Vern: Six hours in a cramped minibus isn't fun. Even less so when the driver stops whenever he wants and fills any remaining spaces with locals who take up just as much space but pay a fraction of what the 'falangs' pay. Luckily, however, the views through the bus windows were splendid! The foreground was green and rambling and the background: an artwork of random peaks and troughs in three lightenning shades of blue. One day, a large sun-deck will be constructed and crowds will come for these views alone, but now the mountains play just understudy to the toiling road to Vang Vieng.
Mostly it was buses, minibuses and Chinese touring parties in 4x4s who were headed in the same direction as us. At one point, in the opposite direction, the only traffic was a school of teenagers in white collared shirts, holding red plaid sun-umbrellas in one hand and the handlebars with the other.
We were dropped in Vang Vieng and wandered its dusty streets in search of somewhere peaceful to stay. The few foreigners in town were either already bleary or were nursing hangovers in one of thirty-odd restaurants serving western food and playing either 'Friends' or 'Family Guy' DVDs. Andrea mused that the staff, if not the full population of the town, must have "I'll be there for you, when the rain starts to pour, I'll be there for you..." in their heads ALL the time.
Vang Vieng is where gap year kids come to drink. And stay too long at, to drink. And apparently return to year after year, to drink. The town sits on the Mekong river, and on the opposite side of the river the land is largely undeveloped, leafy and well watered. Magnificent lime stone karsts rise from nowhere, like a moulded jelly on a flat plate, and reach into the clouds. But on the town side of the river it is arid. All the buildings are boxy and the colour of dirty concrete. Every other building is a cloned restaurant or a guesthouse. All with identical illuminated yellow signs, with the name of the establishment printed in the same font next to a picture of a sweating bottle of Beerlao. The draw is the river in its incarnation as a novel arena for drunkeness and shenanigans. You can rent an inner-tube from town, then get driven 4km upstream where you enter the water and ride the river current back to town. But, most people don't make it past the first kilometre. You see there are seven or eight brightly painted bars, with loud music, free shots, rope swings, crude slides and cold beer on both sides of the river within this first kilometre. And once you paddle over to the first one, you've committed to a long leery afternoon.
This is why town was quiet now. We checked into a place which looked quiet and which we thought may remain quiet, then went out to eat. Fair prices scrawled on a delipidated sandwich board caught our attention, and we entered a dark passage and climbed a concrete staircase. To my surprise it opened up to a little deck looking beyond the ugliness of town and onto the river and the mountains beyond. Perfect. I ordered a beer with dinner, Andrea ordered an ice coffee, and we sat down just as orange embers started burning on the edges of the clouds.
The other people on the deck were a young English couple struggling with a dilemma: her passport was waterlogged and destroyed and she had a flight out of Thailand in a few days, (I suspect this happened tubing, therefore: what an idiot!) and an older German man sitting alone.
The clouds caught fire, the sun dived into the trenches, and a platoon of fruit bats were deployed. A silhouette of chaos, the sky was a speckled mess before a wind current herded the swarm into a huge question-mark which hovered over the mountains. "Those are new," said the German to himself but loud enough such that I thought he'd like to be engaged in conversation. I obliged. He'd been there a month but doesn't do "that touristy stuff". Oh, what do you do then?
"Well I go for a walk. I have breakfast, and then you know... lunch break. And then I find a place for dinner. It's the same most days. But the bats, those are new."
So nothing then, you've picked this town to do... well... nothing. It seemed pointless probing for more.
After a second beer (hey, when in Vang Vieng) we ventured back toward our abode. Everyone was back! Town was shouting and singing, wet and sweaty, and well and truly drunk. Tuk-tuk after tuk-tuck brought back twenty year-old after twenty year-old in their swimwear, some with thier tubes, some without (thereby losing their deposit) and all chanting, "Vi. Va. Vang Vieng. Viva Vang Vieng!" Most were covered in marker pen, with silly phrases scrawled all over their torsos. The oddest one I saw, on a young man's back, was "Vang Vieng: 2009 - tick, 2010 - tick, 2011 - tick." Three years in a row he'd come to Laos to tube and drink. Money well spent, son.
We retired to our room which had a TV in it (a first) so we watched part of an old James Bond film and fell asleep. Pretty rock 'n roll, hey?! Our rest was however rather patchy and the night long, as kids came home loudly or banged on each others' doors asking for lighters and what not.
We of course too were there for the tubing, and even some drinking. But as it turned out, our schedule allowed for only the former. We were moving quite quickly down Laos at this point - with only six weeks left of our entire trip, we were racing to see it all - and thus had booked a bus out of town at 1:30pm. Checkout time at the hostel was at noon, so leaving some time for a warm shower, we needed to be back at around 11:30am. So our tubing experience would be a Breakfast Run. We picked up our tubes at the hire shop at around 9am where a sign said that it takes 1-2 hours to float down stream in the wet season, and 3-4 in the dry season. Currently it was the dry season. It'd be close.
A tuk-tuk took us the 4km up river and dropped us on at the riverbank next to an Organic Mulberry Farm where Andrea ordered a mulberry pancake, but later cancelled her order because after twenty minutes they hadn't even turned the stove on. We were in the water by 9:45.
The morning sun was out but the water certainly wasn't warm, we realised as we collapsed into the tubes and paddled out into the current. My bum, which obviously had to spend the entire journey submerged, soon went numb so the chills came when my paddling or the rapids splashed droplets up onto my dry chest.
The mighty Mekong was empty but for the shards of mountains' reflections and the only sound was water in a hurry. We manauvered our tubes into a convincing current and put it to work. The rickety wooden drinking establishments started appearing on the river banks. The first two were closed: too early. In front of these, a young man was criss-crossing the water in a longboat, kneeling down and peering into the water wearing a dive-mask. Looking for dropped money and other valuables I suspect, and I'm sure he cleans up. A shirtless man on a platform attached to the third bar called out, "Beerlao, and free shot!" Regrettably I had to shout back, "Its only 10am. Too early for drinking." (Boy, did hearing that come out of my mouth make me feel old!) Nonetheless, he optimistically through out a rope, buoyed by empty coke bottles, to me but I let it float by.
The next few bars all featured adventure activities to lure tubers in but to sober eyes these drawcards more closely resembled obstacles in a medieval gauntlet which would make the Knights of the Round Table quiver: a cliff jump into shallow water, a rope swing over jagged rocks and a water slide constructed by stapling a plastic tablecloth over a couple of nailed together planks at a 60-degree incline. It's a wonder that only one or two people die annually.
We floated by a spot called Viva Vang Vieng, which explained last nights' chanting, then past the appropriately named Last Bar and then back to nature. The remaining few kilometres were pretty and peaceful, except for Andrea yelling when her tube drifted into the tree-cast shadows. Occasionally a spattering of shallow rocks churned the water into effervescent rapids which required some quick thinking (lucky we'd practised these on X-Box 'Kinnect Adventures' in Santiago) and in other places there was no current at all. In one of these places, a sign advised, "2km to town. Tuk tuk back to town available here." Very clever. But we didn't take the bait and continued on our own steam. Farm lands and fisherman, conical hats and crude rafts slowly gave way to lodges and restaurants and town was hard to miss. We paddled over to a mud flat and got out of the water. The tube rental place was a lot busier when we returned ours: no one else would have the river to themselves. We washed off the Mekong in hot showers, and checked out at noon on the dot leaving enough time for lunch (and therefore an episode of Family Guy) before our bus to the capital, Vientiane.