10 years ago it was a lovely quaint Lao town, at the base of the Annamite mountains in an amazing location, backdropped by stunning lime stone cliffs in front of a leisurely flowing serpentine river. Someone had the brain wave that going down the river in tractor inner tubes would be fun, and when it proved not to be fun enough some locals set up a number of bars along the river bank selling a local happy shake full of local ingredients such as BeerLao, Laolao (rice whisky), cannabis and opium.
This wonderful coming together of local initiative and local produce obviously attracted travellers, keen to support the Lao economy, and soon the town ballooned. (At last count it had a total of 120 guest houses, and even more bars.) Travellers would be so keen to help the locals that on occasion they would over indulge in happy shake, and apparently all day and night the town would be a wash with semi-dressed tourists staggering around, shouting and generally vomiting on them selves.
This sort of distraction can detract from the beauty of a place… but since now the only people there were either locals (who knew what the place looked like already, and were making quite a lot of money running probably the world’s only tractor inner tube cartel) and travellers (who were too worried about where their next happy shake was coming from to notice the mountains) nobody seemed to mind. (Except apparently the editor of the website TripAdvisor, who was actually brought to tears on his return to the town when he saw how much it had changed… what a woos)
The only problem was that the mix of happy shake, river and traveller was managing to cause a rather staggering 30 deaths a year, almost entirely Australians. The Australian government was getting so worried about this phenomenon causing problems for it’s already sparsely populated country that they applied pressure to the Laossion Government (highlighting also that technically cannabis and opium are illegal…) and almost overnight the whole shabang was shut down…On our first night in the town we went for a bit of an explore to see how bad things really were in this Blackpool of The East. We walked past deserted bar after deserted bar, periodically punctuated by a single traveller sprawled out over a table apparently still recovering from a come down. On the whole though the town was far form the “Friday night Nottingham Town Centre” we had expected. It also turns out that since all the locals are now so desperate to find new revenue there are in fact a lot of activities that can be done.
The first day we went to visit one of the most amazing cave complexes we’ve ever been in. And when Jess refused to get out of bed on the second morning we decided we would treat ourselves to a hot air balloon ride!
This was blissfully easy to arrange (in theory). You simply had to go to one of the hundreds of adventure type stuff organising offices, say you wanted to go in the balloon, and then they would ring someone and (in English) book you a ticket… We were told we would be picked up from our hotel at 4 o’clock that evening, and so spent the rest of the afternoon exploring (what used to be called) Party Island, which now has the feel of some sort of lost civilisation, with scores of abandoned bars are now being slowly recaptured by the surrounding flora.
To be on the safe side we returned to our hotel for 15:30, and waited patiently to be collected. 4 o’clock came and went without note, and it wasn’t until 16:30 (the scheduled flight time) that we begun to get a bit anxious. This anxiety had matured into a full bodied concern by 16:45, which was then uncorked when we saw the hot air balloon inflate in the neighbouring field, and slowly and gracefully lift into the air.
Sam was sent on the warpath to find out what was going on, however, when he got to travel agent it was clear that no waring was going to have to be done. The man behind the desk gave over the impression of being someone who had already had a very bad day, and that the prospect of getting a customer onto a balloon that was already 400m in the air was not the biggest irritation he had recently faced. His manner suggested that a failed pick up was common, but he had enough professionalism to make up a story in which the balloon man had just wrung him and was running late, but it was ok because he would give him a quick ring and tell him to pick me up from here.
A short conversation in slightly angry Laossian, and a thirty second wait later and a man in a people carrier did indeed appeared, and we went and picked Jess up from the hotel.
At this point neither of us were entirely sure what the people carrier man was going to do next, since both balloons the company owned were very much airborne and unless his Toyota was fitted with ejector seats he was unlikely to get us much nearer than the balloon than we already were. We were however very wrong. We then spent the next twenty minutes in the back of the car taking part in a very exciting Twister style “Balloon Chase”! We quickly cought up with a group of Laotions in a pick up who were spending most of their time looking at the sky. Something would come in through the walky talky, the vehichles would accellerate, dive off down a side road and then wait again all craining their necks above the line of roves of the buildings until the next update arrived.
We thought that this was all rather unlikely to get us anywhere, because we were clearly the only people who had been missed, and so we were getting ready to start pressing for a refund. It’s lucky that we didn’t because after only a few more updates the car dived off the road again into a sports field, and this time we could see the balloon, just having come into land and unloading it’s passengers. The car pulled up along side, and in seconds were bundled out of the car, and into the basket. The door was shut behind us, 5 or 6 words of Laotian were spoken to the pilot and the ground started the fall away below us. The game of football that had been interrupted by the arrival of the balloon quickly pickup up again with only a few waves from the bemused players.
Our solo balloon ride was amazing, brilliant views over the mountains, river and valley, and the decent was just as exciting as the departure had been as we skimmed our way over buildings and power cables.
After landing we were driven back to town, and after treating our sevles to some cocktails by the river we slept like logs… that is until the pair of Austriallians in the room next came back at 03:00 in the morning and spent the next three hours talking gibberish on their balcony… presumably just happy to be allive.