Spring Break, Laotian Style
By Claire Brownell
In my last article, I compared Laos to a Grade 8 birthday party. Vang Vieng, Laos, is the exception. This town is not like a Grade 8 birthday party. In fact, this town is not like anything or anywhere else on earth. If I had to attempt to describe Vang Vieng in one sentence, it would be something like this: Miami Beach meets MTV Spring Break, meets Las Vegas, meets stunningly beautiful national park, meets — of course — Laos. Vang Vieng sucked me in, supplied me with the most fun I’ve had on this trip, then spat me out with a headache, an empty wallet, and a sudden and intense desire to leave immediately, for fear I never would.
Vang Vieng initially became an attractive tourist destination for its mountains, caves, lagoons, and river. As it grew in popularity, it gained a reputation as a party town. This is in large part because of the venerable institution of tubing drunk down the Nam Song river. I talked to a traveler who had been there five years ago, when the thing to do was buy several beers in town, tie them in a bag floating behind your tube to keep them cold, and float blissfully and tipsily along while enjoying the dramatic mountain backdrop. Then someone got the bright idea to build a bar on the side of the river and pull tubers in for a drink by throwing them a bamboo stick attached to a rope. Today, the Nam Song seriously looks like Fort Lauderdale on Spring Break, if it were held together by twine, bamboo, and chewing gum. Travelers who had studied engineering, architecture, and physics would stand around, scratching their heads and discussing how it could be physically possible that these towering Tarzan rope swings and sunbathing platforms were not only standing, but supporting peoples’ weight. It was also quite obvious that, once again, the profit motive was outweighing reasonableness and safety. The rope swings were so popular that some had been constructed in areas of the river that were clearly too shallow or rocky to accommodate them. But after a few Beer Lao, everything seems like a good idea — including attempting back flips into the one square metre where you could land without getting a spinal injury.
Meanwhile, I sat on the side wringing my hands and cursing the fact that I’m a trained and qualified lifeguard who would probably be called upon to save the day, should said spinal injury occur. I wasn’t just being paranoid, either; dozens of people drown in the Nam Song every year. Once I drank away the spectres of brain damage and water-borne tropical parasites, however, tubing down the Nam Song was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.
By far the most surreal tourist phenomenon of Vang Vieng are the “Friends” bars. Some Vang Vieng local must have scored a copy of the survey of backpackers’ tastes from the tourism meeting in Thailand (see “The Theory,” two installments ago), mistranslated a phrase or two, and concluded that all foreigners crave constant reruns of “Friends” with the volume turned up to max while they eat. Trust me, nothing is creepier, or a bigger conversation killer. It does make you drink more, though, so I guess it works.
The final piece of Vang Vieng surrealism that can’t go unmentioned is the fact that buying drugs is literally as easy as buying a Popsicle. If you walk into a restaurant and ask to see the menu, wink, no, the other menu, wink wink, you can have your pick of magic mushroom fruit shakes, opium tea, and pot in every edible or smokeable form imaginable. A fun pastime is to go to the massive island parties that happen every night, and pretend you’re the host of a game show called “What Drug Are You On?.” Five points for correctly identifying someone who’s been baked since ten o’clock in the morning, ten for finding someone on mushrooms (easy because of the giggles and huge pupils), 15 for opium, and the grand prize for spotting the truly hardcore on Laos-style, freebased speed.
This leads many people to the disastrously mistaken conclusion that drugs are legal in Laos. Minus 25 points for you! My observations and accumulated anecdotal evidence support the dominant theory in the backpacker rumour mill about how things really work. This theory is that the restaurants with “happy” menus pay the police to leave their customers alone, while other places have an arrangement to ring them up to bust some idiot they see sparking a joint. People we met saw more than one sweating backpacker being escorted to an ATM by the cops to pay the $500 fine.
Ironically, the scenery surrounding Laos is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. A few kilometers out of town, there are caves so huge, and with such intricate rock formations, that it’s hard to believe they were created by water erosion and not Steven Spielberg’s set designers. There are impossibly deep turquoise lagoons filled with goldfish that scatter when you jump in, also just a few kilometers out of town. And as I mentioned earlier, while I was tubing down the river, every once in a while I’d look up at the misty cliffs and think “My god, they decided to set MTV Spring Break in Gondor this year.” Then I would motorbike back to my guest house, hear “See no one told you life was gonna be this way…” from a dozen restaurants, and remember that I was living in Bizarro World, not Middle Earth.
So go to Vang Vieng. Have the time of your life. Try to wake up before noon once or twice to see some caves and lagoons. But pack your bags and leave after a week, tops. Or else you’ll find you’re always stuck in second gear, and it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year…