Current Location: Vientiane, Laos
Current Weather: 79°F (feels like 85°F)
Days Gone: 70
Days Remaining: 146
Vang Vieng is, without a doubt, one of the strangest, most mystical cities I have ever visited. Equal parts decadence and depravity, Vang Vieng is a city that exists outside of the real world. It is Never Never Land. It is Paradise Found. It is Sodom and Gomorrah. I spent a week there. This is not a tale of cultural encounters, nor of Asian delicacies, nor of philanthropy. This is a tale of the raging Nam Song river, the makeshift bars that line it, and the drunken tourists who ride the current on inflatable tubes. Everything in Vang Vieng is backwards. The town, funded almost entirely by a tourism influx that began in the 1980’s, is mafia run. The tourists come for tubing. The mafia controls the tubes. This is a town where one can walk into a bar and buy narcotics off a menu. Yes, most bars (both on and off the river) offer a “special menu” (an actual laminated menu) off which one can choose to order his marijuana in a brownie, or her magic mushrooms in a milkshake. Did I mention Laos is one of the world’s biggest opium producers?
Alright, are you keeping up? The ability to buy opium on a pizza in a restaurant is arguably a story in itself. But how about the apparent illegality in buying an inflatable inner-tube? Giant tubes are available to rent for the day from the tube mafia, disguised as a local company, at a massive premium (plus a deposit). Any individual caught selling alternate tubes or any tuk-tuk driver caught transporting a backpacker with an alternate tube will get fined by the tube mafia (or, judging from the way the townspeople whispered secretly, dropped into the Nam Song). After one day of renting a tube (and failed, deposit-losing attempts to re-use it), I realized how unbalanced the business model was and sought out a more cost effective tube. One that, once purchased, could be used everyday for free. My Canadian companions and I successfully purchased tubes from a mini-mart owner. The transaction, however, took place in the dusty, unlit back room of his shop. I was instructed in rough, whispering English to keep the tube deflated and hidden on my person when attempting to flag a tuk-tuk down for transport to the “start point.”
Let’s compare. To buy a bright yellow inflatable inner-tube emblazoned with a laughing sheep, I have to meet secretly an an undisclosed location. If I want to buy a bag of opium, though, I can just walk into the nearest bar. Such is Vang Vieng.
Now, once you’ve got your tube and you find yourself at the drop-zone 4km upstream, do you jump in your tube and sail away? Of course not, there are three bars at the start point, all offering free shots! These aren’t just any shots of course, remember this is Laos! These are shots of colored Lao whiskey poured from bottles with creatures inside. Have some snake whiskey. Or scorpion. Or cockroach. Or bees! The bees whiskey was actually the best. Now that you are getting a nice buzz, the safest decision would naturally be to climb a rickety wooden ladder, partially supported by a tree, up onto an even ricketier wooden platform. From here, you can grip onto the biggest swing you’ve ever seen and plummet toward the roaring crowd before launching into space and landing in the Nam Song. Keep your wits about you though, because a bar worker will throw you a small black tube attached to a rope to reel you in. If you miss it (or if he misses you) you could could be swept downstream (where another dozen or so riverside bars await).
Perhaps you’re getting the idea. Tubers flow from bar to bar, where workers fish them out of the river with various roped projectiles. At the bar, tubers are given free shots and often the option of some other unique activity. Notable entertainment includes mud-pit tug-of-war, giant water-slides, zip-lines, more swings, and mud volleyball. According to Lonely Planet, one person dies per year from these treacherous activities. After having witnessed the carnage myself, I would add the word only to that sentence.
Vang Vieng has constructed itself around its substance availability. TV bars line the streets showing non-stop reruns of Friends and Family Guy. Laotian women line the streets selling crepes, pancakes, and some of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. I think it would be wise for me to decline this opportunity to comment on the available narcotics. But I will say this, just because the happy pizzas are a great value doesn’t mean you should eat a whole one.
Shout outs go to, yet again, my three Canadian partners in crime, Cass, Jo, and Kell (you all get abbreviated now). My fellow Americans Eileen and Erica, glad you stayed a night at Champa Lao, hope the rains clears and you get some good tubing weather. Greg, all I can say is we escaped Vang Vieng together, hopefully there are some adventures to be had in the capital!
Last thing consumed: Seafood Pad Thai (in a thunderstorm)
Thought fragment: I’m seriously loving the French influence in Laos. I can get baguettes everywhere and there are bakeries too (and their sweet sweetness often costs but a buck)!
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