Vang Vieng: Lost in the Laotian jungle

Now If you read my previous article about my first foray into Laos you know it did not go well.  This time, my story is even more extreme and as is almost expected, a lot of extreme Laos stories begin in Vang Vieng while tubing down the Nam Song river.

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Goofy sunglasses and two awesome self-proclaimed piratz

I could easily start this post off with the tale of how I came to be lost in the Laotian jungle but I’m sure you have a rough idea judging from what you’ve read about Vang Vieng and what goes on there while tubing, even if it is genuinely not as wild as it was in years gone past.   In my case I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to go tubing because it was the rainy season when I went and this meant buckets of rain, high water levels, and a much stronger current.  On that day however the weather was gloriousFor the sake of it, my day went like this; wake up, eat breakfast, pre-drink with my French and Italian friends Louly and Fabio, get to the first bar, drink, second bar, drink more, third bar, drink even more, fourth bar, etc.  Also I went tubing between bars.  And then on the way to the next (last?) bar my night began.

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The sound of the rushing river and the buzz of mosquitoes filled my ears when it dawned on me: I was stranded in the Laotian mangroves with nothing but my tube, a broken lighter, a dead cell phone, not even a dollar of Laotian Kip, and no idea how far I was from the nearest settlement. But let me rewind the story a little to give you the full picture.

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Having got pretty drunk on the legendary Vang Vieng river bar circuit, or rather what is left of it, I climbed into my tube as the sun light began to die. I got separated from my friends Louly and Fabio because of the strong river currents and very quickly I was alone. The river was much faster because of the rainy season. As I called out my friend’s names and noticed that I was alone on the river and being sucked by the current off course. I began to get worried. Now, I don’t know if I was on the right course or not but it certainly felt like I was off course and although I could see lights down the river I made the decision to pull myself to shore and walk to the lights. This turned out to be the wrong decision but give me a break, I was drunk.

After paddling to the riverbank, several branches broke before I managed to find a strong vine and pull myself to shore. I was sitting on a sandbar in the mangroves and exhausted and no idea what to do. I looked up and saw a 6 or 7ft tall wall of mud and felt despondent at the idea of having to climb it and get my tube over it as well. With only some light left I did my best to get the fuck out of there.

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Somehow I managed to climb over the sandbank using vines and branches and began to claw and tear my way through the thick undergrowth. I came across what I figured were paths so I decided to stick to them. The paths were in places up to 2ft deep filled with mud and water. Eventually I tossed the tube because I figured I should care more about my own safety rather than trying to get a $12 deposit back, plus it was a bitch to carry while I tried to navigate the path. My sandals however I would have liked to keep, but still being drunk, they kept falling off and getting stuck in the mud, slowing me down and so they too were jettisoned. While I squelched through the mud barefoot I firmly banished from my mind the thought getting bitten by a snake, scorpion, spider, or any other critter.

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I don’t know how long I searched for the place I saw off in the distance while I was on the river but I had no luck finding it. In the dark the paths seemed to intertwine with the mangrove swamp and with a more bushy and thick grass kind of area. In the bushy area I would see what looked like a hill or a side of a road and as I kept moving through this area I realised there wasn’t a road nearby and my only point of reference was the river. It was at that point I thought I could hear music so I persisted in navigating through the grass and bushes even while I became covered in cuts and scratches from thorny bushes and branches. After some time either I had wandered too far away from the music to hear it or it had stopped, I felt it was time to double back the way I came the best I could and find a spot on the river to spend the night.

Initially I went back into the water to see if it was possible to swim across where I could see there was some kind of buildings but decided the river was simply far, far, too strong. Too tired to climb out I had half my body in the water to escape the mosquitoes and I attempted to sleep. Every so often I’d get the strange sensation that I was getting nibbled at by little fish or leeches and so I climbed out and tried to sleep. That was when it started to rain.

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I was only in a tank top and swimming shorts and so I began to shiver from the heavy rain. That was probably the darkest moment for me. I knew I was in the jungle at least until the next day and there was nothing I could do about it. I kept telling myself that I’d get out of this situation and I’d laugh about it over beers. While I told myself that, I knew I was in for a long night. I crouched in a ball with my arms covering my head from the worst of the mosquitoes and whatever else drank my blood that night. I knew that at first light I had to jump into action and follow the paths to where ever they went, no matter how far. Those trench-like paths were going to be key to escape my situation.

Gradually, slowly but surely, the sun began to rose. As soon as I knew for certain I’d be able to see where I was going, I bolted through the jungle, sloshing through the mud, getting more cuts and scratches, but determined to end my unintended jungle expedition.

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I followed one path right up to a single piece of barbed wire stretching across the jungle. Now for those who don’t know, as a legacy of the Vietnam War, Laos is the most bombed country in the world and is still littered with landmines. At that point I was not ready to cross the Rubicon so to speak and I turned around. Going back the way I came I went even further and this time found some hope to fuel my determination. I came across a small fishing shack, deserted, but a good sign. Past the shack I came across fences made from bamboo and plants with huge razor sharp thorns sticking out at me. Then I crossed a stream that had a piece of wood across it and finally I crossed another makeshift bridge to come discover I was in the middle of a rice paddy. With no one in sight I decided I would have to take the risk and go back the way I came to the barbed wire.

Back at the barbed wire I could see the path proceeded past it and further on into the jungle. I ducked underneath it and stuck to the path. At that point I came to another set of barbed wire, this time there were two. I stopped and decided I’d do some recon and check out the paths closer to the river between the barbed wire zone. At the river I gave up completely on the idea of swimming it and slowly approached the second set of barbed wires and climbed through them.

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By that point I was thinking of a number of worse case scenarios 1) I could be walking into a mine field 2) there could be booby traps set by whoever made the paths to keep trespassers like me out or 3) I would get to a field full of marijuana and be shot dead like the tourists in the movie The Beach. With the ad reline pumping I walked down the path and to my delight I saw a bunch of cows and chickens. Never had I been happier to see cows and chickens. Walking past them I could see some houses and then a woman. I cried out ‘hello’ and began waving at her as I walked towards her. She stopped and called out to other people. One by one people began to emerge from little houses, clearly a small farming hamlet. None of them spoke English and one man with a half scarred face seemed to size me up when he saw my waterproof pouch with my dead cracked smart phone in it. Eventually a boy came out, no older than 15 or 16 who could speak some English. He told me would take me back to Vang Vieng.

Getting back to Vang Vieng was not so simple. We walked towards the river and I could see that to get across the river we would be taking a pulley barge that went back and forth. It was me, the boy, a man, and a woman, possibly his parents or family members. Back on dry land I clambered up the rocky path barefoot when the boy told me to wait for him to go fetch a motorbike. Within a couple of minutes he was back and we were off again.

With the sun starting to really shine and the feeling that my ordeal was over a smile crossed my face. At the hostel I talked a little with the boy but sadly I forgot his name, spending a night in the jungle will do that to you when all you want is to be back in your room safe and sound in bed. Although he didn’t ask for money I knew it was the right thing to do. I went back to my room quickly and gave him 60,000 KIP, or about $10, and he thanked me and off he went.

In the room I put my phone on charge, miraculously it seemed to still work, mumbled a few words to my sleeping friend Louly, and collapsed into bed. When everyone else woke up a couple hours later one of the guys in the room says to me ‘so you’re Sean the guy I’ve heard so much about. I overheard a little of your story, what happened?’ I told him the story and he responded by saying that while some people go to Laos, I DID Laos, truly by having survived a night in the Laotian jungle.

I spent much of the day recuperating and relaxing and at night after I had told the story to a few people I could finally sit down with a beer and laugh about the whole thing. I had survived a night lost in the Laotian jungle.

Hope you enjoyed my epic tale.  I’ve read on other blogs that other people had similar stories to mine, are you one of them? How was your Vang Vieng tubing experience?

 

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Left Behind At The Lao Border

It was around dawn on August 29th last year after a 10+hr overnight bus ride from Bangkok by the time we had exited Thailand and crossed the mighty Mekong river to enter Laos.  The bus ride itself may sound daunting but it was quite comfortable and cheap.  I paid just over 900baht (about $25USD) and I was seated towards the front of the top level of the bus where the rows of seats were divided into 2s and 1s.  Fortunately I booked my ticket in advance and got a solo seat.  The seats were also quite spacious and you could recline them quite a bit so I got a good relatively uninterrupted sleep.  No amount of sleep would prepare me for the shock to come.

At the Lao immigration checkpoint I was unsure how the visa process worked…..I assumed it was just going to be a stamp, hand over the overpriced $42USD visa fee for Canadians (among the most expensive), and walk on through to the other side.  I was wrong.  I made sure to be one of the first off the bus to get to the window and the official just flipped through my passport pages and gestured to a side building with numbered windows.  I went over to window 1 and gave him the money and thus started the process.  At that point while I was waiting I could see the number of people left standing in line to get through the border from my bus was dwindling…to make matters worse the visa officials were taking their sweet time, in part probably because of the early time of the day and the famous laid back Lao way of doing things.  By the time I got the full page pasted on 30 day visa, there was no one lined up to go through.  I rushed back over to the checkpoint and the official promptly saw the visa, stamped it, and I was through.  That’s when I walked over the border into Laos and I couldn’t see my bus.

Gobsmacked I ran around the parking lot area where there were a few closed shops and restaurants, frantically looking for my bus.  It is now I should mention that I left my backpack on my bus seat and in it contained, besides all my clothes, my laptop and a large amount of cash.  Despite not seeing the bus I wasn’t completely freaking out, but only because I was still shocked that this was happening to me.  The bus attendant who helped people find their seat should have known I wasn’t back on the bus because I was the only white person on the bus and if the other people sat around me noticed I was not on the bus, they either hadn’t cared or had told the bus attendant but he choice to tell the driver to leave anyway….Thankfully my running had attracted the attention of a taxi driver.

He asked me what I was looking for, I said my bus and that I think it had left without me.  He said ‘bad bus driver, I take you bus station’.  Sure. Let’s do it.  The driver drove at a good speed the short distance to Vientiane and to the bus station.  There we both got out and by luck I saw my bus and people were still unloading their bags from beneath the bus.  I saw the bus attendant and when he saw me he just gave me a stupid guilty bewildered look like ‘oh I didn’t know’.  I wanted to call him out in front of everybody but I knew that wouldn’t solve anything.  Instead I just said ‘WTF you left me!’.  He mumbled something I couldn’t hear and I just went right past him into the bus hoping to find my bag…to my utter relief there was my bag sitting innocently and unmolested right where I left it.  Knowing that I had foiled the bus attendant and driver’s likely plan to divide the spoils between them was just as satisfying as getting my bag back.

The taxi driver also had a few words with the bus attendant and the attendant was looking sheepish by the time I got off the bus and back into the taxi.  The driver then took me to the Funky Monkey Hostel (highly recommend if you are headed to Vientiane; cheap, friendly staff and backpackers, pool table, a stone’s throw away from the night market and riverfront, walking distance to other city sights). Outside the hostel I thanked the driver profusely and gave him a hefty tip because he saved my whole backpacking trip.

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I guess some advice I can give to other backpackers going through any border is 1) get a clear idea of what kind of visa you will get; stamp or full page, or better yet get it before the border 2) tell the bus attendant to not leave you behind (sounds silly but it might save you!) 3) if possible try go with reliable bus companies, although I know that theft is common in these parts of the world on buses.

Hope you enjoyed my story; I have another wild Lao story to tell sometime soon so make sure to come back and read up and what kind of predicament I get into next!