If you’ve done any travelling in South East Asia then you almost certainly have heard of, if not actually experienced for yourself, the mayhem of Laos’ hedonistic capital, Vang Vieng.
Once a quiet riverside village, as the story goes, Vang Vieng is now big business: big, underdressed, intoxicated Western business. While easily the most touristy place I have been in Asia, the village still attracts thousands of visitors every year; backpackers coming for the joys of getting loose in a rubber tube along the banks of the Nam Song river. A ramshackle collection of bars line the edges of the brown river, and the same blaring electronic pop that plagued us over New Year’s reverberates in the shade of the vast karst mountains looming in the background.
The town itself is small and almost completely full of Westerners. There are a plethora of restaurants serving banana pancake trail staples, with the main difference whether Friends or Family Guy is playing above the raised platforms and low tables. Many restaurants offer the addition of a “Happy Menu,” covering everything from mushroom shakes and weed pizza to speed. Despite the ubiquity of such contraband, Brother Barefoot and Phantom are caught smoking a joint in their room, and told to find replacement accommodation; a strange paradox in a town of arbitrary lines.
While notorious for its lack of health and safety, and the sad number of deaths that occur there each year, Laos “in the tubing” tourism continues on unabated. Backpackers sprawl out of the bars and into the river, where young Thai men skilfully throw lines at their floating forms, pulling the willing towards their next beverage provider.
Many of the bars welcome new patrons with an obligatory skol of the harsh Lao-Lao whisky, poured from bottle to throat by the Western “employees” that roam the wooden platforms armed with vivids and promises of free buckets (of booze) to come. They adorn the complicit with garish slogans; one girl’s back reads “will suck dick for drink.” I make a mental note.
Daredevils attempt double front flips from the diving platforms, and the flying fox continues to send people in varying states of inebriation towards a watery collision. We sit at one of the tables in Bamboo bar, and watch with glee as fool after fool smacks into the river, arms splayed wide in drunken displays of ineptitude. A few more beers and we join them, the alcohol numbing the sharp sting following yet another ungraceful impact.
We stayed for five days, a gruelling test of our tolerance for alcohol and shit music.
Each day is hardly distinguishable from the next. We rise late, haggard from the strains of the previous evening, and I fumble blearily with the lid of someone’s water bottle. I drink deeply, as if vigorous consumption will turn the clear liquid into a tonic for all previous ills. An omelette baguette for breakfast and it is back off to the river, bumping north over the rutted roads that remind you just how poor Laos is. A beer to get you going, groans and moaning, and before long there you are – reluctantly back on the horse. When in Laos…
We take shrooms one day, for a change of scenery, and observe the destruction from a mental distance before tubing the entire distance back to town. The landscape is beautiful but the river is longer than we anticipate. Still stubbornly we tell the tuk-tuk drivers mid way along to get fucked, that their prices are extortionate, and then suffer the chilly wait as the sun disappears. I pee myself to stay warm, Redbeard and Fox follow suit.
On the final day we make no attempt to go down the river, and get monumentally fucked. I pass out during dinner, and Redbeard falls asleep with a bit of his burger in his mouth. Another episode of Family Guy plays on above us. Redbeard and Tijo rail some speed and we rally; it’s our last night all together, so back to the bar for a free bucket it is. Amazing what you’ll do in the name of solidarity.
We leave broken men, souls cut adrift in a world of smoke and shadows. It is a brutal bus ride in the heat as we judder our way towards the border and Chang Mai.