Twelve years ago, Vang Vieng was a quiet riverside town surrounded by stunning karst peaks on the dusty, rough, winding road between two of Laos' major destinations. A quirky old Lao man named "Mr T" had an organic mulberry farm a few kilometers outside of town, where travelers would stay to volunteer milking goats, picking mulberries, and teaching english in local villages. One day Mr T patched up some old inner tubes from farmers, and gave them to his volunteers after the morning labours to float a few hours down river to the town. Fast forward to today and this simple concept has inadvertently created the monster that is now Vang Vieng: "An atmosphere of lethargy by day and debauchery by night. Hedonistic backpackers sprawl out in the pillow-filled restaurants, termed 'TV Bars', watching re-runs of Friends and Family Guy episodes until the sun goes down, and then party heavily until the early hours." It's the only place in Laos where drugs are not just available, but on the menu: Choose from "happy shakes", or "happy pizza" with a variety of happinesses to suit. And a few kilometers up river, beside Mr T's once-tranquil organic mulberry farm, "the pulsating music, drinking games and drug-fuelled partying of the increasingly lively riverside 'tubing' bars starts at lunch-time and goes until sundown."
The shirts and singlets available in town, reading "In the Tubing, Vang Vieng" -- which I can only assume is meant to read "Inner Tubing" -- are up there with Bali's "Bintang Beer" shirts as trophies for those tourists drinking their way around the world. One could also consider Vang Vieng as a contender for the Darwin Awards capital of the world: Most tubing bars have hacked together obscene slides, ziplines and rope swings, some of them with intersecting trajectories. (the Big Slide is more commonly known as the "Slide of Death"). The high season for partying coincides with the low season for water level. And by late afternoon many patrons can barely stand, let alone swim. Last year twenty tourists died here. So far this year, two.
Back on the farm, Mr T can't even benefit from the tubing rental income of the craze he began, because a cartel controls it all. He can't stop the thumping music overlapping from all the illegal riverside bars either, because the bar owners are either bribing the local policemen, or are the local policemen. Tired of fighting, Mr T started a drink stand too, with delicious mulberry cocktails. All the profits go to fund nearby village schools. A large sign ironically encourages you to "Drink for the Children". They say if you can't beat them, join them. Cheers. Like Red Wine
With nothing much to do during the scenic two-day slowboat ride to Laos' UNESCO heritage town of Luang Prabang, people's options were limited: read, sleep, chat to fellow travellers, or drink. When I visited the "men's toilet" (aka the back of the boat, where some heavier drinkers were congregating) I met an exceptionally friendly ginger-haired Irish lad named Sebby. He was wearing a custom printed t-shirt, featuring an actual sized, grinning self portrait. Bright orange letters beneath his face proclaimed, "Support Your Local Ginger". Fortunately for me and everyone on the boat (most of whom he was already acquainted with) he was a brilliantly happy drunk. On the second morning of the trip when everyone was boarding the boat, Sebby lurched past us dragging a garbage can, filled with beer and ice. "I ran out of beer yesterday," he explained when he saw me laughing. When Sebby reappeared around at 9am with a beer in each hand, my doctor friend Jan explained to us, "I'd hate to see his liver. I've seen people suffering alcohol withdrawal. It's as bad as heroin, except that heroin withdrawal can't kill you."
Several weeks, and hundreds of kilometers later, I was photographing the drunken riverside chaos of Vang Vieng, and saw a grinning ginger, his body covered in writing. He had sunglasses drawn on his face. Even though Laos' tourist trail is varied, with little offshoots and side trips, I can't say I was surprised to find Sebby here. He shook my hand enthusiastically, and told me a serious story that nonetheless made him laugh (he was still drunk of course). "Last week I got alcohol poisoning, I think I could have died. My pee looked like red wine!". I was wondering to myself if it changed his outlook on life, when he offered me a free bucket of whiskey and coke. He had a job at the bar. "They pay us with free accommodation, food, and unlimited drinks. I think I found my dream job!" He had been there a week already. He explained quite frankly how he knows he won't last long at his pace. "I'll die a young man," he said smiling with his arm around me, "But I'll die a happy man!"
VIP (Very Ill Passengers)
I had traveled in crammed minivans, stairwells of rickety buses, and on rooftop luggage racks of pickup trucks. So I thought I'd try a VIP aircon bus, which included a free lunch. As it turned out, that the only thing as advertised was the 'bus' part. When I was laid out with food poisoning in my hotel room for the next 24 hours, unable to even keep water down, I chuckled as I thought of that old adage, "There's no such thing as a free lunch". I was also chuckling because the icing on the cake, as it were, was that it was my birthday -- yet the only cake I could consider in that sorry state was metaphorical.
I swore off so-called "VIP" buses that day, and for my next journey, hopped on the locally preferred transport option: a beat up old pickup truck with a broken handbrake. Every time the driver got out, he had to quickly throw a rock behind the wheel before we rolled away. Joining me on the wooden benches in the tray were half a dozen Lao, a sprightly rooster in a cardboard television box, bags of vegetables the locals were taking out and comparing like westerners would smartphones, a couple children suffering badly from motion sickness, and a live pig in a bag -- with a hole just large enough for its snout to protrude-- that gave me such a fright the first time it squealed, that it made me squeal, and everyone howled with laughter at me. During the five hour trip, we passed the VIP bus to arrive before it. Now that's what I call VIP.
If you'd like to see the very best of the photos I've been 'making' (as the Germans say), check out my Flickr set for the trip by clicking any of the thumbnails above.