We started off the trip very lazily floating down the river while trying not to get our butts slammed by rocks (because the wet season is only a couple weeks away the river is barely going)
. Only 50 yards downstream we decided to make our first stop at a little bar that had a zipline over the river. All these places have a setup where if you buy a drink you have free rein over whatever crazy jumps they have set up. On this zipline you start off about 30 feet above the river and swing out and down until you're about 10 over. At the end you have one of two equally fun options. You can either 1) let go immediately before the plastic stop and let the momentum send you flying out or 2) ride it all the way to the end, hit the stop and have the force of the sudden break send you twisting in the air like a ragdoll before splashing down. Rich's attempt with option number two sent him flying so haywire that not only were we hysterical but so were all the Lao fishermen in the river who were trying to work. After a brief stint with some rapids (this trip is probably not as relaxing but a helluva lot more fun after the wet) we found ourselves at bar #2. This one offered a swing that starts even higher up that you hang onto until whenever you might want to let go and go sprawling into the water. What I was much more excited about was the free lao lao with each drink, something I had yet to experience. Lao lao is the national drink in Lao (as you might imagine). It's rice whiskey, smells and goes down like pure gasoline and has a zero-to-drunk performance of about 2.8 seconds. It's the Ferrari of alcohol. I was only halfway through my second Beerlao -- granted that each beer out here is the size of two and has a much higher alcoholic content than the rubbish in the States -- but all of a sudden feeling quite good about myself
. After the shot I endeavored to play what seems to be the Lao national sport. It's sort of a cross between football (soccer, blah blah blah) and volleyball. You have a hollowed out small ball made of straw and you play on a court with a net about five feet high and you can use anything but your hands to keep the ball alive. The most dangerous shot is when a Laotian can juggle the ball and then deliver a wheelhouse kick on the ball. I was about an inch and a half from having a free facial tattoo because of that maneuver.
After surviving that game and still feeling the lao lao we had a long float down the river. Technically, you can paddle yourself to get moving along, but why would you? You're surrounded by limestone mountains covered in trees and lying on a float in the middle of the river so the thought of exerting any effort whatsoever is pretty silly. After half an hour or so we came to a bend in the river and found a bar situated inside a cave. This was my favorite stop of the day. First they had a swing that you stood up in that looks a lot tamer than it actually is. When you watch you think all it is is you get rocked back and then jump off a couple feet into the water. It's only when you're standing on the thing and realize that by the time they're done pulling you back you're a solid 25-30 feet over land that you wonder what you've got yourself into. The owner of the place was incredibly cool and tried to teach me Lao expressions beside the obvious hello and thank you that everybody masters
. They also had a guy walking around offering free shots of Tiger whiskey. He asked everybody if they wanted, as if there was even an option when it's free, it's alcoholic and you're dealing with backpackers. And then he'd go around and do it again. After a good long while at that place we took a Beerlao for the road because it would be a travesty if at some point we didn't meander down the river, beer in hand. It's hard to be more at peace with the world when you're floating backwards down a river, beer in hand, watching the sunset over the mountains. It was only after it was pitch black that I decided it might be time to paddle again. This might very well have been the best thing I've done in four months of traveling.
That night we went out to Jaidee's, where you sit Indian-style on couches at the tables instead of boring old seats, to continue our afternoon buzz and enjoy our last night together. It was there that I started talking to a group of people that had just taken the bus from Hanoi to Vientiane and they assured me that it was survivable (the one piece of advice -- bring a tube of Pringles and a bottle of whiskey) and thus talked me into deciding to take the plunge for that journey -- reverse order -- the next night. And let's just say, that journey gets it's own entry. After Jaidee's, like every Laotian bar, shut around midnight we went to another place to drink fireside, but not before accidentally hopping a wall and landing on someone else's property. This only speaks to the friendliness of the people in Lao that they pointed us in the right direction. The rest of the night was fairly uneventful, aside from me getting lost on my way to my bungalow (which had easily the most idyllic location I've seen so far). The same can't be said for the next day.
Let me say this right away, Vang Vieng might have stumbled on the greatest thing ever, and it is called tubing. Basically what it is, is for $4 you are given a large inflated ring, taken about 4 km upriver from the town and set on your own to float where the river takes you, all along the way stopping at bars that have been set up on the banks to fill up on Beerlao and jump off the random things the bars have set up. All the bars, I might add, play the entirely cliched musical collection of Bob Marley, Jack Johnson and whatever you'd expect to hear when floating on a river and getting exposed to all sorts of substances. Shortly after I left you last I went on this trip with Gordon, Lucy and another English couple from the bus, Gill (as in Jill) and Rich that were on our bus from Luang Prabang. Lucy and Gill had studied in the same program at uni...four years ago. It never ceases to amaze how small the world can be.