This heavily travelled part of the world offers great variety in the potential circuits suited to the varied tastes of the people you meet out there: if you want to stay well off the track it’s more than easy to do so, or you can hop on and off the track as and when you please, as I did. Some people prefer the somewhat more reductionist ‘circuit’, bouncing between Thailand’s infamous full moon parties on Koh Phangan and tubing in Laos’ Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng is a tiny lethargic village sat alongside the Mekong River, surrounded by a scrum of beautiful mountains and plenty of rice paddies. When you look at it from a moral standpoint the thoughts are certainly sombre, as it’s a real indication of the perils tourism can inflict on otherwise savvy destinations. Unfortunately the fun and games on offer here aren’t truly Laotian and often people miss the point of visiting this country. It’s like visiting Amsterdam and spending all of your time in a coffee shop: extremely fun but not the be-all and end-all.
After a 27 hour bus ride on the infamous ‘death bus’ (curse you, pledge of no unnecessary overland flights) from Hanoi and a stopover in Laos’ sleepy capital Vientianne, the chaos that this place offered was certainly welcomed. I’d left my previous clan to do some trekking, as they’d decided to stay put in a city to watch a world cup game (that we lost, naturally), so I had to go on a bit of a recruitment mission. If there’s one place where travelling solo is a big no-no it’s here, so I formed a fellowship on the bus with a couple of crazies who turned out to be a good laugh. In particular, Fearny, who sported an extensive collection of naked photos from various wonders of the world.
We checked in to a quaint little guesthouse in town, dumped all of our stuff and grabbed a taxi upstream. Tubing involves floating the three kilometres back down the Mekong towards Vang Vieng, inside an inflatable ring, stopping off at the various bars on your way down. The accident rate here is alarmingly high, but thanks to no concept of health and safety it’s not been shut down: monsoon season resulted in some even more interesting experiences as the currents were at warp speed.
By the time we made it up there at noon the party was in full swing as shot glasses were continually refilled and endless dubstep blared. It all kicks off at the imaginatively-named ‘Bar One’ where you can plunge from 20 metres from a tree swing into the fast-flowing muddy river below. I’d been warned about the rocks and diseases but was determined to ignore the sensible advice, until I saw a girl total herself on a bed of rocks as soon as we arrived. Thankfully the bartender doubled up as a doctor and had her shipped back to town (where there’s no hospital), and then the music resumed as everyone proceeded to ‘get on it’.
Scattered along the river at regular intervals are little wooden shacks, serving a wide array of drinks, snacks and shishas. Stationed at each is a dastardly ‘looky-looky man’ who’ll lure you in by tossing you a rope and pulling you ashore. You can drink for free all the way down as long as you’re willing to stick to the snake, scorpion and hornet whiskies, which is exactly what I did (tight budget and all). If you think that excessive drinking and swimming are terrible activities to combine, you’d be right – even more so when we decided that we’d swim down and not bother paying for the inflatable rings. And along the way we continued to plunge from swings and slides into the river and participate in the fun mud-based tug-o-war and volleyball.
So the process of drifting downstream continued into the early evening as we got more and more out of breath. Some of the bars offer delicious treats that any child would love in a goody bag: mushroom muffins, heroin cookies and the like. Some of the more ‘hardcore’ people there decided that these would be the real cherry on the danger cake, and in their stupor missed the final collection point downstream and ended up in lands afar only to have to walk back throughout the night, getting repeatedly bitten by mosquitoes along the way no doubt. We made the final dock and headed into town for the after party.
I guess it’s a bit like freshers’ week, but with a lot more drinking. You wake up at 11, head upstream, drink all day, then get back into town and begin the bar crawl that goes on well until the early hours. While the town lacks a Charlie’s Kebab the resident sandwich stalls are truly terrific –mouth-watering bacon with melted cheese and any sauce you’d like awaits your drunken self as you stagger out of the bars at sunrise. For some people this routine continues for weeks but for me a few days was enough, and surprisingly I even managed to squeeze in some more ‘cultural’ activities.
The surrounding landscapes are truly breathtaking and easily explored by bicycle. We took off for the day in search of the ‘blue lagoon’, a remote little spot out in the forest. What makes it even more difficult to locate are the several false signs on the way, intentionally set up to trap tourists into visiting other ‘lagoons’. A day of cycling through the beautiful rice paddies was just awesome as we got to interact with many of the villagers and see so many great sights. Easily the best sight of the day was being honoured the position of photographer by Fearny, who wanted to broaden his blossoming penis portfolio.
Conjunctivitis was at an all time high while I was there, what with everyone lacking an active immune system and sharing needles (well, beds). Thankfully I invested the 20p in eye drops as a precautionary measure so managed to avoid the unpleasantness. I did however have a slight near-death experience when I attempted kayaking further upstream: Steph and I were the epitome of complacency and failed to acknowledge the impending rapids and proceeded to capsize into a thorny tree. I’ve never felt as stupid as I did when the bag containing our passports, cameras and bank cards floated downstream, but thanks to some emergency whistles we were rescued and the bag was recovered unscathed.
Just to top off the hilarity, we made it the 20km downstream to the bars and decided to get as drunk as possible. We were about to migrate to the next bar via the inviting rickety bridge, only to see a screaming girl fall through said bridge and get carried away by the currents. At that point we decided that we’d head back and unwind with a massage and quit while we still had our lives (and passports). Massages there were cheap and brutal – a truly winning combination. My only qualm is that upon refusal of cheeky extras the brutality peaked and I left the parlour in more pain than when I entered: standard. I plonked my backpack on my achy spine and hopped on the bus north in search of waterfalls and monasteries.