I am a planner.
I like being in control of my surroundings and can get nervous if I don’t know what’s going on. But travel is somehow a panacea for this anxiety. Somehow when I travel, my ball of neuroses unwinds and I fully embrace a “go with the flow” mindset. So naturally, when I arrived in Vang Vieng after almost 15 hours on various buses and vans, with no place to stay and no contact with the friends I was supposed to meet, I didn’t panic; I kept calm and got a massage instead.
When I found out my good friend Laurin was headed to Laos, I was determined to do whatever I had to meet him. Laurin was one of my closest friends during my semester in Valencia and I happened to be in India last December when he was visiting Chicago. That’s how I ended up on a night bus to Vientiane less than a week after I had moved from there to Savannakhet. A ticket on a night bus buys you half of a twin bed so I splurged and bought two, spreading out somewhat comfortably for the ride up to the capital. I woke up in Vientiane, groggy from the bumpy bus that awoke me every few hours. The tuk tuk I took (hehe, read that out loud) to the Northern bus station determined hellbent on taking me on a grand tour of Vientiane before depositing me at my destination, where I climbed into a van headed to Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng is infamous throughout Laos and South East Asia as a party destination. Crazy tourists have given it a bad reputation and there have been deaths linked to the raucous drugs and drinking they partake in. In the last few years, however much of this has been toned down. A perfect place to reminisce about Spain, eh?
Unfortunately, as I later discovered, the wifi in the hostel where Laurin and his friends were staying was acting up, and none of the messages I had sent asking about the logistics of meeting up had reached him. Assuming their boat had sunk and they were devoured by crocodiles and relaxed after my massage, I hopped online and looked for hostels over a plate of falafel, deciding instead to walk around until I found something that looked alright. I decided on Pan’s Place, an open-aired hostel overflowing with relaxed 20-somethings in elephant pants. Not sure how long I would stay without the companionship of Laurin and company, I opted for a bed that was questionably cheap (less than $4/night) in an stiflingly hot hut with 5 other randos.
With still no word from Laurin, chill-go-with-the-flow-vacation Pooja overheard 2 girls that just checked in asking about tubing – the most popular activity in town – and asked to tag along. Instant friends, just add water. Walking towards the river, a figure that looked a lot like Laurin zoomed past on a motorbike, but getting no response to yelling his name, I chalked it up to seeing things in the heat. We rented a few yellow inner tubes and the two German girls made our way to the first bar along the river, where we were greeted by a gaggle of tipsy tourists. I was the 69th person to rent an inner tube that day and when one of the guys working at the bar saw the number inked onto the back of my hand made me a special braided pink and green bracelet, tying it onto my wrist alongside my threads from the baci a few weeks prior and the green, black, and white friendship bracelet Will aka Yamz made for me before I left the country. About half an hour later, I felt my phone buzz through my dry sack and learned, much to my excitement, that Laurin and his friends were indeed alive and undigested. We made plans to meet later and I stowed my phone away, grabbed a tube, and joined the 30ish other falang on the Mekong. We drifted along the river until we reached the next bar, grabbing hold of ropes attached to water bottles flung at us by men on the riverbank, who pulled us in. We spent the next few hours drifting from bar to bar. A few had giant mud pits while others greeted us with friendly dogs. I soon found another group of friends also staying at my hostel, heading back to town with them to grab dinner before meeting up with Laurin. The tuk tuk drivers taking us back were amused by my haggling with them in Lao, jokingly offering me half the rate of my friends.
Later that night, I finally met up with Laurin, his girlfriend, and some other friends they were traveling with. Introducing new friends to old, the group of us spent the next day at the Blue Lagoon – the second most popular attraction in Vang Vieng. The lagoon itself had a rope swing and diving board-esque tree and was fringed with tourists in life jackets. After cooling out with a quick swim, we walked to the nearby Elephant Cave, climbing up to the mouth of the cave before spelunking through its dark crevasses, stopping to marvel at giant banded spiders and dew drops glistening on stalactites. Half of the group turned back, but, armed with our headlamps, Laurin, a few others and I decided to explore deeper. After almost getting lost, we made our way back from the cold dead ends, guided by the chill electronic sounds of Milky Chance wafting from our portable speakers.
After a lazy afternoon of reading in hammocks at the hostel, we got dinner and a group of us swung by Sakura Bar, a bar with the brilliant publicity idea of offering a branded tank top with the purchase of a few drinks. The bar seemed reminiscent of Vang Vieng’s reputation as a party town; the front half was full of empty-eyed people jostling to loud EDM (and I’m pretty sure I saw a baby being passed around at one point) and on my way to the bathroom towards the back of the bar, a guy wearing one flip flop offered to buy my shoe (which, for the record, I refused. Plus, he only offered me like a dollar). A few ladyboys roamed the joint and we soon left the crowd of zombies to go to a new bowling alley a few kilometers from town. Unlike the bowling alley in Luang Prabang, this was a brand new venture and we were the only ones to grace its sparkling white facilities that night. I’m still a horrible bowler and yet, this was easily my favorite part of Vang Vieng, chatting with Laurin and new friends as well as the friendly Lao family that ran the bowling alley.
Sometimes plans are overrated. I have to remember that more often when I freak out in the real world.