VANG VIENG, LAOS – APRIL 2015
It’s an odd thing when figuratively ‘going with the flow’ literally means not going with the flow as it may have done for me in Vang Vieng. All I knew about the place prior to my visit was that it was notorious for ‘tubing’ (floating down a river on the inner tube of a tyre) and partying and that the combination of both had resulted in an alarming number of tourist deaths each year. Not a massive draw card for me. I’ll admit that I’m one of those travellers who avoids party towns – I haven’t been to Bali, never danced under a full-moon in Thailand (not at one of the infamous parties anyway), haven’t raised a stein at Oktoberfest – it’s not that I’m boycotting them, it’s just that if I want to see shit-faced Australian’s behaving badly, I don’t need to travel overseas to do it.
And yet I couldn’t deny that every person I’d met who’d survived it went all dreamy eyed when they recalled their experience, including several friends with similar travelling ethos’ to mine. The idea still frightened me though – after all, travelling alone whilst doing things that have killed people is sure to increase your chances of dying alone. These days however, I tend to use my fear as a compass to point me in the direction of opportunities to grow (cake provides the same opportunity in a more tangible sense) and so I resolved to do it (and to eat some mulberry pie, another thing I found Vang Vieng to be famed for).
I arrived in town late in the afternoon and contented myself to explore and get the lay of the land for the remainder of the day. It didn’t take long – it’s tiny. Given the reputation I had of the place, I was delighted to find it’s natural elements so absolutely beautiful with a dramatic karst hill landscape looming large over the serene Nam Song River. Its human-made elements however were a little more confounding. As I’ve said, Vang Vieng has long been regarded as a party town so the proliferation of guesthouses, restaurants and pubs crammed into a small handful of streets was to be expected. But the thumping trance music from every doorway, pulsating lights, and “Friends” episodes being shown on a loop along a whole strip of bars (different series in each as far as I could tell) seemed to be catering for a party, which quite frankly, wasn’t there. There were people about, fun was being had, but just not at the level of hype that was being maintained.
The most plausible explanation is that in the latter half of 2011, there was a government crackdown on the shenanigans that led to a record number of 27 tubing-related deaths in that year alone. Riverside bars were torn down and the trade in illicit substances severely hampered. Tubing continued but it lost its thrill for many and as a consequence, Western tourism fell dramatically. This made way for a surge in tourism from Japan, China and South Korea. From what I saw, that still seems about right.
I woke the next day with dubious resolve. I checked the weather forecast – thunderstorms predicted for the next two days! Now what the hell was I supposed to do? I wasn’t going tubing in a storm! Was I just being a wuss or was I exercising sensible precaution? I didn’t want to bravely set forth when all was fine only to later be caught alone in a torrent.
I made alternative plans for the day, figuring I still had the next to tackle my daunting personal dare. Nonetheless, I felt I was playing to my limitations, not my strengths and I hated it. As it happened, the sun shone hotly and brightly but was ominously overcast the following day. I decided to absolve myself of all guilt and angst and just do nothing. I never do nothing. If I could spend a day doing nothing, well, that would be something! But, just in case, I put my swimsuit on under my clothes and bought a waterproof satchel from the shop next to my guesthouse. I filled it only with the bare essentials – a book to read, a book to write in, some cash and my phone – and off I went. I noticed that the tubing ‘office’ was closed anyway on my way passed so I settled in happily at one of the riverside bars to enjoy the view, a coffee and a good long read. I got restless after a while and headed off for a wander and noticed the tubing office was now open.
I’m not sure if what I’m about to describe is common behaviour or a sign of some psychosis but I caught myself off guard and pushed myself into the office to sign up before I could register (or protest) what I was doing. I suppose it was simply an impulse, a sudden intuitive kick in the butt to compel me to be brave and bold without the permission of my meddlesome, melancholic brain. Whatever it was, I forked over my money and was loaded into the back of a tuk tuk with my fellow tubers.
Luckily, I was saved from cerebral admonishment by an intervening introduction from and to Hyelan and Antoine – a tremendously friendly couple from Korea and France respectively. They hadn’t been tubing before and shared my reservations. That alone put me at my ease (I actually had been tubing before in Thailand but it was on a much smaller scale, with friends and without tales of an associated death toll).
We were almost dragged out of the tuk tuk at the drop off point by a couple of Irish girls forcing free shots of Lao-Lao (rough-as-guts whiskey) upon us whilst corralling us into their bar for a pre-float party. I know I said that the party scene had largely been shut down but remnants of it still remain. I believe it works on a roster system that allows up to 8 bars to operate within the first kilometer of the route. I took my shot but I really wasn’t up for anymore, especially if I was about to take on the wild torrents of the mighty Nam Song river. Hyelan and Antoine looked equally dubious so I asked if perhaps, if they were thinking of setting off soon, if they wouldn’t mind terribly much if I could go with them?? They kindly accepted my intrusion as though it wasn’t one. I didn’t want to literally be the third wheel but I just wanted to set off with other people who could tell the authorities my last known whereabouts if it was to come to it.
We escaped the bar despite warnings from our hosts that there was no point in tubing sober, took our tyres to the waters edge, shoved our dry clothes in our wet bags, waded into the water already pulling at our tubes, hopped on and let go…
Ok, I just need to say this. I. AM. RIDICULOUS! All that turmoil and fear of life and death and this was no more terrifying than a swing! Less terrifying in fact. I would put my mum and dad on one of these! I would put my baby niece and nephew on one (littler ones with appropriate restraints of course.)! The water was never more that waist deep and as rough as it got was in the shallows where the tube bumped between rocks like a lethargic pinball machine – it was fun, I laughed out loud with irrepressible joy.
Laughing turned out to be the greatest hazard of all because it made me particularly susceptible to cheeky kayakers who’d sweep by in flocks like larger birds of prey to we, floating ducks. I copped more than my fair share of paddle-splashes, especially whilst I was touting the water gun Hyelan and Antoine had come prepared with. It proved my point that weapons only make you a target!
Hyelan and Antoine kept me company for the entire float which covered about 4 kilometers in just over 3 hours. There was ample opportunity in that for us to float apart for quiet contemplation and come back together for more fun and games. We even stopped at the last bar to enjoy a round of drinks in an overwater bungalow. I couldn’t have been happier.
The day remained overcast but the storm never broke. By the end of the float, I was starting to wish I had a paddle, especially when I saw Hyelan and Antoine had caught a tow from a passing kayak. I tried to join the chain but was too far out. Luckily the current picked up and I caught up with little effort. We all emerged at the other end soaked, cold and elated by the days adventure.
I slopped back to my guesthouse for a hot shower and change of clothes. Now that I had an appetite for going with the flow, I wrapped up my time in Vang Vieng in one of the party bars with some noodles, a Beer Lao and a couple of episodes of “Friends”, ever grateful for the new ones I had made today.