Time in Laos cannot be measured in minutes, hours, nor days. Weeks will flow by without any effort and you will wonder where your schedule has gone, along with your shirt. Most likely, both were lost while tubing down the river in Vang Vieng.
My introduction to Laos was crazy, yet merely a premonition of what was to come. I was taking the slow boat cruise from the border of Thailand to Luang Prabang and it would take two full days of sitting patiently on a long boat with about 100 other travelers. I chose this route specifically for this time schedule, and I came armed with entertainment equipment (namely booze and herbs). This journey was rumored to be the best way to get into Laos, particularly if you get a good group of people on your boat. And man, did I luck out.
After a lot of unnecessary debate if there were too many people for the boat or not, we boarded the jenky wooden vessel and I went straight to the back. I recognized one person from Pai, although we never got to know each other well. I took the seat next to him and within minutes, there were three of us loudly quoting Anchorman. To me, this is an instantaneous sign of friendship. That, and these English and Irish blokes were already on the bottle so I knew I came to the right people. Soon enough a group had been formed: the loud alcoholics in the back, and I, of course, fit right in. The long day seemed longer with substance abuse, but we were happy and having fun nonetheless.
That night we slept on a small island and created small havoc. The four of us rooming together was enough damage, I’m sure. There was the Brit, the Irish, and then the other American known as Hoover because he would lick your plate clean, whether you offered it or not. And you can’t forget Mr. Money, our host and apparent drug dealer as he was trying to pawn everything under the sun (and for a good price too). Of course we met up with the rest of the boat crew again and tried to hold it together.
The next day was more of the day before. Only this time we were already damn good friends using sign language to communicate and finishing each other’s sentences. It was all about taking the piss out of each other and for Rob, the legend from Manchester, it was about taking out his balls (or mangina….whichever he was in the mood for). That night we disembarked and it was sad to see our crew already separating, but luckily we had at least a few days together. And I was rooming with a couple of those ridiculous boys and acting as if we were siblings in another life.
Luang Prabang itself is a quaint, adorable town with good architecture, food, and a daily night market. Don’t forget, Laos had been conquered by the French long ago and they left behind good architecture and baguette sandwiches. (I have had a large, cheap, and delicious baguette sandwich nearly every day I’ve been here. If I missed a day, it wasn’t intentional.) The town itself had not much to offer but a temple with a good view, some waterfalls, and a great night market. But for our boat crew, it was more about hitting the bottle and having a good laugh. Soon enough, our crew slowly dispersed; some stayed behind and some moved on. Luckily, most of us caught up together in Vang Vieng, the next stop on the backpacker trail.
Vang Vieng is a black hole for those with addictions or who are easily tempted. The town is small, laid back, and set in one of the most gorgeous backdrops I’ve seen. At some point in time, bars filled with drunken foreigners overran the place and completely obliterated whatever culture was there before. It’s sad to see from a cultural perspective, but the reality is I participated (and thusly contributed) just as much as anyone else. And to be honest, I don’t regret any of it.
The most popular activity by far is to float down the river in an inner tube; something I’ve done many times before in Chico. But nothing like this. The river is lined with bars made from leftover planks of wood and spray painted sheets with signs urging you to drink free whiskey shots before you swing down their homemade zip lines. Just looking at these contraptions makes me feel the pain of breaking my face and scares me something fierce. Yet for some reason, foreigner after stupid foreigner marches up these towers to swing into the river, more often than not doing something stupid and creating a huge, painful splash accompanied by laughter from the crowd. I’m pretty sure an entire episode of ‘American’s Funniest Home Videos’ could be dedicated to these zip lines. And don’t forget the slides. They’ve been made with wood, lined with plastic picnic table covers, and a small hose lends itself as lubricant. Classy.
So to summarize, you get dropped at the top of the river, get free whisky, and then there is very little floating to be done between bars which makes it more of a day bar crawl in your bathing suit than a floating event. No less fun though. And at these bars, people get crazy. No sarcasm, no exaggeration; everyone is spray painted, playing drinking games, dancing, and partying like 18 year olds who have just been let out of the house for the first time. And no, the majority of people there were not 18. The average age is probably around 24. (And no, no one can ever guess my age correctly, Thank God.) With zip lines, mud volleyball pits, and spray paint, trouble is bound to ensue. I’m proud to say I’ve survived this event….twice.
When the sun goes down, and hopefully a shower has taken place, that’s when the real partying begins. Oh yes folks, it gets crazier. Sure there are some bars in town, great for warming up. Maybe play a game of pool or cards while drinking opium tea or a mushroom shake, just to start the night. But don’t forget to make your way to the Bucket Bar on bar island before 10 pm for your free bucket of whiskey coke. Yes, free, and there are a couple of places that promote this way so if you make your rounds just right, you’ll be sloshed for free. And if you miss the time limit, no worries, these buckets are dirt cheap anyways and pretty much anyone will let you drink theirs. There’s no formal greeting in Vang Vieng such as “Hi, my name is Stephanie”. It’s more like, “wooo hoooo!!”, drink from a stranger’s bucket, and then continue dancing. Yes, that’s’ more accurate.
The nights can easily continue until 4 am and without even noticing you’ll have been dancing for 5 hours straight. If you’ve built up an appetite (or simply have the drunk munchies), you’ll appreciate the army of women waiting across the bridge from the island bars. As you walk towards them (and there’s no way not to) they will begin shouting “Sandwich! Pancake!” nonstop and beg to cook some amazing cheap eats for you. There’s no difference in menu, quality, or price between these dozen women so just pick one and then decide if you want a giant sandwich for $1.25 or sweet or savory crepe for just as cheap. I’m not sure if I made it a single walk home without indulging, but then again I’m not known for my self control.
Despite all the intoxication and recovery, I managed to get out and do something not involving alcohol. Once. In need of adventure and exercise, I rented a bicycle and headed out in search of the infamous blue lagoon. Vang Vieng is surrounded by caves and lagoons, and truly the ideal way to see most of them is by motorbike. But because I love riding bikes, and because I was unaware how horrific and difficult the roads would be, I opted for the “leisurely” tour. The muddy, wrecked path would have been a bad decision if it were not for the friends I made along the way. Not long after I headed out, I was joined by a fellow biker and eventually a young deaf local boy who prompted our direction. Signs for various lagoons were abundant and we weren’t exactly sure where to go, so we inevitably followed his lead. Knowing full well this boy was looking for a tip, we couldn’t deny his endearing charm. Without a language barrier, since he spoke no language, he was all smiles and sweetness and we followed him all the way to his lagoon and cave. After a quick swim and then a treacherous climb, he did a fantastic job being our guide into the dark, watery cave. No other tourists were inside as we crawled and climbed through the slippery abyss. Eventually he asked for some money and I didn’t mind it so much as he made for great entertainment and photos.
Finally, we could make it on our own to real blue lagoon (of course the one he brought us to was a fake). The crystal clear blue water had a massive thick tree bounding up over it with not one, but two levels to jump off of. Naturally, a thick swinging rope was attached and thus created the most fun and beautiful blue lagoon. After a much needed sandwich and swim, a group of us teamed up to explore some more caves. At the end of this long and sweaty adventure, it was time to shower, relax, and prepare for another night out. And possibly fire limbo. Because fire limbo is always an option.
If this all sounds a bit too crazy, no worries, there’s plenty of ways to relax in Vang Vieng. The town is lined with TV bars in which restaurants have set up comfortable tables/beds facing towards the TVs at the front and then play movies or shows all day. Some bars are infamous for playing only Family Guy or Friends. Some will play only movies but you can ask them for whatever you want. The food is good, the fruit shakes refreshing, and the opportunity to veg out all day undeniable. If this wasn’t enough reason to waste time for me, then my hotel room alone was.
For a mere $5 a day, I had the biggest and most comfortable bed I’ve known in 7 months, a terrific hot shower and private bathroom, free drinking water, wifi in my room, and a TV loaded with English channels, including HBO. I could hibernate there all winter. And if all of this weren’t enough, I was completely surrounded by friends. From Pai to the boat cruise, I couldn’t walk down the street without bumping into someone I knew (and liked). It’s easy to get stuck in a place like this; something so familiar and comfortable. Life didn’t seem to get any easier or cheaper, but it was only a matter of time before my liver and lungs would give out. And after just over a week I left for the very same reason everyone leaves Vang Viang: detox.
Unfortunately my bus to Vientiane had people I knew on it so I knew I’d be in for trouble there as well. Not as dangerous though as the capital doesn’t seem to have much going on in the way of nightlife. But I was lucky to have roommates again and the entertainment never ceases when you’re with Jay and Silent Bob. Well, Jack was less inappropriate than Jay but the Russian was just as silent and creepy as Bob. He claimed he couldn’t speak English but understood everything we said as well as reacted with hand gestures and facial expressions.
The three of us were on a mission to get free two month visas for Thailand from the Thai embassy. (You only get two weeks crossing the border. But if you apply for it beforehand direct from their embassy, you get up to two months.) It normally takes two days, but for me it would take three. Somehow, I’ve managed to fill my passport up with stamps so I only have one page left and they refused to use it. This meant I had to go to the US embassy first, apply for more pages, fork out nearly $90, and then go back the next day and try again. It was a frustrating few days but after a long stroll I realized it’s nothing compared to my bad days at home. Because at the end of this day, I had some cheap wine, went out with some friends, had a good laugh, and remembered how lucky I was to be exactly where I was.
After I ran into more boat cruise members and made more friends off of random tuk-tuks, it was time for me to go. I’ve been aching, ever since I got to Pai over five weeks ago, to be on my own. To clear my head, focus on where I’m going, and hopefully get some much needed writing done. The last five weeks had been very distracting and since I also lack all self-control, it was time to put myself in an environment where there are no temptations. So I booked an overnight bus ticket to 4000 Islands in the south of Laos; a place of serenity, peace, and quiet. Or so I thought.
A VANG VIENG POEM BY AUSTIN CHARVET:
Vang Vieng Whisked by whiskey engulfed in psychedelic blended fungus smoothie the substance dependent blissed tourists stumbles and mumbles “hello”. He is a damp flesh figure masqueraded in spray paint patterns serving as a tribute to the farang cluster fuck celebrating “holiday”. Such beautiful lethal lead saturated paint designs advertising sinful adolescence convey messages of truth, beauty and meaning such as “cunt” or “too fucked to fuck” The later statement of which I question due to the sloshing of Tiger Whiskey, Hormones and Energy Drink concocted in a plastic bucket equipped with two straws for you and yours truly… a romantic get away accompanied with fire limbo, vomit and the more often then not plastered tourist physically stumbling into your conversation just to say “Because you HAVE to party!”