(I have never been more excited about writing a post since starting this site. If you take the time to read anything at all – make it this one. Tell your friends – heck, tell my friends, they don’t read this blog anymore.)
Everyone is entitled to their own definition of paradise. But we found ours. Or maybe I should say, I found mine. Truly. The following post will try and convince you of that. It should be the easiest thing I have ever done.
Vang Vieng is only accessible by bus or van. The tiny, tiny town is nestled along a river and adorned by steep mountains and cliffs on all sides. It is a 3 hour unnerving bus ride from Vientiane and a 7 hour, outright terrifying, bus ride north to Luang Prabang (more on that in the next post). The town is so small that our bus just dropped us off on one of the few roads, not even at a station or building, and we were on our own. Backpackers spread out in different directions to find beds.
Our first impression was one of wonder and awe. It was so small, so quiet, and the scenery was absolutely stunning! We spent 10 minutes just staring before we picked a direction and moved. This is a taste of what we saw of Vang Vieng:
Are you starting to get it now? I had to slap my own hand to stop it from loading more pictures.
After we dropped our bags off, it was time to explore. Only backpackers come here, and a unique brand of backpackers at that. There is some biking, caving and kayaking outside of town but really there is one reason, and one reason only why they have come: TUBING. Okay maybe there are 2 more things to do after tubing, namely partying, and chillin’. It is a combination of the 3 that makes this place one of the most magical places I have seen and truly one of the world’s best kept secrets. Some would say the secret is out. And yes… development is beginning. But given the remoteness of the town and difficult drive to get there, it should keep some authenticity for a few years yet. Still, we had the feeling like we were here before it was discovered. When it was still pure and the vibe divine.
In town, there is a small island on the river. Here there are assorted make-shift bars, hammocks and tree houses to relax in.
To get there, and to the other side of the river where some locals lived, one had to cross rickety homemade bridges. Loose boards seemed to be underfoot with each step as the structure teetered from side to side. Locals were unphased, seen driving their scooters right over them. In the rainy season, when the water is much higher, this leg of the daily commute would be even more impressive.
One of the unique things about this town is there assortment of “TV bars.” Here patrons lie on cushions, eat,drink and smoke while watching endless re-runs of Friends or Family Guy. There are some drugs around this town (weed and magic mushrooms), and amusingly, they are sold quite openly. Often they appear right on menus and are sold in “happy” shakes, bags, joints, “Happy Pizza” or whatever. Take a careful read at these ‘a la carte’ menus we were handed.
Naturally, these authors did not partake… cold beers being our preferred magic potion. Those who did found these TV bars an ideal place to laugh it up to Family Guy or simply tune out to Friends for hours.
(Photo credit: Flickr Keith Kelly http://www.keithakelly.com & Otoke)
Though I couldn’t resist a few Family Guy episodes late at night, our preferred restaurant was a bit more interactive. There was live music (or maybe it was just a customer who hung out all day with a guitar), a fire pit, and a great river view… all while chillin’ on cushions. The whole is designed to ”relax and chill” – so we did. Can imagine a better view?
TUBING - The big day. There is a special tank top that tubing alums wear as a badge of honor. It is a sign that you have an intangible bond, that you have shared in a truly spiritual and unforgettable experience. A magical time of co-being and connecting with others and nature in a genuine, inhibition-free manner that most people will never know about or understand. Here it is.
As the main event in town that seemingly every other business is built around, it is no surprise that the tubing itself is run by the town government. You arrive around noon to the office and pay for your tube rental and deposit (which you lose if returning after 6:30pm). A number is painted on your arms showing payment, and allowing you to drop off and pick up tubes at each of the “stops” along the river. A tuk tuk is loaded with 10 tubes and 10 passengers and off you go 3km up the river to the unloading point. On the way you meet 8 new friends who you will see and party with all day, among countless others. Veteran tubers offer advice on which bars to hit and which to skip. 2 Canadian guys, Luke and Justin, became the ones we hung with the most.
I should start at the beginning. The first bar. So people, locals I suppose, are free to build bars and party areas along the river. As you tube you can visit any bar you like. The music and the energy were amazing at each bar, especially the first 5 where most people just stay. The first bar had just re-opened after a fire. It was just a deck, a small bar and trapeze. We hadn’t even gotten in the water yet. We just walked over. There were free shots.
I mentioned the trapeze. It seemed each bar had one of these or a series of other gimmicks to attract business. The water was a bit lower so users had to be sure they landed where they should. We were warned by some vets that a few people had broken limbs by not knowing the water depth. When I saw the first guy go I thought ‘like hell’ I would do that. After 2 shots, I got the courage. I climbed to the top and just jumped – no time to think myself out of it. You can hear me state immediately “this was a mistake”.
After some calm down shots, it was time to get on the tube and float down to the next bar. Here is the best part. You don’t have to do any work at all. No swimming, paddling, or kicking is needed to steer. Just wave at the 2 guys manning the ropes and they will toss you a line. Grab it and let them pull you in. Amazing.
Buckets were the next drink of choice. For $5 you could get an entire bucket of mojitos. Yum! Here the music, energy and dancing started to build. At this point we knew without a doubt that this would be the funnest day of our lives. And believe me, there is a lot of competition for that title. Here are some pics. See Erin down there?
I decided that I was going to do the trapeze, swing, or whatever that each bar had. I wanted to do them all. The second bar had a zipline. You could choose to let go early, or you could hold on until you hit the ‘stopper’ which essentially sent you into a tumbling backflip of flailing arms and legs. Enjoy.
Contributing further to the cool, chill and easy vibe of this place was the fact that most bartenders were backpackers themselves. They had come for a few days and decided to stay for longer.. much longer. They ‘volunteered’ to dish out drinks so long as they could themselves drink for free. Often I would order a mojito and they guy would be like “cool dude.. say, can you tell me what is in that – I don’t know how to make it. Don’t worry I will put lots of booze in it though.” Then later that night you would find the same guy working at another makeshift bar on the island. It was awesome. Here are more pics of some other bars.
The 3rd bar, if I remember correctly, served free fries. SOLD! Rope me in buddy. This was an ideal, across the river vantage point to take in the main drag, if you will, of bars. It was the peak of day, the peak of activity, sun, music, energy and thus spirit was reaching epic proportions. Plus my buzz was amazing.
Time for the next swing. I tried to do a flip dismount thing that I had rehearsed in my mind several times. It seemed easy. Did I pull it off? Note, Erin was a little tipsy and couldn’t get the camera out of zoom. Hear the hilarious frustration she goes through.
Unable to resist the lure of the swings, we stopped at another few bars. Instead of posting all the videos, I will just show you this one… the last of the trapeze videos coupled with some great panoramic scenery. In total there were 6 trapeze swings, 1 zipline and 1 crazy slide (to follow). The strain of my 220lbs body hanging from my long arms all day ensured that I couldn’t move them for the next 3 days.
We decided to get ahead of the crowd and head downriver to some of the other, slightly less busy bars. It was the first time we spent some significant time in the water. It seems the first 500m of the river had taken 3 hours. We needed to make up some distance. A sign reading “Mud Volleyball” was the reason behind our next landfall. This neat bar had some great chilling areas, hammocks and seriously good music.
Volleyball was the name of the game, and muddy it was. The hard part was under the layer of water and mud were giant craters. Walking was impossible. Every step was a fall down. At that point in the day we all were pissing ourselves laughing rather than actually playing, perhaps me more than the rest. I met up with some of those guys later in Luang Prabang. They remembered me as ‘volleyball guy’.
I never realized how awkward I look while dancing. And this is as good as it gets, boozed dancing. I guess I never had a video of me dancing before. In my defense, my massive hands and long arms are not that easy to coordinate. That, and I have no skills. But I am happy and unashamed – enjoy at my expense.
Back in the tubes and we are starting to notice that the sun disappearing. No need to worry – it’s simply because the riverside cliffs are so high. No need to really check what time it was or wonder how the hell we are going to ever make the last 2km to town. Things were settling in nicely. We grabbed some beers to go and lazed down the river having the best time together.
Then there was the slide. The biggest slide I had ever seen. What was one more stop going to hurt right? I bought the mandatory drink and headed up for my run. I heeded some advice from another patron “do it head first”. Sure. Why not?
Okay no more stops – seriously. It was getting late and we were making little progress. It became clear that we needed at least another hour to get back. But why tube thirsty? We pulled into a “rest stop” to grab some beers for the road, er I mean river. Ohh and that yellow towel in Erin’s lap? You’d better believe that is a ‘ShamWow’ my friend! It’s for the kitchen, the car, the boat ,the RV. It is for tubing. Those Germans always make good stuff.
So it was getting even later and were were starting to worry that we would miss our 6:30 tube return deadline. How was this possible? We were ahead of so many people still back at the bars (little did we know that 80% of tubers just hit the first 5 bars and rent a tuk tuk to go back into town). It didn’t matter. We were having an increasingly chilly best time ever. We caught up to a several individuals about 1km down river. Having some extra beers we invited them to “link up”. There we were. 7 total strangers from Canada, Australia, the UK, and Holland joined in a cluster of drunken satisfaction. I don’t remember their names but I will never forget the bond we shared in that cluster of love. (I caught 2 of them on camera – I didn’t manage to take an actual group pic.)
For those of you worried about alcohol and swimming dangers you should know that at this time of year the river is so shallow you can stand in it. Except for those areas by the bars where swings are. Still – not the safest thing, I know. But with risk, comes great reward. And I don’t regret it. It was so shallow later in the journey that a sharp rock would often stab you right in the ass. We developed a group warning system “asses up”. Simple and effective.
The cluster was an amazing idea apart from one thing.. the increased drag slowed us down substantially. It took us an extra hour to get back. We were sure the town was just around the next bend. And the next one. It was getting darker and darker. For the sake of survival – we disbanded the cluster of love – never to meet again. Around 7:30, in total darkness, half floating, half walking, and totally carefree, we finally reached town and the end of the line.
Of course what I fail to convey to you dear reader, is the real reason why this day was so spectacular. How could I? How might I accomplish making tangible the intangible? Making visible the invisible. Naming the unnamed? What really went on that day was a sense. A vibe. It permeated everything through everyone. We all knew it, we all felt it. It couldn’t be named and didn’t need to be. Collectively we were conscious of it everywhere, in ourselves and each other. It was not the booze, the music, the water. It was the divine. What a day. Unreal. Unreal. Time to buy my ‘tubing’ tank top.
It would not be over-dramatic to view one’s life in terms of two stages: ‘Before Tubing’ and ‘After Tubing’. So how do we handle our first day of A.T. time? Stay tuned..