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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Visa run to Vientiane

A common part of life of an expat is the dreaded visa run.  A visa run is basically a journey to another country to renew, extend, or get a new visa.  In my case and many other teachers in Thailand, I had to leave the country to change from a tourist visa to a work visa.  Most expats head north or south depending on their location; south to Penang, Malaysia, or north to Vientiane, Laos. Due to me being out in the Isan countryside, my visa run was to Vientiane, a place I visited last September (and got left at the border!)  This post will give you a rough outline of what to expect and my own experience.

So I set off from my town Chok Chai around 5:30pm and got a bus to Nakhon Ratchasima (Karot).  There I hung out at the mall for a couple hours and got some food. Then I headed off to the Save One market.  This market is open air for the most part and simply HUGE and it is possible to buy just about anything. After another couple hours in the cold (did I mention that during the days of my visa run it was crazy cold for Thailand, like 10-12c) I waited for my bus at the meeting point.  Eventually my bus arrived sometime after 10pm, late, after seeing many buses just stop and leave without me, I finally got out of the cold and crawled over the other passengers to find a place at the back of the bus next to a lovely French-Japanese saleswoman.  We talked on and off about our love of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and other great shows before both deciding to at least try get some sleep.

Along the way to the border you will stop several times for bathroom breaks (and in our case a chance to hide in the warmth of 711s).  The stops will also give you a chance to meet your other visa runners.  Ours was mostly Filipinos, South Africans, the French-Japanese lady, and a pair of British guys.  Depending on the people in your group, it will make or break the time spent on your visa run.

Depending on how many stops you make, the quality of your driver, where your journey starts (typically Bangkok), how many additional stops you make to pick up other visa runners (like my situation), and other factors, you will probably get to the Thai border town of Nhong Kai an hour or 2 before the border actually opens.  We just used that opportunity to buy more snacks and try awkwardly sleep in uncomfortable positions crammed in next to everyone else.

Around 6am you will see a massive crowd of people beginning to mill around the closed barrier.  You will then be given a tag which has the name of your visa run company so you won’t get lost in the growing horde.  When your group goes through the barrier you will get to the immigration check point building.  If you have overstayed your Thai visa you will go to a room on the left to pay and go through the border that way to link up with everyone else who go past the regular windows.

Once on the other side you will be driven directly to the Thai consulate, only a 30 minute drive thankfully, and there you will give over your passport and visa documents.  After that you head back to the hotel, solidifying friendships made during the night over breakfast, then you’ll sleep.  A lot of people tend to just sleep all day and come alive at night.  Not my group.  After only arriving at the hotel around 10am or so I went to sleep but was then woken by my new friends around 1:30pm to grab lunch.

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As you can see, the weather was a bit cold and drab but it didn’t dampen our spirits.  Our group consisted of 2 South Africans, A Swede, the French-Japanese lady, a Brit, and myself.  Only myself and the Brit had been to Vientiane before but we insisted on taking us into the center of town to find a restaurant but in the end I convinced the group we head to the river front where I knew for certain there were restaurants from my time here back in September.

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We settled upon a place called Little Hanoi, the food might not have been the greatest but the big Beer Laos certainly helped foster the budding sense of camaraderie in our group.  I should also say that the Lao kip currency is near worthless outside of Laos and it is hard to find somewhere to exchange it.  Thai baht and US dollars are widely accepted in Laos and you can even get most of our change back in Thai baht.

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Preserved lizards and scorpions, common sight in Southeast Asia

Feeling better after lunch and beer in our bellies we headed off to the night market which was setting up by that point in the afternoon. We wandered around looking for warmer clothes to buy mostly but the fact it was cold and we were foreigners only meant their prices were even higher than usual.  I came close to buying a couple different sweaters and coats but ultimately I thought they were too small or overpriced. Becoming thirsty again, we took a tuk tuk to a bar that the British guy insisted upon.

 

For dinner we then headed out out to an Indian restaurant (trust foreigners to go to another country and not eat the local cuisine ha!), had more beers, then headed back to the hotel.  The ride back to the hotel was fun in and of itself; we were feeling merry and singing and humming the Game of Thrones theme song, Star Wars, and our national anthems much to the bemusement of everyone within earshot as we passed by in our little tuk tuk.  You’d think that after being cooped up in a van all night we’d be exhausted, we were but the night was only just beginning.

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Picture of Ho Chi Minh AKA Uncle Ho in the lobby of the hotel

Back at the hotel the dinning hall had turned into a karaoke party.  The Filipinos were unquestionably the best singers of the night.  Our group took turns singing solo or sharing a song but mostly we kept to the craic and downed bottles of Beer Lao and Hong Thong Thai whiskey.  One by one we slowly crawled up to our rooms to pass out in preparation for the long journey back to Thailand.

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The next morning was rough…I was late to breakfast and hate to eat the cold leftovers….then I went downstairs to find the rest of my group and chat with them at a cafe before returning to the hotel for lunch; lukewarm pad Thai and spaghetti with coca cola to wash it down.

From there we climbed into a mini bus and hung out at the duty free shop at the Lao-Thai border.  I was still exhausted and prompted found a quiet corner and slept for a couple hours before we had to go through Lao customs on our way out.  A another bus took us across the Mekong river where we waited to get our passports back before entering Thailand.

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At the Thailand customs we just filled out a Thai entry form, answered a couple questions at the front of the line to an official, went through, had our bags go through an x-ray then wait for the rest of our group to get through. After that we got on ANOTHER bus, this one taking us Nhong Kai where we waited on the first day.  At Nhong Kai we loaded up on snacks, found our van, said our goodbyes, and headed home.

So if you have to do a visa run I HIGHLY suggest you do it through a visa agency as it is much less painful and infuriating if you do it that way.  Mine cost 6,800 baht which included 3 meals, a hotel room, the buses, and the cost of the Thai and Lao visas.  Mine was actually 300 baht more than the regular cost because I’m a Canadian citizen.  Go with Meesuk Travel if you need to do a visa run, they know what they are doing and I have no complaints whatsoever and highly recommend them as did everyone on my trip. I met great people who I hope to stay in touch with and meet again, possibly on another visa run (!), had some great times, and I’m thankful I now have my work visa!!!

Ever been on a visa run? What was it like? Where did you go? What company do you suggest? Drop a comment and let me know!