River Bucketsby Rob Scher / 20.08.2011
Canned laughter echoes throughout the street as homely baguette ladies jostle for your attention. “Sabadee!” A warm smile spread across her face as she offers to whip you up a delicious sandwich with extra mustard. Baguettes and crepes seem to be at least one useful remnant left from the French occupation. The laughter appears to be emanating from a pillow-laden utopia, inhabited by monged-out travellers, glued to television sets screening endless re-runs of Friends or Family Guy. Glancing at a watch the time reads 23:30. When do baguettes and Chandler take a break? After three days I realized that time operates differently here. In an otherwise rural country where the Transkei-like landscape is dotted with makeshift housing, Vang Vieng, hedonism capital of Laos, and quite possibly South-East Asia, represents an oasis for the thirsty traveller.
Having maintained a good record of avoiding major landmarks along the “Banana Pancake Trail”, a few days of drunken river tubing was an obvious choice. Although the town, located in a beautiful valley, is popular for its range of wholesome outdoor activities, anyone visiting under the age of 30 comes for one reason – tubing. Incredibly Vang Vieng has created its own unique micro-economy around a river and some rubber tyre innards. The idea is to simply hire a tube and float down the river, periodically being cast a line and pulled into one of the numerous bars dotted along the riverbank where copious amounts of alcoholic buckets are on offer and free whisky shots flow like water. Over the next three days, we would embark on this anthropological experience.
“You don’t really need a tube, most people just swim down the river,” a seasoned tuber recommends as we approach the rental shop. Makes sense – more money for drinking – in Vang Vieng that’s about the most logic required. Arriving at the first bar on the river I’m immediately taken back to Umhlanga Matric Rave. Lots of burly jocks with their shirts off, downing beers in the company of beautiful girls who are generally disinterested in my witty repartee. Instinctually my pale companions and I go in search of social lubrication. Two beers down I begin to feel the unmistakable sensation of daydrunk. Barring the crappy house music and the constant cawing of Australians, it’s almost paradise.
Glancing downstream my attention is drawn to countless flying bodies descending from the skies into the river. If the combination of alcohol and rapidly flowing river didn’t seem hazardous enough, each bar is also equipped with its own zipline. It’s no surprise a tourist dies every two weeks in this place. This fact doesn’t put off Steve, who decides to run the risk of becoming a statistic. Steve returns, slightly winded and we float on to the next bar.
Bar number two seemed considerably more fun upon arrival – obviously the buckets were kicking in. Situated between drunken woo-woo girls and an overly competitive game of beer pong I attempt to make some light conversation with a dazed looking girl.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Lizzy from Manchester.”
Lizzy was sweet, she reminded me of a younger, less posh Eddie from Absolutely Fabulous. In hindsight this was my chance to have an earnest conversation with an interesting foreigner, or at best a foreigner. Instead when asked by sweet Lizzy where I was from my answer came out as, “I’m from a small country in Central Africa known as the Democratic Republic of Bongo.”
Any vestiges of a genuine interaction immediately disappeared.
“Yes, we did invent the Bongo drum. No Manu Chao’s song is not a tribute to our Monarch; in fact our state currently has a fatwa placed on his head. What’s a fatwa? Never mind Lizzy.”
The day continues in a blur of shots, head banging to Nirvana and attempting to make it all the way to the bottom of the river on foot which ends with my stumbling onto a private residence only to be charged at by a pack of dogs. But the day is far from over, the town’s nightlife awaits.
Our first and last stop for the evening is Jaydee’s Bar. Upon arrival we’re handed a standard menu along with an inconspicuous silver bucket. Scrawled on the bucket is a menu of another kind, the items are more expensive but will offer you more than a full stomach. Some deliberation later our decision is made, “We’ll have four baguettes and an opium joint.” The waiter winking, collects our menu’s and the bucket. After sitting in Jaydee’s for what must have been ages we decide to call it a night, figuring it to be the early hours of the morning. It seems that we have discovered one of the properties of opium, smoke it and time stops. We were in bed by 10pm.
The next day begins, starting with several hours of Family Guy. I’m beginning to see the pattern here. The amount of time spent on the river versus watching tv and eating, slowly inverts the longer you stay. The rest of the day progresses exactly like the last. River, buckets, that fucking “We No Speak Americano” song, drunken zip-lining, homo-erotic jock nudism, conversations about the Bongo, blank, tuk-tuk back to town, another night lost to Jaydee’s.
Another day down I was beginning to have serious questions about the moral fabric of society. Going to the river was no longer a fun activity and more of a task. The jokes in Family Guy were wearing thin and Friends should remain locked in a time capsule along with other remnants of the 90s. I could tell from the looks on my comrades’ faces, it was time to leave. Steve had impaled his foot and couldn’t walk. Andy was about ready to engage in violence with the next person who sang along to the Americano song. Even good humored Mike was showing signs of fatigue at the mere mention of going to the river.
My vision Vang Vieng had drastically morphed into a dystopia. The locals watch stoically as countless Westerners descend day after day, endlessly getting fucked up until they can’t take it and leave just in time for the next batch to arrive and repeat the process. In a country riddled with poverty, it’s ridiculous to see a town where money is treated with so little regard, drunk and pissed away daily. Ironically so many travellers come to Vang Vieng searching for that authentic travel experience. Donning their ‘same same, but different’ vests they leave with good stories and the sense that they’ve “discovered” Laos. But let’s not pretend. If you ever come to Viang Veng you’re here for the booze, the river, the zip lines and the potential of scoring hot Swedish backpackers.
*All images © Rob Scher.