Bio: Andy Parkinson is thetravelmaverick. Andy is a writer, photographer and travel specialist, originally from the UK but now based in Sydney, Australia. Andy has travelled widely and independently throughout Europe, and in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Java and Australia. I love taking photographs and this is my current favourite image.
1. How did you get involved in writing/blogging?
I’ve always been a writer – even in my schooldays I would write stories about the teachers to entertain the other students. I’ve developed a good career in communications – media, government and public relations, public affairs and marketing – and strong writing skills are absolutely fundamental to continued success in this field. I’ve found that most of my writing though has always been for someone else, about issues and topics that do interest me but about which I’m not passionate. Travel is my passion, and more recently a range of factors came together to give me the confidence, and the opportunity to explore and share that passion in my own words.
2. Describe your earliest remembered ‘adventure’.
I’m from the UK originally, now living in Sydney, Australia. I didn’t actually leave the UK until I was around 20 years old – most of the family holidays I can remember were spent in North Wales – I guess that containment early on gave me a burning passion to see the world, and I haven’t disappointed myself in achieving that. My earliest adventure was a month long trip around Europe with an InterRail ticket – a one off purchase that allows free travel throughout most of the continent. I had planned to go with a couple of friends, but they dropped out at the last minute; I took the plunge and travelled alone, it was an amazing experience, one I will never forget.
3. Share you ‘guilty’ travel secret.
I don’t really have a guilty secret – but it is hard not to feel guilty when you’re travelling in places where abject poverty is the norm –places like India, parts of Asia. I’m sure many travellers will agree – it’s extraordinarily confronting at first, but all too quickly you become numb to it. I guess that’s the guilty secret – finding myself without compassion for those in need purely because I’ve acclimatised to the environment.
4. Rockstar blogger or bestselling author and why?
I’ve love to become a rockstar blogger and in later years write a novel about it.
5. What is the best tip you have ever been given?
If you’re on a long term trip with a limited budget write down everything you spend during the day and each night total it up – there’s nothing better than seeing it in black and white to help you focus your spending. It doubles up as notes for your blog or travel diary too – the details do count when you have a story to tell.
6. Where would you be if you could be anywhere right now?
I love South East Asia so I think I’d probably be in Bangkok – it’s always been my starting point for trips over there – it’s so great to take a couple of days to sink back into the vibe of travelling, take in the sounds, sights and smells.
7. If you could travel with any three people, celebrity, fictional or historical who would be your companions?
Buddha; Jason Bourne; and Drew Barrymore.
8. What invention do you wish had been invented already?
I won’t be the first one to say this – teleportation of course – no more hanging around in airport lounges. I’d still take the 10 hour bus trips – it’s about the journey, not just the destination.
The Best Treehouse in the World
These kids were like mountain goats. As we climbed higher, the views across the rice fields became ever more breathtaking. We’d hired mopeds for ten bucks and headed out, despite the soporific heat, to explore the limestone karsts surrounding Vang Vieng and to put some distance between us and the hungover twenty-somethings slumped on cushions in the various bars along the main drag.
Vang Vieng, around four hours bus ride north of the Laotian capital Vientiene is ugly, beautiful, stunning, flawed. Once a strategic mainstay for the CIA’s ‘Air America’ covert operations in the Vietnam war – the abandoned airstrip remains a central feature in the town – Vang Vieng has by all accounts become a backpacker’s paradise – but for all the wrong reasons.
It didn’t always used to be that way. Even as recently as a few years ago, these few dusty streets nestled between the river and the airstrip used to be the independent traveller’s best kept secret. The secret is blown; Vang Vieng has become the essential adventure travel stopover on the gap year backpacker’s South East Asia tour.
It’s early afternoon, the heat is intense and weighs heavy. We ride the bikes carefully out through the town towards the hills, away from the TV bars, happy pizza joints and internet cafes that maintain the travelling (mainly western) teenagers here in a manner to which they seem far too quickly to become accustomed. It takes a while for the sound of canned laughter and the theme tune to ‘Friends‘ playing endlessly across the many bars to disappear behind us.
Almost everything you read about Vang Vieng these days tells the story of a travelling paradise lost. In recent years the Laotian Government has been preparing to step into action, developing a ‘master plan’ to manage the growth – literally, height restrictions on buildings – of the town, seen as one of the top eco-tourism destinations in the country Today, the guide books still take an ‘expectation management’ approach to their profiles on Vang Vieng, with many sadly just handing the town over to the vodka bucket/ mushroom shake set.
The good news is the real Vang Vieng is still there beneath this shallow layer We’re on the dirt road. Instead of Family Guy we hear the sounds of families, children, chickens. A cheerful chorus of ‘sabadi bo!’ (hello, how are you!) punctuates each kilometre as we move closer to the mountain. Red clay mud paths make the terrain tough for the mopeds to manoeuvre. We come to a halt at a bridge busy with cows making their solemn way across and paying us little heed. In vain our use of the pitiful horns supplied by Suzuki.
We dawdle in second gear past real life in Vang Vieng, always in the shadow of the karsts. At the end of the road, we arrive at the foot of the mountain. There’s a checkpoint, manned by a mum, her four young boys lined up, excited to welcome us, everyone all smiles She offers us a tour to the top, her boys as guides.
We leave the bikes at the gate and pay mum a toll of 50,000 Kip (about US$5) to continue our journey on foot to the top of the karst. The boys bowl along ahead of us, chattering to each other, pausing now and then to check we’re still on track. Already breathless I manage a sabedi bo – a sabedi and a smile in return is the perfect reward. We clamber up the 45 degree slope, trying to keep pace. These kids are barely toddlers! I feel my hamstrings about to burst. It is revealed thongs are not the most efficient mountain footwear, although the boys do fine, like the incline doesn’t even exist.
It’s gruelling, but finally, wow. The view. Breathtaking. Astonishing. The emerald green rice fields glimmer in the afternoon sun. The boys have given us a rest close to the peak. As we’re attempting to entertain them with references to David Beckham and our useless grasp of Laotian, one lad arches his hands and points up to show there’s more mountain to climb.
They scatter off and we follow. We reach the top and my leaden legs feel light again. As if it couldn’t get any better A simple bamboo shade hut crowns the summit from which it feels the entire world is in view. It’s the best treehouse in the world. None of us want to leave that place. It’s so perfect. Photographs just don’t do justice to the awe of that view. Incredible.
Far down below we imagine the scene. Already we know those we left behind, desperate to create stories of their holiday hedonism to take back home, are gathering at bar number one, getting drunk before taking their inner tubes for the ride down river. Not for them consideration of the danger involved. No one in the town talks about it but, according to Lonely Planet and others, tourists regularly drown while tubing.
We have to leave. We give the lads some cash before we make the descent. We want them to know that they’ve played a great part in this experience for us. As we climb down, tumbling and stumbling over rocks and wet clay the boys ever attentive monitor our progress with care.
We say our goodbyes and head back on the bikes. We lose someone, to discover he’s run out of petrol way back. A local from the rice fields comes to help and siphons petrol from a generous passing French woman to help us on our way.
We’ve deliberately checked into the best hotel in town, $60 to accommodate three of us, worth it to be removed from the chaos downtown.
The real Vang Vieng is still there. It’s not so hard to find, you just need to know where to look. We sit by the river, reflecting on our day on the mountain, a Beer Lao each in hand, watching the karsts darken as the sun sets gently behind them.