Vang Vieng, Laos, used to be a byword for everything psychotic abut backpacking in Southeast Asia. Besides bar-hops on an inner tube, there were zip-lines of death, all-night ragers, buckets of liquor and a whole pharmacopeia of drugs—and not just the giggly varieties found on university campuses across North America.
Tourists would literally wash up dead. The locals, torn between this affront to their morals and the cash these happy fools brought, finally decided to end it.
When we arrived, Jo and I visited temples, drank pineapple fruit shakes—with only pineapple and water—and sat on the banks of the Nam Song River watching small flotillas of kayaks go by, manned not by baked hippies, but by buff and tanned jocks off to visit the natural and cultural sites along the river, rather than the mushroom bar.
In the evening, we drank in a place called Gary’s Irish Pub, where we met such whacked-out lunatics as an aid worker from South Africa, an English teacher in Thailand, and two Scottish physiotherapists on their way to Australia, all delicately nursing their drinks rather than throwing them back with mad abandon. There was scarcely a dreadlock among them. The bar closed at 11:30 p.m., after which Vang Vieng turned into a gravesite.
There are still drugs around town, but there are also cops who have developed a bloodhound’s nose for the smell of them. On our second night, four guys got busted smoking weed in our guesthouse garden, and were hauled in to the police station to pay US$500 each in “fines.” (No, I wasn’t one of them.)
We’d never been to Vang Vieng before, but we had been to Luang Prabang, a favourite on the Southeast Asian backpacking trail. There’s an old joke that you should always visit somewhere twice—the first time to experience it, the second time to complain about how it’s changed. But for us, Luang Prabang remained delightful.
The sleeper bus to Kunming, China, on the other hand, was not.
On the outside, the bus seemed modern enough, and the inside, though cramped with three rows of double-bunks, looked fine too.
The drivers, on the other hand, were sent to us from the seventh circle of hell.
Despite it being a 24-hour trip, we stopped for exactly five bathroom breaks, one of which was on the side of the road—Jo was instructed to go piss in an empty field. When we stopped at another one—at least I thought it was one—and I went into the outhouse to piss, the bus pulled away without me. A gaggle of nine-year-old children exploded laughing as I ran out of the outhouse, shoving my dick back in my pants, yelling for the motherf***ers to stop the bus and pick me up. (Jo had been yelling much the same from inside the vehicle.)
At 1:30 a.m., they stopped the bus, turned off its engines (and air conditioning) and we sat at a gas station for three and a half hours to stew while the drivers went… somewhere.
Meanwhile, they scowled, they barked orders, they ogled the women and they smoked an endless stream of noxious Chinese cigarettes, both inside and outside the coach, further proof that “No Smoking” signs in China exist solely for decoration.
When we got to Kunming, our cab driver threw us out after we cleared the bus station, once someone yelled a better fare through the window. She literally threw our bags from the trunk, the turd icing on a 24-hour shit cake.
But the next driver was cool. And thank God for Kunming.
The capital of Yunnan province, Kunming is one of the most liveable, most breathable, most walkable cities in China, and I can’t think of a better place for us to begin the Chinese end of our adventure.
At the Nancheng mosque (hidden behind an Islamic-style shopping arcade), we were courteously invited in to the main hall of worship. In the centre of a crumbling temple, gaggles of old men played cards and a confusing-looking chess-style game called xiangqi. They played, laughed, drank tea, smoked and paid no attention to us whatsoever.
We ate the best watermelon we’d tasted in years from a roadside stand, and walked up the Panlong River, which we were told was full of effluent, but seemed clear to us. The next day we visited the enormous Yuantong Temple, where we surprised a group of six Buddhist worshippers chanting in a tiny warren off the main temple grounds, accompanied by the toc-toc-toc of a monk hitting a temple block.
That night it was back on the train, onto the hard sleeper to take us to Guilin. Despite my problems with the sleeper bus, the fact remains, I like sleeping on buses and trains—at least when it comes with a flat bed. I like the feel of the road moving beneath me, rocking toward somewhere new.
It’s true it’s hard to get a proper sleep, but every time I’m bumped awake I remember another time I drifted off on some overnight journey—in India, in Thailand, in California. Then when I get up at my destination, it’s a whole new surprise.
It’s an experience you can’t replicate on an airplane, because up in the sky, the only thing you feel is the drone of the engines, and you can’t sleep flat unless you’re in First Class, something I’ve only heard legend of.
Though, granted, flying is faster, and even in China, the pilots don’t smoke.