Vang Vieng: The Town Travellers Conquered

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I got the last seat in the minibus going to Vang Vieng. A bossy woman of somewhere around sixty sat in the front with the driver. She scolded him for using his phone at the wheel and told him to put it away, which he did, but drove the rest of the way with his foot to the floor in revenge. We barrelled through villages at motorway speeds, leaped bumps in the road and felt the g-force on the corners as the tyres screamed in panic.

When we stopped for a welcome toilet break, a young backpacker told the woman she should have kept quiet, but she said that it was the height of arrogance to tell people how to behave. Hang on a minute…everyone else thought, but kept quiet.

Sixty years after France lost its Indochinese empire, forty years after the US pulled out of Southeast Asia, travellers have recolonised this sleepy town armed with nothing more warlike than elephant print trousers and back-to-front baseball caps. They have turned it into an adventure playground.

There are karsts to climb, and cave systems to explore, and the rapidly flowing Nam Song River to float along on an inner tube with a Beerlao in one hand and a joint in the other, as if relaxing on a beanbag at home. There are ‘happy shakes’ and ‘happy pizzas,’ garnished with ganja, ya ba or magic mushrooms, and bars where eating is cheating and water is for washing in and drinks are to be downed in one. And this in a nation so conservative that pop music and jeans were once illegal and sex outside marriage still is.

Every fourth building downtown is a guest house; every tenth is an internet café. The stores in between are bureaux de change, souvenir shops and places to make an “over seacall” or buy a “busticker” to the next destination. The locals shop at stores in villages way out of town or at stalls set up on the old Air America runway, unused by planes since the covert war was abandoned in the middle seventies.

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There is an Australian steakhouse, a French bistro, a kosher restaurant and an Irish pub, which does stews and roasts in the tropical heat, and there are dozens of places to go for a burger, or an English breakfast, and to watch an episode of Friends as you eat.

Wherever you go, there is a hubbub of British, American and Australian English, and English spoken with the accents of other rich countries. Sometimes you hear Spanish, sometimes Russian, sometimes Korean, but rarely Lao.

I am no better than the other travellers: I climbed rock faces, crawled through caves and got hammered; I would have gone tubing, as well, if I were more of a swimmer and less of a coward. But it was hard not to feel ashamed to be part of it all.

Yet, if not tourism, what? A third of Laos’ population lives on less than a dollar a day. Just the other side of the river, across the bridges of bamboo and twine which creak and wobble as you walk on them but which, nonetheless, you share with scooters and cars, it is a world away from the imported culture of Europe and North America which dominates downtown: a world of subsistence farming, of thatched huts, children running naked, women kneeling at the river beating clothes on the rocks, and bent old men pushing older carts, which past generations pushed before them.

It is a scene unchanged since long before Vang Vieng was somewhere you Must Go Before You Die, before it appeared in a profusion of odd-numbered lists, before the first travellers discovered it; before the Pathet Lao came to power, before the CIA sought to influence local wars; before the French folded Laos into their Indochinese empire; before the Burmese and Siamese invaded.

This is the real Laos. Travellers see it briefly from their rented scooters as they hurtle out to the further-flung caves.

© Richard Senior 2015

Rapids Response

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We were rafting a 10km stretch of the Mae Tang River in Northern Thailand.

They told us at the briefing that the rapids were Grades III and IV, but that meant nothing to me at the time. To give it some context, though, a kid in half a barrel could traverse Grade I, while a very lucky maniac in a kayak might survive Grade VI. I got a better sense of what to expect when they said that the river fell sixty metres in a kilometre and a half, sometimes over a metre in one drop.

We were four to a raft – the others were strangers to me – with a professional skipper to shout out instructions, “paddle forwards,” “paddle backwards,” “get inside,” “over to the left,” “over to the right” and “jump,” when we snagged on rocks and had to bounce ourselves off.

It was as leisurely at first as a punt on the Cam as we drifted down a calm stretch of the river, and the sun was hot and the landscape was lovely with mountains and fig trees and thatched huts along the bank.

Then we entered the rapids and the skipper’s instructions became urgent, and we tumbled and twisted through rocks, over ledges, like a spider being washed down the plughole. I turned away from the guy next to me and when I turned back he was gone: he was over the side of the raft. The skipper grabbed his life jacket and held him fast, but his head bobbed repeatedly underwater and the raft ran right over him.  I had a sudden horror that I might be watching him drown. But when we were out of the rapids and we hauled him in with a bust lip and grazes, he was laughing like a kid who had come off his bike and wanted to pretend it did not hurt.

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Then another fast stretch, crashing against rocks; spinning one way, then the other. “Jump! Jump!” Plunging forward. “Get inside!” Gripping the safety rope tight, paddle tucked against hip, foot locked under the tube inside the raft. The roar of the rapids overwhelming. Two inches of water in the raft. My trainers soaked. A cut on my knee. But I stayed in.

Spinning anti-clockwise. “Paddle forward! Paddle forward!” Slamming into another rock, peeling off, and over the edge, spinning in the other direction. Flashback to the time I lost control of a car and pirouetted across the road and bounced off the barrier. Still in, though.

Toppling over another drop backwards, just hanging on. Rocks palpable underneath as the raft scrapes over them. Then another drop, a bigger drop; the raft bending in the middle. And just as it seems that it will tip end over end and catapult us out, we are through.

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And then we were floating peacefully again, past a group of elephants whose mahouts had led them down to the river to drink. Some looked up; most ignored us.

I relaxed then, elated that I had managed not to end up in the water; and the skipper capsized the raft.

© Richard Senior 2015

Going for a Spin in Rotorua

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The landscape was Jurassic, all ferns and sulphurous pools. Smoke issued from every pore in the ground. Mud pots belched and cauldrons bubbled, as if hard-boiling the eggs whose smell hung over the town.

The trees were wearing their autumn clothes in reds and greens, yellows and browns, and the leaves were beginning to carpet the ground. The air was fresh and the silence was perfect, except for the squawk of the gulls and the honk of black swans; and the lake was still and reflected the mountains and trees and strips of blue sky in its surface. Seaplanes stood idle while geese moved out in a convoy, and spindly-legged, red-beaked, blue-chested pukekos tottered on the grass and immaculate gulls glided expertly in to land.

Such a sleepy town. Yet it was here, in Rotorua, that New Zealand’s second craziest adrenaline sport began. The original Zorb company is still doing business on the outskirts of town; but I booked with Ogo, the rival outfit, run by the ball’s inventor. The name is different but the idea is the same: a big rubber ball suspended inside a bigger rubber ball, with an aperture in the side.

They drove me up to the top of a long, steep hill with a track carved into it, and tipped a bucketful of warm water into the Ogo ball; I dived through the aperture, Superman style, and they zipped me in and shoved me down the hill. I tried to stay upright but fell down straight away and slithered about in the water as the ball picked up speed as it careered down the hill. I was laughing hard all the way down and carried on laughing when I got to the bottom and stopped with a bump, rolled back and landed upside down in a jumble of arms and legs.

Then I moved onto the Fishpipe, which is an Ogo ball fitted with a seat and a six-point harness and attached to a frame which allows it to spin like the rig on which astronauts train. The operator dialled up the speed, by turns, until I was tumbling like washing in the machine and laughing again, until the coins worked themselves out of my pockets and pelted me as I spun.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

A Drive through Ngorongoro Crater

Frederick inched the jeep down the track to the floor of the crater, a huge caldera formed when an ancient volcano imploded. To the right was a salt lake pinked with all the world’s flamingos. To the left, buffalo feasted on tall yellow grass while oxpeckers feasted on their backs. Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em. And little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum.

But the flamingos and buffalos were a distance away, half-hidden behind trees and termite mounds, and after ten minutes I was prepared to be disappointed with Ngorongoro Crater. Then a warthog waddled down the road towards us, a squat, ugly thing with a mouth like a shovel with nails hammered through it. The warthog waddled right past the jeep – just inches away – stopped briefly for photographs, and waddled off into the grass.

A hundred yards along the road, we stopped for a zebra crossing. There was an abundance of zebra, an embarrassment of zebra; they were as plentiful as sheep in New Zealand. The zebra graze side-by-side, nose-to-tail so they can swat flies from each other’s faces with their tails. They graze with the wildebeest because they eat the same grass and the same carnivores eat them and each can look out for the others.

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Hyenas!” someone shouted as three furry heads popped out of the grass and one broke cover and loped down the track at the side of the jeep. I never cared much for hyenas. They are always the villains in wildlife documentaries, nasty little things which laugh inappropriately and steal the poor cheetah’s cubs. But they need to hire a PR consultant because they are a lot cuter in person than they seem on the screen with their fluffy coats and sorrowful faces like bears’.

Simba” Frederick said.

Lions!” everyone else said, translating the one word of Swahili the whole world knows.

A coalition of four males reclined in the sun, looking pleased with themselves, as male lions will. The females do the hunting while the males strut about looking hard. Sometimes they roar; often they just stretch out and doze. But when a female comes back with the kill, they bully her out of the way and eat all the best bits themselves. There was a mixed herd of wildebeest and zebra within easy jogging distance, but hunting is not their department, so they ignored them.

The lionesses were round the corner, planning an ambush. Two fanned out, crossed the road and hid while the others crouched low in the grass, just metres from us. A moment later, a dazzle of zebra strolled over the road and across the grass in front of the crouching lions. They let a few pass and then pounced. The zebras turned and bounded back the way they had come, but the other two lions leaped out of hiding and came at them in a pincer movement. Lions to right of them, lions to left of them, lions in front of them; the zebras swerved and dodged, the lions ran after them, kicking up dust as they spun, but the zebras, narrowly, got away.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

Jetting Off

It is a postcard day in the Whitsundays with a flawless blue sky and turquoise ocean and little wind to speak of.

You flick the starter and open the throttle and ease the jetski out of the marina, keeping it under the speed limit. Then you are out in the water and gun it towards a cruise ship moored in the bay, circle that, then a half-sunken yacht, then tear off again – faster this time – turning, turning, turning, much faster than seems at all safe when you have never done this before; but you are following a guy who knows what he is doing and stick with it.

You hit a wave at an angle and take off, scare yourself and let go the throttle; but you are not supposed to do that and get warned not to do it again. Your job is to keep the throttle open, hang on and trust in the machine, much as you do on a motocross bike.

You are going faster now, gaining confidence. But then the guy you are following pulls a sharp turn and you wind off the throttle, and he is at the other side of the bay. You open it right up to catch him, too focussed to look down at the speedo; but you know – because they said – that you have 130 brake horse power, roughly the same as a 1.9 Audi A4 in a craft which is smaller than a rowing boat. It does 90 knots flat out; or 104 mph, 167 kph.

You slow and stop and edge into a cove at idle speed. The sun-dappled water is perfectly clear and green sea turtles the size of coffee tables swim past so close you could reach down and touch one.

You give the turtles time to get clear, then you turn and you open the throttle again; and you are confident, then, to keep the power on in the turns and leap the waves and trust the jetski to stay afloat; and you want to stay out on the water all afternoon but have only booked for the morning and reluctantly head back to the marina.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

Seeing Berlin by Trabant

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A man in the old East Germany went to the showroom to buy a Trabant.

Come back in thirteen years,” the salesman said, “it’ll be ready for you then”.

“Can we make it the afternoon?”

“Certainly, comrade. But why?”

“The plumber’s coming in the morning.”

The VEB Sachsenring Trabant was a gift for anti-communist propaganda. It looked like something from a 1950’s cartoon and had an engine better suited to a lawnmower: 600cc, 26 brake horse, 0-60 on seven day’s notice. It was not really made of cardboard, as rumoured in the West, but some panels were made of a plastic reinforced with old wool and other sweepings-up. It appears in most lists of the worst cars ever built.

I had always wanted to drive one.

I was in Berlin and poking about near Checkpoint Charlie when I happened on an outfit which ran self-drive Trabant tours.

Mine had been pimped up with a soft top conversation, electric windows and a metallic pink paintjob. But it still had the skinny original wheels, and the little engine was standard. It was as Spartan inside as a race car. The speedo went up to 140kph, which was as ambitious as any of the DDR’s production targets.  Next to it was what might have been a rev counter, but did not seem to do very much.

There was a hefty rocker switch for the lights and a few knobs which I think were just there to fill space. A flimsy stalk protruded from the steering column: up and down to indicate and forward for the horn, which worked one time in four. There was a sturdier lever on the other side for the gear change: forward and down for first, then up for second, back and down for third and up for fourth.

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I knew that the engine was two-stroke, but I still laughed when I started it up and it ring-ting-tinged like a moped. Then a cloud of blue smoke engulfed me. The gearbox growled and struggled against me as I tried to wrestle it into first, but I overcame it with the sort of brute force the Stasi might have used on a prisoner.

There were six of us in convoy, following a guide who called out instructions on a one-way radio as we made for Potsdamer Platz. It was the Piccadilly Circus, the Times Square of the Weimar Republic, but was all but levelled in World War II, then bisected by the Wall and left as a vacant plot. Now it is ringed by skyscrapers designed by an aristocracy of architects. It was busy with commuters on their way home when we ring-ting-tinged past; and in my pink Trabant with the roof down and my arm draped over the door, I hammed the self-satisfied look of the bankers you see snarling round in Ferraris. They looked at me as if I was being serious.

We drove on towards the Brandenburg gate, a symbol of partition, then of reunification, now gorgeously lit with video projections for the Festival of Lights.

As we headed towards and over the river, some of the Trabants got stuck at the traffic lights and Audis and Volkswagens slipped in between them, incongruous as bungling spies. “We have some capitalist cars in our convoy,” the guide warned over the radio.

He set off from the lights and turned left across traffic, and I slammed it into first, then second and scuttled across after him and forced a corpulent Mercedes to stop. PARRRRP! went his big bourgeois horn. Neep-neep went mine in response.

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We stopped and got out on Unter den Linden to look at the light shows on the cathedral, university and opera; then set off again, heading deep into the old East Berlin. We screamed through Alexanderplatz, past the TV tower, and on past the East Side Gallery, through Friedrichshain with its legendary nightlife.

I had fought my way up to fourth gear by then, and with my foot flat down and the engine howling, I must have been doing at least 30. Yet I was having more fun than I have had in much faster, pricier cars.

We met another Trabant tour going the other way and everyone waved and cheered and neep-neeped at once. It might have been a scene from a propaganda film in the days of the DDR.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Going Solo

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Fancy going up on your own?”

“Oh. Err. Yeah. I guess…”

Right,” said my instructor, “well I’ll go and get a coffee and I’ll see you when you get back”.

This is a change of detail,” he told the tower over the radio. “Captain’s name is Senior. First solo”. He threw off his headset, shut the door behind him and waved, as if I had driven him down to the station.

Oh shit.

Though I had been flying okay for the past few lessons, I still made mistakes and some of them seemed pretty serious to me. I wasn’t sure I would ever be fit to take charge of an aeroplane. But I was sure I wasn’t yet. The spring sunshine started to feel hot in the cockpit and each exhalation growled into the microphone.

GolfEchoZulureadyfordeparture,” I gabbled.

Golf Echo Zulu. Take off at your discretion.”

First stage of flaps. Yank the lever between the seats until it clicks once. Squeeze and drop the brake.

TakingoffnowGolfEchoZulu.”

I roll forward onto the runway, expecting all the time that someone will run out, shouting, angry.  “Oi, what the fuck do you think you’re doing!? Where’s your instructor?”

Boot the rudder pedal to bring the nose round to the centreline, straighten up and slam the throttle forward. The plane bumps along the runway, the engine roaring over the headphones. The torque wants to pull it off into the grass, but I fight against it with the rudder. It is lighter than normal with just me in the cockpit, and anxious to get in the air. Sixty knots, equivalent to motorway speed. Start easing the yoke back. The nosewheel lifts, the rear wheels follow. Lower the nose to climb at 80 knots.

The nerves have gone now. I have done this dozens of times with my instructor in the right-hand seat. I know what I am doing. Release the flaps. Wind the trimwheel a couple of turns to hold the airspeed. Then bank the wings to 30 degrees, turning south towards London.  Straighten up, still climbing. Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and Wembley Stadium shimmer in the haze. The needle is creeping to 1,000 ft now, circuit height. Lower the nose, trim for 100 knots, then bank to the right again and fly parallel to the runway.

Run through the checks, brakes, undercarriage, mixture, fuel, instruments, carb heat, harnesses, hatches. Call the tower:

“Golf Echo Zulu. Downwind.”

“Golf Echo Zulu. Report Finals.”

“Wilco.”

Something flashes past, low and fast. Shit, what was that? It was just a bird doing 100 knots, or rather me doing 100 knots away from it.

Level with the end of the runway now, looking over my shoulder as it slides under the wing then emerges again behind it. Quick look to the left for traffic, then bank to the right, heading north. Kill the throttle. Let the airspeed fall. Trim. Pull the flap lever up one click, then another. Raise the nose until the airspeed falls to 75 knots. Trim again

Bank to the right, bring the nose into line with the runway, then level the wings. Another click on the flap lever. Call the tower:

“Golf Echo Zulu. Finals.”

“Golf Echo Zulu. Land your discretion. Surface wind calm.”

“GolfEchoZulu.”

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Lower the nose! Add power!

The airspeed was hovering around the stalling point, the speed at which the wings stop working and the plane drops out of the sky. Stall at altitude and you can dive to pick the airspeed back up. Stall close to the ground and you crash and die and are on the front page of the local paper.

But it is okay again now and I am sinking right on to the number at the end of the runway. I shift my gaze to the other end and pull the yoke gently back. Floating, floating, floating. Yoke right back now, stopping it landing for as long as I can. Still floating.  Halfway down the runway the back wheels touch the tarmac with a slight squeak but no bump. The nosewheel follows and kisses the ground and I am hard on the brakes and calling for permission to taxi to park.

A good landing, they say, is one you walk away from, but this was one of my best.

(c) Richard Senior 2014