VANG VIENG, Laos—The bus from Vientiane dropped us off in the late afternoon. We walked through town past a bar with a sign that read “Buy A Bucket, Roll The Dice”; past a roadside cart with the sweet aroma of bananas cooking for pancakes; past souvenir shops selling flip-flops, “In the Tubing, Vang Vieng, Laos” tank tops, and $3 imitation Ray-Bans; past restaurants with Friends and Family Guy playing on flat-screen TV’s—guys with dreadlocks in BeerLao tank tops sitting red-eyed, watching Rachel tell Ross “And hey! Just so you know, it’s not that common, it doesn’t happen to every guy, and it is a big deal!” No one laughed.
We crossed the Nam Song river to find our bungalow—a bamboo hut with a corrugated steel roof, a king-sized bed under a mosquito net and a shower. Beyond the green rice fields limestone karst formations rose up, layer after layer, tree-covered in places and gray and pink slabs of exposed, naked rock in others.
Walking through town at dusk on one of the busiest roads we watched as a Western girl in a bikini kneel down in the gutter, sunburned, blonde, shoeless, as she vomited what looked to be Long Island Iced Tea into the dirt. A Lao man sat on a motorbike nearby, disgusted, and shook his head. At least the girl had another friend, also sunburned, to hold back her hair.
The tuk tuks came in as it got dark, guys in tank tops and girls in bikinis with numbers written in bright red marker corresponding to their tube on their arms and backs—guys with things like “130 days of tubing straight” written across their shoulder blades. They got out of the back of the carts, stumbled around, no shoes, no sunglasses, gathered their bearings, maybe talked about hooking up later, maybe talked about hooking up right now, and then limped into the night. Some tried to sleep off the alcohol and the drugs and go out again. Others just stayed out. The rest passed out until the next day.
At the G Spot club, where at 10:30 the part was heavy, I counted 16 guys in “In the Tubing, Vang Vieng, Laos” tank tops, most of them dancing hard to house music and making out with girls in summer dresses. The party got harder—loud dance floor, a general wild vibe from everyone—all that cheap booze, easy to get drugs, and young energy.
In the morning, we rented tubes and got on a tuk tuk that took us 5 kilometers up the river. We sat across from an Australian couple that said they had also got in yesterday from Vientiane, probably on the same bus. The boy told us “We got one of the happy pizzas at four o’clock and by eight we were in bed. So fucking stoned. We were at the restaurant—sat down watching Family Guy and when I looked up it was three hours later, she was gone, and I didn’t know where I lived.”
When we got to the river the ten of us in our group and the other two tuk tuks with 20 other kids carried our truck tire inner tubes over a foot bridge to the first bar. A guy in a pig mask and another in a Laura Bush mask handed out free shots of Lao-Lao whiskey. We set up on bamboo mats next to the river as LCD Soundsystem’s “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” played on the stereo. A bartender, a Western girl not older than 20, poured a tumbler glass full of Smirnoff vodka over ice into a pink gallon bucket, added two small cans of imitation Red Bull, stuck in two long straws and handed it to an 18-year-old English girl in a pink “In the Tubing” tank top for 20,000 kip ($2.50.)
I bought a tallboy can of Beer Lao and sat down to watch the activities begin. Behind me, two guys in dreadlocks, one with the cover of Sublime’s 40 Ounces To Freedom on his t-shirt, the other with a Chang beer tank top, played beer pong against two blonde, deeply tanned girls. Above me a guy in boardshorts swung over the crowd on a trapeze-style swing and let go, falling into the river.
Vang Vieng is a 4-hour, bumpy, dog, cow, and chicken-dodging bus ride north of the capital, Vientiane. About 25,000 people live along the river, most of them Buddhist. The Lao don’t wear bikinis when they swim. The women almost never drink in public. They don’t drink mushroom shakes and watch Friends. You don’t see them floating down the river.
It’s not clear who brought tubing to Vang Vieng or whether it was a foreigner or a Lao entrepreneur, and no one has explained to me whether the backpackers were there first, and then the river activities came later, or vice versa. But the hedonism, the cultural insensitivity, the English kids who have tubing advertised on their college message boards and come to Laos for primarily that — it’s all having a sizable impact on the town and its people.
After a little while there my traveling companion remarked “what do you think the people that grew up here think about all this?”
Of course, Western tourism has brought a lot of money to the countries of Southeast Asia. Tourism contributed almost $680 million to the gross domestic product of Laos in 2010. And it’s growing fast—in 1990 80,000 people came to Laos, in 2010 it was 1.8 million.
No one keeps track of how many, but it’s understood that tourists die on this river every year. One just died in April. From the first bar on as you float down on your inner tube there are waterslides and swings and high dives along the way. Lao men stand on the banks with bottles of water tied to ropes and they throw them to you as you pass. You take the rope and they reel you in to their bars for more buckets, special brownies, mushroom shakes, opium—life preservers in reverse.
Some people know they won’t make it down the river and don’t even bring tubes. They just come for the party. I’m surprised MTV hasn’t been there yet.
You have six hours to make it back to the tube rental place or you have to pay 20,000 kip for not returning your tube on time. Most people end up making it less than half way, getting out, and hiring a tuk tuk driver to drive them back to town. Others try to make it, wait until it’s too dark to see, panic, run into the rice fields, and get punched out by farmers. Most of the people aren’t there to tube. They’re there to get fucked up in a beautiful setting. And they succeed.
My friend and I, we left the partiers behind. We actually tried to make it back to town on the river by sundown. We floated past all the bars at the beginning, through a market set up on the river to lure tubers, past rock climbers, and eventually we passed the last bar.
As the last notes of Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire” faded into the background the beauty began. We floated a few yards away from two water buffalo who came down into the water to cool themselves. We saw women fishing and panning for gold. Groups of white butterflies flew in swirling lines, making circles and the letters of our names. We had skipped the partying and chose nature instead, and it felt like winning. At least we’d remember it.