This is one tale of many from an amazing 2008 journey to Asia with my brethren.
Squinting into the strangling Laotian morning sun, the heat grinds me to a standstill, only feet outside of my air-conditioned oasis of a guesthouse. My already haphazard crew has devolved into virtually irreparable shambles, and we absolutely have to re-form and carpe diem or die trying. I need to find Seth, our Paralympic-Gold-Medal winning professional athlete, Shima, our numskull-traveler, Dylan, our well-intentioned trainwreck, and Reid and Morgan, strangers until a week ago, now essential pieces of this day, this ultimate travel day.
Apparently I need to find myself as well. I pick a direction and start walking in search of an ATM and my companeros. I drift from the sidewalk into the road and back again, in front of moving automobiles, trying to avoid certain death. My motor skills are a bit wonky and the to-do list is terribly long. It’s looking bad. Multiple Beerlao’s and Whiskey buckets…must've been peer pressure. And why couldn’t we heed common sense and avoid that mess altogether?
I stumble into Bota, our lone sober soldier, out for a few days with a crippling stomach problem. I praise his stomach problem and the resulting cleared head as he is our rock, our voice of reason, and our only proof of intelligence, for we are not well.
We are in Vang Vieng, a tiny village about six hours north of the capital city Vientiane. And Vang Vieng is a travelers’ mecca of sorts as it is home to the modern sport of river tubing/bar hopping/zipline swinging. About 10 bars line the calm, brown Nom Sam river, each beckoning any tuber in with free shots of whiskey, bikini-clad Germans and, in one case, mud volleyball. In town, you can rent a tube and a ride for about $8 US, and you’re free to explore from there.
Seth was faring better and had only went to check his email. Shima was a scramble of mangled logic (he once advised that losing a passport shouldn’t be hard to fix, so he didn’t need to keep it safe) that somehow kept deteriorating. Dylan remained in bed with heavy back pain and a feeling of gaseous air in his belly that would not disappear. He threw up the white flag, which I was way bummed to see. Reid had been vomiting the night before and all morning.
Renting the tubes and riding the taxi among the crowds we were treated to the shock of hundreds of tourists indulging in a full day of binging and being obnoxious. On first sight, it looked ugly, but we were, in the end, part of what we perceived as ugly.
Unable to wrap my head around such concepts, we hopped in the water.
A cosmopolitan river-fest if there was one, Israeli’s, Swiss, Japanese and more all co-mingled, shared buckets and poured on the alcohol-spurred, internationally-flavored thought provoking topics. Cleared of his sickness, Bota was gung-ho to be back in the party spirit. After the second bar, the bartender offered Bota her half-full bottle of whiskey to take down the river which he took with a smile. Wonderful, I thought, our voice of reason just happily decided to take cheap whiskey in a glass bottle down a river to another bar also serving the same stuff for free. Our logic was drunk.
It was game on, and at the mud-pit/volleyball court/outdoor discotheque, Seth wanted to hit the zipline, and I was all for it. A line of “Let’s do this before we think about it too much” seemed to satisfy any worries. I piggy-backed him up a crooked one-story, rickety wooden-ladder covered in slick mud. Having obviously put safety as our top priority, Reid and our awesome British pal Rick were trailing me in case of a slip-up, and Bota was standing by on water support to retrieve Seth from the current.
Standing on the zipline loading platform about 30 feet off the water, with a throbbing headrush either from the physical exertion, the booze, or Seth’s forearm applying all his weight straight to my adams apple thereby constricting my oxygen flow, it was now or never. I repeated my “let’s do this…” line, albeit a bit more feebly, and grabbed the handle and bombed away. Seth released his grip and plopped in the water midway through the line and I did the same soon after. Bota ensured for safety, and we all emerged without a scratch. Our team was again a dysfunctionally cohesive unit.
But in all honesty, the lack of safety is troubling upon reflection the next day. A scruffy Aussie, intent on hucking backflips off a Gelande-style tube ramp, insisted on doing so, despite his girlfriends pleas and repeated warnings about his recently injured knee. When we left the last bar, darkness set in and a hungry, exhausted mob formed a flotilla in total darkness, unaware of where the take-out was, and risking floating for eternity back to Ventiane. We heard tales of many floating too far. The guidebooks reaffirmed this fear by pointing out the tourist death toll on that particular section of river.
We did however, see the exit zone, and all was well. But we had taken a considerable risk, and if it something went wrong, we would have been screwed.
The tourist traffic seems astounding, and the potential for similar quasi spring-break booze tube-cruises, seems limitless. If there’s an average couple hundred people a day (way more on our day) paying eight bucks each that’s $1,600 per day. Plus everyone paying for booze, which could conservatively be put at ten dollars each, that would make a rough total of $2,600 per day. To be sure, that’s a wild guess at numbers, and who knows about operating costs, how it gets paid out, etc, But doesn’t Vang Vieng share the same traits as many small villages the world over? Cheap cost of living, accessibility, scenic rivers, warm water, and a seeming lack of liquor enforcement.
I wouldn’t pretend to make claims that this would be a guaranteed boon, and the issue of the effect on the culture, economy and lifestyle of the locals is a great debate, but the potential seems intriguing.