Tubing, Booze and Special Menus

Trip Start Nov 14, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Somewhere cheap and unmemorable - was near The Otherside Bar

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Friday, December 3, 2010

Vang Vieng has a reputation for being a party town, it is situated along the Nam Song river, the climate is wonderful nearly all year round and people travel from far and wide to take part in the daily ritual of tubing down river. Tubing in its basic form consists of hiring a tractor tyre inner tube from the cartel in town. I say cartel, as there is only one place in town to hire the tubes. They set the cost, the deposit fee, run you to the drop off point and manage the whole activity. They even have a board with the rules and regulations written on and stamped in an authoritive manner, failure to comply means loss of deposit and no future tubing. You do it their way or no way and have to sign a contact saying so. All liability sits with you, if you get hurt its your fault, not theirs, if the tube bursts you pay, not them, they take no responsibility for anything you do with the tube, they are just the facilitator. Upon accepting the rules and paying you are driven 4km up river and slowly drift back to town. In reality however, it involves stopping at the various party bars that sit along the river banks, playing on their water slides and swings and either getting drunk, stoned or tripping you head off on magic mushrooms. You then either try to get float/swim back to town by 6pm to get a 2 deposit back or stay in a river bar all night and get a tuk-tuk back when your body can take no more. It's worth noting that tubing takes on average 4 lives a year and is considered and dangerous activity.

The town itself is also geared up for heavy partying, every bar has huge signs out front offering cocktails of all varieties, happy hours that lasted all day and of course the famous 'Happy’ shakes and pizzas, our time in Vang Vieng would be a messy one. Katie though didn’t looked thrilled at this idea, we were travelling to learn about different cultures, not get smashed on the cheapest drinks and hang out with pissed up westerners, we could do that back home.

Before we left the bus we swapped guesthouse suggestions with the others, no one had called ahead and so we split into two groups and headed to town. A plan was hatched to meet at a bar called Jaydee’s at 7 so we’d see the other group later.

We had read of a nice sounding place by the river called Maylyn’s Guesthouse, a bungalow based guesthouse situated within a large garden populated by banana trees and Blue Tiger butterflies, it sounded bliss and so with Marc and Mirjam we headed in the tuk-tuk in search of it. We drove through town passing bar after bar and the odd guesthouse here and there. From the book we knew that Maylyn’s was on the other side of the river, but were shocked to find that the bridge to other side came with a 40,000 Kip crossing fee, payable in each direction. This threw a major spanner in the works as we had bragged to the others of the superiority of Maylyn’s over the other guesthouses situated nearer the heart of the town. We were now on the far side outskirts with no room and no more money to pay for the tuk-tuk back, we would have to walk back and hope that we found rooms suitable. Upon realising that we had nowhere to stay, the obligatory welcoming committee surrounded us from the nearby guesthouses, each undercutting and over promising the value of their accommodations. With March and Mirjam we walked to the nearest one and Katie and Mirjam inspected the interior. For 50,000 kip there was one passable room and after a little chat we agreed to give it to the Dutch couple, we were happy enough to carry on in search and slowly started to make our way back towards town.

As we walked back to town ducking in and out of the guesthouses we passed in the tuk-tuk and finding new ones we’d missed it became apparent that Vang Vieng was a popular place, nearly everywhere was full and those that weren’t were flea pits not worthy of cockroach habitation, let alone us. We walked and walked along the main strip and eventually got chatting to a guy from Bath (I can’t remember his name, but George rings a bell, so we’ll use that). George had been on a full day’s 21km kayaking trip down the river taking in the natural beauty of the area; he wasn’t really into the drinking culture Vang Vieng is famed for and seemed like our kind of guy. We chatted a while and he suggested we try his guesthouse if all else failed, it wasn’t on the main strip, was quiet and the rooms reasonable, this became our back up plan. When we reached his turning we gave our thanks for the tip, told him of our plan to meet at Jaydee’s Bar later and carried on.

It wasn’t long before we took a left turn road a road with many bars on, one of which was playing out Friends episodes on constant loop and another using Family Guy to entertain it’s mashed out patrons. Now the true Vang Vieng was showing itself. Its reputation of being a place for Westerners to drink and smoke to excess and generally live a purely hedonistic life was well earnt. From each bar you could order food, booze, weed, mushrooms and pretty much anything else you could imagine to get yourself well and truly out of it. We walked on.

As the road bent round the right we were pleased to bump into Curran and Anna almost right outside of our guesthouse. They had split from Evans and Kelcy at the bus drop off, Curran and Anna had taken a tuk-tuk into town whilst Evans and Kelcy had opted to walk in under the impression it was a short 5 minute walk. It is not, the scale used in the Lonely Plant maps lie, what looks like a 5 minute walk is more often than not a 30 minute walk. The 4 of us shared a chuckle at their naivety, we gave them an update on the accommodation options and told them of the plans to meet at Jaydee’s at 7 and headed off down the strip in search of a place to stay. A couple of guesthouses appeared and so we divided to conquer, Katie took the one on the left and I the one on the right. With memories of Pak Beng still fresh in my mind I prayed that mine would be acceptable. Luckily it was, there were two options available, a river view for 60,000 or an interior room for 40,000. I preferred the river view room as it had daylight streaming in from a large window, but upon discussing it with Katie we settled on the 40,000 room, we weren’t here to sit in our room, so the lack of daylight wasn’t such a big deal. It had free Wi-Fi as well so we took it.

Having already seen Curran and Anna we knew that Evans and Kelcy were in town too somewhere, but were shocked to see them 3 bars down when we finally ventured out in search of a bite to eat. They were the picture postcard, sat in a bar over looking the river and the mountains in the distance, the sun was setting majestically between them, you couldn’t have asked for a better position for sunset. We walked over and invited ourselves to join them, they didn’t mind and we spent the next hour or so talking about the bus ride down and swapping stories about the waterfalls we had visited the day before. As the sun set, we snapped furiously at the disappearing sun with our cameras and toasted ourselves for yet again meeting up in another stunning location. This trip was proving to be most excellent, as Bill and Ted might say.

7 was soon approaching and so the 4 of us set off in search of Jaydee’s, we knew it was around somewhere and when we asked for directions were pointed 6 bars down from where we had eaten. A very short walk followed. As we walked in to Jaydee’s the rest of the gang greeted us, they had all ordered drinks already and were shooting pool and chatting away. Immanuel had talked about sampling some of Vang Vieng’s ‘happy’ products on the bus down and bounded over, a grin as wide as his face, you could order anything at Jaydee’s, anything. I walked to the bar with him and he asked Jaydee for the special menu. A small metal bucket was produced from behind the bar and on it scribbled the special menu:

1 joint                                     20,000 kip                        (2)

1 bag of weed                       100,000 kip                        (10)

Happy shake                          60,000 kip                        (6)

Very happy shake                  100,000 kip                        (10)

1 Opium hit                            50,000 Kip                        (5)

‘A lot’ of Opium                      Ask

It really was a special menu. Immanuel’s eyes glistened in the light of the bar, he had the look of mischief about him. We chatted to Jaydee for a while and behind the bar saw a huge plate of weed that Jaydee was busily rolling joint after joint from.

Weed and most mind altering drugs in Laos are illegal and the stories of set ups by sellers and the police are ten a penny. I told Immanuel to be careful if he was going to partake in this side of Vang Vieng.

Jaydee had agreed to let him try some of the weed before purchasing and offered him the use of his sofa out back by the bonfire to sit on whilst Immanuel passed judgement. When I say the sofa out back, let me be clear. Jaydee’s like most of the bars over looking the river is raised high above the river and as such out back means on the decking lofted high on stilts that over looks the river. Jaydee’s has a small, concreted platform where he builds a nightly bonfire for his patrons to sit around whilst enjoying his special menu and out of sight of the main road. I’m sure the smell of the bonfire also hides the smell of the various substances being smoked and abused. Immanuel enjoyed his sample and purchased a small bag.

The rest of the night was spent drinking, chatting and playing pool. The whole gang had made it from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng and spirits were high. Everyone was looking forward to tubing the next day, whichever kind they were going in for and as night tipped over into morning we said goodnight.

At 10:30 the next morning we were stood with Evans, Kelcy, Curran, Anna and Ollie outside the tubing cartel’s office. The rest of the group had carried on for a while after we’d left and were busy mopping up their hangovers with fried breakfasts and fruit shakes. We were keen to get moving having travelled all this way for this day and so I went in search of the breakfast brigade with hopes of hurrying them along. It was futile, they would take as long as it took and so I headed back to the cartel and shared this news. With our small group now champing at the bit to get going we agreed to head down and see them there. Tubes were rented, tuk-tuks boarded and we were off.

Katie and I had been bundled into a tuk-tuk with people we didn’t know and so struck up conversation with an Ozzie couple who had been in Vang Vieng for a few days. They had spent a day tubing already and told us tales of only getting to the fourth bar within 10 hours and having to get a tuk-tuk back to town late in the evening. We knew we wanted our deposit back and so knew that wouldn’t be us. They seemed nice, but when we arrived at the drop off we made no attempt to hang out with them and watched them as they bounded down toward the river ready for another day of chaos. We now waited by the river for the others to arrive.

When they finally did we were pleased to see that the breakfast brigade had finished their meals and were with the others. Our group was reformed and together the 14 or so of us headed to the river. A free shot was offered before we got to the river’s edge and we were each given green bandanas that promised yet more free drinks at the first bar along the river. Evans and I took a shot each for luck. It was a little after 11 am. Then en-masse we walked to the river’s edge, over the rickety bamboo bridge and launched ourselves into the cold river, which instantly removed any effect the free shot might have had.

We had launched ourselves from out front of the first bar and had all forgone our free bandana shot, it was no loss, the tubing had just began and there would be more drink to come.

Almost as soon as we entered the current of the river; missiles from the next bar were shooting us at. The missiles were full water bottles attached to ropes that the bar staff use to pull potential punters in with. It was mental, water bottles whizzed over head as the bar staff tried frantically to get us to their bar. They succeeded and after only 3 minutes on the river we were back on terra firma. Some of the group ordered beers, others water, but all of us stood and stared in awe of the massive water swing that loomed high above the bar decking, maybe the equivalent height as a 2nd floor window. It was massive! Evans now had the look of mischief in his eyes and before long was stood at the top of the platform, swing in hand ready to launch himself into the river below. We were the only group at this bar and so we all stood with baited breaths for him to swing. And swing he did. It was so high up and the speed at which he left the platform was heart stopping. But with complete pose and form he held on and swang out over the river before letting go at the highest point of the up swing and plunging feet first nearly 40ft into the river below. Everyone cheered and clapped, this was going to be great fun. Being a little shocked at the height of the swing I settle for a first jump off the decking into the river, only about 12ft, but a good test jump I thought.

Rob was then up at the swing ready for his first go, Ollie was poised ready to catch it all on camera, Rob swung, Ollie snapped, he’d missed, Rob would have to go again. Not though before Evans had taken his second swing with Kelcy soon behind him. The crowd in this bar was now growing, more and more people were arriving and taking up positions on the deck ready to watch the nutters on that huge swing. Rob ascended for his second go, Ollie had to get it this time. Rob swung out, let go and plummeted into the river. All eyes turned to Ollie; ‘Did you get it’ we all chimed, ‘Yeah’ came Ollie’s reply. Then all eyes went back to the river to see Rob. Something was wrong. Rob was clutching his shoulder, his face bright red and he was struggling to swim. Marc and I ran to the edge, Rob was in trouble. We ran to the missile throwers shouting at them to help him back in, they stared back blankly. We ran down the steps of the bar to the river’s edge, Marc plunged into the river to get to Rob. People were gasping in shock, no one really knowing what to do. I helped Rob and Marc out of the river. Rob’s shoulder was completely dislocated. I had no idea how to help I just stood and gawped. A crowd had formed on the platform above to look down at this horror show. Curran came running through the crowd. Being a rock climber and manger of a rock climbing gym he was trained in first aid and seemed to know what to do. ‘If I pull your arm down and you pull up’ he was saying to Rob, panic clearly setting in for both. Curran pulled down on Robs arm; Rob pulled up, the shoulder didn’t move, his shoulder still popped out. You could see the panic on Rob’s face growing by the second. He had to get his shoulder back in. Laos doesn’t have a medical service; you’re on your own if something goes wrong. Rob bit his teeth and tried to move his arm in such away his shoulder would pop back in. Still no movement. His veins in his head were pumping, his face the colour of a tomato. He tried again and with an ear splitting crunch and pop his shoulder buckled back into position. The whole crowd gave a sigh of relief.

We walked back up the stairs to the bar and someone came through with a bag of ice for Rob’s shoulder. It turned out that Rob had dislocated his shoulder playing Rugby many years before and had been plagued with dislocations ever since. This one though had been the worst, mainly because it had taken so long to get back in. He didn’t look happy, he day tubing was ruined. More beers were bought and the reality of what had just happened took hold. This place was dangerous and if something goes wrong, you are on your own. With that thought hanging over us we along with the rest of the people at the bar sat in a kind of numb silence for a short while, no one daring to swing again. The locals seeing the problem were soon swinging away however, pulling huge airs and flips as they tried valiantly to get the mood up and people back on the swing.

The shock of the recent events didn’t leave us, so we did and made our way back to our tubes to continue on down river.

We didn’t make it far and all alighted at the next bar, they didn’t have a swing, but a zip line instead and we all felt this would be slightly safer; it was far lower to the river too. Buckets (for those not in the know – a bucket is a small children’s sandcastle bucket filled with a cocktail, and usually a very strong one) were ordered, along with beers and water and we all settled down to watch each other on the zip line and try to forget what had happened at the previous stop. Rob still looked in great pain and spent his time slowly moving his arm to try and keep his shoulder from seizing up.

As we drank and played on the zip line our first haunt of the day picked up again and before long the swing was in full use with people flying through the air like well trained rather high wire gymnasts rather than the pissed up westerners they really were.

We tried in vain to convince Rachel to have a go on the zip line, but she wasn’t having any of I, her plan for the day was to drink buckets, float down river and generally get slowly more and more drunk. We let her be.

This second bar also had a huge flat platform above the seating one, Evans scaled it and took a huge front flip from it, the photo is magnificent!

With our spirits slowly returning so too was the need to try out a swing and so a small group of us splintered off and headed to the next bar, Jungle Bar, a shabbily thrown together platform housing a bar, a yellow water side and a huge swing. Perfect! We climbed the stairs to the platform, sized up the slide, whose mouth spat you out about 15ft above the river and settled in to some serious water play. Slide after slide, we spent hours there. I even managed to persuade Katie to give it a go, she did although she did say after that once was more than enough for her and contented herself with watching the rest of us muck about. Then came time for the swing. In the same fashion as the first bar, Evans was the first to try it out and before long it was my turn. As I climbed the stairs to the platform my heart started racing, I couldn’t believe I was about to do this. But with a deep breath I took hold of the handle, waited for the guy to say I was clear to go and went for it. ‘Holy sh…..’ I screamed as I swung through the air. It was great, I reached the top of the up swing, every part of me screaming to hold on, I did and started the swing back. Almost on the full down swing I let go and plummeted into the river. What a rush, as I surfaced I was welcomed back by the sounds of clapping and cheering. This swing business was easy, back up I went, I needed more. Katie looked on in shocked, she couldn’t believe I was going for it again. Over and over again I took my turn in the que and swung with all my might over and into the river, occasionally taking in a slide or two here and there. All the guys were going for it bar Rob, but he cheered us on and clapped as best he could when Evans started to pull back flips in. Curran with his hugely muscular body turned the swing into a monkey play ground swinging back and forth on one arm, upside and any other way he could think to hold on. Anna and Kelcy threw themselves in fully too along with Immanuel, Belgian Rob and Marc. Even Mirjam who harbours a fear of fish went for it after a little persuasion from Marc and by the time we left the two of them where going together on the swing. This was what Vang Vieng was all about.

For some of us hunger was setting in and a quick look at a watch told us it was 14:30, food time! Some of the gang were happy to stay and so we splintered again, Evans, Kelcy, Anna, Curran, Immanuel, Belgian Rob, Katie and I jumped back in our tubes and floated off down river in search of a bar with a kitchen. It wasn't long before we saw a bar with another slide, a massive slide, wide enough to take a tube, this was worth checking out. We hola'd to the people in the bar as we got nearer asking if they served food, hurrah! They did. We called out for the missiles, they rained down upon us, we pulled ourselves in. As we climbed up to the bar the size of the slide truly made its presence felt, a huge shadow cast the seating area into cold. Immanuel, Evans and Kelcy eyed up the slide, I went in search of a seat with Katie. Seating found, next up was the food, Evans though was making a beeline for the stairs to the slide. I watched on as he climbed up, lay down arms folded across his chest, toes pointed out, back flat to the slide, he wiggled himself free and shot down the slide like a bullet. At the lip of the slide was a small curve and Evans was fired up and out of the slide into the waiting river below. This slide was far superior to the one at Jungle bar. I carried on in my quest for food and was shortly joined by a dripping Evans and Kelcy. Sandwiches were ordered and we made our way back to the others, Immanuel had since been on the slide too and was rubbing his ass from a rather hard ass slap he'd received on his first attempt when he came over to join us. We didn't have much cash left and agreed to split a bucket with Immanuel and Belgian Rob, so they headed to the bar to order. Over the next hour or so we sat and chatted watching people take on the slide and laughing at those who copied Immanuel's rather clumsy entry from earlier. With the food consumed thoughts of getting back before 6 started to be voiced. It was now 3:30 and we all reckoned that there must only be 1km or so left, easily enough time to drift back and get our money back. The others that we had left at Jungle Bar were approaching and so we shouted out to them that we were leaving and not to disembark here, it was time to go.

Two hours later, we were still floating down river, no sign of the end in sight, crap, we were going to lose our deposit, only 20,000 Kip (2) each, but when you think the combined total for Katie and I would mean another nights accommodation, we couldn't let it go so easily. We were all paddling like made trying to get back. The group split up, Curran and Anna led the pack followed by Evans and Kelcy, I was next with Ollie, Immanuel and Katie not far behind with Belgian Rob. Rachel, Laura and Rob were the furthest back and Marc and Mirjam no where to be seen. The frenzied paddling continued until we reached a point where we could stand and try to race back through the shallow water. Curran and Anna had disappeared up a path and I now level with Evans and Kelcy was running bare foot across a beach covered in small sharp stones, tub over one shoulder, it was now 17:50 and I wasn't going to lose my 20,000 Kip. Katie was so far back waiting would have meant we'd lose the full 40,000 Kip, not an option. I ran on, through town, past the bars, patrons from each one cheering on and some shouting that we were too late. I didn't care, if I didn't try I wouldn't stand a chance. At 17:58 i reached the cartel, handed over my tube and got my deposit back. Now, where was Katie? I ran back through town and found her emerging from the beach onto the road. I grabbed her tube and told her to start running, we could still make it. The cheering started up again an we rounded the corner just in time, Katie's tube was one of the last returned in time to get the deposit. I let out a huge 'Yes!!!!', Katie though was not impressed, why hadn't I waited for her. I explained about trying to get some of the money back, she halfheartedly accepted the reasoning and forgave me, but on one proviso, she could have what ever she wanted for dinner, I agreed without hesitation.

That evening we all met at the Ozzie bar, burgers where on our minds having spent the last few weeks living on noodle soup and rice. The bar wasn't particularly great and neither was the food, so we ate and made plans to leave. Whilst we'd been in our room showering and getting ready for dinner we had agreed that we would move on from Vang Vieng the next day. We'd done what we had come for, there was no need to stay and sped money on drinking ourselves into oblivion. We shared this decision with the others and found that Evans and Kelcy had made the same decision and had booked themselves on an early bus down to Vientiane. Belgian Rob was also off the next day, he had to meet a friend in Kuala Lumpur in a couple of days and was picking up a flight from Bangkok. It seemed as though our gang was now splitting for good having been formed in part in Thailand and part on the slow boat. They had been a great bunch to hang out with and we were sad to be saying goodbye to one another. Rob, Immanuel, Laura, Rachel and Ollie were going to hang in Vang Vieng for another day or so and had plans to go out on the town that night so we swapped email addresses and went our separate ways not knowing if we'd see each other again. We didn't Marc and Mirjam again, but were sure that if any of the others did they would pass on our farewells and with that Vang Vieng was done.

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