An angel and devil on our shoulders

Tourist, Beer Lao, and a tube in Vang Vieng, Laos

Tourist, Beer Lao, and a tube in Vang Vieng, Laos

It probably wouldn’t have occurred to us to go to Vang Vieng, Laos if Liz – a traveler that Todd and I met back on our tigerless safari in Ranthambore, India – hadn’t posted a Facebook status update that said, “Tubing in Vang Vieng kicks arse and is the best fun I’ve had so far. I think I may have broken a rib though!”

This thumbs up contradicted the advice of Todd’s cousin Dan, who had recently traipsed through Laos. He walled me on Facebook, writing, “Avoid Vang Vieng, unless you really want happy food and ragers.”

On one hand, we have an enthusiastic if medically cautionary recommendation, the other, a dire warning. Which is the angel with a wise travel suggestion, and which is the devil, directing us down the wrong path?

Cleaning the cow head in the river, Vang Vieng, Laos

Cleaning the cow head in the river, Vang Vieng, Laos

After a brief consideration of the extra long, extra jarring bus ride we’d face if we went direct from Vientiane to Luang Prabang convinces Todd and I that a stopover in Vang Vieng is worth it. Besides, our already inexplicably outdated 2007 edition of The Rough Guide to Laos makes Vang Vieng sound like an area filled with gnarly spelunking and scenic countryside bike rides, without a mention of tubing or ragers.

Just two hours after we arrive, Vang Vieng is quickly getting on my nerves. The streets are dusty. It’s hot. And, worst of all, the Western tourists – and there are many – seem to be staggering drunk, shouting loudly, and, with Christmas just a couple of days away, wearing Santa hats along with their bathing suits, flip flops, and little else. Seeing this much flesh in a country as shy and conservative as Laos leaves us culture shocked.

As Todd and I wander Vang Vieng’s few streets in search of dinner, every menu we read has plenty of overpriced pizza, fruit shakes, hamburgers, sandwiches, and banana pancakes, but barely any local Laotian dishes. Just about anything can be made “happy,” which explains the zoned out tourists sprawled in the dozens of “TV bars” doing nothing besides watching Friends reruns and breathing.

Oh, the irony!

Oh, the irony!

The ambiance is a mix of the most boring stoner party you ever attended in college and a pub in London on New Years Eve. We’re in backpacker paradise, which is our personal hell. Liz is a devil.

As we near the end of town, where lights and buildings suddenly stop, I groan Todd, “Your cousin Dan was right. This place sucks. Maybe we should just do what he said – give Vang Vieng a miss – and leave tomorrow morning.”

Just then, a couple rides up on bikes to check out the menu of a restaurant we’re standing near. They seem oddly happy and alert, two things that don’t often go together in this town of Happy Pizzas. Twenty questions and answers later, they’ve given us some idea of what to do with ourselves, reassuring us that Vang Vieng isn’t so bad, so long as you leave Vang Vieng. They’ve liked it so much here that they’ve stayed on a few extra days, going tubing twice. Maybe it’s Dan that’s the devil.

Barber shop in Vang Vieng, Laos

I’d trust this barber. Sure.

The next morning, after suffering through the first of many mediocre meals, we follow the crowd to the tube rental shop. Prices have doubled from what we’d heard – 55,000 each seems like a lot of kip (about $7 US) just to borrow a truck inner tube that’s been patched so often it looks like Seal’s lupus-scarred cheeks.

Even before we float to the first bar, Todd and I realize that we’re at least 10 years older and, even by noon, 10 drinks more sober than most of the tubers. Wait, let me back up there. I just said “float to the first bar” like you’d understand what was going on.

My Dad, who grew up taking frequent family trips up and down the east coast, when I later described Vang Vieng’s tubing scene to him, had only one typically sarcastic comment, “Yeah, when I was younger they did that on rivers in Kentucky.”

So, picture a river in rural Kentucky in the early 1960s with all its clichés: watery beer, shots of whiskey, a slow-moving and shallow river, and young, slow-witted drunk kids with only the chill of the water to keep them from passing out as they float on their tube.

Freaky bird with a frog in its talons at Elephant Cave, Vang Vieng, Laos

Freaky bird with a frog in its talons at Elephant Cave, Vang Vieng, Laos

In Vang Vieng, the locals have done Kentucky one better, glomming onto the touristy scene by using bamboo and Jenga-inspired design aesthetics to build bar complexes on the edge of the Song River. Before you see a bar, you’ll hear either throbbing house music or, more likely, a woman’s incessant voice crying out “BeerLao!BeerLao!BeerLao!BeerLaaaooooo!,” sounding like a desperately horny bird during mating season. If you look even vaguely interested (or conscious), the staff of the bar will literally fish you out of the river using a long bamboo pole, or more dangerously, by pitching a heavy water-filled plastic bottle tied to a rope at your head.

After you clumsily un-tube yourself and scramble up to the bar, the first step is getting a drink, either the aforementioned Beer Lao, one of the cheapest beers in Asia, which seems to have instilled the idea that it’s also one of the best; or Lao Lao, a local-brewed whiskey that is so awful that it’s often given away free; or a bucket, a mixed drink actually served in a small plastic pail, identical to one used by kids to build sandcastles on the beach.

Countryside road near Vang Vieng, Laos

Countryside road near Vang Vieng, Laos

Most bars have a lopsided bamboo platform for dancing to music coming from 10 foot high speakers, an anachronism amongst the bamboo architecture and riverside karst landscape. A few bars have either a rope swing or zip line the brave can use to fling themselves into the river. Add a happy fruit shake with breakfast, and the natural high of a sunny day on the river, and it’s easy to imagine how Liz nearly broke a rib and why so many people hobble around Vang Vieng town with their heads, ankles, or wrists wrapped in bandages.

After two large Beer Laos each, Todd and I are still much more sober than most people on the river. Still, when in Rome…Todd tries out a zip line, which he describes to me as a shoulder-wrenching, belly flopping experience not to be repeated.

With my double-whammy of acrophobia and an annoying need to hold my nose when I swim, I can’t imagine flinging myself into the water. That is, until I round a river bend and see the two-story slide. I’ve been to water parks: this I can handle.

Bomb casing turned into Buddhist bell at Elephant Cave, Vang Vieng, Laos

Bomb casing turned into Buddhist bell at Elephant Cave, Vang Vieng, Laos

From the height of the top platform, the slide becomes an unconquerably long tunnel of white bathroom tiles and water. The slide is probably 100 feet long and slanted at an irresponsibly steep angle. I watch someone else slip down and notice that the end of the slide turns upward sharply, which combined with the person’s tremendous momentum, causes them to peak 15 feet above the water’s surface and travel forward 25 feet before landing in the river.

This is a terrible, stupid idea. When I look around for someone to give me some reassurance, there’s only the Laotian guy controlling who slides when.

I say to him, “I can do this right?”

He replies “Ok. Go.”

Obviously he’s not the cheerleader I was looking for.

As a skinny guy reaches the platform, I quickly wave him ahead, explaining, “Go ahead. I’m working up my nerve. I’m not ready yet.”

“Nope. I’m not going until you do,” he says. “If I go, you’ll probably just wimp out and climb down. I’ll wait.” My peer-pressure cheerleader has arrived!

Ready for kayaking the Song River, Vang Vieng, Laos

Ready for kayaking the Song River, Vang Vieng, Laos

As soon as my ass hits the slide I’m moving. Since the slide is flat-surfaced and I’m speeding along, it takes a lot of concentration and effort to stay centered so that I have a chance of a straight launch off the slide so I don’t flop onto…

The water!

I manage to suck in air and grab my nose, only to have the angle and force of my body slamming into the water rip my hand from my face and knock the breath out of me. Sputtering, I gracelessly paddle towards the shore. My skinny cheerleader makes a splash entry behind me. As he swims up to me he asks, “How’d it go?”

Smiling I say, “Well, I won’t do it again,” and flat out lie, “but I’m glad I did it!”

“Oh man, your mouth is bleeding or something.”

He’s right; my fingertips come away from my mouth covered with blood. I’ve ripped the inside of my top lip open. I look over at my skinny cheerleader just in time to see his nose start to ooze red.

Laughing and still bleeding, I say “You’re bleeding too! Your nose. Oh, that slide is dangerous.”

After rinsing off his bloodied face in the river, he says, “That’s ok, I’m going back for more.”

Maybe Liz is the devil after all.

Photos from Vang Vieng, Laos

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.