They want adventures (successes and failures). They want to share stories and dream of destinations. "Real backpackers" are dynamic. They are adaptive. For those unfamiliar with Vang Vieng before their visit, they must exercise this ability to "adapt".
Vang Vieng is about partying. A whole town sacrificed to backpackers. Cheap food. Cheap liqueur. Moderately cheap accommodation. Zero culture.
It really is hard to imagine unless you think of it as a "theme-park" for wannabe adults. ALL the restaurants have televisions which constantly show episodes of Friends, Family Guy or The Simpsons. The bars all serve alcohol as well as a variety of soft narcotics: special-smoothies, mushy-shakes, O-tea.. And then there's THE RIVER.
Pay 105,000 kip (60,000 kip deposit refunded if the tube is returned by 6pm) and you'll be provided with a big black inner-tube AND a tuk-tuk ride to some riverbank about 5km out of town. First thing you see when you arrive at the riverbank? A bar. A sketchy looking tree fort about 10m up. A pasty westerner doing some-sort of squat-thrust on the edge of the tree fort. A taut length of rope stretching from the westerner to the top of what looks like 10m long fishing rod. And then somebody swinging in a long slow arc over the river. Sploosh.
As you launch your tube into the river, you'll see similar scenes repeated all along the riverbank: bar, platform & swing, flying westerners. As you slowly float down the river towards the second bar you will be targeted. Water bottles attached to lengths of rope will be tossed at you by barmen "fishing" for customers. If they hit you in the face, youmayget a free drink.
To help distinguish themselves from theirsiblings, each bar advertises "extras". Free french fries. 15,000 kip buckets before 11am. "Special products". Volleyball mud pit. Water slides. WATER SLIDES! There's a small one with a ~3m vertical and big one with a ~20m vertical. The big one is made of jagged cement and kitchen tiles. When you want to slide a guy dumps a bucket of water on the tiles and you GO!
After ~2km, the bars end. Most people make it to this point at ~3:30pm. The river is ~6.5km. Floating without effort yields a speed of ~1km/h. This means that there is no chance of making the 6:00pm tube-rental-refund-deadline. With this in mind a small army of locals wait at the river bank offering quick transportation back to town for a small fee. The first time we tubed, we had to make use of this service. The second time though.. We paddled till our arms just about fell off, allowing us to double our speed to ~2km/h. "Epic" AND / OR "legendary".
You don't go to Vang Vieng for the food, though their are lots of places to get pizza. You don't go to Vang Vieng meet Laotians, though there are lots of them offering lots of things, "real backpackers in Vang Vieng" want alcohol, water sports, new adventures and stories.
You'll be riding the tuk-tuk with a hodge-podge of internationals -- one of which will likely have been repeating this trip for the past 7 days.
So after seeing the markets, playing at haggling and riding in some tuk-tuks (asian open-air taxis), it was time to leave Bangkok and start our island-hopping adventure. But before leaving the city we had a morning trip to see the floating markets: a series of narrow canals with market stalls on either side of the water as well as on boats. A very attractive venue full of deliciously overpriced produce and deliciously well-priced soup (I love you tom-yum!).
After the market, we boarded our VIP bus to the islands. Below is a compressed and type-written version of my memories.
Bangkok to Surrathani Port (bus) - ~12 hours (overnight)
The seats on the bus reclined directly onto the lap of the person behind you. Inadequate air-conditioning. Tried muscle-relaxants to help ease the path to sleep, which literally made my body useless -- Stephen Hawkins must sleep well!
Surrathani Port - ~4 hours
The VIP bus dropped us off here. We waited. Half-a-day later a minibus picked us up and brought us to the port where our boat departed.
Surrathani Port to Koh Samui (boat, AC) - ~1-2 hours
Fast boat. AC. Awesome.
Koh Samui (AC, pool, breakfast included) - 3 days
This place had everything you need to relax: free breakfast, good market, crashing waves, a bar with swings instead of seats, a waterfall that required a sketchy-local-guide (you could tell he lived in the forest by his smell!)
Koh Phanang is know for it's lunar-schedule parties. We planned to come here for a Black Moon party. Our travel agent Joe promised us a Black Moon party. Our tickets had us LEAVING on the day of the Black Moon party. Screw you Joe. Not a total loss though. The beach where the Black Moon party takes place has a party every night. Our evening went something like: empty beach party, empty pool party, drinking, crowded pool party, dancing, crowded beach party, drinking, dancing, crowded foam party, dancing, fire party, dancing, pancakes, home. For those not acquainted with foam parties, imagine slowly dumping 50 kg of soap into a laundry machine that is has a constant flow of water and an over-active agitatory. 3m of bubbles covering a 10m2 plot. One of Team Canada spontaneously evolved into a foam based creature and spent the whole night hunting the bubbly depths.
Awesome Asian BBQ. Imagine a large pan with a softly peaked-centre and surrounding trough (like an inverted doughnut) placed on a pile of glowing embers. Grab meat / fish / other to grill on the peak. Fill the trough with soup broth and slowly simmer vegetables and noodles. Very hands-on. Very fun. Came with one scoop of free ice-cream!
Looked for aMuay Thai match -- too expensive
Koh Phanang to Surrathani Port (boat) - 1-2 hours
Surrathani Port - ~4 hours
Again, randomly at this port.
Surrathani Port to Krabi (minibus / van) - ~7 hours
You know that litte bit of "middle-seat" that's between the driver and passenger? Well I hadn't sat there since I was a kid.. so it was pretty exciting to sit there for this 7 hour trip.
Krabi (fan) - 3 days
Nice coastal city.
Visited Reilley beach. A nice stretch of sand. Cool cliffs. The hikes to the viewpoint and lagoon are short, but well worth it. To reach the viewpoint you have to follow a path that is as close to climbing as a hike can be. To reach the lagoon you have to shimmy down a series of ropes that dangle over short, but dangerous drops.
Looked for a Muay Thai match -- too expensive
Krabi to Koh Phi Phi (boat) - ~1-2 hours
Koh Phi Phi (fan, pool, 1000 steps) - 3 days
Crowded, streets filled with tourists and a handful of necessary locals.
Pretty expensive food (by Thai standards).
Enormous number of free buckets (buckets of alcohol).
Impressive fire shows.
Accommodation was at the top of a hundred steps, which were at the peak of a hill, which was through a maze of streets. Luckily our accomodation sent a guide to meet us at the docks. The guide muled a single-axle baggage wagon so we didn't have to carry our crap -- thanks! We found out later that the baggage wagon could also carry people who were badly intoxicated (one of Team Canada was generous enough to be the drunken guinea pig).
Looked for a Muay Thai match -- too expensive
The trip was everything you'd expect of a tropical island hopping adventure: warm and clear ocean, comfortably basic accommodation, cold beer, good food, good friends and good fun!