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.
Having survived the island jungle our entourage headed north, bound for Laos. Returning to Vientiane was largely uneventful. The Laotian capital is a sleepy riverside town in comparison to the bustle of touristed Thailand and not much had changed since I was there last. We feasted on the excellent Indian cuisine, sipping Beer Laos in the afternoon sun, and wandered along the river’s edge trying in vain to get a game of Frisbee going, with the wind strongly in opposition.
At the insistence of Tijo, Redbeard and I were cajoled into heading out for a few beers. It was a quiet evening and the curfews in Laos make for some fairly tepid nightlife. Vientiane is not a party town but none the less we persisted, Tijo obviously gravitating towards the one ex-pat girl in the quiet bar. A few brews later and we were reluctantly accompanying an increasingly drunk Tijo to go get a sandwich on the other side of town, the new girl fallaciously assuring us that it was just around the corner. And then around another corner. And another.
The streets are deserted so it is with some surprise that we round one final corner and are finally presented with the promised vision. Tijo munches on the first of what will be many late night baguettes, and we hop in a tuk-tuk to head home. The tuk-tuk driver, however, has another suggestion.
Towards the end of Haadrin a number of bars straddle the rock face that rises out of the sea. The psychedelic art that covers the rock is bleached of much of its colour by the sun and sea, but hints at the magic of this modern temple. We begin our climb up Mushroom Mountain, and stop at the first bar. A gloriously fat Thai lady sits behind a basic wooden bar with a blender. She smiles toothlessly and for 500 baht doles out plastic cups of mushroom shake, strangely blatant in a country known for its intolerance towards the illicit.
We sit on the low cushions with the other backpackers, and look down the beach at the drunken crowds. The shake is a strange mix of sweet and sour, the psilocybin laced mushrooms producing a tart earthy flavour that washes your tastebuds from front to back. Naturally, Redbeard has two.
The days in Bangkok blur into a stream of memories. The final assembly of the gang was completed late on Christmas Day, and was followed by a swift yet prolonged dose of beer and banter, the heat and infamous strength of Chang nearly my undoing as we roamed the late night wasteland of Khao San.
For the uninitiated, Khao San road is a short strip of concrete pavement in Central Bangkok that bustles with the trade of a thousand backpackers and the hawkers who cater to them. It is a monument to the success of the banana pancake trail, and a temple to the potent buckets of red bull and vodka that fuel its worshipers. Crowded with stalls of fake Ray Bans and tourist t-shirts in the day, it later transforms into a motley collection of bars and clubs that continue on to the wee small hours. The street hums with the raking noise of the frog toys pushed by a tireless coven of Thai women and a roadside wok sizzles as another order of pad thai is fried up for the masses.