Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
149Trip End Ongoing
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Vang Vieng is the town most people talk about when they've visited Laos, and they talk about three things: drugs, Friends and tubing. How this particular village came to be the backpacker haven that it is I have no idea, but it is unlike any other town in the country. Crammed with guesthouses, with two main streets lined with bars and restaurants, and a tourist : local ratio of about 10:1, Vang Vieng is Laos' tourist industry. I stayed in the first guesthouse I came to, nervous of repeating my tribulations in Luang Prabang, and wandered into town. Finding the Friends was not tricky. There is probably an economics Phd thesis in the obscure market forces of backpacker tourism. Strange mechanisms of supply and demand that have lead to 'German bakeries' in small himalayan villages, falafel carts in centres of Hindu pilgrimmage, banana pancakes everywhere and, in at least 5 neighbouring bars on one street in Vang Vieng, the screening of entire series of Friends nonstop, 24/7. I went and sat in one at random, because I'd heard a rumour about these bars. Apparently, they bring two menus to your table. One for food, and one for drugs. I was looking forward to taking photos of the selection of 'happy pizzas' and 'special pancakes', and was very disappointed to be presented with margaritas and haiwaians. I leaned over to ask the English couple at the next table,
-I heard that there are restaurants arount here where you get two menus..?
-You're in one!
-But look, they only gave me one! Don't I look like a druggy?
I was wearing a loose brown shirt and my light brown, baggy, cotton, Pakistani, pyjamaesq drawstring trousers, and sandals. The total absence of barbers anywhere in S.E Asia had forced me to sprout facial furniture fast approaching the status of the beard of woe. I looked as hippie as I've ever looked, and still apparently just came off as Greek Orthodox! I left the bar in high dudgeon, and never did see the second menu.
The main attraction of Vang Vieng, in dangerous conjunction with the drugs, is the river. Specifically, floating slowly downstream in a tractor inner-tube, whilst smoking joints, drinking beers and stopping off in riverside bars for food, more beer and ropeswings. Since both my circumstances (either alone or among strangers and in need of functioning lungs) and my temperament undermine the appeal of an excess of mind-altering and body-damaging substances, I rejected the tubing. Instead, I paid more or less the same money for a kayaking trip. This entailed a jeep transfer upriver to a cave with an underground river running into it. This we explored on tubes, which was a good warm up to the paddling, since propelling a tube is an extremely inefficient means of locomotion. The water was mostly arctic, until about half way down the stream a hot spring welled up. This fleeting moment of bathtime warmth served only to make me properly appreciate again the cold to which I'd just acclimatised.
Upon emerging from the cave we were fed some shish kebab and rice, before making our way to the river. This took a while longer than the sentence implies, because another in the group had managed to lose his wallet somewhere around the cave, and failing to find it took over an hour. The paddling was a wonderful waste of an afternoon. Being faster than tubes, we embarked further up river and had 6km of clear water before reaching the more crowded straights. A couple of very minor rapids broke the otherwise tranquil water, which was mostly placid enough for me to remove my camera from its drybag and photograph the surrounding karsts, fields and cattle wallowing in the shallows.
Futher downstream we met some vegetative tubers drifting towards some kind of oblivion, and a little beyond that we stopped for drinks and snacks at a riverside bar. I wasn't intending to drink, having brought no money, but a round was purchased and my objection rebutted, so I had a beer. This, then, entitled me to use the bar's ropeswing, which ought to have been reason enough not to drink. This bar took it's ropeswing very seriously. To access the 'handlebar of doom' required ascending a rickety ladder to a shaky platform somewhere near the moon. Wherefrom one was required, in defiance of every self-preservation instinct ever evolved, and relying only on a firm grip, to leap out into the nevernever. This, however, was not the worst of it. People had been climbing up and jumping off all day. I saw one acrobat swing to the top of the arc (about a mile above the river), curl up, hook his legs over the handlebar and swing back hanging by his knees, reverse the procedure, swing to the top of the arc again before diving with a double somersault and pike into the murky deep. This meant that my prefered method of execution- closing my eyes, jumping off and squealing like a girl without cease until gagged by dirty water, was not an option. Not only did I have to do it, I had to do it like a man. I was a frightened mouse's heartbeat from backing out, when I spied far below the girly-girl girlfriend of the guy who bought my beer; she had already jumped with far less wavering than I'd already shown, and was, quite reasonably, laughing at me. Stepping off that platform was probably the most frightening moment of my trip. I took a deep breath, a firm hold, and dropped. I had wondered, watching other people, why they always held on, swinging back towards the bank and out again, before dropping at the top of the second swing. I soon found out. The first swing took me so far above the river I couldn't be sure of hitting it if a breeze should catch me. Even if I'd had the nerve, I could never have pursuaded my fingers to loosen their grip. So, like all the others, I clung on for life and even began to enjoy the ride, building up the courage to wait until the, albeit lower, peak of the second swing before releasing myself to the will of gravity. And I didn't scream.