The sun slowly begins to make slow silhouettes out of two children playing beneath the red sky on the Mekong River. To the Laos (pronounced Lao by the locals) side of the river there is a large sand bar which swells the shallow stream of water. On the side which divides Laos from Thailand, a small mountain climbs into the sky perfectly to shadow most of Vientiane at dusk. A policeman in green Communist style fatigues stands by the only international ATM in the country offering that omnipresent sense of law. One block from my window, five Lao tuk-tuk (a 3-wheeled cabin cycle commonly found in Asia) drivers crack open their nightly beer on the side of the road. They are standing in the same place they were last night openly toward the small crowd that passes down the long drive that borders the waterfront; eagerly breaking their conversation to offer their services.
After the sun sets fully the tuk-tuk drivers greet me under the yellow light of a lamppost much to no surprise. The bar scene wasn’t exactly ecstatic in Vientiane, but that doesn’t seem to bother the light-hearted Lao people. Easily the sleepiest, most laid back capital in Southeast Asia, Vientiane offers a placid view of the Mekong that stands adjacent to several blocks of pavement ambitiously disguised as road.
The tuk-tuk drivers greet me with a large smile that seems to circle around their face. They greet me in Thai, a language spoken throughout the cities of this sleepy country, and I respond back to them much to their delight. The tallest and skinniest of the drivers pours me a small glass of bubbling beer Lao, and we spark our small glasses and say chun, cheers in Thai, then down the entire glass until there is only a foamy residue left on the bottom.
After a couple of days in Vientiane it is easy to figure out why Lao people can be seen drinking socially – or alone – during all times of the day. The touristy highlight of the city had to be something more than the Arch de Triumph look-alike that was built with American aid money.
The closest form of entertainment besides the messy riverside restaurants or the sleepy bars is in the secluded town of Vang Viene, some three hours north of Vientiane. It was here that I had spent the weekend prior losing myself in a fantastic whirl of decadence and leisure. With the taste of the heavy beer still swashbuckling in my mouth, the tuk-tuk drivers inquire as to how my weekend had turned out, then continue to crack open another $.80 USD bottle of beer Lao, letting the sweet stench permeate through the air into my face.
Vang Viene is blocked by countless kilometers of rolling green mountains that scream toward the sky forming kinds of foliage-ridden jagged peaks that I thought were only possible in tales of fantasy. The constant change in altitude was making my stomach move along every twisty turn the bus barely managed to crawl by. From a higher altitude the mountain range looked like a giant strip of brail that was highly defined by the depth of its grooves. Along the many broken paths outside of the capital of Vientiane, the majority of the residential population is settled into moderately designed French farming villas. Passing a small high school and a final sighting of the Lao flag crossed over a flag of the red communist sickle and hammer – things start to change drastically.
Within the rolling mountains of the northern Vientiane province, rests countless hill tribe villages that make up the majority of Laos’s agricultural GDP. While stopping on the way to Vang Viene, disembarking conjures up a notion of time travel as villagers pour from their wooden and hay-thatched huts to gaze at the foreigners that have made the journey to their village. Five boys are playing soccer with no shirts or shoes on besides one of the larger huts. When they kick the ball dark brown dirt flies through the air staining their shins. One of the boys is called over by his mother who is wearing little to disguise the imagination, and they continue over to eat dinner with their family of fifteen.
After the cows and other assorted livestock are shoed off of the road, I continue down through the mountainside rushing by more villages. These are the suburbs of Laos. It occurs to me that the large hut I had seen in the past village was of enough prominent stature to be a capital building for the rest of the surrounding villages.
A lonely village tears out of the mountainside; sitting on the side of an open valley. It is nightfall and the bus makes a halt in front of a hostel where the owner has no doubt paid the bus company to drop us off. The few lampposts that light up the street flicker to a beat that imitates the buzz of the bugs in the surrounding highlands. Two streets cross at the center of town where a small building greets travelers to Vang Viene’s only night club – Naam Lao Disco.
The building to its right is a small restaurant. To the left is three floors of wooden sticks that make the outline of one of the many French villa hostels that contribute to housing the town’s tourism industry. This is the center of Vang Viene.
Tubing between the valleys of Vang Viene
My Dutch companion looks straight ahead of himself. He takes a swig of his Bea Lao and gazes off into the jungle that is split in two by a river which is bubbling up light rapids at the closest bend. He is sun burnt to a crisp red, and stands at the top of a 25-meter wooden trapeze apparatus which is connected to a tree on the side of the river. He holds the bar with both hands and takes the first and only step off the bamboo platform.
Zipppp. He drops instantly over the open water and back up again 20 meters into the air – hovering over the river for a split second.
Vang Viene is a stronghold of solace that houses the many weary backpackers of Southeast Asia, and attracts travelers willing to maneuver themselves out of the beaten track of Thailand. It is here that travelers can participate in Vang Viene’s famous river tubing. It is an activity as easy to perform as it is to say.
With nothing but a rubber yellow tube, a bathing suit speckled with red dirt, and about 120,000 Lao Kip (about 5,000 LAK = $1 USD) for spare change tourists can float down Lao’s famous water-park of a river – stopping along the way only for some trapeze exercise, the munchies, and the occasional beer.
Three American dollars later and tube in hand, you can begin by floating down a beautiful river in backyard of Laos while taking in the mountainous green peaks of the highlands – rubbing with the riverside of several villages and water buffalo crossings.
Along the journey it is very much encouraged, if not completely enforced, that tubers partake in the 24oz. Beer Lao that is offered at the multiple bamboo-crafted bars that don the river.
From above the tubes passing by look like giant cheerios swirling downstream as the Dutchman lets go of his trapeze bars midair. Two seconds later, he splits through the river and quickly returns to the surface with a large smile pressed up against his red cheeks.
While sitting shoe-less on one of the several bamboo crafted platforms, I make a perfect view for watching the other parties from around Laos and the world take a place by the riverside bar cheering the ongoing live trapeze performances. The sun is directly overhead as another performer takes their mark above, sliding into a silhouette; blocking the light shining down on the bamboo benches below.
Downstream a Lao man is sitting on a rock in the middle of the shallow river with a beer Lao in hand and a wide smile greeting all tubers that float by. I can’t help but laugh as I grapple onto the side of the rock and fork over the 10,000 Kip in exchange for the icy cold beverage.
“What a clever one he is,” a fellow tuber chuckles.
As we float past another tiny village, a small pack of children jump into the river and start swimming after us. They are eager to play and clasp to the back of several tubes. Instinctually, they start kicking – doubling as motors for our nautical devices. Up around the bend is a pack water buffalo that are slowly crossing the stream into the thick jungle on the opposite side. We approach closer and closer, almost touching the massive untamed animals, but nothing could break this spirit. We kindly pass out some pocket change, and the children give us a final push goodbye.
Vang Viene is a place that seems to achieve the impossible. It locks in travelers who are completely bent on traveling.
Amsterdam of Asia
The first night in Vang Viene most travelers will notice that weed, mushroom, and opium flavored tea are common items on the local menus, and can be found conveniently on the page right before appetizers.
A fellow transient sits behind a bar in Vang Viene pealing through the menu, pondering over what his next appetizer should be. “I spent two weeks in Vang Viene before I got a job promoting for this bar,” said the Canadian. “I’ve been here at least a month now.”
Sitting next to the river that night, watching the full moon’s reflection bounce off the base of the grassy peaks, it wasn’t hard to see why travelers could feel so inclined to find a means of employment in Vang Viene.
In it for the ride
I spill foamy beer all over the cracked street after cheering too cheerfully with the tuk-tuk drivers. They smile in response to my apparent party foul, and I bid them adieu promising one of them I will hire him for work tomorrow morning. He agrees to meet me promptly at my hostel at 5:30am the next morning and take me to the border for five dollars. And you thought you had it hard?
The Mekong is only a reminder of the river that I was forced to abandon in Vang Viene; it’s a depressing thought. Luckily, I’ve hitched up with two Californian travelers and we decide to hit up one of the local sleepy bars. It’s the best we can do to numb the pain, for they too have been forced to leave Vang Viene.
Beer Lao to backpackers after leaving Vang Viene has become something like a pile of condolences for weeping widows. After a jug or three, we notice three Lao women across the bar, and even though it has been made apparent that having intercourse with locals is completely illegal for foreigners, we take our chances and invite them over.
It’s not long before they invite us over to the best, most expensive club in Laos. After a short ride on the back of their motorcycles we arrive at the base of the tallest building in Laos, a hotel that stands several stories tall next to the Mekong River. After paying the cover charge of three USD, we enter, quickly realizing that we are drawing odd stares from every corner of the club as if the black lights had the ability to make our white skin appear neon green.
Then, for some odd and inexplicable reason, the lights of the club went up and the music stopped. Our girls looked at us sadly and explained, as if we hadn’t already guessed, that the club was closing down.
With smiles still on their three faces, my two Californian counterparts and I take to the back of their motorcycles, accepting their invitation to continue the party at their house.
Five turns, ten minutes. Ten more turns, twenty more minutes. The crisp wind of the cool Lao mountains is rushing down the street and into my face as the motorcycle drifts farther from Vientiane. My driver is small and soft but she knows these streets like a surgeon knows a scalpel. The motorcycle finally comes to a halt in front of one of a house. They quickly set up a table for us in the gated front lawn and offer us some food. We agree and they rush off to what appears to be a side garage. The stars are showing in perfect detail tonight. I doubt there is map in the world that could tell us where we are.
Several minutes pass and we impatiently walk up to the door of the garage. To our surprise, the girls are hand making us a spicy Lao salad. What hospitably this is. There are hand-picked vegetables that have been diced up on the side, and one of the girls is stirring a thick paste of spices that has been freshly made. They insist we sit down and, not wanting to interfere with their cordial plans, we do.
After we are served our salad and beer, we complement our hostesses. Even though the salad is one of the spiciest things this side of Bangkok, we still manage to finish a little under half the serving. While in the midst of this sadomasochistic meal, our hostesses begin to massage our backs. They certainly don’t have this kind of service at the Hilton.
With the frigid mountain wind still blowing in my air, we decide to break from our diner party say our goodbyes.
French villas pass more and more frequently as me and my new Lao friend make our way towards Vientiane. The wind is even more freezing now that we have started moving, but my senses are too numb to the sights of my mapless surroundings to feel the pain.
Brakes! We suddenly swerve to dodge a dog in the road; my heart rushes along with our motorcycle into the high grass of the jungle. I look at my driver and she looks back at the skid marks on the road, takes a deep breath, and continues to ride off towards Vientiane.
Crossing the border back to Thailand the next day, I wonder to myself if I had really just been on this planet. If time travel is possible, surely it exists within the borders of Laos.